When the long, low horn of the train sounded over the plains, it echoed. The smoke that rose from the smooth pillar divided the sky in two, split down the middle by the dark curves of the stack that puffed its way upwards further - churning, in time with the fire inside, around the gears and nuts and bolts that held the vessel together. There was something beautiful about it; something that smelled stronger than the acrid sting of the ash, something that burned all the way down to his gut and smoldered there like embers. In the morning, when the air was crisp and the breeze cool, was the time that Tony most liked to stand out on the ledge and watch the trains that passed. He watched them as the long nose seemed to eat the tracks and spit them back out, calculating how much faster the machine could go, how much more efficient the engineer could keep the fires.
The soot on his hands and the grease between his fingers bothered his uncle, but it meant nothing to Tony. It was merely the after-effects of work, the grime that gave his life a semblance of meaning, and he wiped his palms on his trousers just to watch the lines on Obadiah’s face deepen and lengthen. There was something to be said about the way his uncle held fast to the gold links of his pocket watch. It was a lifeline; it said, Tony, you are driving me to the bottle again, and always, Tony wanted the smears of engine oil across his cheeks to say Uncle, you drove me there years ago.
"Tony," Obadiah said, and the spell of the morning was broken, the long blast of the train horn sounding instead as the warning bell designed to keep Tony carefully in line rather than the howl of glorious freedom over the rolling plains. "You know that-"
"-the capacity can be increased by reinforcing the engines with a metal that allows the fires to burn hotter without melting through," Tony finished. He let his hand fall from the side of the window where it had been resting, an afterthought; Obadiah was up early, and Tony would find no further respite in the factories in his father's name. His uncle ran them now - that was Tony's life. He buried his nose in schematics and railway upgrades and let his uncle handle the investors from London who came down to see the development with their noses in the air.
Behind him, there was a sigh. "You did not go home last night."
"Things to do," Tony replied. He moved without turning around. He wasn't in the mood for his uncle's consternation - it was early, and the man's sour face tended to turn his stomach before he ate breakfast. "You, of all people, should know that. If I wasn't here fixing the blueprints that were delivered completely inadequately-"
"-it would have been fixed in the test run, Tony."
"Then those high-brow investors who don't know a steel pin from a lug nut would have tripped in their haste to get out of your pocket," Tony ignored the man. He went to his desk and began looting around - the top was strewn with papers, covered in equations: figurings, re-figurings, calculations. Tony's brain was still cycling through them.
"If I didn't know better," Obadiah said, primly, in a way that was making a large show of sounding innocent, "I would say you were avoiding it."
"Stark men don't run away from their problems," Tony snorted. He shoved a wrench and a pair of weathered, half-melted pliers into one of the rickety wooden drawers and slammed it shut with his thigh.
Obadiah was quiet for a long moment, and then said, "Why, dear boy, would your father's exquisitely constructed home ever be considered a 'problem'?"
Tony said nothing.
"Is there something wrong there?" Obadiah continued.
"No," Tony said, pushing thoughts of lace and petticoats and gentle waves falling atop crisp pillowcases out of his mind. "There's nothing wrong."
"Then I think," Obadiah said, low and dangerous and smug, so smug that Tony wanted to turn around and catch him with his knuckles despite everything that his uncle had built with Tony's late father, "that you ought to go home to your wife."
Virginia "Pepper" Potts was the prettiest girl that Tony had ever seen at the age of six; by the age of ten, she was also one of the only girls that he could stand being around, because she wasn't consumed with social status and her own vapid interests. Pepper ran the house with efficiency and grace, friendly with the help and smart in her use of the Stark fortune. It wasn't Pepper that Tony had the problem with - at least not in the way that Obadiah seemed to think. Pepper smelled faintly of lavender and the corners of her mouth crinkled when she smiled, and she was certainly one of the best young women that Tony knew. The problem was that she was his wife, and Tony, as he washed the oil and grease and remnants of last night's engine overhaul from his fingers with the warmth of the sink water, found that going home to someone named as such negated many of the previous good points.
Pepper found him there, head peeking around the doorframe that led to the cook's quarters. "You were out all night again," she said, without malice or accusation.
"I'm sorry," Tony said automatically. He wasn't; it just seemed appropriate. "There's a new design coming out and we're trying to decrease freight time, and I know if I just transfer some of the load-bearing from the engine coils to the-"
Pepper shook her head with a rueful smile. "You know I haven't the faintest clue what you are talking about when you get technical, Tony."
"I got caught up in work," he sighed, straightening. Pepper was holding two ties - both slim, one gray and one black. Tony reached for the black one.
"Rhodey and the investors want to speak with you," she said.
There was a mirror above the sink, broken and smudged with dirt and in desperate need of a new frame, but that was what Tony got for thinking he could hide in the cook's wash room to avoid his problems. He stared at his own reflection for a few moments as Pepper rounded his form and loosely looped the material around his neck.
"You can just tie that into a noose," Tony told her.
"You like Rhodey," she reminded him, and her deft fingers worked the material into a respectable knot.
