On the first day of kindergarten, the teacher didn't know how to pronounce his first name. "Twain? Toe-an? Toe-one?"
He sunk in his seat and hid his face in his arms. At recess he sat by himself and hid in the bushes. There were other children who looked like him, but they all looked like they know each other. He ate lunch by himself: rice and soy sauce his mom packed him in a box along with some meat. When the other kids in his class saw him, they called him names. Little Toe, Tiny Toe.
When his mom came to pick him up after school is over, he said, "Me, can we change my name please?"
"Huh? What? Why?" His mom frowned at him.
"No one can say it." He crossed his arms over his chest.
"Let's talk to Ba about it," she said.
After dinner, he sat on the couch and listened to his mom and dad talk about his name in the kitchen. Her voice was soft and soothing and his was hard and loud. He sounded like he was yelling, but he kept saying 'chi' and 'con.'
Finally, his dad entered the living room. He dropped a book of names on the space next to him. In his other hand he held his jacket. "I'm going to go nhau with some of my friends. Pick a name you want, and tomorrow me will get the paperwork in. Capiche?" The last word sounded thick and unnatural off his dad's tongue.
When he frowned, his dad smiled. "I got it from a movie," he said. "Now, pick a name. Do homework. Go to bed early. School tomorrow."
He spent the whole night looking at names. He finally settled for one that looks a little like his old name, but sounded completely different: Tony.
Tony's dad used to work in a bioengineering lab in a university, just like Tony's grandfather. The pay wasn't very good, even though Tony's dad was better than his grandfather and his grandfather had worked on a project during World War II. Tony's dad was always complaining about the people there who couldn't take simple directions. He yelled in something that was half-Vietnamese, half-English. His mom stood quietly in the kitchen and listened to him and then she said, "Then look for something new."
His dad took that one step further. He made something new: Stark Industries. Soon they moved into a new home on top of a hill and teachers started coming to the home to teach Tony.
At first, Tony saw his dad less and less. His mom said he was working; the smell that reeked from his dad's clothes said something else. When Tony turned eleven, his dad stopped leaving the house at night. Tony thought he would see him more. That they would get to play baseball in the front yard like all the other dads on TV.
Instead, his dad invited his friends over and they drank in the dining hall.
Tony had seen drinking on TV before: A bunch of pale-faced, young men in a bar, drinking beer, laughing loudly, sometimes with cards in their hands. The cards had two faces on them, one reversed, with little symbols in the corners. The men talked about women a lot.
Tony thought that was what his dad was doing, too. But sneaking in one night, watching his dad drink . . . The men were drinking, and they were holding cards. But the cards were thin and small, of different colors: red, green, white, and yellow. There were characters on the cards, but from his place by the door Tony couldn't see them. Each of the men were smoking, a cigarette hanging out one side of their lips. They were all his dad's age or even older and they were wearing suits. And inbetween their moves, they talked about Stark Industries.
His mom told him about it the next morning. "It's called Tuc Sac. You're too young to play it." She squeezed his little shoulder. "Go back to studying. Me will you when it's time to an com."
On TV, dinner was never like at home. Tony never saw families eating rice. He saw them eating steak and chicken and salad. At home he ate rice and soup and meat with soy sauce. Even breakfast was different: sometimes he ate com tam bi, or pho. His mom made iced milk coffee for his dad in a glass cup instead of a coffee mug. When his dad left early, his mom fried eggs and they ate them with baguettes.
"It's because baguettes and fried eggs remind him of being poor," his mom said, "and Ba only wants to be rich."
After they moved into the mansion, his mom discovered that it was too big for her to care for by herself. They put out an ad for a housekeeper.
His mom wanted a woman; his dad wanted a man. They interviewed people of many genders, and they finally settled on a pale-skinned man who had been in the Vietnam War and had become a professional boxer afterwards. He spoke perfect Vietnamese, but Tony only heard Jarvis speak it when he spoke to Tony's mom.
