Characters: Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, Maria Carrera, Edwin Jarvis
Warnings/Triggers: someone dealing with short-term memory problems, hints of Howard Stark being Howard Stark
Pairings: Howard/Maria, references to Jarvis/Anna
Word Count 6,181 words
Summary: An accident at S.H.I.E.L.D leaves Peggy with a concussed, confused Howard, and introduces her to a young woman who may well be an anomaly in his life.
Author's notes: This happened because I was reading about anterograde amnesia post-head trauma and I was really, really interested in how the brain resets itself until it can form memories and what it prioritizes as the important things. For some reason, I could see Peggy trying to deal with Howard when he was like that, and then early-in-their-relationship Maria got involved, and I decided it was a good time for her and Peggy to meet, and here we are.
1965. Howard, Peggy and Jarvis are mid-forties, Maria is late-twenties. Mostly fluff and silliness, but may have a few moments of bittersweet here and there.
“Ouch,” was the first word out of Howard's mouth when he woke up.
Peggy thought 'ouch' was quite the understatement, considering the blow to the head he'd taken and the amount of worry she'd experienced for him. She scooted her chair closer to the hospital bed and leaned forward, waiting for him to open his eyes. He blinked several times, moved them around to take it all in, and settled on her. There was vague recognition in them.
“Howard?” she said. “Are you all right?”
“Where am I?” he asked.
“You're in the hospital,” Peggy said.
“There was an accident at work, you were in an explosion. Do you remember that?”
Howard's eyes rolled up and then back down again. “No,” he said. “Was it my fault?”
“No, you were trying to stop it,” Peggy said.
“Was anybody hurt?” he asked.
“A few people, yes, but nothing fatal,” Peggy said. “You did a good job, you acted fast and kept it well-contained.”
Howard looked very concerned. “Is my hair okay?” he asked.
Peggy rolled her eyes. “Your hair is fine."
“I have a date tonight,” he said, trying to sit up.
“You won't be going,” Peggy said, and she pressed him back down to the pillow.
He closed his eyes and went back to sleep. About two minutes later, he stirred again and his eyes opened once more.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“The hospital, Howard, I told you,” Peggy said.
“What happened?” he asked.
“There was an accident at work,” Peggy said.
“Was it my fault?”
“No, Howard, it wasn't your fault.”
“Was anybody hurt?”
“Not badly, no.”
“Is my hair okay?”
“I have a date tonight.”
“I'm sure she'll understand.”
He fell back asleep again. Two minutes later, he woke up and they went through the exact same list of questions again, in the same words, with the same intonation on Howard's part. They repeated this a fourth time, then the nurse came in to check on Howard.
“Who's that?” Howard asked.
“She's a nurse, she's here to look after you,” Peggy said.
“She's pretty,” Howard said, with approval.
Peggy sighed. She helped him sit up to talk to the nurse. He was dazed, his eyes unfocussed and uncertain. He'd been hit quite hard in the head by flying debris; Peggy was sure he had a concussion.
“I'm going to ask you some questions, just answer them as best you can,” the nurse said. “What's your name?”
“Howard Stark,” Howard said, in an insulted voice, as though it should be obvious.
“Do you know where you are?” the nurse asked.
Howard looked around. “School?” he said, uncertainly. “No...a hospital. Dunno why though. Probably did something stupid.”
“How old are you?” the nurse asked.
Howard had a good long think about that one, then leaned over to Peggy and asked, in a loud whisper. “How old are you?”
“No cheating, Howard,” Peggy said, as amused as she was concerned. “Tell the nurse how old you are.”
“Thirty...two?” Howard tried.
About thirteen years off, there. Peggy wondered if there was anything significant to his thirty-second year that he would think he was in it, or if it was just a random number he'd chosen.
“What year is it?” the nurse asked.
“Nineteen-fifty...” Howard began. He frowned. “No. Nineteen...sixty? Nineteen sixty...four?”
It was 1965, so he wasn't too far off there.
