Characters: Howard Stark, Maria Carrera, Edwin Jarvis, Dernier, Falsworth, a few OCs
Warnings/Triggers: swearing, some discussion of sad things, lots of sex and innuendo (nothing explicit)
Spoilers: Nothing specific, but generalized for various backstories of the characters involved
Word Count 3,367
Summary: When the press starts to close in on Howard and Maria's new relationship, Howard whisks Maria off to Paris see if he can convince her to stick around.
Author's notes: This is one of those stories that started out small, and got bigger. I was originally going to have it in three parts, but then it went to four parts, and then those four parts were best split into two, so I think it will be 6-7 parts over all.
Remember when I used to write short things? Me either.
A lot of headcanon in this, especially in regards to Maria. Set in 1965. Howard is mid forties, Jarvis somewhere in that area, and Maria is in her late twenties. It follows Memory Lapse, but doesn't reference it.
The parts alternate between Howard and Maria's POV. Howard starts off.
Howard knew he was in for a bad day from how Jarvis brought his breakfast tray in the morning. Knowing someone for as long as Howard had known Jarvis, he could tell when Jarvis was upset or sad or happy or worried or basically anything. Which Howard thought was a real trick on his part because all those emotions basically looked the same on Jarvis' schooled face. He had to go by walk or tone of voice or the way his eyes moved around.
“What's happened?” Howard asked.
Jarvis' eyebrows quirked upwards in an 'I don't know what you mean, sir' way, but then they gave up and went down again. He handed the freshly ironed newspaper to Howard.
“Page 13,” he said.
That was the gossip column. Howard started to leaf through. “What's old Millie got to say about me today?”
“It's a blind item, but barely,” Jarvis said. “It's not exactly damning, but I don't think Miss Carrera will be pleased.”
Howard leafed faster. He'd so far managed to keep Maria out of the papers. He was really pleased with himself for that. He found the column and moved down it with his finger, scanning until he got to the right item. It was blind, as Jarvis said, but pretty clear who she was talking about. 'A certain billionaire C.E.O known for his many liaisons'. She might as well have used his name. The item noted that the C.E.O hadn't been out with a woman on his arm in several weeks, and people were starting to wonder if he'd lost some of that infamous charm. Sources said that a young woman had been seen coming to and from his house in the evenings lately, sometimes not leaving until the early mornings--or not leaving at all. Dropped off and escorted out by the C.E.O's own butler. Secret love or something else entirely? One never knew with this C.E.O.
“Is she trying to imply I've got a hooker on retainer because I can't get dates anymore?” Howard said. “That's what she's saying. She's calling Maria a call girl.”
“I think she's merely suggesting you're having an affair with a married woman,” Jarvis said.
“Oh, well, that's fine then,” Howard snapped. “Get the paper on the phone.”
“Sir, she didn't name names,” Jarvis said. “Yelling will only induce them to begin to name. Please don't react without thinking.”
Howard glared at him. “Get the paper on the phone."
“No,” Jarvis said, simply. “Eat your breakfast. What would you like to wear today?”
“Fuck you and your clothes,” Howard said.
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis replied. “How about your blue suit? It's just come back from the cleaners.”
Howard reached for the phone on his nightstand. “I can just call them myself,” he said. “What's the number?”
“I think the knitted Charvet tie would look very fetching with it,” Jarvis said, walking into the wardrobe.
“I can ask the operator,” Howard said. He held the phone to his ear and discovered it had no dial tone. “Jarvis! Why is my phone dead?”
“I've no idea, sir. How unfortunate when you want to make a call,” Jarvis replied, nonchalantly. “Would you prefer the Lanvin tie with the zigzags?”
“You're fired!” Howard said. “Tampering with phones is a federal offense. Probably.”
“Yes, sir. I'll just finish getting your ensemble together,” Jarvis said. “I hate to leave a task undone.”
Howard put down the phone. He could go find another phone. Jarvis probably only disconnected the one in his room. But that would take a lot of effort just to yell at someone about something to, Howard admitted, no avail and a lot of risk of retaliation. He decided it might be more productive to eat his breakfast and figure out what he was going to say to Maria.
It had been a pipe dream to think he could date her and not have it become known. In fact, he knew it would become known. He hadn't worried about it because even though he knew he liked her more than he liked most girls, he'd assumed it wouldn't last because relationships didn't with him. He got tired of them or they got tired of him and then it was done. But he hadn't got tired of Maria yet, and she hadn't got tired of him, and they were over a month into it now.