It was strange to hear Vietnamese coming from someone who didn't look like him. But Jarvis was nice. He drove Tony to school in the mornings and picked him up in the afternoons when his mom was preparing a feast.
Tony and his family didn't celebrate January 1 as New Years. They celebrated a different new year, called Tet. It confused Tony: everyone would be celebrating outside when the Times Square Ball dropped, but his parents would complain about the lack of news.
When Tony asked his dad, he scoffed and started yelling. "Americans don't know what a real New Years' is. They use it to drink and do tam bay tam ba!" Tony didn't exactly know what that meant, but his dad and his mom always yelled that when they saw people kissing on TV. "New Year's is supposed to a time of reflection! You're supposed to celebrate the good things, hope for something new, and honor your ancestors and your elders! None of this horrible junk! Do you understand?"
Tony nodded. "Da, Ba."
The weeks before the Lunar New Year, his mom would prepare a big feast by herself while Jarvis cleaned the pots and pans. They always did the celebration at Tony's house; his mom said it was because his dad was the first son of the first son, which meant he was special, because he was supposed to the most successful, which he was. She would make banh chang and buy lots of melon seeds, along with salty-sweet dried meat, taro cakes, and then, Tony's favorite: she would go to Chinatown and buy Chinese candy boxes. In these boxes were his favorite dried foods: dried candied ginger, dried candied coconut, dried candy carrot slices . . .
But the joy of food came at a price. Before the arrival of his relatives, his mom would sit him down in his bed and go through his relatives. She had created a scrapbook for this very lesson. Each relative had a picture and what he was supposed to call them. Each person had a different name, depending on their relation. Tony had seven different aunts on his dad's side, each with a different number. He had to remember which number they were. Then he had to memorize the aunts on his mom's side, which had a different completely different name. His grandmothers both had different names; one was ba noi and the other was ba ngoai, depending on if it was his mom's mother or his dad's mother. . .
Tony spent all night memorizing it. His mom quizzed him the next morning. Then she said, "Now you have to learn greetings for New Year. Remember, it is important you know this. It is a greeting. 'Chuc mung nam moi con chuc ba suc khoe, song lau, vui ve moi su may man den voi ba.' Repeat."
They spent an hour on it. Tony had no idea what it meant. His mom said he was going to wish this to every single one of his relatives. "You're telling them you want them to have a good year, and a good life, and that you hope they will be lucky."
Tony discovered that it was easier the second and third time around because once he said it, and once his relatives gave him a similar greeting (something about staying in school), they would give him a little red envelope with a pretty design on the front--li xi. And inside this little envelope was money. Some of them had fives, but lots of the time his richer relatives had put fifty or even one hundred dollar bills in them.
"It's not about money," his dad told him. "It's about warding off bad spirits and starting of a good year. The red here, it's lucky. OK?"
When Tony was old enough to think about it, he thought it was strange. No one on TV ever received red envelopes, but then again, no one on TV ever looked like him, either, except in his mom's old VHS tapes.
Tony studied a lot. It was the only thing he really knew how to do. His dad bought him toys sometimes, but mostly his dad bought him books. Every month his dad would come in and check on him. He would look at the all the progress reports, the tests he'd taken, and then he would turn to Tony and say, "Work harder. You're still stupid and don't know anything. Someday Ba is going to die, and you're going to have to take care of your mother and you can't do that with this knowledge. You can't just rely on luck."
His dad said those things a lot. "Someday I'm going to die and you're going to have to live on your own." "Someday Me is going to die and you'll have to fend for yourself." "Someday no one will take care of you except yourself."
Tony worked hard. He wanted to be smart. He wanted to hear it from his dad someday: that he wasn't stupid. On TV, he heard it differently. He heard parents say, "I'm proud of you."
He would like to hear that from his dad someday, too.
"Ba, who is Captain America?"
It was the wrong question to ask. His dad's eyes flared and he narrowed his eyes. "Captain America! Captain. America! That white-faced man has done nothing for our country! Did you know, your grandfather worked on parts of the Super Soldier Serum that turned that skinny white boy into a man? And what did your grandfather get? Nothing! He got kicked back to the university!"