The nurse nodded. “And who's the President of the United States?”
Howard tested out three different ones, referring to all by friendly first-name statuses, before deciding on 'Jack'.
“That one might be wrong,” he said. Then, five seconds later, as the nurse was writing it down, he said, “no, it's Johnson. I want to change my answer. It's Johnson. Don't write down the other one, it's wrong.” He looked very sad for a moment. “Jack's dead, poor bastard.”
“Do you know who this is?” the nurse asked, gesturing to Peggy.
Howard looked at her. “Yes,” he said. His brow furrowed. “It's...um...you're...Peggy. Peggy...Carter.” He nodded, looking pleased with himself. “Peggy Carter. That's right.” He looked to the nurse and reiterated, “that's right, I'm sure about that one.” He shot a glance back to Peggy and spoke out of the side of his mouth. “That's right, right?”
Peggy gave a discreet nod.
“Yeah, of course it's right, I knew that,” Howard said.
The nurse took a set of vitals while Howard smiled at her at chest and said she'd be back in a few minutes. Before she left, she had Howard write down his name on a piece of paper and asked Peggy to hold the paper and not show it to Howard until she came back. Howard sat staring straight ahead for a little while until he regained focus and looked around.
“Am I in the hospital?” he asked.
Oh, God, here they went again. “Yes, Howard,” Peggy said. “There was an accident at work. It wasn't your fault. There were a few casualties, but no fatalities. Your hair is fine. You'll have to miss your date tonight.”
“Okay, geez, touchy,” Howard said. “What's your problem? I'm the one in the hospital.”
Peggy sighed. It was going to be a long day.
They went through another loop of questions five minutes later, the same ones, worded the same way, with the same responses. She'd had Steve do this to her once during a training exercise. He'd missed a turn while running (he never did really get the hang of how his legs worked) and went head first into a concrete wall. Due to his ability to heal so fast, he'd only done it for about ten minutes before he was fine again, but he'd been on a thirty-second loop of 'is this a test?', 'is everyone okay?', 'where's my shield?', then back into 'is this a test?'. Just like a scratched record.
Howard was on a 2-5 minute loop. He was semi-aware that he'd asked the questions before, but he still looped. He didn't seem worried that he couldn't remember. He was just childlike and rather peaceful, looking around at the world as though it were a novelty. His biggest concern was about his date and he pouted each time Peggy told him he couldn't go.
“Who's that?” he asked Peggy, when the nurse came in. She had a doctor with her this time.
“That's the nurse who was here before, Howard,” Peggy said.
“She's pretty,” Howard said, still approving.
“Yes, Howard,” Peggy said.
“Who's that?” Howard asked, pointing to the doctor now.
“That's the doctor,” Peggy said.
“Have I met him?” Howard asked.
“No,” Peggy said.
Howard nodded and held out a hand. “Howard Stark."
The doctor got a small smile on his face and gave Howard's hand a shake. “Philip Cross,” he said. “It's an honour to meet you, Mr Stark. I'm going to give you a look over if that's okay?”
Howard introduced himself twice more during the examination, after once again going over the main questions on a loop. Dr Cross didn't seem concerned about that; he patiently shook Howard's hand and introduced himself back, then carried on with what he was doing. He checked Howard's eye response and made sure he could move all his limbs on command. Howard's only injury, aside from some cuts and bruises, seemed to be the knock to his head. He had a big goose egg and a massive bruise was blossoming over the left side of his face.
“What you're experiencing is what we call anterograde amnesia,” Dr Cross said, when he'd concluded the examination. “You're not able to form any new memories, because of the injury to your head.”
“Did I get hit in the head?” Howard asked Peggy.
They went through the loop again. Peggy decided it was time to write down the answers on a cheat sheet for him.
