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 4,043
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.
PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE | PART FOUR
“So, how do you think it's going?” Howard risked asking Jarvis on Friday morning.
Maria was in the Hers bathroom having a shower, and Howard was shaving in the His bathroom to get ready for a meeting with some high ranking French air force officials. He was trying to sell them on the new Stark Industries radar system.
“I'm still not sure about the tartan, sir,” Jarvis said, as he ironed diligently at Howard's vest. “It seems too bold for this early in the day. I suggest you reverse it to the solid colored side.”
“Maria, Jarvis,” Howard said. “How do you think it's going with Maria?”
“Oh,” Jarvis said. “I think rather well, how about you?”
“Yeah,” Howard said. “But is it going well enough?”
“I doubt I'm the one to judge that, sir,” Jarvis said.
“Has she said anything to you?” Howard asked.
“I'll not play go between,” Jarvis said.
“So, she has,” Howard said, turning away from the mirror to look at him. “What did she say?”
Jarvis ironed in silence, his face a picture of innocence.
“Jarvis,” Howard begged. “Come on, I need all the help I can get. Just tell me what she said.”
Jarvis turned the vest over and continued to iron. “Anything Miss Carrera might have said was, I'm sure, said without the intention of my passing it along to you,” he said. “As I'm sure you wouldn't want me telling her what you might say about her to me.”
Howard did not want any of that to get back to Maria. Not that it was bad. Quite the opposite. He didn't want her to know just how much of a lovesick puppy he was about her. That wasn't good business. Don't let the other side know your vulnerabilities, at least until you've got a good read on what they wanted from you.
“Was it good or bad?” Howard said.
Jarvis gave him an annoyed look. “Sir, I am not a telephone operator,” he said. “Ask her yourself.”
“Dammit, Jarvis, is she enjoying herself or not?” Howard asked.
Jarvis looked to the Hers bathroom and then back to Howard. “Miss Carrera was very pleased with the ballet last night,” was all he said. “She found it very moving.”
Howard returned to shaving. He decided that was Jarvis for 'yes'. “Did you have this much trouble with Ana?” he asked. “Convincing her you were okay?”
“No,” Jarvis said. “I don't think I did. But our romance was hardly smooth sailing, either. There's no such thing as an ideal affair, I don't think. All couples have their challenges.”
“You've made it this long,” Howard said. “You must be doing something right.”
“I suppose so,” Jarvis said. “But it's not magic, sir. It takes work sometimes.”
Howard had never worked in a relationship before. When working came up, he bailed. “Maybe I'm too old to figure it out, now."
“I shouldn't give up yet,” Jarvis said. “You still have two more days. If I might make a suggestion...have you made your feelings clear? Is she aware how much you admire her?”
“Sure,” Howard said. “I tell her she's great all the time. She must know. I mean...look at all this trouble I'm going to. I don't mind the trouble, but I don't do it for every girl.”
“She might not know that, sir,” Jarvis said. “You might want to use some words.”
In the mirror, Howard's nose wrinkled up. “That's soppy, Jarvis."
“I have been married for almost 25 years now, sir,” Jarvis said. “My advice is to be a little soppy once in a while. It goes a long way.”
Maria's shower turned off, so they shut up about it. Howard finished up shaving his face and brushing his teeth. Jarvis was still hemming-and-hawing over which way Howard should wear his vest--tartan side out or tartan side in. You'd think every time Howard left the house he was going to have tea with the Queen or something.
“Why don't I wear it with the plain side out, and then in the middle of the meeting, I'll go to the john and reverse it to the tartan side?” Howard suggested. “Keep'm guessing?”
“This is not a laughing matter, sir,” Jarvis said, even as he chuckled.
They eventually decided to go for the plain side. Howard didn't think the Chef d'État-Major de l'Armée de l'Air would be a man fond of flashy vests. Maria came out of the bathroom and gave him an appreciative nod, so double vote of confidence there.
“What are you up to today?” Howard asked her.