"I know," Tony said, surprised. "It's the other men I can't stand. They are only here because of my father's money-"
"Your money," Pepper interjected.
"-and they make sure that I know it, glaring down their noses at me. They wouldn't have anything to do with me if it weren't for Obadiah, and I wish they'd just give it up, Pep, I really do."
Pepper tsk-ed lightly at him, the knuckles of her fingers skimming up against his throat as she finished. "Obadiah is making sure that all those engines you spend all night creating are sold," she said. "Your work isn't any use if nobody knows about it."
The worst part wasn't that she was right, it was that Tony wanted people to know what he could do. He liked when people marveled at his name on the side of the train cars as they sped by - he just didn't like having to deal with the bureaucracy that accompanied it. He reached up to test the tie and was pleased by the snug way it fit into his collar; Pepper was good with wardrobe.
"I think Rhodey is bringing someone," Pepper told him, taking a step backwards and looking him over once, with approval. "He said something about an academic who has taken an interest in railways."
"Another stuffy head case," Tony sighed. He paused for a long moment, eyes still locked with his own mirrored image. "I'm sorry I can't be the man you deserve."
Pepper's mouth stretched into a somewhat sad smile that Tony couldn't wholly read. "You will be," she replied. "Because I believe in you."
"I don't know why, half the time," Tony admitted.
"I know," Pepper laughed. Her hands went to his shoulders, turning him around towards the back stairs. "Just go up there and be yourself."
Tony side-eyed her for a long moment, until her fingers fell away from his arms. "I mean, the version of yourself that impresses and delights men with deep pockets looking to invest in your father's vision," she amended.
"You always did know what to say," Tony said.
Her smile was definitely sad after that, though she turned a bit and tried to hide it. "But not what to do," she replied, quiet and low.
Tony went up the stairs because there was no other option, and he knew that if he didn't meet with them, Obadiah would learn about it before the sun went down; Tony didn't want to tempt his fate any more than he already had.
Within the hour, the suits from London were sitting around his father's favorite sitting room, the one that was impressive with paneled mahogany and hand-sewn cushions and shelves of books imported from and bound at the finest locations. If it weren't for Rhodey, Tony wouldn't have managed to stay that long - Rhodey and the man he'd brought, the one who wasn't trying to look impressive by wearing expensive boots and a monocle. The man's name was Bruce Banner, and he was, in fact, the opposite; he slouched in on himself as if he was trying to hide from most of the world, shoulders curved into a "u" shape as he knotted his fingers together in his lap.
He was worth talking to. He'd been able to meet Tony in the middle on the new engine design calibration equations, even without seeing the figures in writing, and had casually tossed out a few compound reactions that might further strengthen the metal of the fires to increase heat and speed.
"I didn't know you were doing so much development on the line," Banner said, in a way that sounded sincere; Tony didn't know what the man was doing here with the likes of the black-clad investors, already sneering across the room at Tony's lack of propriety or care for showing off the wealth he'd inherited down the chain. He was different than them.
It was obvious why Rhodey had brought him, even if the man looked sorry for it now.
"You should come by and see it," Tony said, pacing by the window. The natural light was nicer than the flickering lamps - and cooler. "It's amazing. I built the whole factory myself, piece by piece as was needed. Because I know I can increase output while decreasing fuel if I can just figure out how to stabilize the metal I'm using for the engine walls-"
"And you've fused more than two together?" Banner asked, cheeks flushed. "To see if they bond strong enough to absorb the extra heat?"
"See, I may need more calculations on that one," Tony said. "I've figured out how to get the metals to bond, but keeping them that way with so much pressure is harder, and I need-"
"Mr. Stark," one of the suits started.
Tony paused, turning. "Mr. Bumshire," he replied in turn, deliberately using the wrong name. The man's frown deepened, but he didn't correct the slight, and Tony counted it as a personal victory.
"James invited us here-"
"Against my will, I assure you," Tony interrupted.
"-to speak about the future of Stark Railways and get a clear promise from you on whether or not our enterprises can work together to achieve our goals," the man finished.
Tony looked at Bruce, shrugging. "And it's my house, but did I get asked about it? Never."
"Tony," Rhodey sighed.
Sensing that he had come to an impasse, Tony tapped his fingers a few times against the window pane and then stepped away from it, lacing his hands together behind his back as he slowly made the round - from the sides, he could see the center, where the men were seated, feeling like he had more a handle on things. Obadiah would be pleased if he managed to, on his own, bring in more London money that would buy new engines, cars and better tracks. Maybe, for once, Tony would not feel like a failure to the man holding the biggest stake in the Stark industries.
"And what exactly is it that you are looking for?" Tony asked. "My word? An iron contract?"
"A trial run," the suit said. He straightened in his chair, brow furrowing. "To see if you really are as fast and efficient as they say."
"Can't believe everything they say," Tony told him, but it seemed simple enough - a test run that gave Tony enough time to play with the adjustments to the engine and the fires, to see if he couldn't coax the last bit of speed out of those gears that screeched and screamed across the iron.
