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even stars can be extinguished

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Maria Carbonell is born 1932, Los Alamos, New Mexico, a secret city established because of how far away from the rest of civilisation it is.

 

It’s the rare kind of place surrounded by blue skies that stretches to infinity, unbridled and unbroken by the high-rises of the city, dusky, dusty air and the aching loneliness of the desert. Her father, a general, doesn’t visit much. He’s busy fighting a war to be done by Christmas. She sleeps in an empty house with a dead mother heavy on her shoulders every time she looks in the mirror.

 

By 1939, the government starts to research the Atomic Bomb. From the side of the road, she watches the soldiers cart in, the generals and admirals and the commanders and whatever else. Her eyes catalogue, record, store. 

 

The thing she is most interested in, though, are the scientists. They don't look like much, not at all, but then she sees the first. His name is Oppen-something? He’s sitting in the sole diner in town having a milkshake when she meets him, and it changes her down to her core.

 

“You're new,” she greets confidently. “And nobody interesting is ever new, but you are.” He looks up, perhaps a little bit frightened. Maybe this isn't the best approach. She’s told she’s not very good with people.

 

“Is that so,” he says back. “Robert Oppenheimer. From New York.”

 

“That's an awful long way away, Mister Oppenheimer,” Maria says, fingers fiddling with the hem of her shorts. She knows she's a sight, polo shirt tucked in, belt stolen from her father, knee-length cargo shorts that are meant to be on a boy's body. 

 

Not exactly perfect Mary down the street, with her blonde hair and nice dresses and perfect little smile.

 

Fuck Mary. 

 

“You don't have to tell me,” he remarks factually. “The trip ain’t pretty.”

 

She laughs, “I can bet.”

 

He smiles, but’s the kind of smile you use before asking a question. “If I may, who are you?"

 

She grants him this, “Maria. My father's a general.”

 

"Really? Well, I work at the army base, say, what's his name?"

 

"Joseph Carbonell." She tells him, sliding into the leather booth opposite him. He doesn't look surprised, or put off by the action.

 

"I don't know it."

 

"That's alright, Mr. Oppenheimer," she places both her elbows onto the sticky plastic covering of the table.

 

“Huh. Well, it's certainly nice to meet you ,” he sticks out a hand, and Maria smiles, a little. No one ever shakes her hand. It's a sign of respect, of equality. His palm is smooth and dry and his fingers wrap around her entire hand, nearly to her wrist.

 

“What are you here for?”

 

“I'm here to end the war,” he says confidently, but there’s a distance in his eyes.

 

“The war can't be ended out here," she huffs, leaning back and crossing her arms.

 

“Where else?” he asks rhetorically, stirring his milkshake. 

 

It's rhetorical, but she answers anyway. “The front? Germany? England? I don't know. Not some town in the middle of the desert.”

 

“The desert is why I'm here.”

 

Maria can hear children giggling on the other side of the restaurant.

 

"The desert is why all of us are here," she says, tilting her head. "What makes you different, Mister Oppenheimer?"

 

“I'm a theoretical physicist.”

 

“Huh. That's a right notion. All those men out there, fighting, dying, and there's one in New Mexico holding a shake in one hand and theoretical physics in the other.”

 

He laughs, just a little. Gallows humour is just humour these days. “Certainly. You know anything about physics?”

 

“Not officially. But, yes.” Her teachers don't teach her anything useful. So she might have broken into the restricted section of the library, or snatched a few hard-covered books when her father brings her to a military base and leaves her unattended outside an office. His fault, really.

 

Oppenheimer leans forward, plucking another straw from the container, sticking it into the shake. 

 

"Oh, well, unofficially, what's floatin' around up there?" he taps his temple and smiles.

 

Maria leans forward too, sliding the shake across the table towards her. "Well, wouldn't you like to know?"

 

...


There's a spark inside his mind, brighten than she’s ever seen, and it tells her that they will accomplish whatever they’re trying to do out here in the desert with him.

 

As far as she knows, that doesn't happen for a while; nothing happens for a while. She lives in that syrupy heat, in long afternoons with no reprieve from the sun and cold nights. 

 

The others avoid her. They think her strange, the girl with the stare that lingers too long and the eyes that are too dark, too serious, too smart for a ‘young lady.’ She laughs and laughs and pushes the pedals of her bike harder, leaving them in her trail. It’s wonderfully poetic. 

