California, 1991, 11:53 p.m.
The leather on the steering wheel costs several months rent for most people. The engine, which he designed himself ten years ago, gives a satisfying deep rumble. The car is one of only three ever made by StarkAuto. It handles like a dream as it coasts down long, winding stretches of California road in the early hours of morning.
Maria is quiet as she sits in the passenger seat, resting her head against the glass. Howard doesn't bother asking her what's wrong. She's asking herself questions about the two of them, the way he is and why does he have to be that. Questions he can't answer, or only knows answers she won't like, so he doesn't say anything at all. He just keeps his hands on the wheel and feels the bitter resentment simmer within his heart.
Anger is the easy alternative to what he really is feeling, but it is one he can't sustain. In truth, Howard isn't really angry, at least not at Maria or anyone in particular, he is instead scared, disappointed, and alone.
He shouldn't be any of those things No one else would dare entertain the notion that Howard Stark was anything but on top of things. Around the world and across the ages, men thought of the hand life had dealt him and wish they'd been born as someone else, someone better, far away perhaps, for their stars to have been different. Howard didn't, he could ask for no other hand, he played it for all it was worth, and he won.
He took his father's modest oil rig business and blew it up into an arms and aviation powerhouse. He'd made the guns that killed the Nazis and the bombs that put down the Japanese empire, a success he parlayed into building his own empire after the war. Automobiles, movies, home appliances, real-estate; his business stormed in every direction, and it hadn't stopped yet.
Kings and President deemed him a force to be reckoned with. He'd made and broke destinies. The sixties saw him get involved in the spy-trade, founding one of the most covert intelligence agencies the world hadn't quite "seen", that had brought the unknowing world back from the brink of oblivion numerous times and did its bit in the battle that ended with the downfall of the Soviets.
He could, and did, get everything he wanted. Women, government contracts, technology; it didn't matter. Howard would use his charm to lure it, his money to buy it, contacts to procure it or sheer drive to win to see that it was his. He was Howard Stark, one of the richest men on the face of the Earth, and the world was his goddamned oyster.
And it isn't enough. Even with all he'd amassed and all he'd achieved, he feels like failure. He'd done it all his way, but all that really did was build impenetrable walls around himself that he could no longer touch anyone, not his beautiful wife that worshipped the ground he walked on, not his amazing son he had that taken after him in more ways than one, not a single one of his powerful and renowned friends and allies.
Ten minutes of bitter silence had passed with them in the car. Maria is stifling sobs, and doing a grand job of hiding it, but he still notices, he just pretends not to. He expects that in a few hours, when Maria's asleep, he'll sit out on the balcony with his oldest Bourbon and shed a few tears himself.
Then he thinks about stopping the car and holding her, saying he's sorry for the way he is. He could feel like less of a dogshit, he could be less of a bastard. In the end he doesn't. He's well over seventy years old, and he thinks it's far too late to be good, or happy.
He'd forgotten how to be those things over the years, anyway. For a moment, he wonder what he could've done to have been different, or who could've put a stop to him.
He thinks about Maria. She's beautiful and amazing. When he met her twenty years ago, she was an actress, a fairly good one, too. She was on the cusp of being a star, but she chose to devote herself to him instead. Whatever he did, however bad he got, she loved him. She'd allowed him to be the way he is. He shouldn't resent her, but he does, and he hates himself all the more. It doesn't stop him, and he wonder what he might've been like had he ended up with someone else.
Someone like Peggy, perhaps. He'd always thought she was a handsome woman, and they should've been lovers, but their personalities got in the way. She was into valiant and heroic soldier types, and he wasn't nearly done reaping tail through Tinseltown. When he'd decided to settle down, she'd already been happily married for twenty years.
He knows it wouldn't have worked, but it would've been different. Right now he could settle for just talking to her, have her set him straight, but she and Falsworth died four years ago, surrounded by the people they loved.
