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The dreams in which I'm dying

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I.

It’s a concussion, has to be, he’s had enough of those to know, and damm it, is Maria alright? “Help my wife,” he says, squinting at the shape coming closer in the light of the car, and how did it get off the a straight road, what just happened? “Please help my wife.”

It’s 1991, he’s too old for car crashs, and whatever became of his plans for hover cars anyway? These cars should be flying by now.

Why has the future still not arrived?


 

II.

It’s 1944, and Steve Rogers says: “Tell me about the future, Howard.”

They’re stranded at some place in the alps, Howard having let himself be talked into playing pilot on another of Steve Rogers’ impossible missions, only this time, they’ve been shot down. Howard was able to land the plane on a glacier instead of crashing it, but it won’t fly again. Traipsing around carrying equipment with Captain America in the freezing cold has its charms, but they’re limited. Except for this: “Tell me about the flying cars,” Steve says, and Howard, fingertips numb, looks up at Rogers’ profile and can’t help it. He falls in love.

“Flying cars, and trips to the moon,” he says, focusing on this and not on how cold it is, which was undoubtedly Steve’s intention, “and good food for everyone. The robots will do all the hard work. No more broken backs at factories. You’ll see.”

“We both will,” Steve says, so utterly confident that the far more likely prospect of them freezing in the mountains or getting shot by the next Nazi they meet doesn’t even occur to Howard.


 

III.

It’s 1929, and Howard’s mother has just worked her last day at the shirt waist factory. Not because she wants to. Because the Depression has arrived, there’s an unending new supply of cheap workers, and Salka Starkovic already has arthritis. Dad still has the job as a fruit vendor, but that, too, is just a question of time.

“You can’t go to school anymore, Howie,” Salka says, Russian accent still present, crushing his dreams of finishing high school and trying for a scholarship so he can go to college. “I’m sorry, Bubele. But you’ll have to go work as well.”

Decades later, Howard’s son Tony makes a sport of getting himself kicked out of as many expensive boarding schools as possible, and it’s guaranteed to infuriate Howard more than anything else.


 

IV.

It’s 1930, and Howard has figured out a way to deal with the lower east side bullies beating him up which is utterly unlike the method he’ll later hear Steve Rogers has used. Every gang, no matter whether they consist of kids or adults, has a boss and someone who wants to be the boss but isn’t. Joey Manfredi very much wants to be the boss, but Sonny Eco’s dad is a butcher who has access to meat, and so that’s that. Getting Joey alone is a bit tricky, but Howard manages, and even gets Joey to hear him out while he pitches his idea.

“Stealing kid’s milk money and sandwiches, that’s nothing,” Howard says. “I can show you a way to crack rich people’s safes. If you have the guts to go there. And if you do that, who needs Sonny Eco anymore? You’ll be the king.”

“You’re nuts”, Joey says, but looks interested, and Howard knows he has him hooked.

“Trust me, I’m a mechanic.”

Ten days later there is a new gang, of kid burglars, with Joey as the leader, and no one dares to put a finger on Howard anymore. He also has enough money to bring home and enough time to work on his projects. After all, a lot of people are in need of new safes now, and they’ll pay a lot for ones with locks that can’t be cracked so easily anymore.


 

V.

It’s 1969, and Maria says: “I want a child, Howard. And soon I’ll be too old.”

“I don’t,” he replies, because they’ve never lied to each other. He has about a million reasons why he doesn’t want to procreate, starting with the unlikelihood of being good at parenthood. He’s seen Peggy Carter struggle with it, trying to find a balance between running a black ops organization and having two toddlers at home, and it nearly drove her crazy. If Peggy had trouble, there is little hope for lesser mortals, Howard has concluded. But most of all he doesn’t want kids because they might turn out like him, and who needs that?

“Too bad,” Maria says. “Because I’ll have one anyway. And you’ll be the father. So buckle up.”


 

VI.

It’s July 16, 1945, and Howard hears Ken Brainbridge tell Oppie: “Now we’re all sons of bitches.”

Now? Howard thinks. Now?.

