It wouldn’t be a proper holiday without a little excitement—at least, that was what Peggy attempted to convey to Daniel while trooping through the jungles of “West Africa” in search of Howard’s escaped prototype, a mobile peacock-shaped surveillance device, which evidently had developed a moderate degree of sentience and wandered off during a test run at the zoo. (“It’s too heavy to fly,” Howard assured them over the radio from the control room. “…Probably.”)
“And I thought having the kids with us would be enough excitement,” he said dryly, reaching forward to snatch four-year-old Michael’s arm before he took a nosedive into the sidewalk.
“I want to see the lions,” six-year-old Maria declared loudly as they paused next to the enclosure. It was apparently feeding time, and a large group had gathered to watch. She deftly avoided Peggy’s grasp and pushed her way to the front of the crowd as the zookeeper tossed hunks of raw meat to the lionesses.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake—Maria, you get back here this instant, young lady!”
“Bloody hell,” Michael added for emphasis. He plopped down on the sidewalk, suddenly mesmerized by a long row of ants.
Peggy and Daniel exchanged glances. “Don’t say it,” she warned him. He grinned, but to his credit, said nothing.
A few moments later, Maria emerged from the crowd and made her way back to them. “I’m hungry.”
“We’ll stop for lunch soon,” Daniel sighed. “We just have to find Uncle Howard’s invention first. Don’t run off like that again.”
“Okay, Daddy,” Maria said. She smiled at him a little too innocently.
Peggy scooped Michael up in one arm and took out her radio. “Howard, have you had any luck getting that surveillance camera switched back on? It’s a rather large zoo and it would be helpful to know where to look.”
“Working on it,” Howard grunted. “Jarvis, what kind of sandwich is this? What the hell’s a torta? Well…yeah, it’s pretty good.”
“Are we disturbing your lunch hour, Howard? I’m so sorry.”
“A man’s gotta keep up his strength, Peggy.”
If the children hadn’t been there, Peggy would have instructed Howard where exactly he should shove his torta. But Michael was sucking his thumb and watching her with wide eyes, so she refrained. She looked over at Daniel, who was having a limited amount of success in preventing Maria from climbing into a planter.
“A proper holiday, right?” he asked Peggy with a smile as he dragged their daughter back down. Maria had developed something of a wild streak in the past few months. (Peggy had complained about it in detail to her mother over the phone, and after she had finished, Amanda Carter had been silent for a moment before saying, “When I was five, my mother had to pull me out of the laundry chute, covered in mud. And when you were that age, I caught you crawling up the chimney on Christmas Eve. So, ah, it may be a family trait.”)
Maria wiggled out of Daniel’s hold with ease. “Mummy, look!” she shouted, pointing at something behind Peggy.
Peggy whipped her head around just in time to see a flash of blue metallic feathers disappear into a blocky building that turned out to be the reptile house, and this, incidentally, was how she discovered that her husband, who had been perfectly willing to throw his body into an otherworldly extradimensional void without a second thought, was irrationally terrified of snakes and therefore was not going inside under any circumstance. (I’m not being irrational, he insisted, even after Peggy pointed out that all the snakes were behind glass and it was perfectly safe. You ever see a picture of a python swallowing a pig?). So she left Daniel outside with Michael—now wholly absorbed in the task of trying to redirect the line of ants with a stick—and grabbed Maria by the wrist and marched into the building.
“We got the surveillance camera back on,” Howard chirped over the radio. The sound was rather muffled, as though he were chewing something. “The device is in the reptile house!”
“Yes, thank you, but could you be more specific?” Peggy huffed, scanning the dimly lit hall for a bit of blue. Her daughter stopped dead in her tracks, slipped her wrist out of Peggy’s hand, and took off for the alligator exhibit at a full sprint. “Maria—!”
“Hold on, I gotta adjust the camera angle—Peggy, you ever see a python swallow a whole pig?”
“I can’t say that I have,” she panted into the radio after she had caught up to Maria, who had her face firmly pressed against the glass. The alligator floated lazily in the water with its eyes shut, indifferent to the fish swimming around it or the human bystanders goggling at it on the other side.
“Saw one in India, back before the war,” Howard continued. “That sucker must’ve been twenty-five feet long. I swear it must’ve opened its mouth almost 180 degrees! That pig didn’t even stand a chance.”
Peggy decided it would be better to not relay that particular anecdote to Daniel later. “Your invention, Howard,” she sighed. “Where is it?”
“Oh, right. Um…yeah, looks like it’s back outside again. Over by the giraffes.”
Maria suddenly plopped down on the floor and threw her head back. “I’m tired, Mummy,” she whined. “I want to go home!”