The man in the suit nodded, agreeing. "Which is precisely why we need to do see your trains in action," he said. "If you can get the cargo to the destination in the time specified, you will find yourself with a great deal more disposable income."
"You realize that I already have nearly all that I need," Tony pointed out.
"Nearly," the suit parroted back. "And you may find that influential voices on your side can do more good than coin can."
Tony looked at Rhodey, who was nodding slightly as if sheer willpower alone could make Tony accept. Then he looked at Bruce - the man seemed far more interested in the prospect of creation, of invention and re-invention and perfection, than the deal being brokered over Pepper's fine dowry china.
"Alright, then," Tony said, slowly, drawing the syllables out between his lips as if to test them. "You will have your test run and you'll find that our trains blow your estimates right off the map."
"Let's not get too ahead of ourselves," Rhodey said, standing, and Tony brushed him aside with a wave of his hand to approach Banner, also moving to his feet.
"I hope you'll take up my offer to see the development," Tony said.
The man's face was alive with promise. "I came down here to see for myself what everyone in London was talking about," Banner told him. "I'm at your disposal."
Having someone else around who understood the specifics of what went through Tony's mind was already making him feel lighter about the whole thing.
"Excellent," Tony said, grinning. "Then let's draw up the papers and all be on our merry ways."
Bruce Banner slipped into the locomotive factory like he'd been born there. While Tony didn't usually enjoy having other people around while he worked - because there were methods to his madness, time-tested routines that kept his hands and mind busy - Bruce moved around quietly, with small steps, like he was hardly there at all. When he was busy with something, his fingers moved with precision. He took apart the model steam cab and then put it back together again, just so he knew the workings of the mechanics inside and out.
"If we increased the capacity of the firebox, we'd have to increase the amount of water held within the boiler," Bruce said, as those nimble fingers traced along the outside of the model. "To keep it steady, there'd have to be more room here."
"But if we lengthened the box, we'd lengthen the whole car, and then we're adding extra weight to the train itself that would offset any gains," Tony replied.
Bruce's forehead crinkled, furrowed, and then smoothed once more. He picked up the model, holding it absent-mindedly in his hands - a nervous tic, a way to keep his fingers busy. "Maybe we could increase the width of the blastpipe instead-"
"Which would, in turn, require more give at the valve gear."
"But we could give it that," Bruce said. His eyes were bright when he set the model car down again. "We could reinforce it with the new compounds you've been working with here, and the blastpipe itself as well. With the extra strength, the engine should be able to offset the hotter firebox."
Tony grinned involuntarily. "In London, what did you do, exactly?"
"Physics," Bruce replied.
"Seem to know a lot about steam locomotives for a physicist."
It was possible that it was the glow of the setting sun that gave Bruce's cheeks the dusty pink tint, as the man turned around a bit and began fiddling with the forge Tony kept roaring for his experiments in joining the metal bonds.
"Maybe I learn fast," Bruce said.
Tony leaned back against the rail of the forge, the feel of the embers behind his back warm and solid and comforting - he was used to spending long nights with them, his constant companion. "Maybe there's something you're not telling me."
Bruce laughed, though he sounds nervous. "There's probably a lot I'm not telling you."
"So give me the short list," Tony said. "Things relevant to me and my company."
There was a moment of silence, stretched thin between them in a way that wasn't entirely uncomfortable, and then Bruce pulled his glasses from his face, pinching the bridge of his nose. When he looked up again, there was something else written on his features: an apology, maybe, if Tony was better versed with that sort of thing.
"I think the investors are up to something," he said, slowly.
"Something other than using me to get the quickest payout," Tony replied. Another second of quiet, and Tony nodded, hoping it would be enough to inspire the other man to continue.
"You should know, I really was interested in coming here to work with you," Bruce told him.
Tony laughed. "Who wouldn't be? But that wasn't the only reason."
"That wasn't the only reason," Bruce agreed. He moved the spectacles between his hands, fingertips pausing over the joints. "You should know, you've been on their radar for awhile. You get a lot done - and I don't mean your company, I mean you. You're always on the front edge of the latest developments."
"I am the latest developments," Tony said.
Bruce shrugged. "I think they want to use you."
"And how do you know all this?"
"Because they wanted to use me, too," Bruce replied.
The fire behind Tony's back crackled; Tony pushed away from the railing, the back of his shirt clinging to the sweat that had accumulated beneath it. "So you're a spy?" Tony asked. "Come to steal the trade secrets and whisk them back to London?"
"No," Bruce said. "But that's not to say they didn't proposition me."
"And I'm just supposed to believe that you turned them down?"
The smile Bruce gave him was lopsided and hesitant, barely turned up at the edges. If possible, Bruce looked even smaller - shrunk in on himself, terribly self-aware. It made Tony wonder what image he projected to make the other man so concerned about the upcoming reaction.
"I was hoping maybe you'd be interested in a different sort of deal," Bruce said, sort of low and quiet.
