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Live Through The Rain

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Maria was born to Bianca and Gabriel Carbonell, during an unspecified date because that particular Tuesday had been cancelled and Night Vale General Hospital's registers had been among the casualties of the unexpected schedule change.

She was Night Vale, carried it in her blood and breath. And a Carbonell, who were a bit more civic-minded than most of its citizens.

Actually, strike that: she was a lot more civic-minded than most. Then again, between her father leaving for the Blood-Space War when she was eight, and her mother's position as an antiques dealer, Maria had quite the leg up on her peers. [Certainly, considering everything, perhaps it was for the best that she was so, very civic-minded.]

Even decades later, Maria Carbonell's legacy in Night Vale had its citizens checking over their shoulders and rafters before speaking her name in hushed voices, in fear or awe or both.

 


 

Her childhood was only part of it.

Even before her father left, she was already making waves.

The record she set for merit badges in her local troop of Girl Scouts, for instance, meant she'd been a person of interest for the city officials, since most seven-year-olds didn't get the hang of knife throwing until they were older. She was the first to earn the Radiation Immunity in her age group, and after that Radon Canyon was her favorite place to explore.

After all, it was where her family had gone for picnics, back before Gabriel left and Maria's memories of him started to fade. Back when her father had been a constant presence in her life, warm hugs and a reassuring voice and calloused hands showing her the best way to handle assault rifles and tear gas, back before he was nothing more than the letters he sent. Plus, the view in Radon Canyon was literally breathtaking, and the light show was more than worth all the effort she'd put in to earn the badge. Add to that her merit badge in Combat Invocations, and cleaning up the sentient litter was practically a walk in the park—well, maybe not the Dog Park, but still.

She took Night Vale to regionals for National History Day multiple times, even if her project raised a few eyebrows when she chose the bloodier topics to present on. Even if the Sheriff's Secret Police kept an eye on her more than usual, city officials also made sure to keep her from getting disappeared because she'd managed to show up Desert Bluffs [ugh] whenever Spelling Bee season came around.

 

Not bad, for a middle schooler.

 

Oh, there were a few pitfalls, both literal and physical, to be certain: her father wrote regularly, but Maria and her mother still missed him. Sometimes the house felt strangely quiet, with just the two of them, and the ominous creak of the Faceless Old Woman who sometimes lurked by the porch.

Her various achievements meant the Sheriff's Secret Police bugged her house more than usual, and she put her Business Etiquette badge skills to good use to keep at least a modicum of privacy, and learned even more from her mother's secretive smiles and tips as to how to refine them. Counterintelligence was always something that was good to practice, after all.

Besides, if Maria was taking a government job she'd be gunning for the Secret But Menacing Agency, or the City Council. Blowdarts weren't her style, after all, whereas the ceremonial uniform for the secretary was badass. [Twin swords and greaves? Sign her up.]

She wasn't interested in the family business beyond what she did on a regular basis; the antique store gave her the creeps, and she didn't know how her mother handled it. And…she was civic-minded, but the Blood-Space War was not something she wanted to enter by any means.

Her proficiency with blades meant she was at the top of her class, but it also meant she intimidated her classmates even before they heard her last name. Maria's social skills weren't anything to write home about, either: it was hard to make friends when she wasn't fully aware of just what came out of her mouth, and between accidentally spitting fire [it was one time, okay? Just that once, she'd been eleven and didn't know how that'd even happened, honest] and utterly oblivious to some cues [flirting and innuendo flew right over her head, for instance], she made a lot of acquaintances but no friends while in school.

Being the only child of an antiques dealer meant a lot of hands-on experience whenever work followed Bianca Carbonell home, and many flamethrowers and Molotov cocktails were used whenever an antique got too close for comfort [read: anywhere outside of its pen]. And afterwards, they'd settle down with a cup of hot chocolate, and talk about their day.

On the whole, things were good. Maria wasn't bored, at least, and even if her house sometimes felt quiet it was comfortable, really. [Nothing like getting home and eating tiramisu, after dispatching the spies who tried to steal the family recipe.]

 


 

In high school, Finals Week was brutal, though the death toll was not as bad as previous years.

Everyone in town knew why that was, of course: Maria might have tended to keep to herself, but she was a very good teacher if push came to shove, and even better when paid in dark chocolate and gunpowder.

Senior year had her tutoring and reviewing the basics multiple times, and between lessons on Triple Spanish and how to best use an M777 howitzer, she made a decent amount of cash. [And if she was strangely quiet, afterwards, remembering warm hugs and lessons on the fastest way to reload ammo and hot chocolate, well, that wasn't anyone's business but hers.]

She graduated high school, and no one was surprised when she opted to go to the community college, with a plan to pursue an AA degree in Media and Communication.

 

…of course, things had to go pear-shaped at some point.

 

The Carbonells of Night Vale in general tended to love quietly but fiercely, and Maria's family was no different.

Even if they didn't spend much time together, even if she was an only child, even if one parent was presumably a soldier hundreds of miles and lightyears away, and the other was in a very dangerous occupation, they still cared for each other.

Sure, they showed it in unconventional ways: Maria still remembered the Christmas where she'd gotten a hug and a pair of flame-resistant socks, and she'd once knitted a scarf for her mother that'd been intended to serve as a temporary gas mask. Her father had always greeted her with a cup of hot chocolate and a cheerful "bueno giorno", back before he'd shipped out, and Maria routinely volunteered to clean up litter around town because her family loved Night Vale, and they showed their love in different ways.

 

And so, when Bianca Carbonell was bitten by a rogue antique at work, Maria mourned.

But she was Night Vale, and death and fire were constant companions. She was Night Vale, carried it in her blood and breath.

So when her mother died, Maria cried, yes.

She cried, picked up the nearest sharp object, walked to the public library, and channeled her grief as productively as possible. Because she was now the last Carbonell in Night Vale, and that's the story of what citizens decades later only referred to as the Time of Knives [featuring a teenage Maria, and a truly terrifying number of Librarians], Maria's reputation was set in stone.

The Librarians avoided her after the incident, the City Council pretended she didn't exist but she found an application for the position of a secretary on her desk, and the Sheriff's Secret Police took to taking notes on her technique when she was out, now that the town's leading expert on ranged weaponry was gone.

The knowledge of being able to see her again during Homecoming dulled the edge of grief. Even if it was only for an evening, it was…something. [Except she was alone now, and that hurt.]

So Maria carried on, just like any Night Vale citizen. Except…things felt different, now. Off.

Gabriel's letters were still coming in like clockwork, and she used her mother's favorite knife, so it was…something. But the house was silent now [well…sans the Faceless Old Woman, but then she tended to leave Maria alone so it was all moot anyway], and she…she felt adrift in a way she'd never felt before.

To distract herself from it, she threw herself into her coursework.

 


 

Community college was a step up from high school, for certain. But it wasn't enough.

The coursework was different, to be sure, but the Librarians still mostly left her alone [or learned to, the hard way], and overall things were starting to fall into a rhythm Maria found she didn't like. The occasional fire in the computer labs [how'd the flames turn turquoise, anyway?] helped keep things interesting, but…it wasn't enough. Her hands itched for her knives, part of her wanted to run and do something stupid and she was at odds to what to do next.

 

Maria Carbonell became a Night Vale Community Radio intern due to a combination of factors.

 

Officially, she was doing it for the credits, because the experience meant she would be able to have some leeway in her scheduling for winter quarter. Unofficially, however….the incident rate meant she'd probably see at least some action sometime during her internship. She didn't have a death wish, to be sure, but she wanted something…different.

A change of pace, something that got her blood pumping and a sharp smile on her lips and wouldn't have her vanishing mysteriously into the night or recruited to the same war her father was fighting.

It wasn't something Maria could put in words.

She needed a distraction, something more immediate than the quiet hum that made her hands itch and spark pale blue when it was late at night and the Void roiled above with more entropy than usual. Something to break the silence, something to help her ignore the visions of a Dark Planet that were happening with more frequency, just...something.

The classes weren't cutting it; she wasn't a Computer and Fire Sciences major, she wasn't trying for Inhumanities, she didn't want to get a job at City Hall anymore, and all the interesting classes were 400-level and strictly for seniors.

So the internship was perfect.

Running errands for Leonard the radio host, dodging the Vague Yet Menacing Agents and investigating and killing the odd time-travelling assassin that popped into the station break room was the perfect distraction.

Maria went to class, wen to her internship, and was able to pass out in her home, even when it was so, so heartbreakingly quiet and empty, save for her father's letters. [She was alone so so alone—no.]

 


 

For four months, it was perfect.

 

Then, on a Wednesday, portals started showing up: brilliant circles that opened for indeterminate amounts of time, in various locations, without rhyme or reason and edged with slivers of pale gold. Of course, an intern was sent to investigate.

Of course, it was Maria.

Of course, as she went to get to the bottom of things, she was suddenly swept into one, and fell through the dark abyss into somewhere…other, with no way to get back because it'd closed immediately after.

 

The only reason Maria Carbonell didn't panic was because she'd read her horoscope; she personally didn't put much stock into it, but her mother had made it part of their morning routine, and so Maria'd gotten used to checking her own just in case. Sometimes, it'd been good for laughs; this round, she was grateful she'd carried her bloodstones in her pocket.

 

The desert terrain had vanished, sometime during her unexpected fall, and now Maria found herself getting up and trying not to panic when she noticed the forest looming about her. It wasn't—okay, she could roll with this. [It was a good thing she'd tried to keep an open mind, because apparently even if she didn't believe in mountains there was no denying she was right next to one.]

And...the night sky above her was so, very alien. [That's new.]

Where were the neutron stars and the mysterious lights and the Cthonian planets in the sky? Where was the Void?

…where was she, exactly?

Okay, she could work with this. And try to find her way home. She was Night Vale, carried it in her blood and breath, she could do this. [No rush, it's not like she had anywhere to be, really—no.]

Okay: first things first, she had to start walking.

 


 

Maria ended up using her Girl Scouts skills liberally over the next few days, just to get out of the forest. [Surviving In Nature for the win!]

She still didn't know where she was, but she was able to make a campfire just fine, and the tang of dark magic was enough to keep the bears away for the night. She might not be the best at throwing fireballs, but she could do it, and that's all that mattered, wasn't it?

Once she'd rigged up a radio with what she had in her pockets, Maria was able to hear Night Vale, and found that the portals had vanished when she'd arrived at…wherever she was.

"To the parents and family of Maria Carbonell, we at Night Vale Community Radio extend our most sincere condolences. Maria was a very efficient intern, very dedicated and—oh, what was that, Cecil? Oh…oh......umm...I'm sorry, listeners, that was a bit insensitive of me. Maria Carbonell was in fact the last Carbonell in Night Vale…Umm…a moment of silence, for the intern who may or may not have been part of the Time of Knives…And a toast, to hoping she's still alive out there, somewhere. Nobody knows where the portals go, after all. Especially now that our lead investigator's gone."

Maria took a deep breath, looked at the alien night sky, and let it out. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Leonard."

 

Once she was out of the forest, she assessed the situation, as per what she'd learned when earning her Deep Cover Espionage badge.

That's where she hit her first roadblock.

How the hell she'd ended up in New York, she didn't know.

How she'd get back to Night Vale, when it was thousands of miles away, she didn't know either. Well…it wasn't like she was exactly in a hurry, though.

It wasn’t like she had much to go back to: an empty house, no close friends, and an internship with a high mortality/turnover rate. And she could pick up on the broadcasts anyway, so while she saved up to return she wouldn't wonder what was going on…huh.

Suddenly Maria felt like a leaf in the wind. [She didn't know how she felt about it. She was so alone—no.]

…all right, first things first: figure out a plan of attack. Maria's best plans were the ones she came up with on her feet, and right now her instincts were telling her she needed to lay low. Best way was hiding in plain sight, so find the largest population center and work out where to from there…

Okay, she could do that. Time to start walking.

Chapter Text

 

Maria Carbonell ended up in New York City, and though she was from a small town in the desert she felt she'd done well in assimilating while saving up for her travels. She'd ended up forging her paperwork, and it was alarmingly easy for her to break into public records to muddy the trail.

 Really, it was like these people didn't have a secret society of dentists. [Weird.]

 Getting an apartment, and a bank account, from there, was just as disturbingly easy—how did no one pick up on any of it? Sure, the inks in the official papers around here didn’t look like they used bioluminescent algae or temporal seals, but…surely, it couldn't be this easy?

 But apparently it was.

Getting a job was marginally trickier, but then she wasn't quite nineteen yet and her shiny new ID only went so far. But she managed.

 

Work as a typist wasn't too bad, even if it barely paid the bills and had been on a temporary basis. [Even if working with keyboards that didn’t spontaneously combust had been kind of jarring at first.]

Waitressing had been…dicey, though, because her social skills hadn't been anything to write home about even in Night Vale  [Innuendo still flew over her head, sue her] and here customers alternated between acting oddly and acting even more oddly when seeing her handle the cutlery.

On the plus side, after the Incident, she'd been put on kitchen duty, and had been able to talk her way into the night shift, with better pay and unlimited access to knives without needing to worry about sticking out too much. She didn't do it very often, because these people had weird hangups about her walking home alone after dark, and they only really needed her during the dinner rush, but it was good money so why not.

[Besides, she didn't get why they were worried about her going out alone; it wasn't like there were Librarians out and about at night, or anything.]

Maria lasted longest as a bank teller; even if she still wasn't very good with people, at least she had a script to stick to, and her efficiency meant she tended to have the shortest lines. [Why was everyone else so slow? How the hell had these people even survived Finals Week?]

 

Her small apartment was rather bare, but she could sleep, draw up her bloodstone circles, and pick up the Night Vale broadcasts from her cheap radio, and that's all she needed, really. Her kitchen was tiny, and her refrigerator was always close to empty, but then these people were so uptight about the most random things. [Really, it'd been a small fire, and she'd been able to put it out herself just fine, no need for fuss. Why the weird looks?]

She'd wake up, prepare herself breakfast, pack lunch, and head out to work. Get home, smile and interact with the neighbors, prepare dinner while listening to the radio, and go to bed after calculating how much of her paycheck she could put towards her travel funds. It made for a rather quiet and solitary life, but Maria didn't mind.

It wasn't like she had anything better to do. [She was still so, so alone—no.]

 


 

Maria blinked at the gently glowing envelope sitting on the tiny counter.

Apparently her father's letters were directed to her temporal signature—it'd been three months after Maria had crash-landed wherever she was, and yes, in Night Vale one was due right around now…huh.

Well…that took out some of the edge from going back. Actually, no, most of the edge; that was another tie to Night Vale she wouldn’t need to worry about. Just about the only thing she'd be returning to would be the empty house and the possibility of seeing her mother at Homecoming…huh.

  

She took on the rest of that particular week with an extra spring in her step, and even the attempted bank robbery didn't faze her. Actually, no: it did less than faze her, it put a smile on her face as well. [The poor dear didn't know the least bit of how to handle that thing, didn't he?]

She couldn’t help it: Maria had a soft spot for families, and even if it'd been years since she'd last seen her own, she still missed them something fierce. Talking with her neighbors helped soften the ache, a little, but…it wasn't the same.

Especially since Night Vale was apparently an unusual little town, as she'd been learning since the first time she broke into a library ready to fight for survival, only to find nothing but stacks of books and shadows. Maria hadn't seen a Librarian in months, and it was getting to the point where she nearly missed them, insane as it may have sounded.

Sure, things here were new, and kind of exciting because of it, but…she was like a leaf in the wind, adrift and aimless.

 Time passed, and she carried on.

 


 

Maria was in a fairly good mood; she'd gotten another letter from her father, it was shaping up to be a beautiful day, and she had a perfectly-brewed cup of coffee in hand on her way to work.

…right up until some idiot didn’t see where he was going, and suddenly she found herself wearing said coffee, pinned under a heavy weight and about to run late.

Maria hissed when she hit the ground, winded.

Oh, geez, this was humiliating. The Terror of the Time of Knives, bane of Librarians everywhere, beaten by gravity and some guy who couldn't bother to—drat, never mind. Maria unceremoniously started to shove him off of her, cursing all the while as she noticed the time.

"Ow. Great, now I'm going to be running late—"

"I'm sorry! Didn't see yo—oh, hello there."

Maria didn’t have time for any of this. Sure the man was handsome, but her Thermos was now scuffed and, more importantly, devoid of the coffee that was sometimes the only thing between her and a rerun of the Waitressing Incident during a particularly bad shift. [Stupid bank managers and customers and their stupid sexism and…

Okay, she could probably pull off wearing her blazer the entire day, it was dark enough to hopefully not stand out overly much…oh, the man was still talking, something about offering to buy her something she didn't quite catch—

"Don't worry about it. Just…watch where you're going, next time. Also, you're heavy. Really, watch where you're going."

 He blinked, and Maria only realized just how rude that'd sounded. She threw him an semi-apologetic smile, in exchange.

 "I—don't you know who I am?" The rather handsome man asked, incredulous.

"Am I supposed to?" Maria answered honestly.

 When he started laughing, Maria let her smile turn a bit awkward and she edged away because oops, this was one of those things she kept missing, wasn't it? Just like how one of the ladies back at the typing pool had laughed at her for not noticing the man who'd been trying to flirt with her during their lunch break. [Or was it one of the Night Vale things, like when she hadn't recognized Captain America before a coworker had shown her the comics?]

 "That's a first. Hey, what's your name?" Whew, he hadn't been insulted. But a quick glance at her watch showed that it didn't matter, if she didn’t hurry soon…

"Maria."

"Hello, Maria. You got a last name?"

"Not when this is making me late to work. Excuse me," she said, grabbed her Thermos, and practically ran to catch the next train because she was having a good day and she wouldn't let a clumsy mistake with a random stranger throw her off her game.

It's only hours later that she realized she never did quite catch his name…eh. No matter. What were the odds of her meeting him again?

 


 

 

Two weeks later, Maria took back her words.

"Not again," she gritted out, and let her head hit the ground.

Geez. Getting used to New York City hadn't been that bad, if anything everyone's attitudes reminded her of home more than anything else, but what was it with people not paying attention to where they were going?!

…oh. The man who'd knocked her down had company. Great.

 She started to shove the guy who'd ruined her blouse off of her, and sat up. [Again.] Someone offered their hand to help, but Maria ignored it in favor of finding just where her mug had landed this time.

 Once again, it was empty. Once again, she'd had hot coffee spilled on her, and she was good getting stains out of fabric but this was getting ridiculous! She got to her feet the same time he did, and—oh, c'mon.

"You again?"

It was Mr. You Don’t Know Who I Am. Great. Just great. She'd earned a merit badge for Advanced Knife Fighting Techniques at seven, but over a decade later couldn't even avoid getting taken down by one guy.

Except now he had a friend who stepped in, and even as the stranger started to apologize yet again,  looked at her oddly, then him, and asked, "Do you two know each other?"

 "Yes," Maria deadpanned, "this is the second time your friend here's knocked me down. And ruined my shirt. Again."

 She…probably shouldn't have been so amused by the scandalized look he threw. Or by how mortified the other man was. Oops.

"Howard—

"I'm so, so sorry, it was an accident! Again. Can I buy you a new one? Maria, right? Hey, Jarvis, help me out here—"

Amusing at this was, Maria had things to do, places to go. Well…technically, just to the grocery store to get something for dinner, and home, but still. It was the principle of the matter.

"As interesting as this all is, I really need to go. You," she pointed to Mr. You Don't Know Who I Am, "need to watch where you're going, I'm tired of breaking your fall."

"I am very sorry for this, ma'am. This…doesn't normally happen." His friend interjected, apologetic while also trying to smother a laugh at the man's expense.

"I hope it doesn't, he's heavy." Was her knee-jerk response.

The two men shared a look, and even as she straightened her now-ruined blouse and skirt, Maria heard their muttering.

 "You weren't kidding—"

"No, but see? It's her! Think I can—"

Why was it such a big deal? 

"I'm sorry for all this. Are you certain you do not want to take him up on his offer of replacing what he ruined?"

She drew herself up as much as her severely wounded pride would allow. "I can get stains out just fine, thank you very much. At most, it'd be a cup of coffee, and that I can get anywhere. As long as he's not around, anyway. I don't want to wear it again."

He stared.  [Which, fair enough, if not a little rude.]

First at her, then at the instigator for all this mess, who'd choked somewhere in the interim. Then, he shook himself and said, "I'm sorry; I didn't quite catch your name. I am Edwin Jarvis, please call me Jarvis. Who are you?"

"Hello, I'm Maria Carbonell."

"Maria—can I call you Maria? Do you not know who he is?" Why was he smiling like that?

 "Yes you can, and no I don't. And I'm not interested, either, as long as he doesn’t go for the hat trick. Thank you, and have a nice day."

With that, Maria marched onwards. Drat, she'd need more vinegar, she was almost out…

But even as she walked away, she couldn’t help but catch a few snatches of the duo's conversation.

"See? She doesn't know-"

"Well, I don't blame her for not wanting you near coffee…that was unusual, though. Normally you would've-" 

Hopefully that'd be the last of it, she didn't feel quite up to—oh come on. 

