Peggy – Agent Carter – had told him the news, expression stricken and immaculate makeup smeared, in short clipped words that cracked around the corners. She'd walked away immediately after, her heels clicking sharply, brokenly, on the workshop floor.
Howard had stayed there a long time, frozen in his own deadly silence, shattered when a tech tapped his shoulder to ask him something inane about – who goddamn knew what, what did it all even matter, when he – he -
Howard flung the file in his hands – notes on carbide polymer armour prototypes - over his shoulder, spun on his heel and strode away, plowing through three men. Someone was shouting his name, others about deadlines, still others about the rain of notes now papering the floor.
Fuck them. Fuck them all. Fuck Phillips, and Raynor, and Tru-goddamn-man himself. It didn't matter. They didn't matter.
The one that mattered crashed into a watery grave 17 minutes ago.
There'd been a wake at the local hole, insofar that the body was a million feet under water. It wasn't a common thing – they were in a war, by god, and if they'd held a wake for everyone that'd died no one'd ever be sober enough to hold their bayonets.
But they held one for Rogers. They'd owed him that much. Everyone, from Phillips to the lily-faced runts on KP, was there, every last member of the 107th. They'd had so many that there were six (perfectly assembled) lines of soldiers outside surrounding the building.
Howard did not attend. He had no right – these men were brothers, crawling amongst each other in the trenches, laying down on the wire for the brother behind. He was just the civvie man who'd strap them into armour and smiled when they didn't come back. Rogers had been his tie in, the only man he'd spoken more than six sentences to (and none of them were orders); now, with Rogers gone, he has no place among them.
Howard did not attend. He did not send along his regrets. He sent along six crates of the best hooch his money could buy; he heard, later, that they'd lapped up every drop.
Two weeks later, he met Peggy at the Stork Club, she decked in a red dress and heels and him in his best suit. Their eyes met across the floor, and she didn't protest when he slid into the seat reserved for someone else.
She had a drink. He had several. Neither spoke much; Peggy kept darting glances at the clock.
The doorway remained stubbornly, conspicuously, empty; the clock ticked eight, past eight, every tick a heartbreak.
Howard's never been one for reassurance, but he found himself speaking: “He'll come,” with as much (not a lot of) ringing conviction in his voice as he could muster. If anyone could survive that crash, it'd be Steve Rogers. Kid's done crazier things.
Peggy drew a ragged breath and barely shook her head. “He won't.”
“Let me hope,” and he knew his eyes were as red as her dress.
The war dragged on, and Howard's life continued to be a blur of strapping boys (and most of them were boys in age, if not in mind) into armour and smiling when they didn't come back.
After that, he'd been pulled from the front lines, sent back to Manhattan to join the brightest minds in the land, in a feverish race against science and time and the Axis powers in creating the tools to end the war.
They'd been so divided on its use – all this power, and could they, should they; in the end, it hadn't been about the weapons at all. There were battles fought with weapons, and battles fought in the hearts of men.
Did they win this battle, the American people? Howard couldn't tell.
Truman had personally visited them in the depths of their labs, to hear the impassioned protests of both sides. “Stark? What do you think?”
Of course he'd ask him. Howard Stark, Chief Developer and Engineer. Little Boy and Fat Man were born from his mind, his creations; he'd captured their magnificent power, and probably took years off of his life in doing so.
That was okay. Making Captain America was, in and of itself, enough to justify one's existence on this planet, however short or long it may be.
Howard stood from his slouch, stared straight into Truman's eyes, peeled, from his lips, the cigar that he wasn't allowed to smoke inside.
He thought of the boys sent to the front lines, marching through long walks of snow in frozen, sodden socks. He thought of the civilian nurses, a bloody smear on the sidewalk after an air raid. He thought of the quiet desperation, the doubt among the ranks, thought of a war that dragged on and seemed to never end.