One of Tony's eyebrows quirked upwards. "Such as?"
"Figuring out what they're up to," Bruce replied. "Whatever it is, they're using your company to do it; I don't think it's something they want to go around advertising."
"All in the name of science?"
Bruce laughed. It rumbled, sort of like the locomotive when it came around the bend. "And of taking out your major competitor. The investors are heavily involved with the shares of Baldwin Locomotive Works."
"Should I be concerned with what's going on across the pond?" Tony asked.
"I don't know," Bruce said, sobering.
Tony picked up one of the test trial cups: steel, heavily in-laid with iron, and a whirl of copper going through it like a conductor. "Rhodey would have known who they were affiliated with when he brought them here to talk to me."
"Maybe Rhodes doesn't know everything," Bruce said. "Or maybe he doesn't consider them a threat."
"But you do," Tony shot, raising his gaze to the other man again. "And you think I should trust you instead."
Instead of shrinking, Bruce straightened a bit. "Yes," he agreed. "In fact, I already think you do."
Tony grinned again. "I like you," he said. "You're quick."
"So, you're in?" Bruce asked. "To see what they're up to?"
"I've already sort of agreed, haven't I? After all, I am letting them do their test run."
Bruce smiled. There was something different about the way the expression slid over his face - he didn't look like Obadiah or Pepper, or even Rhodey. Bruce smiled slowly, bit by bit and inch by inch, looking like a man unused the expression. Tony noticed it, because it was a feeling he was intimately acquainted with. Bruce moved across the room to join him by the forge, looking over the notes on the compound that Tony had been scribbling down trial by trial the past week. After awhile, his gaze lifted, features open.
"It's late," he pointed out. "Shouldn't you be getting home?"
It was easier to turn around, to face the table and the tools strewn across the dented surface.
"There are things to do here," Tony replied.
"There are things to do at home, too," Bruce said, gently.
Tony thought of Pepper, of how she was probably sitting by the window with the maid. Maybe she'd be brushing her hair. He looked down at the grime that had settled into the dips and crevices of his palm, worn and weathered and hardened from working near hot metal for years. There was something distinctly wrong in thinking about touching Pepper's soft hair with those hands.
He sighed, low and deep, wishing that the feel of the oxygen in his lungs would dispel everything in his head. It never did.
"This is more important," Tony said, turning, and just in case it wasn't clear enough, added, "The company is as important as it gets."
Bruce's eyes saw too much, but at least the man knew to bite his tongue.
"Then, shall we try to widen the blastpipe?" he asked. It seemed the matter was effectively settled, and Tony was glad for it. He liked having Bruce in the factory - he liked having someone else he could talk to without having to explain every step in detail. He liked having someone around that was completely upfront with him.
He set the metal compound on the table between them, oddly proud. "Might as well," he said. "What have we got to lose?"
There was a long moment where Obadiah just studied him, eyes roving in the way that Obadiah always had; the way that still managed to make Tony feel like a child, like he was watching his father and uncle working in the factory or huddled over the expense reports. Then the man sat back in his chair, lacing his fingers across his lap.
"I'm impressed, Tony," Obadiah said. He sounded a bit surprised, which stung. It shouldn't, after all the years, but some things never changed. "I think having the test run with the investors was a wise call."
"You're just angry that I made a decision without you," Tony said.
"Tony, Tony," Obadiah laughed. "You know you can't make a decision without me."
Tony wanted to say something - anything, really, because he wasn't twenty and he wasn't a headstrong, naive teenager going out into the world for the first time. He didn't manage to get anything out past his swollen tongue. It was the way Obadiah always made him feel.
He didn't think Obadiah knew anything much about Bruce Banner, or that the man was working with Tony in the factory, and Tony thought he'd rather keep it that way. After all, a man needed at least one thing that someone else's hands weren't muddled up in.
Obadiah tapped his pen against his chin, looking thoughtful. "This really is a good choice."
"It's just a test run," Tony tried, and wasn't even sure why he was arguing. "It doesn't even necessarily mean we'll get the money."
"No, but it's a contact, and definitely a start," Obadiah said.
"We don't need the money," Tony replied, and then, annoyed, "I don't need the money."
There was a second where Obadiah ran his tongue along his bottom lip, eyes narrowed, and Tony felt distinctly on edge. "No," the man said, finally, slowly. "You don't."
"I think we should be focusing on other things," Tony said.
Tony spread his arms wide to either side. "Science. Advancements. Things I can make. We spend all this time working on networking and making contacts, and it's all for what - income? Revenue? That's shit and you know it as well as I do. We have to do something. We're better than this."
When Obadiah didn't say anything for the longest time, Tony sighed. He leaned forward, elbow propped on his knee. He was talking to a wall that wouldn't budge, and he'd known it since his father died. Howard Stark left behind a good name, a locomotive legacy, and a half-owner that felt he owned more than Tony did, despite the business contracts that said otherwise.
"Tony," Obadiah started.
"Nevermind," Tony said. "Why don't you handle the investors?"