Of course, no one present knows about Midnight Oil. They’re all wearing goggles and staring at each other, half giddy, half mad. Someone says it’s just a shame Trinity didn’t happen earlier, before VE day, so the bomb could have been used on the Germans. That was why most of them joined the project, after all. To stop Hitler.

Howard wonders what Erskine would say, if he hadn’t been murdered. If he’d ended up here, at Los Alamos, with the rest of them. Erskine and his insistence that creation of a weapon makes you responsible for it, not the military who uses it later, no, you, the creator.

But even Erskine hadn’t been able to resist the lure of creation. That is the core of it, or at any rate the core of Howard. If he has an idea, he has to see whether it works, even if he knows while having it that the result should never be let loose on the world. You can’t unthink thoughts. And thought is action.

Isn’t it?


 

VII.

It’s 1949, and SHIELD comes into existence, brainchild of Peggy’s loss of patience with what remains of the SSR and Howard’s desire for a more permanent mix between her daring and strategy and his tech. “And style,” he tells her. “Don’t forget that.”

“I never do,” she replies. “We need a daily reminder of how ridiculous humans can be so we won’t all go power mad.”

He’s referred to his creations as his babies before. SHIELD, though, SHIELD isn’t a baby, it’s a teenager full of contradictions, which figures, what with Peggy and him as parents. He has never had sex with Peggy, and he probably never will, but they’ve intermingled their dreams. More than a few nightmares among them. It wouldn’t be theirs otherwise.

“And here I thought you’d appreciate it that I’ve made the official motto “Do as Peggy says”, Howard retorts, and is satisfied at her smile, which in its unique mixture of annoyance and amusement is one she reserves for him.


 

VIII.

It’s 1933, and Howard has just seen Joey Manfredi beat a guy to death. Granted, it was someone who’d attacked Joey first, but still, there would have been a million other ways to deal with this, and Joey doesn’t even look very shaken up after smashing someone’s skull into street concrete.

As if that’s not disturbing enough, Howard realizes something else: he himself isn’t as horrified at Joey as he should be.

This is when Howard decides he needs to bury Howie Starkovic and become Howard Stark for real. Not just because guys from the East Side called Starkovic will never make it beyond the backrooms, no matter how much money they earn, but because Howie Starkovic is well on his way to go from juvenile criminal to right hand man to a gangster, and if Joey asks him to come up with more efficient guns, like the ones they use in the movies but cooler, would Howard really say no? To his best friend? With a chance to see whether he can do it? Probably not.

He doesn’t say goodbye to Joey when he leaves New York. He won’t see Joey again for many years. But sometimes, he wonders whether Steve Rogers isn’t the sanitized version of Joey to him: someone who uses his strength and certainty so relentlessly for good that you don’t have to wonder whether enabling him to fight and kill people more efficiently makes you a psycho as well.


 

IX.

It’s 1980, and his kid genius of a son has just managed to nearly electroshock himself to death by hotwiring a microwave oven together with most of the interior of Howard’s favourite Porsche. It scares Howard more than anything else in his life has ever done, and that includes finding out he nearly poisoned the entirety of Manhattan while being hypnotized into believing he could finally make up for his biggest failure.

Never mind self created weapons and organizations; there’s nothing more fragile and terrifying than a human child.

“What the hell did I tell you about building without supervision?” Howard yells, and Tony yells back that he can hardly wait for Howard supervising him when Howard’s never around. It’s only when they’ve both finished screaming at each other and Howard has retreated to the library in order to get well and truly drunk at the prospect of nearly losing his son that Maria informs him that what Tony had attempted to create was a flying car, as a surprise.

“You know he does this all to impress you,” she says, and Howard decides then and there that Tony will be shipped off to the next boarding school immediately, no matter how expensive the bribes will have to be. If you’re a boy trying to impress other children, not adults, you do some idiotic stuff, but you definitely do not try to improve on your father’s unfulfilled dreams.


 

X.

It’s 1943, and his patents have made him rich. The name change is legal now. He’s well and truly become Howard Stark, and Howard Stark is everything Howie Starkovic had wanted him to be – able to tell most people he doesn’t care for to fuck themselves and to fuck most people he does care for, and many more besides. But that can’t have been the whole point, and besides, what’s going on in Europe well and truly makes him sick.

