Howard and Maria Stark die in a car accident.
Tony is eighteen and on the other side of the country.
When he was at school Tony drove a slick red car with a convertible top. He'd sit in the driver's seat with one wrist curved over the top of the leather covered steering wheel and his elbow hanging over the edge of the driver's side door. Once when Tony dropped him off at the shitty campus apartment, Jim gave the car an appreciative pat on the hood.
"I'll see you later, Tony."
Tony's chin came up and he brought the big black sunglasses down to his nose. He grinned. "You should come over tomorrow."
Jim had a paper due, one he hadn't started working on. His eyes wandered, circular: down the street and then, inexplicably, back. "Maybe."
"See you tomorrow."
Tony tilts his head back for a moment. He closes his eyes. The curve of his neck is smooth and sleek in the headlights. The heels of his palms are against his eyes for a second before he's pushing them away. The gravel drive crunches underfoot until he reaches the doorstep.
Obie calls after him. It's a warm night.
He will be standing with his hands in his pockets. The angle of his hip might be dropped out and there will be absolutely no tilt to his head as he looks over the platform from the bottom of the stairs offstage. There are going to be the inevitable reporters and cameramen, women in professional a-line skirts with their hair tucked up and their blouses open to precisely the second button.
Tony Stark will close his eyes. The records will show that the man at the podium has to give the last line of his brief introduction twice before Tony realizes his name is being called.
Afterward ("--losing such a great man is not only a tragedy for this company--") he will come off the stage to where Pepper is waiting for him. In her hands she holds a file and a strange expression will catch between her hairline and chin.
This is how it happens: the brakes are pumped with one foot and nothing holds. The police say the the car crashes into the road divider and that they are killed on impact. His mother's makeup is smeared by blood, face pockmarked by shrapnel, and the windshield blisters - perfectly round - in the place where his Dad's forehead rests.
The front tire kisses the line of the shoulder the whole tangled way through the hills. The top's up and Tony's driving just five over as they weave through the switchbacks and rise steadily from the web of Californian lights.
"How are you Tony?" Obadiah asks. He's sitting in the passenger seat with a cigar between thumb and forefinger. The smoke lingers above both their heads with nowhere to go - the car's rolled up tight.
"The plant's doing fine if that's what you want to know." Tony's pissed, has been every since they went to dinner. It's taken all of three hours for the warmth of Obie's visit to fade from the center of his chest, replaced with numbers and business facts and all the things that Tony knows Obadiah will take back to his Dad. "You know if you wanted numbers we could have talked over the phone. Delay your flight. I've got tickets to the ballet." Tony gives him a sturdy leer.
Obadiah chuckles. The sound is low in his chest. "Isn't your assistant going with you?"
"There were some, uh, professional differences." Obadiah doesn't even have to look at Tony before he spills out, "She quit."
"Oh?," in a way that asks more than just that.
Obie smiles and smothers his cigar in the ashtray. "I mean it," is what he says when he's done. "How are you?"
Someday when Tony is down in the garage with one hand leafed in gold titanium alloy and the other gripping a screwdriver it will occur to him that Obadiah flew out to California for a performance review just in time. The possibilities unfold, a complex algorithm.
He won't close his eyes. Instead he bends his fingers one at a time and adjusts the calibration in each.
The car is parked at an awkwardly placed sidebar mid-way up, just high enough to see far out over the blinking lights of the city. Tony rolls down a window. The night air breathes in across the shadows of his face.
"I'm surprised you haven't taken this car apart by now," Obie remarks flippantly.
Tony passes him a grin, boyish and pleased. "Only twice."
Obadiah gestures to him with one blunt finger, shakes his head. "I should have known."
"It was a good birthday present," Tony gives him and they share a brief look before Tony rolls his neck and leans out the window to crane back his head at the stars.
"What do you want this year?" Obie asks.
Tony thinks about it, throws out "Telescope," on a whim because Obie never gets him what he asks for (a good thing, Tony - who discards hobbies like new girlfriends - understands) and because overhead Pleiades glows.
In the quiet and the dark, Los Angeles glows and a comfort settles in the pit of Tony's stomach. The leather seats creak when Obadiah leans over the stick shift between them and reaches out to tousle Tony's hair the way they used to do. Obie's hand lingers at the back of his neck, knuckles grazing the headrest.
They drive the rest of the way in silence and the police are at the house when they get there. Obie tells him to wait in the car and Tony follows anyway.
Obadiah once clasped hands with Howard Stark. It had been long past due, they agreed. They had a cab called. Maria handed him his coat and it wasn't until later that Obadiah found the cigar tucked in the front pocket. He saved it, took it on the plane with him.