"It's your deal," Obadiah told him.
Irritation spiked through Tony's blood, turning it hot like the experimental engine he'd rather be working over. "Didn't you just say I couldn't make a deal without you?"
Obadiah's expression was blank. "Just see it through, Tony."
Sometimes, it was like Howard Stark was still alive.
"Fine," Tony said, pushing himself up from the chair. He was itching to be somewhere, anywhere, else. "I assume you'll be around to nose your way into the factory later?"
"I have no doubts that you are busy coming up with something that will put us straight to the top of the industry."
As he made his way out of the office, ignoring the photograph on the wall of Howard and Obadiah standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of a Stark locomotive, he thought idly that they already were.
He didn't go back to the factory. He wanted to, because there were things to do and Bruce was probably finished drawing up the plans for the new firebox, but there was something else - guilt creeping up at the back of his throat. It was bitter, and drove him home instead.
The maid gave him a respectful bow when he entered; he didn't see Pepper until he got up to their room. It was strange to think of it as theirs. It wasn't - not really. It was hers, and it would always be hers, just like the factory was his. Tony felt like he was standing at the end of a long road and looking back over the years that hadn't happened yet. They stretched out forever in front of him, and even though he hadn't walked them yet, his feet knew the way. He knew where they would end up before they even started moving.
Pepper gave him a soft smile when he entered. "I didn't think you'd be home today."
Guilt again, hot and choking. "I'm sorry," Tony managed to get out. He was dirty and covered in oil and grease. It never came out of his clothes, no matter how hard Pepper had the help wash them.
"I know you're busy," Pepper said. "I know it's important."
It was the way she said it, like she was reciting a script. She didn't believe it any more than Tony did, and he wondered if it would be easier if they both stopped trying to live the lie.
Still, her hands pressed down against his shoulders and ran across the length of them, moving to the front of Tony's shirt to unbutton it.
"Are you tired?" Pepper asked.
"No," Tony said, even though that, too, was false.
For a moment, he was glad he'd said it, because Pepper's face broke into a smile. Coy and playful, like the kind he'd seen when they were growing up. Before the company had become Tony's life, before... everything. "Well," she purred, leaning in so that Tony could feel the warmth of her breath against his cheek, "I can think of a way to fix that."
Her mouth was sweet against his own, and she'd been drinking tea, because Tony could taste it on her lips. Pepper was everything kind and good, and she was far too good for him. Even when she was sighing beneath him, fingers pressing into his shoulder blades with tiny pinpricks of tension, even when he was burying himself in the heat she offered, in the sweat and the coils and the rhythm steady like a locomotive's wheels - he knew, in the pit of his stomach, that she was too good for him.
"Rhodey told me about the investors," Pepper said, as Tony was shrugging his trousers back on and wondering why, even then, he was too restless to stay. "It sounds like it went well."
"I guess it did," Tony replied.
Pepper's face was open, but not unhappy, when she stood and moved across the floor to where Tony was. "From that tone I take it that you... don't think it wholly did."
"I don't know what I think, Pep."
"Neither do I, since you never share things," she replied. It was the way she bit down on her bottom lip, the way she kept her shoulders square regardless; Pepper was the post in the storm that wouldn't get knocked down no matter how strong the squall, and Tony wasn't sure if he loved or hated that about her. "Feeling open today?"
Tony sucked in a long breath, and then exhaled. "Sometimes I don't feel like this is even my company."
"You mean, like it's someone else's?" Pepper asked. "Someone like Obadiah?"
"Yes," Tony said. "No."
She laughed. "You're a walking contradiction, Tony."
"Well, I've been called worse. Often to my face."
"What's going on?" Pepper asked, sobering. When Tony didn't answer right away, her mouth thinned into an almost-frown, and her palm brushed across his cheek. "Don't you dare deny it, you have that expression right now. Something is going on."
His head was throbbing from lack of sleep and compounded exertion, but Tony wanted to be anywhere but the house at that moment. He figured he'd head back to the factory. At least it got his hands busy, and usually when his fingers flew, his mind followed.
"You know, I'm probably just being paranoid," he said. He turned, giving Pepper the best smile he could manage and a chaste kiss on the mouth. "It's been a long week."
"Long because you don't come home," Pepper said, but didn't stop him from starting towards the door.
"I'll be home tonight," Tony promised.
He was glad that Pepper didn't mention he rarely kept those promises.
With much thanks to my beta Sapphy for going over this beast, and to ampersandy for running lines with me via email. <3
Obadiah didn't keep hours like Tony did. Tony told himself that it was only because he was so tired - two nights straight spent in the factory - that he ended up outside Obadiah's office door after the man had left, palms pressed flush against the wood.
Howard Stark had not left anything to Tony that was useful other than the company itself, but Tony wasn't a fool. He'd made a key a long time ago to Obadiah's office, during the darkest part of the night in the forge with the metal casting of the lock. Obadiah was shrewd and detail-oriented, and Tony had always known that the man would notice if someone came in through the window.
