"The Stark line is blessed with a gift."
These are the first and last words Howard's grandfather ever says to him.
Howard is a typical child, a normal child. He spends most of his childhood running around the neighbourhood with his friends; playing, laughing and being a kid generally. He’s highly intelligent, picking up things with a speed that astounds his teachers.
Howard also spends his younger years slightly dissociated from everything, constantly feeling like there’s something he should be doing, somewhere else he should be, someone he should find. The feeling is a constant itch between his shoulder blades. It’s faint enough to ignore for the most part and Howard does so.
However, sometimes, during long, endless nights, the itch becomes almost painful and makes it impossible to sleep. On those nights, Howard opens the window, regardless of season or weather, and stares out into the never ending dark and wonders at what exactly he’s missing.
Howard's father is a distant shadow through Howard's youth. He's busy with work, with the still fledgling Stark Industries.
Howard sees him twice a year, once at Christmas and once at his birthday. Twice a year, like clockwork, until Howard turns sixteen.
"You're almost a man now," Howard's father tells him on his sixteenth birthday, smile stiff like his posture. Howard stands before his father and tries not to fidget. His mother had promised him a small party with his friends from school for his special day.
He raises his head and puts on his most solemn expression. "Yes, father."
"Our family is special, Howard. Perhaps you've noticed that sometimes you can see things that other people can't." His father watches him carefully.
Howard swallows and thinks about Nathaniel, his childhood friend, whom he had seen surrounded by metal and flames that weren't really there, weren't actually real and they had scared him so much, all those years ago. "Yes," his voice is almost a whisper.
His father nods and places a hand on Howard's shoulder. "We can see glimpses of what could happen in the future when we meet other people, especially those who are or will be close to us. However, we cannot ever see what happens to those related to us by blood.”
And that explains why Howard has had visions when he’s touched Nathaniel and Quentin and Melinda but never when he’s touched his mother or father or uncles.
Howard’s father hands Howard a little mirror, no bigger than his palm, intricate patterns decorating the edges. Howard takes it and looks at his reflection staring back at him, puzzled. His father reaches out and turns it over, mirrored surface to the bottom. "This mirror is an heirloom that has been passed through the Stark line for a very long time, Howard. The eldest son always receives it on his sixteenth birthday."
His father looks tired. "I didn't want to give you this, but it's tradition and I..." He clears his throat and the hand on Howard's shoulder presses down, a little heavier, "You must promise me, you can never look into this mirror and think about your own future, Howard."
"Father?" Howard blinks. He figures that if you can see your own future, it would be a great way to make sure what you were doing now was right. What was so bad that his father would forbid him to do such a thing? Howard opens his mouth and as if knowing his thoughts, Howard's father frowns.
"Promise me." And the words are a command that Howard cannot contradict. Not yet.
He looks down at the carpet and crosses his fingers behind his back. "I promise, father."
It takes Howard three days to gather up enough courage to disobey his father.
He makes sure he has the house to himself and sneaks down to his father’s study. His father keeps the mirror in a drawer under the biggest bookshelf. Howard finds it in its box, an ornately carved chest slightly bigger than his hand, and slides it into his pocket.
He makes sure to place everything else back exactly the way it was and goes back to his room. He locks his door for good measure and spends a minute just breathing, calming his racing heart, before he brings the mirror out.
Howard wonders why he’s doing this, directly going against his father, disobeying orders and taking something without permission, from his father’s private study no less. But some sly, rational part of his mind reminds him that it was his father who had told him about this in the first place and he figures that it’s his future and he should have the right to look into it. Besides, it probably isn’t going to work anyway.
Reassured and back in control, Howard takes a breath and looks. He looks and dreams and wishes, just a little.
And there is a moment when nothing happens, when Howard just stares at himself, blue eyes almost too big for his face. He huffs out the breath, disappointed despite everything, and is about to flip the mirror over and laugh at himself for believing such a crock, when the mirror shimmers.
Howard stares, unable to quite believe, as the surface ripples like liquid and when it clears, he’s not looking at himself anymore. He leans forward, eager to see if he’ll be as rich and successful and famous as he dreams that he will be.
But instead of himself, he sees a boy, a little older than him maybe, lean and tall. He’s roughly dressed with smudges across his cheeks. But he’s got the sharpest grey eyes and when he turns, obviously talking to someone, and smiles in the mirror’s direction, it’s almost as if he’s smiling directly at Howard.
Howard can’t help smiling back, fingers shaking as he hovers them over the image, his future, not quite daring to touch. And from that instant on, Howard forgets about money and success and fame and wants nothing else in the entire world.
"Why does father not want me to see what happens in my future?" Howard asks his mother a few weeks later, when they're in the study. He's reading a book on the floor and she's writing letters at the huge wooden desk. Howard makes sure that his tone as innocent as he can make it.
She tilts her head slightly as if considering and then puts her pen away, tidying her papers up and sliding them into a little paper folder.
"You can't see your own future, Howard." She tells him gently.
He closes his book and frowns and thinks of tall, gangly limbs and sharp grey eyes. "Then why would father lie?"
"He didn't lie, sweetheart. You can see possibilities of other people's futures just the once if you touch them and if they have or will have enough of a connection to you," she ruffles his hair gently as she speaks, eyes and tone loving. "But no one should be able to know their own future, so that's not what you see if you ever try looking at yourself with that little mirror of yours."
Howard lets himself lean into the touch, it soothes and reassures him. It eases the guilt that eats at him some nights, when he curls up in bed and stares into his tiny little mirror, that little empty space inside him aching, wanting something but not quite knowing what. "What do I see then?"
She pulls him close and presses her lips to his forehead. "You see the other half of your soul."
"Does father see you when he looks at the mirror?" Howard asks, out of the blue sometime later, curious. His left hand is tucked inside his pocket, absently tracing the outline of the mirror he carries everywhere.
His mother smiles, but it's a small, bitter smile. "I don't know. I've never asked."
She looks away from him, fingers clasped tightly around each other. "And he's never said."
Howard remembers the pain and hurt in his mother’s eyes and wonders if that’s what will happen to him, if he never meets the boy he sees in the mirror, or if they meet and he’s not what Howard thought he was.
He keeps the mirror tucked in the lowest drawer of his bookshelf after that. It's the most hidden space he can find without making anyone suspicious or taking it back to his father. He thinks about throwing it out a few times but can't quite bring himself to do it.
Howard keeps the tiny, perfect mirror hidden and doesn't look at it anymore. He even grows to avoid his reflection in the mornings, brushing his teeth and running a comb through his hair with the barest glance at the bathroom mirror, unable to handle seeing himself anymore.
He doesn’t know what exactly he’s trying to avoid; the fact that the mirror is showing him the truth, or that the mirror lies.
He lasts eight days, four hours, fifteen minutes and thirty six seconds without the mirror.