“Hélène and I are going to the Jardin des Plantes,” Maria said.
“Who's Hélène?” Howard asked.
“My friend from ENS,” Maria said. “I've told you that three times now, Howard.”
Howard heard the warning and repeated in his head a few times that the little Birgitte Bardot-looking science girl Maria had made friends with was called Hélène. Names were never his forte.
“You'll have a good time there,” he said. “Lots of plants and specimens.”
“Yep, so I've heard,” Maria said.
“You and I should do something nice for dinner,” Howard said. “Jarvis, get us in at Le Chat Noir.”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said.
“I don't think I brought a dress good enough to go there,” Maria said. “I saw that in the guide book. It's three stars. You need sables and pearls to go there.”
“You must have something,” Howard said. “You always look great. You must have brought a nice dress.”
“Not nice enough,” Maria said. “I swear. It's not me fishing for compliments, I honestly didn't bring anything nice enough to go. I don't think I own anything that nice period.”
Howard looked to Jarvis, who had seen what Maria brought. Jarvis thought for a moment, then gave a very subtle shrug. Howard guessed Maria was telling the truth. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.
“Buy yourself a dress,” he said, handing over a credit card.
“No, absolutely not,” Maria said.
“Yes, absolutely so,” Howard replied. “You're in Paris, Maria. Go to Dior, have them fit you for something nice. My treat.”
“I don't want your treat,” Maria said. “I'm not...I don't want to be kept.”
“If I was keeping you, I'd be doing a helluva lot better job than this,” Howard said. “Trust me. I've kept girls before. I want you to have something nice. I want to pay for it. It makes sense. I have money. I have more money than I know what to do with. Why shouldn't I be the one to pay? Take my card. Take Hélène, buy her something, too. Have fun.”
Maria folded her arms, eyes avoiding his. “I don't know."
“This isn't me patronizing you,” Howard said, trying to soften his tone. “This is me...look, I always buy things for girls I date. Necklaces and flowers and whatever. I haven't done that for you. I've tried not to.”
“Why?” Maria said.
Howard was about to respond with a dismissive 'I don't know' but remembered Jarvis' thing about using his words. “Because you're different,” he said, now being the one to avoid eyes. “And I don't want to do the same things I always do with everyone else. You may not know this, but you're kind of special.”
Maria's face softened a little. “Oh,” she said. She bit her lip, then stepped forward and took the card. “Sometimes I don't know how to be Howard Stark's girlfriend.”
“Babe, if you know it sometimes, you're better off than me,” Howard said.
Maria smiled. “Don't call me babe,” she said.
He probably should have told her that he only called her babe because he normally called girls 'sweetheart', but maybe that was too many words for the moment. He'd have to get the hang of using them first.
Howard sent Jarvis with Maria for the day. She might need a little back-up, and Jarvis had a good eye for fashion and would give an honest opinion. Howard spent six hours prostituting himself to the French government and emerged with a contract for Stark Industries
He was alone at the apartment, which he wasn't upset about. He hadn't been alone all week; he'd either been working or entertaining Maria. He didn't mind that as much as he might have thought he would. She was good company. He didn't feel stifled or desperate for escape. But he didn't mind a little time on his own either. He did a bit of drawing in the office, and called home to both Mirandez at Stark Industries and Peggy at S.H.I.E.L.D to give report on what he'd done for both causes while in Paris, and got a report on what was going on back home. All was well on that front.
Maria went straight to bed when she came in before Howard could even talk to her to ask how it went.
“Miss Carrera is going to have a lie-down,” Jarvis explained, as Howard looked in bewilderment after the streak of Maria he'd just managed to glimpse from the office door. “She seems to have found the shopping expedition a bit taxing.”
“Oh,” Howard said. “Did she have fun, or was it just taxing?”
“No, she and Mlle. Bidot had a very nice time,” Jarvis said. “They both got a new frock and some shoes. M. St Laurent sends his regards. He found Miss Carrera a very good muse, I think. The dress she chose is exquisite.”