“This sort of repetition is completely normal after an injury like this,” Dr Cross went on, when they'd once again established that Howard wouldn't be able to go on his date. “It's sort of like the brain is a typewriter; it gets to the end of the line and shoots back to the start again and types the same thing until it remembers how to write the next part. Sometimes it takes several hours, sometimes a day or more, but it's very rare that we see any long term effects. You'll need to stay in the hospital for a few days at least, but overall, you're a lucky man.”
“Yeah, that's me,” Howard said, dryly.
“Mr Stark, do you remember when I was in here before, I asked you to write down something on a piece of paper?” the nurse asked. “Your friend has it. Do you remember what I asked you to write down?”
Peggy held up the folded piece of paper. Howard looked at it and it was obvious he had no memory of it.
He got a flirty look on his face. “Was it your phone number?”
The nurse gave a charmed laugh. Peggy rolled her eyes. She pinched Howard's leg and he jumped. She then felt a little bad because it looked like moving that fast made him dizzy, but not that bad because he was an awful human being. The nurse and doctor took their leave.
“Hey, Peggy,” Howard said, looking around. “Where am I?”
Peggy went to work on making him that cheat sheet.
Q: Hey, Peggy, where am I?
A: You're in the hospital.
Q: What happened?
A: There was an accident at work and you were hit in the head.
Q: Was it my fault?
A: No. You were stopping someone else's mistake and you did a good job. Don't worry about that.
Q: Was anybody hurt?
A: There were some other injuries besides yours, but none of them were life-threatening and they're all being looked after.
Q: Is my hair okay?
A: Your hair looks fine. Stop being vain.
Q: I have a date tonight.
A: You will not be able to go on it, I'm sorry.
The cheat sheet worked wonders. Every time Howard started, Peggy handed him the paper, and that cut down a good deal of time, even if he kept declaring her to be psychic. He was still very concerned about his date.
“Someone needs to tell her,” he said.
“Who is she?” Peggy asked, after the fourth or fifth time he demanded she be told.
Howard struggled with that, but reiterated that someone had to tell her. Peggy calmed him down and promised she would do her best to notify the young woman he was hurt.
“Am I hurt?” he asked.
Peggy handed him the cheat sheet. He read it over.
“Are you psychic or something?” he asked.
“Yes, it's a new skill I've picked up recently,” Peggy said.
She'd told that joke several times already, but Howard still laughed as though it were the first time he'd heard it.
As the morning progressed, the loops became longer, up to ten minutes between them. Peggy still couldn't get him to focus on a name for the woman he was supposed to be seeing, but he kept getting anxious that he was going to stand her up. How predictable that he couldn't remember anything about the incident, or what year it was, or who was the president, but he was absolutely positive he had a date. Howard Stark's priorities: work, sex, money. All jostling for first place at any given moment.
“Maria,” he finally answered, after Peggy had worked on the name for several loops.
“Maria who?” Peggy said.
“Dunno,” Howard said.
Peggy tried out several celebrities with the name Maria, in case it was one of them, but he was confident about who he wasn't seeing.
“I'm trying very hard, Howard, but there's only so much I can do with what you're giving me,” she said. “Where does she work? Where did you meet her? Do you know her phone number?”
Howard shook his head. “I can see her face, but I don't know anything about her,” he said. “She looks like Romy Schneider, a little.”
“Is it Romy Schneider?” Peggy asked.
“No,” Howard said. “I've never dated Romy Schneider. I don't think...” He fell quiet, then blinked. “Am I in the hospital?”
Peggy handed him the cheat sheet and tried not to punch him in the throat. It wasn't his fault.
“Are you psychic or something?”
No, no, she couldn't punch him in the throat.
Jarvis came in just as Peggy was reaching the very end of her patience. She'd rung him when Howard had been hurt, but he'd been out running errands. Ana had promised to let him know as soon as he came in.
“Jarvis, Peggy's mad at me and I don't know why,” Howard complained, at the sight of him.
“Are you all right, sir?” Jarvis asked, his face full of concern. “My apologies for the delay, I came the moment I heard.”
“Heard what?” Howard asked.