He’s been there for the first time briefly before the war started, as a pilot presenting some self designed air planes at an international competition. It would have been easy to fall in love with the Focke-Wulfs and their efficient design if you ignored the scared faces and the yellow stars. Howard hasn’t been to the synagogue since his mother died, but that’s beside the point. Which is why he’s involved with British military before the US officially joins the war. He meets Edwin Jarvis this way, and while it’s easy enough for him to save Jarvis’ girl Ana, he’s painfully aware this doesn’t change anything for all the other Anas on the goddam continent. He needs to do more. Come up with something better than just throwing money and specs around.

When they pitch Project Rebirth at him, Howard is in all the way.


 

XI.

It’s 1989, and young Agent Nicholas Fury very much minds being put on, as he puts it, “long distance baby sitting duty.”

“If you’re that worried someone’s going to try and recruit your kid, Sir, why not bring him in yourself?” he suggests. “We could use…”

“No.”

Fury is very eloquent with saying nothing.

“There’s a reason Madam Director kept her kids the hell away from SHIELD,” Howard feels compelled to explain, because truth to tell, he’s not in a position to give Fury an order anymore, having reduced his own involvement with SHIELD to consulting these days. He’s asking for a favor.

“Yeah,” Fury replies. “Neither of them is already churning out inventions by the dozens. They’re not good at martial arts, either.”

And that’s because Peggy made sure they weren’t following her footsteps, Howard doesn’t say, because as ever, Peggy has proven more efficient in this particular goal than he has done.

“This life,” he says. “It’s not a choice you can make for anyone but yourself. Maybe he will, at some future point. But it definitely won’t be because I did. So shadow him and take out anyone who looks like they have other ideas, Agent, and you won’t have to worry about your pension plan ever again.”

“I’ll pretend you didn’t just insult me, Sir. How are the helicarrier plans coming along?”

They talk about a flying airbase, which is Howard’s current pet project and the one he’s pursuing without the jaded cynicism he’s regarding most of the tech he’s designing for SHIELD these days. When he leaves, high on coffee and renewed enthusiasm, he can hear Fury grumbling something about “the lengths to which some people go in order not to talk to their kids”, but he probably misheard; his left ear is failing these days, a lot.


 

XII.

It’s 1960, and Howard watches Maria Collins Carbonell present her attempt at a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. It’s the sexiest experience he’s had since going through Whitney Frost’s notes with Jason Wilkes. He’s a self-taught engineer, pure mathematics are always a bit beyond him, but he knows competence when he sees it, and Maria is practically glowing with it.

Maria teaches at MIT, one of the few women to do so. She’s also, like many of the mathematicians Howard knows, passionate about music, but as he can’t play an instrument to save his life, they usually end up painting equations on each other’s bodies.

She refuses to leave her job or become a SHIELD consultant, though, so Howard moves his main residence back from the West Coast to the East. This makes Jarvis happy; he’s never stopped complaining about the relentless sunshine and lack of snow. He also accurately predicts this will be more than an affair.

“Why the sudden optimism?” Howard asks.

“As a married man, I recognize the symptoms when someone is about to join our tribe,” Jarvis replies drily. “Besides, you haven’t told me to get you a present for her, not even once, and yet going by the bill for the 1637 copy of Arithmetica, you actually remembered her birthday.”


 

XIII.

It’s 1944, and the sight at Finow makes Howard fall to his knees. He has seen his share of carnage by now, but nothing like this. Not something caused by his own hands.

“Now look here, Stark,” General McGinnis starts uneasily when Howard storms into his office later, “I don’t have remind you that breaking the non-disclosure act would be high treason, do I?”

He’d told McGinnis that Midnight Oil was a failure. That it wouldn’t keep soldiers awake but trigger psychosis. And McGinnis had gone ahead, raided his lab and turned the gas on the Russians anyway. On their allies.

As a rule, Howard doesn’t get into physical fights. He’s got neither the training nor the inclination, and besides, there is usually a friend or at least an ally at hand who excels at these things. But at this point, he throws a punch at John McGinnis regardless. It’s as inexpert as it can get, his knuckles hurt, and McGinnis doesn’t even fall down. God knows how Peggy Carter always manages to keep her hands in remarkable shapely conditions while decking any number of opponents. But at this moment, Howard just couldn’t resist.

