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I Will Always Be

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When Tony’s parents left that day, he went and found the liquor cabinet. Conversations with his father usually required a little numbing agent for the residual pain. A fifth of scotch later, and Tony was happily making his holiday phone calls. One to Rhodey. One to Obie. One to his favorite professor at MIT. A couple of crank calls, to Reed Richards and Drexel Cord, respectively, two utter tools who’d lost to him on numerous occasions in robotics club competitions. One to Jarvis, who came and took the bottle away from him. And last but not least, to his Aunt Peggy, whose answering machine picked up because no doubt she was far too busy with government business to talk, as usual. Boozeless and partly sober again, Tony crawled back onto the couch and fell back to sleep.

Tony had been suffering from more of his restless sleep episodes since returning home from school. Every time he closed his eyes, he dreamed of a lab full of sterile medical tech and a giant machine that crackled with electric shock mechanisms and scared the living daylights out of him. The only other people in Tony’s dreamscape were bioengineering types and military personnel--so no comfort at all. His dreams felt cold--not because Tony had actual touch-sense in the dreams--he didn’t--but because everything was stainless steel and strictly professional and dark and lonely. Tony had awakened screaming more than once from those dreams.

But tonight was different. Tonight, Tony could feel the cold wind in his hair. Well, it was December, so that made sense. But somehow, the air didn’t feel freezing on his face, just fresh. There was something powerful and reassuring in his grip. Handlebars, that’s what they were. Oh, it was a Harley. Tony could feel the vibration of all those horses between his thighs, and it was raw, visceral, sexual. This was a good dream. This might even turn out to be a wet dream.

He was on a quiet, solitary road; a dirt trail. Tony tried to tell his dream self this was not a good idea. The dust kicked up from a packed dirt road could wreak havoc on  the cylinder walls, wear them away. And a beautiful, vintage bike like this deserved better. It deserved all the love in the world.

Tree branches partially obscured his view of the main road, just a short way down the hill from where his bike was currently perched. So it was a forested path Tony’s dream self had chosen to take tonight, a winding trek through the trees. Tony thought of Robert Frost, and having deep thoughts about one’s path in life, and wondered why he had so much time to think in a dream. It was actually a little boring. The bike was off--even the headlight was off. In a strange way, Tony felt a little like a wolf waiting to ambush his prey in the forest. Watching the road wasn’t very interesting, though. It was kind of deserted. Just where was this, anyway? A one-lane gravel road in the middle of nowhere, bisecting a forest.

Then, he heard it: the crackle of tires on loose gravel in the distance. A car was approaching. There, he could see the light from the high beams. Tony kicked the motorcycle to life and let gravity pull him down the short incline to the road. The car passed at around 50, but the Cadillac’s horses were no match for his Harley.

Wait, what was Tony doing? Racing the car? It seemed like it. Well, whatever. Tony was catching up. He was looking inside the passenger window. A light shape in the darkness--could he see it? Not quite. But it didn’t seem to matter. Tony took one hand off the handlebars and fired a single round into the driver. The car veered hard left and crashed head-on into a 40-year-old elm tree. If this was a race, Tony had just won. The caddy wasn’t going anywhere. Probably ever again.

Tony felt weird. There were people in that car. He’d just killed people. It was a dream, but still, he recoiled from it. He’d done it without thinking, so cold and calculating, like stepping on a bug. Only Tony didn’t step on bugs. He wanted them to like him. Tony wanted everyone to like him.  

Also, there was something about the car. Tony pulled his bike around the back of the car and climbed off. As he walked over to the trunk, Tony tried to read the license plate, but there wasn’t one--not exactly. It was a government plate. This car, it was the same kind of car his dad drove down in D.C.--Howard’s company car, the one Uncle Sam had given him.

But this was not that car, Tony told himself. He did not dream of killing his parents. Sure, Tony might wish death on his father once or twice a week, but he would never actually consider doing it, never dream the scenario, never actually plot out how it could be done. Never yank the locked trunk open with superhuman force. What was that inside, anyway? A briefcase safe? It looked important. Right next to his father’s laptop and his mother’s umbrella.  

Oh god.

Howard was crawling toward him on his belly, bleeding.

No. This wasn’t happening. It was just a dream.

Tony tried to compartmentalize, be clinical about the injuries he’d just inflicted on his own father: bullet wound, head trauma from the collision with the tree... But then he realized Howard was begging Tony to help his wife. Pleading for help. Tony tried to look back into the car, to check if his mom was okay, make sure she was still alive. But the dream didn’t work that way. He was stuck looking down at his injured and bleeding father.