Tony had never before thought he had a real reason to use the key he'd made; just having it had made him feel more in-control. There were so few things that made him feel truly in-control.
Obadiah's office door squeaked once when Tony clicked the deadbolt open, and he gently pushed it open. The man filed like Howard Stark had - piles of things organized by Obadiah's own internal system, unlabeled, and done mostly by instinct and habit. Tony hated that he was the very same way.
He quickly went through a few piles of company paperwork - ledgers, pay stubs, and invoice notifications - before sitting at the edge of the desk chair and pulling open the drawers. The system within the desk was largely the same as the one for everything else; going through the piles netted little other than a deeper look at the inner-working details of Stark Industries.
Tony was about ready to leave, with nothing to show for it other than his own frustrations, when he found the carbon-copy of a cheque. It was the company bank book, from the company funds; Tony never balanced the company books - he didn't even look over them, that was Obadiah's department. Tony tugged the copy free to read who it was made out to.
Sharp, Stewart and Company. Glasglow, Scotland.
Confused, Tony sat back in Obadiah's chair. He knew the name: Sharp, Stewart and Company was a locomotive company. The 4-6-0 saddle tank engines were used all around Great Britain. But what Tony didn't know was why Obadiah - or, more specifically, Stark Industries - was making out checks to direct competitors in the British railway market.
There was no receipt with the copy, nor a stub. Tony put the carbon back in the drawer and closed it hard enough to rattle the stacks of paper and paperweights on the top of the desk. He took care to relock the door and then spent a long time in the workshop, sitting in the heavy stillness of the room, wondering what it all meant.
It took him another half-day to make the decision to go to Pepper. It wasn't that Tony didn't think she could handle it; the problem was that she could. Pepper thought through problems in lines and connections, breaking them down into pieces and putting them back together, re-arranged, into a solution. While Tony tackled everything head-on, all at once, obsessively narrowing his focus until it was the only thing he could see, Pepper saw all the ways that the jagged pieces touched the rest of the world.
Taking it to her meant letting her in. Letting her in meant more of the gnawing guilt that was bitter and dry at the back of his tongue, and Tony took a bottle of whiskey with him to try and stave off the familiar taste.
For a long time after Tony finished speaking, Pepper was silent.
"You think I'm crazy," Tony said, for her, taking a long swig of the whiskey and trying not to bite down on his nails until the beds bled.
"Tony," she replied.
"You think I'm seeing enemies where they don't exist," he continued. "And you know, you might be right. I don't know what I'm doing half the time, or why things are the way they are, but I do know one thing and it's my gut. I've trusted myself to judge situations as much as I could, and now I am, and you probably think I'm crazy. And maybe you'd be right."
Pepper looked at him, gaze focused on Tony's face and not the liquor in his hand. "Tony, stop," she said. "I don't think you're crazy."
"You know, I've never really cared about doing anything for anyone else," Tony mused.
"That's not true," she tried, and it lacked heart.
He didn't dare look at her in case his own transgressions against her were clouded over her expression. "I know this might be the worst thing for the company I've ever decided, but Pepper - God, this isn't right. Something isn't right here, and it's going to tear this place down brick by brick if I have to."
"I don't think you're wrong for wanting to know what's happening," she said.
Tony didn't answer right away, staring down into the translucent bottle, and Pepper crouched by the chair he was sitting in. The bottom of her dress dusted the floor when she walked - she wore it the way she wore everything: with her chin up and her shoulders square.
Tony looked away, towards the window, for something else to focus on.
"There's no reason he should be paying them," Tony whispered. "I checked the records - we haven't received any parts from them."
"It could have been an outstanding debt," Pepper suggested.
Tony laughed harshly. "You think Obadiah Stane owed money he'd never paid back?"
"No," Pepper replied. She pursed her lips, hand moving to cover Tony's wrist. Her touch was light, and it still stung. It took all of Tony's willpower not to immediately move away just to separate himself from it.
"Have you ever not been able to trust someone?" Tony asked, and swallowed another burning mouthful of whiskey.
"I trust you."
He shook his head. "You shouldn't."
"Anthony Stark," Pepper said, standing. She sounded stronger - more confident. More sure. Maybe it was having something definite to work towards; maybe it was something else, something Tony had always known and had assumed Pepper never had. "If you keep this self-pity going for another second, I'll smack that head of yours back into place."
"Pepper, all I have is self-pity-"
"And it's not attractive," she cut him off. "You have something happening here. Don't you want to know what it is? It's your company."
"It's Obadiah's company," Tony shouted, standing before he remembered getting himself back on his feet. He grips the bottleneck between his fingers so tight his knuckles start to whiten. "It's my father's company."
Pepper threw her arms out wide. "Why isn't it yours?"
When Tony didn't answer, she stared at him, hard, and continued, "It's not yours because you've never bothered to take it. And it's been laying at your feet for years."