Howard’s not a social outcast by any stretch of the imagination. He’s well liked by almost everyone; teachers, fellow students, his parents’ acquaintances. Howard is a natural charmer, with a sweet smile and his sharp intelligence and quick words, often the life of the party when he’s out on town with friends.
But despite the attention he receives from others, Howard never quite really feels at peace with himself as he does when he touches fingers to the silvered surface of that mirror and sees the boy, almost a man, reflected back at him. Howard feels like he knows him despite not knowing his name or his actual age or where he lives.
Because Howard's watched him laugh and cry and run and fight. He watches him grow, they grow together almost, becoming taller, broader and the other boy grows into his sharp features with every day that passes. Howard feels like he knows him, understands him in the ways that matter the most.
Howard watches and wonders if he'll ever get to meet the person who's the other half of his soul.
It’s sheer bad luck that Howard’s father catches him with the mirror. He was supposed to be out of the country until the weekend and Howard had been just about to leave for a friend’s party.
Howard goes nowhere without the mirror these days and he’s gotten into the habit of placing the it on his bedside table, within touching distance, when he’s in his room. He’s dressed smartly, shirt crisp, trousers pressed, and is taking one last look into the mirror before he leaves when his father walks into his room, without knocking.
There’s a moment of silence where Howard’s father sees the mirror in Howard’s hand and Howard braces himself for the inevitable fallout.
“I told you to never look into it.” It’s the first time that Howard’s heard his father raise his voice in anger.
But Howard’s eighteen and on the cusp of that rebellious stage, when he draws himself up, he’s slightly startled to find that he’s taller than his father. Howard narrows his eyes and doesn’t back down. “I’m old enough to do what I want, father,” he snaps back, words bitter.
He’s never seen his father so angry before and it’s the first time he raises a hand and hits Howard. Howard watches passively as the mirror goes skittering across the room.
"Your grandfather told both you and me that this, what we can do, was a gift," his father sounds defeated and weary. But he doesn’t sound sorry, because he isn’t. "It's not."
Howard looks away from both his father and where the mirror lies forlornly in the middle of the room, completely intact despite landing with such force on polished wooden floors.
"It's a curse."
Howard listens and hears but doesn’t understand, so he turns and walks away.
His father confiscates the mirror and Howard never bothers looking for it again.
Howard loves his mother fiercely. She’s the one who supported him all the way, listening to his fears, offering advice and unconditional love no matter what he did.
She’s so proud of him when he graduates, the first, second, third time, her eyes shining and her laugh delighted and so very proud. And so she should be, because Howard is a genius, the kind that appears once a generation, he’s got doctorates in mechanical engineering and particle physics, masters in mathematics and chemistry. So much of the time, he’s far ahead of most of his peers, men and women who are twenty, thirty, forty years his senior.
Howard loves the stark beauty of mechanics, adores the flowing poetry of mathematics and can’t look away from the perfect way that atoms glide in their endless dance with each other. He has a grasp of what and why and how things fit together naturally that other scientists spend a lifetime trying to learn and he enjoys turning everything upside down and inside out and managing to somehow make it all still work.
He remodels a basement of his childhood home into a workshop with his mother’s blessing and spends every spare moment down there. He draws blueprints and schematics to impossible machines that make his peers scoff with incredulity.
Howard laughs and waves off their disbelief with one hand and builds the impossible with the other.
Most people dreamt of the future. Howard, with his experiments and genius and drive, creates it.
Howard stops speaking to his father until he enters Stark Industries at twenty one and even then, their relationship is all about work, about what sort of smarter, better, deadlier weapons Howard can bring to the table.
His mother tries her best to mend their relationship, but Howard is still too young, too sure of his own actions to try and his father is just a little too tired and too set in his ways to listen.
It’s 1942 and the American government recruits Howard just days after America joins the war effort.
By that time, Stark Industries is their sole weapons and munitions supplier, and Howard, with his team of dedicated engineers and physicists, is the mind behind all Allied weapons technology advancements.
He moves his team and half of his workshop into a government facility three months in, and meets more talented scientists and engineers than he expects. Howard’s surprised, but he likes most, if not all of them. They’re hard working, dedicated to their work, and most importantly, they’re more often than not on Howard’s wavelength.
Howard takes lunch with several of the one he gets along best with and that’s how he meets Doctor Abraham Erskine, a brilliant scientist whose biochemistry and genetics work are decades ahead of the current standard.
Howard is more or less gently persuaded into working on the Super Soldier program with Erskine after a couple of lunches and he doesn’t mind. The experiments that Erskine has him run has almost no possibility of blowing up in his face and there’s always friendly casual banter with other scientists because there’s just as much time spent waiting for lab results as there are actually spent on running the experiments.
It’s something different, a break from weapons design, which is something that Howard loves fiercely, but drains him at the same time, creating one weapon of death after another, each more elaborate and deadly than the last. The Super Soldier program is probably just as important to the war effort as any of Howard’s other work.
To his surprise, Howard finds that he doesn’t mind that fact as much as he probably once would’ve and he bemusedly wonders if he’s actually becoming a responsible adult.
Howard meets Steven Rogers, candidate number twelve for the Super Soldier serum, one evening, a year after he joins up and a couple of weeks into the intensive training all the candidates are undergoing.
Rogers is thin, almost sickly looking, shorter than Howard by a head and probably weighing in at half his weight, but there’s a solidness in his gaze that Howard approves of.
Erskine hovers behind Rogers, almost protectively and Howard needs none of his genius to figure out that this is Erskine’s favored candidate for his serum.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark,” Rogers’ voice is surprisingly deep for someone of his size.
Howard flashes a smile and nods, “Same here, Mr. Rogers.”
“Just Steve will be fine, Mr. Stark.” Steve holds Howard’s gaze easily, undaunted by his fame or stature and he holds out a hand for Howard to shake.
“Then you should just...” Howard says as his smile grows and he reaches out for the offered hand. He freezes in place when their fingers brush and he’s looking into Steve’s blue eyes and...
He sees Steve, except he’s now Captain America and storming an enemy outpost, looking for his friend with grey eyes and a crooked smile. He sees end of HYDRA and the end of the war, because of a plane buried in cold, cold ice. But there’s something beyond that, he sees something warm and beautiful and something so real and true and permanent that makes him a little envious.
“Mr. Stark?” Steve looks anxious and Howard notices that he’s still got a hold on Steve’s hand.
He lets go and shakes his head a little, “I’m sorry, just zoned out for a minute, not enough sleep, you know how it is.”
Steve nods, accepting the explanation, if looking a little confused.
Howard waves a hand and puts the smile back on his face, “But please. Just call me Howard.” He slaps Steve on the shoulder heartily, sending him staggering a little, “I have a feeling we’re going to be great friends.”
Howard doesn’t think about Steve’s friend with the grey eyes again until he replays the memory absently, later that night.
He’s buried under eight different weapons demands from three different Allied countries and he’s doing some boring but necessary welding work on shell casings when the image of Steve’s friend actually registers.