“That you were hurt,” Jarvis said.
Howard looked to Peggy. “Am I hurt?”
“Oh for God's sake, Howard!” Peggy snapped.
Howard looked to Jarvis. “See? She's in a terrible mood and I haven't even done anything."
Jarvis shot Peggy a look of alarm. Peggy filled him in on the situation. Howard was surprised as she spoke and kept interrupting to comment on how he didn't remember any of that. She directed him to the paper and he muttered about her being a psychic.
“I don't suppose you know who his date is with tonight?” Peggy asked Jarvis.
“Miss Carrera, I would imagine,” Jarvis replied, quicker to answer than Peggy would have expected, given the number of women Howard had in his life at any given time.
“Carrera!” Howard said, with a nod. “That's her name. Maria Carrera. Like an engine starting up. Yep. You have to tell her I can't go out, because...um...I think I'm in the hospital.” He looked around. “Yeah, I'm in the hospital.”
“I'll be sure to ring her and let her know,” Jarvis promised. “I'll sit with him, Mrs Carter, if you'd like to get back to work.”
Peggy did very much want to get out of the room at least and accepted the offer. She hugged Howard goodbye and told him to rest. He wondered why and she handed him the cheat sheet.
“Guard that with your life,” she said to Jarvis, pointing to the paper. “Do not use it sparingly and try not to hurt him.” She clasped his forearms to offer him strength. “Godspeed, Mr Jarvis.”
“Thank you, Mrs Carter,” Jarvis said. He took her vacated chair.
“Hey, Jarvis,” Howard said, as though he'd just noticed him. “Did you iron my pants?”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said.
“Good, I have a date tonight,” Howard said.
Peggy left the room as quickly as she could.
The accident at work had involved a confiscated enemy weapon, but no one knew what it did, precisely. The S.H.I.E.L.D scientists had been working hard at it and had made enough progress to know it was a projectile weapon of some sort. But then one of them had triggered something on it, and it started to pulse, and Howard was, luckily, in the office and ran down there to make it stop pulsing. According to the report Peggy received from a witness, he'd figured out the purpose and function of it while disarming it. 'Well, that's nasty,' was his only comment, followed by 'someone write this down--no, don't write it down, get out of here and then write it down'. He'd never told them what to write down. He'd pulled out several of the power cells, but couldn't get the last one free before it exploded. There was nothing left of the weapon, most of the research on it had been destroyed in the blast, and it didn't seem like Howard was going to remember much about the incident.
However, everyone was still alive, which was the most important thing. One of the scientists predicted if Howard hadn't got as many power cells out of it as he had, the explosion would have taken out part of the building. There was still a lot of damage, and a massive amount of reports to review and file and write, but Howard had come out the worst and he, hopefully, would be fine. Provided he ever stopped repeating himself.
Peggy oversaw the recovery efforts and visited the other scientists who had been hurt. She wrote a report on the incident and filed it. That took most of the afternoon. She went home for a few hours to have supper and visit with her family, then went back to the hospital to see how Howard was getting on, because, as her husband pointed out, she wouldn't sleep that night if she didn't go and make sure he was all right.
Howard was dozing when she arrived and Jarvis was absent, but a young woman sat in the chair next to the bed. She looked rather like Romy Schneider, though darker in colouring, so Peggy surmised she must be the elusive Maria Carrera. She looked to be in her late-twenties, which was a bit older than the age Howard generally preferred, and wore a pair of cat's eye glasses with rhinestones at the corner to read a book in her lap. She peered up over them at Peggy when she knocked on the door.
“Oh, you're Peggy!” she exclaimed, before Peggy could say anything. “Aren't you? Maybe you're not.”
“No, I am,” Peggy said, taken aback at the instant recognition.
“There's a picture of you in the billiard room at Howard's house,” the woman explained. She took her glasses off and rose, putting her book aside. “I'm Maria, I'm...” she puzzled over who she was for a moment before settling on, “Howard and I work together.”