She was a good person!

She covered her coworkers' shifts when they asked, she drew up her bloodstone circles regularly, and how was this her life?!

Because, not a block away from where she'd been tackled, some idiot thought she was an easy target for a mugging—if that's what they were aiming for, because her back hit the wall with a thump that reminded her of her latest run-in with gravity and seriously? [What Elder god has she pissed off?]

Well…too bad for them, Maria never left the house without at least three knives on her person, and a reaction time that was Night Vale standard. She didn't even need her favorite blade, when she had a conveniently empty Thermos in hand and was currently the most pissed-off person in the five boroughs.

"Are you fucking kidding me?!"

She didn't know she was screaming until the duo from before ran to her location, and gaped at the heavily concussed man on the ground. Meanwhile, Maria rocked back on her heels and scowled while readjusting her blouse yet again. [Desert Bluffs probably designed it, it was so dreadful. Stupid bank managers and their stupid dress codes. Ugh.]

 This was so not how she'd wanted to end her week…dammit. She'd miss the sale, wouldn't she.

 


 

Maria ended up having to sit around for the calvary to arrive, after Edwin Jarvis' friend called the police. If it'd been left up to her, she would've broken a wrist or something and left it at that, but these people had some pretty weird standards sometimes. Really, why was everyone asking her if she was okay? And why'd everyone blanch when they saw Mr. You Don't Know Who I Am?

The police report in and of itself was a major pain [she missed the Sheriff's Secret Police; they would've just checked the nearby bugs and called it a day].

Mentioning how she'd used her mug as a blunt force object had netted her strange looks, and her nonchalance about this entire mess had ended up raising suspicion until she'd pointed out that she'd seen scarier at her job as a bank teller which had then led to even more calls being made and thank goodness she didn't have anywhere pressing to be.

"For the thousandth time, I'm just a bank teller who's had a bad day and nowhere near enough coffee, and no, I wasn't scared. Can I go now?"

 Really. So much fuss over such a tiny thing. Maria shuddered to think of how they'd react to the Summer Reading Program. And just who was Edwin Jarvis' friend, for everyone to defer to him so much? She doubted he was the mayor…eh. Whatever.

The store had probably closed by now, and she was stuck with a dented mug, a ruined blouse, and this was so not her day.

Maria sighed, then turned to Edwin Jarvis once the policemen had gone. "Hey, is that offer still open?"

Again with the weird looks. Great. Actually, they'd never stopped, had they? Except now the two were even less subtle than before, and at this rate she'd be missing the broadcast for the night too. Drat.

Mr. You Don't Know Who I Am blinked, then answered. "Yes. Yes, it most definitely is."

She was probably going to regret this, but for lack of better options…

"Then I would really like that coffee."

 

  

 

It's not until they're inside a nearby diner, well on their way to eating their fill, that she finally learns the man's name.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I should've introduced myself earlier…Err…A lot earlier," he threw a sheepish smile her way, "I'm Howard. Howard Stark."

 

Chapter Text

Edwin Jarvis couldn't deny his amusement at all this: Howard had found the one woman in the entire city of Manhattan that was immune to his charm. Not only that, but she seemed sharp enough and this was the first time he'd seen Howard act this way and it was amazing.

Oh, he'd heard about her; Howard had arrived rather late to the meeting looking rather pensive, and once they'd headed home he'd talked about the beauty who hadn't known his face and had seemed more concerned with getting to work on time than anything else. He'd lamented over not catching her name, and Edwin had been intrigued even as they both had discussed the possibility of her being a plant, or a spy, because there was no way she couldn't have recognized the man making headlines everywhere.

 But Howard hadn't mentioned the specifics as to just how they'd met. To be honest, Edwin had thought he'd seen her at a diner, or while waiting for a bus, or something—but when the pretty brunette on the ground had said "not again" in a tone of resigned defeat, he'd felt a moment of dawning suspicion, but…no, it couldn't be. Manhattan had over a million people, the odds were astronomical.

 Her reaction to seeing Howard, however, removed all doubt, and their interaction was a train wreck—Edwin couldn't look away. Howard was normally smooth and charming, and the ladies were normally more than willing to play the game as well, but this was…wow. Maria was so, very blunt, and either apathetic or just utterly oblivious to the fact that she was talking to one of the richest men in the city.

 She just…didn't care, and this was the first time in years Edwin had seen Howard flail so much while trying to interact with someone like this, it was amazing. [Oh what Margaret wouldn't give to be here right now, she'd be laughing at Howard for weeks after this!]

 Then again, the poor woman was probably more concerned with not hitting the ground over talking, although he was vaguely impressed with how easily she'd turned down his offer for a new blouse, as well as a coffee. [Well…fair enough, but still a first for Howard.]

 As a matter of fact, Edwin was both very appreciative and slightly concerned with how little of a fuss Maria had made of the entire affair.

 Really, she couldn't have been older than…twenty-one? Twenty-two? And yet she'd seemed more irritated about her coffee than over the man who'd knocked her down and ruined her blouse. For the second time, even. [Really, Howard? Really?]

 And then she'd stormed off. That in and of itself would have made her far more memorable than any of Howard's other interactions with women, if not for the screaming they'd heard not five minutes later.

 Screams of pain and fear, and a roar of "Are you fucking kidding me?!"  from a direction that that was so, chillingly familiar. Because Maria had run off just when Edwin had been about to offer driving her home as it'd been getting rather late and a young woman walking home alone in this neighborhood did not sit well with him, but now—

 Edwin didn't need to look to know Howard was also running to help.

 But really, in retrospect, the scene they'd arrived to should not have been so unexpected. Maria had already made quite an impression in the scant few minutes they'd met, he should not have needed to worry nearly so much.

 The sight of a tiny woman glowering down at her possible attacker, and gripping a now severely-dented travel mug, should not have been as much of a surprise as it was. A relief, to be certain, but also very unexpected. Edwin also wouldn’t have pegged the screams of pain to have come from the man curled up on the ground, either…though that meant…oh.

Well. Maria certainly had cause to curse, he'd warrant her that.

A quick glance had shown that if Howard had not been at least interested before, he most definitely was now. Edwin doubted the others had noticed, especially Maria and her breathtaking levels of obliviousness— as shown  by her confusion to everyone's concern over her wellbeing— but…oh, this would be good. [And wow, she really hadn't been faking it earlier, had she? Margaret would be so jealous to have missed this.]

Maria's taking Howard up on his offer was only par for course at that point, really.

 Edwin was vaguely impressed with how fast Howard had found a diner open at this hour, and even more impressed with how fast Maria finished off her plate once their orders had arrived. The coffee, too, though he couldn't help his amusement with how Maria pointedly shifted away from them when she'd gotten her mug. 

The chagrined look on Howard's face meant he wasn't the only one who'd had to stifle his laughter, either: the waitress who'd been attending them had been wide-eyed at when they'd first arrived, but now she was trying not to giggle where they— or, at least, Howard, because Maria very obviously didn't care— could hear it.

It's not until they're over halfway through, that Edwin breaks the silence.

"I'm sorry, but when did you two first meet, again? I got the impression it was under less than favorable circumstances earlier, but…"

"Oh, no, you didn't miss much. It was almost exactly like you saw, except in the morning and minus the idiot afterwards."

…of course she called her attacker an idiot. Why was he even surprised at this point.

 "Would you mind if we took you home? It's been a long day, I imagine. We have a car, just tell me where to go."

But Maria was already shaking her head. "No thanks, I can just walk. It's not too far, don't worry about me. I can take care of myself."

He shared a look with Howard. Fair enough, but just who was she?

"Besides," she continued, and looked at him, "we just met, and I don't even know your friend's name."

Edwin caught the floored look on Howard's face for the second before he recovered and tried to go for the charm once again.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I should've introduced myself earlier…Err…A lot earlier," he threw a sheepish smile her way, one that Edwin recognized as genuine, "I'm Howard. Howard Stark."

And Maria…didn't react. Okay, this was getting a tad bit strange, even for them.

"Pardon my rudeness," Edwin said, "but this is the first time I've met someone in the city who didn't know who Howard Stark was. May I ask…" He didn't know what to say, but Maria seemed to get the gist anyway as she ducked her head and blushed for the first time he'd seen her.

"Oh, it's one of those things, isn't it…I'm kind of new here. Moved from a small town in the middle of nowhere where we only had one newspaper, and it focused on local things, like what the City Council's up to."

That…explained some things. But now he had far more questions than ever before, but best save that for a later date. And there would be a later date, he could tell; Howard was infatuated, and Edwin knew what he was going to say even before the man finished his plate and leaned in.

"Would you mind if I showed you around, see the sights? Maybe have dinner sometime?" 

Maria considered it for a moment. "Depends on when. I can do Thursday evenings, Sunday afternoons…"

 

Edwin leaned back. Well. That was a change from the usual reply to Howard's offers, but really he was looking forward to how this'd pan out.

Even as they negotiated and discussed logistics—and even more questions piled up as she offhandedly referred to her late hours as a cook, but that explained her nonchalance at walking alone at night at least— he already started to make arrangements for when they'd meet next. Hopefully under far more auspicious circumstances, though it was pretty hard to beat this.

Hmm…Maria looked fairly receptive to it all, and Howard had been focused on his work for far too long…

Hopefully this would end well.

 


 

 

Maria Carbonell's social skills were not her forte, but that didn't mean she didn't recognize when someone was asking her out on a date. [Well…as long as they were blunt about it. Questions about 'are you free tonight?'  still merited blank stares.]

Whoever this Howard guy was, though, was apparently a big enough deal that her bank manager had called her in the next day, to ask if she was okay because the calls for the police incident report had mentioned both her and him, and this ran close enough to what she knew about intel and secured data that she was able to navigate the situation accordingly when asked.

She was far more at home with a knife in each hand than she was with anything involving people, but she managed.  When push came to shove, she pulled through. Always. [It'd be hard not to; she was Night Vale, carried it in her blood and breath.] The people who were trying to butt in on her personal life didn't know what hit them, really. 

Because past collisions aside, Maria found she liked Howard.

 He was charming, and witty, once he'd gotten past that initial hurdle and she'd known what to look for, and he was so animated when he talked and even more so when he realized she'd been able to follow along for part of it. [She may not have had a good head for economics, not like some of her classmates, but she'd gotten most of it, why was he acting like it was a big deal?] He worked a lot, and couldn’t talk about some of it, but they had a good time discussing what they could.

 

Time passed.

 

Their next date was an art gallery. They ended up mocking everything and everyone inside; Maria was very critical of the artwork [that pose was highly unrealistic, the blood wouldn't have sprayed like that], meanwhile Howard apparently kept recognizing people and his commentary was hilarious.

Time passed, and suddenly her days aren't just work and sleep; suddenly she's meeting with Howard at nearby cafes, or diners, sometimes with Jarvis in attendance. It's…nice, getting out. She didn't normally, didn't have much incentive to because she'd been so focused on finding a way back rather than looking around, but…she likes it.

Howard asks about her hometown, and talking about Old Woman Josie, or John Peters [you know, the farmer], doesn't ache as much as it did before. The subject of her family, too: Maria misses them, but it's far more bearable among friends than alone. Howard apologized profusely when he found out what a sore topic it was, when he found out both her parents were gone.

Their next date was an Italian restaurant. That one went relatively well, save for how the tablecloth caught fire partway through and ended up being doused with soup. The food was good, though. [It had nothing on the family recipes, but it was good.]

Time passed. Maria's apartment is tiny, but now it's not nearly as bare as it'd been before. Before, it'd been just her and her mission to get back to Night Vale, even if there hadn't been much for her to return to. But now, she had friends who didn't mind her quirks and who shared her sense of humor, and that…before, Maria had been surviving.  Now, however, she was living. 

 Their next date was an attempt to cook that literally blew up in their faces and was all the more memorable for it. [Jarvis ended up needing to call the fire department to help put it out.]

 

 

Time passed, and when Howard asked her to be his girlfriend, she said yes.

 


 

 

The press gets wind of it, of course.

Maria was vaguely surprised it'd taken them this long, actually, but then the longer she spent outside Night Vale, the more she discovered that everyone else's standards were far lower than her own. Really, this would've probably been part of the society section of the Night Vale Daily Journal by the time they'd had their second date, these peoples' standards were just lax. [They wouldn't have survived Finals Week, it was that bad.]

But she's made it a habit of checking the news in ways she hadn't before— and had swiftly understood Jarvis' confusion at her lack of recognition because Howard showed up more often than not— when she noticed the speculation surrounding his "finally being off the market", and rumors of being seen with a pretty brunette on his arm.

Right. He was rich. Of course people'd be paying attention.

They'd been talking about it for a long time, what entering a relationship with him would entail; Jarvis hadn't been particularly worried, but Howard had been careful about some things. [Hah. Like taking privacy for granted was a thing, when she'd grown with the Sheriff's Secret Police in her backyard.]

Seriously, though—why was everyone so concerned about the press? Losing tails was something Maria'd learned by the time she was nine. And she'd learned the chant for blurry photos when she'd earned her Combat Invocations badge, why Howard wanted to make such a fuss was beyond her.

Time passes, and the speculation stops being speculation. Her name gets out, and…

Maria can't help but smirk at the articles trying to discern just who "the woman that stole the most eligible bachelor's heart" was. Howard's looking more and more pensive whenever they meet, and Jarvis is starting to shoot the both of them looks of such extreme exasperation, Maria's left wondering what social cues she's missing now because things are good and this time she's really at a loss as to what she's missing. 

Their talks are getting weird, too.

Howard's asking things like how old she was [to which she'd tartly replied "a lady doesn't reveal her age" and had ended up with a facepalm and Jarvis snickering], and what she was planning on doing ten years from now [which she was at a loss to reply because she wasn't in a hurry to get back, anymore], and if she was dealing okay with the press [to which she'd replied by wordlessly offering him a copy of the latest article in the society pages with a smirk]. 

But that's not all: he's also asking about what she thinks of his working ["do you love what you do, Howard? Then I'll support you all the way"], and where she'd learned what she knew to keep herself safe ["I used to be a Scout. No, seriously"], and the risks of being affiliated with him.

Maria's leaving with more questions than answers, these days, and why is Jarvis glaring at Howard so often?

 


 

 

Edwin Jarvis' frustration was nearly palpable.

Howard had found quite possibly the only woman in the entire city, if not the world, that wasn't interested in his money, or scared off by the press [though how just she managed to evade them so long was anyone's guess, it was impressive], who was willing to be blunt when the situation called for it and why was he taking so long?!

It was both adorable and maddening, because these two. Just. These two!

They complemented each other very well, and Maria practically glowed, when they met, nowadays.  Margaret had gotten sick of Howard's never-ending praises of the woman months ago, and taken to sharing exasperated looks with Edwin whenever he started up again.

Howard had bought the damn ring weeks ago.

It was insufferable: Maria, bright and sharp as ever whenever she wasn't working, and so, utterly oblivious to Howard's awkwardly-phrased questions because the man was capable of founding an entire company, but wasn't able to say four words to pop the question.

Howard, who after each meeting with Jarvis in attendance saw Maria off, covered his face with one hand and touched the tiny velvet-covered box in his pocket with the other, and muttered "next time". Before turning to him and Margaret, and starting to talk about how brilliant Maria was, and—!

 

It was nearly enough to drive a man to drink, just seeing them.

 


 

 

Work was becoming increasingly irritating as time passed. Maria kept getting really annoying questions about whether she was 'planning on settling down anytime soon', on when she'd be getting married "before you become and old maid" [she wasn't even legally allowed to drink yet, dammit], and the manager was an asshole kept looking down her nose at her. [Yes, she wasn't a New Yorker. So what? Night Vale was far better, anyway.]

Maria didn't care, normally, but when the rumors of Howard Stark's starting to settle down started she'd had to resort to psychological warfare and counterintelligence tactics just to make it through some days, and good thing there were 11 Maria Carbonells in Manhattan because otherwise it would've been hell. She started to look forward to the prospect of bank robberies, [even if the paperwork for it was a mess], just because it was a reprieve from having to deal with people asking if she was "that Maria". [She liked her privacy, dammit! Of course she's going to deflect attention from that!]

It didn't help that she couldn’t vent through cooking anymore, either; the diner she'd worked at had changed hands, and the new owners were very reluctant to hire her for the night shift, because something about propriety and 'young women shouldn't be out so late alone'. Oh, and they'd seen her at the cutting board, that'd probably hadn't helped either. [Pity. It'd been fun.]

At home, the broadcasts were still coming in loud and clear, and Maria was able to keep up with what was going on back home. The antique store'd changed hands, and she was torn between thinking 'good riddance' and feeling a pang of…something, at the reminder of her mother's work. [Night Vale was moving on, just like her.]

And to top it all off, Howard was acting very strangely, these days.

He'd given her some things, before, but this was getting ridiculous. So what if he was rich? She could provide for herself, dammit!

She didn't need silk dresses, they'd get ruined in a day and the stains were impossible to get out! What's with the jewelry? It'd only get in the way and gold was terrible as a lockpick. Sure she got  cold sometimes; this was Manhattan, she was from the desert, it's to be expected and she could deal so put that fur coat back where it came from,  seriously. Sure, the flowers were sometimes nice, but she'd drown in bouquets if he kept this up and why was Jarvis looking so pained nowadays?

Their dates were becoming more and more frequent, which was the only silver lining to this mess. Even those got weird as time went on, too. Sure, they still met up for coffee, or lunch, but now Howard had started to introduce her to his friends and associates in between.

 Margaret Carter—err, that was to say, Peggy, was friendly enough, though she tended to throw Jarvis some looks that Maria didn't quite get, especially when he just shook his head. [Was it a Night Vale thing? It probably was.]  Her protégé, Nicholas Fury, was around far less but still took the time to introduce himself to her with a firm handshake [and left cackling when he saw Howard on his way out, though she didn't understand why].

And Maria had only met Obadiah Stane in passing, when he'd been leaving from a business meeting, but he too had been very welcoming.

 

She knew she was missing something, but couldn't quite put her finger on what.

 


 

By the time Howard finally proposed, the betting pool for it included several dozen dollars, Cuban cigars, blackmail photos, and a pair of cufflinks. Edwin was the one to manage it, which was the only consolation for seeing the disaster that was his best friend's attempts at courtship.

Really, for a man who'd been the center of dozens of scandals around the world, it should not have been so hard. Well…then again, Edwin didn't want to know what Maria's hometown was like, to have produced a woman like her.

She'd reacted strangely to Howard's normal fare when it came to gifts, and Edwin wasn't certain if it was the perfume or the sheer amount of bouquets his friend had sent her way that had her walking around smelling like roses. [Really, Howard, some moderation would not go amiss.]

Edwin was Howard's butler, and his friend, but even he'd heard Nicholas' teasing about the background checks done "for the future Mrs. Stark" and Margaret…well. Margaret had been the one to start the betting pool. Mr. Stane had also been quietly talking about Howard's settling down for quite some time, and he too was also chiming in more and more, joking about "when to save the date" and the press was becoming more and more ravenous with its speculations.

Speaking of which: Edwin didn’t know just how Maria did it, but her handling of the press was impressive. She'd somehow managed to evade them for weeks, and even once the announcement that Howard Stark now had a girlfriend had managed to somehow stay under the radar.

 

Why, why was Howard taking so long?

 


 

 

Maria may not have had the best social skills, but she had her limits and this was the last straw. Several dozen boxes, all of them addressed to her tiny apartment? When she was already trying to figure out how to get rid of the flowers?

"Howard, we need to talk."

…and now he'd paled dramatically. Great. She'd probably missed something, hadn't she. Meh, she had bigger fish to fry. [Though why Jarvis had reacted that way, she tabled for a later date.]

The ensuing conversation about boundaries and wealth and "my apartment's tiny, Howard, you've seen it before" took over an hour, but he'd relaxed a few minutes in when he found out she didn't want to break it off. [Which: good to know what was and what wasn't a Night Vale thing, because that reaction had been really disproportionate.]

The longer they talked, the more relaxed Howard grew, and he kept reaching for his pocket [and the more Jarvis kept looking expectant. Strange].

 

 

When Howard Stark proposed, Maria said yes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Maria Carbonell did not take Howard Stark's proposal lightly; oblivious to some things she may have been, and she'd been nineteen-going-on-twenty for an indeterminate amount of time, but that did not mean she didn't know what she was signing up for.

 Maybe another woman might've missed the glances Howard threw: at her, at the room, at his friends and at his enemies, but she didn't. Maria didn't miss how evasive he'd been about work at first, either, and only a fool would've missed the way Peggy strode into a room, or how Jarvis was always at his back.

Howard had founded Stark Industries, but that wasn't all he was involved in. And that…that, Maria could work with. If what she suspected was true, then Jarvis would need all the help he could get with watching his back, and she loved him, simple as that. He was messing with a Vague But Menacing Agency [if not the one she was used to seeing around town], he'd need all the help he could get.