 

She’s gonna leave this town one day, she doesn't know how or when, she doesn't know where to either, but she has an idea.

 

She wants to go to a city, a place without silence, without pause, just a flood of people and ideas and where all of the people like her are.

Chapter Text

She bikes far out of town, one day, just to see if she could leave, if she wanted. She’s riding down one of the dust roads, her head behind her to watch the plume left behind by her tires when it happens. She turns around, grinning and gasps .

 

There it is. There it is.

 

An explosion, crackling across the sky without a sound, unfolding out to maul the blue with it’s dirt-colored claws. She only sees the top, the rest of it is hidden behind a large, jutting rock. She was thinking of climbing it, now she definitely will. By the life of her, she cannot remember its name.

 

She braces her feet on the pedals and sets off harder, faster. Her feet slip, fly off when she goes too fast but she just readjusts and keeps pedalling. She gets to the base of it, finds the little path to the top, ditches her bike and starts to climb.

 

It’s a long way, and she has to stop, several times, just to catch her breath. When she finally gets there, it’s well worth it. They’re conducting field tests! She crawls closer to the edge, and lies down.

 

She watches them, like little ants, mostly military, with their desert camo— hey that stuff actually works, they’re kinda hard to see. And what she supposes are the scientists, in plainclothes and classic white lab coats. They've got an odd setup, with barriers and what looks like gas masks and things like that.

 

She wonders if it’s okay for her to be up here.

 

Whatever .

 

All of a sudden, there's a whole lot of scurrying around, and boom! This one is smaller than the one she saw, more...smoky? It’s sepia-colored, like tea, and flies towards the sky like it’s a race.

 

She straight-out laughs, her eyes eating it up.

 

“Oi! What you doing out here?” a furious voice questions, she whips around, eyes wide with fear. It’s a soldier, glaring down at her. He’s probably on patrol, Maria thinks. Goddamn it.

 

“Uh,” she starts, frantically thinking of an excuse. “I’ve been here for a few minutes, what are you doing, slackin' around?”

 

Apparently, that's not the right thing to say. Who was she to know, after all? His face goes an odd shade of puce, and he almost foams at the mouth. “You're coming with me.”

 

She doesn't try to protest. Maybe this time she’ll get to see it up close. He lifts a radio to his lips, “all halt, we got a bogey, over.”

 

There's a chorus of static in response, and he replies, “just a girl. Coming from Old Tom’s Hill, over.”

 

Old Tom's Hill, that's the name!

 

He starts to drag her down the hill, hand clenched around her upper arm. “Now, looky here, you don’t have to do that,” she tries to sweet-talk.

 

“I really do, I'll get into a shit load ‘o trouble.”

 

“Well, so will I! Just radio in —”

 

“Kid. I can’t.”

 

She sighs, “okay, fine. Just..let me walk on my own. Please?

 

He sighs, looks at her short stature, and lets her go. She rubs her arm reproachfully and... runs.

 

Yeah, that's right.

 

She is that stupid.

 

He catches her after about three seconds, because he’s, A, a grown man, B, probably saw this coming, C, wearing combat boots.

 

He sighs, and she doubles him. “Not that I expected that to work, but I thought I would've gotten further,” she complains.

 

He doesn't say anything, and remains astutely silent all the way to the bottom, where a horde of ticked-off military men are waiting. The soldier who caught her lets her go with a snort of laughter quickly disguised as a cough.

 

“Maria!” oh crap. Her father storms towards her, unbearably angry she’s guessing. “What on earth ?”

 

“Hi, dad,” she tries, “I was just...coming to give you lunch.”

 

He raises an eyebrow. “Then where is it?”

 

“Uh,” she searches around her pockets and comes out with a pack of gum and a hunk of bread. Her lunch, actually. That gum was 12 cents.

 

She offers them with a smile.

 

He does not take them with a smile, or at all.

 

“Maria,” he huffs. “Why can't you just…” he fumes, unable to come up with the right word.

 

“Be normal?” she supplies, unflinching. “Yeah, kinda hard when the only one that can stand you is your bike, an inanimate object.”

 

“Maria…” her dad says, “I don’t — I'm busy. There’s a war. You can't blame me for not being home.”

 

“Yet, somehow, I do,” she laughs, “wanna know the truth, father? I wasn't coming to give you lunch, I didn't even know you were out here” she hisses “I was trying to see if I could get away.”