That was an unusual way to put what Howard usually did with women, but Peggy took it in stride and offered a hand.
“Peggy Carter,” she said. “It's a pleasure to meet you. I didn't know there was a picture of me in the billiard room.”
“It's a picture of the two of you,” Maria said.
“Ah, of course, I don't know why I expected Howard to have a picture on display that didn't have him in it,” Peggy said. “I suppose I'm out of focus in the background.”
Maria's eyes crinkled up with amusement. “No, you're front and centre, surprisingly,” she said. “I thought you were his sister, so he had to clarify for me.”
“Well, I'm glad he set you straight, I'd hate anyone to think I was related to him."
Maria chuckled softly into the collar of her mini-dress.
Peggy glanced over to Howard, whose face was very badly bruised now, but the goose egg had gone down. In addition to the cheat sheet Peggy had left, there were two more pages laid on his stomach. She recognized Jarvis' neat, crisp handwriting on one, and another, loopier handwriting that probably belonged to Maria was on the other.
“He's got most of them mastered now,” Maria explained. “He knows he's hit his head, and that he's in the hospital. But it's still taking a few goes to introduce anything new to him. If you tell him something, it's gone within a few minutes and it takes three or four times before he has it in his brain. But he's remembered right up until last night when he went to sleep. Mr Jarvis said he was blank on the last few days at the start, so that's an improvement.”
“It sounds like quite an improvement,” Peggy said. “This morning, he couldn't retain anything for more than five minutes at a time.”
“He was up to about fifteen minutes when I came in,” Maria explained. “And then, a little while ago, he just sort of clicked back in, like someone hit a switch in his brain. He's still dazed, but he's doing much better than he was.”
The worry that Peggy had been holding tight inside her all day started to ebb away. It was one thing to know academically that Howard would improve, but another to have confirmation of it.
“Mr Jarvis went down to get something to eat,” Maria said. “He called me to let me know that Howard had been hurt and couldn't meet me tonight and I thought I'd come to him instead and make sure he was all right.”
Howard was probably revelling in having a pretty young woman doting on him and mopping his brow.
“I'm sure he's happy to have you here; he was very upset he couldn't make it,” Peggy said.
She took the sheets to see what he'd had been stuck on after she left. Jarvis' sheet read:
Q: Hey, Jarvis.
A: Hello, Mr Stark.
Q: How much did I drink last night?
A: You are not hungover, you were in an accident and were hit in the head. (Please see sheet one).
Q: Is Peggy okay?
A: Mrs Carter is fine. She was here earlier to see you and has gone home.
Q: Did you iron my pants?
A: Yes, but you will not need them tonight. I have cancelled your date with Miss Carrera.
Q: Is she mad at me?
A: No, she was very understanding and concerned.
Q: You should send her lilies.
A: I will do that when I get home. Please rest.
Maria's sheet read:
Q: Hi, Babe.
A: Hello. Please don't call me babe.
Q: Sorry. You look pretty. Did you cut your hair?
A: Yes, I went to the salon yesterday. Thank you for noticing.
Q: It looks good.
A: Thank you.
Q: I hurt my head.
A: Yes, I know. I'm sorry to hear that.
Q: We should go dancing.
A: No, we can't dance, because you're in the hospital. (Please see sheet one).
Q: Am I repeating myself a lot? I feel like we've had this conversation before.
A: It's okay, just look at these papers if you get confused.
“He hasn't had to use any of them in a while,” Maria said. “But I didn't want to throw them away, just in case. It's been kind of funny and terrifying at the same time, hearing him sound like a broken record. What he's saying is sweet, but the fact that he keeps saying it is very off-putting. It's nice to see him so...relaxed, though. I feel like I'm seeing him when he was younger.”
Yes, Peggy noted, Howard with a head injury did resemble the Howard she'd known during Project Rebirth. He'd put a lot of responsibilities on himself since then, and learned how to care more than he had then. Which, as a trade off, caused him to worry more than he had then.