Sure, her mission for the past year or so had been to get back to Night Vale, but that could wait. It wasn't like she had much to return to, and she'd been slowly moving on anyway. Maria could spend the rest of her life with this brilliant, brilliant man, and put her plan on the backburner. She was Night Vale, carried in her blood and breath no matter where she went: going back could wait.

Yes, that…that sat well, with her.

Because Maria may have been oblivious to some things, but no Night Vale citizen made it to seventeen without having several dozen contingency plans in place. So, even if she thought the odds were fleeting, were miniscule and a snowball's chance in hell was more than what the newspapers were toying with, Maria had thought about what would happen if Howard proposed.

 She'd highly doubted it would happen, because this wasn't a cheap romance novel, but then she'd once had a plan back in Night Vale, for if the mosquitoes invaded and all she was armed with was a box of laundry detergent.

 

  

So, when Howard proposed, maybe he and Jarvis had thought she'd answered relatively quickly, when she'd said yes, but…well.

 


 

 

Edwin rubbed his temples. Maria had practically given them a heart attack, this evening.

First with the "we need to talk" after Howard had finally resolved to pop the question, and then with the pause before she'd said yes. [He'd had tea ready, just in case, but still.]

But…now the two were engaged.

And he couldn't bite back a smile at how Howard had reacted, and the man was beaming like he hadn't in years and now he had to call Margaret to both let her know the good news and inform her that Nicholas had won. 

Well, no, first Edwin had to bring out the cake he'd made earlier for dessert and a bottle of champagne to celebrate, and leave these two alone because he was happy for Howard, truly, but the headache he'd gotten today was merely the events of these past few months compounded with today, and the realization that he'd be stuck watching over these two for as long as they wanted him in their lives.

That in and of itself was not a problem— he was looking forward to it, truth be told—but the prospect of having to watch a train wreck of this magnitude unfold before his eyes once again meant he'd reached for the aspirin the moment the realization set in. [And the wedding date wasn't even set yet, bother.]

Well…no matter. He was happy anyway, seeing these two finally get together [took them long enough].

 


 

 

The tabloids practically erupted when the announcement went out, of business tycoon [though the term 'war profiteer' had also made its rounds, what with Vietnam] Howard Stark's engagement to his scandalously young fiancée, the ever elusive Maria Carbonell. 

…Maria had expected it, intellectually.

 But she was still not happy with having to undo the chant for blurry photos, because the press releases needed good shots of the happy couple and so long, privacy, time to go back to Night Vale normal.

Fielding the invasive questions, dealing with the tails from the more annoying reporters, diving in headfirst into New York high society when she was barely old enough to drink— it sounded daunting, sure. However, Maria had earned merit badges in Business Etiquette and Deep Cover Espionage. This wasn't even scratching what she'd gotten up to in a week, back in Night Vale. [And she wasn't ashamed to say she'd been relieved to quit her job, either: the look on the manager's face alone made all this worthwhile. Ha. Take that.]

She could do this. Now that she knew what was expected of her, she could pull through.

It was a change of pace, to be certain, as she'd preferred the more hands-on types of warfare, but counterintelligence and logistics and misinformation were all things any Night Vale citizen was well-versed in, and the life she'd been thrust into courtesy of her fiancé was similar enough she had few issues switching gears. [Anything to help watch Howard's back.]

Dealing with the press was tricky, what with the public sentiment over Vietnam, [these fools wouldn't last a day in the Blood-Space War, would they] but it was still easier than Street Cleaning Day.

She'd known what she'd signed up for, when she'd agreed, but as she saw headline after headline denouncing Stark Industries along with the military as the war dragged on, Maria knew she'd have a long road ahead of her if she wanted to cover their backs. Economically, they were doing well, but…well. She'd figure something out. [She always did.]

 

  

Now their dates include lunches with politicians and business partners, and Maria had learned early on how to let others underestimate her because she was pretty, or short.

Here, though, people apparently thought she didn't have a brain either [did they have to deal with cabbage prions too? Good to know]. So it was especially easy for her to practice softening her smile, to pretend she couldn't follow along with the business talk until after they were driving off and she could scoff at bad investment plans with Howard because did they really think that would keep up with the current inflation rates? Please.

The first time it'd happened, Howard looked at her oddly for the first five minutes of their meal. Then, on their way back, he'd had to pull over because he'd been laughing so hard. [Mission accomplished.]

 Everyone seems to have an expectation of her, and if that image helped protect her people Maria had no issue playing things up or down as per necessary.

She'd already mostly learned how to hide her ease with blades, and once she'd learned that 'normal' people didn't use bloodstone circles [ha! Heathens and barbarians], she'd taken to keeping them quietly tucked in a pouch whenever she wasn't casting. It was a work in progress, of course, but…well. 

Sometimes she still slipped up, like during their business lunch with Hank Pym and his wife and how was she supposed to know that most twenty-one-year-old women didn't know the basics of quantum mechanics? [It was right up there with trans-migrational studies and Poetry Week, everyone knew about that.] But she'd managed to laugh it off, for the most part, and Janet's input also meant it'd gone well.

But for the most part, Maria was able to roll with it. Dealing with the press was easier than dealing with the Sheriff's Secret Police, after all, and she'd cut her teeth on Summer Reading Programs, this was a cakewalk.

Sometimes she got strange, or considering looks, sure, but she'd managed to soften up her smile to where these people didn't see the threat that came with bared teeth, and the moment always passed. Howard's associates tended to overlook her, and his friends didn't know what she was capable of but knew that she loved him, and that was more than fine by her. 

Let the others had the spotlight; as long as her family was safe, Maria didn't care. Just let her watch their backs, make sure they were safe, and she was content.

 


 

 

The first time someone tried to kidnap her to get to Howard, was more annoying than anything else, truth be told.

These amateurs were nowhere near the level of the Sherriff's Secret Police, or the Vague Yet Menacing Agency, nowhere near the caliber needed to disappear Maria Carbonell, and the attempt was more insulting than anything else. [Rope, really?]

The fight itself had been pitiful, and Maria hadn't even needed to cast a single invocation.

It hadn't even messed up her makeup [though if it had there would've been hell to pay], and she hadn't even needed her knives. Geez, these people's standards were low; did they come from Desert Bluffs or something? [Ugh. They're dreadful.] Untrained, didn't know how to do sailor's knots, didn't speak Russian or know Krav Maga or what to do in a five-on-one fight with a tiny woman, these guys were a larger danger to themselves than to her.

In the end, she ended up being five minutes late to her appointment with the wedding planner, with said idiots in tow and tied up with their own clothes [she'd burned the rope because it was an insult to her sensibilities; who cheaped out on gear when planning on kidnapping someone, seriously? Fools].

It'd caused quite a stir, actually: Maria ended up resenting the idiots more for her missing the cake sampling than for their pathetic attempt, and blamed most of it on luck and convenient dumpster locations when asked. The paperwork was a mess, and the incident was one of her first fights with Howard, because apparently he thought she couldn’t take care of herself despite having done so her entire life.

She was formidable and no one would tell her what she could and couldn't do, dammit.

Yes, it'd been a rather loud fight, back at Howard's mansion once the reports had all been filled out. Yes, Jarvis had been standing quietly in the background, and yes, it hadn't been pretty.

Because apparently Night Vale's take on gender [that being equal opportunity, who cared about organs as long as they were kept covered because it'd be rude otherwise] wasn't shared worldwide, and apparently being female around here didn't mean 'expertise with organizing militias and combat' so much as it meant 'weak and to be protected even if they wanted the world to fuck off' and Maria had thought she'd been speaking current English rather than Future French but the looks she got from these guys said otherwise because did they seriously expect her to simply accept a bodyguard with no fuss?

It was insulting.

Maria was the Terror of the Time of Knives, she didn't fear monsters in the dark, [not after having faced down Librarians at age seventeen,] she was not fragile and she didn't need protection. She was the one doing the protecting, that's part of why she even accepted his proposal in the first place! She'd handled the press just fine, even when she'd had to resist the urge to pull another Waitressing Incident, she didn't need help.

…Suffice it was to say, getting that through both Howard and Jarvis' heads had ended up being an ordeal and a half. [And she doubted they'd fully gotten her, either. Sexism sucked.]

They'd ended up hammering out another compromise, once they were done with the shouting. She wouldn't have a bodyguard the way Howard wanted, but someone'd be keeping an eye from afar, just to be safe because he was influential and apparently this scare had gotten to him even if these amateurs didn't know so much as to how to block a punch.

 But if it was for his peace of mind, Maria could deal. It'd be just like the Sherriff's Secret Police, and at least this time she could ask whoever was watching the house how they wanted their coffee. And it'd be good practice, too: no reason to get rusty in her counter surveillance skills, after all.

 


 

The wedding was beautiful.

 

And huge, and flashy, and Maria hadn't quite dreamed of something like this but then nobody back in her hometown had ever caught her eye enough for her to consider it. But…

Sure, it was probably a Night Vale thing. Or maybe it was a Carbonell thing, that had Maria feeling slightly at odds with how everything was going. Privacy had been a rare commodity for the majority of her life, but… this would take some getting used to.

She didn't know just who cared about how expensive the dress was going to be, or who designed it, but if it helped then she'd roll with it. Even if it meant she could only carry half her arsenal, but hopefully she wouldn't need it this time, either. Not with the security Howard had insisted on, or with the bloodstones she'd managed to keep tucked out of sight the entire time. 

The wedding was beautiful, and she managed to smile her way through the day just fine.

 

 

It was also the beginning of the end: two weeks later, five men tried to break into the Watergate building.

 


  

Dealing with the press had already been very annoying, before; Maria had gotten desensitized to hearing Howard being called a war profiteer well before their marriage. It was also part of why she'd evaded the press so assiduously, because she had a thick skin but she preferred to avoid being called the wife of a mass murderer if it was an option. [These people were so sexist and overdramatic, she couldn't even. What would they have called her, if they'd known about the Time of Knives?

But now, with the scandal in full swing, Howard was working later and later hours, and having more meetings with Peggy and her protégé looking very terse and tired whenever they left, talking in low voices about contacts and sources and clamming up the moment they spotted Maria.

It might have been slightly insulting, but as it was Maria didn't care: she had enough on her plate with hammering out a battle plan with Stark Industries' Public Relations department. Because she was willing to put up with the bad press but they kept trying to paint her as nothing more than a housewife while dragging her husband's name in mud and that was not okay.  

Besides: she needed something to do with her time.

The mansion was mostly empty, save for Jarvis, because Howard took his work home sometimes and some of it required a lot of paperwork and secrecy. [He had founded a Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency, Maria was so proud.] With Howard's increasingly growing time away from home, Maria was at her wits' end as to what to do. She was a person of action, not one to passively sit back, and yet the world seemed to expect her to do exactly that. [Talk about insulting.

Maybe another woman might not have minded so much, but Maria was Night Vale, carried it in her blood and breath and her hands were sparking blue again when the silence started to get to her and Jarvis was in another wing and the radio wasn't doing enough to fill the silence and her father's letters could only do so much to help and—no. [Just no.]

It only took a few questions to get the ball rolling, to set up a meeting with a representative, and Howard might be out but she'd hold down the fort.

Sure, at first the PR department had been tentative about it all. But after she'd clarified that yes, she knew what she was doing, and they needed to work against current public sentiment because there were so many problems to be addressed and at current the Stark legacy was nothing more than a body count and everyone knew it, things started to get done.

The outreach programs to help support veterans were the first.

She'd managed to wave it off as a 'well we're a weapons company with close ties to the military, why not help support our boys who need help settling back in?' sort of thing, but in reality it's the letters she keeps tucked in a drawer, and vague memories of calloused hands showing her how to best handle tear gas [shipped off to the Blood-Space War, never to return] that is the driving force for her interest in the project.

Why these people were so harsh towards their military, Maria didn't get; at least their people were coming home, shouldn't they be happy about that? About the fact that they'll ever see their families again? Was it her, or was it just a Night Vale thing? 

But that's not all: the homeless shelters were also a hit, as were the charities for helping low-income families and food banks because Maria knew how to cover her bases, and as long as the Stark name became less synonymous with 'massacre' and 'widespread devastation'  that's all she could ask for. Sure, it's annoying that the newspapers keep forgetting to mention Howard and just mention Stark Industries, but she'll take what she can get.

 

Time passes.

 

Time passes, and now the newspapers are starting up again, and apparently people have nothing better to do than to speculate as to when she'll have her first baby. [Which: really? At least the Registry of Middle School Crushes made sense.]

Time passes, and she ends up telling Jarvis of Night Vale, since he's looking at her oddly and she doesn't have much else to do when Howard's out and PR's busily enacting their latest plan. Apparently, he only hears static whenever she puts on the radio. Perhaps it's for the best, though: after she told him about Valentine's Day, he'd looked at her in horror for the rest of the week. 

But at least he was more understanding than anything else, and while she still received the odd look whenever she used one of the family recipes or drew up a circle, things were settling in a way she liked. It was an easy sort of camaraderie, now, and even if Jarvis apparently couldn't eat her brownies unless she left the seasoning out, things were good.

 

 

Time passes, and Howard's changing. Growing colder, growing sharper. He'd been wary at first, even behind closed doors, but now he's becoming harsher and more secretive. He's working so much, so hard, that he rarely comes home before midnight, and he's out almost as soon as the light of day.

Maria loved him anyway. Maybe another woman might have been dismayed, but she did. Because that's how the Carbonells loved: quietly but fiercely, quietly but without reserve and without restraint.

But now it's edged with…something else.

Because she's not blind to his faults, and though she understood why he'd changed, it was still very jarring to get into more shouting matches than before, because Maria never backed down and neither did he. And, whenever he's got a glass in hand, Maria and Jarvis took to sharing a look, because while Howard had enjoyed a spot of brandy here, or a sip of wine there, now whenever he's home he tends to go straight for the bottle.

 

And when he gets drunk, he's a different man entirely, sometimes.

 

Even louder than before, more prone to breaking plates. He's never hit her, but Maria knows people well enough to recognize the gleam in his eyes and when it shows up her spine stiffens and she mentally goes over her plans to find Night Vale because she loved him but she's a Carbonell first and foremost, and she had her limits.

And in her experience, families loved, helped and lifted each up. Sure, there was the odd treasonous plot, and colluding with Vague Yet Menacing groups and mass bloodshed, but they never hurt each other.

Maybe another woman might take it, might keep her head down and not wince at the broken plates, but she had Night Vale in her blood and breath. She was formidable, and unafraid: if someone hit her, they'd best be prepared for retaliation.

The people here didn't seem to get with the program, though.

Howard, when he got drunk, showed it clearly, and from what she can tell, people didn't quite care about what happened behind closed doors. At work, Maria had seen coworkers who'd flinched at loud noises, and noticed the bruises, and yet nobody but her bothered to ask where they'd come from. 

Maria loved Howard, yes, and seeing him change hurt on a level she couldn't quantify. So yes, she'd still watch his back, sure.

But if push came to shove…well.

She'd planned on going back to Night Vale anyway, accelerating some parts wouldn't be a problem. And if it wasn't for just a visit, because Howard didn't want her in his life? Fine.

She'd made a path for herself before, she could do it again.

 


 

Time passes.

When he has meetings at the mansion, Maria softens her smile and entertains the guests, and when they all leave she stays behind, systematically clearing out each and every bug left behind. When she smells something that reminds her of home coming from his plate, she insists on trading with a smile, and the infiltrator who put hemlock in his plate is found a week later in the alleyway, a gibbering wreck who can do little more than string a sentence together in Russian. [Carbonells showed their love in unconventional ways, after all.]

When he's at home, they get into more and more fights, and part of her pities Jarvis for needing to see it. The rest of her, however, is busy trying to keep Howard from destroying himself, to help, to keep the man she knew and loved from disappearing into a bottle and never come out again. [It's only partly successful.]

 Time passes.

A pamphlet appears alongside her father's letter one  afternoon, talking about distance courses from Night Vale Community College, and her eligibility for it, so Maria's also wrapping up her AA degree during the downtime.

No rush, and apparently nobody outside of Night Vale thinks it's accredited and would laugh if she ever showed her degree, but she doesn't care: Media and Communication can only help for what she's got in mind, after all. And it was amusing to see Jarvis' face whenever she sent in her work, because apparently it should've been in the mail rather than bright green flames but hey, if it works, it works. [She'd gotten an A on that particular quiz, too.]

 

 

Time passes, and things settle into a new routine. She and Jarvis bond over watching Howard's back and protecting him even from himself, she works with PR and wraps up her degree, looks for a way to get back, and she's content.

  


 

One morning, Maria wakes up feeling strange. Not sick—never sick, no pathogen around here can compare to the Borellian flu and she'd gotten her shots for that— but strange, tired, with a fluttering feeling in her stomach. Maybe she hadn't cooked her chicken long enough, but…her favorite foods tended to involve either rare meat or eye-wateringly hot spices, what was going on?

She ignores it, though, and carries on with her day. [Couldn't be worse than PE's fitness tests, or the RTI badge she'd earned.]

Besides, she has things to do: Chile's coup d'etat was already making the early rounds in the press and Maria suspected she knew why [she'd helped overthrow governments in middle school, for crying out loud! Howard wasn't as subtle as he thought he was, geez]. And  with Kissinger about to enter office? A minor stomach bug wasn't about to stop her from getting stuff done, no way.

  

 

It's not until a week later, though, that it finally clicks.

It's not just the strange feeling, anymore: now it's also way she's feeling more tired after doing her bloodstone chants, and she's been getting cravings for imaginary corn the way she hadn't in years. [Putting the pieces together isn't that hard.

 

 

She's pregnant.

Chapter Text

Jarvis is the first to find out, naturally.
 
She would've told Howard, but the man was never home anymore, and she'd needed to confirm that it wasn't all in her head, that she hadn't caught some exotic disease, and so it's Jarvis who finds her sitting in the bathroom, staring quietly at small circle that was currently burning magenta.
 
Part of her felt like crying, part of her was exhilarated, but overall she was at a loss as to what to do. Maria was the Terror of the Time of Knives, bane of Librarians everywhere, but…the prospect of having a child, raising a child, was infinitely more terrifying than some Hooded Figure, or facing down the City Council.
 
She swallowed thickly, and looked at the figure who'd frozen in the doorway.
 
"I'm pregnant."
 
Jarvis startled, looked at the circle again, and back at her. "Oh," he said, in a faint voice, "is that what it is?"
 
Maria nodded tightly.
 
"It'd be burning white if I weren't. Don’t worry, it doesn't leave a mark."
 
"You…did magic, to do a pregnancy test."
 
"It's the fastest way. And least messy, and doesn't do false negatives. Yes."
 
He leaned back as she started to take it down. "You did magic, to see if you were pregnant."
 
"…this is one of those Night Vale things, isn't it." She said more than asked, and suddenly the wave of panic feels a lot more manageable because this, bantering with an old friend, this is normal. [This, she can do.]
 
Jarvis took a deep breath, and lifted a hand rub to his temples even as he drily replied. "Yes, it is. It very much is."


 



 
This was exactly what Edwin had feared would happen, back when he'd seen Howard propose. Actually, no: it was worse, because some things he hadn't seen coming.
 
Maria was as bright and sharp as ever, even despite the turn his old friend had taken. Bright as burning magnesium, sharp as the knives she kept tucked neatly out of the way, and if it had been anyone other than Maria, anyone other than the woman who clearly loved Howard with all her heart, Edwin would have been very worried.
 
As it was, she was already making waves with her work with SI's Public Relations department; Howard still had to deal with nosy board members, and politicians who kept trying to ingratiate themselves to him, but there was less opposition now. Not by much, but there was still a difference that made it easier to get things done.
 
And sometimes the press asked about the charities, now, instead of asking about SI's involvement with supplying Israel with munitions, or the fallout of Vietnam—sure, it was rare, exceedingly rare, but the changes were most definitely felt.
 
That wasn't his conundrum, however: no, the problem was with how badly Maria and Howard communicated.
 
She as a person sometimes failed to pick up some cues, even as she was scarily well-versed in  others. Flirting was still hit-and-miss, but even the vaguest of threats aimed at Howard had her smiling beatifically in a way that would’ve seemed innocent if not for how she’d once told Edwin that baring her teeth was nothing less than a declaration of war.

And that wasn't even factoring in what he'd noticed about Night Vale.
 
Because Maria's hometown had been a huge influence, but Edwin dearly hoped that not all she'd said was the truth because the prospect of a small town being in such dire straits made his heart ache: her offhand remarks of mountains and Girl Scouts and wanton violence were still jarring, even after the nth time. Her uncanny ease with knives [or anything with blades, really], the sharpness of her smile when she was working on something alone—
 
Yes, it'd shaped her to be the woman he knew and respected, but…well. Edwin dearly hoped he'd never set foot in her hometown, because from the sound of it he wouldn't last an hour. Not with the secret police she sometimes talked about, not when she mentioned radiation was something she'd grown immune to "and had a badge to prove it", not when she drew up circles on tile and chanted in an language he didn't recognize but gave him goosebumps to listen to.
 
 And he understood why she was so nervous about being a parent, because while she was a very private person, she'd told him stories of her own family. The idea of raising a child was already daunting, especially with Howard…
 
Oh, Howard.
 