Tony retreated back to his room with a quick apology. But he asked his mom, and she stroked his hair while she explained.
"Ba is just very sensitive about the past. As a child he heard about Captain America all the time, but he died before Ba met him. And Ong noi was very angry about being sent to university to teach again without even getting a mention in the history books."
"Da tu me cam on."
A week later, his mother left him a wrapped box on his bed. It was a metal replica of a Captain America shield.
"For my golden son. Love, Me."
After that, Tony started a collection of Captain America posters and paraphernalia. He hid them in the floorboards in his room and took them out at night.
He especially loved the shield. The star, the colors--Tony saw it and felt a catch in his throat.
Tony found out his dad was working on military contract for the government. "Building missiles!" he hears his dad yelling at his mom. "Can you believe it? How far I've sunk? But it pays so well. This summer we will definitely be able to go Vietnam."
His dad said that every year. This year we will go to Vietnam! But they never went. When the summer came, his dad wrote a lot of checks, one to each family that was still in Vietnam. "You didn't think it was only those seven aunts, did you? There are still family back in Vietnam! They don't want to leave..." His dad clenched his fist. "They think it's going to get better. Well, it doesn't!" He signed the check with a fluorish.
"Me, if Ba is so angry, why does he keep sending money to our relatives back in Vietnam?"
His mother stared at him. "Well, why not? Don't say such things. Of course we will support them in their decision to stay. Ba is not angry with them. He's just expressing concern. You know, family is the only thing that matters. Even if they sometimes do bad things, we still have to support them. At the end of the day, your family will be the only one who supports you."
Tony didn't understand. But he nodded quietly. On TV, he saw children yelling at their parents and their relatives, but he would never do that. He would never disagree with either of his parents.
When Tony turned thirteen, he applied to MIT.
He showed his dad the acceptance letter during breakfast. His dad patted him on the head. "Work hard," he said. "Remember you're going to take over the company."
Tony tried to smile, but his dad said nothing else. He just put his coat on and left to work at Stark Industries.
Tony's mom gently stroked his hair. "Con... don't cry. Ba is proud of you. He just never wants you to forget: You have to become a man in this world, and it isn't easy for people like us. You can't always rely on luck."
When Jarvis heard the news, he clapped Tony on the shoulder. "Good job, Master Tony."
"Thank you," Tony said, voice clipped. He went to his room and slept.
When he woke up, he found a plate of candied oranges on the bedside drawer with a note.
"For a job well done," Jarvis wrote. Tony crumpled it and threw it away, but later he asked Jarvis to watch a movie with him.
Jarvis wasn't his dad, and it didn't feel close, but it was something.
At MIT, everything was different. No one spoke Vietnamese--at least not where he could hear it. In his engineering classes, there seemed to be many people who were Vietnamese, but when he approached a student after class, hoping to make friends, he heard them start to speak in Chinese. Tony turned away in shame.
There wasn't any Vietnamese food, either. At first, it was a novelty. The dining halls had so much chicken and steak! But after a week Tony began to miss the smell of his mother's pho in the morning. He even missed the smell of alcohol coming from the dining hall.
His roommates weren't very nice, either. They seemed okay at first, but when they heard Tony speaking Vietnamese on the phone with his mom, they began to laugh. He pretended not to hear them as they whispered 'ching chong ling' behind his back; he spoke louder when they called him a 'chink.' Tony masked the lump in his throat as a cough.
"Con kho sau hong?" his mom asked. [Are you okay?]
"Da tu me con khong sau," he said. [I am fine, mother.]
His roommates laughed even louder.
Tony never called his parents when they were in the room after that. If his mom did call, he spoke to her in perfect English.
She figured it out, once. "When your dad was going to school," she said, "he did a lot of things to be accepted. He made fun of himself a lot."
His classes weren't much better. Everything was easy, and it showed in his work. "It's because he's Asian," he would hear people whisper. "They're too smart. What's the point of trying anyway with people like him around?" He heard other Asian classmates suffer the same fate, but when he tried to approach someone about it, they shrugged their shoulders. They were used to it.