Howard stirred in the bed and blinked awake. He looked between Maria and Peggy and said a distinct 'uh-oh'.
“You two talking about me?” he asked, evidently worried at what they might be saying.
Maria gave him a playful look. “Yeah, but don't think that makes you the centre of the universe,” she said. “It's a very boring conversation.”
Howard looked disgruntled. “Don't kick a guy while he's down,” he said. “That's harsh.”
“Sometimes the truth hurts,” Maria said.
“Yeah, well then lie to me until my head stops spinning,” Howard said. “I'm in enough pain.”
There was a comfortable rhythm to their patter--easy, like two characters in a film. He shot Maria a charming, lopsided smile, and Maria smiled back.
Howard slowly sat up, one hand on his head as though he were trying to keep it on straight. Maria fluffed a pillow up behind him and offered Peggy her chair, moving to sit on the bed beside Howard.
“Bout time you showed up,” Howard said to Peggy. “I hit my head, you know. You could show a little concern.”
“I was here all morning, Howard,” Peggy said. “You just don't remember.”
“Well, I've been remembering for a while now and you haven't been here,” Howard grumbled.
Peggy took a seat in the chair. “I'm here now. I had other things to take care of. You are not the centre of the universe, as was just pointed out to you.”
Howard pouted. He gestured to Maria. “Did you two get properly introduced before you started teaming up on me? This is Maria Carrera. She's my...” he paused in the same place as Maria had. “We're...We were going out, tonight.”
“Yes, the one thing I have learned today in no uncertain terms is that you had a date with Miss Carrera tonight,” Peggy said.
“Dr Carrera,” Howard corrected.
“Miss is fine, or just Maria. Doctor makes everyone start asking me about the weird mole on their backs,” Maria said.
“Not a medical doctor then, I take it?” Peggy said.
“No, I'm a biologist,” Maria said.
“She works at Stark Industries,” Howard said. “She started in the West Coast division, but she's been over here to work on special projects over the past nine months or so.”
He gave Maria another smile, and she smiled back, and Peggy was entirely unsure what to make of this, because Howard did not, as a rule, smile at women in the gentle, sweet manner he was doing it now. He didn't worry about standing them up, or show them pictures of his friends in the billiard room, or ensure that they were properly introduced by their title and accomplishments. Either the head injury had done wonders for his personality or Maria Carrera was an anomaly.
Peggy wasn't sure which possibility was more unlikely.
“How are you enjoying New York?” Peggy asked Maria.
“It's cold!” Maria said, with a laugh. “And loud. But I enjoy the work a lot. Everything is really interesting and on such a massive scale, I feel like I'm accomplishing something. It's really nice when you're putting the skills you have to work.”
“Yes, I know that feeling,” Peggy said. She imagined a woman in Maria's line of work was probably somewhat of a minority, as it was in hers. Howard had never been shy about hiring women, but the men in his company still outnumbered them by a margin. “What's your specific branch of biology?”
“I love it all,” Maria said, opening her hands to show the expanse of it. “Biomedical research is where I work most often, but one of the great things about working at Stark Industries is that Howard brings in so many people from different branches and we all get to work together and do interdisciplinary experiments and projects. I sort of get to dip my toe into a bunch of areas, which is very groovy.”
Her face was lit up with enthusiasm and Peggy could see why she would appeal to Howard. Although, most women appealed to Howard. Aside from tending to be in their early twenties (he aged, they didn't), his lady friends were all races, colours, creeds, and sizes. Some were vapid, some were frighteningly smart, some kind, some calculating. They need only be female and attractive and Maria was both.
“Carrera's helping us to get a man on the moon,” Howard said. “But she doesn't think we should be going.”
“I didn't say that,” Maria objected. “I said that if you were going to go anyway, I might as well make sure you do it safely.”
Howard gave a little grin. “Yeah, apparently we're not going to get there without her, so she feels obligated to help us out."