Edwin's old friend had changed, and sometimes he wondered if Howard knew just how fortunate he was, or how far he'd fallen.
 
Because the man who came home late and kept pushing his friends aside, who was steadily crawling into the bottle whenever he wasn't drowning himself in work or continuing his lifelong search for the good Captain, only vaguely resembled the man he'd been in their youth. Margaret was visiting less because of it, Nicholas was occupied with the Nixon business but also eyeing him carefully whenever he stopped by, and even Obadiah had looked at Howard with concern in his eyes.
 
But it was Maria and Edwin who bore the brunt of it. She was very kind and understanding, and had taken great pains to help as much as she could, while he had done his best to reach out as well, but Howard just grew more distant by the day. His old friend's mission to search for Steve Rogers was slowly turning into an obsession, and it was consuming him in ways Edwin tried not to think about.
 
Watching these two interact had been hard, before, but now it was equally so for different reasons.
 
See, both were very private people, stubborn, and prone to keeping secrets even by accident. Howard's involvement with SHIELD meant it was self-explanatory, but Maria was far more skilled at it due to her…unusually turbulent childhood, and that ended up in all sorts of misunderstandings that resulted in more fights. Fights that sometimes escalated, and shouting wasn't unusual anymore. [The broken plates were rarer, at least.]
 
They cared for each other, that was plain to see, but Edwin sometimes had to keep a stiff upper lip when yet another shouting match had both of them storming off to cool down. It was painful to watch.
 
For if things continued this way, Howard would make one of the biggest mistakes of his life, because Edwin knew Maria. At this point, he probably knew her more than her own husband did, because Maria was so, very guarded, but apparently she now considered Jarvis part of her family enough to  lower her defenses and talk about Night Vale, whereas Howard only knew the bare bones of her past because the man never asked.
 
And while divorce was still very much frowned upon, Edwin knew Maria didn't care about social norms. If Howard kept pushing people out of his life, if he continued in his self-destructive path, then Maria would leave.
 
The worst part was, Edwin wouldn't even fault her for it.
 
 


 
So when he saw Maria sitting in front of a circle burning an angry magenta, blank-faced and with a hand on her stomach, he froze.
 
Edwin couldn't help it; the fire was almost a living thing, and he'd never seen Maria this close to…whatever it was. But he did his best to help, to be supportive and help wipe that eerie look off her face.
 
The banter helped both of them, really, and the prospect of another Stark running around the mansion was both terrifying and welcome. [This just threw a huge wrench into the works, oh goodness gracious.]
 
And hopefully, Howard would pull himself together, because having a child would surely change things, right? [Also, it was a great distraction from the discovery that magic was, in fact, real. Chants were one thing, but magic was something else entirely.]
 
But even if Howard didn't, then…Edwin swore he'd be like an uncle to the child.
 
If only because he shuddered to think of how they'd turn out otherwise. [Nope, best to try to have at least some degree of normalcy, no matter how small it was.]
 
And…if Maria left, now, Edwin wasn't sure he wouldn't follow, anymore. Night Vale was a terrifying prospect, sure, but if worst comes to worst…he didn't know what he would do. [The prospect scared him more than he cared to admit.]


 



 
Maria told Howard when he returned from work [late, as usual].
 
He decided to celebrate with a toast, and a smile so bright she hadn't seen its like in weeks [if not months]. He talked about doctors and due dates and good thing Maria had already checked because like hell was she having some doctor poking at her and looking at her blood, no way, no how. [Who knows what they'd find?]
 
Fortunately, Howard didn't seem to want to argue the point; he'd seemed more dazed than anything else, by the news. And…he was less argumentative than before. [Had been for a while now, actually.]
 
Unfortunately, once the initial shock was over, he immediately dove into work like never before, and redoubled his search for Steve Rogers. [She wasn't even surprised by that, not really.]
 
Oh well. At least with Howard out of the house, that was one less person to look askance whenever Maria did anything: as it was, Jarvis had taken to looking away when she pulled out her older recipes because otherwise he got a pained look on his face. [The first time it'd happened, the ensuing talk about what was and wasn't edible had ended up taking hours and her cookies was ready before they'd finished.]
 
 
 
The world took the news of her pregnancy much the same way: the press finally stopped hounding her about "when she'd be having her first baby", Peggy stopped by with her protégé to say congratulations, and Obadiah did the same shortly after.
 
 
Maria managed to pretend it was just some rich person eccentricity, that she didn't want to see the doctor.
 
When asked about the baby's gender, she said she wanted it to be a surprise. Personally, all she cared about was that her child would be perfectly healthy. Well…ideally, they'd have ten fingers and toes and no extra appendages, too: her side of the family had tentacles in their family history, but these people were surprisingly squeamish about extra appendages. [Honestly. What was all this fuss about?]
 
She'd already started to think of names, too.
 
Howard was definitely out, any child of his was already under his shadow and Maria wanted their legacy to be their own…Natasha, if it was a girl, Anthony if it was a boy, for certain. The list of if they were anything in between was growing, too; though any doctor who saw it would raise their eyebrows at the length because these people didn't seem to have other options even though Maria knew for a fact that Night Vale General Hospital had at least seven different genders available to put on birth certificates. [Oh well.]
 

 

 

 
The pregnancy was going well, for the most part.


 
Even if the house felt even emptier than usual, what with Howard on yet another expedition in the Arctic [though he'd promised to return before her due date, there was that], the hardest part was the cravings.
 
Maria had yet to find a decent substitute for imaginary corn, and orange juice outside of Night Vale tasted like sugary swill when she just wanted the familiar acrid tang and sharp aftertaste that she'd grown up with. She could make rough approximations of most other things, and if some of it didn’t taste quite right she could chalk it up to her lack of practice in the kitchen and the disappointing shortage of beta particles.


Still, close enough.


Peggy stopped by sometimes, whenever she wasn't overly swamped with work, too. Just for a cup of tea, sometimes, but Maria was more than happy to have another friendly face to talk to.

It was nice.
 
 

 


…Perhaps it was for the best that Howard was gone, actually, especially once she started to lose control of some things.
 
For instance, her hands were now sparking pale blue at random, even when she wasn't chanting. The television turned fuzzy whenever she got too close, she could feel the universe more acutely than she had in years [since leaving Night Vale], and a patch of invisible strawberries started to grow by the roses. [Where they came from, nobody knew.]

 
On the bright side, she now had invisible strawberry pie, which helped. [The baby liked it, at least.]
 

 
Maria was kind of sorry as to what she was doing to Jarvis, though: the poor man was doing his best to roll with everything, but then they'd have a thunderstorm that no weatherman had foreseen [and the power in the air almost felt like home and maybe it wasn't the Void's entropy but the roiling of the clouds was close enough when she closed her eyes].
 
Or the kitchen caught on fire because she'd miscalculated the amount of phosphorous needed for tiramisu, and it'd gotten to the point where he didn't even question why the flames were hot pink.
 
Or…well, the list went on. [Oops.]

But really, it was to be expected, especially considering how he was the only one who was around to help her as her pregnancy went on, and as time went on it grew increasingly easy to talk to him about her hometown. Besides, considering how well he was handling seeing reality act up around her, there was no saying he didn’t earn it.
 
 
 


 
She was especially sorry for the heart attack she nearly gave him, though, a few weeks in. Peggy, too.

Some idiots thought they could get to Howard Stark through his very pregnant wife, is the thing.
 
Maria didn't know who they were affiliated with, but either way they found her with Peggy in the parlor, Jarvis having gone to the kitchen to get their lunch.
 
He'd returned a rug that had somehow sprouted teeth and an unconscious intruder, Maria standing above the second knocked-out attacker with an umbrella stand in hand, and Peggy using said umbrella to keep the third man pinned to the floor.
 
That particular incident had been a doozy, actually.
 
Jarvis had ended up giving Peggy the phone to call for her people, because the woman was livid about the security breach and apparently her temper was nearly as short as Maria's now. The security measures around the mansion were supposedly tightened, but…pfft. [It wouldn't last an hour into Valentine's Day, with no wards against unlicensed time travelers. Another Night Vale thing, probably.]
 
 
And even then, Howard didn't return. [Typical.] Jarvis and Peggy seemed to take it more personally than she did, though.
 
Why, Maria didn't know, but the set of Jarvis’ jaw when they'd called her husband tipped her off to how he felt, even when the conversation itself had been civil.
 
Peggy hadn't been nearly as subtle: she'd snapped into the receiver, talking about how "it wasn't fair to your wife" and "Howard what the bloody—" before turning and apologizing to Maria for the stress, and then leaving shortly after, mentioning something about her workload on her way out.
 
Personally, though, she didn't mind; it'd ended well, and at least this way nobody was around to question just why an entire corner of the garden had been taken over by invisible strawberries and flickering afterimages of a peach tree. [Jarvis had been slightly confused as to how the rest of the world hadn't noticed, actually, meanwhile Maria kept her fingers crossed that an orange tree would be the next to spontaneously appear.]
 



 
When the time comes, Maria carefully sets up the nursery with Jarvis' help.

He’s the one who helps with the hard-to-reach corners, when she’s methodically reworking the invocations she can recall to set up the safeguards, and he’s the one who helped her pick out the colors of the nursery afterwards because apparently Maria’s idea of normal was not like the rest of the world’s.

Good thing they did it relatively early—it took weeks to get rid of the scent of mesquite and sagebrush, afterwards, and that was with Jarvis airing the entire mansion out. [Oops.]

He didn't bat an eye at the runes she'd carved into the cradle, either, or the bassinet. Though he did advise her to not let Howard see the mobile she'd made, not before he knew more about her hometown. [Which she'd be perfectly happy to do, if he ever listened—anyway.]

And at the end of the day, she’s still tuning in to what’s going on back in Night Vale. Keeping up with what Josie’s been up to, or the Faceless Old Woman, or the latest football game, or…well.
 
The baby's kicking in earnest now, and Maria's glad nobody else has tried to do anything stupid, because she can't move around as easily now but that simply means she can't afford to be as merciful as she's been in the past. [Fireballs are just so messy.]
 

Time passes.

 

 

 
Time passes, and Maria does her best to not unnerve Jarvis overly much, when she's singing to the baby. [Her mother tongue apparently causes goosebumps if these people hear it for too long. Oops.] He's fascinated by the nursery rhymes she can recall in English, though, and apparently lullabies about monsters in the dark aren't common around here but lullabies about human sacrifice are? [Strange. But okay, good to know.]
 
 
By the time the imaginary orange tree appears, Jarvis didn't so much as blink.
 
 
Peggy drops by when she can, but work's hectic and apparently gender politics outside of Night Vale didn't involve children's militias or overthrowing governments. [Weird.] It also doesn't help that she's secretly the head of Howard's Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency [wait, that was supposed to be a secret? Oops].


 
Time passes.
 


 
Time passes, and Howard comes back just in time for his only child's birth.
 
Maria got rushed to the hospital when she knew the baby was coming, though everyone seemed to be impressed by how stoic she was about it all.

Yes, it was agonizing, but she didn't need to scream, and she'd learned how to deal with pain long before she'd left Night Vale. [Wasn't like she'd have been able to make it past puberty, otherwise.]
 
Because yes, the contractions weren't fun.
 
But if she screamed, she couldn't guarantee she wouldn't lose control of something else [and the last thing she needed was for an oxygen tank to spontaneously combust, thank you very much], so why the weird looks?
 
As it was, it took an inordinate amount of focus to keep her hands from sparking, and for the first time in years she could feel the entropy of the Void roaring and churning and—no, she needed to focus, this was her child they were talking about!
 
 
 
…apparently it was standard protocol to anesthetize the mother once she was admitted to a hospital room. [Which, ha. Like she'd ever let that happen.]
 
The next few hours were hell: she was immune to the analgesics used, and if the nurses were so incompetent then at this rate she'd just go back home and have her baby there. Jarvis could probably help. And it'd be far less annoying than having to forcefully convince a doctor that no, she didn't just need another injection, damn it.
 
 
Ultimately, after another attempt [that failed as epically as the one before it], these people finally got with the program. She might have ended up denting the iron railing of the bed, partway through, and at one point the doctor started to look at her, flinched, and asked, "wait, where am I? What is this place?" before snapping out of it.
 
Great. This was why she'd wanted to stay home, Howard's peace of mind notwithstanding. [At least there nobody'd get hurt if her control slipped.]
 
As it was she was practically running this show on her own, as the doctor kept blinking and jumping at shadows and the nurse wasn't much better. It didn’t help that said shadows were writhing, now, either. [Oops.]

Or that the room was steadily growing hotter, but the thermostat seemed to be broken and the door had turned to oak sometime after she'd been ushered into the room. [Yep, control's definitely shot. This'd be…interesting.]
 
 
 
 
Another few hours, and the lights are steadily flickering while a breeze that smelled of sagebrush and something that puts the doctor on edge. The nurse is looking twitchy, too, by the time things come to a head.
 
Suddenly, a scream splits the air, and what's left of Maria's control slips for a fraction of a second, and the lights finally go out.
 
The nurse at the door collapses instantly. The doctor barely manages to catch the baby before he passes out, too, in the pitch-black room, but Maria doesn't care because it's over and that was her child.
 

 

 
The first time Maria held her son, he was covered in blood and screaming. [And wasn't that just a familiar sight?]
 
Maria's smile only brightened, and she pressed a kiss against his forehead as she readjusted her hold and settled back down in the hospital bed.
 
Such a fuss, but it was worth it, for her child. Anthony. Her son. [Tony.]
 
She couldn't help it; she cried, sitting in the darkness, surrounded by nothing but sand and wind and entropy, holding her child. [Truly, just like home.]
 
 

 

 

 
It took a while, for the nurse and doctor to wake up.
 
These people's standards were so lax, where were they from, Desert Bluffs? [Ugh.] In that time, Maria had managed to start to pick up part of the room, and got Tony to stop crying. She'd memorized the invocation to get rid of bloodstains decades ago, and now that it was over the lights were cooperating again. And the door. And…well. [The list went on.]
 
Tony, meanwhile, had quieted down after she'd started humming lullabies and rocking him.
 
From what she could see, he didn't have any extra appendages, which would've make for an awkward set of questions from multiple quarters. [Whew.]

But Maria knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was Night Vale too. [He had her blood running through his veins, there was no way he wouldn't be.]
 
She's partway through the final verse when the nurse finally jolts awake, and the doctor as well. They…they'd forgotten what had just happened, they'd forgotten they'd been attending her. [Which, rude. But also…strange. Did she do that? Oops.]
 
Well…considering everything, she could work with that.
 
So while Tony was whisked away for weighing [and they didn't ask where he'd come from, which she wasn't about to question], Maria settled in for the long haul and quietly kept an ear out for whatever it was that had happened.
 
Apparently, the doctor and nurse were both missing roughly four hours and apparently only had vague memories of half a day before that, and were under the impression that she'd had what they considered a normal birth. [Okay then.] And since they were the ones who did the paperwork for the hospital for her case, that'd be that.
 
No mentions of technical difficulties, no questions of why the air didn't smell quite as sterile as before, and only a few vaguely confused looks as to how sand had worked its way into the corners of the room. Just a comment about some complications during the birth, no more. [That, she could work with.]
 
 
 


 
Maria was able to introduce Tony to Howard. The man was ecstatic to meet his son for the first time, and flailed when she offered to let him hold him, beaming the entire time.
 
They went home the next day, and Jarvis was also introduced to the newest addition to the Stark family. He reacted in much the same way Howard had, and was just as careful when he held Tony.
 
Maria was home, with her family, and they were all safe. She was content.
 


 
 
…of course, leave it to Howard to throw a wrench into things.
 
Sure, she'd been supportive of his work, but he hadn't changed his routine much, even after his son was born. [Howard was holding his son less than his butler was, for crying out loud!]

Sure, he'd say something about how "this changes things" and apparently he really wanted his long-gone friend to see his son and really?!
 
Honestly.
 
On the bright side, Howard wasn't as bad as he'd been before [read: wasn't drinking as much].
 
That being said, he also very clearly had not been cut out to be a father.

He loved Tony, yes, and looked at him with quiet awe at times, but…Maria didn’t know just how she knew, but Howard wore fatherhood like an ill-fitting coat. Awkward, uncomfortable when Tony was crying, and the list just went on. The only silver lining in this situation was that he hadn't been drinking as much, and even then the fact that she even had to think of that as a good thing grated on her.
 
His leaving for yet another expedition, not a month after his only son's birth, was only the biggest red flag, really.
 
Howard’s departure was also marked by yet another shouting match, because Maria did her best to be as supportive as she could be, but if her husband insisted on acting like his only child's birth wasn't a major event then he had another thing coming.
 
 
Either way, Howard left, [like he always did,] and Maria was left with her newborn son, Jarvis, an empty mansion.
 
Just like before, except now she had to coordinate with PR as to how to best spin this because keeping their fights behind closed doors only did so much and having a new father leaving the house just after finishing up the latest round of photo ops did not look good.
 
But okay, Maria could deal. [Anything to protect her family.]
 



 
If anyone were to have told him, Edwin would not have believed it.
 
Howard was…Howard was so, very fortunate, that his wife loved him. And that he had enough money for society to be lenient with him, because if he were not as wealthy as he was then the rumor mill would have been abuzz with how little he cared for his family, because what sort of father did this?

Just…up and left his wife and newborn son, for months at a stretch? And how did Maria stand it, when he knew how fiercely independent she was at times?
 
Well…then again, the youngest Stark probably had a lot to do with it.
 
Anthony Edward Stark was a very welcome addition to their little household, and it was plain to see Maria loved him something fierce.
 
She had been very zealous when making preparations for his birth, and Edwin only sometimes wondered if it was because of Howard's absence, or if she would have been just as enthusiastic about it all regardless. Perhaps it was another 'Night Vale thing', as Maria so put it?
 
Because Edwin may not have been in as close contact with expectant mothers as this time [way to go, Howard], but he was confident that most of them did not carve runes into cradles, did not do chants with bloodstones that had the room smelling of sagebrush and Joshua trees for the rest of the day, or make baby mobiles that…well.
 
Edwin knew Maria well enough by now to know it was most likely a Night Vale tradition, but if Howard saw it without context the man would probably try to throw it out, or burn it. Even now he himself had to resist the urge to shudder and leave the room, though young Anthony seemed to enjoy it.
 
Speaking of which…
 
He'd known, from the moment he’d first held Maria's son, that young Anthony took after his mother, no matter what the press was saying even now. Because no matter how much everyone cooed over how he looked just like Howard, he had her eyes.

Dark, unfathomable, and where it'd taken a while for him to get used to Maria's sometimes-unsettling gaze it was downright eerie for a baby to have that same look. Howard hadn't remarked on it, but then he did not exactly spend much time with his son when he was awake.
 
Also: Edwin knew he'd planned on being like family to young Anthony, but even so, it had been almost scarily easy to fall into a routine with Maria for helping care for him. It was slightly less obvious when Howard was home, but when the man left [which…no, he didn't even—] Maria didn't hesitate to ask for his help with some things. Help with the culture clash between Night Vale and the outside world, specifically.
 
Actually, Edwin had long since learned that Night Vale was unusual, but nothing had prepared him for seeing it.
 
Maria's pregnancy spoke for itself, and his poker face had gotten even better than before. He'd even managed to wrap his head around the invisible strawberries well enough, and he'd stopped getting startled by the unnatural shadows [even if the hairs on the back of his neck had taken a lot longer to get used to it].
 
Yet there were still moments that caught him flat-footed even now.
 
For instance, he'd received a minor heart attack, when he saw young Anthony's tiny fists sparking even as he cried. The first time Maria sang was also memorable, and he still couldn't watch the duo eat without cringing because some of it should’ve been poisonous and—oh, never mind.
 
At least there were no unusually powerful thunderstorms, anymore, and the shadows had stopped writhing after young Anthony had been born. He'd long since gotten used to the radio constantly being on and emitting only static whenever he paid attention. [Even if sometimes, recently, Edwin thought he heard a radio announcer instead, whenever he was distracted.]
 
But it was worth it.
 
Because, uncanny moments aside, Edwin couldn't help but be warmed by it all. Maria was glowing, whenever she was near her son; and sometimes literally, at that. Young Anthony, meanwhile, seemed to be a happy child, and Edwin had been the recipient of multiple bright toothless smiles.
 
It was worth it. Sure, Howard was a piece of work, the noises from the radio sometimes gave him goosebumps, and the baby mobile was not something he could look at directly, but Edwin didn’t regret a thing.

Chapter Text

Margaret ‘Peggy’ Carter was worried about a civilian being the wife of one of the founders of SHIELD, at first.

Howard's involvement meant he might endanger his family if anyone were to look for leverage, after all, and considering the rumors that were going around with the Russians…well.
 
So, when Howard first started talking about Maria Carbonell, with a painfully familiar look in his eyes [she'd seen it in the mirror, before, with Steve], she'd had her reservations about it all. Peggy had been the one to run the background checks to make sure she wasn’t a plant, and as time went on she grew curious as to just who it was that'd managed to catch Howard's eye when he'd had countless flings in the past.
 