He thought of a man with glacier-blue eyes, his body nibbled by schools of fish. He thought of a vibranium discus, a carbon-polymer suit, a white five-pointed star. He thought of a staticky radio transmission, of a goodbye he was only told about, of a war-plane crashing down where no one was around to hear.
“Do it,” he said, trembling and harsh. “No more good men.”
Steve never would have approved.
Steve hadn't been around to disapprove.
Howard didn't know if he would've been on the other side if Steve was alive. He thought he might have.
Steve had blown through their lives like the winds off the sea, and returned to the waters from whence he came.
He'd gotten full honours, but skipped the promotion; General America wouldn't sound right, they said. But he'd gotten the Medal of Honour and Distinguished Service Cross (because they couldn't give the former twice) posthumously, and Howard thought they'd given him far less than he deserved.
He'd stood amongst the other adoring crowds during the ceremony, just another one of the many who'd come to see Captain America off. But he'd came to pay respect to Steve Rogers, to the guy who'd borne careful incisions and mustard gas in his lab with open eyes and easy smiles, who'd taught him a thing or two about trust.
Peggy – brilliant, hard, iron-willed Peggy – found him afterward, her immaculate face softening upon seeing him, and the smile that parted those painted carmine lips was only a little pained.
The numbers, the aftermath, didn't begin to roll in for a long, long time. In the meanwhile, he'd gotten high accolades for his assistance with the war efforts, even some fancy medal which he promptly threw into a box. The American people called him a hero.
Howard wondered, only briefly, if any of them knew what a hero was.
His fledgling company has secured enough weapons contracts to last until the end of time, and more would flow in besides. He'd found a partner to run it with him, a man with ice-blue eyes who captained their new boat through the tides of business with a deftness that belied his years.
“You come up with the ideas, Stark; I'll handle the rest.” Obadiah spoke with quiet confidence, every word precise like a chess grandmaster; he was a stark contrast to Howard's brazen stage-appeal, but he could charm all the same.
“Yeah. Okay.” It wasn't the same; Obadiah's lost blond hair aside, he lacked Steve's bashful charisma and wry humour and gentle kindness. But he has the gift for strategy, the vision for the future, and he plotted the days to come with just enough soft-spoken assurance to make Howard sign up (wasn't this his company?) all the same.
He was a captain (wasn't his captain); Howard'd just have to make do.
The newspapers' announcement of 246,000 Japanese dead hit him like a sledgehammer to the face. Howard spent three hours throwing up in the bathroom; afterwards, he'd spend another four hours exhibiting his latest weapons at the full-house Stark Expo.
Work and drink brought distraction and relief, but it'd always resurface every 4th of July; 45 years of reflection later, he still couldn't say if he was sorry. Maybe that said too much about him, too.
He'd found the damned alien cube 52 miles off of Greenland, and spent six months analyzing it. The possibilities were staggering, and the Axis powers had barely even scratched the surface of what the cube contained.
“Can this thing make weapons?” Obadiah asked him once.
“No,” Howard lied, busily calculating arc output from a doped palladium core.
“You need to move on,” Peggy told him, during her last visit before she went off to some super secret mission or another that she never ended up returning from.
Howard looked up from his prints of the arc reactor prototype, smiled, baring teeth. The alcohol on his breath was enough to fall a man. “Have you, P?”
It was cruel. But, given the way Peggy glanced away and how her lips thinned and tightened, it was also true.
Howard never told Peggy that he was the one to slip Steve a photo of her, the one that'd show him north wherever he'd went.
Howard never got to tell Steve – in person, that is – that he'd slipped her a photo of him in the same go, and that Steve'd shown her north even years after he'd lain to rest.
Howard has a small white star engraved into his watch, marking the 12; it's less ostentatious than a compass, more practical in everyday life. But a star wasn't a compass, and Polaris wasn't Steve, and the watch has never, ever led him home.
It took a lot out of a man to run a company like Stark Industries, even if Obadiah did most of the actual running. It took energy, and brainpower, and entirely too much drink to keep the mental pistons firing. Some things has to go by the wayside to make room.