It’s been more than half a decade since he’s seen him, but Howard would recognise him anywhere. His future.
He drops the welder, uncaring that it almost falls directly onto his foot, and makes a mad scramble for the soldier barracks.
His name is James Barnes. Steve calls him Bucky and they’ve been friends since childhood.
“He’s in England, with the 107th, fighting on the front lines,” Steve tells him. “He used to watch my back all the time when we were younger, and all the way up until he left, because I could never back down from a fight.”
Howard’s been subtly bribing him with dinner and drinks over the past few nights, asking about his childhood and about any friends and family Steve had left behind.
Steve was trusting enough to tell Howard anything he asked, apparently unconcerned by the scrutiny and unashamed of his less than perfect life so far. Howard’s learnt that Steve was raised by his mother who passed away several years back and had no other living family and no real friends, except for one. And tonight, Steve’s finally moved on to talking about his best friend and Howard is trying to memorise every word.
“Yeah? He sounds like an amazing guy,” Howard tells him and pushes the plate of steak closer to Steve.
“I miss him a lot,” Steve confides. He stares a little sadly at his plate before his look turns fierce, “I hope I can join him on the front lines soon. I want to be able to watch his back for once.”
Howard smiles, soft, “I’m sure you’ll get the chance, Steve.”
Steve smiles back briefly, turning his attention to the food once more and changing the topic slightly. “We went to see the Expo, you know, just before he shipped out.”
Howard startles a little, unsure if he should ask about their impression, James’ impression of him, but wanting desperately to know anyway. He winces when he remembers how well his presentation turned out. “Ah. Well, not quite my best moment.”
“It was very impressive still, what you did with that car,” Steve insists, expression earnest. “I think Bucky even forgot about our dates for those few minutes when you did your demonstration.”
He’s jolted by the sudden surge of jealousy towards people he never met and never will meet, but at the same time, there’s a tingling warmth in his chest at the thought of James standing in the crowd, eyes on him and only him, if only for a moment.
“I’m glad he liked it,” Howard says and hopes that his voice is as normal as he imagines it to be.
Steve seems a little puzzled again, and it’s not unusual per se, but it’s the kind of expression people wear around Howard when he’s rambling on about machines and physics and thermohydraulics. The look of someone trying to figure out something just beyond their grasp.
Howard forgets sometimes that for all of Steve’s physical size, his mind is twice as sharp as a normal person’s. Howard would know, he’s pulled up test results and the like from Steve’s file, as he had for all of the Super Soldier candidates, and they all read off the charts.
He pulls up a grin, leaning forward a little and does his best to distract Steve from any particular line of thought. “You should really see what I’m working on now. It’ll blow the wheeless car out of the water.”
Steve sits up, eyes brightening, whatever he had been thinking about forgotten for the moment. “Really?”
Howard nods and grins wider, “We’ll get you some clearance and you can come visit my lab. There’s a lot of great explosions.” He waggles his eyebrows for good measure.
Steve laughs and they move onto more inconsequential topics.
Howard doesn’t stop thinking about James, not even once.
The Super Soldier serum exceeds everyone’s expectations.
Howard, like everyone else, stares as Steve stumbles a little on his way down from the machine. He’s easily a head taller than Howard now and probably twice the weight, in pure muscle.
“You actually did it,” he laughs, half in exhilaration, half in sheer disbelief, to Erskine who smiles back. Because despite all the numbers he crunched and experiments he ran and all that working theory behind it all, Howard had never, really truly expected it to succeed and succeed so spectacularly.
Steve’s staring down at his hands and his body, like he’s not quite sure what he’s seeing. “I feel taller,” he admits, in response to Agent Peggy Carter’s question.
Howard stands next to Erskine, who looks exhausted, elated and so very proud, all at the same time. They watch Steve, who’s now tall, broad, imposing and somehow, it feels a little like watching a child, their child, all their blood and sweat and tears and years and decades of hard work, all grown up.
Steve looks over at them and he smiles, all blonde hair and blue eyes and he’s every inch America’s golden child, the man he was always meant to be.
Howard always knew that the Super Soldier program was intended as another weapon for the war but it doesn’t stop the unease that crawls down his spine when HYDRA kills Erskine and Steve is left as the sole living proof of his legacy, of his life’s work.
“I told Dr. Erskine once that I didn’t want to fight this war to kill Nazi’s, that I just hated bullies,” Steve tells Howard after the funeral.
His jaw is tight and his eyes are shadowed, a deep, fathomless shade of blue. He’s so very angry.
Steve draws in a breath and stares down at a half empty bottle of schnapps, but when he speaks, his voice is soft, barely audible, “I will bring down HYRDA, every single last one of them.”
But Howard hears everything behind the words; the pain, the conviction, the solid promise of a soldier. He doesn’t reply, instead raising his glass in a silent salute, eyes on the amber liquid within swirling around tinkering cubes of ice, and empties the glass with one smooth swallow.
Steve seeks him out one rainy day, about three weeks after their arrival in England.
“I need a favor.” His face is tight with worry and his knuckles are white because he’s clenching his fists so hard.
Howard pushes up his goggles and sets down his work, knowing that this wasn’t just a fun visit. “Anything you need, Steve.”
Steve pulls over a map of Europe and marks a spot, his gaze is steady when he meets Howard’s. “There’s a HYDRA base here,” he gestures to the location he marked. “I need a way in.”
Howard studies the map, notes the HYDRA base camp and the surrounding area, all heavily fortified enemy territory. “It’s not going to be easy.”
“Please,” Steve’s voice is quiet. “My best friend and the rest of his battalion are prisoners of HYDRA. I can’t just sit on my hands and do nothing.”
Howard stills and then closes his eyes. He exhales slowly, opening his eyes again and nods, just the once. “Give me until nightfall, I need to gather some supplies,” he says, mind already running through pre-flight checklists and the necessary additions he’ll have to jury rig up in a couple of hours to keep his plane in the air over HYDRA territory.
It’s all Howard can do to stop from thinking about James, who’s in terrible danger and who he’d yet to have a chance to meet. He hesitates, pausing on his way out to check his private hangar, and turns back to Steve. “Thank you for trusting me with this.”
“It’s the other way around, Howard.” Steve’s smile is small and wan but still real when he looks at Howard, “Thank you.”
Howard hides himself in his workshop, ignoring the world and pretending he isn’t thinking about Steve and James and HYDRA and it’s the stuff his nightmares are made of.
Which is why he’s stopped sleeping. Really, it’s an obvious solution to an obvious problem.
It’s been three days, six hours and fifteen minutes since he turned his plane around, heading home after dropping Steve basically on enemy lines.
The plane’s prepped, refueled, everything double checked and any damaged fixed, ready to go on a minute’s notice. But Steve hasn’t activated his transponder, there’s hasn’t even been so much as a hint of a signal.