When Howard had introduced Maria to her, Peggy had still been wary, if only for Maria's sake.
 
Sure, she'd been able to take on a mugger, and Jarvis seemed to think she was the one, but Howard dealt with espionage and weapons and a life like that was not kind to the uninitiated. [Nerves of steel? Ha. More like iron in the bones.]

But Maria had seemed competent as well as friendly, and the steady look in her eyes when they'd talked had Peggy relaxing from her initial trepidation. [Whew—Howard wasn't throwing some poor woman to the wolves.]
 
As time went by, as Howard's changing from a man she could respect, to someone whose obsession with finding Steve was hurting his relationships with others, was eating him alive and painful to watch, Peggy also noticed that she hadn't needed to worry about Maria after all.

Not when the new Mrs. Stark was obviously the power behind the throne, when it came to part of Stark Industries. Not when Maria was working on an operation that was on a scale on par with anyone from SHIELD, not when Peggy glimpsed her serenely debugging the living room with a smile after having ‘guests’ who’d been looking for Howard, and not missing a single one. [Did she learn it from Jarvis? Just who was Maria Stark?]
 
Sure, they didn't talk much as she would’ve liked: Peggy's growing workload at SHIELD was only one of her reasons for drifting apart from Howard, and Maria seemed to be busy enough with the charities she'd kick-started. But even then she was still able to find the time, every so often, to stop by for tea, to get to know her. [Granted, the first time she’d seen Maria add salt instead of sugar to her own cup had been strange, but to each their own.]

But…if it were anyone other than the woman who had clearly and repeatedly shown just how much she cared for Howard, Peggy would have been perturbed by what she was seeing unfold. If Nicholas hadn’t run the background checks and given her the data himself, if she hadn’t recognized the nostalgia in Maria’s voice whenever she talked about her hometown that she hoped to see again someday, Peggy would’ve been suspicious.
 
As it was, though, the more time went by, the more she was glad Maria Stark was an ally. And the more she saw, Peggy couldn't help but wonder how she would have been, if she'd chosen a career in espionage rather than a quiet life.
 
From the looks of it, she could have been terrifying.

Wait, no, strike that: even now, Maria Stark was formidable, and that she was on their side meant that was one less concern Peggy had.

Now if only Howard would get his head out of his ass and see what was in front of him. [Or just out of the alcohol, either worked, seeing as how she didn’t see one without the other after hours, these days.]

 


Maria’s pregnancy should have heralded a change.

That it didn’t, had Peggy fuming.

That Maria didn’t see the issue with Howard not rushing home after his pregnant wife got attacked, had Peggy livid and railing at him long after the fact, and sharing commiserating looks with Edwin because this was beyond the pale.

It was unfair to Maria in the worst of ways, and that Howard tried to excuse his absence by searching for Steve—no. Just no.

[…she may or may not have vented her frustration via work. Just a bit.]

 


And then Tony was born, and Howard was gone yet again, and Peggy really, really wanted to punch him. If he was so adverse to having a personal life, why the hell did he marry Maria?!

Peggy had resolved to put off marrying for a while yet, because of exactly that—and yet one of her oldest friends [though she was dubious about even calling him that anymore] was now neglecting every relationship he’d ever had, to the point where Peggy was visiting his mansion more for his wife than him and it rankled.

…on the bright side, at least she had an ally in Jarvis. And Nicholas, who’d taken to keeping a closer eye on what was going on after three armed men had made an attempt on the pregnant wife of one of the founders of SHIELD, [yes, she was still bitter about it,] and had since been side-eyeing both her and Maria’s choice in drinks.

And now that Tony was born, Peggy had no dearth of excuses to stop by, because new mothers normally needed quite a bit of help and while Maria seemed to be handling it well [no thanks to Howard], an extra hand would never go amiss, whenever she had the time to stop by.

[The rumors of her wanting to go domestic could stuff themselves, though.]

 


 


Edwin Jarvis was fairly certain he could attribute three quarters of his grey hair to Maria and young Anthony by now. [The other quarter, of course, being due to Howard, but that was another thing entirely.]

Just…Maria had already been a handful, before, a powerhouse of her own right for all the world seemed content to relegate her to a housewife. Before young Anthony had been born, she’d already made respectable headway in dealing with the public perception of Howard’s company, as well as New York high society.

However, it was equally evident that the claws had never really come out, until the first time she saw her son cry.

Because before, Edwin could at least pretend that it was Howard, rather than Maria, who was responsible for the mansion’s security. Before, he had been able to pretend it was luck, or Howard’s insistence on bodyguards watching the mansion from afar, that was the reason why there had been no successful kidnappings, or, Heaven forbid, assassinations.

Granted, there had always been threats, it came with the territory. But nothing ever had come to fruition, and Edwin had done his best to turn a blind eye to Maria’s quietly satisfied smirk whenever another report of madmen roaming the streets hit the news. Before, Edwin had only suspected, but had also at least been able to pretend.

Unfortunately, however, that was no longer the case. Because while he probably knew more than his fair share about Night Vale, it was one thing to hear about it and quite another to see it in action.

 


 

The first time someone tried for her son, it was midnight, less than two months after he’d been born.

Tony had just fallen asleep, when Maria woke to the sound of unusual footsteps. Unusual footsteps in the hallways leading to the nursery, footsteps Maria didn’t recognize immediately, and Jarvis’ slow breathing was very faint and in the opposite direction so it very obviously wasn’t him—

There were invaders in her home. There were invaders in her home, after her family.

If she wanted to, Maria could have probably dealt with it the way she had with everyone who’d threatened Howard.

If she really wanted to, she could have simply knocked them out and ditched them in bank vaults, or left them as gibbering wrecks in alleyways. After all, that’s what she did with those who tried to attack her, or her husband. But this was different—because now, these people were after her son.

Suffice it was to say, Maria was not feeling merciful.

The four men who tried to kidnap her baby didn’t stand a chance.

 

 

…in retrospect, she might have gone a bit overboard. [Just a tad.]

Not that she regretted it, of course, not when her son’s safety was at stake. But in retrospect just one fireball would have sufficed, and the laser knives had probably been overkill, a regular one would have been good enough. As it was, poor Jarvis had been alarmingly pale when watching her from the doorway. In Maria’s defense, though, she hadn’t realized he’d been watching, after she’d eviscerated the third man. [Oops.]

Then again, at the time, she hadn’t really noticed anything other than her incandescent rage at the nerve of someone daring to lay a hand on her son, didn’t think twice about showing them just why she was known as the Terror of the Time of Knives, and it’s not until she’s surrounded by nothing but bodies and viscera that she started to relax again.

Even worse, though, the sounds of her fighting had also woken Tony up, if the sounds coming from the nursery were anything to judge.

Maria coughed awkwardly, acutely conscious of how she looked. She hadn’t been careful with where she’d aimed, and while Tony probably wouldn’t mind the blood…

“Jarvis, would you mind taking care of Tony, while I clean this up?”

The poor man startled from where he stared at the hallway in mute shock. “M— I don’t think I can…do you want me to make the calls?”

She blinked. What, did these people not…oh, screw it. Probably another Night Vale thing.

“Leave it to me. This isn’t my first rodeo, remind me to tell you of the Time of Knives sometime. Just…try not to step in it, but I’d rather not handle Tony when I’m like this,” she gestured vaguely, and couldn’t help how the corner of her mouth quirked as Jarvis nodded fervently.

Then she turned back to the carnage, and sighed. Even if she had invocations for getting rid of bloodstains, hardwood flooring was still a major pain, and she’d probably be finding bullet casings and bone fragments for weeks. [Drat. Might as well get to work.]

 


 

Edwin Jarvis was fairly certain that Maria’s strangeness was contagious.

It was the only reasonable way to explain it. Why he hadn’t really reacted to the massacre in the hallway, why he’d been able to soothe young Anthony into falling asleep again while the baby’s mother was chanting ominously in the background, why he’d proceeded to brew tea instead of call the authorities for…for…that.

Really, it was the only reason he could think of. That there had been no bodies, once he’d stepped out of the nursery, only a faint scent of something scorching, was almost a non-factor, at this point.

Edwin pointedly ignored the shadows that rubbed up against his, ignored the way his hands shook slightly as he pulled his teakettle out, ignored the absurdly late hour, and it’s not until he’s in the kitchen with a mug in his hands that he finally lets himself think.

He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, honestly.

He had been worried, when he’d heard the shouting, and the thumps, but while he’d hoped that it was only one attacker, seeing Howard’s wife in action had still been something Edwin had not expected. All of Maria’s stories had helped, had meant seeing her in the hallway wasn’t as much of a shock, but…wrapping his head around what just happened was still…he rubbed his temples.

By the time Maria arrived, smelling faintly of sandalwood and smoke and completely devoid of the gore from earlier, he mostly had everything together again.

And then she pulled up a chair, and looked at him apologetically.

“Sorry you had to see that. I forget how some things aren’t very normal around here.”

He was only mildly sorry, for the bout of hysterical laughter that followed.

“That…is one hell of an understatement, ma’am. I’m an…accomplice, in this, now, aren’t I. Because I doubt any murder could be proven without a body, and I wanted to call the authorities, but I didn’t know what I’d say if given the chance because that was…that was…”

She patted his hand sympathetically. “I’m sorry, Jarvis. I keep forgetting you’re not fully Night Vale too.”

Edwin sucked in a deep breath, tightened his grip on his steadily-cooling mug, and let it out carefully as he tried to ignore part of what she’d just said because one crisis at a time, thank you very much.

“Maria, you mentioned the ‘Time of Knives’.” He swallowed, tightened his grip around his mug, and looked her in the eyes. “Given what I witnessed, I do believe you owe me an explanation.”

“Fair enough. So, I was in high school and…”

As Maria started in on her anecdote, Edwin settled in, and started to think even as he listened.

If young Anthony was anything like his mother, then his job would be even harder than he thought. Especially if Howard continued the way he was, and while Margaret did her best to help…well. He’d figure something out. He’d likely go grey early at this rate, though.

Especially since he’d thrown his lot in there as well, somewhere down the line even if he was still rather fuzzy on the details as to when. Yes, her strangeness was contagious. And the worst part was, he couldn’t resent a thing. [Oh, dear.]

 


 

After the Hallway Incident, things went far smoother for everyone in the household.

Maria was grateful; while Jarvis was definitely an honorary Night Vale citizen at this point, with how well he was rolling with things, the poor man still didn’t quite have the stomach for seeing her at work, and goodness knew she could use less stress as well.

Especially since Tony was so, very bright.

Granted, Maria was not exactly an expert in child development, but…didn’t children normally start talking after five months? Of course, her standards were probably a bit off, but still.

She and Jarvis had exchanged disbelieving looks when Tony’s babbling had shifted to a convoluted mix of her mother tongue and English, and good thing Jarvis was at least partly Night Vale because she got the distinct feeling that his ears would have been bleeding otherwise.

And sure, Maria knew some of it could probably be chalked up to his being Night Vale—Tony had already set the tablecloth on fire several times, there was no questioning it—but that didn’t explain everything.

Maria knew her husband was brilliant, knew Tony took after him, but she still had not fully expected to need to watch her words around her son for fear of his first words being curses until later on down the road, and…this changed everything.

 


Howard missed his only son’s first words.

Granted, they hadn’t been in English, so she probably would've had some awkward questions to contend with, but it was the principle of the matter. If Peggy, who shared some of his duties [running a Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency], managed to find the time every so often to just chat, then couldn’t Howard do the same?

…fine. If Howard didn’t want her to raise him her way, then he should’ve been there to say so. Sure, Maria was very, very new at this parenting thing, but it couldn’t be too hard, could it? She’d turned out just fine, and with Jarvis to help…yes, between the two of them, they’d figure something out.

 


The first thing Maria taught her son was discretion, and self-control.

It wasn’t that Night Vale was something to be ashamed of, something to hide—it was their heritage, something they carried in their blood and breath, but…

Howard didn’t know about it, yet. 

The few times it’d come up, before their marriage, it’d been in passing, and it wasn’t until afterwards that Maria’d learned that no, these people normally didn’t learn how to handle assault rifles and munitions in grade school, and apparently cyanide wasn’t supposed to be a substitute for when they were out of almonds. She’d thought Jarvis had been joking, at first, but nope.

And these days, trying to have a heart-to-heart with Howard was about as easy as getting into the Hall of Public Records. Maria loved him, sure, but…he might not take it very well. Trying to break it to Howard, that his son was unusual in more ways than one, when the man was already having a hard time just grasping the concept of fatherhood…she’d figure something out. [Right.]

At least he was home slightly more often, these days. Sure, it had probably more to do with the weather conditions in the Arctic right now, and smiling for the press because of the holidays, but it was something.

…Howard was not cut out to be a father, though.

Granted, Maria probably had unusual standards, and part of her hoped that was it, but she couldn’t help but notice some things that didn’t quite sit right with her.

Because in the public eye, they were projecting as much of a ‘happy, all-American family’ image as possible, [though admittedly, a good chunk of that was due to Maria’s work with the PR department,] but once the cameras were gone, Howard was another man.

One who was absolutely abysmal at communication, who was emotionally distant to an extent that vaguely impressed Maria, whose set of values did not always necessarily mesh with hers and whose demons were not ones she wanted to tangle with if not absolutely necessary.

But it was also obvious he loved his son.

And it was that warmth in his eyes, when he held Tony, that had Maria clung to during the hard times. Because if it weren’t for those moments, when he beamed at Tony’s gummy smiles, then Maria didn’t know what she would’ve done.

 

Time passed.

Time passed, and Christmas rolled around, as did the new year.

Time passed, and Howard left again, and Maria rolled her sleeves up again and set to work.

 


 

“Maria, would you please explain just why I found Tony playing with what appeared to be a toy grenade?” Edwin found himself asking, incredulous at both the situation and his words.

The sight had nearly given him a heart attack, and at this rate his hair would go entirely grey by young Anthony’s fifth birthday, goodness gracious.

Maria looked over from where she’d been peering intently at a few folders a representative from Stark Industries had left earlier. “The to— oh, that’s not a toy, it’s a smoke grenade. Took it off one of the people who attacked us earlier. Don’t worry, I took the incendiary part ou…right, you didn’t know.”

Edwin pinched the bridge of his nose, and sighed. “I understand it is a cultural practice to train children in this way since infancy in Night Vale, Maria, but please be aware that any outsider would’ve called Child Services for it.”

Maria straightened, and oh dear the set of her jaw did not look promising. “Like hell I’m going to stop, Jarvis. I’m not sure how easy things are here, but I’ll be damned if I don’t give my son every weapon I can manage.”

“This is not a war zone, Maria.”

“Neither is Night Vale.” And by now her tone’s more defensive than anything else, which did not help any.

“I know. But appearances matter, here, and if I might be so bold as to suggest instead focusing more on controlling his power? It was a miracle that Margaret didn’t notice, last time.”

At that, Maria leaned back and nodded thoughtfully. “Point. I…can probably put some of this off, for a while, I guess. And under close supervision, since that’s something that seems to be important to you. But I’m still teaching him everything I can, it can only help keep him safe.”

Fair enough. “That’s all I ask.”

 


 

Tony was growing up so, very fast, and Maria treasured every moment.

Granted, some moments were harder than others. Teething, for instance, had not been fun for anyone in the mansion [although Jarvis’ face when he’d found the tattered remains of the first teething ring had admittedly been pretty entertaining]. Tony’s rapid progression from crawling to running, entirely bypassing the walking stage, had also been similarly exhausting.

But it was so worth it.

Her son was a happy child, which was a very good thing considering strong bursts in temper could easily have something catching on fire. The shadows had started to calm down, finally, and Tony seemed to like it when she read him her father’s letters, if his chattering was anything to go by. He gave Jarvis quite the scare the first time the man saw him pouring dish soap into his cereal bowl, and his proficiency with grenades and assault rifles skyrocketed.


…unfortunately, it wasn’t the only thing that did. The kidnapping attempts skyrocketed as well, as word got out that Howard Stark’s only son and heir was also a prodigy.

Which…attempts on Maria, she was willing to put up with. Attempts on Howard, less so, but she could see how it was an occupational hazard given what he was wrapped up in. But her son?

 

Years afterwards, the world would attribute the lack of successful kidnappings on Howard’s security, would talk proudly about bodyguards and preventative measures, for why there were relatively few arrests made due to attempts on the Stark heir during his childhood.

[Ha. ‘Arrests’. How cute. As if Maria left a body, when a threat to Tony was involved.]

 

Tony’s brilliance was revealed to the world when he was four.

Personally, Maria was impressed that she and Jarvis had managed to hide it for as long as they had. Howard had, of course, been notified of his only son’s intellect, and the man had managed to visit for a bit longer than usual, that time, saying how proud he was, but…she’d expected the lack of privacy in her own life, when she’d married Howard. That her son would go through the same thing, had been harder to accept.

Fortunately, though, Tony was a fast learner.

Maria recognized the smile on his face, when he was four and standing in front of the cameras his circuit board, and felt a rush of pride and chagrin as she realized Tony was copying her, and Howard, in their dealings with the press.

And afterwards, once they were back in the mansion and Howard was gone [again], Maria set to teaching him everything she’d learned, about privacy. About finding bugs and losing tails and how smiles were only so many bared teeth. Jarvis, once he realized what she was doing, also chipped in, talking about different types of strength and dignity and appearances.

Hopefully, they’d be able to give Tony some semblance of a childhood.

 


Time passed.

Time passed, and of course Howard had to throw a wrench into things.

Howard had been drinking, again. More than usual, in fact, had been ever since he’d come back from his latest expedition in the Arctic.

 


Personally, Maria didn’t see the appeal of alcohol the way Howard used it [why waste a Molotov cocktail on drinking, seriously?], but if it was just that, she probably could’ve lived with it. [Or, at least, put up with it, because he was sometimes like a different man when he got drunk but Maria stood her ground all the same.]

But it wasn’t.

Because before, it’d been just her, who had to put up with Howard’s mercurial moods, especially when he got drunk. Jarvis also had to deal with him, of course, but as his wife, Maria had gotten into far more shouting matches than she’d cared to count, whenever the man was home during the increasingly rare times he was in town.

That, too, Maria was willing to put up with, even if sometimes she’d had to grit her teeth and buckle down. All marriages had their rocky moments, after all, and she was willing to weather the storm. [And if things ever got out of hand, well, divorce was always an option.]

However, now it wasn’t just her.

And while she was willing to put up with some of Howard’s mercurial moods, she put her foot down where her child was concerned. While sometimes he was a good man, showed glimmers of the man she’d married, other times, well…

The first time he raised his hand against his son was also the last.

 


 

It was after dinner, and Maria had been in the other room, when she’d heard the glass shattering. That in and of itself had made her blood run cold, because if Tony had broken anything he might get hurt, and she’d hurried back even as Jarvis had headed over to get a broom.

The sight she entered, however…

If Howard had been anything other than her husband, had been anything other than someone she loved, she would’ve obliterated him where he stood. As it was, the smell of whiskey hit and Maria knew it was his glass, knew he’d thrown it.

It wasn’t the first time it’d happened, but it was the first time he’d done it when Tony was in the room.

And he had his hand raised in a way that Maria recognized, and she saw red because that. Did. Not. Stand.

Maria didn’t even care about the glass, when she stormed in and stepped between her child and the man who dared think he had the right to raise a hand against him.

“Don’t you dare,” she hissed lowly [viciously, menacingly], as she caught his hand, “lay a hand on my son.”

Of course, that only meant he turned his scowl at her, but she could handle it.

“Tony,” she said carefully, never looking away from her husband, never breaking eye contact because she was the Terror of the Time of Knives and no man would be enough to intimidate her, “please go to your room. Mom and dad have to have a…talk.

This man made her son cry, the man who was by all rights his family, had made her son feel fear.

He breaks eye contact first, and she smiles.

“You’re coddling the boy, Maria!” He snaps, and she gears up for yet another fight even as Jarvis’ footsteps falter at the doorway.

“Go to bed, Tony. Mind the glass.” She repeats calmly, and makes sure her smile’s audible.

He leaves, and her heart feels like a war drum when she hears his muffled sobs on the way out, as Jarvis ushers him away to safety [away from his father].

Maria shifted her focus to Howard, and let her smile sharpen even more. His face was flushed and his fists were clenched, but it was nothing she hadn’t dealt with before.

“He’s a Stark, he—"

“He’s a child.” She retorted.

“He needs discipline! And what are you doing? I’m his father—"

“And you’re never. Here. You have no right—"

“I’m his father, I have every right!” He roared. She hadn’t thought he could look angrier. Apparently, she was wrong.

“He’s a child, not a possession.”

“I don’t know what fantasy land you come from, Maria, but in the real world we discipline our kids.” Howard sneered. [Ah, yes. When sober he didn’t seem to care but when drunk he was downright disdainful of her hometown.]

“You are drunk, and angry. What you’re doing is not discipline by any stretch of the word.”

“I will damn well discipline him however the hell I want, he’s my son and heir and you need to remember that.”

