December 17, 1991
Goddamn, it was a relief to finally be going home.
Howard stared out the frosted window at the familiar hills near the mansion, empty of everything but white oaks and pines and grasses matted under half-melted clumps of snow. Dreary by every definition of the word, but still a good change from the eternal gray smog of industrial eastern Europe, where he’d dragged Maria for yet another set of meet-and-greets.
More efforts to spread the influence of Stark Industries to a post-Wall society through shoulder-gripping, liberal amounts of hard liquor, and the delicacy of security-cleared interpreters.
It was a wonder Maria was still speaking to him, forced to fake debutante cheeriness at aloof strangers throughout nearly the entire holiday season, instead of taking comfort in her own home. Come to think of it, she hadn’t, for awhile, spoken, and now she was staring out of the other window, thin fingers tucked into the door handhold. One of her nervous habits, a tell Howard had picked up on when he first spoke to her. The closer they got to home, the greater the urgency--she wanted to be there now.
“Almost there,” he said as the limo crested over well-maintained pavement, and he hoped it sounded reassuring. God knows he could screw that up.
Heard her breathe out. “Yes.” It was all she said for a moment, and then, “I’ll call Tony when we arrive. I hope we can see him tomorrow.”
And he knew what that meant. I hope you can get over your latest argument tomorrow, Howard. That’s what he got for thirty years of marriage--a universal translator for the woman who shared his life.
“Yes, well--,” he began, and plowed ahead anyway. “If he would just see the value of heading up R&D--” Already hammering the arguments into the wall for reference. Great opportunity for a twenty-one-year-old. Leadership potential. Ready yourself to take the reins, Tony.
It's time, Tony.
And on and on and--
“I don’t want to talk about it now--I don’t want you to talk about it with me. You can tell him why he should take it. Howard,” and here she turned, and he could see how tired she was in the deeper lines around her mouth, across her forehead under her few white hairs. Long flight. Missed her home. Hated to travel. Howard really could do a number on her, and sometimes he hated himself for it. But Maria was still speaking and giving him that look, and it was all too familiar. “He’s more likely to listen if you actually let him talk.”
In truth, Howard was damned tired, too, but not sloppy enough to snap back. That would end this day with an unpleasant night tossing in a guestroom bed, not his own king-sized mattress he’d missed for three weeks. He started counting silently.
“I don’t know,” he said, after he reached ten, and thankfully he'd sieved the worst of the irritation out of his tone. “That boy’s gotten real good at not listening--to me, anyway,” and, when she huffed at him a little, a gentle chide, he leaned back against the seat and returned his attention to the window. After a moment, he felt her hand touch his nearest one, and she turned it over and took it in hers.
He knew what she wanted--their son, home for Christmas like most parents would expect, not the resentment-fueled flyby they’d maybe get if they were lucky. Tony was a problem, and a big one--a problem Howard would have to figure out how to deal with eventually, if he hoped to mold his son and heir into a worthy successor for Stark Industries.
Tony would have to shake off whatever his problems were with Howard and whatever bones he had to pick about his childhood. But ...
But. There was still time, at least. Howard planned on hanging on until he was eighty. With Tony’s games and stubbornness, he’d have to. Had hopes for Tony’s thirtieth birthday, even if the twentieth had been nothing but tabloid headlines, bail money, and Maria in tears.
He squeezed Maria’s hand, bounced it up and down lightly on the cushioned seat, same as he had done when she was shy and tongue-tied on their first date. He was only sorry that Tony's issues affected his wife so much--she had every reason to expect their boy at the dinner table on Christmas Day, she’d earned it, and he was pretty certain she wasn’t going to get it.
But Tony would have to wait--there’d be enough days to try to pull him back in. What Maria didn’t know was that that their trip had a second purpose--one that, unlike the first, had ended in failure. With a few short conversations, always glancing over his shoulder, he’d prised into what he could learn about the former Soviet Union’s spy programs. Meetings sandwiched between other meetings when any number of witnesses could say Howard Stark had been discussing the capabilities of SI’s latest armaments in a roomful of old diplomats and new capitalists.
Instead, he’d been peeling away layers. KGB, then Department X, then the Red Room.
Looking for one thing. Just one.
But it had been a wash, and on another front Howard found himself bitterly disappointed. No matter what he'd tried, no matter what questions he'd asked, or how carefully, he’d come home with no new information on the whereabouts, on the true identity, of one man.
The one they called the Winter Soldier.
Forty-eight years earlier. Wartime.
