He hadn't been drinking that evening.
He would have, but before the gala he and Tony had been in another of what Maria called their long-distance barn-shakers. He'd said something intended just to shut the kid up, he didn't even remember what, and Tony had retorted, "Well, Dad, maybe if you'd been sober for a little more of my childhood, you'd have noticed."
Howard had startled back from the phone like Tony had managed to come through it and slap him. His drinking was not something they talked about in the family, particularly not something Tony had the right to bring up. But he had, and so the gloves were off.
He'd hung up. He hadn't known how else to react. Tony hadn't redialled. And he'd gone to the gala sober and stayed that way, to prove he could. It was worryingly difficult.
If he'd been drinking, perhaps he wouldn't have felt Maria's sudden squeeze on his thigh or heard her sharp intake of breath to speak, to warn him of the man in the road. He might not have been able to handle the powerful engine on the sedan as he swerved them around the man in the road, fishtailing wildly into the shoulder, careening off into the trees. He might not have been conscious to check Maria's pulse -- steady, thankfully -- and he might not have heard the man coming down the shoulder to him.
Howard may have been a terrible father and a barely adequate husband even to his own mind, but he was a survivor and he'd had attempts made on his life before. So he grabbed the pistol from the glovebox, roared over the hood, and brought the butt of it down hard across the man's face as he bent to inspect (and likely execute) Maria.
The man's mask and goggles went flying and he turned to Howard immediately, sweeping his legs out from under him. Howard grappled wildly and they went down together, scrabbling in the wet leaves and soil, both armed, each reaching for the others' weapons.
Then the moon struck the man's face, and Howard's mind went white.
"Bucky?" he asked, shocked.
The man looked confused, which at least kept his hand from tightening on Howard's throat.
"Who the hell is Bucky?" he asked.
"This is going to hurt," Howard said, and pulled the trigger with his right hand as he slammed a little device he called the night-night-stick into the man's neck with his left. The gut-shot-and-electrocution combo made his own teeth rattle.
Bucky -- or his twin -- slumped over on top of him, unconscious, and Howard exhaled in relief.
Twenty minutes later, the sedan rolled clumsily into a service station and Howard calmly made two phone calls: one to 911 for his wife, and one to Peggy Carter, for his prisoner.
"This had better not be drunken confession time," Peggy groaned into the phone, when he said it was him.
"I just had a try on my life by a guy with a steel plate arm who's a dead ringer for Bucky Barnes," Howard said.
"Say that again?" she asked.
"Peggy, Maria's hurt and this guy is bleeding out and may not stay unconscious much longer. I need SHIELD backup yesterday," he said. "High security transport and paramedics, and someone we trust to stand guard on my wife. Fuck!" he added, realization dawning. "Tony -- "
"I'll handle it. Obie too. Hold for pickup," Peggy said, and he could hear her rushing around the room, gathering her things. "Don't be a hero," she added.
"Too late," he said grimly, as the distant wail of a siren became audible. "Tell Maria's detail to meet her at the hospital, ambulance is almost here. I'll stay here with...whoever he is."
Three hours later, Howard's own personal storm arrived.
SHIELD, with Peggy riding shotgun, had taken Barnes to HQ, dropping Howard at the hospital where Maria had been patched up -- two broken ribs and a cut on her scalp -- and was now sleeping under sedation. Peggy said she'd sent some local lads to look after Tony, but Tony, as Howard knew all too well, was not a child to be looked after.
"Mom!" came Tony's voice, barely settled into a man's register and high with the panic of a child. "Dad!"
Howard took the ice off his bruising eye and leaned out into the hallway. Sure enough, there was Tony, barreling down the hall like a gangling cheetah, followed by a crowd of hospital security, followed by a pair of burly SHIELD agents.
"Tony, for the love of -- " he managed, before Tony threw himself into his arms and began talking as only Tony could talk.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, I didn't think -- I just snapped and I didn't think you were gonna DIE -- "
"Tony!" Howard snapped, appalled at the outburst and deeply uncertain about the hug. Emotional reunions were really Maria's area. "Quiet, you'll wake your mother."
