Howard’s hand reached out to feel for the end of the pool, finishing out the last stroke as he touched the wall, and stopping his momentum. He came up for air, but didn’t really need it. Swimming wasn’t the only activity he enjoyed that was better when you could hold your breath, and his lung capacity was pretty impressive.
He dug his toes into the wall, and leaned his elbows on the deck, shaking the hair from his eyes just in time to see a nice pair of legs pass through his vision. He followed them, admiring, until he realized who they belonged to, and then, well, then he kept admiring, because Ana Jarvis had nice legs, even if they were off-limits. He’d always thought of her as an exotic, beautiful stork, which matched Jarvis’s polite giraffe. They’d have some long kids, Howard thought.
Or they would have had. It turned out kids were off the menu now.
Howard had left L.A for a week or two and the whole place had fallen apart without him. Peggy had been impaled. His butler had been shot in the wife. Rifts were opened and closed. And Whitney Frost was never going to be in a Stark Pictures production now, even if she wasn’t crazy. She’d shot Ana, and hurt her bad enough to make her unable to have kids. And Howard couldn’t fix it, which pissed him off.
Still, at least Ana was home from the hospital now, so things would mend in time, right? Even if Howard couldn’t fix what was broken.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he called out. “Welcome home. Did you get the flowers I sent?”
“Yes, all six bouquets worth!” Ana replied, spreading her arms wide. “They were beautiful, thank you. We left some at the hospital, since they wouldn’t all fit in the car. The next person in my room will have a garden there.”
“I’d come give you a hug but, uh--” he looked down at himself, where he wasn’t leaving anything to the imagination, “--I don’t think I’m dressed for it.”
“Oh dear, have you lost your swimming trunks again?” Ana said.
Howard shrugged. “You know I can’t keep track of anything. And your husband’s behind on my laundry. I’m going to have to hire a butler for my butler if he doesn’t smarten himself up.”
“I will speak to him,” Ana said. She picked up his shorts from the lounge chair he’d left them on, and tossed them into the pool behind him. “Go fish!”
Howard plugged his nose and ducked down to catch them, pulling them on underwater before he surfaced again. He watched her pick her way down to the shallow end of the pool, steps tentative and stiff, especially for a girl who darted and floated like a butterfly most of the time.
He’d thought she was passing through to another part of the house, but she took her shoes off, and stepped down into the pool up to her ankles, then took a seat on the edge and rolled up her skirt to dangle her legs in.
“Uh, shouldn’t you be in bed?” Howard asked. “Where’s your mister? Shouldn’t he be putting you to bed?”
“He is taking Miss Carter to her plane,” Ana said. “And I am sitting now, before he gets back to tell me to go to bed. I want to see the sun, and so I’m going to sit.”
She lifted her chin to challenge him to stop her, and he didn’t. She wasn’t his wife, let Jarvis deal with her.
“Some girls would be jealous of their husbands running off with other women,” he said.
“Some girls must not trust their husbands, then,” Ana said. “But I do. Mr Jarvis is an honorable man, and I have nothing to worry about.”
What was it like to have that sort of trust in a person? Howard didn’t even trust himself that much. He was pretty sure, given the chance, he’d even run off with another Howard Stark and leave himself behind. “Still, you must be happy to see the back of Peggy,” he said. “She’s nothing but trouble.”
“I won’t be sad for a little quiet,” Ana said. “But I like Miss Carter. And so do you. You like her more than you like most people, I think.”
“Sure, I do. I just like to keep out of the way of her blast radius,” Howard said. “But she’s pretty swell, I have to admit. I’d probably marry her, if I wasn’t so afraid of her.”
Ana’s face crinkled in a smile, and her little tinkling laugh sounded. “That is the only kind of woman you should marry,” she said. “You need someone to keep you in line.”
“Never gonna happen,” Howard said, shivering at the thought of it. “No girl’s that brave.”
“No,” Ana said. “Perhaps not!”
Howard started in on a few lengths of backstroke, letting her soak in the sun in peace. She probably didn’t need him poking at her. He didn’t really know what to say, or if he should say anything. Jarvis hadn’t given him the full story until after the world had been saved. Just let him know Ana had been shot, but was okay. It wasn’t until Ana had been given a date to come home that he’d given Howard the full extent of the damage done. He’d been reluctant to, and apologized for ‘crossing professional boundaries’, but he didn’t want Howard to think poorly of Ana if she wasn’t herself. Which was stupid, Howard had pointed out, because a girl who’d just been shot wasn’t going to be herself anyway, regardless of what else had gone on, and Howard would have a hard time thinking poorly of her at any time. Ana was a great girl. Strange, of course, in the same way Jarvis was strange, but a good person. Neither she or Jarvis deserved bad things to happen to them.
And sure, as far as damage from a bullet could go, it was great she wasn’t paralyzed or hadn’t had bits of her intestine removed or something, but Howard was a little sad that there wouldn’t be any stork-giraffe children running around the Jarvis household. They would have been good parents.
He stopped off in the shallow end after he’d reached his quota for lengths, and hopped up on the edge of the pool, moving aside a scale model of a car he’d been testing so he could grab the towel beneath it.
“Are you playing with toys?” Ana wondered.
“Your husband blew up my flying car, so I’m taking the opportunity to rework the design,” Howard explained. “This is a prototype.”