Howard’s not the only one who’s on edge, so he’s not surprised when he hears a perfunctory knock on his door. “Carter, I’m busy,” he calls.
Peggy steps into his workshop, ignoring his glare and takes in idle machinery, the lack of anything approaching work on Howard’s table and raises an eyebrow. “I can see you’re working very hard, Stark.”
He doesn’t even have the energy to tell her off, he just waves a hand, gesturing for her to get out.
She doesn’t obey, instead, she turns a little so she’s leaning against the door jamb. “Steve’s back,” she offers, casual, offhand.
And Howard doesn’t need to hear anymore, nor does he hear anymore in reality, because he’s out of his chair and almost running, pushing his way through the crowd of soldiers and officers who’ve gathered in the courtyard.
He stops, five, six meters away from Steve as James raises his chin and shouts, “Hey! Let’s hear it for Captain America!”
Howard watches as all the men cheer, raising their weapons and hands in a salute, to a man who went behind enemy lines, by himself, and rescued half a battalion of captured soldiers. Steve flushes at the noise and at Peggy, who’s made her way back to him, smiling and Howard knows that Steve doesn’t think he did anything special, that he was just doing what he thought was right. It’s what makes him a hero.
He takes all of that in and processes it all in an instant, but Howard’s gaze is truly focused to the side, at Steve’s side, where James Barnes stands, mussed, dirty and a little scraped and bruised. Bucky, Steve’s best friend.
James, Howard’s future. Who’s alive, well and every inch the man that Howard, years and years and years ago, had imagined him to grow up to be.
Howard smiles, clapping along with everyone else to honor Captain America, but his eyes never leave James.
Howard first meets James Barnes barely hours after his return with Steve.
“Mr. Stark!” James’ voice is rough, and with the still healing cut across his cheek and the unshaved stubble, he’s a real, solid and very dangerous presence.
Howard remembers to smile and try for normality but he has to remind himself to breathe regularly. James is alive, in front of him and Howard has to restrain himself from reaching out to touch.
He makes sure his voice is clear and steady when he responds, “Sergeant Barnes, I presume?”
James grins, “Just James will do, unless you want to use Bucky like Steve and everyone else, Mr. Stark.” He holds out a hand, grey eyes sweeping Howard up and down.
Howard can feel himself flush and hates his complexion for a moment. “Then it’s just Howard, James,” he says, taking the proffered hand, trying not to seem too eager. He’s waited so long for this moment that he wants to remember everything, in glorious technicolor detail.
Howard’s hand is just a little smaller, which is understandable, since James stands an inch or two taller, with shoulders noticeably broader. His hands are slightly rougher, more calloused than Howard’s own, the latter of which is a result of all the time spent in his laboratory.
He clasps James’ hand and...
He sees missions, one after the other, James exhausted but not letting it show. He sees James watching him, always around him, kissing him but then there’s a train snaking its way around a mountain and James can’t hold on and he falls and falls and falls. And he doesn’t see an ending, because there isn’t one.
Howard jerks his hand from James’ and stares at him. He tries to breathe, forces himself to breathe and ignores the loud pounding of his heart, the silent sound of his heart breaking into a thousand different pieces.
“Howard?” James’ voice is too sudden, too loud and Howard can’t quite control the flinch and half step backwards. James freezes in place and there’s no smile on his face now, “Howard, what’s wrong?”
But Howard’s shaking his head, unable to explain, not wanting to explain, and taking one step after another away. He can almost pretend he doesn’t see the confusion and the flash of hurt in James’ eyes and can almost pretend that it doesn’t matter to him.
Howard turns and walks away without a word and doesn’t even try to pretend that he isn’t running away, because he is.
He goes back to his workshop. There’s a burning sensation in his chest because this, James, was what he had waited his entire life for and how cruel could the universe be?
Howard turns and sees himself reflected in the floor length mirror he keeps in his workshop for armour fittings. He’s pale, exhausted and there’s so much in his eyes that he almost doesn’t even recognise himself.
And he’s suddenly angry, so very angry, at himself for letting James in, at James for being everything he wanted and needed, at his so called gift which was a curse, could only be a curse. And life and fate and destiny are really, truly the cruelest of mistresses.
Howard’s angry enough to pick up the nearest object, a wrench, and throws it at the mirror. The silvered glass shatters into a thousand pieces but it’s not enough, because he can still see himself and now his reflection is a true one, cracked and broken. And he hates it, hates himself for being so weak and so he takes the wrench to each piece, again and again until they’re nothing but countless fragments, reflecting nothing more than bare hints of light.
He’s breathing hard, heart beating fast but there’s no reflection left to mock and stare back at him. Howard slumps to the floor and presses a hand to the shards decorating the area where he now sits and doesn’t draw back until the physical pain overwhelms the numbness in his chest.
Howard draws his hand back and stares as blood wells up from hundreds of tiny cuts, doesn’t do anything as it drips through his fingers.
He sits and stares and finds the slowly dripping blood oddly fitting in a strange, abstract way.
It’s James who patches Howard up after the incident with the mirror.
It’s James who comes looking for him, everyone else too scared of what could be happening or too used to the sounds coming from his workshop to really take notice.
“Howard?” There’s a note in James’ voice that could be concern, but Howard doesn’t know why he would be. They’ve only just met and James’ hasn’t spent most of his life watching Howard growing up and falling in love.
But his eyes are shadowed when he takes in the mess that Howard’s made and his hands are so gentle when he pulls Howard to his feet and away from the wreckage that used to be his workshop. James says nothing though, makes no real sound except a soft hiss of indrawn breath when he takes in the full extent of damage to Howard’s hands.
James sits Howard down on a stool, which was near the door furthest away from the mirror and thus mostly undamaged, and goes outside.
Howard sits, too tired, too defeated to think about moving or doing something for his hands, which still bled sluggishly, blood slowly pooling on the floor. James returns, however, to Howard’s surprise, with a first aid kit and a bottle of whiskey.
James takes a pull from the bottle and sets it on the table, picking out a pair of tweezers from the kit. He spends the next hour picking out tiny shards of glass from every cut in Howard’s fingers and palms, head bent, working slowly.
Howard sits and stares at the man before him, taking in the pursed lips and furrowed brow and the concern and worry that radiates off him and when James is done, tying a bandage around the wounds, and looks up, looks at him, Howard looks back and doesn't draw away. He watches the flex of white bandages against the tanned skin of James' hand where they touch and he knows that he was so wrong when he thought things couldn't hurt and sooth at the same time.
Howard smiles, a barely there crook at the corners of his lips that most people would've missed, but James sees and he relaxes visibly for the first time since he set foot in this workshop. Howard doesn't know what James sees in his smile and he's not sure what he wants him to see, but he lets it grow just a fraction and tightens his fingers around James' for an instant.