 

Her father turns away, and she wishes she could have first.

Chapter Text

 

She’s angry, after that. Vehemently so, like she wasn't before. The girls at school whisper behind their hands, about how she’s evil incarnate, how strange she is, how there must be something wrong with her.

 

She’s ditching class one day, tired of it, when a boy stops her.

 

“Whatcha doin'?” it’s Tommy Rankin. His great-great grandfather named the hill. Everyone’s great-great grandfather did something, it’s the only legacy in this town.

 

“Ditching,” she calls back, swings a leg over her bike. “I'm sick of it!”

 

“Of what?” he asks.

 

“The girls, the guys, the teachers," she shrugs, pedals forwards slowly, inching towards the school gates, “why do you care?”

 

“I dunno” he says, and almost sound honest. She stops.

 

“Do you wanna come with me?” she asks.

 

“Depends, where you goin'?”

 

She looks out to the horizon. “I haven't decided yet.”

 

He smiles. “Sure.”

 

He hops on her handlebars, legs dangling, knuckles white around the grips. She laughs, tilts forward so he can lean back on her shoulder.

 

She starts, it's hard with the extra weight at first, she’s more unbalanced than she's used to, but she picks it up quickly.

 

They ride into town with little thoroughfare, the locals are used to her yellow bike. Ms. Old Donaldson even waves at her from her creaky wooden seat on the porch, Maria’s never seen her anywhere else.

 

“You ever ditched before?” she asks, he turns his head and she thinks, wow with the sun coming in right behind his head, his sandy-blonde hair lit up, he almost looks like an angel.

 

“Once, sixth grade, got caught twenty meters from the school.”

 

She laughs, “oh, that's shameful.”

 

He laughs too, but doesn't ask about her. They both know she ditches more than anyone else in their year, even Jeremy Sneed, the creepy kid that wears all black and sits in the back of the class.

 

They keep going in silence, “where are we headin'?” Tommy finally asks.

 

“My house,” she calls. “My dad isn't home.”

 

“Why we goin' there?”

 

“I didn't think you’d want to bike through the desert, not most people’s idea of a good time.”

 

“Huh. You're right.”

 

“From there, we can go somewhere else, I don't know.”

 

They turn onto her street, all big houses and gardens as nice as you can get in New Mexico.

 

He whistles, long and high, “didn't know you were rich.”

 

Maria shrugs, “my father is a general.”

 

“What about your ma?”

 

“Died in childbirth.”

 

“Oh. Sorry.”

 

She shrugs, “doesn't matter.”

 

She banks, turns into the driveway. Tommy jumps off, and she clambers down, kicking the stand. “Come on,” she unlocks the door, swings it open grandly to let him in.

 

“Show me your bedroom, huh?” he asks teasingly, waggling his eyebrows.

 

“Why, Tommy, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you’re propositioning me.”

 

“You know a hell of a lot, Maria.”

 

She laughs, feel a thousand birds take to the skies inside her, soaring up and up and up . “You really think so?” Most people think she’s a fool, that she’s dumb because of her sex, that she’s a loser and a rebel and has no place in any sort of civilised society.

 

Fools. She is civilised society living in a culture of savages who still think the fact that she has long hair chooses her place in life.

 

“I see it in your eyes.”

 

She doesn't say anything, just lets the birds carry her and a warmness spread from her gut.

 

“This way,” she calls, runs up the staircase.

 

Her room is sort of average, she doesn't really stay in it much. There's a few interesting rocks she’s found on the windowsill, a wind chime that was a gift from one of her mother's friends, back when they still visited, a bed and desk and dresser, a rug on the floor. And that's it.

 

He stands by the door, and for a moment, Maria is nervous. She is nervous, and she's promised it to herself never to be nervous.

 

“It’s nice It's nice. Better tha' mine,” Tommy said, finally. She almost lets out a sigh of relief.

 

He goes across the room and sits on her bed, like a dare. She's never one to back down from a dare.

 

The bed creaks with both of their weights on it.

 

“Why do you like me?” she asks. “I'm...weird.”

 

“You ain't so bad,” Tommy says, his mouth curving into a smile.

 

“That's not the others say,” she scoffs, strokes the covers smooth under her fingers.

 

“You know what I'm gonna tell the others?” he whispers, so, so close to her lips, “that you really are a freak.” He pulls away, and she feels cold. Cold with shock and fear and horrible, horrible truth.