“That's not what I meant, either!” Maria said. “What I meant was that I felt there were more important things to do on Earth before we go tromping around on the moon, but if you were going to go anyway, then I wanted to see what you found there. I know you're teasing me, but it's an important point.”
“Sure, babe,” Howard said.
“Don't call me babe!” Maria said.
Howard grinned wider and Maria gave Peggy a look that said 'do you see what he's like?' and Peggy shot back a nod that said 'oh, I know exactly what he's like'.
“For what it's worth, I quite agree,” Peggy said. “There's plenty of problems we could be dealing with here before we spend billions of dollars on space travel.”
“You two have no vision,” Howard complained. “It's about doing the impossible. You want the Reds to get there first?”
“How about we cure cancer first?” Maria suggested. “Or make sure everyone has a chance to vote without being discriminated against?”
“Maria's an idealist,” Howard said to Peggy.
“Don't say that like it's a bad thing,” Maria said. “And don't talk about me like I'm not sitting right next to you. I can describe myself, thank you.”
Howard raised his hands in peace and shot Peggy a look that said 'check her out, huh?' and Peggy shot him a look that said, 'yes, I like her very much'. It was nice to see someone besides her put Howard in his place. Howard's eyes slipped out of focus, but that was the longest she'd seen him coherent since he'd woken up that morning. Maria's face softened and she rubbed his foot under the blanket. He looked at her with hazy, dreamy eyes.
“Howard said that you worked together during the war,” Maria said to Peggy. “Are you still part of the military?”
“No, I work in the public sector now,” Peggy semi-lied. “I'm in a government job. All admin and paperwork, I'm afraid. Not very interesting to most.”
“But you enjoy it?” Maria asked.
“Yes, I'm very fond of my typewriter,” Peggy said, serenely. “And we liaise with Stark Industries quite often, so I still see Howard on a regular basis. Which, I suppose, is a good thing.”
Maria's eyes crinkled up. “I'm sure you could overdose on it,” she said. “Mr Jarvis said Howard was overseeing a project for the government today, when he was hurt. Were you there when it happened?”
Peggy wondered how hard Jarvis had been pulling on his ear to work that lie for Maria. “I was in the building,” she said. “Howard was checking in on a private project for us. It was a good thing he was there. He saved a lot of lives.”
Maria patted his foot again. Howard blinked a few times and looked around.
“Hey, Peg,” he said.
“Hello, Howard,” Peggy said. “How are you?”
“I got a headache,” Howard said. He gestured down the bed. “This is Maria.”
“Yes, we've met,” Peggy said.
“Did I introduce you already?” Howard asked. “I've been repeating myself. I got hit in the head. Is everything okay at work?”
“Yes, it's all fine,” Peggy assured him. “Don't worry about any of that.”
Howard nodded. He remained dazed for the next few minutes and introduced Maria again. Peggy and Maria elected to pretend they hadn't met before, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries.
Jarvis arrived, looking harassed and clutching a paper cup of tea. “My sincerest apologies, Miss Carrera, there was some sort of breadline in the cafeteria. The whole hospital was queuing for what purported itself as soup. I didn't mean to take so long,” he said. He noticed Peggy and went from annoyed to welcoming. “Oh, Mrs Carter, you've returned.”
“I wanted to make sure you hadn't killed Howard,” Peggy said.
“I've resisted,” Jarvis said. “It was touch and go at some points, I must admit.”
“Everyone's mad at me today,” Howard muttered, in a bewildered voice. He crooked his finger at Maria, who leaned forward. “Does Jarvis know I hit my head?”
“Yes, Howard, Jarvis knows,” Maria said.
Howard nodded and tapped his finger to the side of his nose to show he understood.
“I found a newspaper for you, sir,” Jarvis said, handing it up to him via Maria. “You were asking for one, earlier.”
“Was I?” Howard said.