“Good,” Howard said. “And we're on for Le Chat Noir?”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. “Table for two at six PM. Due to the short notice, I'm afraid I had to make it a bit early, but the private table will be ready for you.”
“Thanks,” Howard said.
“Miss Carrera asked me to fetch her some tights,” Jarvis said, with obvious delight. “I didn't offer first, she just asked.”
Howard smiled at how pleased he sounded. “You must be moving up in the world, Jarvis."
“Yes, I think I am,” Jarvis said.
Howard left Jarvis to fuss over which denier would be the most appropriate for Maria's pantyhose and went to check on her. She was lying down but wasn't asleep when he peeked his head into the bedroom.
“Sorry about breezing past,” she said. “I needed to get off my feet. I've been standing on a pedestal for five hours. I could never make it as a goddess.”
Howard joined her on the bed. “Maybe just stand on metaphorical pedestals, instead."
“No, those are worse,” Maria said. “Far too many expectations.” She rolled over to face him. “How did your meeting go?”
“Good,” Howard said. “Hole in one. How about you?”
“Good,” Maria said. “Par six. That's how many dresses I tried on before we all agreed on one. I felt like a princess. They gave me champagne. It was like when my mom made my prom dress, only with less Italian cursing and more French women telling me how beautiful I am.”
“Sounds like fun,” Howard said. “I love when French women tell me how beautiful I am.”
Maria swatted his arm. “It was fun,” she admitted. “I had a good time. I wouldn't want to do it every day, but I felt like a very fancy lady. I have shoes, too. And a purse. I don't know how much it cost.”
“The price doesn't matter,” Howard said.
“I know. I just didn't want to know how many francs I've thrown away if I spilled soup on myself,” Maria said. “I made Jarvis pay.”
“Francs devalued like crazy after the war, you'd have a false sense of how much it cost anyway,” Howard said. “It's almost 5 francs to a dollar right now. It would have made it seem way worse than it probably was.”
“Howard, Yves St Laurent fitted me in a cocktail dress from a collection that isn't available yet,” Maria said. “There is no way it could possibly be worse than I imagine it was.”
“Is it a nice dress, though?” Howard said.
“I don't think I've ever loved a dress more than I love that dress,” Maria said. “It is quite possible I have never loved an inanimate object as much as I love that dress, except maybe my microscope, and even that is looking a little shabby.”
“Then, it doesn't really matter,” Howard said.
“I'm just not used to spending money,” Maria said.
“I know, it takes some getting used to,” Howard said. “The first time the rent came due and I could pay it and not have to skip a few meals, I didn't know what to do with myself.”
Maria had her 'listening' face on, which looked like she was trying to solve a puzzle and he was pretty sure he was the puzzle. She looked at test results the same way. It made him feel antsy.
“Is there anything you miss from then?” she asked.
“You mean do I miss being poor? No,” Howard said.
“Sorry, I didn't mean to ask a stupid question,” Maria said. “I meant it more like being...well, 'normal' doesn't sound better, but you know. Not...you.”
Howard tried to be less of a jerk answering the question this time. He'd had a knee-jerk jerk response. It happened a lot, but mostly at work, when being a jerk was an accepted part of his persona.
“I guess it was nice to have more privacy,” he said. “But I can't go about asking people to pay attention to what I'm doing and then tell them to stop paying attention to what I'm doing because today I've decided I don't like it.”
“I suppose so,” Maria said.
He wanted to ask her if she'd made up her mind about people paying attention to her but didn't have the nerve. If she said she wasn't going to stick around, he'd have two more days of misery before they went home. Better to wait to pull off the Band-Aid until he could mope in private and instead enjoy what time he had left with her.
He gave her a peck on her forehead and her eyes crinkled with a smile.
“Dinner's at six, so if you want to rest, you have some time,” he said.
“I might need a nap,” she said. “Being important is exhausting.”
“Yeah,” Howard said. “You have no idea.”