"Thank you," he says and the words are almost too soft to be audible and it doesn't matter if James hears them or not because he understands, takes it as the apology it's meant to be and smiles in return, a small crooked grin that says everything he doesn't actually say out loud like 'you idiot', 'it's alright' and 'you're welcome'.
He's always known better than to imagine or wish or hope because it's never worked, never done him any good. But as Howard watches James leave, with a last glance back at him, he desperately wants to try once, just once, and knows that he can't, he won't.
Despite everything, despite Howard's misgivings and everything he knows, after that, Howard and James are practically inseparable.
Steve and Peggy always know that James can always be found in Howard’s workshop if he’s not with Steve. And it’s become a common sight for Howard to be spotted in the mess tent, sitting with James, sitting a little too close, almost pressed against each other, eating and talking and laughing.
Colonel Phillips passes them one day, walking back to the workshop after dinner and shakes his head a little. Howard knows that he and James are an incongruous pair, him with his carelessly expensive habits and a born self assurance that bordered on arrogance and James with his rough charm and cocky demeanor and an utter disdain of authority.
Howard finds James fascinating, he’s a mass of contradictions that make him incredible and amazing and Howard never tires of just sitting and watching him, from close or far, it doesn’t really matter. James is exactly what Howard had dreamt of and he balances Howard, centers him, grounds him.
Howard leaps forward, on, over, through things, mind flickering from one thing to a next without pause, exhausting himself and yet he still never stops. And James is there to force him to slow down a little, so he can understand, so he can help, always stopping Howard before he accidentally slides over the edge.
James doesn’t take things slow either. He doesn’t trust easily, quick to anger, to take offence, but he’s fiercely loyal, willing to take on anything and everything by himself to protect what’s important to him. And Howard is there to watch his back, to offer him other solutions, to dismantle his anger and tension with a joke and a smile.
And, on top of it all, there’s always a sharp undercurrent of something else underneath their friendly interactions. Howard feels the tingles that run down his spine every time that James touches him; a brush of fingers over his wrist, an arm slung across his shoulder, the way they’re pressed together from shoulder to thigh when they sit together.
Howard doesn’t say a word, because he can’t, he won’t, but he can’t help but tilt his head closer when James talks, stretch his stride a little longer to match James’ when they walk, and his smile is just that fraction softer when he smiles at James. He lets himself have those little things when all he wants to do is trace the curve of James’ jaw, to press kisses over the furrow in James’ brow and to be able to reach out and just touch, to have James’ warmth next to him, on him, with him.
Howard thinks he’s subtle and unreadable and doing the right thing.
He’s wrong on all three counts.
Howard withdraws when James is out on missions. He frets, worrying but not admitting it to himself.
He thinks and over thinks and double guesses himself on things he never, ever has before, doubts his own ability, on whether the things he helped to build are of any real use, on whether they’ll hold up to HYDRA weapons and be able to protect and shield James and Steve and the rest of the Howling Commandos. To bring them home alive and well and safe.
Peggy more often than not comes to keep him company all these times and they drink silently, together, trying to stop the fears, the ‘what ifs’, trying to stop thinking so much.
But Howard can only stop thinking and breathe once again when James returns, sometimes bruised and bloody, sometimes pale and shaken, but always smiling, grey eyes always meeting his and lighting up when they see him.
Howard always smiles back.
It’s James who brings everything to a start.
James walks into his workshop one evening, stride slow and deliberate, back straight and that decisive glint in his eyes telling Howard that he isn’t going to stop, isn’t going to back down from whatever he had decided to do.
Howard manages the barest beginnings of a smile before James is close, too close, pressing him against his own worktable. And Howard barely has the time to blink in startlement as James slides one hand around Howard’s wrist, the other tilting his chin upwards and all of a sudden his lips are on Howard’s.
Howard’s kissed a lot of women in his life, but he’s never kissed a man before but it doesn’t matter because this is James and it’s their first kiss and it’s soft, chaste, muted. It’s a brush of lips against lips, a barely there touch that’s gone too quickly.
James draws back a little, but doesn’t let go, staring down at him, completely unrepentant and Howard is dazed and more than a little confused as he stares right back because when he had imagined kissing James, because of course he has, he always thought that it would be something a little more hard, a little more explosive.
But even so, for something so quick, so chaste, Howard’s breathing is a little fast and he licks his lips, his eyes are fixed on James’ mouth and James, of course, sees that, a pleased smirk curving over his features.
This time, when he leans in, Howard’s ready and he pulls James down to meet him and their second kiss is harsher, a sharp press of bodies against each other, of hot wet heat and spit slicked lips and it’s everything Howard ever wanted, everything he ever thought of, dreamed of, and he pours it all into this kiss.
Howard breaks it after one long, perfect moment and turns away, “I’m sorry. I can’t. I...”
James runs a finger over Howard’s now red lips and over his jaw, his eyes are dark, pupils blown, a ring of almost silver thin around the iris and he wants Howard so bad, Howard can feel it. Howard presses himself back against the table, trying to keep a little distance between them.
“Tell me you don’t want this, that you don’t want me,” James murmurs, lips brushing over the path his fingers traced just a moment ago, licking a line down Howard’s throat.
Howard wants this, wants James, wants to have anything and everything offered and he thinks to himself that it can’t hurt to let himself have this, just this for however long they have. But then he thinks about the years stretching into the future, of that startling loneliness he already feels when James is not around, he remembers the look in his mother’s eyes when he had asked her a simple question all those years ago.
And Howard realises, knows, that he can’t ever have this, not even for a moment, because once he gives in, lets himself have the luxury of touching and kissing and holding, of soft words and gentle whispers and the love that he knows belongs to him, he will never, ever be able to walk away again and god knows what he’d do if, when, James goes one day and never returns.
Howard already finds it hard to stay away from James, to not reach out and touch. So he gathers himself and tells the best and worst lie of his life. “I don’t want this. We’re just friends,” he says, tone regretful but gaze distant. He smiles and it’s hollow and empty and it hurts so bad, but he keeps it all inside. “I’m sorry, James.”
James lets him go, steps back and stares for one long moment while Howard steels himself and meets that gaze and tells himself again and again to stand his ground because this is the best way. James holds his eyes and looks and his gaze shutters at what he finds and it’s obviously not what he had wanted because he drops hands and walks out without a word.
Howard tells himself that it’s for the best, that this is the only way to stop it breaking his heart in the future. And really, it’s too bad that he doesn’t realise until it’s too late that his heart hadn’t belonged to him since the moment he looked into a tiny mirror years and years and years ago and saw a young boy, a couple of years older, with dark hair and grey eyes.
Their second kiss is their last and it’s Howard who brings everything to an end.
They stay friends, but Howard knows that James is always watching. He knows that he’s hurt him but there’s nothing he can do, it’s best for the both of them if they don’t do this now, because Howard knows how it ends, because there’s only one, unchanging ending.