He misses her.
He misses Steve Rogers.
He misses the SSR. He even misses Colonel Phillips. He misses being young and righteous.
It dawns on him that the last time, possibly the only time in his life that he was happy, was during the war, outfitting Captain Rogers' Howling Commandos and examining the warped genius of Hydra from confiscated intelligence and captured weaponry.
Such a realization comes the second before a pickup truck with its headlights off quite comes accelerating toward him.
London, 1943, 1000 Hours
Captain Rogers' squad, who has been informed would be referred to as "Howling Commandos" –thought he'd voted they be called Rogers' Ramblers, but it turns out he doesn't get a vote-, had got back to London after a month of training at the Army Ranger school in Carrickfergus, Ireland. They'd be on their way out again pretty soon to destroy a weapon station Hydra was running, on which Howard had to brief them on in the morning, as well as to acquaint them with what weapons, equipment and body armor his team had fashioned for their use.
But there was something he couldn't wait to discuss with Rogers, so he went to the Captain's room at the Epting Hotel where the men were being quartered. He'd knocked on the door and someone said from inside the room,
He entered. It was a decent enough room, but below his own tastes. At the moment the lone occupant was a barefooted soldier out of his jacket, sitting on a bed, shinning his shoes. The soldier looked up at him, his eyes widening slightly with surprised recognition as he stared at him for a moment, but made no further sign of being star struck. He nodded in greeting and said,
Though he couldn't put a name to the face, he recognized him as the man he'd flown Rogers into Austria in order to rescue.
"Good evening, Corporal."
The soldier smiled faintly and turned his arm to show the three-bar chevron on his sleeve.
The soldier, who he now remembered was called Barnes, raised his eyebrows in mild bewilderment.
"I'm a Sergeant."
"Oh. My mistake."
"What can I do for you, Mr. Stark?" Barnes said as he continued to shine his shoes, "And could you close the door?"
Howard did as Barnes requested, and then leaned against the table, his hands in his pockets, careful not to wrinkle his suit.
"I was hoping to find Captain Rogers. I need to discuss matter of some urgency."
"Well, he isn't here. He left a couple of hours ago."
"Any idea where he went?"
"Well he told me, but I wasn't really listening. Some kind of ball, or gala. What's the difference between those two?"
"A ball's a dance. Gala's a swanky party."
"How come you didn't go?"
"Officers only. Falsworth went with him."
"Any idea when they'll be back?"
"I don't know, but it shouldn't be too long; balls and galas aren't Steve's thing. I'd say he'll be here soon enough."
"You can wait here if you like."
Rogers knew how to pick 'em, Howard thought. He didn't think of himself as an elitist, but Howard had come to expect hostility from men of similar background to Rogers and Barnes, born of resentment and being intimidated.
"Have you known Captain Rogers long?"
"Since we were twelve. We grew up in an orphanage together."
"It's alright, it wasn't that bad." Barnes said with as he stopped and examined his work, checking for any smudge or blob or show-polish "You know me and Steve saw you at the World Expo of Tomorrow at the start of the year."
"Yeah." Barnes smiled, "Be real. A flying car?"
"Well, it's possible, but it's mostly razzle-dazzle, I'm afraid. A little show to get the backing. The technology isn't finished, and when it is perfected, chances are it'll be better utilized for something else. And breaking is a problem."
"Huh." Barnes said with a touch of disappointment, "Sure would be neat, though."
"It would, wouldn't it?" Howard said with a smirk, "So what was your training like?"
"Three months of the hardest training course condensed into one." Barnes said as he put his shoes on,
"Pretty brutal. Still, we got to be real hard men to win bastard, right?"
Now ready, Barnes stood up and put on his jacket.
"Listen, Stark, I wanted to thank you."
"For helping Steve rescue me and the guys. And even before that, for giving him what he needed to get where he had to. You know, Steve's always had heart and guts, but never could back it up. Now he can. You couldn't have picked a better man to be Captain America."