Tony didn't like MIT. But when his dad called, he said, "I'm working very hard. I'm getting good grades."
"Good," his dad would say. "Talk to your mother. She'll tell me what's going on."
"Ba just busy on another military contract," she said. "He's expanding the industry, making it bigger... This year he wants to launch something called an 'Expo' so that he can get young people to work for him."
"Can I come this year?" Tony asked.
"I'll talk to Ba about it," she said, "but you should focus on school."
Tony sought out the Vietnamese Student Association on campus. He hung outside the meeting room and listened to the laughter and the voices.
But when he opened the door, he felt blinded by all the eager, smiling faces. Claustrophobia set in.
Tony closed the door and hurried back to his room to study. Interacting with people who seemed so comfortable with themselves, with the place they were in--Tony couldn't fathom an idea of home that wasn't the mansion.
Tony called home the moment he heard it happen. "Me, Ba, I heard what happened--"
"Don't worry," his mom said. "Me and Ba were at Uncle's house. We were very far away when it happened. Con, don't worry and keep studying. Sorrow always happen in the world, but you must move on."
Tony watched the news as the world changed around him, but at the end of the day, his parents were still the same.
His second year at MIT, Tony learned how to fit in. It helped that he grew a whole foot, so now he was five foot eleven. He was still lanky and small and his knees and body hurt, but he was tall; other people in his class didn't look at him like he didn't belong anymore. Girls looked at him differently, too, but they looked at him differently than how they looked at his roommates, both of whom had blond hair and blue eyes and pale, pale skin. The way the girls looked at him--it still had that . . . strangeness to it. Like there was something about his almond-shaped eyes and light brown skin that made him . . . different. But not in a bad way. In a good way.
But it didn't matter. It only mattered that people started noticing that he was a person, and not just a fifteen-year-old boy with slanted eyes in a school filled with older people. If that was the price he had to pay, he would deal with it.
Tony learned to drink, too. He didn't drink anyone under the table--it was just one or two drinks a party. But that feeling of fitting in, of feeling a little bit like his dad, sitting around the table, was more than Tony had ever felt from just talking to his dad.
There were other ways in which Tony learned to fit in. He stopped talking about Tet. When people did mention it, he said he didn't celebrate it. When it came around, he decided not to go home. His mom sighed and his dad yelled, but he wouldn't have it. Finally, his mom collected the money for him the next time he came home. When people made jokes about Asians, Tony laughed. When they asked him what he ate at home, he said, "Steak and chicken. And corn sometimes. My mom makes good mashed potatoes." When asked to speak Vietnamese, Tony said, "I don't know any."
When his classmates found out he was just like them, just with a different eye-shape, they seemed to relax. They seemed more willing to talk to him, to invite him to parties.
Tony didn't complain. It wasn't easy for people like him, and he knew he had to work hard.
Tony enjoyed one thing at MIT: creating. After he took his first mechanical design class, he went to the labs all the time. He made everything: small computers, test cell phones, a small television. He wanted to show his dad, but when he asked his mom, she said that he was reviewing files from the Stark Expo. "Mine are better," Tony said.
"Focus on your studies," his mother pleaded, and he never mentioned them again.
But he still worked on his designs, quietly, and drank and partied with his school friends.
Only one person he met at MIT really stuck with him. His name was James Rhodes, but people called him Rhodey. He was young, too, like Tony, just a couple years older. He didn't like to drink or party, and he studied a lot, just like Tony did. "I had to work twice as hard as everyone here," Rhodey said. "They're lucky being born as they are in a world that supports them. I have to work twice as hard."
They had few classes together, but when they did, Tony enjoyed his company. Rhodey understood him, even if he didn't know how to have fun.
Tony went home his third year for Tet. Everyone commented on how tall and handsome he had grown, how he would soon be eligible for marriage. They asked if he had a girlfriend yet, did he plan on getting married?
The words hurt him, a little. He hadn't thought about any of those things. He just wanted to make his dad proud.