Now he had to worry.
Jarvis emerged from the closet with an outfit in hand and laid it fussily over the foot of the bed. “Would you like help getting dressed before I pack my things, or should I just go now?”
“Come off it, you know you aren't fired,” Howard said.
“Oh good, sir, I'm so relieved,” Jarvis said, in a monotone.
Howard chuckled. “One of these days, I'm going to actually fire you, and you'll be less smug,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said, smugly. He shifted, looking uncomfortable. “I would like to apologize.”
“I'm not that mad about the phone,” Howard assured him.
“No, I mean that I should have been more discreet in my driving of Miss Carrera,” Jarvis explained. “I should have been aware of being watched and done something to prevent it. I apologize if it causes problems to your relationship.”
Aww. Howard found Jarvis kind of adorable when he apologized for no reason. It was so damned British of him. “Listen, Jarvis, I haven't done anything without someone watching me since 1939,” he said. “If I could figure out a way to keep the paparazzi away, I'd have done it. It's not your fault. Use your energy to help me figure out what I'm gonna do to keep from scaring Maria off and stop fussing.”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said.
Howard looked expectantly at him. “What am I going to do?”
“Oh! You meant immediately,” Jarvis said. “I'm not sure if I'm the best person to know what to do.”
“You've been married for 24 years now; you're a helluva lot more qualified than me when comes to relationships,” Howard said. “The only way I got Maria to even consider dating me was promising that we wouldn't have pictures of us splashed over the papers. We're a step away from that now.”
Jarvis put on his thoughtful face as he started to pick up Howard's clothes from the night before. “Well, sir, I'm sorry to say that if you continue to see one another, you will have to deal with the press eventually,” he said. “My suggestion is to make that very clear to Miss Carrera and see what her response is.”
Howard chewed on a griddle cake forlornly. “What if her response is 'go away'?”
“Then, I suppose you'll have to respect that,” Jarvis said. “You can't ask her to live a life in the spotlight if she doesn't want one.”
“Why did I have to fall for the girl who doesn't want fame and fortune?” Howard asked.
“Have you fallen for her, sir?” Jarvis asked, curiously. “I have wondered, but I didn't like to pry.”
Howard took another forlorn bite of food. “Yeah, Jarvis. I'm pretty sure I have.”
Jarvis gave a brisk nod. “Well, then,” he said. “I do have an extra suggestion, if you'd like to hear it.”
“Hit me, Jarvis. I'm all ears.”
“Howard, Dr. Carrera's here now,” Daisy said, over the intercom.
“Okay, Daze, thanks,” Howard replied. “Send her in.”
He started rearranging things on his desk, but he couldn't figure out why because his desk always looked like it looked, and, if he put the pen holder on the left side or the right side, it wouldn't make any difference to her response. He moved the pen holder back and rose as the door to his office opened.
“Good Morning, Mr. Stark,” Maria said, with a playful smile.
“Mornin', Carrera,” he replied, professionally.
She shut the door behind her and walked over to his desk. She had a folder in her hand and gave it over. “Those are the results of the last trial"
“Oh, thanks,” he said. He opened the file, didn't look at it, closed it, and put it down on his desk. “Have a seat.”
Maria cocked her head to the side, confusion and concern in her eyes. “Are you going to fire me?”
“What? No!” Howard said.
“Okay, good,” she said. “You just look really flustered.”
“No, I don't,” Howard objected.
“Yes, you do. You've mussed up your tie.”
“I have not.”
She reached across the desk and put his tie back in place. “Yes, you have,” she said. She chucked him under the chin and straightened up. “Tell me what's wrong. If I'm not pulling my load here, I want to know. Just because we're...whatever we are, you don't have to be nice about it. Is that why you're flustered? Because you have to yell at me?”
Howard raised his hands, trying to stop her from getting ahead of him. “No, you're fine, you're always fine,” he said. “You're great. It's not about work. It's about the 'whatever we are' part of things.”
Maria looked really worried now. “Oh,” she said. “I thought I was doing okay there.”
“You are!” Howard said, quickly. Fuck. How did people even have conversations with girls? It was already messed up, and he hadn't even started. “No. It's just...Sit down.” He pointed to the chair. “Let me explain. I'm not firing you in either of our relationships. I just need to talk. So sit.”
Maria took a seat.