This was not what Tony wanted. It wasn’t what he’d ever wanted. Was this punishment for all the times he’d wished Howard would just go away and leave him alone? All the times he’d wished him dead?

Tony thought he might die when Howard finally looked up at him and recognition dawned slowly on his features. Tony wanted to back away. He wanted to run. He couldn’t take this part--he couldn’t. 

“Sergeant Barnes?”

Sergeant Barnes? What the hell kind of dream was this? Tony didn’t have time to contemplate it, because a metal fist-- his metal fist--smashed his father’s face in before Howard could get another word out. Once, twice. And that was that.

Then Tony dragged his father’s body back to the car, where he tucked him in as if putting him to bed for the night. He draped Howard gently across the steering wheel and then walked around to the passenger side of the car.

Okay, this was fine. It was only a dream. And now at least, Tony could check on his mother, see she was alright. She must have heard his boots crunching across the gravel toward her, because Tony’s mother started to call out to him. No, to Howard. She was calling his father’s name, scared, worried, having just seen her husband get shot, wreck the car.

Tony opened the door and gripped her throat in his right hand. He didn’t use his metal hand. Why? Would it have hurt more? Surely not; surely it would take longer this way. Tony felt his mother’s trachea snap in his fingers and he screamed. He couldn’t see anything anymore. Just darkness, and one horrified, endless scream.

“Sir? Sir, wake up. Mr. Stark, you’re having a dream. Anthony, wake up. Wake up!” Jarvis was shaking him. Tony could see again. He was in the living room, that stupid santa hat covering one of his eyes, and Jarvis was bending over him, trying to wake him up.

“Where are they?” Tony blurted, sitting up in a rush. “J, where are they? You have to call them. Tell them not to drive down to Florida tonight. Tell them to stay put in Washington. Tell them I’m coming--I’ll be there. We can all be together for Christmas. Oh, mom will buy that, yeah. Tell them to wait for me. Please. Do it now!”

The prim butler looked startled as Tony’s gibberish crescendoed into a roar of command. This was not the behavior he was used to from his charge. “I beg your pardon, sir.”

“Please!” Tony begged, grabbing Jarvis’ hands with each of his own. “Please, it’s important! Please!”

“Very well, Sir. But while I do, I’d like you to take several deep breaths. I don’t think you’ve fully awakened yet.” He stepped out of the room to place the requested call, and Tony almost called him back. He didn’t want to be alone. Not after that dream.

Tony heard Jarvis hang up the phone and dial again. That didn’t make him feel any better. Then J did it again. And again. Tony walked into the hall to listen, but Jarvis was already finished. “It seems they’re late to their hotel reservation.” Jarvis paused. “Are you quite alright, Sir?”

Tony was not alright. He was the furthest thing from alright.

“Where was their reservation?” he asked.

“They were to check into the Myrtle Beach Resort by 6pm, but they have yet to arrive.”

“Where was their last stop?”

“I don’t know, Sir. Most likely for gas or lunch somewhere along the way--” But Tony was already gone, pelting down the hall to his workshop, where he immediately hooked up police scanners for every county between D.C.’s 1st ward and Horry County, South Carolina. There were no fatal car accidents for the first 55 minutes--surprising for a holiday weekend. Then everything fell apart.

When the dispatcher gave the location, Tony looked at the coordinates on the maps he’d pulled up. He pushed in, using government satellites--whatever, it was no skin off their nose. And Tony knew. As soon as he saw the trees and the deserted gravel road, he knew.

Jarvis tackled Tony on his way to the garage to take a car and drive down himself. Tony fought him tooth and nail, at first, but then he managed to hurt Jarvis in the process. He didn’t want that. So he stopped fighting. Tony could only lie there, sobbing.

That was how they were when the phone rang. Jarvis didn’t look like he was going to answer, preoccupied with the dual tasks of pinning Tony down and holding him as he wept. But the phone rang and rang and rang and rang. “Sir,” Jarvis asked softly. “I must have your word that you won’t leave this spot.”

But Tony couldn’t speak. His throat hurt too much, and the only thing he really had the energy to do right now--apart from bawl his eyes out--was to curl himself into the fetal position.

He listened to Jarvis answer the phone and go very quiet. “What sort of accident?” Jarvis dropped the phone. As it dangled from its cord, Tony could faintly hear his godmother’s voice, so far away, like the buzzing of a tiny gnat.

“Jarvis? Mr. Jarvis? Edwin, where’s Tony?” That set him off again, screaming and crying. Tony could remember little between the phone call and the hospital bed. There were three straps; two for his wrists, and one big one across his chest, so he couldn’t hurt himself.