 

“What?” she asks, even though she knows.

 

“You're a freak," he smiles, but it's not soft anymore, it's taunting, it's the cat-that-got-the-cream, he knows he's won. "You're a freak who ditches school and killed her ma and brings strangers to her bed.”

 

“No, Tommy — what —”

 

He laughs, but this time, it's not angelic, it's not holy in the slightest, it’s cruel and mocking and Maria curses herself for being a fool.

 

“You really thought I woulda liked you?”

 

“No, no, I guess not,” she mutters.

 

“What was that?” he sneers.

 

“Get out,” she says — commands , voice suddenly full of fire, of iron and anger. “Get out of my house.”

 

“Oh, tha's not what you were sayin' before,” he taunts.

 

“Get out!” she roars. He stands from the bed, storms out the door. She follows him, more to make sure he leaves than anything else.

 

“I'm telling everyone,” he tells her at the door.

 

“You think I really care anymore?” she says from the top of the staircase. “Have a nice hot walk back to school.” she looks out the window: midday, serves that bastard right.

 

The door slams and she crumbles, slides down the wall to rest with her head in between her knees.

 

She thought...thought he really liked her.

 

Worst bit, she had liked him. She liked how he felt, on the handlebars of her bike, his smile, the way he talked, all rough.

 

She’s a fool. She won't fall for it again.

Chapter Text

 

She cuts her hair, lops it all off in the bathroom one night when she’s drunk on the crickets outside her window and not being able to sleep. When she comes down in the morning, her father is there.

 

“Hi,” she says, pausing on the stairs.

 

“Hi,” he returns, eyes flicking over her hair. “How long has it been like that?”

 

She decides to fuck with him a little. “Oh, about a week.”

 

“Oh,” he says into his coffee, “do you like it?

 

She lets her fingers brush over the ends of her cropped hair, “yes,” she decides, mildly. “I do.”

 

...

 

She’s biking, one day, like always. It’s Friday, four pm, and she’s been out since two. She ditched school around one, after drooling her way though a few periods.

 

She drains the last of her water into her mouth, chasing away the dryness. Her hat is slipping down her forehead, she signs and pushes it back up. She should probably go back soon, it’ll get dark fast. She's never been in the desert at night. She doesn't plan to.

 

She pushes hard a few times and coasts down the track. She leans back her head, tries to catch as much as she can in her last minutes.

 

A low rattle stops her. Rattlesnake. It's a warning, they don't really want to bite you, it's to stop cattle from stepping on them.

 

She slows to a stop, casts her eyes around. It’s coming from a small burrow next to the road partially hidden by rock. She stares at it, that dark hole with all the secrets in the world inside. It's only a meter, meter half so away. Then sense comes back to her, and she keeps riding.

 

Later, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and then the window outside and then her rocks, she thinks about it.

 

The rattle teases across her mind, dancing, dancing. She taunts herself with it, replays the moment over and over.

 

She doesn't sleep easy that night, her dreams are full of snake fangs and a desert breeze that rips through her like solar wind.

 

...

 

A year passes. Things are the same. There are more whispers now, of course, about how she’s a slut or a whore. She doesn't mind them, she hasn't even had her first kiss.

 

Tommy hasn’t talked to her since, no one really has, apart from a few stilted ‘family’ dinners with her father and the teacher calling on her. Oh, she picks up some milk sometimes; the grocer is always nice. 

 

She lives in the silence, sometimes forgets what sound is like. The only one that she speaks to regularly is the whispers of the desert, the rattlesnake’s hiss, the wind, the scuttle of a lizard’s feet on rock. 

 

They are her friends now.

 

Her father decides to parent her for once, and takes away her bike. “You spend too much time out there,” he says, “it's dangerous,” he says, “you've already wandered into a nuclear testing site,” he says.

 

She doesn't say anything, just stares back at him stonily. That might be true, it doesn't make him right. Without it, without her escape, she doesn't think she'll last. She'll meltdown, she'll overload like a nuclear reactor. Then, then we'll see who'll be laughing.

 

That night, she breaks the padlocks and chains with the nice next-door-neighbour’s hedge trimmers and leaves them outside his bedroom door for the morning. She wheels her bike out of the garage, a gash on the yellow paint from the hedge-trimmers, and hides it in the shed.