But his dad wasn't at the mansion. He was working.
For a brief moment, Tony had forgotten that for the rest of the world, it wasn't Tet. It was just another day.
His grandfather on his mom's side died. Tony went home for the funeral. Everyone was angry; they wanted to bring ong ngoai back to Vietnam for the funeral, but the oldest son had the right and Tony's dad would not go to Vietnam.
Everyone wore white headbands. Some were differently tied than the other; his mother explained that it depended on how someone was related to ong ngoai. All his children wore it so the white headband trailed down the back.
Tony didn't remember it very well. Mostly he remembered watching his dad's stiff back, the way he walked to the hole in the ground and dropped the dirt in. Then, his next oldest uncle did the same, and the next, until it was Tony's turn. He didn't remember anyone crying.
Afterwards, they ate at the mansion. There was an altar set up in the house of his ong noi, complete with food and water and flowers. "For ong ngoai's spirit," his mom said. "We will do this every year for your ong ngoai, on this day."
Tony mentioned it to his MIT friends. They thought it was a little strange, and maybe even a bit morbid. He thought about seeking out the Vietnamese Student Association and banished it from his mind. Tony could stick it out alone. He knew the truth: Just because someone died didn't mean they had left you. It was just their body that had left.
Tony graduated from MIT. His parents, relatives, and even Jarvis came to see him: the whole flock of them took two rows. They were quiet and esteemed in their suits. Tony's dad was a silent, looming figure next to his mother, so small and tiny, and when he met them in the crowd his dad shook his hand and said, "You have worked hard, but remember that you will have to work harder to support the family."
When Tony went home to the mansion, he felt his eyes sting. He stood by his bedside drawer, clenching his fists.
The door creaked open behind him and his mother touched his shoulders. She didn't look at his face. "Con, you have to realize . . . Ba worked very hard for this life. Ba just wants you to realize that there won't be anyone to say they're proud of you."
Tony grinded his teeth together.
"But I am very proud of you," his mom said.
He didn't say anything.
"I love you," she said, very quietly, and her English was a little broken.
Tony closed his eyes. His face felt wet. "Cam on, Me," he said.
His dad invited him to work for Stark Industries, but Tony said no. He said, "I want to see what the world is like before I begin working."
"'What the world is like'?" His dad sat there and stared at him. "What the world is like?!"
"Yes," Tony said. "I want to know what the world is like."
"The world," his dad said, and his voice burned. "This country is not the world! Con, you're still young, you don't know anything, and you're not going to go see the world when you step onto the streets."
Tony pursed his lips.
"That world out there . . . it's an easy life. You see our relatives, still in Vietnam? They don't want to leave, but it's still a Communist country . . . they barely have anything over there, even with the money I send them. Why do you think I came here? To have an easy life! To make something so that I can go back and show my face there someday!"
His dad pounded his fist on the table. "Don't call me that! You think you're a man? You think you're my son? You think you can just throw away all the work I've put in, to give you this life, so that you can trade it for--for what? For tam bay tam ba!? Fine! Have it your way! Get out! Get out of my house!"
Even though his dad threw him out, his mom still wired him money to his own bank account, the one his dad had set up for him on his eighteenth birthday. She called him sometimes, in the middle of the day: "He misses you. He doesn't say it, but he does." But she told him not to call at night, when he was home.
Tony went out and partied with his old college friends. They, too, were trying to live the good life before responsibility got in the way. It was fun. Tony learned to drink like his friends, and even better than his friends. They laughed when he turned pink but they stopped when they saw how much he could drink.
But he never blacked out. He wasn't that bad. He had seen his dad drink far more than he did.
He still created things. Tony made himself a dog. His parents had never wanted to take care of one--too much hassle, his mom said. So he made himself a small, mechanical dog, complete with a voice box and a motion sensor. Tony called it Hue--"Lily."
Both his parents died in a car crash. It was winter when it happened, and it was raining. The car had skidded on the pavement.