The earnestness with which the soldier spoke greatly interested Howard; touched him, even. He straightened up as he said,
"I can't take credit for the last one; it was Dr. Erskine who picked him and done most of the work."
"Well, all the same, I was wondering if I could buy you a drink at the bar downstairs. You shouldn't worry about missing Steve; he'll spot us if we're at the bar."
Howard considered it for a moment before saying,
"I'd be honored, Sergeant. What's your poison?"
"Bourbon." Barnes said as he opened the door and stepped out.
"Good man." Howard said as he followed.
London, 1943, 1119 Hours
"I… I tell ya what," slurred Barnes as he hunched over the bar, "I'd be happy ta get captured by Hydra again…. Just fer a night with Betts Grabble."
"I'll… I'lll introduce you. When we get home." Howard said, who was a little more sober, but not by much.
"…Or Lizabeth Scott."
"I'll put it this way; If… If you was a dog, you're barkin' uppa wrong tree."
"She's a lesb *hich*… She's-"
"Hello, boys." Said Falsworth, arriving alongside Rogers, "Having a good night, are we?"
"Rogers!" Howard said giddily, "I'd like ya ta meet my new best bud… Buck Barnes!"
"Is that so?" Rogers said with am amused smile.
"Yeah," Bucky said with a dumb grin, "He'll get me in with Betty Grabbull."
"Uh-huh." Rogers said, then turned to his Lieutenant and said, "I'll take Bucky, you take Stark."
"Take him where?"
"He's quartered across town, and we won't find a car to take him. He'll take my bunk."
Bucky offered little resistance as Rogers picked up his arm and placed it around his shoulders before dragging him off to the stairs. Howard resisted at first, but then relented as Falsworth dragged him the same way.
"Do you really know Betty Grabble?" asked Falsworth.
"You bet. Hey, how come you Brits have nicer hats than our boys, hm?"
California, 1991, 12:04 a.m.
He doesn't feel much of anything. It's the shock. There's blood in his right eye, he knows that much. The car is a wreck, and he can't move too well, just enough to look at Maria and see what the collision had done to her. She's dead. He doesn't feel anything. It's the shock.
He looks the other way, outside his own window which had been shattered. Someone approaches, seemingly having emerged out of the truck that hit him. The figure is dressed in black, and holds something gleaming in its right hand.
The man in black leans over by the window, and even with the shock and only one good eye, Howard could see the man's face clearly.
"Barnes?" Howard said weakly.
The man doesn't react one bit, he just reaches through the window with his right hand, which Howard notices is made out of iron; a robotic prosthesis. Any other time and he'd be intrigued. Right now, he isn't anything at all. It's the shock.
The man touches Howard with his iron hand and an electric shock knocks Howard right out. The man places his good hand over Howard's mouth and nose, holding it there for a few minutes until he's sure the man's stopped breathing. He doesn't need to check in on the woman to see she's dead, but he does anyway.
After that he gets back to the truck and pulls out the safety modifications that allowed him to survive. He then drags the drunkard's body with the fabricated wounds to coincide with the collision out of the trunk and places him behind the wheel.
He bundles the modification together and then makes his way off the side of the road. He finds the car that'd been stashed for him, gets in and drives for an hour, sticking to the back roads. Eventually he finds a dumpster where he disposes of the scraps of metal he took out of the truck. He gets back in the car and drives for a short while longer until he finds a payphone. He drops the dime and dials the number.
"It is done."
Hearing the dial tone after that, he hangs the receiver and walks away, leaving the car behind.
The wreckage would have already been discovered. There'll be an investigation and theories of foul play, but they'll never be able to find evidence to lend credence to them. They'll officially rule it a tragic accident within a few weeks if not days, and only the most paranoid will believe it anything but.
By then, the Winter Soldier would be back in Moscow, waiting for his next assignment.