As a more efficient gesture, he tries to terminate his contracts with the army later. The operative word being “tries”. There are any number of reasons why he doesn’t. There’s still Hitler to defeat, and Hydra, and the Japanese; but really, Howard suspects, while getting very drunk at an army base, it might come down to pure selfishness. The old numbers game. If he quits now, he’ll have brought death to more people than he has saved, and that’s impossible to live with.

Or maybe that, too, is an excuse, because he wants to live, still, always, very badly wants to live, and there isn’t enough alcohol in the world to drown the memories of Finow in. So looking at Steve Rogers, still walking through the war without a single moral compromise tainting him, just will have to do.


 

XIV.

It’s 1970, and Howard has just flown his last plane, at least as a pilot. He’s crashed, and his face got smashed so badly that it needed half a dozen operations by a facial surgeon until he’s able to walk around without bandages anymore. He doesn’t really recognize the man in the mirror, but maybe that’s the point. It’s a wonder Maria didn’t go into premature labor when she first visited him in the hospital. He had to promise her never to pilot anything again.

Peggy’s first visit goes somewhat differently.

“You bastard,” she says. “Don’t you dare die on me. Don’t you dare.”

He tries his best to shrug with most of him bandaged up.

“This wasn’t my idea, Peg. It was a stupid accident.”

Peggy glares. “We don’t do accidents, you and I,” she retorts. “And for God’s sake, Howard, there are easier ways to get out of being a father!”

There aren’t many people left on Earth with the ability to shock him. Peggy Carter is one of them.

“I didn’t…” he begins. “I wouldn’t! Come on, pal. You know me. Why would I deprive the world of me? More of me?”

“Yes, I know you,” Peggy says. “And that’s why I’m telling you if you ever do something like that again I’m going to dig up your remains, let Armin Zola experiment on them and kill you all myself, the slow way.”


 

XV.

It’s 1943, and Peggy Carter isn’t taking him up on a standing invitation to dinner. Instead, she’s daring him to do something utterly suicidally crazy. Howard suspects he may be in love. In an utterly out-of-my-league-but-wouldn’t-it-be-something way.

“So let me get this straight,” he says. “You want me to fly your boy into German territory. To a Hydra factory. In an unarmed plane. Without any military escort, and in fact against direct orders.”

“He’s not my boy,” Peggy says. “He’s a man who wants to save his best friend. And you’re his last hope.”

“A bit less with the drama, Agent Carter,” he says, and to his surprise, she gives him a rueful, self-mocking smile.

“You like him, too,” she says, and for a moment, he wonders whether she’s using a euphemism here, because he may have looked at the very impressive result of Project Rebirth with a bit more than platonic admiration and professional pride. “And he’s really wasted in all these propaganda shows. He wants to do something. Save lives. Don’t you? Isn’t that what all this is supposed to be about?”

Given Steve Rogers has yet to punch a Nazi who isn’t an actor on the stage, Philipps’ refusal to let him see action, let alone go on rescue missions makes sense. And yet. There is something in Howard that responds to what Peggy is saying, all of it: the earnest appeal, the flattery and the subtle innuendo, if that’s what it was. And besides, what the hell – he’s always been lucky. Time to test how much.

“So what’s the name of this soldier I’m going to risk my life and very well designed plane for?” he asks, giving in. “Whom are we saving?”

Relief and determination lend a sparkle to Peggy Carter’s eyes that makes him decided on trying at least once more. Yes, he’ll invite her to fondue. If they make back from German controlled air space in one piece.

“Barnes,” she says. “Sergeant Barnes.”


 

XVI.

It’s 1991, and the December air around him is freezing. Howard can hear Maria moan, and he’s about to ask the stranger to help her once more when the man grabs him. Howard’s eyes aren’t what they used to be, and there is that concussion, but the lights of the car are still on, and he recognizes the face. He’s been going through the old photos again, recently.

“Sergeant Barnes?” he asks in disbelief.

The future has finally arrived.