Howard liked strong women, independent women, women who could hold their own on a battlefield or at a charity ball. (He might've made a move on Peggy, once upon a time, if their lives didn't play out the way it did.) Maria couldn't quite do the former, but she was good enough at the latter that it didn't matter very much.
Tony didn't quite take after that trait of his mother's, much to Howard's chagrin.
“He's four, Stark,” Nick Fury pointed out, once.
“Gotta learn early,” Howard mumbled into his whiskey.
Tony'd inherited his brains, at least. In spades. In time, he'd probably exceed all that Howard's done – and, with any luck, be a better man too.
“He's your son,” Maria said to him fiercely one late afternoon, and it was the raw brokenness to her tone that actually made Howard look up into her red-rimmed eyes. “You're his father. He knows Obie ten times better than he knows you, Howard.”
And he couldn't explain that clandestine government organizations took a lot of time, that he wasn't any sort of father figure or good influence; besides, even he recognized that six was too young to go into weapons engineering, however much he believed that good, reliable weapons saved lives and kept people safe.
For the first time (today, that is), Howard violently missed Steve. The man had been years younger, but had he survived the war he'd probably have settled down with (Peggy) a nice girl long before he; even if not, he'd have a much better idea of how to be a father. God knew Howard hasn't figured that out yet, genius be damned.
He stared at his much-younger wife, who...didn't really seem that much younger, all of a sudden, except she has an excuse and he didn't even have that much. He's seen the mirror as of late, and there's a hollowness to his own features, once sharp and rakish and daredevil handsome, that has nothing to do with age.
“When was the last time you spoke to him, Howard?” And that was shaking, and bitter, and Howard couldn't remember when the last time he'd initiated speaking to Maria, either.
“...I'll take him with me on the next submarine trip,” because at least Tony still believed in heroes and it was the only topic still neutral between them.
And maybe it said too much about his life that that, his obsession and driving force and everything that kept him apart, was enough of a concession that Maria walked away.
Tony had taken the news of going on a submarine expedition a lot better than anything else Howard's said to him in the last four years. The boy had even hugged him, and it was a strange, surreal realization to the man that had flirted and fondue'd during a war that he barely has any idea what human contact felt like anymore.
He missed being young and righteous and happy – and maybe he hasn't been happy since the days of sleepless nights and war-torn dawns, outfitting soldiers with armour and smiling when they didn't come back.
For once, talking about work and its technical details was bonding as opposed to alienating; Tony lapped up every detail about the expedition, how the submarine worked, and reveled in the stories Howard told about Steve (even though he's heard them all before). Tony was still young enough to love heroes and stories of good men, whether they were unidentified bodies dressed in military fatigues or the legend of a man wrapped in the national flag. Tales of heroism and courage and all those things Howard couldn't emulate, having never stood in the front lines.
God, even dead and beyond the grave, Steve was still a better role model and father figure than he would ever be.
Tony'd followed him like a small shadow for the rest of the day, and didn't even flinch at the alcohol on his breath when he'd hugged Howard goodnight. His dark eyes shone in the light with genuine exuberance, and Howard couldn't remember if he's ever seen that at all.
“Thanks, Dad. Love you,” he mumbled into his shirt, Howard's hand draped over his shoulders.
“I don't,” Howard said softly, and he felt instead of saw Tony freeze. It took a split second before he realized he didn't say that entirely into his glass, and what inevitable misunderstanding would follow.
He turned, but Tony was already gone, and a door slammed sharply in the direction of the bunks.
Tony locked him out of the cabins that night, and for the next five nights after; not that it mattered, since Howard preferred sleeping in the control room anyway on these expeditions.
Howard did not apologize – not to Tony's face anyway, because how did one apologize to a locked door? And the cabins were silent as a grave and maybe Tony wasn't crying into his sheets; after all, Stark men did not cry.
Tony was not yet a man, but all the same.
