A lighter flicks on, a brief flare of light in an otherwise dark alleyway and it’s just enough to illuminate the smirk on Bucky’s face, his expression sharp, predatory, and gleam darkly off the gun in his hand.
The sound of heavy breathing, almost panting, is loud in the alley. It’s accompanied by a low litany of words, desperate, broken in tone, begging for life.
Howard tucks the lighter into his pocket and keeps his eyes on Bucky, who hovers menacingly over the third man, the one begging and pleading, their snitch. The dull red burn of his cigarette tip flares for a moment as he inhales and the smoke curls into the air when he breathes out.
“How long have you been with me, Marcus?” Howard’s voice is genial, kind.
Marcus, legs shaking, backed against a dirty alley wall and looking like that’s the only thing keeping him upright, swallows twice before he can get his mouth open to speak. “Th-three years, Mr. Stark.”
“Then you should know that there’s no mercy for what you’ve done.” The words are gentle, almost tinged with sadness.
Howard doesn’t like to kill, especially not his own, but sometimes, there is no other choice. He likes things to be wrapped up, ends tied up neatly, leave nothing to chance. There’s a reason New York’s finest has never been able to link Howard Stark, the billionaire philanthropist CEO of Stark Industries, with the shady leader of New York’s underworld, no matter how much of an open secret it was.
Marcus gasps, the sound is loud, and his voice is shaking worse than before as he tumbles through his sentences, trying to explain. “Please, Mr. Stark, they had my wife, I couldn’t leave her in their hands. I love her more than anything in this world. I had to do it, don’t you understand? I had to!” He’s sobbing now, tears mixing in with the blood smeared over his face, a little hello gift from Bucky when they finally caught him earlier.
Howard takes one last drag of his cigarette and breathes out slowly. “If you really loved her, you wouldn’t have done it.” He flicks a hand at Bucky who smiles wider, finger tightening around the trigger.
“You could’ve avenged her and we would have stood behind you, because we look after our own. But now, there’s no one left to mourn either of you.” Howard meets Marcus’ eyes and smiles, it’s a little sad, a little regretful, but there’s no waver in Howard’s steel hard gaze as he says, “Goodbye, Marcus.”
The gunshot is soft, barely a pop, muted by the silencer screwed onto the muzzle of Bucky’s Beretta.
Howard turns away as the body slumps to the floor and walks to where Bucky is waiting, at the alley entrance, tucking the gun away in a shoulder holster, concealed by the clever cut of his dark suit jacket.
Bucky walks a little too close to Howard, the heat of his body is tangible even through several layers of clothing, for the few short meters from the alley to where the car is parked.
He opens the backdoor for Howard and leans in even closer, his lips almost brushing Howard’s cheek and it’s not an accident, because James ‘Bucky’ Barnes doesn’t do anything by accident.
“I understand, you know,” he murmurs, right against Howard’s ear, one hand on Howard’s wrist preventing him from sliding into the backseat, “why Marcus did it.”
Howard tests the hand around his wrist, tugging a little, but stills when Bucky’s fingers tighten warningly.
Bucky draws back a little, just enough so that he can meet Howard’s eyes, to show that he means it when he says, “There’s nothing I won’t do to protect you.”
Howard smiles and leans forward and they’re almost breathing each other’s air, lips barely an inch apart. “I know.”
They stay that way for one long moment, Bucky’s thumb rubbing gentle circles on Howard’s wrist, heads tilted together, foreheads almost touching, share one long moment of just each other before Bucky steps back and straightens, sliding back into the persona of bodyguard and trained killer easily.
Howard settles himself in the backseat, brushing a hand down his lapels to straighten them and tugs at his cuffs. His fingers linger a little at his left wrist, where the phantom heat of fingers still burn on his skin and he has to take a moment to steady himself.
When he looks up and meets Bucky’s gaze in the rear view mirror, however, Howard’s every inch the inscrutable CEO of Stark Industries once more. He holds Bucky’s gaze, calm, in control, and nods, “Let’s go.”