It doesn’t help though, when James sometimes sees him and turns and walks away, dropping conversations in the middle, leaving dinner and Howard hates himself just a little more every time he sees it happen. But he’s made his choice and now he can’t do anything but follow it through to the end.
James still comes to him sometimes though, sits with him, as if he can’t bear to keep away, but he keeps his distance physically, doesn’t offer those playful touches that linger just a little long. Howard notices that James doesn’t smile as much anymore and it’s all his fault because, of course, nothing in his life could just go right for once.
So, in return, Howard always sits a little further away, smiles just enough to be polite and makes sure they never touch.
He talks and laughs and desperately pretends that he doesn’t want or need James, except he does.
When Steve returns from that mission, that very last one, with that slow, sombre stride and air of exhausted despair and without James, Howard’s out near the gate, chatting with the on duty soldiers.
He’s told himself that it was just something he did to pass the time, a distraction from his work for an hour or two every now and again and carefully doesn’t think about how he’s always out near the gates when it coincides with Steve and the Howling Commandos’ scheduled return from a mission.
So when Howard sees Steve, and doesn’t see James, usually lurking behind Steve’s shoulder or laughing with one of the others, everything grinds to a stop.
He doesn’t recall dropping the flask in his hand or making his way to Steve, stopping him with a hand on a dirty, torn sleeve. Howard doesn’t remember asking the question, “Where is he?”
All he remembers is the desperate grief in Steve’s eyes and the cracking tone of his voice when he speaks, answers. “I failed. Bucky’s gone.”
He remembers something breaking, shattering inside, so much pain for a brief instant before everything goes numb.
“We’re sorry to inform everyone that Sergeant James Barnes was killed in the line of duty yesterday. He gave his life for the worthiest of causes and we will continue to fight on in both his name, and the name of all our other fallen comrades.”
The words are muted, almost impossible to hear through the roaring in Howard’s ears. He sits silently, eyes down, fingers clutching at a pen so hard that his knuckles are white.
“He’s missing, not dead.” Steve’s voice interrupts Colonel Phillips, who’s giving the speech. Howard raises his head a little to glance over at the Captain.
Steve looks like he hasn’t eaten or slept since he came back. Howard suspects he has the same look about him, because he definitely hasn’t done either since Steve’s return. Without James.
The Colonel coughs and directs a slightly uncomfortable look towards his lieutenants. “I’m sorry Captain, but from what you told us, Sergeant Barnes couldn’t possibly have...”
Steve sits ramrod straight and stares directly at Phillips. “We’ve yet to recover a body. He’s missing.” His words are pure steel, no give. He sounds exactly like what he is; a hero, a soldier, someone who would never leave a man behind.
Peggy Carter looks at Steve for one long moment, then adds her voice, “Sir, until we can confirm Sergeant Barnes’ status, the regulations state that he’s to be declared missing in action.”
Colonel Phillips looks from Steve to Carter and then sighs. He nods his head in reluctant acquiescence, “Fine.”
Howard feels the blinding pressure against his chest ease, just a tiny bit.
Howard doesn’t know how he makes it through the meeting, he doesn’t know how he makes it through his presentation and the questions that follow. No one comments on his quiet, sombre mood.
Steve follows him out of the meeting room and stops him with a touch to his arm. “Howard.”
“What can I do for you, Captain?” Howard dregs up a smile from somewhere and while he’s sure it’s more a grimace, a farce of an expression, Steve doesn’t comment.
Instead, Steve frowns down at him, concern ghosting through the lingering pain in his eyes. “Are you alright?”
He pretends to not know what Steve’s talking about. “I’m fine. I...”
Steve’s hand is almost a heavy brand against his sleeve and Steve shakes his head. “I meant about... Bucky.”
Howard inhales sharply and turns away. “Shouldn’t I be asking you that, Captain? You’re his best friend. I’m just an acquaintance.” The hurt and bitterness and self recrimination in those words are clear, too clear for Howard’s liking.
Steve hesitates. “Bucky talks, used to talk, about you a lot,” he tells Howard.
Howard jerks his head up and stares at Steve. “What?”
Steve doesn’t look away, or stop talking. “You’re all he spoke of, after the Expo, before you two even met. Then afterwards, after he was here, he would ask about you and sometimes follow you around the base.”
Steve looks away then back again and seems to consider his words. “You watched him all the time, you know. When you thought that no one was paying attention. And when you two were together... I thought that you two...” He pauses here to flush a little.
Howard shakes his head slowly. “No. We weren’t. We were...” And he thinks about the quiet companionship and the smiles and the lingering touches that never became more. Howard thinks about how he denied himself what he had waited his entire life for because he wasn’t brave enough to accept the end.
“I was such a fool,” he whispers.
Howard becomes more reckless after that. He tells himself it’s for the war effort, for the good of the American soldiers and their allies, to end HYDRA’s reign of terror as soon as possible.
But no matter how good he’s at lying, it’s always hardest to lie to yourself.
So Howard knows, knows and sees the patterns; he sleeps less, almost doesn’t eat at all, drinking at all times of day and night instead, sometimes coffee, but mostly hard liquor. He’s almost always shut away in his temporary workshop, running experiments on weapons that are deadlier and deadlier by the day.
He knows, really well, that this is a downwards spiral, one that he can’t stop, doesn’t want to stop and won’t stop until he breaks.
And if Howard’s really honest about it, he likes the numbness and press of exhaustion behind his eyes, the pounding nausea behind his skull and the strained pain from numerous different tiny cuts and bruises that he doesn’t give enough time to heal. It helps him not think about anything else. Not think about James.
It’s Steve who finds him after the third incident.
Howard’s standing, swaying a little, in the scattered debris that constitute the remains of his workroom. He stares at the blood slowly running off his arms and dripping down his fingers splattering over the dirty floor, where shards of glass and metal glanced off his skin in the explosion.
“Are you insane?” Steve’s words sound like he’s clenching his teeth, trying his best to keep his temper in check.
Howard blinks up at him and finds this extraordinarily funny because he laughs. He runs a hand over his forehead, wiping off sweat and grime and probably smearing blood all over his face. And he doesn’t care. He doesn’t stop laughing, breaths hiccuping in his chest as he fights to draw in air.
Steve stalks all the way up to where Howard stands and puts two hands on his shoulders, his fingers clench a little as if he’s not quite sure if he wants to help Howard or shake him. “You could’ve died! Because of a stupid accident that you could’ve prevented if you had been better rested, less hungover.”
Howard just laughs harder because of course Steve thinks that this is an accident, that everything was an accident.
There’s a gentle shake. “Howard?” Steve’s voice is soft, coaxing, dawning realisation in his tone, “Tell me that this was an accident and you weren’t trying to...”
Howard stops laughing abruptly and looks away, because he can’t answer, can’t face that pained look he’s sure that Steve wears. He doesn’t say a word.
“I’ve already lost one best friend to this war, I’m not losing another.” Steve tells him, words hard.
