Howard never wanted to be a father. The very idea made his skin crawl and something within him shudder. So when Maria stood up at Sunday dinner, raised her glass of water, turned to his parents, and congratulated them on their impending grandparenthood, he went cold.
His stomach clenched and he thought, no, no, no. She wouldn't do this to him, she wouldn't dare do something like this without telling him first. But then she looked at him, a smile on her face, and he knew she had.
He smiled back, raised his glass of wine, and then drained it.
He kept the smile all through the evening, took the congratulations with grace. It only slipped once, when his father clapped him on the back. "It's about damn time. I was starting to wonder about you, Howard."
"Sir?" he said, his heart pounding in his chest and his mouth going dry.
His father just stared, hand tightening painfully on Howard's shoulder.
He and Maria drove home in stony silence, his jaw clenched, her foot tapping against the floorboard of the car.
Howard didn't slam the door to the car or the front door, he didn't throw his keys on the table or raise his voice when he turned to her and said, "How could you? How could you do that to me?"
"I had to," she replied, her voice steady.
"You *had* to? You blindsided me! Dammit, Maria, you should have told me!" His hands shook and he felt a sense of horror creep through him. "You should have told me first."
"Why? So you could convince me to have another abortion?"
"Convince you!" Howard shook his head. "Is that what you're telling yourself? That I convinced you? No children, that's what we said, Maria. No children."
"I changed my mind." Now her voice trembled and she took his hand. "I want a baby."
"Not with me," he said, pulling away. He didn't want her touching him. "I told you, I was upfront about it, I didn't want any kids."
"I know, but Howard, after the last scare, I realized that I did. I do. Howard, please." She raised her hand, imploringly.
"I should have had that vasectomy. I knew I should have had that vasectomy." He turned to her and ground out. "But you said no. Were you planning this? Planning--"
Maria paled and she shook her head. "No! God, how can you think that? It was an accident!"
"Sure it was. Sure." He closed his eyes and fought the urge to scream at her.
"I know you're upset and that you're afraid, but you'll feel differently when the baby's born."
"No, I won't." Howard opened his eyes and swallowed hard. He felt like something inside of him was breaking and he didn't know how to stop it. "Don't do this."
"Don't have your baby?" Maria cupped his face; her hands were cold and trembling. "Howard, you're my husband, I love you. I want to have your child. Why is that so horrible?"
He laughed, bitterly. "My father's a drunk, my grandfather was a drunk, my great-grandfather was such a drunk he burned down his house with his wife inside. You tell me, Maria, are those the genes you wanna pass along to your kid? The genes of drunks and wife-beaters?"
"You're not a drunk, Howard. And I know you would never lay a hand on me, or our baby."
She couldn't be sure of that, no one could. "I don't want children."
"Don't you love me, Howard?" Her eyes filled with tears and that wasn't fair. It wasn't fair!
"Of course, I love you!" He gripped her by her shoulders. "Don't make me do this. Don't, please, don't."
"I want to be a mother. I want a baby." She pressed her face against his neck and he could feel her tears on his skin. "Please be happy."
"I can't." A father, he was going to be a father, and he was going to screw it up. He had no interest in fatherhood, no burning desire to pass on his genes. "If you have the abortion, we can tell people you had a miscarriage."
Maria pushed away from him, a look of horror on her face. 'No! I'm having this baby, Howard."
"I can't," he said, shaking his head. "I just can't."
Then he turned and walked out.
He went to his favorite bar and got drunk. Just like his father would have, just like his father probably had.
That night he… he went home with someone. After all, if Maria could have what she wanted, he could too. Howard didn't even know the man's name.
He got home midmorning the next day, sore and hung over, a hollow feeling gnawing at his gut. He'd betrayed her, he'd betrayed their marriage. It didn't help that she had betrayed him first (the only faultless one was the baby). When he walked into the bedroom, she sat up; her eyes were red and puffy.
"I didn't think you were coming home," she said hoarsely and his chest tightened with grief because he loved her, he still loved her, he would always love her. Always.
"Where would I go?" He sat on the bed, wincing slightly as his body ached. God, it was such a good ache.
Maria touched his face and he nuzzled her hand. "I need you with me on this, Howard."
"Why?" he asked. "Why now?"
She bit her bottom lip, "All my friends are having babies. And they're so happy, Howard. Deliriously happy and at first I thought they were crazy. But then I thought I was pregnant and I… I thought what if? What if we decide to have this baby? Would it have your eyes? My smile? Could I make it feel as happy and as loved as my mother made me?"
"You're not your mother," he said. And he wasn't trying to be cruel, but Maria wasn't the stay at home mom type of woman.
"And you're not your father."
No, his father certainly wouldn't have done the things Howard did last night. "You really want this?"
"Yes." She sounded so sure and Howard hated himself for resenting that. He wanted to tell her that he thought he was gay, just to see her break down again.
Instead, he kissed her softly on the mouth and pressed his forehead to hers. "I love you," he said, because he did, even if she had put him in an untenable position. "Just one thing, no more Howards. If it's a boy, we'll name him Anthony."
Maria smiled and hugged him and whispered a joyous yes.
Howard never wanted to be a father, but he was going to be, and if he dealt with it badly, well, that's what Stark men did.