 

Years ago, she had discovered a hollow space under the floorboards by some paranoid old man that owned the house before them. Inside is a bomb shelter, or what looks like it. It’s twenty years old, dusty and cobwebby and it has an odd sort of smell.

 

She lowers it down, then slides the floorboards back, and goes back to bed.

 

The next morning her father flies into the kitchen as she’s eating breakfast.

 

“What are these,” he snarls, slamming down the padlock on the table.

 

“Padlocks, daddy?” she says coolly, taking a bite of her toast.

 

“How did you —” she spits, face red. He looks angry.

 

“I don't know what you’re talking about,” she finishes the last of her toast and gets up, swinging her bag over her shoulder. “I’m late for school.”

 

She smiles as she walks out of the kitchen, a red-faced father staring after her.

 

She turns away first.

 

...

 

Everyday after school, she hauls the bike out of the shed, goes riding in the desert. Her father isn't there to catch her, and no one else cares.

 

Out there, she can let scream as much as she wants, can slow in the middle of the road, tip back her head and scream at the bright spot of the sun behind her closed eyelids. No one is there to hear her. 

 

Normally, that would be a bad thing.

 

One day she goes right to Old Tom’s Hill again. There's no evidence of The Test, as she calls it. Just a few burnt patches of dust. It doesn't matter. No one comes this far out, anyway, she lies to imagine that no one will find it for a thousand years, that it’s hers alone. 

 

Looking back towards the town, Los Alamos is just a little smudge on the horizon now, blurred by heat lines.

 

She tucks her knees under her and considers whether or not she would die if she jumped — fell off this cliff.

 

She thinks, no, but maybe if she fell near a snake, or something? Perhaps if she broke her back, the sun would finish her off. She shakes her head, shakes the sense back into her, gets up and starts to go back.

 

It’s a good hour’s ride, she’s venturing father and father in every time, and it isn't scaring her, exactly, but the problem is every time she goes out, she doesn't want to come back in.

 

...

 

Maria gets bored, eventually, there's only so many cacti you can see before you wanna literally throw yourself off Old Tom’s Hill. Don’t worry, she’s joking, (this time). 

 

Then, she goes through the town, like she used to, when they were bringing in scientists and military. It’s slowed a little. There are fewer recruiters. The war’s three years old. Everyone’s tired for their boys to come home.

 

She sees places she’s never seen before, corners of town and the park that must have been built recently and a whole sub-division of shiny new houses. 

She likes the suburbs the most, maybe.

 

They’re so normal. Spread out and rolling, all grass lawns and sunblock and open windows, the smell of hand-made cookies wafting out.

 

One lawn, there's a sprinkler going, and the children are screaming, running though it with cries of joy, clad in their trunks and swimming togs, running through the spray that creates a rainbow arc across the air.

 

She laughs, lifts a hand to tuck her hair behind her ear as she watches them. One, a little girl with hair formerly tied in pigtails, now just a soaking mess, lifts a chubby hand and waves. 

 

She laughs even more, a giggle escaping her lips without permission, but lifts her hat off her face and smiles back wide anyway.

 

The main street is quite the thing, there’s palm trees planted every two and a half pedals and shops framing the sidewalk. 

 

The sidewalk is an entire affair on it's own, spotted with gum and cigarette ash and cracks. 


It’s a bit gross, she knows, but this town is only a few years old, barely older than her, and there is already history, evidence of humanity. Not of the human race, human life . It’s amazing. In a million years, scientists or aliens or whatever are going to see this and know they were here.

 

That she was here.

 

And there's nothing she's ever wanted more than to have at least a small sliver of immortality grasped her her hand like a little shining flower.

 

Chapter Text

There’s an ice-cream shop, popular to everyone, since even plastic melts and you could fry an egg on the pavement. 

 

She wheels up to it one afternoon, leaves her bike outside and ducks in to grab a cone, when she goes out, it’s to giggling, two blonde-headed girls attempting to steal her bike. They’re bent down, twisting random numbers on the code. She smiles, takes another lick of her ice cream, then dumps the entire thing on blonde #1’s head. Melanie — Melissa? Gasps like she's seen a ghost, jumps up and starts screaming, her friend reacts similarly, even though she hadn't been touched.

 

Maria laughs as she leans down, “don't try to take my things,” she says, undoing the code with one hand. “Bye, ladies,” she says as she wheels down the sidewalk. “Be more careful next time!”