St. Laurent had done a stellar, bang-up, spot on job. He'd put Maria in a little cocktail mini-dress with big panels of black and white in a checkerboard pattern. The sides of it were cut out in points and the back was open, tying up behind her neck with a bow and showing off all the little freckles on her back that Howard liked to play connect-the-dots with. It showed off everything good about Maria's figure.
He had a lot to work with, of course. Maria was beautiful just all on her own. She never played it down, either. Some women who worked at S.H.I.E.L.D or at Stark Industries tried to fit in with the boys by trying not to look too much like girls. Maria said 'screw it, I can be smart and wear a mini-skirt' and Howard admired that.
“Jesus Christ,” Howard muttered in appreciation when Maria stepped out of the dressing room.
“Can you do my bracelet?” Maria asked.
Jarvis hopped to before Howard could respond, which was fine because he was liking what he was getting from afar and didn't want to get to close up yet. She'd put her hair in a bouffant with a chignon and her top lip was a deeper shade of pink lipstick than her bottom lip. Howard wanted to kiss it all off of her and was a bit disappointed he was going to have to eat first before he tried.
“Okay, we have to go now, or I'm just going to keep fussing with myself,” she said. She smoothed out her dress.
“You look beautiful,” Howard said.
“I know!” she said, with a grin. “Sorry. I was going to try to be modest, but I'm actually very excited.”
Howard laughed. “Don't be modest,” he said. “Let's get out there so people can look at you.”
Le Chat Noir was bustling even at the earlier hour, but, as soon as the Maitre D' saw Howard, he was able to cut through the line, and he and Maria were taken right back to a private table with an amazing view and a little wall that kept them hidden from the rest of the patrons. The Maitre D' pulled out Maria's chair and brought a bench for her purse. Howard took a seat opposite, nodding the Maitre D' away once they were settled.
“Why does my purse get its own chair?” Maria asked.
“It's a Vivier purse, Ria, it deserves its own chair,” Howard replied. “Is it okay if I order for us? Normally I just tell the chefs to make what they want. You get better food that way. They like to show off. But if you want to go a la carte, that's fine.”
“No, I think it'll be easier if you do the ordering,” Maria said. “I'm not sure I can even read the menu. Thank you for asking, though, instead of just assuming.”
“I'm a bit older than you, it used to be good manners to order for the lady,” Howard said.
“I'm sorry women's rights took that authority away from you,” Maria said.
“Hey, I didn't say I was complaining, I'm just saying it happened,” Howard said. “I have nothing against women's rights.”
“You are pretty modern,” Maria said. “I wasn't really expecting that.”
“Not as much of an asshole as you'd thought I be, huh?” Howard said.
“That is almost exactly how I would put it,” Maria said, thoughtfully.
Howard nodded. “It's a common reaction. But you treat employees decently, you get good work. Doesn't really matter to me what color they are or gender or if they like girls or boys. If they have work ethic, I like them. It's always been my policy to be the best. If you're the best, you're welcome at my company.”
“It's a good policy,” Maria said.
“It's worked pretty well so far.”
They moved on to topics less prone to debate, though Howard enjoyed pulling her pig-tails sometimes because she was sexy when she was being passionate about something, even if it was being passionate about disagreeing with him.
The sommelier came up, and Howard ordered some good wine for the table (white, as red gave Maria headaches, a fact he had stored in the 'Maria folder' in his brain). He told the waiter to let the chef do what he wanted.
The waiter was soon shuffling in and out with the food, which was all the quality Howard expected, and they made it from soup to nuts in what seemed like a short period of time but was actually a couple of hours. Maria enjoyed everything, apart from one course, and Howard assured her it was okay to leave it if she didn't want it, it wasn't rude. He also added 'Maria has very strong feelings about oysters' to his Maria folder.
“Do you wanna dance?” he asked, as they waited for dessert.
“Yes, I do,” she said.
He took her out onto the dance floor, where a little string quartet was playing and several other couples were dancing. Maria was already humming along to the tune.