"Is she okay?" Tony asked, gulping and pulling away, drifting into the room to hover over her bed. He swallowed again, face ashen, and turned back to Howard. "Are you okay? The bodyguards just said -- "
"I'm fine, Maria's fine, just a little bruised. If you don't calm down you might not be," Howard managed, and Tony manfully got a grip on his emotions, even if he was still unsettlingly pale, trembling minutely. Howard took his arm and guided him away from Maria, to the other side of the room so that she wouldn't wake.
"They were supposed to keep you safe," Howard said, directing his disapproval at the SHIELD agents now, lurking guiltily in the doorway. "Not drive you to Yonkers in the dead of night."
Tony gave him a look, inherited straight from his mother, the kind of incredulous, derisive look that silently questioned how he had been fathered by an idiot.
"You were in the hospital," Tony said. "I was gonna come find you, Dad."
"You'd have been better off staying in Boston -- "
"Well, there's a fucking first," Tony muttered, and Howard winced internally. The fight earlier had been about that -- about Tony wanting to stay in Boston another year after graduating to work for the local Stark branch, the generally fruitless and low-profit robotics division, rather than coming back to New York to finally begin the business of learning how to run SI.
"You know the vulnerable point is always -- "
"Direct transit in convoy," Tony chimed in. "Yeah Dad, I know. I was smart about it, I was safe. I'm not a child."
"We'll discuss this later," Howard decided. "Your mother needs to rest and I have an interrogation to attend -- "
"They caught him?" Tony demanded.
"You think your old man lived this long on luck?" Howard asked. "Yes, I caught him, and now we need to find out who hired him -- "
"Can I come?"
Howard stared at him.
"Now you want to follow me around?" he managed, and saw Tony's eyes harden.
"You think I don't know about SHIELD?" Tony asked, tipping his head at the guards. "I know, Dad."
"And you think being a spy is more fun than being a man of industry, is that it?"
"I don't care about being a spy, what am I, nine? I want to know who hurt you," Tony replied.
Well, he'd have to learn sooner or later.
"You stay silent and you stay by my side," Howard said. "And I mean silent, Tony."
He kindly did not acknowledge the soft little yes! from behind him as he strode off down the hallway.
They left the guards with Maria and took their car to HQ; on the way, Howard gave him the same briefing he'd give a subordinate, watching Tony drink it in out of the corner of his eye. By the time they reached Holding, down in the bowels of HQ, Tony's eyes were huge as saucers, but Howard could see his brain ticking away, memorizing everything. There'd be no going back from this.
The boy was his pride, but lord, he could be exhausting.
Peggy didn't question why Tony was there, just gave Howard a disappointed look before continuing the brief. Her feelings on Tony were well-known and had been argued out long ago.
"Blood type matches, not that that means much," she said, handing him a hastily-typed lab report. "He only speaks in Russian."
"I heard him speak English," Howard insisted.
"Well, what he'll give me is yes, no, and asset, followed by a serial number, in Russian," she replied. " If you want to take the ball, be my guest."
Howard stood in the hall, considering. He wasn't a born interrogator and he spoke less Russian than Peggy, the current Cold War and Vanko's laughing attempts to teach him notwithstanding (Vanko -- that still cut hard -- it was a night for hard memories perhaps).
And there was Tony to consider. Watching his father try to break an assassin wasn't how he should be introduced to SHIELD, as educational as that would be.
"Nothing at all in English?" he asked, opening the door to the observation room. On the other side of the glass, Barnes (or whatever he was) sat sullenly, a prosthetic left arm hanging at his side, right arm pulled up to his chest defensively. No -- pulled up to his chest to put constant strain on the chain that went from his cuff through the table to a plate in the floor.
"No," Peggy said. "But he could still be groggy. They kept him under while they bandaged him up, not that it was easy; he seemed to need about three times the dose as normal. Once he was patched up and properly restrained, they let him come round in the interrogation room. He's been quietly working on pulling the chain out of the floor. Another hour, he'll probably have it."