 

A car draws up to her. She watches it curiously, the only people with cars like that are military. This one, she hasn't seen before. 

 

“What did they do?” someone asks, leaning out the half-rolled window.

 

He’s young, with skin and dark hair that don’t speak of the American Dream. He looks like he’s trying to grow a moustache. She could call him handsome, if she was Mia—Maya back there.

 

“Tried to steal my bike,” she says, like she’s not intrigued. “Hint: don't try to steal my bike.”

 

“You know them?” he asks, his dark eyes amused and dancing with playfulness.

 

“Slightly.”

 

“Shame you wasted your ice cream, though,” he says.

 

“Worth it.”

 

“Yeah,” he laughs, “I think it is. He leans out of the window further, offers his hand, “name’s Howard Stark.”

 

She smiles and shakes it. “I’m Maria. New?” She knows he is already, she’s seen everyone in this town, and his face is foreign. She’s guessing a new-recruit, promised glory, but really there for her father’s errands.

 

He pauses too, considering her with her bike painted yellow and hip cocked out like the barrel of a gun for a lengthy moment before nodding. “I guess so.”

 

She still watches the people, especially the scientists and the military — they’re the most interesting.

 

Howard seems to be a big deal around all the government fucks, she thinks, resting her chin in her hands as she watches the military base from above. There's a little track that leads above a hill, and it shadows the parking lot. She likes to sit up there and eat her lunch. There's always a lot of flurry a few minutes before someone or something arrives. She’s seen her father, once.

 

While she takes a bite into her apple, she devises a backstory for him: a young, brilliant scientist from New York, with degrees in physics and chemistry, drafted into the war and then saved by the grace of — of higher ups. Plucked out of the Eastern Front and into testing sites and New Mexico.

 

She doesn't know if it’s right. She doesn't particularly.. She likes the Howard in her head, the other one...she doesn't want to ruin it.

 

She’s been stupid enough, once. Best to leave Howard untouched, best not to ruin him with reality.

 

...

 

When she gets out of school he’s waiting for her. A car idling at the curb. She wheels out of school with the rest of them, having stayed a full day for once.

 

He swings open the door and half-steps out, yelling, “Maria!”

 

She stops, plants one foot on the ground and looks at him.

 

“Want a ride?” he asks, grinning cockily. He thinks she’s going to say yes, to fall into his arms like every other girl he’s ever met. Yeah, right.

 

“That depends. Where?” she yells back, fully aware that everyone is watching. It's not often the weird girl gets picked up by a handsome stranger, in a car , no less.

 

“The lab,” he’s smirking, thinking it's in the bag now.

 

Just to spite him, she hollers, “thanks, but no thanks,” and bikes down the street. She thinks she hears him swear under his breath then the slam of the door, and suddenly he’s next to her, speeding a little to catch up when she grits her jaw and pedals harder.

 

“Come on! I know you want to!” he yells.

 

“Where are you gonna put my bike?” she replies, a little out of breath.

 

He accelerates sharply, and she sees a strange metal contraption on the back of his car. “Bike holder! New invention, by me! Some would call that impressive!” he yells out the window.

 

“Not me!”

 

“Come on! Please!”

 

She brakes suddenly and has great enjoyment in watching him slam on his own brakes.

 

“Since you begged,” she calls, hopping off her bike.

 

“I wouldn't call that begging,” he says, getting out of the car.

 

She snorts. “Sure.”

 

“Yes!” he says, scandalised.

 

He picks up her bike, attaches it to the metal thingies.

 

“Okay, we gotta go, because I'm already late to this thing and I don't think bringing a sixteen year old is gonna go down too well.”

 

She laughs, climbs in the car.

 

So much for leaving him untouched.

 

...

 

The lab is...less than she imagined. She was thinking of The Test, but really, it's just a concrete room with fluorescent lighting, a few harried assistants and...Mister Oppenheimer.

 

"Oppy!" Howard calls, as he opens the door. She darts after him, feeling a bit like a bee following a flower. "This is Maria," he introduces, almost proudly.

 

"No need," she interrupts, steps out from his shadow. "We've met."

 

Mister Oppenheimer's face breaks into two, a wide smile as he exclaims, "Maria! It's good to see you!"

 

"Oh, you two have met?" Howard looks slightly crestfallen.