"I don't want it!" Tony exclaimed, and as soon as the words left his lips he knew they were a lie. He wanted Stark Industries in a way so unlike anything he'd wanted before. And since they seemed to be laying their cards on the table, he took a giant swing of whiskey, wincing at the sting of it. "I don't - curse it, Pepper. This isn't how anything was supposed to turn out."
"Then I'll help you," Pepper said. "We'll fix it."
From the emotion that flashed across her face, Tony wasn't sure.
"We're not talking about us right now," she said, with finality.
"Aren't we always?" Tony asked.
Pepper reached forward and plucked the bottle from his hands. She took a drink from the top herself, coughing once as the liquid went down, and then she stared at him for a very long moment.
"When this is over," she said, quietly, voice very low, "we will talk about us."
"Pepper," Tony sighed.
"But right now, we need to focus on this and find out what's going on."
It was a subject change that Tony was all-too glad to latch onto. "I'm not crazy. There's something going on here that smells worse than Billingsgate on a hot day."
He got a wry smile for that, and Pepper took another swig of the whiskey before handing the bottle back to him with a grimace.
"I think you should talk to Col. Rhodes," she said. "He's the one that brought them here, after all. It stands to reason that he might know something."
"Why do you stay out here?"
"Existentially, or a location more specific?" Tony shot back, crouched beneath the engine they were working on improving, hands slick with grease and the remnants of hot flakes that had embedded themselves into his palms.
He could hear Bruce rather than see him; the sprawling bottom of the engine obstructed his view, but he could see Bruce's shoes in the slim space allotted between the floor and the combustion chamber. There was a pause, and then the dirt-coated soles walked a slow half-circle around the engine itself, and without needing to be asked, a smaller spanner appeared in the opening.
"Why do you stay here, rather than live in London?" Bruce clarified, as Tony took the proffered tool from his hands and tightened the bolts on the underside of the exhaust valves. "Your father built this place-"
"-to escape the confines of the city and have space to work," Tony sighed.
"But you don't have to remain holed up here," Bruce said. "People know who you are now. They expect things from you - fairly impressive things, if memory serves."
Tony pushed himself back out from under the engine. "You know, it's not often helpful being held to high standards by people you don't personally know."
"What about people you do know?" Bruce asked, and he didn't look up, which was maybe the only reason the question didn't feel invasive.
"That's even worse," Tony snorted, wiping his hands on his trousers, which did little for their overall state of cleanliness. "Definitions of meeting expectations differ wildly."
Bruce handed him another tool when Tony moved to the blastpipes, setting in smaller pieces un-welded on the dingy floor. "Is this coming from experience?"
"You're nosy today," Tony said. Getting his hands on the blastpipe gave him something to do other than think about the uncomfortable twinge that the conversation was creating just beneath his skin; the itch he could never scratch, the pinnacle he could never reach. "Do you often go poking your nose into hornet's nests, or am I just lucky?"
"I'm sorry," Bruce said, immediately, and Tony was pretty sure the man actually meant it, which was really something else. "I was just... curious."
Tony stared in at the pipes wider than two hand spans from little finger to thumb, chewing on his bottom lip for a moment. He could see himself reflected in the pipes - distorted, a bit, by the curve of the shell, and oddly bright.
"My father was a perfectionist," he said, against his better judgment. "This applied to every aspect of his life, including me, and I was the one thing that never lived up to expectations. He lived here to get away from it all and I live here because even after death, he's dictating my life decisions the way only he knew how to do."
When he stood, he risked a glance back at Bruce. The man's face was contorted into something awfully close to sympathy. "I'm sorry," Bruce said again. "I didn't... know."
"No, of course not," Tony snorted. "All people ever saw was Howard Stark - the man who changed the railways."
"And what was he really?" Bruce asked, quiet.
Tony's reflection in the pipes grimaced. "It doesn't matter."
He expected Bruce to chuckle - or at least pretend to lighten the mood that had settled heavily down around their shoulders - but the man seemed determined to ignore Tony's expectations. Bruce crouched down next to Tony, hands held loosely together between his knees. His neck turned up towards the blastpipe's radius and interior ramp, but Tony knew his eyes were flickering back to the side.
"Why did you come here?" Tony asked. "And don't feed me lines."
"You're the greatest innovator in the country," Bruce replied. The one corner of his mouth that Tony could see quirked up slightly, for a split second, looking apologetic. "I like innovation. And I like meeting people that inspire a lot of ... conversation."
"And are you disappointed, Dr. Banner?" Tony asked, rising to his feet.
Bruce stayed where he was, crouched low by the pipe, but his head turned up and to the side. There was a lot in his open gaze that struck far, far too close to home; Tony didn't know when all his defenses had been shattered. "No," Bruce said.
"You'd be the first, then."
"Maybe instead of trying to please other people, you should try to please yourself," Bruce told him.
When Tony looked at him with raised eyebrows, the man did laugh, self-consciously. "Old habits," Bruce said.
"My uncle would love you," Tony said, and wasn't sure why it sounded so damning. "Get in the head of the Stark heir for free and make him more malleable. You should give him a bill, you might really profit off this venture."