Tony went home for the funeral again. Jarvis picked him up from the airport. He didn't say anything as he drove Tony home.
The funeral was different than when his grandfather had died. Everyone was crying. No one was weeping, but there were all tears. Tony's face was dry as he put the dirt on top of each of his parent's graves. When Jarvis took him to the mansion for the meal afterwards, Tony went straight to his room. He ignored the his uncle's rage and anger--ignored how they called him disrespectful. He didn't care.
Jarvis brought him a plate of food that his uncle's wife had cooked. He left it by the bed. "Call for me if you need anything, Master Tony," he said.
Tony didn't. He didn't need anything but a time machine. If he could go back in time and stay at home, he could have prevented their death.
If he had been a better son, they would still be alive.
When the family lawyer called Tony, he said, "Your father left you everything. I'll send you the will for more specifics, but basically you're the sole inheritor of a very large fortune. Good luck, Anthony."
The lawyer sent him two copies: a hand-written one and an official, typed one. Tony read the second one first, then checked the first one.
Tony understood it: it was very clear-cut. But the last sentence was a joke.
"Please take care, my esteemed son. You have made me proud. Love, H. Stark."
The date signed was after his dad had kicked him out.
It was a joke, Tony thought.
If he'd been really proud, he would have called Tony back.
Jarvis found a mechanical dog next to the trash can when he was emptying the bins. He asked Tony about it, but Tony waved him away.
"It's junk, now," Tony said, without taking a second look. "There are more important things to look at."
When Tony combed through the house, he found something his mother left him: a quilt. It was a thin quilt, made of silk. Each square was unique in its own way, sewed with precision and care. The "top" of the quilt depicted people in fields, sometimes in buildings, but all raggedly clothed. There was one square with a silhouetted of America on it; the next depicted a man and a woman standing on a boat. The very last quilt depicted a small, tiny baby, with Tony's Vietnamese name printed across the top.
Tony had the quilt framed and put into his office. When people commented on it, he said, "Thank you," and moved on.
Tony wasn't very good at business. He didn't understand human relations. Watching his dad at the Stark Expo was like watching a different species of person; his dad was loud and charismatic--he made funny jokes about technology and smiled a lot. Tony had to stop watching them sometimes. His dad had never smiled at him like that as a child.
But Tony did know how to make technology. He scrapped most of his dad's designs and placed betters ones in their place. Most of the staff he kept, but he looked through the Stark Expo logs and hired new people. The ones Tony did fire, he gave them a one-year unemployment plan and told them to come back if they couldn't find a new job. They all did.
Tony hired a new secretary, too. Her name was Pepper Potts. During an interview, he had had to look at something on the projector, and Pepper had pointed out an accounting mistake. Tony hired her on the spot.
He thought it would be easy after he got settled, but of course it didn't. He learned that his dad's shoes were hard to fill, that the names didn't stop even though he was out of college. When he read the newspaper, he saw his success being attributed to being Asian, and not to his skill. Tony stopped reading the newspaper unless the Human Relations department forwarded him articles.
And even worse, Tony kept hearing that he was somehow better than his dad--that his designs were better, that Tony was smarter. He wanted to yell and break things, but the Public Relations department said it was a good thing. "It means they'll be more likely to invest in you," the head of PR said. "Don't worry, Mr. Stark."
"I'm Tony," he said. "Mr. Stark is my father."
The head of PR sighed and nodded. "Yes, Tony. Now, don't worry, it's a good thing."
But it wasn't a good thing. Tony could never be better than his dad. The son could not outdo the father--not until the father decided, and his dad was dead, now, and Tony would have to content himself with always living in his father's shadow.
But the dead don't leave you, and if it was his father, then that was fine.
Tony still mourned his parents' death every year, but he did it with big events. He created the Maria Stark Foundation to create scholarships for other Asian-Americans; he funded schools in poorer districts inh is father's name.
His extended family left angry voicemails: Why did he waste his money? Didn't he know that it was time for the wake? Did he know how disrespected his parents must feel?