 

"Yes, yes of course. Who do you take me for, Howard?" Maria teases, poking him in the ribs. "Mister Oppenheimer and I shared a lovely milkshake together when he first got into town."

 

"Oh, I couldn't finish the thing. Too sweet for me," Mister Oppenheimer laughs. "But when did you met Howard? He's a brilliant young man, he is."

 

"Yesterday," Maria answers, swinging herself into a spare chair.

 

"Young love," Mr. O swoons jokingly, hand over his heart, "so quick."

 

"Sure, sure. I only went with him because he offered the lab."

 

Howard laughs, "is that the only reason? It wasn't my dashing good looks?"

 

"Well, that might have helped," Maria concedes, she's stolen his thunder enough, with already knowing 'Oppy', as he calls him. "But," she continues, "if you wanna win me over, I'm gonna have to see some hard science here people."

 

...

 

“Don't think the age gap is...strange,” she says later, when the sky is nearly black and they are sitting on the roof of Howard’s rented flat, watching the sunset. The bugs rise in a sudden, chirping chorus like the swell of a wave, then die back down again. Her mind is still spinning from the lab earlier, so much science and oh my god, she can’t believe that anyone gets to work there, and do that everyday .

 

“It’s four years,” he laughs, “not ten.”

 

“Still. People already think I'm weird.”

 

“And?”

 

“What do you mean, ‘and’?” she scoffs, leaning on him. She promised herself she wouldn't do this, not after Tommy. Yet, Howard is different, he’s smart and sharp and there's some strange quality to him, a fire that sets him apart from the masses. He’s loud and boisterous and doesn't care. She likes it. She likes not caring when she’s with him.

 

“Why do you care. You're more interesting than all of those people combined.”

 

She smiles, tucking her short hair out of her face. “You're like no one else I've ever met, Howard Stark.”

 

...

Chapter Text

Howard proposes in the middle of a heatwave, with Maria sprawled over the floor in a sweaty mess, insisting the couch is hotter than the depths of hell. Howard is practically shirtless, all of the buttons of his white dress shirt are undone and the cuffs loose.

 

"I'm going to die," Maria sobs into the hardwood floors, "I'm going to melt like a witch."

 

Howard chuckles at her, throws a pillow at her head. She hisses angrily as it spins over the polished floors under the piano that no one ever really plays. She bangs on it when she's bored sometimes, if that counts?

 

She slides under the piano, comes back out with it raised over her head and to Howard on his knees. The ring is beautiful, probably cost him a fortune. There's three diamonds studded across the band of it, deliciously shiny. It’s inside a plush red box, and he’s looking over at her like he actually means this.

 

"Will you marry me?" he asks, and almost seems nervous. She hates nervous.

 

There's a second of silence before she whispers, "no," and throws the pillow at his head.

 

"What," he gapes, barely dodging.

 

"You heard me," she says, gets to feet and watches as he scrambles after her.

 

"What do you mean, no?" he asks, voice rising.

 

"You heard me," she repeats stubbornly, crossing her arms. She's not sure what she’s doing.

 

" Yes , that's why I’m asking!" he says, waving his hands about, the ring box still in one.

 

"You're a bastard, " she hisses.

 

"What are you mad about?" he asks desperately, scrambling backwards, "you're supposed to be happy!"

 

“Oh,” she breathes, “so I'm supposed to feel whatever you want me to feel, huh?”

 

“No, no! That's not what I meant!”

 

“It's what you said!”

 

"Why," he pants, "why are we fighting over this?"

 

She almost wants to sob, "I don't know. I'm eighteen years old. I don't know. It's hot. I don't know. I'm sorry." she reaches forward, wraps her arms around his neck.

 

"Is that a yes?" he murmurs into her hair and he can sense that fucking smirk.

 

"If you want it to be," she still says, and feels that smirk grew even wider.

Chapter Text

 

He takes her to New York, to the big city with endless noise and skyscrapers reaching up with metal claws to scratch at the foggy sky.

 

It’s amazing, all those things she daydreamed about, the people watching and the business, it’s all true. In fact, it’s even better. 

 

Even as people move away from the cities, go live out their lives in suburbia, all it means is the only people left are the ones that really wanna be here. Like the ones born in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the girls from Tennessee who are amazed even though you can find an empty street at the start of rush hour. She's one of those girls, even though it's New Mexico, not Tennessee.