“Do better than me,” Howard said to the door, because he couldn't say it to Tony's face, and they'd crossed the point where Tony'd be able to hear it from him anyway.
He was genius enough to figure out sustainable energy, but not how to talk to his son; Howard thought – with bitter, bitter sentiment – that most people figured it the other way around.
Stark Industries was booming, and although he hasn't released the arc reactor technology yet it already promised to turn the entire world onto its ear again (for, like, the dozenth time). Howard built a tower, and rebuilt it six times; 36 floors was entirely too large for him and Maria after Tony left for MIT. (All for the better, really; they'd been growing distant for years and Howard just upset the boy every time he spoke. Maybe MIT would teach Tony something for a change – although he'd meant that as a sense of belonging and how to make friends because it couldn't be healthy to only speak to his robots; then again, who was Howard to talk about healthy?)
He threw himself further into his work, and Maria did the same for her charities; he didn't realize, until Obadiah mentioned, that Howard hadn't spoken about (never mind to) his wife in over two months.
“Nothing to say,” he shrugged, looking over Obadiah's plans to enter the aviation industry.
Maria did and didn't agree to that particular sentiment; he found her in his study, three nights later, at some ungodly hour that no one but him should be awake for.
“Will this ever end, Howard?” And her eyes were red, her voice was cracking, and by god, she was crying, and Howard stared at her as if she'd grown three heads without the faintest idea of what to do.
She must've seen the incomprehension on his face (genius, Stark? What genius?); all that escaped her for a long moment was frustrated sobs.
“Howard - ” Her voice was sharp and pleading, but it didn't matter; she'd stayed with him through everything no matter how bad he got, and he didn't see her leaving now. “Just – you can be so much better than this.”
“No,” and he's slurring, eyes narrowed, spinning the bottle. No, because he wasn't, because he couldn't, because no one else knew, like he did, what it was like when weapons didn't work.
“No,” Maria repeated bitterly, and she flung her hand towards his scotch, case in point. “So you'll keep on building things that kill, and kill, and kill? When will you ever start living?”
“Shut up,” he snarled, curling in on himself, cringing at every kill, because yes, yes, and yes.
“The war is over, Howard,” but no, for him, it wasn't.
He'd been poring over his maps, trying to decide on a new area to search for Steve when the clock struck five am; Howard dashed his hand across exhausted eyes and realized how empty it all was.
In a fit of rare whimsy, Howard put his eye to the empty bottle like a captain spying for treasure island. He spotted the luxuries and riches, the peace of post-war droll, the empty chasm in the heart of a man who'd died long before he shuffled off the mortal coil.
Howard's succeeded at a lot of things in his life: he ended World War II, revolutionized clean energy, built his own empire on the ashes of the Japanese. He'd played the hand he was dealt for all he was worth, and by god, he'd won. Presidents and kings bowed to him in respect, and he'd co-founded an intelligence agency that'd keep saving the world long after he's gone. He's done what no man's done, been where no man's been; he'd scaled the Everest of success and his success just kept growing.
The thing about climbing Everest, to be where no man's been, was that mankind scorned perfectionism even as they chased it; they'd watch with hungry eyes like a school of starving piranha, waiting for the fall from grace. Howard's been sliding for years, and it's a very long way down.
He's failed every person around him – at least, every one that mattered; he didn't know his wife (Maria still seemed to love him, god alone knew how), he didn't know his son, and 45 years of dogged searching hasn't recovered Steve Rogers from the waters. He's failed every personal project he'd set for himself over the years, and the debt he owed to each wasn't easily written off with a fat check from the bank.
There were battles fought with weapons, and battles fought in the hearts of men; Howard thought he'd lost them both.
He dashed the bottle into the fireplace, and did not flinch at the splintering of glass.
When that truck barrelled down his lane and Howard realized he was going to die, some distant, distant part of him (that wasn't busy screaming in terror) felt...relieved.
Because making Captain America, and Anthony Edward Stark, was more than enough to justify one's years, even if nothing he's done since then has.