This…this one was new, they’d never gone here before. They were edging into uncharted territory, but surely…no.

“I will not stand for you to hit our son.”

“I could get full custody.” He challenged, and Maria felt her eyes widen involuntarily as a rush of ice swept over her.

Because…if he wanted to, really wanted to, he could.

He was rich, he had connections, he had an entire damn company [that she helped run] and a Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency, whereas Maria had left Night Vale with nothing but her bloodstones and wits, in a world where people regularly ignored it when men hit their spouses.

In that moment, Maria felt any qualms she had left vanish. Because she’d had some reservations, before, about what she would and would not be willing to do, what she was willing to put up with.

Before Tony was born, she’d already been thinking about it, if Howard ever got worse. She’d married Howard out of love, no more, no less. She didn’t care about alimony, didn’t care about appearances or social norms, so divorce had always been a valid option.

After Tony was born, she’d worried about what she would do if Howard ever crossed the line.

It was only in that moment, however, as Howard sneered at her, so secure in his finally getting her to back down, in getting the final say, that Maria realized just what she was capable of.

“Lay a hand on Tony and you’ll never see us again.” She countered, all hesitation gone, and felt a tendril of dark satisfaction as he started.

She could do it. Could just up and take Tony and Jarvis and make her way back to Night Vale, it was fully within her capabilities. It was the worst thing she could think of doing to Howard, but she could. She hadn’t thought there would ever be a big enough push for her to do it, but if Howard was threatening to take her son?

“You wouldn’t dare.

“Oh, you know what I’m capable of, Howard.”

“I have people all over the country and friends in high places, you wouldn’t last a day.”

Maria let her smile turn even more beatific, and the only thing she needed for a rerun of the Time of Knives was a machete now, really. “Oh, honey. You don’t know me at all, do you.”

For all that Howard sometimes pretended he forgot what happened when he was especially drunk, this, at least, would stick. She’d make sure of it.

 


 

Howard never raised a hand against his son again, while either drunk or sober.

 

He also started talking about boarding school.

Out of the frying pan and into the combustion reaction of O2 plus heat plus fuel to form CO2 plus light plus heat plus exhaust, truly. Well…Maria could work with this, could figure out a way to turn it to her own advantage. [At least it’d have Tony out of the mansion when Howard was especially drunk.]

Even if part of her felt like smiling at her husband again, because she just knew it was revenge for their last fight, no matter how much he dressed it up by talking about ‘letting his son reach his full potential’ and ‘gifted programs’ and whatnot. But she had to pick her battles, and if he was talking about boarding school he wasn’t talking about divorce and if life gave her lemons then time to start setting houses on fire.

 

 

“Tony, don’t cry. Think of it as…a deep-cover mission!” Maria found herself saying, patting him on the back while Jarvis was trying to pacify both Howard and Peggy in their latest fight elsewhere.

“But I don’t want to go!”

Tesoro, I…remember how we’re not normal, according to other people?”

“Like how Jarvis makes those faces when you make hot chocolate?”

“Exactly. Well, you’re going to be surrounded by them when you get older, so it’s best to learn how to pretend. Make sure no one gets hurt.”

“I don’t…why does Howard want me gone so badly?” Her son demanded, eyes still red and shadows writhing around him.

Maria bit her lip for a moment, then answered. “Your father just wants what’s best for you. He thinks that you don’t have a chance to grow, cooped up here with me and Jarvis.”

“But he doesn’t know!

“I know, tesoro. I know. He hasn’t caught on yet,” she forced an indulgent smirk, “but that just means you’re really good at playing this game.”

Trying to break the news to Howard felt practically impossible, now. But if keeping it hidden helped keep her child safe then she'd maintain the ruse for as long as she could. [If they ever needed to run, he wouldn't know the first place to look.]

“Mom, can’t you tell him? Maybe he’d…he’d…”

“It’s more than that, honey. He just wants you to have a better future and to be happy.”

“I’m happy right here! I—“

“He might be right, Tony. I can only teach you so much, and what I know isn’t what the rest of the world knows, and vice versa. Remember, knowledge is power…”

“Power corrupts, so study hard and take over the world.” He finished the saying miserably, before scrubbing at his face one last time and looking mournfully up at her. “Do I really have to go?”

“It’ll be good practice for the future, Tony. Deep-cover espionage is always a useful skill to have, and the more practice you have the better. This way you can also see more of the world, and you can always tune in, wherever you are. We're Night Vale, honey. We take it wherever we go.” Maria said, hugging him warmly as his breathing returned to normal and his hands stopped sparking.

 

Now if only she could believe her own words.

 


Tony’s bags were packed, and he got shipped off to Switzerland in short order. If Maria slipped a few bloodstones into his pocket when she hugged him goodbye, well, nobody noticed, did they?

And if the mansion felt even more vacant than usual, well, at least she had Jarvis this time, and she could always find something or other to keep her busy. Especially when Howard left, not long after sending his only child thousands of miles away from home—right.

Carrying on.

Maria wiped her face, rolled up her sleeves, flicked her radio on, and listened to Cecil’s updates about the latest exhibit in the Museum of Forbidden Technologies as she set to work.

Chapter Text

Maria sorely missed her son, when he was at boarding school.

Sure, he called home regularly, as much as his school allowed, but the receiver couldn’t quite pick up on some of the intonations needed for Ephemeral Italian. [More’s the pity.]

He wrote home frequently, too, with each letter arriving with a now-familiar burst of bright green flames on a marble countertop corner that was starting to look singed, because both Tony and Maria agreed that ‘normal’ means were far too slow. Thanks to that, they managed to keep in touch, with Maria sending Tony copies of her father’s letters and updates about what was going on back home, while Tony wrote about his forays into deep-cover espionage, complaining about gender norms and just generally keeping Jarvis and Maria updated on what was going on on his end.

So there was that, but…

The mansion in New York somehow got so, eerily silent at times, just like it’d been towards the end in Night Vale, even with Jarvis still doing his best to help, even with Maria turning the radio on at full blast. And sure, she could write to her son, but she couldn’t hug him, couldn’t teach him the best way to compensate for the recoil of grenade launchers, or how to make tiramisu.

So Maria dove into work again, and putting her AA degree in Media and Communications to good use helped distract her from the hole in her personal life because Howard was in the Arctic, [again,] and her son was in Switzerland, and sometimes it felt like all she needed was to start seeing the Dark Planet again for things to be just like how they’d been, back when she’d been at odds with life. [Damn Howard for this, for making her copy him when all she wanted was a quiet life with her family.]

Sure, the workload helped.

Talking with Howard’s acquaintances kept her busy, because she apparently wasn’t supposed to know what he was up to but that didn’t mean people didn’t try to spy on them anyway so she had plenty of practice getting rid of bugs. His friends also took up increasingly larger chunks of her time as well: Peggy’s occasional visits were welcome, though on the other hand, Obadiah rubbed her the wrong way even if she knew he was just trying to be cordial as well. More’s the pity, as she saw him quite a bit, and he was one of the most vocal supporters of her work in the philanthropic side of things.


Dealing with the PR department also took up more of her time, getting them up to snuff because these people’s standards were lax and she’d seen twelve-year-olds run tighter ships so these people had no excuse. [Honestly.] If she, a housewife with an AA degree from community college, had to teach them about counterintelligence tactics and misinformation campaigns and some of the finer nuances about subliminal messages, then something was clearly wrong.

The entire department might never reach Night Vale standards, by any means, but as long as there was improvement Maria wasn’t about to complain. And trying to spin this latest development had taken quite a bit of effort, too.

Because the world saw Howard Stark send his only child to boarding school at age seven, when she’d put so much effort into painting them as a happy family, and changing tracks was hard.

Yes, the Stark heir was in Switzerland, in a gifted program to help reach his full potential. At least, that’s what he said when he was sober, to the press, and Maria’d had to to focus really hard to soften her smile that round because it was all she could do to not bare her teeth and snarl about family or say anything about how she’d only agreed because that way her son wouldn’t have to hear or see her deal with Howard’s attempts to crawl back into the bottle when he was home, or…well.

Suffice it is to say, holding down the fort got significantly harder, in the days that followed.

The galas start becoming a regular thing…that then proceed to be nothing short of a pain because why was everyone so damn interested in her dress, of all things?!

She’d take it, granted—at least it wasn’t bad press—but why was her taste in clothes such a big deal? Literally all she cared about was pockets and ease of access for her knives…hmm. Another Night Vale thing, probably. And a halfway decent distraction from other things, so whatever. If it worked, it worked. [At this rate she’d probably take up piano playing again, to pass the time.]

It wasn’t as bad as before, especially since she at least had Jarvis. Plus Peggy’s visits were always something to look forward to, as well as the game she’d made of playing with Howard’s Vague Yet Menacing Agents. So there was that.

Maria took to recording the broadcasts, though, for when the silence became unbearable, so she could replay them as necessary. And a journal, to make sure she didn’t forget, because it was nearly a decade since she’d set foot in her hometown to but she’d be damned if she forgot anything. She may not have anything to go back to save for an empty house, but…

She knew she was Night Vale, carried it in her blood and breath, but sometimes the loneliness got to her, and the knowledge that neither Jarvis nor her son had ever gotten to see the lights in Radon Canyon or got to feel the power in the air as an entire classroom did bloodstone circle chants to ward off monsters that could not otherwise be comprehended, until Maria had to bite back the urge to scream at the injustice of it all.

 


 

Edwin Jarvis was…discomfited, by just how much he’d grown used to Maria’s and young Anthony’s eccentricities. More so, by the fact that he understood the reason for said quirks, and even more so because he was supportive of it all. Where before, he’d have balked at the prospect of teaching a seven-year-old how to fool a roomful of people, now Edwin could only hope that was enough because Howard was stubborn to a fault, but he had never expected things to get this far.

He had been the one to receive the ransom note that first time, is the thing.

The post had arrived as per usual, and Maria had set about her regular routine, so the plain white envelope sitting at the doorway had been very strange, to say the least. And when he’d picked it up in suspicion, Edwin had frozen in his tracks as he saw the opening lines.

“If you want to see your son again…”

Oh.

Oh, dear.

 

 

Maybe, in another life, Edwin Jarvis might have worried about how young Anthony was doing, alone and scared after having been kidnapped and with no guarantee he was going to be returned unharmed.

Might have worried about just what it meant, and how this would have been handled, as Howard was currently on an expedition and Maria was currently talking in talks about expanding an outreach program, and the ransom demand would have been even more stressful because of it.

[Not in this life, however.]

 

 

Edwin Jarvis saw the opening lines of the ransom note, and couldn’t help but think these poor kidnappers had chosen the wrong family to target. They wouldn’t last a day, not when young Anthony took so much after his mother. Not when Maria would doubtlessly go on the warpath, after seeing the note.

…oh, dear. This would be quite a mess to contend with, wouldn’t it?

 


 


No one had ever managed to successfully kidnap Tony Stark when he lived with his family.

That someone had managed to do so, not six months after he’d been shipped off to a boarding school program for gifted children, did not bode well.

Fortunately, he was recovered without incident, and everyone present agreed that he was a very lucky and resourceful boy, for him to have escaped his kidnappers. Very lucky indeed, or that his parents had had quite the foresight to teach him to escape the way he had, and weren’t they so proud of having a son who was so ingenious, to have managed to sabotage the cabin he was held in like that?

Maria was unimpressed.

It was either that, or succumb to the fury she felt, and since murder was illegal here and it’d be too obvious, she settled for pushing Howard to switch schools since their security was obviously abysmal, smiling all the while and ignoring Jarvis’ knowing looks.

“I told you so” didn’t cut it. If she hadn’t taught Tony how to disassemble a gun by the time he was five, if she hadn’t shown him the more basic combat invocations by the time he was six, or the best way to hide a knife—no.

No, don’t think about it. Her son was safe. Or, at least, as safe as he was going to get when not living with his family. [Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, nope, not time for a rerun of the Time of Knives…]

Maria was glad she’d taught her son as much as she could remember, because Howard’s stubbornness about their son “getting the best education money can buy” and “reaching his full potential” meant the man thought it was a one-off incident, and there was nothing Maria could to to change his mind, short of rendering him a vegetable and he was so, so lucky she loved him because the situation grated on her like no other.

If she didn’t love Howard as much as she did, if she didn’t want Tony to have the chance to grow up with both parents, she might just’ve tried her hand at magic, if not just leaving entirely. But her skill was more oriented towards breaking a mind than molding it, and even if Tony didn’t seem to hold his father in high regard—anyway. Moving on. Not options she wanted to explore.

Just…Maria was so, very glad her son was so brilliant.

It meant she’d been able to teach him more things ahead of schedule. Part of her had been slightly worried about teaching a seven-year-old some of the…messier invocations, even if she trusted he’d internalized the lessons on discretion, but now she had absolutely no regrets.

Especially when Howard’s main reaction to the first kidnapping had been to pressure the school to up its security, instead of—right. Moving on.

Suffice it is to say, there was a lot of shouting that particular evening in the mansion, and Jarvis’ sympathetic looks, and Maria clenched her jaw in lieu of her fists and made a note of what she’d need to teach her son sooner rather than later. Laser knife tactics and the longer battle invocations were something she’d planned on postponing until after puberty, but at this rate…hmm. [Choices, choices.]


Time passed.

 

The holidays rolled around again, and Maria wrapped her son in a tight hug the first chance she got, once he got off the plane. There were no cameras—Maria had taught Jarvis some ways to evade tails over the years, and they’d done their level best to obscure just when the Stark heir was returning.

The relatively short drive home is filled with Tony’s chatter, going a mile a minute in Ephemeral Italian, and Jarvis had been starting to learn it as well and Maria didn’t realize just how much she’d missed moments like these until now.

Surrounded by family, a family that loved and cared for each other, and maybe they weren’t all related by blood but Carbonells showed their love in unusual ways, quietly but fiercely, and Maria didn’t know why she had to resist the urge to tear up but she did.

Howard wouldn’t be arriving until later on in the month, and Maria felt only slightly guilty because she was glad for it.

She loved Howard, in a way, but…she knew, intellectually, that the reason he’d sent their son to boarding school was due to his assuming that Tony would be better off in a gifted program, that he simply wanted the best for his son. But her instincts were screaming to keep her family safe and intact and happy, and Howard had done nothing but the exact opposite, and that was not something Maria could forgive.

She loved Howard, he was family, and the father of her child, but…he was abysmal at acting like it. Their marriage was a ghost of what it’d once been, had been one-sided for years now, and seeing the borderline nonexistent relationship between her husband and her son broke her heart.

 


Perhaps, in another life, Maria might’ve been able to focus on mending the bridge between father and son with comforting words, might’ve been able to succeed at it, too.

But Maria was Night Vale, and a Carbonell; in her experience, love wasn’t shown in words so much as actions and Howard had been nothing but—well. Maria hoped this Steve Rogers appreciated just what Howard had sacrificed, to find him.

 

 

So, no, Maria didn’t feel as sorry as she probably should’ve, when Howard had called and said he wouldn’t be able to make it, when picking up his son from his first semester at boarding school, or even be in town until right before Christmas. Didn’t feel guilty, at the idea of yet another secret, because it’d fit right in with everything else that’d gone unsaid [like his Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency and the alcoholism and the list just went on—anyway].

At least this way, Maria’d have a chance to teach her son as much as she could, before Howard got home. She had a list of combat invocations and practice knives ready to go, and she’d done her very best to get the ingredients for the family recipes to make sure everything was perfect.

 


Officially, the Stark household celebrated Christmas just like any other family.

Unofficially, however, they had their own celebration before Howard arrived, with Maria modifying her family recipes to make sure Jarvis could enjoy it too, and with Jarvis deliberately trying not to watch Maria as taught her son the Night Vale traditional way of making hot chocolate with just a hint of antifreeze. There’s also lessons on how to best conceal weapons, and how to escape from enclosed spaces, for both Tony and Jarvis. [Just in case.]

Once Howard arrived, however, the lessons stopped, because trying to figure out how a normal family acted during the holidays was hard enough. Especially since there were even more cameras than usual, and galas, and turns out averting assassination attempts was easier when everyone’s focus was on the mistletoe instead.

Not to mention the fact that it’d been another year and still no progress on the Captain America front, which meant that it was another year of Howard trying to drown his sorrows once the cameras were gone and Maria had her hands full the entire time he was in town because trying to keep her husband from self-destructing was practically a full-time job, and not one she’d signed up for. [She was his wife, not his therapist, damn it all!]

However, the holidays passed by soon enough, and almost before she knew it, Maria found herself hugging her son goodbye as he set off towards another semester of boarding school.

In Switzerland.

Again, because Howard’s stubbornness knew no bounds and before, it’d been one of the things she’d loved about him but now it was nothing less than a hazard and—no, stop. [At least this time, her son would be safer, with that training under his belt.]

 

Time passed.


Time passed, and Maria slowly settled into her new routine. Protect her family as much as she could, where she could, and do her best for when she couldn’t.

Her attendance at galas and fundraisers increased, as the philanthropic side of Stark Industries took up more of her focus [to distract her from her frustration—no, stop], and the New York branch’s PR department was now a well-oiled machine that Maria could be proud of, if she made allowances for them not being Night Vale.

She also took to traveling alone. Just short visits, no extended trips abroad, but sometimes the silence of the mansion got to be too much and it was easy to find an excuse to visit the Los Angeles branch of Stark Industries for a change of pace. Besides—apart from Jarvis, it wasn’t like anyone would notice.

Not anyone she cared about, at any rate, not when Howard was in the Arctic again, and her son was in Switzerland. It helped take up time, at least. [It also gave her more clues as to how find her hometown, because she’d known it was so tiny so as to not merit a place on a map, but this was getting ridiculous.]

 

 


Time passed, and she got a phone call from the boarding school, about her son’s “disruptive behavior”. Something about picking fights and starting a fire, and “at this rate he’d be kicked out of boarding school within the week.”

Maria couldn’t help but frown—maybe it was just her, or a Night Vale thing, but in her experience, Tony was not one to pick fights at random. What the director was describing didn’t sound like him at all.

Finally, she sighed, and said, “pass me to him.”

“I’m sorry, but his phone privileges were revoked after that last incident with a classm—“

“Pass me to him, and I can promise you he’ll settle down.” Maria said politely, but with an undertone that had served her well in the past. It wasn’t menacing, per se, but if this two-bit director was going to try to get in her way…

“…you have five minutes. We are making an exception, just this once, thanks to your generous donations.”

Maria smiled, even if this director didn’t see it. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

Then the phone clicked, and Maria pinched the bridge of her nose because it was either that or succumb to the urge of cursing the entire school board, for giving her this headache, and Howard, for sending their son to boarding school and leaving her to deal with it while he gallivanted about the Arctic Circle.

“Hello? Mom? Is that you?”

Tesoro, what’s this about fighting?” She asked. Might as well rip the band-aid off.

“Some of the people here are calling me a mama’s boy, and I think it’s supposed to be an insult?” Her son sounded so offended at the prospect, it shouldn’t have been endearing but it was. “But then Justin from the other school insulted you, and I couldn’t let that go, could I?”

Maria sighed, and rubbed her temples.

“Oh, and last time I lost control and something caught on fire.” He added hastily, “Sorry.”

“Tony.” Maria said, and stopped. She’d known about some of it—he’d complained about the other kids since the very beginning, after all—but the most alarming thing had been his control. If anyone ever picked up on that…she shuddered. [Well, at least she knew just what to focus on for next time.]

“Tony, I appreciate it, but don’t worry. We don’t care about insults, we’re above them. Don’t fight on my behalf, I can take care of myself. Besides, sticks and stones can break our bones…”

“But words can shred a heart, I know, mom.” Tony finished. Then he gave a frustrated sigh. “Do I have to?”

“We’re not normal, tesoro. Now’s the best time to learn to get along with the others. Play nice, don’t make waves, and I’ll see what I can do about getting a vacation house in California. See if we can’t make summer vacation extra special.”

“You mean…”

“Play nice and you can help me look for it, make it our own mission the same way Howard has his. At worst, we have an entire desert to practice in. Deal?”

Deal. Play nice, don’t make waves, got it.”

“That’s my boy. Take care, tesoro.” Maria said warmly.

“Bye, mom. Love you too.”

 

 

While Howard wasn’t one for vacations nowadays, constantly busy with either the company or the Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency His Family Wasn’t Supposed To Know About [really, his attempts to hide it were adorable, both Maria and Tony had agreed, much to Jarvis’ thinly-veiled amusement], but he still had some properties around the world from his more easygoing days. However, there wasn’t one in California, and that, Maria could work with.

She had put her search for her hometown on the backburner, before: there wasn’t much to go back to, after all, and she had a family to keep safe. Besides, Howard’s mission to find his “good friend” [he sometimes talked about Captain America more warmly than his own son—no, stop] had done enough of a number on the family, and her own goal could wait. [Night Vale wasn’t going anywhere, after all.]

Now, however, Tony was getting to the age where some of what she was planning on teaching him would be hard to hide from outsiders. Since Howard seemed to be allergic to the idea of parenting, looked like it was up to Jarvis and Maria to show him the ropes.