 

Music is a big deal here, she gets hypnotised by the record’s spin, by the piano player’s hands, by the quick, flying movements of the orchestra on stage. Howard likes music more than other people, so much she makes him get the lab sound-proofed because it vibrates her entire frame even lying in bed a floor up.

 

She likes the hustle, the bustle, the fresh faced girls with red lips and big skirts that dance, dance, dance, their laughter reaching the stars.

 

She doesn't join them, she’s too old for it, her bones are tired. But she watches, at the bar, Howard next to her, drinking a scotch.

 

She and Howard have quite a lot of fun, even though she doesn't dance, they end up getting in a fair few bar fights, among other things. The press never catch them and Maria gets high of the rush, the adrenaline that comes with seeing Howard tackle someone from off the bar.

 

The press call her beautiful, call her Howard's newest squeeze, like Howard isn't hers. She poses for pictures on the sidewalk, pouting her lips and jutting out her hips and smiling even as she’s blinded.

 

They’re in the society section most days of the week, if not, well, they’re on the front page. 

 

People think of the fifties as bright-eyed, blonde, big skirts and milkshakes, but Maria thinks it's more like sitting on a couch in an apartment you think is located somewhere in Midtown, discussing things like literature and politics and civil rights, even when you’re meant to let the man speak about those kind of things. 

 

She supposes she’s lucky, Howard only sits on the floor, legs extending over the coffee table, back against the couch, and nods along dazedly as she discusses the Korean War and its implications for the Asian-Americans living here as well as stigmatisation in Korea. 

 

People want to be in the loop, she realises in one of those lost nights. They want to think they’re special, that they’re in on a secret, so that's why Maria leans over in apartments or hotel rooms or the corner of a club and whispers as much utter nonsense as she can. She loves it the next morning when she’s sitting on the island counter, legs crossed, bathrobe on, chewing on a piece of burnt toast and reading the news. 

 

Howard stumbles in, rubbing his eyes and whining about his hangover. She giggles and turns the paper around for him to see the headline:

 

HOWARD STARK: LATENT HOMOSEXUAL

 

STARK MARRIES HOOKER IN VEGAS

 

HOWARD AND MARIA SATANISTS

 

FOR THE MONEY? MARIA TELLS ALL



He rolls his eyes at her and starts the coffee.



...

 

They get married in 1956 in a big ceremony with her wearing a big white gown with a hoop skirt, her hair loose, still short. She’s twenty-six-years-old and getting married. It's incredible. 

 

It's all rubbish, she decides halfway into her first glass of champagne, absolute bullshit, but, it's almost nice, and Howard seems to be enjoying it. He likes all of the attention, she thinks, the military bowing to him, saying congratulations and such.

 

Mr. Oppyheimer (a concession she and Howard have come to) is drinking a glass of champagne, he winks when he sees her looking, and she waves back. He’s like the father she did have, but never quite connected to.

 

Speaking of, her father is in the corner, red-faced. She feels a little bad for the man, so she holds up her glass and smiles, he looks a bit surprised, then smiles back. He’s not so bad. 

 

She’d invited Tommy and those bitches who made fun of her, all those years ago. They’re sitting at the back, in the worst table, just so she could rub it in a little. The launch a year ago of Stark Industries proved immensely successful, and now, they seem to like her a lot more.

 

Ha. She can still remember shame burning into her gut, head lowered over the desk as they taunt her, how it would whirl around and around her head like some ghastly kind of halo. She remembers most of all, Tommy. She won't ever forget it. That afternoon, she saw a light in the dark. After, the night was back, this one seemingly eternal. Then Howard, Howard who was willing to chase her down in a car in front of dozens of school children, Howard who looked at her like she was the only one in the world, Howard who took her to a lab on their first date. He is her light.

 

“Mares!” Howard calls from the dance floor, “wanna take a spin?” he pumps his eyebrows suggestively and she laughs.

 

“Yeah, maybe I do,” she calls back, and excuses herself from the table.

 

They dance pretty wildly, not like how normal people dance at their wedding. It’s all big and wild and spinning, neither of them really know how to dance, but that's what makes it so fun. Howard twirls her as she’s doing — well, it doesn't really have a name. Anyway, she smacks him on the nose with her flailing arm, and it’s things like that that makes it delightfully, wonderfully messy.

 

She looks at Tommy Rankin’s gawking face, laughs and pulls Howard in for another kiss.

 

She’s happy.

 

...