“Soon,” Peggy promised as she picked her off the floor and led her back out of the reptile house to meet up with Daniel and Michael. Daniel had settled onto a bench and was watching Michael, who had given up on the ants and turned his attention to shredding a pile of leaves into very small pieces.
“It’s by the giraffe enclosure,” she informed Daniel as she tried and failed to keep Maria from sliding down onto the ground like a jellyfish.
“All right,” he said, and reached for his crutch. “Michael, we’re going to see the giraffes now.”
Michael looked positively devastated at the prospect of losing his leaf pile. Meanwhile, Maria had prostrated herself on the concrete face-first and clearly had no intention of going anywhere for the time being. Daniel glanced at Peggy and rolled his eyes. “We’ll catch up to you.”
She nodded and set off at a brisk pace, passing by the elephants and the zebras. She circled around the giraffe enclosure twice without any sign of blue feathers. One giraffe turned to watch her with a placid stare before turning back to its feed. She shook her head and picked up the radio. “Howard, I’m over by the giraffes now, but I don’t see it.”
“Oh, it’s got eyes on you, Peggy. Look up.” Over the radio, Howard let out what was unmistakably a wolf whistle.
She tilted her head back to see Howard’s invention sitting on a branch of the tree directly above her. “Howard, you—” She cut herself off abruptly as Daniel came over with the children.
“—wanker,” Michael helpfully supplied anyway.
“Michael!” Peggy scolded. The four-year-old’s lip quivered slightly.
His sister quickly came to his defense. “But Mummy, you say it all the time.”
Daniel looked at Peggy and shrugged. “She’s got a point.”
“Don’t you start,” she warned him. She gazed up at the tree and let out a sigh. There was nothing else for it. At this point, she would be damned if they were leaving the zoo without Howard’s ridiculous bird robot.
Daniel didn’t even have to ask what she was thinking. “I’ll try to catch you if you fall, but I have to warn you that we’re both going down if that happens.”
Peggy gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “Thank you, love, but that won’t be necessary,” she said as she slipped off her shoes, immensely grateful that she had decided to wear trousers that day instead of a dress. She tested out the lowest branch to make sure it could hold her weight before hauling herself up. She glanced up to see the robot watching her, but it made no move. At this distance it was clear that Howard’s invention, while approximately the size and shape of a peacock, did not really resemble a bird in any sense of the word. It was boxy and had a metallic sheen, and it occurred to her that as far as surveillance devices were concerned, this one seemed not very discreet. It also occurred to her that she had no idea how to turn the bloody thing off once she did catch it.
“We’re gonna get kicked out, Peg,” Daniel muttered, getting a hold on Maria as she attempted to follow Peggy up the tree. A few passersby had stopped to watch them but made no attempt to interfere.
He was probably right, but she elected to keep her focus on not falling out of the tree. Howard’s invention had started edging itself along the branch it was sitting on, and she could see the wood buckling slightly under its weight. “Stark said the thing can’t fly, right?” Daniel called out nervously.
“Howard says a lot of things,” Peggy answered through gritted teeth, pulling herself up to the next branch. It was almost in reach now; she just had to move to her left by about half a meter, find steady footing, and stretch her arm out and grab the silly thing before it could get away—and then it skittered out to the end of the branch and promptly dropped out of sight just as she leaned forward a bit too far and—
She discovered in that moment that Howard’s invention could not fly, but then again, neither could she. The device landed on the concrete with a tremendous crash and she landed more or less on top on Daniel, sending them both sprawling. Michael started to wail and Maria hugged him.
“I did warn you,” Daniel winced. He shook his head at her offer of help and stood up carefully. “Nothing broken, except for that,” he said with a nod at Howard’s invention, which now looked extremely pitiful indeed.
“Mummy broke Uncle Howard’s invention,” Maria declared solemnly. Michael, now sufficiently recovered from his shock, was already gathering up the scattered pieces to stuff in his pockets.
“I did not—” Peggy began to protest, but then Daniel caught her eye and she sighed. So much for their proper holiday.
“Lunch?” he asked, and grinned. “I hear there are tortas over at Stark’s mansion.”
“Mummy broke your invention,” Michael informed Howard as he and his sister sat at the kitchen table and munched on their tortas.
“Chew with your mouth closed,” Peggy told him sharply, and of course Maria immediately said, “But Mummy, you never do.”
“This is not up for discussion.”
“It’s really just the motor, and that needed adjustments anyway,” Howard said as he fiddled with the device, passing off various tools to Jarvis. “This isn’t too bad, all things considered.”
“Indeed not,” Jarvis agreed, glancing over at Peggy and Daniel. “We are relieved you retrieved the device without major incident. No, ah, fowl play.”
Peggy and Daniel both stared at him and let out a simultaneous groan.