“Yes, sir, repeatedly,” Jarvis said. “You were most insistent that you know what the baseball scores were. From what I can tell, there were no games played within the last twenty-four hours. I'm not even sure that it's baseball season...”
“Do you even follow baseball?” Peggy asked.
Howard shrugged. “I can't follow anything right now,” he said. “My head hasn't felt this bad since Reno in '57.” He looked to Maria. “Don't ever let me tell you about Reno in '57.”
“Well, now I really want to know what happened in Reno in '57,” Maria said.
“It may seem like a good idea,” Peggy said. “But, speaking from experience, Howard's exploits are better left to the imagination.”
“Yes, I would consider it inadvisable,” Jarvis said, a look of shell-shock on his face. “No one who did not live through it should have to hear about it.”
“Neither of you are convincing me,” Maria said.
Peggy vacated the chair for Jarvis and sat down at the foot of the bed, opposite to Maria. Howard looked down at the newspaper in his hand and seemed surprised to find it there. He started to read, but his eyes soon lost focus and he looked up again. He glanced around at them all and smiled.
“Everyone I like is here,” he said, very content.
Peggy couldn't help but smile at that, despite the worry and annoyance he'd caused her that day.
“Do you know Maria?” Howard asked her.
That was the tipping point for them all. Maria let out a snorted laugh and Jarvis started to giggle and then Peggy started laughing. Howard looked around at them, annoyed for a moment before something seemed to click and he started to laugh as well.
“None of you have been nice to me today,” he complained. “You should be nice to me, I'm hurt.”
“Sorry,” Maria said, through her laughter. “We're laughing because we care, really.”
Jarvis was the first to collect himself, and Peggy managed to get herself together once she couldn't hear his odd little titters any more. Maria had a harder time and Howard glared at her, setting her off again. Finally, she managed to calm down. Howard looked exhausted and Peggy decided it was time to let him have some rest.
“I'll walk you out,” Jarvis offered when she declared her intentions to leave.
“Thank you,” Peggy said. She rose from the bed. “Take care of yourself, Howard, don't leave here until you've been discharged and don't even think about going back to work for at least a week if not more. I will be checking in.”
“Yeah, Ma, I know,” Howard said, smartly. “I'll be a good boy.”
“I highly doubt that,” Peggy said. She bent down to give him a hug and he patted her back.
“Thanks for caring about me,” he said.
“Don't do that to me again,” Peggy said.
“I'll try, no guarantees,” he said.
Peggy shook Maria's hand and told her, sincerely, that it was very nice to meet her. She collected her things and shrugged on the coat Jarvis held for her.
Howard picked up the newspaper and tried again to read, but threw it away with frustration. Maria crawled up to the head of the bed to retrieve it and sat next to him.
“I'll read it to you,” she said. “Don't be a baby. Lie down and rest.”
Howard shimmied himself down to lay his head on his pillow and she started with the headlines. Peggy and Jarvis slipped out of the room.
“How long as he been seeing her?” Peggy asked Jarvis, as they headed out to the front door.
“Around a month, I believe,” Jarvis said.
“Consecutively?” Peggy asked, surprised.
“Exclusively,” Jarvis said.
“Wow,” Peggy said.
She hadn't known Howard to date anyone exclusively. Perhaps Maria was an anomaly after all.
“Quite,” Jarvis said. “From what I understand, they were work colleagues for several months before they decided to see each other socially. Mr Stark was uncertain about whether it was appropriate.” He looked around and then said, in a low voice, as though sharing some unbelievable tale. “He's quite smitten.”
“Does he know he's smitten?” Peggy asked.
“I don't believe so, no, and I haven't felt it prudent to point it out,” Jarvis said.
No, Howard would be alarmed to discover he cared about a girl, Peggy agreed. He'd startle and shy away like a nervous horse. She hoped, even more than she usually did for the women he dated, that Miss Carrera wouldn't have her heart broken too badly by him.
“You should try telling him now,” Peggy said. “He'll probably have forgot you said anything by tomorrow.”