Tony had drifted over to the glass and was studying the man, head tilted.
"That's Bucky Barnes?" he asked.
"Or someone who looks quite like him," Peggy said.
"You wanna share your observations, son?" Howard drawled.
"Just the way you two always talked about him and the Captain, I thought he'd be taller," Tony said. "You know, the young colossus bestriding the world. He can't be much bigger than I am."
Howard heard Peggy snort. It was a little amusing, perhaps, seen in one light, but he didn't have time for Tony's antics right now.
"Is there any way Barnes could have survived that mission?" Howard asked, turning back to her. "That you can think of?"
"Neither of us were there, we really only know what Steve told us," Peggy mused. "Steve had no reason to lie, though, and he was a terrible actor. His grief for James was genuine, I'm sure of that. Whatever did happen, he truly believed James died."
"Do we -- dammit," Howard rubbed his face. "Do we think the Russians can clone a man already? We're decades from that if it's even possible."
"No. Can't be. They'd need to have had it in 1946 for a cloned infant to be that old now," Peggy said.
"He's got a metal arm. Could be a robot?"
Peggy gave him a dry look. "If you couldn't get a robot up and walking around by now, I very much doubt the Soviets could."
"They got a man in space before us."
"He's not a robot, Howard. You pricked him, he bled."
"So he's not a clone, not a robot, probably not some kind of evil twin. How long will it take to get fingerprints back?"
"Barnes was printed for the Army, I have a courier on the way to Army archives now, but it'll take time to find his records and compare them, even with SHIELD clearance."
Howard became aware of a subtle, ongoing noise just on the edge of his hearing, and when he turned to the glass he nearly had a heart attack.
Tony was sitting in the interrogation room across from Barnes, speaking quietly in Russian (Tony had listened more closely to Ivan's lessons than Howard had). Howard turned to the door, the whole world in slow motion, but Peggy grabbed his arm to stop him from barging in there and hauling the boy out by his elbow.
"Look," she said. "Wait."
Barnes had relaxed a fraction -- he'd stopped the constant pulling on the chain, anyway -- and was now looking confused, eyes darting back and forth behind the curtain of his messy hair. Tony was sitting more than an arm's length away (good boy!) and speaking, and Barnes was grunting and occasionally muttering an affirmative or a negative in Russian.
Howard caught words here and there -- soldier, kalashnikov, unit, father. Sprinkled in with the Russian were English words, sergeant and army and James Buchanan Barnes. Then Barnes said something Howard didn't quite catch, but Tony clearly did. So did Peggy, who stiffened.
As if he knew Howard's eyes were on him, Tony nodded at Barnes, then stood up and went to the glass, rapping lightly on it.
"He says his name is the Winter Soldier," he said, and Howard's blood ran cold.
Peggy Carter had spent her fair share of time fighting bitterly with Howard; he was a man one did that with. He was arrogant, high-handed, and something of a son of a bitch, not to mention lately something of an alcoholic. So she knew from experience that while Tony and his father were audibly eviscerating each other in the hallway, it would all blow past by the time they tired of shouting. Tony was his father's son and gave as good as he got, and Howard rarely had anything other than cursing and stomping to back up his rhetoric. Let the Starks wear each other out, though she didn't blame Howard for his anger. When she saw Tony in with Barnes, her stomach had done a swoop as if he were one of her own children.
That was Tony; even now he was defending his indefensible actions by pointing out that Howard and Peggy would have stood there talking about it all night when they could have been getting to the bottom of things. And honestly, even Howard was having a hard time arguing with Tony's results.
Peggy stared at Barnes through the glass. The Winter Soldier. You heard stories. Sometimes you made jokes, dark jokes. But if this man was the Winter Soldier, and somehow James Barnes as well --
"If I don't walk away, I'm gonna strangle him," Howard said, stomping back into the observation room. "I've invested much too much money in him to kill him now."
"You have such a truly delightful way of speaking of your only son," Peggy replied.
"Right now he's my first-born pain-in-my-ass," Howard growled.