“'The King and I',” she said to Howard. She sang, “'Hello young lovers, whoever you are, I hope your troubles are few, all my good wishes go with you tonight, I've been in love like you'.”
“Was Gene Kelly in that, too?” Howard asked.
“No, Yul Brynner,” Maria said. “But he is also very handsome.”
“I definitely have better hair than him,” Howard said.
“Yes, you do,” Maria agreed.
He pulled her into hold and set her into a modified version of a waltz to avoid bumping into the other, more stationary couples.
“Sorry, I can't be a gentleman,” Howard said, after moving his hand around her back several times. “All I've got is skin back there. No, wait.” He pulled her right up to him and managed to get his arm around enough to find some cloth to rest his hand on.
“This limits our dancing a little,” Maria said.
“Worth it,” Howard said. She put her head on his chest, and he could hear and feel her humming with the music. The song changed to something a little more lively, and Howard stepped up the pace. “There we go, this song I know. Sinatra sings this.”
“I suppose you know him, too?” Maria asked.
“Yep, we go way back,” Howard said. “I spent the best night of my life with him and Sammy and Dean and Joey and Peter. Worst morning after, though.”
“Just a second, Mr. Stark, you've dropped all these names,” Maria said. “Let me pick them up for you.” She opened his breast pocket and made a motion of placing something in it.
Howard grinned. “Thanks, they fall out all the time."
“You should check for holes in there,” she said, looking into his pocket.
“I'll get Jarvis on it,” he said. “Aren't you going to tell me that Frank is handsome?”
“Ehn,” Maria said. “You're better looking.”
“Well, shit,” Howard said. “That's a boost to my ego.”
“Uh-oh,” Maria said. “I didn't mean to do that. I take it back! He's much better looking than you, and I have a huge crush on him. His hair is nicer and he dances better.”
“Nope, too late,” Howard said. “Maria Carrera thinks I'm better looking than Frank Sinatra. Forget the dress and the food, it was worth coming here just for that.”
Howard was half asleep when Maria said that, pleasantly post-coital and all curled up with her in his arms. He opened his eyes and looked around the room.
“Where?” he asked.
Maria mumbled something grumpily and then said, louder, “On the furniture. Look with your eyes.”
Howard looked with his eyes and could not find any spiders. “I don't see--oh, are you awake?” He looked down at her. She had her head on his chest and her eyes were closed. “Yep. You're asleep. There aren't any spiders, babe, just go to sleep.”
“Don't ball me cabe,” she mumbled.
Howard chuckled deeply. “Sorry."
“The centrifuge isn't balanced,” Maria said, worriedly. “I have to fix it or the motor will burn out...all the spiders will never leave.”
“No, it's fine,” Howard assured her. “I'll do it, you just stay here.”
“You don't even know how!” Maria said, in a scathing voice that was so disgusted that he questioned for a moment whether he did know how to balance a centrifuge and if he could stop the spider invasion.
“I do so,” he said. “I'll get rid of all the spiders, and we'll go to bed.”
“I want some cake,” she said. “Not French cake.”
Howard chuckled again. “Sick of frog food, huh?” he said. “Well, we only have a couple days left here. I'll get you some cake when we get home.”
“Stop that,” Maria said.
“What?” Howard said.
“Spiders,” Maria said.
“Sorry,” Howard said. He had a very odd feeling of wanting to get in her dream and stop what was bothering her in there.
“It's okay, I love you,” Maria said, with great affection.
Even though Howard knew she probably wasn't aware of what she was saying or who she was saying it to, he still felt a little weird about it. Not panicked...maybe. Just...weird. Somewhere between pleased and apprehensive. But kind of warm and fuzzy, too.
And even though he knew she was asleep and wouldn't remember it, he still found it hard to respond.
“Back atcha,” he said, as a kind of practice go. Then, “you too.”
Maria was back asleep properly and didn't respond. Howard didn't mind. Maybe a few more practice goes and he'd have this words thing figured out properly.