Bruce's hands roamed over the curve of the pipe. "Actually, I don't think he'd like me much at all."
There was something there - something real and tangible and hanging, waiting to be snatched up, only Tony couldn't get his mind to move towards it. He bit back everything he wanted to say because of Obadiah, because of Pepper and the trees outside their house, because of Howard Stark's voice omnipresent in his head saying, this is what men do, Tony.
He turned back to the engine, hoisted himself off the floor, wondering if his father's voice was ever going to stop ringing through his thoughts.
"I said something wrong," Bruce said, almost too quiet to pick up.
"No," Tony told him. He started taking the pressure valves off with more force than was necessary, enjoying the way the metal creaked and squeaked in protest as he wrenched the bolts away from the reinforced iron. "There's nothing about you that's wrong, Banner."
"But you seem to think there's something wrong about you."
With a prolonged groan, half of the pressure cabin fell away from the engine, startling Tony into taking a few steps backwards. With it came the giddy bubble of repressed responses, cloying in Tony's throat and threatening to choke him. It had been a long time since he'd felt his uncle's disapproval and disappointment lingering so close to the surface - usually, it was a dull ache, something that flared up in his temples when he didn't get enough sleep.
"Dr. Banner," Tony said, tossing the beaten parts to the ground, "there is absolutely nothing wrong with me."
There was a long moment of nothing, of Bruce running his tongue along his bottom lip, and then there was a knock on the door from the front office.
"Mr. Stark," the secretary said. "Col. Rhodes is here to see you."
"Do you know how long it takes to get out here, Stark?"
Tony stood by the door, watching the other man pace by the window. It seemed safer, for some reason, even though Rhodey being angry at him was something Tony might as well start putting in his diary.
"And when I get a telegram saying, Rhodey, come immediately, I think that something is wrong, Tony," he continued, running hand through the short strands of hair on his head. "I thought you were dead, Tony."
"If I were dead, I wouldn't have been able to send you a telegram," Tony pointed out.
Rhodey's face slackened and then hardened again, all in the same moment. "This isn't funny."
"Thinking about it is a little funny. A telegram from beyond the grave."
But Rhodey was annoyed and Tony was on a tight schedule, so he moved into the room with large steps and crossed his arms over his chest.
"What is this about, Stark?" Rhodey asked, sounding tired. "And don't you dare say you just needed a drinking buddy, because I will-"
"I need to know what you know about those investors you brought here the other day."
There was a long second of silence, pregnant and heavy. Rhodey's head tilted a bit to the side; Tony had obviously thrown him off-balance, and it was nice, in a way, knowing that Tony could still do that. He and Rhodey went back a long way - past Pepper, past Howard Stark's death, past everything.
"What do you mean," Rhodey said, in a way that was not at all a question, as he sat down in one of Tony's large, French armchairs that had been imported.
"It would seem that my new friends - and potential business partners - are allied with the Baldwin Locomotive company in America," Tony told him. The maid had left them cups for tea, and Tony ignored them, but poured a cup for Rhodey. "So, what I'd like to know is did you know this? And do they have any other allegiances that I should know about?"
When Rhodey didn't answer, Tony poured another cup of tea he had no intention of drinking, and added, "Say, to Sharp, Stewart and Company?"
"You think I brought men here deliberately to spy on Stark Industries?" Rhodey asked, sounding offended.
"I don't know what I think," Tony said, "except that this whole thing reeks."
Rhodey put a hand down into his hand, and then wearily wiped away invisible lines on his forehead. When he looked up again, his eyes were clearer. "You wouldn't bring me all the way out here unless you were sure about it."
"Pretty sure," Tony said. He thought for a moment, took a drink of the tea, and then grimaced. "Well, marginally sure. Have a good hunch. Following a gut reaction."
"It's not a great idea to do business practices based on gut reactions."
Tony sat opposite the man. "Rhodey, there's something going on."
"I didn't know about any of this, Stark," Rhodey sighed. "They approached me about the deal."
"Why would they bother going through you?" Tony asked, more to himself than to Rhodey.
"Because you're so self-involved you're difficult to talk to?" Rhodey supplied. "Because your penchant for holing yourself up in your factory is legendary? Because you live all the way out here and not in an accessible location like London?"
But Tony waved his hand in the air. "All that is great and all, but they could have gone through Obadiah. Business transactions generally start with him."
"Maybe..." Rhodey started, and then paused. His face was hard when his gaze met Tony's again. "Maybe they knew it would sound more trust-worthy coming through me."
And maybe Obadiah already was involved, Tony's brain supplied. He kept this thought to himself; accusations towards Obadiah needed to be kept close to home.
"Even if they are involved with your competitor, why go to all the trouble to giving you money and a deal if they already have everything they need?"
"That's what I'm trying to sort out," Tony said. He tilted his head to one side, ready to call for the staff. "Liquid genius?"
Rhodey rolled his eyes. "Stark, it's the middle of the day, and this is important," but he accepted a glass of it anyway once the butler arrived.