He steers Howard by his shoulders, gentle, but firm, “We’re going to medical, then you’re going to clean yourself up, eat and drink something, then sleep.”
Howard thinks about protesting, thinks about explaining that this was all for the war, to help Steve win it that much faster, but one look at Steve’s face tells him that there’s nothing he can say to make Steve believe or understand.
Steve’s got that expression on his face, that same expression he had been wearing when he had approached Howard about flying a plane to land behind enemy lines, the same expression as when he spoke of bringing down HYDRA and Schmidt, the very same expression he had worn when he insisted that James was to be declared missing, not dead.
So Howard remains silent, and lets himself be led up and away, each step he takes is one more from the edge of the dark abyss he had been spiraling down into.
Howard notices that he’s watched at all times from then on, either Steve or one of the other Howling Commandos or even Carter would be hovering somewhere nearby, or inside his workroom when he was in there.
Steve always shows up about meal times, to bring him food and coffee or tea, hiding his alcohol and not letting him get back to work until he eats and drinks properly.
Howard regains bits and pieces of his old self. He knows he’s never quite going to be back where he was, before the war, before James, but he can smile and laugh and hold a conversation without the guilt and self blame and all that pain getting through.
He’s a little more careful with his experiments and takes slightly better care of himself and he does it all just to ease that almost permanent frown between Steve’s brows. Howard doesn’t want to cause the man any more worry and pain than he and this endless war already has.
He can’t do that to a friend, one of the best he’s had, and the last remaining link he has to James.
Howard finds it ironic that it’s only now, after everything is said and done and it’s too goddamned late to be of any use, that he’s making a real effort to reach out. To finally reach out to a presumably dead man.
Because James is dead. And there’s nothing that Howard can do about it.
Let it never be said that Howard Stark isn’t ambitious, or an asshole of the highest order.
And then, suddenly, Steve is gone, missing in action, plane crashed into the Arctic because it was the only option and god, Howard knows that if he was there, if he had been with Steve, on the radio with Steve, he could’ve helped. He knows it better than he knows his own name.
Except he wasn’t because there was something else, there’s always something else, and the fate of Captain Steve Rogers, Captain America, becomes another in an endlessly long list of things that Howard is responsible for.
Howard searches, of course he does, and maybe he blames himself because hadn’t he seen this coming, the first time he and Steve had met? He willfully blinded himself to something that could’ve saved Steve’s life, would’ve saved Steve’s life just because he wasn’t quite enough of a man to face things head on.
Howard sends out search parties and expeditions to the Arctic, accompanies them himself and doesn’t rest, doesn’t stop.
Steve is Howard’s last link to James and if Howard loses him, he really doesn’t know what he would do. The gaping pain in his chest grows worse by the day and he turns again to the sweet oblivion of alcohol, it burns its way down his throat and pools low in his stomach but it doesn’t warm him against the biting cold, not one bit.
But there’s mounting pressure from the American government, recalling all American soldiers and civilians back home, to restart, to rebuild a reeling nation and Howard is told he is wanted by the government, by the people.
Steve and James are gone, missing in action, dead, gone and moved on without Howard and no matter how much Howard wants to join them, he still has a responsibility and a duty to his country and fellow countrymen. He’s still needed.
Howard packs up and returns to America.
Howard meets Maria Carbonell at the insistence of his parents.
“She’s a lovely young lady,” his mother gushes and his father nods in agreement.
He pats Howard on the shoulder gruffly. “You should meet her. She’ll suit you very well,” he says.
Howard notes the use of ‘very well’ and not ‘perfectly’ because of course his father knows. Knows that ‘perfect’ was short hair and a sharp jaw and cool grey eyes. That perfect didn’t exist any longer.
Maybe it’s because of that, because his father might understand, being a Stark, despite their turbulent relationship over the years, Howard agrees.
He goes to meet Maria.
Howard doesn’t lie.
“I can’t ever love you,” he tells Maria, the blunt words are the first thing out of his mouth when they sit down together, alone.
She’s just as lovely as his mother said and Howard feels a twinge of pity, because she was what he should’ve wanted and needed, and obviously, she was going to go through with this because of her parents’ insistence.
Maria smiles and she’s so very young but her hazel eyes hold a calm strength, a hint of backbone that the blushing cheeks and carefully pinned hair can’t quite mask.
“I know,” she tells him and takes one of his hands between both of her own.
Howard flinches but isn’t quite ill mannered enough to jerk his hand away. He raises his gaze and fixates on a point somewhere above her left shoulder, regretting not having worn gloves to this meeting. He doesn’t want to read her future, doesn’t want to know if they have a future. Together.
“Howard.” Maria waits until Howard turns back to her, still not quite looking her in the eye. “Your father wants you to look, really look, at me.”
He doesn’t want to, but there’s really nothing to gain from raising a petty protest against his father here and now. Howard doesn’t have the strength left to do anything but obey. So he looks into her hazel eyes, flecked with green and gold and...
He sees glittering high society balls and a workshop in a huge New York mansion. He sees Maria, smiling, holding a carefully wrapped bundle in her arms. A bundle with dark hair, tiny fists curled around her finger and Howard’s eyes.
He sees his son.
Howard does jerk away this time, breathing hard and trying to think beyond what he just saw. Maria is quiet and her skin silky soft when she draws him into a gentle hug, letting his silent tears, the ones he finds he can’t stop, soak into the shoulder of her silk blouse. She holds him, running hands down his back soothingly, and doesn’t say a word.
Maria Carbonell becomes Maria Stark on a beautiful autumn morning.
His father is beaming, pleased for once in his life and his mother keeps bursting into joyful tears. The guests mill around, the men slapping Howard on the back congratulating him on landing such a lovely bride and the women shyly offering him their best wishes on their union.
Through it all, Howard has to remind himself to smile and smile and not to stop smiling.
When he slides the ring onto her finger, Maria holds his hands tightly, eyes brimming over with tears.
“Thank you for giving me this,” she whispers, words breathed against his lips as Howard kisses her chastely to seal their vows.
Howard and Maria settle into a comfortable life together.
It’s not as glamorous and high flying as the newsprints make it out to be; there’s no overly grand romantic gestures on anniversaries or spur of the moment flights to Europe on birthdays, but what they have, it suits them.
Howard brings his work home and runs experiments and builds things that go ‘boom’ in their basement. Maria hosts charity galas and tends to the gardens and reads by the firelight in his study at night.
They eat dinner together sometimes or sit together in the sunshine at lunch and they slowly begin to understand one another.
Howard stops drinking as much, the hollow pain never quite goes away, but it’s soothed somehow by the presence of Maria. She’s so understanding, knowing intuitively when he needs company and when he wants to be alone. She never complains about his cold indifference at times, or of his explosive anger during others, remaining a constant, steady presence in his life, offering her love unconditionally. So he tries his best for her, to repay her just a little, for being saddled with a broken mess like him.