"What's the verdict? Ten with the cane and no dessert for a week?"
"Well, what the hell do we do now? He made a connection, we're stuck with him," Howard gestured at the interrogation room, where Tony was returning.
"You're going to let your seventeen-year-old son interrogate the Winter Soldier?" she asked.
"A Stark doesn't argue with results," he said stiffly. "Besides, the boy's got a diploma from MIT, it ought to have made a man of him."
"I think you are vastly overestimating the average college campus experience," she said, as Tony settled in again and rolled into Russian like it was his native tongue. Odd how Tony's French accent was exquisitely terrible (native French speakers were sure he was doing it on purpose) and his Italian was the most New York Italian she'd ever heard, but his Russian was flawless. Perhaps he really was doing the rest of it badly on purpose.
He'd always been a chatterbox, capable of talking for hours about anything that struck his fancy. But he kept his subject matter interesting, and it was a good skill for a salesman to have. Tony would do well as Howard's successor, and didn't really seem to have a genuine dislike for business -- he just liked robots more.
Now he sat in the little cell with the dangerous assassin and rambled away about his latest robot, a mechanical arm with integrated capaibilities for limited artificial intelligence. He was circling something, creating a sort of tapestry of words, intensely descriptive, and then with an almost audible hairpin turn he said, "What do you think, Bucky?" and Barnes replied, "Sounds swell."
Tony smiled. Barnes looked comically surprised.
Howard would probably have let Tony go on with Barnes all day, but Peggy knew that even boys of seventeen didn't often see six in the morning from the wrong side, and Howard was far too old not to have slept (she herself had gotten at least two hours, and anyway she wasn't as old as Howard). When the breakfast shift at the HQ canteen came on, she put an end to the interrogation for the moment. Barnes didn't even struggle as he was taken to a holding cell, Tony walking the whole way with him and keeping up his incessant talking; only when Tony was finally off the detention level did he sag against the wall and wipe his forehead dramatically.
"I don't mind saying that was intense," he said to Peggy, who ruffled his hair. "Hey!"
"You did very well, regardless of how absurd the entire situation is," she said. "Come along, let's have breakfast."
"There's breakfast?" Tony said eagerly, trotting after her.
"SHIELD's finest. It's institutional, but then you went to boarding school, you ought to feel right at home."
"Burned sausage and watery scrambled eggs?"
"By the truckload."
Tony ran ahead with the boundless enthusiasm of a starving teenager, once he got the unmistakable grease-and-dishsoap scent of the canteen. By the time she arrived he was loading a tray. Howard was already there, drinking coffee with the rest of senior staff -- he wasn't officially in management anymore, but he was on the board of directors, as it were, and anyway they all knew each other.
Awkward. Should she abandon Tony and join them, as was her prerogative, or should she bring Tony with -- or should she abandon them and sit with Tony as though she were a child as well?
Howard did solve that problem, at least; with a few shoulder-claps and nods he left the crowd of SHIELD agents and wove his way through the tables to her, barking "my tab" at the cashier who was ringing Tony up. The woman rolled her eyes, saw Peggy looking, flushed, and then relaxed when Peggy rolled her eyes back. Peggy was about to collect Tony when she saw him pick up his tray and make a beeline for a table of female trainees.
"Let him go, he's making friends," Howard said.
"Or he's being a pest," Peggy replied.
"That's my line, isn't it? We have stuff to talk about, Peg."
She allowed herself to be seated at a two-person table, but kept Tony in her eyeline. He was eating quickly and neatly, speaking inbetween bites, and the women were smiling.
"Taught him everything he knows," Howard said, glancing Tony's way before turning back dismissively. "Probably for the best I didn't teach him everything I know."
"Probably," she agreed drily. "How's Maria, any news?"
"She's still sleeping. When she wakes a SHIELD transport will take her to the mansion."
"Howard," Peggy said, despairing of the man. "She's your wife, don't be an ass. Finish breakfast and go sit with her."
His brows knitted. "What good'd that do?"
"It would make her feel loved."