“Okay,” Howard said. “Good.” He supposed he should sit, too, so he perched on his desk. “Do you read Millie Nader's column?”
“No,” Maria said. “She's some sort of celeb journalist, isn't she?”
“Yeah,” Howard said. He handed her a copy of the paper. “Take a look at item four there.”
Maria read it over. He winced as her face darkened. Her mouth dropped open.
“Is she calling me a call girl?”
Howard very nearly burst out with a triumphant 'that's what I said!', but managed to stop himself just in time. “Uh, I'm not sure,” he said. “But she's calling you something, and I'm not happy about it.”
Maria's mouth remained open. “But...she can't just...I mean, I know she doesn't say your name, but...how can you allow...” Her mouth closed, opened again, and then closed again.
“If it were up to me, I wouldn't allow,” Howard said. “In fact, I almost tried to not allow this morning, but Jarvis reminded me of the futility of arguing with the press. For the record, though, I would go headfirst into that if I thought it would help.”
“I know,” Maria said, distractedly. “I know you would.” She looked up at him. “So, what do I do?”
“That's the thing,” Howard said. “That's what I wanted to talk to you about. It's kind of up to you. You're on the fringe here, Carrera. If you want out before it starts to get intrusive...you have to go now.”
“This isn't intrusive?” Maria asked.
“No,” Howard said. “No. It's gonna be worse. I guarantee that right now there are people trying to figure out who you are. They're going to find out where you work, where you're from. They're goinb to write items about you. They might be nice or they might be real nasty. They'll probably be both.”
“But...I'm not important,” Maria said.
“You damn well are,” Howard countered.
“No, you know what I mean,” Maria said. “I'm not interesting. I'm not a famous person. Why do they care?”
“Because it's me,” Howard said. “I'm interesting. I'm a famous person. What I have for breakfast is front page news. Who I'm dating, that's a gold mine.”
Maria tossed the paper on the desk and put her head in her hands. “I don't want to be mined."
Howard had known she wasn't going to be jumping for joy, but a very tiny little part of him hoped she might declare undying love for him and tell him to fuck the press, she didn't care. She did care.
“Then you have to go now,” he said, trying not to sound too gutted about it. Jarvis had been very clear that he wasn't supposed to guilt or influence her in any way. It wouldn't be fair. It had to be her choice. 'Talk to her like you're offering a business proposal. Be clear and honest'. “If we break it off now, then they won't care about you anymore. You'll be forgotten by next week.”
“By you, too?” she asked.
That hurt, but it was an important question (and a reasonable one), so he was clear and honest. “No, not by me,” he said. “Not by a long shot.”
She smiled a little. “What's my other option?” she asked. “Do I have one?”
“Your other option is to stay and face it,” Howard said. “And the best way to do that would be for us to go right out in public and I'll say 'this is Maria Carrera, she's a swell gal, she works in my company and we're going out'. Get photographed, beat them to the punch.”
Maria's face darkened again. “That's sick,” she said. “It's sick that my only two options are to walk away or jump face first into a seething pile of photographers.”
Howard shrugged. “I'm sorry about it, but I can't change it. The best way to deal with the press is on your own terms. Make it so you're in control of what they know, and they can't sneak around and jump you from behind. A picture of us smiling isn't as good as a picture of us hiding. So, we smile and screw them.”
Maria sat in silence, face crumpled in contemplation. Howard let her think for a bit. It was a big decision to make. He wasn't sure he'd ever had a girl make it for him before. Most girls wanted him because he was Howard Stark, the celebrity. Maria had made it very clear she preferred Howard Stark, the guy from work. It was nice to be liked like that. He didn't want to lose it. Or her. He didn't want to lose her.
“Listen, babe,” he said, after a minute or two.
“Don't call me babe,” Maria said, her usual, sexy spirit not dampened, apparently.
“Sorry,” Howard said. “Listen—”
“And don't tell me to listen, either,” Maria added. “I'm not a child. I can listen without being told to.”
“You're doing a crappy job of it at the moment,” Howard pointed out.
Maria's mouth dropped open again and then closed. She didn't concede, but she didn't argue, so he figured he'd semi-won.
“I'm going to Paris for a business trip on Monday,” he said. “I'm going for a week. Come with me.”
“What?” Maria said. “Won't that make everything worse?”
“No,” Howard said. “I'm not as important in France. The press won't be as bad there; we can walk around without trouble. It'll buy us some time, and you can decide what you want to do. It'll give us a chance to do it without sneaking around. You can decide if you like me enough to stay. We'll have proper time together, not just evenings and weekends all holed up at my place.”