Howard wasn’t sure why he’d gotten saddled with the soldier tonight--he’d just been sitting there at the makeshift bar, trying to enjoy one damned drink (maybe two, fine) while he considered improvements to the sniper rifle sights. And suddenly he’d ended up their newest sniper as a goddamned neighbor. Speak of the devil.
And the soldier was pressing far too close to Howard's shoulder at the bar, and going through the gin stores far too fast for his own good.
Knew Rogers was off behind them flirting with the only gal worth a damn in a five-mile radius, and his buddy Barnes was bored and tense and ... yeah, if he knew his human nature, maybe a little jealous. Just another cocky son of a bitch taken down a peg by war and a world that didn’t give a crap about him beyond what he could do with his hands and his--reportedly good--eye.
Nodded noncommittally at some of Barnes’ sloppy mutterings, until he’d heard a word he didn’t expect, and he looked at the man, finally.
Found himself fixed in an hostile blue gaze. “They promised me pussy--and lots of it, Mister Stark,” was repeated like a challenge, more insistent this time, tapping the bottom curve of his glass on the counter. Then, "And I ain't seen no pussy since I got over here. None at all," and, yeah, Barnes was almost three sheets to the wind, being that crude and stupid.
Or maybe ... maybe he was performing? Howard cocked a look over his shoulder to see Peggy Carter laughing, her hand light on Rogers’ wrist, and Rogers actually blushing back, his head ducked down.
Barnes had gone back to talking, mostly to himself, an inventory of “shit he was promised” that hadn’t come to pass. A roster of crimes. Yeah, Howard didn’t think Barnes knew exactly what he was angry about. Howard had seen enough of it to know, though. Men spending a lot of time together, tight and almost tripping over each other, and tempers running awful hot for no good reason. Couldn’t peg Rogers one way or another--he was pinking up nicely as Carter found any reason to run fingers over him ... tug on a shirt sleeve, neaten his hair.
But Barnes--yeah, he knew that much at least.
If Rogers was human perfection, God’s gift in male form, Barnes ... Barnes was something else. Round and softer in the places where Rogers was hard and sharp. A gift sent from someone else entirely, and already unwrapped. A helluva sight, even roughed up a little by whatever had happened at the base.
Maybe especially roughed up a little. That mouth alone, that redblooded shock of those full lips ... God had invented uses for a mouth like that, fine uses, and maybe named them sins after the fact, but--
Christ, the gin was strong. Howard lifted the glass and squinted suspiciously at it when Barnes’ attention was diverted, when the man was rambling more into the air than Howard’s ear. Shook his head and blamed his lack of sleep, forgotten dinner, and the goddamned war instead. Wondered how much Barnes had drunk. His eyes were bloodshot, but he didn’t look too unsteady yet.
Howard was bored, and maybe ... just maybe this was worth a go. The rifles could wait until the morning. He slid a cigarette from the box, tipped it end over end into his mouth--he’d practiced and knew how it looked on him. Talked around the filter, bringing Barnes’ attention to his own mouth.
“You sure it’s pussy that you want, soldier?” Grabbed the matchbox off the edge of the bar’s surface, then flicked his wrist and got a single matchstick tilting out of the box. Kept his face perfectly neutral even as Barnes looked down and knitted his eyebrows together. Turned a little pink himself.
Too much too soon, maybe. Howard set the box down on the bar and made a point of looking away from Barnes for a moment as he struck the match and tilted his head down to light the end inside cupped hands.
He looked up in time--just the right amount of time--to discover Barnes glaring at him, eyes sharp and cold like he was in the field again, delivering death, and maybe it had been a bad idea, but Howard had had worse and acted on them, and Rogers wouldn’t let Barnes kick his ass.
“What’s that mean?” Barnes barked, and the words flowed together in an messy slur. “You trying to say something?” Angry words, yeah, but there was something else in Barnes’ expression.
Howard had seen that before, too.
He snapped his wrist to put out the match, dropped it on the floor. Took a drag off his cigarette before pinching it from his mouth to answer. “I’m tryin’ to say, maybe you can’t have what you want, Sergeant.” Howard could be a Brooklyn boy if he needed to be--masquerade well enough, anyway, to speak their language. Make himself understood. “At least, not if your definition is too precise.
“Maybe you should--” He looked around the room, at the other men in the corner, a few of them talking. Nobody paying attention at all to just another conversation taking place between soldiers. “--be a little more loose.”
And Howard was either gonna get punched or--
The man was half-drunk, and angry, and damaged--in some way that wasn’t obvious to everyone, and apparently not obvious enough to Rogers--and he just stared at Howard for awhile, until Howard took another drag.
Then Barnes’ attention returned to his mouth and stayed there.
And Howard knew: He wasn’t gonna get punched.