"She knows I love her," he said dismissively. "After nearly getting myself killed for her last night, she'd better. Fine, fine," he said, as Peggy pressed her lips together disapprovingly. "I'll collect the offspring and go pick her up for the drive, she'll be happy to see Tony. Once I get my head down though, I'm coming back this afternoon, I expect you to hold the fort around Barnes until then."
"You aren't my boss anymore, you know," she said.
"Like you listened even when I was," he grumbled.
"What are we going to do if it is James Barnes?"
"Deprogram him. Someone got into his head, clearly. You saw The Manchurian Candidate, right?"
"You know I don't care for thrillers, Howard."
"Well, anyway, here's my theory: somehow he lived through that fall off the train. Maybe he caught a ledge, or it was shallower than Cap thought."
"Steve wasn't the sort to inflate that kind of thing."
"Wish we had him here," Howard said absently, then looked down at his coffee and continued. "Anyway, however it happened, the Soviets got him -- they were close to the border there -- and they put some kind of whammy on him. Wouldn't be hard, they've had twenty plus years to do it."
"You think the Soviets sent him to Yonkers to kill you?" Peggy asked. "I mean, it does have a very sort of..."
"James Bond feel?"
"I was thinking more Get Smart," she replied. Howard grinned tiredly.
"I don't know if it was the Soviets. I mean yeah, cold war, blah blah, but why kill me? A guy like Barnes has the skills to kill a president."
Peggy shivered. Kennedy wasn't so far behind them that it felt offhanded to say things like that.
"This feels more personal. I bet the Soviets sold him off to someone, and whoever it is they're renting him out," Howard continued, blithely unconcerned.
"I do think we should be worried that someone wants you dead," she said.
"Someone always wants me dead. Barnes can probably tell us why, eventually."
"Do you think...." Peggy chose her words carefully. "Steve could have survived that fall, the fall James clearly survived, couldn't he?"
"Sure. He'd done free jumps like that before. It was like he couldn't stand the idea of wasting a parachute. But we never gave Barnes the...."
Howard's eyes went distant.
"Steve said that James was being experimented on by Zola," she said. "When he rescued them, he literally took James off an operating table."
"Zola was a biochemist -- "
"Do you think he did it?" she asked, voice hushed. "Some variant of the serum, maybe -- it would explain how James survived the fall, how he still looks so young -- "
"Fuck," Howard said, and Peggy grabbed his tie before he could stand. "Carter!"
"Don't stand up, don't make a fuss," she hissed, and Howard consciously eased back into his chair. "If the wrong person finds out there's a super-soldier in the basement, it'll be Steve's blood all over again."
"How many know he's there right now?"
"You, me, the medical team, two guards -- "
"Yeah, but how many know he's Barnes?"
Peggy shook her head. "You, me, and Tony. Everyone else just thinks he's a prisoner. They don't even know he was sent to kill you."
"Unless someone in SHIELD knows who he is," Howard said. "Unless someone in SHIELD sent him to kill me."
"I don't know, but it's worth being paranoid. If someone in SHIELD knows Barnes is here, they may try to free him. Or kill him."
"Can we ask Zola about it?" she suggested, then dismissed the idea. "No, if he had any kind of hand in this and we tip him off, there goes our advantage."
"He was deposed pretty thoroughly after he was brought into the country. I'll look through the transcripts and see if he dropped any hints, the smarmy little bastard loves doing that. But we have to keep Barnes under our hats."
"I'll handle it," she said.
"Where will you put him?"
"You know I have ways," she said with a smile.
There was a burst of laughter from the table where Tony was sitting, and when they looked over, the women at the table were smiling, one of them resting a hand on Tony's wrist. Tony looked smug.
"You'd better go collect the future father of SHIELD and take him home," Peggy said. "Contact my office when you come back this afternoon, they'll know where to find me. Howard," she added, as Howard stood to leave. "Tony was a great help. We wouldn't know all this without him. It wouldn't actually kill you to tell him he did a good job."
