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Empire of Dirt

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The sound of a grand piano floated up the stairs, accompanied by a soft crooning voice singing Christmas carols.

Tony Stark opened his eyes.

The singing had stopped.

A moment later, a woman’s voice called out, “Tony, come downstairs. Your father and I are leaving for our trip.”

But his father was dead. Howard had died over twenty years ago. Had he forgotten to turn the holographic simulator off before passing out in the lab last night?

Swinging his legs off the giant king-size bed, Tony made his way to the nearest mirror. The face that stared back at him was a perfect replica of his 21-year-old self, a mop of dark unruly hair forever falling into defiant brown eyes. He'd been angry at the whole world at that age.

“Tony?” Maria’s voice came from right behind him, and he jumped, whirling around to find his long-deceased mother peering patiently at him from the doorway of his old bedroom. “Sweetheart, are you alright? You look a bit pale.”

“I-" His voice cracked when she reached out and cupped his cheek. No matter how intricate the holograms had been, they could never capture the warmth and life radiating from his mother. His eyes began to sting. Tony pressed his shaking hand over hers and inhaled the familiar comforting scent of Maria’s perfume.

“Oh, my sweet boy,” She sighed, gathering him into her arms when his tremors increased. “Have you been smoking again, Anthony?”

“No, I-I, none of this make any sense, Mom. How are you-" He stammered, at a loss for words.

“Maria, the car is here,” A brisk voice spoke from the doorway, and Tony lifted his head from his mother’s shoulder to see Howard, alive and well, standing impatiently at the door, suit jacket in one arm and a silver-tipped cane in the other. His gaze frosted over with disapproval when he saw Tony’s red-rimmed eyes.

“Howie, I think Tony is sick,” His mother said worriedly, pressing a palm to Tony’s sweaty forehead.

“I’m sure I don’t have to express my concerns again,” Howard replied cooly, “the boy is clearly high from whatever alcohol or drugs he took at one of his numerous-“ his lip twisted in distaste, “parties.”

“I’m not high,” Tony yelled, anger surfacing at his father's clear disdain. “This isn’t real. I’m dreaming. You guys aren’t real.”

“See what I mean, Maria,” Howard said with cold satisfaction, but Tony had stopped paying attention.

His mother had said that they were going on a trip. There had been Christmas carols. The car was here...

“What’s today’s date?” He suddenly demanded. Maria’s concerned expression was growing, as was Howard’s scowl.

“It’s the 16th, Darling,” She answered, confused. “Your father and I are leaving for our month-long Christmas vacation. We talked about this.”

“No, no, no. You can’t go!” Tony burst out suddenly, panic building in his chest. The 16th was the night of the assassination, cleverly disguised as a car accident along an empty road. The Winter Soldier was going to kill them both and-

“Honey, what are you talking about?” Maria’s confusion was quickly turning into quiet displeasure.

“You can’t go. You have to cancel the trip, Mom. There’s going to be a horrible accident, and-” Tony babbled as Howard took one of Maria’s hands and began to pull her out of the room.

“Anthony Stark!” Maria suddenly raised her voice. He fell silent, stunned. She exhaled wearily. “Sweetheart, I really don’t want to believe your father’s accusations about your drinking or drug habits, but this is ridiculous.”

“You don’t understand-“ He tried again.

“Yes, I do. Now, not another word from you,” Maria interrupted firmly, taking his face in her hands and pressing placating kisses to both of his cheeks. “Take care of yourself while we’re away, Love.”

His parents made their way down the grand staircase. Seconds later, the door slammed shut behind them. Tony heard the sound of wheels crunching over gravel.

He pinched himself on the forearm as hard as he could. The spot flared white-hot with pain. He was still facing the sleek redwood front door of his grandfather’s old family estate instead of the glass automated ones in his Malibu mansion.

He was 21 again, but the last thing Tony remembered was supporting Rhodey through his painful physical therapy after the fallout with Steve Rogers. Those memories belonged to the 46-year-old Tony Stark.

Barnes, no the Winter Soldier, was going to strike tonight.

Should he intervene? Did he really have a choice?

There was a chain of keys in on one of the drawers in Howard’s study. Tony knew by memory that they led to the old vintage cars his father kept in the basement level of the house.

He grabbed the keys and raced down the stairs.

 


 

Tony had every detail of the incident memorized in the back of his head, so it didn't take him too long to track down the white limo his parents were in. Still, it was a shock to see the car suddenly swerve wildly into the trees and a dark figure separate itself from the shadows.

Barnes’s face was hidden behind a black mask and protective night-vision goggles. A compact sniper rifle was strapped to his back. He moved purposefully toward Howard’s side of the car and tore the door clean off. The Soldier bent low and fisted his unconscious father’s shirt.

Tony staggered from his hiding spot, heart pounding so hard he could barely choke out the trigger words he’d memorized from the encounter with Zemo.

His voice was tinny in the vast night, but the Winter Soldier froze nonetheless.

Release him!” Tony shouted in Russian.

The gloved fist unclenched and Howard Stark toppled over onto the grass, bleeding freely from a cut above his left brow.

Abort mission! Terminate! Stop!” Tony tried a variation of Russian words when the Soldier made to approach his mother’s side of the car. The assassin paused.

Then, the Winter Soldier turned his masked face toward Tony.

Ready to comply,” said the Soldier.