He hopped back down in the water again and waded over to bring it to her so she could see it.
“He was very pleased with himself for being clever and saving the day,” Ana said, affectionately. “It has fins. It’s a boat, this one?”
“A flying boat,” Howard said. “Drives, flies, swims. Flying cars are passé. I’ve done that. Swimming cars are where it’s at. Never rebuild when you could improve. It’s like sharks, you gotta keep moving forward.”
“I see,” Ana said.
“Also, Wilkes said he didn’t think I could do it,” Howard added. Did he sound sore? He might have sounded a little sore.
“Ah, yes, now I see,” Ana said. She lifted it up and examined it with her artist’s eye. “I saw Dr. Wilkes before I came out here. I’m glad he’s well again. And he says you’re giving him a job?”
“Sure am,” Howard said. He set his towel down next to her, and hopped up onto it. “He should have been with me all along. If he’d been a New Yorker, I would have snatched him up years ago. Kinda pisses off that he ran around here for Isodyne, actually. He’s a hell of a lot better than that. I’ve got a project in mind for him.”
“Some people won’t like working with a colored man,” Ana warned.
“Yeah, or Jews,” Howard said. “Or women. Or queers. Or Japs. You wanna know how much I care about that?” He made a zero with his fingers and squinted an eye at it, clicking the side of his mouth. “They can scram if they don’t like it. Roxxon can have them. You have a brain, you get to be on my team, nothing else required.”
“That’s a good policy,” Ana said. “Dr. Wilkes deserves a chance. I know he feels badly for what happened, but he’s a good man, and I hope he does well.”
“When did you get to be such good friends?” Howard asked.
“I kept him company, when he wasn’t...here?” She passed one hand over the other, showing Wilkes’ intangibility. “And we worked together to make his containment chamber, since he couldn’t hold things. It was fun. Mostly.”
“Huh,” Howard said. He took his car back. “Didn’t know you were an engineer, Mrs J. You want a job, too?”
“No, thank you!” Ana said, firmly. “I’ll stick to drawing, I think.”
“Stark West is gonna need a logo,” Howard said. “I thought I’d put you on that. I like what you did with the Stark Pictures logo, and I want something snazzy for the new branch.”
He figured it would give her something to keep her mind off things, maybe. Jarvis had turned down his offer to find some good doctors for her, even with Howard telling him he’d pay. Howard didn’t know exactly what was wrong with her--what the surgery had done to mess up her baby bits--and Jarvis didn’t want to ‘violate her privacy’, but he’d been pretty firm that it wasn’t repairable. So, Howard couldn’t use his hands and he couldn’t use his money, which left him with nothing much to offer.
Looked like he’d hit the mark, though; her cheeks flushed pale pink with pleasure. “Oh, that I would like to do,” she said.
There, now he’d done something. “Swell.”
Ana nodded to the car. “Does it float?”
“Nope,” Howard said, with a frown. “Sinks right to the bottom. But the car didn’t fly at first, either. It just needs some tweaking. Don’t tell Wilkes.”
Ana locked her mouth, her eyes dancing with amusement. She didn’t look so bad, up close. Howard thought she’d be sad, or broken in some way. She was pale, but she was always pale, and her hair was messy, which wasn’t like her. She could look better, but she could look worse, and maybe there wasn’t anything that needed fixing. Maybe it was just bruised and not broken.
“You don’t have to be careful with me, you know,” she said, cocking her head to smile at him. “I know Mr Jarvis told you everything, and I don’t want you to be careful with me.”
“Trust me, honey, I’m never careful,” Howard assured her. “I’m glad he told me, though. We all know I would have said the wrong thing otherwise. I mean, I’ll say it anyway, but at least I’ve been warned now.”
“I’d rather you say the wrong thing than nothing at all,” Ana told him, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Your funeral,” he said, and then winced. “Yep, see, there I go.”
Ana laughed out loud in a great guffaw. She laughed so hard Howard thought she was going to bust something open, and he had visions of her guts spilling out into the pool, but she looked like she needed the laugh, too.
“Ooph,” she said, rubbing her stomach with a grimace. “The doctors said no strenuous activity, Mr Stark.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I can’t help it if I’m naturally hilarious, handsome, and charming. And rich, but that’s not natural, just comes along with the rest of my talents.”
“It must be a terrible curse,” Ana said, with a solemn nod.
They sat together in silence, Howard paddling with his feet, and taking a look at his model, trying to sort out why it wasn’t floating. His math said it should float, and the seals were good. No water was getting in. Were there too many fins? He hoped so. Too much was always best, physics be damned.
“I should maybe go in,” Ana said, after a few minutes. “If Mr Jarvis finds me out here when he gets back, I will be in trouble.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “It is good to see you.”
“You, too,” Howard said. “Glad you’re okay.”
“Thank you,” Ana said. “It’s good to be home. And life will go on, Mr Stark, you know.”
“I know,” Howard said. “I guess I just figured you and Jarvis were the fairy tale couple. You read like a movie script, with the whirlwind romance and the plane-stealing, and the death-defying escapes. I just figured you’d have the Hollywood ending, with kids and puppies, and a picket fence, too. Sorry it didn’t work out like that.”
“No life is perfect,” Ana said. “We will just keep swimming forward like sharks.” She squeezed his arm, and smiled. “And, after all, it’s not the end of the story yet.”