"Have you met my son? He knows he did a good job," Howard said, and Peggy sighed and let it be. She'd given Tony his due praise, anyway, and he knew her well enough to know it wasn't gratuitous.
Edwin Jarvis was a reasonably placid man, and certainly decades of trailing after Mr. Stark and Agent Carter in various escapades had instilled in him a sort of doomed sense of calm. Still, he felt he could be excused for a little agitation when he was informed that there had been an attempt on Sir's life and that Mrs. Stark was in the hospital. He didn't really rest easy until he had met them at the door, helped Mrs. Stark into the guest room on the ground floor so she could rest easily, and seen Sir settled on the sofa in his study, also to sleep.
He was thrilled to see Anthony in among the SHIELD escort, however. Apparently he'd come in from Boston when he'd heard, like a good and dutiful son. Such a comfort to his mother to have him here, to be sure. And neither Jarvis nor Anna had seen him since the winter holiday, the tension with his father being so high over his wanting to stay in Boston.
So, having settled Sir and Mrs. Stark, he lured Anthony into the kitchen with the promise of fresh berry pie that Anna had made, her own form of fretting. Well, young growing men needed plenty of fruit, and Anna was a great believer in the nourishing properties of butter and sugar.
"I shall make a nice beef consomme for your mother, and for your father sandwiches, as he likely won't stay to dinner," she announced, as Anthony tucked into his pie. "What would you like, hm? Steak, some roast chicken, some kreplach? Shepherd's pie? None of it hard to make, I could make it all," she pointed out.
"No steak, dearest," Jarvis said, kissing the top of her head as he passed. "You know Mrs. Stark digests it poorly and it doesn't keep well. You make the kreplach and the shepherd's pie for tomorrow. I'll roast a chicken for Master Anthony and for Mr. Stark's sandwiches. You'll stay at least until your mother's well?" he asked Anthony, who nodded.
"Yeah, definitely. And I have business at SHIELD now," he added proudly, perking up as he said it.
Anna gave Jarvis a horrified look.
"Oh?" Jarvis inquired blandly, looking over the chickens he'd ordered to be delivered this morning and selecting the plumpest for roasting. "Business at SHIELD?"
"Well, Dad says I'd have to learn sometime. Or he didn't say, but you know how he looks," Anthony said, giving Jarvis a very accurate impression of Sir's "I'm indulging the boy" squint. "I got to interrogate someone this morning!"
Anna slammed a pan on the stove.
"And what does Agent Carter think of this?" Jarvis said carefully.
"Well, she can't argue with my results," Anthony said with a shrug. Anna muttered viciously in Yiddish. "You think I can't understand you, but I can," Anthony called to her. "I'm seventeen, you know, I have my degree. I'm not a little boy anymore."
"Oh, he's seventeen," Anna said to Jarvis. "He thinks he knows everything because he's seventeen!"
"Ours is not to judge, my own," Jarvis said gently, quartering an apple to go into the roast chicken. "I'm sure Anthony knows his own mind best."
"I'm not at all sure!" Anna said. "Your job is to be a businessman, Anthony! To eat good food, live comfortably, marry a nice girl -- Jewish if possible -- have pretty babies. Not running around interrogating people and waving guns and such!"
"We make guns, Anna," Anthony pointed out. "It's what we do. For a living."
"Yes, so let others use them!"
Anthony shot a tolerant smile at Jarvis. That kind of talk from Sir would have filled Anthony with bile and rage, but it didn't draw the same blood, coming from Anna. Probably, Jarvis reflected sadly, because Anthony knew unquestioningly that Anna loved him. With Sir it was more complicated.
"Well, I tell you what, I'll work on finding that nice Jewish girl, but she'll have to make kreplach at least as good as yours," Anthony said. It soothed Anna enough that she sliced him another piece of pie.
"Go on, eat it upstairs, then sleep," she ordered. "Jarvis will wake you when your father wakes."
"Thanks, Anna," Anthony said, bending to kiss her cheek. "Jarvis, save a quarter of that chicken and put it in a box for me, would you? I have a friend at SHIELD who'll appreciate it."