 


 

Edwin Jarvis was not the one who received the next ransom demand.

No, that terrible privilege went to Howard, who was in town [for once], and unfortunate enough to answer the phone when it rang.

 


Maria had been visiting Margaret, at the time. Years later, he would still be eternally grateful for her not being in the room.

 

 

Edwin had not expected anything unusual; Howard was always in demand, after all; between Stark Industries and his various other enterprises, such as SHIELD, there were always people clamoring for his time.

No, his first indication that something had gone wrong was Howard.

Howard, who had stiffened and paled abruptly, then snapped into the receiver.

“Who is this, and why are you assuming I am going to accede to your demands?” He spat, cold and furious, and Edwin just knew it had happened again, and hated the fact that he could honestly say ‘again’.

“You say you have my son? Prove—“ then Howard froze, lurched back and, in a tone completely at odds with the white-knuckled grip he had on the phone, looked at Edwin, said, “they hung up on me. They say they kidnapped my son, and I heard him in the back, and then they hung up on me.”

Then, Howard took a deep breath, let it out, and Edwin could almost see the moment Howard entered the mindset not of a businessman, but of one of the founders of a Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency […oh dear, Maria really was rubbing off on him, wasn’t she?] and Edwin was already moving even as Howard stormed towards his office.

“Jarvis, call Carter, and let Maria know about this. I’ll get my men to track the call, and…they said they’d call again in an hour, with more detail. Didn’t sound like they know about SHIELD, I’ll need to talk to Fury and Philips to see if we’ve got any men wherever it is…”

Edwin nodded, even as he cringed internally. [Margaret would go on a warpath once she found out, and he didn’t want to think about how Maria would react.] However, it seemed like Howard wasn’t done talking.

“…and I’ll need to talk to the school because this is unacceptable, what are they even being paid for?”

Part of Edwin wanted to reassure Howard, to let him know that the odds of young Anthony truly being in danger were far lower than expected. The rest of him, however, kept silent. Both out of concern, and out of respect for Maria’s decision to not inform Howard of the particulars of just what her hometown got up to.

 


By the time the phone rang next, the parlor was swarming with poorly-disguised agents [honestly, who were they trying to fool?], Peggy was glaring at everyone and snapping orders to make sure everything was going smoothly, Maria was smiling and Edwin had pulled her aside the moment he’d noticed her fingertips starting to spark.

Nobody would question her going to the kitchen for a cup of tea, and that way it’d help obfuscate things until the shadows were moving normally again, and the feeling of impending doom had abated.

“Everything is going to be fine, Maria.” He said, trying to give her a reassuring smile that wasn’t strained, and failing miserably.

“They took. My son. Again.” She replied, smile still in place but hands finally curling around the mug instead of hovering over the bloodstones she had in her pocket.

“He’ll be fine, Maria. They’re working on it, and you know him. But if you keep this up, they—“ he gave a significant glance to the parlor, where Howard could clearly be heard despite being quite a ways away—“will notice.”

She clenched her jaw, and nodded tightly. Then, “I think I’ll need more tea, please.”

Edwin politely pretended to ignore the way her hands glowed ever-so-slightly, and the way the shadows were now bristling and coiling rhythmically in the back, as he refilled her mug.

“He’ll be fine, Maria.”

It took nearly the entire kettle for Maria to get everything back under control, but by the time they returned to the group, she didn’t look like she was anything other than worried for her son’s behalf.

Just in time, too: when the phone rang again, the room as a whole tensed. Howard did as well, but he picked up the phone, and readied himself for dealing with these kidnappers as he gave significant glances to Margaret and the others, ready to track the call, ready to send whoever was needed—but it was all for naught.

“Whoever you—“ Howard started, deadly serious, before cutting himself off abruptly. “Tony?!”

And in that moment, unnoticed by everyone else, Edwin and Maria just shared a look from across the room, and Maria finally let her shoulders relax because they didn’t need words to know what had happened.

“Tony, what are you doing on the line? Where are you, tell me what happened.” Howard said, his voice not showing any of the confusion on his face.

“You escaped? Okay, no, tell me more, stay on the line, keep talking…”


As the room burst into motion once again, with a clear goal now in place, Maria sidled over to where Edwin stood unobtrusively in the corner.

“Looks like I’ll have to step up the pace even more,” she said quietly as the room set to work on finding just where young Anthony had gotten off to.

This time, Edwin didn’t blink, just nodded tightly.

He respected Howard, but some of his choices were not ones he would ever support, and this latest debacle, and the fight that would doubtlessly follow in the evening after dinner once everyone else was gone, only solidified his decision. He respected Howard, but dear goodness his approach to his family was abysmal. Honestly, at this point Edwin and Maria were working around him, rather than with him, and that was most definitely not something he would have expected of the man he’d befriended long ago.

“I’ll get some cuttings of the orange tree, see if they won’t take in the California house.” Edwin found himself answering just as quietly, and pretended he hadn’t felt a moment of dark satisfaction at Maria’s answering smile.

 


 

Howard didn’t pull his son from boarding school, afterwards. But that was fine—Maria had long since made her peace with Howard’s obliviousness to attempts on his or his family’s lives.

No, instead, he put even more pressure to up their security, made sure the staff knew they were on thin ice, threw his weight around, and made full use of the power that came with the Stark name. But he didn’t pull his son from boarding school.

Maria’s smile never slipped from her face, in public, even as she made plans.

She hadn’t gone on vacation for quite a while, after all, and nobody would question it if she took one now. Just her, her son, and Jarvis, because Howard preferred to use the summer to go on expeditions…yes, that’d work. That’d work quite well.

And if anyone were to question why she went to the desert instead of the apparently gorgeous beaches, well, rich people were supposed to be eccentric, weren’t they?

 

 


The house she and Jarvis had agreed on was now almost entirely settled in, by the time Tony returned for the summer.

Then, Maria swept him off to California, after Howard had set off on yet another expedition. If she forgot to clarify just what part of California, well, that wasn’t her problem, then was it? Anyone trying to tail them was more than welcome to scour Beverly Hills or Los Angeles or wherever it was that people normally went to vacation.

It’d been far too long since she’d last set foot in a desert, anyway. And there were three, in the state, there was no way she wasn’t going to take advantage of that.

 


Maria taught her son everything she could cram into the next few weeks, with as much hands-on learning as she could manage via family bonding activities. [If they were suspiciously like the Girl Scout camping trips from her childhood, well, Maria was making up this parenting thing as she went along, okay? She was doing her best!]

Siege-breaking tactics, battle invocation chants that doubled as songs, even more advanced knife-fighting techniques. Controlling plants with minds, how to best handle a sniper rifle and compensate for the recoil of a submachine gun, how to thrive in the seemingly-merciless desert, everything Maria could think of that she could manage.

Tony loved it, took to it like he was born to it. [Maria was so proud.]

Jarvis also participated in these lessons, sometimes, and both Tony and Maria had laughed at his gobsmacked expression when he’d successfully managed to make the Joshua tree wave back. [Why was he so surprised? He was at least an honorary Night Vale citizen too, by now.]

During the day, it was their routine: drive out to the desert, drills, practice, go home to take a siesta when the heat got to be too much, and learn something new every day.

Whether that was how to collect venom from the gila monster that’d somehow snuck into the house because it gave coffee an extra kick, or the invocation to make a gentle breeze, it didn’t matter. Every day was very informative, albeit for different reasons, and Maria was just grateful they were surrounded by nothing for miles when she finally let loose and showed Tony just how to make a sandstorm. That he learned the invocation to make sure there were no bodies, after said sandstorm ended up taking out yet another paramilitary outfit who’d mistakenly assumed Howard had married her for her looks and Tony was an easy target, was just their luck.

And at night, it was turning on the radio, and driving around lonely stretches of empty highways, searching for Night Vale.

She’d promised, after all—and if it helped Tony relate to Howard, at least on some level, more’s the better. A mission was a mission, after all, even if Night Vale would hopefully prove to be less elusive than Captain America.

At best, they’d find it. At worst, Tony would get some more practice in navigating by stars, and he very clearly didn’t mind spending time with her and Jarvis.

No cameras, no need to hide who they were. No Howard with a glass of bourbon in hand, nobody who’d look disapprovingly when Ephemeral Italian slipped out, no pressure to be what others deemed normal—just the three of them, and the desert stretching as far as the eye could see.

 

As far as vacations went, Maria deemed it a success.

 

Chapter Text


Tony returned to boarding school in the fall, and Maria went back to business, running the PR department, and working with Jarvis to help watch Howard’s back. Dealing with the odd saboteur, because Howard’s obliviousness to attempts on his life was downright alarming [seriously, how had he survived for this long?] and making sure to safeguard her family the best she could.


Time passed, and Maria filled her days with constant fundraisers, galas, counterespionage and infiltration tactics, the usual.

Her nights tended to be quieter, and her collection of broadcast recordings was growing by the week. Same with the letters from her father [even if they were starting to arrive after longer and longer periods of time, and each time bringing news of how busy things were getting, about how he might get slated for a command position, and this was the beginning of an end, wasn’t it].

 

 

Howard was at least starting to scale back on his career, starting to learn the concept of a work-life balance, but Maria couldn’t help but privately think it was too little, too late. Sure, he was in town more often, nowadays, but that wasn’t saying much, especially given just how little he’d been around when Tony had needed him most. Not when they still had constant fights, though, admittedly, those had been slowly decreasing as well.

 

 

The boarding school had started to make phone calls again, saying Tony was going missing for odd stretches of time after curfew.

Tony’s letters fill in whatever the phone calls don’t, and it’s through his letters that Maria and Jarvis learn that said ‘curfew violations’ were actually kidnapping attempts, and more than once Maria found herself a hair away from marching to the board of directors because honestly, what kind of school were they running? [Ugh. Desert Bluffs quality, right there.]

Fortunately, however, Tony had also mentioned he was working on fast-tracking his way through, and had also urged her to not worry, because “these guys are easy, mom, nothing like last summer, and this way I get good practice and what’s the worst thing the school can do for my missing curfew sometimes? Kick me out?” until finally Maria relaxed. She wasn’t happy by any means, but as Tony liked to remind her, he was now eight and had very good teachers.

Jarvis had made a similarly pained face, when he’d found out as well, but…well, Tony wasn’t wrong. She’d been helping overthrow governments when she was his age after all [but then she’d had both her mother and her father teaching her the ins and outs of things—no, stop].

And so it was that Tony started to get the reputation of a delinquent at his boarding school.

Or, at least, that’s what he mentioned in his letters, because neither Maria nor Howard got many phone calls about it, not after Maria had mentioned that if an eight-year-old was capable of evading their supposedly top-notch security measures, then that didn’t exactly inspire confidence, now, did it? [Yes, Maria’d taught Tony how to evade tails by the time he was six, but still. It was the principle of the matter.]

 


Time passed, and she carried on.

There was a lot of work to do, dealing with the press and working with various other charities because of the ongoing recession. On top of that, Maria was the wife of the owner of one of the biggest weapons companies during the Cold War, and maybe Obadiah was doing good work but Howard still needed all the help he could get.

Especially since Howard was still so damn oblivious to saboteurs, and Maria started to crack down on internal security as well because how was their PR department more secure than their R&D?! Her eight year old had more knowledge of deep-cover espionage than their guys, for crying out loud! Honestly. Like she wasn’t busy enough as it was, watching Howard’s back, now she had to train up these guys to prevent leaks? [The things she did for her family…]

Oh well. Wasn’t anything Maria couldn’t handle, just incredibly annoying. Especially given how only Jarvis and said departments seemed to be aware of just what she was doing, with Obadiah having an inkling of her work with PR and she wasn’t even surprised by Howard’s disconnect with what was going on anymore.

 

 

Tony grew up in fits and starts, every time she saw him. It was bittersweet, seeing just how fast it was, how he was getting taller in practically the blink of an eye, how the baby fat was fading and how much he resembled Howard with every day that passed.

Her son was growing up so fast, and she was missing so much of it. [Damn Howard and his alcoholism, and that stupid boarding school.]

Oh, Maria tried her best, to not miss out, but…there was only so much that could be said over the phone, what with Ephemeral Italian not always cooperating with current technology, and letters couldn’t convey everything either. Tips on how to refine control? Yes. Hugs, however? Not so much.


And as her son got older, and learned more about how the outside world was like, he sometimes came home with questions Maria had no easy answer to.

Questions like “why does he yell so much?” and “why does he like drinking that?”

Questions that had Maria floundering for an answer that wouldn’t have her family splintering apart, because she knew firsthand just how little Tony cared about his father, had worked hard to get him to consider him in a different light what with comparing her own goal to find Night Vale with Howard’s mission of finding Captain America.

Questions that were hard to even think about, because how was she supposed to explain to her son that Howard had been self-destructing since before he’d been born? How was she supposed to talk about how the only reason that she hadn’t divorced Howard, was because she didn’t want to force her son to grow up without his father if she could help it? That the main reason she protected him, nowadays, was because he was the father of her child?

…suffice it was to say, those talks tended to be uncomfortable, frustrating, and featured quite a few mentions of “you’ll understand when you get older”.

But really—what was she supposed to say? Tony was a genius, but he was still so, very young, and…well.

The main reason Maria had emphasized Carbonell family values was because he was gone so damn often, because while she—and Tony, by extension, having been raised by her—understood what Howard was doing by working hard, and searching so much for his lost friend, to an outsider it simply looked like Howard didn’t care about his family, didn’t care about his son, and that was not the case, damn it.

She had to believe that. [It hurt less than the alternative.]

Sure, in doing so she might have accidentally caused a minor case of miscommunication along the way, as Tony had latched onto her idea of family values ‘like a limpet’, as Jarvis put it, but…well, at this point, it could only help. Especially given the huge emphasis people around here seemed to put on fathers, which was something that Maria had side-eyed ever since Jarvis had brought it to to her attention because it sounded so damaging, what even. [Nope, Night Vale was clearly better.]

 


 

Margaret “Peggy” Carter hadn’t had to speak to Howard outside of work for several months now. It was for the best, really.

Howard had changed significantly, over the years, and through her rare visits to the Stark mansion it’d still been plain to see that he absolutely did not deserve his wife.

Not when Maria was so clearly dedicated to holding down the fort while he was gone, speaking to the bureaucrats that dropped by with a smile that dropped as soon as they were gone, not when she handled the press with the finesse of a piano player.

Really, for all that Howard still talked about his wife as a civilian, Peggy had actually suspected she’d been a plant more than anything else for the longest time—right up until Tony was shipped off to boarding school.

Because, until then, Maria had settled herself in and made quite a niche for herself, as the wife of one of the biggest names in the country. More than once Peggy’d felt tempted to suggest some of the trainees in SHIELD to take notes on how she was running PR, because of the tactics—and then Howard got it in his head that shipping the son he saw all of twice a year off to boarding school was a good idea, and…well.

The anger Maria had shown, in one of the only fights Peggy had seen between the two, had more than allayed any suspicions she’d ever had.

 

Later, when it came up during one of her visits to the Stark mansion, Peggy got more of the story, too. Reading between the lines wasn’t that hard, and the discovery that Howard’s alcoholism had increased to the point where Maria—who very visibly adored her family, who’d smiled whenever Howard came up in conversation and may-or-may-not have been teaching her son how to use throwing knives, if the pockmarks lining the eastern wing hall were any indicator—had deemed it a good idea to send her only child thousands of miles away was…unpleasant, to say the least.

The sharpness in Maria’s smile was not lost on Peggy, though, and the way she held herself had also helped with the quiet concern over whether or not she’d needed help. [If she had, Peggy’s respect for Howard would have decreased even more, and the urge to punch him would have been downright impossible to resist.] But Maria could take care of herself.

That, at least, was something that hadn’t changed over time.

Granted, it also meant Peggy shared quite a few commiserating looks with Jarvis, as time went by, because it still didn’t erase the fact that Howard’s issues were doing a number on his family.

Oh, the world probably thought otherwise, given how masterful Maria was at handling the press, but Peggy, despite only being able to stop by every so often, was able to see past the flash of the cameras easily enough.

Howard’s alcoholism was just the first thing that came to notice, really. Even then, it was scarily well-hidden; if it hadn’t been for the way Maria’s eyes sharpened whenever the bottle came out, if she hadn’t known Howard beforehand, Peggy wasn’t sure if she’d have been able to pick up on it at all.

That wasn’t it, though. Maria had been very accepting of Howard’s tendency to drown himself in work, at first. But as Howard hardened and changed, Maria had grown increasingly resigned with each Arctic expedition he went on, and Peggy had noticed that Tony didn’t really seem to hold his father in high regard.

Or any regard, really—and at first it’d been slightly alarming, when Tony had asked her “why people think dads are such a big deal”, but in retrospect, Howard’s lack of a personal life had really only kicked off when his only child was born.

It was saddening, really. Especially since Peggy had known Howard, before, and he’d seemed the sort who would have made a good parent—yet the man who was even now on yet another expedition could not have been further from it.

Well…at least Maria and Tony were happy, and safe. The kidnapping attempts had plummeted, so Howard was succeeding in being a decent father in that aspect at least. Wasn’t enough for Peggy to feel up to talking to him outside of work, but still. At this point, she’d take what she could get.

 


 

Maria made a point of scheduling something special for the holidays, before Howard arrived, and summer vacations became almost synonymous with their visits to California, and they covered thousands of miles searching for Night Vale.


It didn’t help that something happened in 1983, and Maria got a migraine even as the broadcast fragmented and mentioned reality splitting, and she’d gotten dreadfully rusty in her quantum mechanics which meant she’d have to alter her calculations even more…drat. Looked like finding her hometown would be even more complicated than she thought.

Oh well. At least the trail wasn’t as cold as it had been before, now that she had an idea of where to turn to in her search.

Tony had been slightly disappointed, at first, before they’d started covering quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Then, he’d gotten the most adorably determined look on his face she’d ever seen, and solemnly looked up at her and promised to help her find Night Vale.


“Don’t worry, tesoro. We carry it wherever we go, that’s not what I’m missing. I just wish you could see it, at least once.” She’d said, and ruffled his hair with a smile.

No need for her son to know the odds of finding it were infinitesimal now, nope. And their family already had one person who was tearing himself apart in his search, no need to add to that number.

Maria wanted to visit her hometown at least once more, yes. But never at her family’s expense.

 


Tony’s letters keep coming in, and Maria’s been in talks with both Howard and the boarding school for weeks now, trying to establish a set deadline since Tony was already being fast-tracked through a program intended for genii and at this rate he’d be done before his thirteenth birthday.

Surprisingly, Howard’s on her side [for once], pushing for an early graduation, and Tony’s curiosity about what MIT has to offer only helps their argument. By the time they come to an agreement, it’s nearly winter break again.

Of course, Howard has yet another work emergency that has him arriving late, but that’s okay. The entire household’s used to it by now.

Besides, that just means more time to practice what Maria’d been teaching her family. More invocations, more control exercises, breaking out the family recipes again, the usual—and all without having to worry about Howard’s disapproval.

After all—over a decade into their marriage, and Howard had yet to figure out just that being Night Vale meant. And at this point, Maria had long since given up trying to explain. Not when he was so absent while sober, not when he might use it against them when he was drunk.

Tony thought it was a game, at this point, for why they were keeping it a secret. Well…if it helped keep him safe, Maria was more than willing to play along.

Because Howard’s dialing back on things, again—not just work, but the alcohol as well. Starting to act like he’d used to, early on during their marriage. But Maria isn’t getting her hopes up that it’ll be any different than last time. Or the time before that, or…well.

Maybe she was just being cynical, and he meant it this time. Didn’t matter. She wasn’t about to hold her breath either way, it wasn’t like anything else changed, not really. [The assassination attempts hadn’t gone down by much, at least.]

They still made a happy family, for the press, and Tony was still more reserved around his father and Howard didn’t notice, and Maria’s hackles still raised whenever she saw him with a glass of anything remotely alcoholic in hand—so, no. Not much had changed.

 

Time flew by, as it was wont to do.

 

Tony went off to Switzerland, Howard had to leave for work again, and so Maria and Jarvis looked at each other, rolled up their sleeves, and set to work holding down the fort. Again.

As well as gearing up for the future, because with her family’s luck, they’d be swept up into the Blood-Space War somehow, and while she was a Media and Communications major, her son wasn’t, and while time-traveling assassins had left her alone outside Night Vale thus far, it wasn’t a guarantee for the future and there was no way she was leaving that up to chance. Not if she could help it.

So she set up contingency plans—as many as she could work out, to try to compensate for as many eventualities as she could manage, and between that, and running another few sets of calculations searching for Night Vale, Maria was busier than ever. [Perfect.]

Especially since she also had to plan for their summer vacation, and getting her hands on some of the components had taken quite a bit of legwork. [Such a fuss over uranium, of all things? She’d never understand these people’s priorities.]

Plus the constant barrage of people trying to get to her husband, there was that too.

Whatever Howard was getting into, it must’ve been something good, what with the the way these people were pulling out the big guns and sending in men and women that reminded Maria of her community theater days.