Maria shook her head. “I have work,” she said.
“Take it with you,” Howard said. “I can find you a lab there. I'll be working some, you can work, too. You don't have to decide right now. You have the weekend. Think about it.”
Maria gave a slow nod. “Okay,” she said. “I'll think about it.”
“Good,” Howard said. He shifted at his desk. “Well, that's all I wanted to say. So...thanks for coming...?” That might be a little too business-like. “You look nice today. I like your skirt.”
Maria smiled. “Thank you,” she said. She cocked her head to the side. “Just so I know. When were you going to tell me you were going to Paris for a week?”
Ooops. “Um...” Howard said. “Well, definitely before I left.”
Maria gave a little laugh. “Thanks for thinking of me."
“You know I'm new at—”
“'The whole relationship thing', yes, you've told me,” Maria said. “You're not going to be able to use that as an excuse forever, you know. Eventually, I'm going to expect you to know better.”
Well, 'eventually' sounded good to Howard. 'Eventually' sounded like there was a chance of a future.
“Miss Carrera has not rung,” Jarvis said, before Howard could ask him. “I sincerely promise that the moment she does, I will inform you immediately.”
Howard went back to the engine he was working on. He was working on it so he didn't have to fuss, but he was fussing anyway. Normally building took his mind off things, but his mind was twitchy and uncooperative. No wonder people said love made you stupid. Howard wasn't even sure if this was love, and he was already gaga. Nicely gaga, though. A kind he could get used to. Kind of a floaty gaga, like too much champagne. That was fucking cliché.
“I'll stop asking you,” Howard said. “Sorry.”
“No, I apologize if I was sharp,” Jarvis said. “I just don't like to see you anxious.”
“I'm not anxious,” Howard said. “I'm...” He struggled. “What's a word that means you're thinking about something and waiting for it to happen?”
“Anxious,” Jarvis said.
Howard glared at him. “I'm not anxious,” he said. “Get me that wrench.”
Jarvis went to the wall and brought it to him. “Not to increase your lack of anxiety, but have you considered what you're going to do if Miss Carrera doesn't call?”
“Yeah,” Howard said.
“And, what do you intend to do?” Jarvis said.
“I haven't decided yet,” Howard said. “But I think it'll be a toss-up between respecting her decision or getting really drunk and wallowing in self-pity. I'm leaning toward both.”
“Ah,” Jarvis said. “Well, I suppose that's reasonable. Almost mature.”
“I'm middle aged now. It was bound to happen at some point,” Howard said.
“Yes, sir, but I was starting to lose hope,” Jarvis said, with a smirk. He took the wrench back when Howard handed it to him. “Mrs. Jarvis would like to invite you to dinner.”
“I'm not much company,” Howard said.
“Yes, sir, that's why she'd like to have you,” Jarvis said. “She's concerned.”
Howard felt loved from somewhere, at least. “Thanks, but, at the risk of sounding like a lovesick fool, I don't want to miss Maria's call."
“I understand,” Jarvis said.
Howard looked at the clock. It was 5PM on Sunday night. “There's still time, right?”
“Yes, plenty,” Jarvis said, not very confidently.
Howard nodded down his welding mask. “Cover your eyes or leave,” he warned.
Jarvis bowed himself out of the room, and Howard continued to work on the engine for the next hour. He was making a lot of noise and had finally managed to get into a groove where he wasn't thinking so much about anything but the metal and the pieces and what he wanted it to do. He didn't hear the phone ring, and he almost missed the light that went on to indicate a phone call in case he couldn't hear it. By the time he noticed, the light turned off again. He sat and waited, very calmly. A little calmly. Jarvis' footsteps came down the stairs. Howard sat calmly. He looked to Jarvis when he came into the room. Calmly.
“That was Miss Carrera,” Jarvis said. “She apologizes for waiting so late, but she would like to come to Paris with you and wanted to know when you were leaving in the morning. I've told her 7AM, and she said she'll meet you at the airfield.”
Howard dropped his wrench and threw his arms up in the air, not at all calmly. He quickly lowered them and picked up the wrench. “Thank you, Jarvis."
Jarvis smiled. “You're quite welcome, sir."
“Hey, tell Annie I'll come to dinner after all,” Howard said.
Jarvis gave a nod. “I already have.”