Howard knows that he can never love Maria, but he also knows that he already cares for her much more than he thought he ever would.
“Why don’t you look for him?” Maria’s voice startles him in his study.
They’ve been married for three years. That fact still manages to surprise Howard from time to time.
Howard shuffles the photos he holds and slides them under the blueprints and files that cover his desk. He feels inexplicably guilty, “I...”
Maria takes his wrist, stopping him from hiding the last photo. Howard stares down at it.
It’s a candid shot, probably taken by Steve or Peggy, during the earlier days in England. In it, he and James are standing shoulder to shoulder, Howard’s focused on some blueprints, pointing out something and James is watching him, the tiniest of smiles on his lips, eyes so warm.
Maria looks down at the photo as well, there’s something unreadable in her eyes, but no recrimination, no anger, no jealousy. She’s the most amazing woman that Howard’s ever met, barring his mother and he feels a rush of gratitude, of warmth and affection for her.
Her fingers hover over the photo, almost touching but not quite. Her voice is soft, reassuring. “You told me that he was declared missing in action and that status never changed.”
“It didn’t, because we never found the body,” Howard tells her, voice low, fingers stroking the edges of the photograph.
Maria’s fingers slide down to catch his. “You should try,” she tells him, “You’re miserable. You should at least give yourself some closure.”
She leans down to kiss his cheek softly. “Go. I’ll wait for you, until you come home again.”
Half a decade passes and Howard never stops looking.
To S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Industries shareholders, Howard has started running expeditions again, yearly this time, looking for the World War II hero, Captain Steve Rogers.
But while his men are slowly making their way through the Antarctic, Howard himself is in Europe, tracing and retracing a fall from a moving train, the tracks of which have long since been destroyed.
Ten years after the war ends, Stark Industries’ Antarctic search turns up the Tesseract and there’s a flurry of renewed interested in the search for Captain America.
Ten years after the war ends, Howard is still chasing empty leads through the snow capped mountains on the Russian border.
He never really gives up. On either of them.
Anthony Edward Stark is born one cool, spring morning.
Howard takes him from Maria’s exhausted arms, and looks into bright blue eyes, a mirror of his own. His hands shake a little as he brushes downy soft hair, the color of ink, off a tiny forehead and presses a kiss there.
Anthony smiles at his father and Howard falls so deeply in love.
Tony’s a gorgeous baby, a rambunctious toddler and an utterly uncontrollable force of nature and Howard knows, from the moment Tony presents him with a messy, but completely functional circuit board at four years of age, that no matter what he’s achieved in his lifetime, his son will be a hundred, a thousand times more brilliant, more wonderful, more talented.
He knows, without any visions of the future or anything as useless as that, that his son will, one day, change the world.
Howard might have created the future once, with his flying cars and impossible machines and weapons of the new age, but Tony, Howard knows, is, and always will be, his greatest creation.
The more Howard loves Tony, the more he can’t handle being an actual father.
It’s the memories that flicker at the edges of his mind, a reminder of everything he’s done wrong, everything he’s regretted, everything he’s lost. It’s always there, waiting for Howard, asleep, awake, alone or not, lurking, taunting him.
Howard’s harsher on his son than any of his subordinates at Stark Industries. He knows he’s being unfair, expectations too high, not enough affection, but it’s the only way Howard knows how these days. He doesn’t know how to be a father, he doesn’t know how to be someone his son can relate to, and quite honestly, he’s not sure if he wants to be. After all, he’s too old, too broken and there’s really not much there for a young boy to admire and look up to.
He wants Tony to have everything he couldn’t, everything that his son deserves and more. Howard wants Tony to have the world.
And with his long hours at the office, putting together project after project, watching Tony with too-high expectations, being high handed and demanding and keeping away, it’s really, honestly, the only way Howard can give it to him.
Howard leaves one last message at the very end of the reel of the last Future Expo film.
There’s still a glimmer in him, a tiny little hope that one day Tony will grow up and realise and maybe finally acknowledge that Howard did try, even if it wasn’t good enough.
So he records his message and hopes that Tony will maybe find it someday, eventually, and be able to understand, if not forgive.
Then Tony turns six and finds the mirror that Howard’s long since forgotten in an abandoned box in the attic and Howard remembers the moment so clearly, because it’s the last time Tony ever comes looking for Howard.
And as he tries to explain everything to his still too young son, Howard is hit with a painful realisation that his father was right, that this really was a curse and not a gift.
It’s almost an old argument of theirs.
Howard wants Tony to curb his reckless behaviour and act more like the man he should be and Tony wants Howard to stop lecturing and holding him to his expectations and just try to understand him, just a little.
Howard feels old and tired. Tony stands tall and straight and when did he grow so much? His son is seventeen now, a man grown and Howard’s missed so much of his life, locked away in his own recriminations and anger and guilt.
Tony is seventeen and already an alumni of MIT. Howard had been right all those years ago, Tony is the most brilliant mind of his generation and Howard knows that Tony will surpass Howard’s own legacy sooner or later.
Every move Tony makes reminds Howard of himself and he had promised that he would be a better father, a better role model and he’s failed in every way that it counts.
“You don’t love her, you’ve never loved her!” Tony shouts, his hair wild, eyes angry.
And what can Howard say to that?
Tony’s voice drops in volume, but loses none of its devastated tone. “You don’t love me, you never wanted me in the first place.”
Howard watches as Tony walks away and doesn’t look back. He wants to stand, to call Tony back, to explain, to beg forgiveness.
But then he thinks about how he walked away from his own father all those years ago and swallows the words back down. Tony is a mirror, a reflection of Howard, and just like Howard, he’s too bitter and angry and won’t stop to listen, to think, to try and understand.
So Howard sits, silent, alone in a house that’s too big and empty, filled with nothing but the ash of what could have been.
“I have to try,” Howard tells Maria. “It’s past time I let go, moved on.”
Maria watches him, quiet as always.
“It’s not fair on you or Tony,” he says, reaching out to touch the back of her hand. And it’s really not. Howard has missed out on so much of his son’s life, and he doesn’t try to delude himself that Tony’s actions these days aren’t done with the intent to try and get back at him. And Maria’s always been acutely aware that she’s second best, always, to a dead man, a memory.
“Howard,” Maria starts.
He shakes his head, “No. You’ve given me everything, your life, your love, your understanding and I’ve returned it with nothing. Please,” his voice is soft and quiet, “let me do this one thing, for you and for our son.”
Maria is silent for one long moment before she places her hand over his, “Then let me come with you.”
Howard looks at her, and agrees. After all, there’s no more fitting end to this than the both of them, saying goodbye to James together; he who has loved him his entire life and she who has always been standing in his shadow.
Because it’s only after something ends, is let go, completely and utterly, that something new can truly begin.
The car door slams shut, and the sound of the ignition is loud in the garage, echoing off the walls.
They leave, together, and they never come back.