Still second-rate goons for the most part, though, more’s the pity. [Seriously, though: where did these people come from, Desert Bluffs? Ugh.]

Er…that was to say, more’s the pity on her end, as she had absolutely no complaints about Tony’s safety. She’d done her best to make sure that her son wouldn’t be at risk, if he was ever swept up by the Summer Reading Program, or Street Cleaning Day, so these guys shouldn’t be much of a challenge. According to his letters, they really weren’t, and Maria was content with keeping it that way. [Rather, she’d have been happier if he wasn’t attacked at all, but if wishes were…right. Anyway.]

 

Either way, it meant summer vacation was a welcome respite. Because for all that the mansion was as familiar as she could make it, between the wards and the shadows, the desert was…something else.

Home was where her family was, of course, but…she wished they could at least see Night Vale. Just the once, even. More than once, Maria had found herself wondering if Old Woman Josie and Jarvis would get along, wondering if Tony would’ve loved the lights in Radon Canyon the same way she had.

Before Howard had changed, before she’d had to fight to keep him from crawling into the bottle and never coming back out, Maria had also wondered what he would’ve thought of it all. The Howard she’d married would’ve gotten a kick out of the Museum of Forbidden Technologies—then again, neither of them were the same people they’d been when they’d first gotten married, now, were they.

 


During another summer vacation, Tony finds a pamphlet on satellite campuses for Night Vale Community College on the kitchen counter, and nearly causes a blackout in his glee.

 

“There’s one a train ride away from MIT, mom!” He said, beaming as he waved the flyer.

“Are you sure you can handle the workload, tesoro?” Maria asked, even though she’d already seen the answer in his eyes.

“Oh, sure. I took a look at the courses offered, looks like college students are learning what you taught me when I was nine.” Tony scoffed, still clutching the flyer like a lifeline.

“Be nice. Quantum mechanics are actually pretty tricky for most people.” Maria tried to censure, before adding, “Apparently, anyway.”

“Still. I can do it in my sleep, and this is kinda your alma mater! I wanna go, mom. Please?

And now Jarvis was looking slightly amused by it all, what with the hopeful look Tony was throwing her and it was really hard not to fold like wet paper after a few seconds of it.

Finally, though, she sighed. “You’ll need to crack down on your control even more, then, tesoro. Just in case.”

As if to prove her case, Tony proceeded to cheer, and every single light in the household flickered before he noticed what he was doing.

“Oops.” He said, hastily putting his hands behind his back and blushing slightly.

“May I suggest taking it outside?” Jarvis asked, not even trying to hide his amusement anymore.

“I was going to say the same thing.” Maria said with a small smile. “It’s been a while since we’ve done sandstorms, hasn’t it?”

 


 

Maria is so, very glad that she raised Tony with Carbonell family values, because if not she might not have been able to resist the urge to punch Howard. His only child was a prodigy, was entering MIT in less than a month, and he couldn’t so much as say a simple “I’m proud of you”? Not a word of encouragement?

Just…really. Howard’s [in]ability to communicate when it came to anything vaguely emotional was breathtaking.

Part of her felt slightly guilty, knowing that Tony really didn’t care much for his father’s opinion, but whenever Howard pulled stunts like this she was reminded of why Night Vale was simply the gift the kept on giving.

Yes, it’d been the cause of another fight, and yes, it had started after dinner, after the announcement had gone out and Howard had once again failed abysmally at being a father, and while Maria had stopped counting the number of times it’d happened, this time was notable because…well, his only child was going to college, shouldn’t that have gotten more acknowledgement than the “promising readings” he’d apparently received earlier that week?!

Just…no.

Maria’s tired. But she has to play the peacekeeper, because she knows that she’s just about the only bridge between her husband and her son, knows that the only reason Tony respects or even cares about Howard is because of the effort she’s put into building that relationship because the Elder gods know that Howard was never around enough for it to form naturally, and…it’s exhausting. Jarvis has been invaluable in helping her, but…she’s tired.

Maria still musters the energy to hug her son, though, when he’s packed his bags for MIT, and slips some more of her bloodstones into his pocket with a quiet smile.

Howard thinks the reason Tony’s all but vibrating in place at the prospect of going to college is because of MIT’s reputation. He’s not exactly wrong, per se, but then again, there’s been so much he’s missed over the years, that Maria didn’t even bother to correct him. Night Vale Community College wasn’t an accredited school, after all, odds were he’d consider it a waste of time and money. [His loss.]

 

Time flies by, and the attacks on both her and Howard slowly dwindle. According to Tony’s letters and phone calls on his newly-established and well-secured phone line, the same thing’s happening on his end.

Well. Maria’s not complaining, at least. Hiding it is getting trickier nowadays, since Howard’s around more often [even if his obliviousness hadn’t improved much]. Plus she’s got enough to work on, with PR, especially since it seems Hank Pym’s grudge against Howard isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

 


Tony sounds like he’s having a blast—both literally and figuratively, seeing as he’s latched onto the Computer and Fire Sciences AA degree at Night Vale Community College, with all that entailed, sentient robot arms named DUM-E included.

That, combined with his comments along the lines of “mom, don’t worry, I’m literally doing my economics homework in my sleep”, Maria wasn’t overly worried about how he was settling in at college. Some concern, yes, especially after Tony mentioned having to take an English class for the writing credits at NVCC, but she trusted her son could take care of himself. [He sounded happy, at least, and that’s all she could ask.]

 

Time passed, as per usual.

 

The attacks are dwindling even more, but…sometimes, Maria can’t help but feel discomfited, when she’s taking care of the nondescript men and women going after her and her husband. Sometimes, they feel familiar, but not, and Maria can’t explain just why she feels the urge to dispatch them even more viciously than usual. Only faint impressions, nothing big, as if they’d once breathed the same air before, or something. [Strange.]

Nothing she can’t take care of, of course, but…it was new, and Maria wasn’t sure if she liked this new development or not. Especially as time went on and it’s happening more and more often, and by the time she starts getting the same vibe from Obadiah, she’s almost certain it’s just her paranoia acting up again. [It was probably nothing.]

Still, though, Maria writes it down, just in case. Keeps it in her journal, the one with all her memories of Night Vale, tucked securely in the drawer alongside the recordings she’s made of the broadcasts.

 


 


Tony’s letters and phone calls keep referring to his new friend, and Maria was very happy to meet this ‘Rhodey’, as he so called him. Pity Howard wasn’t around to meet his son’s friends from college, but Maria and Jarvis did their best to make up for it in exchange.

 

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Rhodes,” Jarvis says with a smile and a firm handshake.

“Oh, no, Mr. Jarvis, just call me James, but Jim works too—I can only imagine how Tony’s been referring to me in what he’s told you.”

“Call me Jarvis, then, James—“ Jarvis started to reassure, only to duck his head a little and smile as Tony burst through the door, his bags in hand.

“Oh, hey, platypus! Glad to see you two’re getting along. Have you met mom yet?”

Jim’s hand made a noise when it met his forehead, and Maria felt a corner of her mouth twitch up even as she introduced herself.

And if she saw Jarvis eyeing their guest oddly, and quietly pulled him aside just before their meal, well…it was nice, having their strange little family grow. Especially since this was the first friend Tony had ever brought home, the first friend he’d made that was roughly around his age, and it was comforting to know that Tony had been able to find someone who accepted him for what he was so soon.

Moments like these—with everyone around the table, chatting and eating and having a good time—were almost vanishingly rare, now. Hopefully, they’d happen more often, but in the meantime, Maria would take what she could get.

 


 

Edwin had recognized the look in James' eyes from the moment he’d first entered the mansion, and perhaps it had been more than a little presumptuous, but all he had been able to think at the time was ‘oh, thank goodness. I’m not the only one anymore'.

For he had also been present for some of the phone calls, and had been the recipient of young Anthony’s letters, and if he had befriended James the same way Maria had Edwin, then James could certainly do with some advice.

 

“You mean it’s genetic?! God, I thought Tony was just…”

Edwin shook his head. “He comes by it honestly, I’m afraid. His mother gave me quite a scare the first time I saw her drinking antifreeze—oh, on that note, I would strongly recommend to be careful if either of them offer you something to eat, especially if you didn’t see it being made. Maria has a habit of adding gila monster venom to her coffee, and as a boy, Anthony took his cereal with dish soap.”

The poor young man just blinked mutely at him, and looked disbelievingly towards the kitchen. “What, are they aliens or something? I mean, I’m not complaining, but…”

Edwin couldn’t help but laugh, at that. “Pull up a chair, young man, and let me tell you about a small town called Night Vale…”

Maria was currently teaching young Anthony how to not make something explode in the kitchen, he had time to explain some things to their guest. Nothing overly personal, of course, but…there were things that would not go amiss.

 


 

Time flies by, and Tony’s phone calls are just him being ecstatic about getting his AA in Computer and Fire Sciences, and waxing poetic over his thesis project.

His thesis project, an AI, that may or may not have been the case of the blackout that’d nearly taken out the entirety of the tri-state area, and Maria’s so proud. Jarvis had been mildly alarmed, at first, but after a conversation with the AI he’d calmed down and hadn’t had to worry about the end of life as he knew it.


“I’m thinking of naming him after Jarvis, mom. The AI liked he/him pronouns, and I think he likes him, so…what do you two think? This is on speakerphone, right?”

“I’m thinking that you just coded me another grandson, tesoro.” Maria said, and looking at Jarvis’ frozen figure, added, “Also, I think you might’ve crashed our Jarvis, a little.”

Jarvis blinked, at that, and Maria had to fight not to show her mirth as she saw the pride and shock warring on his face. “Anthony, I—I’m honored, but…do you really think—“

“Jarvis, the AI really admires you, and he actually wanted to change his name already but he wanted your blessing first.” Tony piped up. “And—yep, I think he’s listening, and—alright, then, it’s official. Jarvis, meet Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System. JARVIS, for short.”

“Pleased to meet you.” A polite-sounding, if faintly robotic British voice filtered over the receiver, and this time Maria didn’t bite back her laughter as Jarvis blinked before answering.

“Pleased to meet you as well, JARVIS.”

 

 

Time passed, and before she knew it, Tony was taller than her. [Not by much, granted, as he’d apparently taken after her in that respect, but still.]

He’s also the spitting image of Howard, now, and more than one person had done a second take when looking at him standing by his father [on the vanishingly rare occasion that happened]. Tony’s taken to using it to his advantage, and maybe Howard was fooled by the press’ headlines, but the first time she’d seen it, she’d laughed until she’d cried. [‘And so the student has become the master’ indeed.]


Howard, of course, didn’t see it that way, and it’d led to yet another fight, but then Maria had been toying with the idea of filing for divorce for years. Especially after her son was eighteen because…well. Their marriage had been in tatters for years now, what was the point?

He was rich enough to remarry fast if that was what he wanted, and…well, he wasn’t the man she’d married. Not since the alcohol, not since she’d caught him lifting a hand against their son, all those years ago. He was her husband, but he wasn’t family, not really.

…even if part of her still loved Howard, even now, despite everything—it was exhausting, and had been for years now. No, even if he was starting to act like he had been, back before anything, it wasn’t…wasn’t worth it, to stick around. [Was it?] Sure, sometimes Maria remembered why she was doing it, but other times Howard was nearly a stranger even to her, and—right.

Plus Tony could take care of himself, and was shaping up to be a powerhouse—so Maria’s job here was nearly done. Once Tony was an adult, Maria could just disappear from the world at large, and dedicate herself fully to finding Night Vale. Just walk into the desert, and not look back. [The idea was so tempting, sometimes.]

 

Maria was tired. But she could pull through. [As long as her family needed her to, at least.]

 


Tony’s graduation from MIT was very, very different to what Maria remembered of higher education. [Huh.] That it wasn’t done in secret had thrown her, a little, but…right, these people did things differently.

Either way, the world knew the Stark heir was graduating, as it was well-covered in the press. What was less well-known was how close Howard came to missing said graduation, because of…Maria didn’t even remember his excuses, anymore. [Toss-up between work emergency, or delay in return from his latest Arctic expedition, probably.]

Either way, Maria and Jarvis were beaming throughout the ceremony, while Howard looked on, aloof as ever. Maria wasn’t sure if she was imagining the hint of pride in his eyes, but…well. If it wasn’t just her, it’d be a very pleasant surprise. Hopefully, he’d tell it to his son. [Ha. Hopefully.]

Granted, Tony would be staying in MIT, after graduation, what with his chasing not one, but two doctorates, but.

Graduation was a pretty big deal. Not that Maria needed that to be proud of her son, of course, but…well, obviously Howard had high expectations, but if he didn’t say something as simple as an “I’m proud of you” to Tony, Maria might’ve been tired but she was pretty sure she had enough energy for another fight in her. Off-camera of course, but still.


Turns out she didn’t need to fight after all: Tony’d noticed the look in her eyes, when Howard had given him the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head after his graduation before leaving [again], and reassured her to not worry, he wasn’t the one he’d cared about being there.

Oh well. She might have that fight anyway, just out of general principle.

…or maybe she’ll just channel that frustration into taking out the saboteurs trying to kidnap her son, that worked, too.

 


Maria handles PR as easily as her knives, easy as breathing, nowadays, but it still gets rather tiring, smiling for the cameras. It’s hard work, projecting the image of a happy family, a happy couple, after all.


It helps that she, Jarvis, and Tony have their celebration before Howard gets home, of course. Helps lighten her mood, seeing her family together and happy, reminds her of just what she’s working so hard to protect.

The gala she and Howard go to afterwards is nothing special, as far as social events go; just another in her long, long list of them, just another example of the Stark family showing off their philanthropy.


The problem is what happens afterwards.

Howard hadn’t been drinking [for once], so Maria didn’t fight him to drive them home, like she’d had to in the past.

[Talk about irony.]

Howard was stone-cold sober, when he got into a car accident.

 


 

Maria felt alert, in a way she hadn’t in years, felt every second as she felt something approaching them nearby—something familiar but not, but it’s not until she sees the distant figure slowly approaching them that it finally hits home.

Because that figure is a spectre of Desert Bluffs, it was something she could practically taste it in the air like a miasma.

Whatever it was, it was after them. The embodiment of Desert Bluffs, compressed into a mortal shell, and she couldn’t do anything about it because she was pinned by the wreckage, her right knee was in agony and her ribs were screaming but—Howard.

Howard was blinking awake, turning to ask if she was okay, and he was still in shock and he might’ve gotten of lighter than she had but he was in danger and—no.

There was no time.

Maria had no time, not right now, to explain. Not when an unholy being of everything she feared and hated was bearing down on them, not when this latest assassin was clearly trying to finish the job, not when Howard was still in shock [like any normal person]—

“I’m sorry, Howard,” she says, sparing him a single glance, before leaning forward and across him and gearing up to fight not just for her life, but for his as well. If he rejected her for being Night Vale after this, fine. She was past caring, right now.

“Maria, wha—“ she hears, but she doesn’t look away from the figure approaching them.

 

 

In another life, Maria would have frozen, torn between shock and pain from her own injuries. Would have been unable to do more than scream in fear, when the Winter Soldier came.

In this life, however, Maria doesn’t scream—she roars, in rage and defiance, fights back like a wounded animal, with tooth and claw.

 

 

Dark magic coils and surges, shadows writhe under her command—and the spectre bats them away easily, searing light eating away at everything in its path. As expected of the embodiment of Desert Bluffs, of course, but still terrifying to behold.

But Maria is Night Vale, carries it in her blood and breath, and that means something, even if she hasn’t set foot in her hometown for nearly half her life now, and she was the only thing between this being and her husband, so she was going to raise hell or die trying.

…and at this rate it’s going to be ‘die trying’, because she’s starting to feel light-headed and every breath hurts more than the last, but she couldn’t pass out, not yet, not when Howard was still in danger—

The entropy roiling in the air reminds her of home, reminds her of the Void, and that gives her an idea. She’s not sure it’ll work, but…anywhere’s safer than here, anywhen he’d end up would be safer—and she’d been researching portals since she’d fallen through one, oh so long ago, she’s got part of the theory down—

The portal flickers into existence out of equal parts will and desperation, and Maria spares a valuable second to turn away from the fight and shove Howard through it, despite his protests, despite how he’s flailing his limbs and reaching towards her, and closes the moment he’s through.


Maria’s not quite sure where he’s going to fall out. But she plans on following him, if possible, once she takes out this threat.

 

Bisnonna, lend me strength to make them scream,” she breathed, in the moment between one invocation and another, and called on the oldest chants she’d learned at her mother’s knee. The ones she’d sworn to only use if all else had failed, because there were things man was not meant to know, monsters never meant to be wakened. The ones that would have been banned by the City Council, if they’d known just what else ran in her family’s veins. Their patron goddess of sorts, the being that thrived on wanton violence and agony, who had been amused by the rampage of the Terror of the Time of Knives.

Hopefully it would be enough.

 It had to be.

Maria was the Terror of the Time of Knives, she feared no man, but this was no man, this was an unholy monster in human form, Desert Bluffs incarnate, a Winter Soldier with the backing of a Smiling god—for this, she’d need help. Hopefully, a boon from the Woman From Italy would let her survive this hellish encounter.

Hopefully. 

Maria’s not sure how long the battle’s gone on for, or when she started smiling. All she knows is, entropy is roiling in the air, there’s blood everywhere, and she’s facing her would-be murderer with a smile like bared teeth and a chant on her lips, and she’s managed to make it bleed, and knocked off their mask.

 

Good.

 

Even better, it seems like the boon came through—suddenly, the miasma it had vanished, and the playing field’s been evened out. [Well, mostly. Her head’s spinning and she can’t really move, after all. But she’ll take what she can get.]

But the being is still getting closer, and Maria’s on her last leg, her head’s spinning and it’s a last-minute act of desperation that has her switching from fireballs and machetes to something more…subtle. Because if she’s going down, she’ll do her level best to drag them down with her, and she’d always been better at breaking minds, rather than molding them.

The Winter Soldier’s metal hand is wrapped around her throat the same time her right hand reaches his temple, and Maria shatters everything she can reach.

 

The effect is immediate. His grip had tightened, at first, just like he’d probably intended for snapping her neck, but the moment Maria’s power kicked in, his joints locked up and he froze, before promptly collapsing, and seizing.

Maria gritted her teeth, but kept her hand firmly planted where it was, and kept going even if she was now ignoring nausea on top of everything else because…

There’d been someone in there, once. Before they’d become the spectre of Desert Bluffs, and that someone had managed to cram an alien, eldritch entity into a human body was— was—

No, focus.

The Winter Soldier was motionless, now, slumped over the now-empty driver’s seat, and his eyes were glassy. He looked like a puppet with his strings cut [because that’s what he was], and hopefully the original inhabitant of the body would be less murderous when he took up the reins because Maria was about half a second away from collapsing and that’d been her last-ditch attempt…then she registered the flicker of heat.

“Of fucking course the car’s going to catch on fire now. Of course.” She muttered, and squeezed her eyes shut because yep, that was a punctured lung, ow.

Right.

If she was going to do anything, she’d have to do it now. It’d leave the car looking like a murder scene [it nearly had been one], and she didn’t know why she was being so tempted to take her would-be killer with her but she was.

Because odds were, whoever’d sent him would check up on them, and…Maria’s fairly certain that whoever this person had been, he’d prefer dying over going back. Desert Bluffs was…it was…no. She wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

The fire’s spreading, now, and fast.

And Maria can’t move: the wreckage of the car’s got her pinned, and no matter how hard she strains against the metal digging into her, she…she can’t…

The tap on her shoulder took her by surprise.

“I— I—“ The man who was once the Winter Soldier looks at her, wide-eyed, before finally giving up and pointing. “I can—“

“Please,” Maria bit out, and leaned back as much as she could to give him space.

The crunch of metal against metal, she expected, but when he tried to lift her out she couldn’t help but push him back because fucking ow, ribs.

“Don’t.” She hissed, and tilted her head forward because the adrenaline was finally starting to wear off and she might’ve been Night Vale but it still hurt.

"You need to get out, ma’am.” He said urgently, and Maria huffed a laugh. “I mean it! They…they’ll check. They always do. And the fire…”

Right. That cinched it.

“Want to come with me?” She asked abruptly.

“What? I—“

It took another surge of will to call up another portal, and part of her wanted to smile at his expression as he lurched back in surprise.

“Travel through time and space, I think. I haven’t—“ she managed, before pausing for a moment because ow, breathing, “quite figured it all out. Howard went through one, he should’ve—“ ow, fucking ow, ribs, “made it through.”

“You’re dying and you want me to—“

“Do you want to stay here?” She snapped, and he shut up. “Get me to a hospital and we’ll figure it out from there. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Okay, so grab on. This ride might get a little—“ ow, ribs, okay already, “bumpy, also land on me, I’ll punch you.”


Maria got wrapped up in a hug that would have had her screaming if she’d had the air for more than a whimper, but no, she needed to focus, needed to get them to safety.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

She pulled the portal towards them, and her last memory was the light at the end of a familiar dark abyss before she passed out.