Tony didn't go. He knew it was disrespectful. But Jarvis kept the altar up at home. He replaced the fruits and the bowls of rice. Tony knew that Jarvis spoke to his parents, sometimes. He heard Jarvis speaking to the altar at night when he thought Tony was sleeping in his room. He told his parents how successful Tony was.
Tony knew the proper way to mourn, but he just couldn't face them. He just needed to be alone.
The only family Tony saw often was Morgan, his cousin. He came by the company asking for money all the time, and Tony never turned him down, even though he yelled and raved before he signed the check.
"Why do you always indulge him?" Pepper asked. "He's just using you."
"Because he's family," Tony said. "And I would never turn family down."
Tony really missed rice. He had Pepper get take-out from a restaurant in Brooklyn sometimes, but the banh mi wasn't the same as the one his mom made at home. And pho wasn't good if it wasn't ready from the pot.
Tony just started foregoing Vietnamese food all together. Hamburgers, and the food that Jarvis cooked at home, would suffice, but it still didn't stop the smell of his mother's pho rising to the surface of his memory when he looked at the quilt on the wall.
When the military asked Tony to oversee a weapons drop in Afghanistan, Tony didn't think twice. He'd been saying "yes" to everything lately; what was one more thing on the list? He had thrown himself completely into improving and bettering his father's work, and if that meant personally seeing military shipments, then that was fine.
"Be careful," Pepper said, when she saw him leaving.
"I'm always careful," Tony said. He turned his practiced smile on her and she smiled back at him.
Tony could be careful, but there were people who did not want to be careful with him. So when he felt the shrapnel pierce his chest, Tony apologized to Pepper and hoped that it would reach her, someway somehow.
Tony dated a lot. He talked to women at business parties and invited them over for "business"--or at least that was what they called. But Tony had no room in his heart for women, especially not someone who wasn't his mom. Touching, carnal desire--Tony could handle that. But when women wanted to meet him a third or fourth time, Tony started to feel anxious.
"It was fun," Tony said, "but I have to take care of the company. If we can, I think we should keep it strictly business."
Tony didn't really know what to say when they yelled at him. He apologized a few times, and then he hung up and never heard from them again.
"Chao, wake up. No time for sleep. We have work to do."
The man's name was Ho Yinsen. Tony had met him once before at a convention. Ho Yinsen had stood up during the middle of Tony's speech about the new weapons he'd been developing to ask him if he knew what his weapons were being used for. The security guards had thrown Ho Yinsen out, but when he was alone Tony admitted to himself that he did not know what his weapons were being used for. But the next contract, the next design, passed over his desk and Tony forgot about it. It didn't matter. He was doing what his dad did, and there was nothing wrong with that.
"You're going to die soon. There's shrapnel in there." Ho Yinsen tapped the area just above the bandages. "You're lucky I know what I'm doing. But we have to build something better, so you can live long enough to survive."
Tony sketched some of his dad's old arc reactor designs. His dad had never done anything with them, and consequently Tony never had either, but with adrenaline and shrapnel running through his veins Tony thought that maybe this arc reactor could save his life.
"[Do you know how to speak Vietnamese?]" Ho Yinsen asked.
"Da, ong," Tony said. The words were awkward, but Ho Yinsen smiled.
"Oh, good," Ho Yinsen said. "Then you have not completely lost everything."
While they worked, Ho Yinsen told him the stories of Vietnam. "It is still bad there," he said. "Lots of poverty."
"I try sending my relatives money," Tony said. "But only some of it reaches them."
"Someday, you might be able to change that," Ho Yinsen said. He lifted the mask they had been creating. "Looks like a giant, grey monster."
"I feel like that, sometimes," Tony said. "A giant, grey monster."
"Well, it is a hard world," Yinsen said. "For people like us, sometimes we do bad things to get what we want in the end."
Before Tony opened the barricade blocking them into the cave, Ho Yinsen said, "If you were my son, I would be proud of you."
Tony thought that when they escaped, he would bring Ho Yinsen to Stark Industries, and they would make great things together. He thought that he could introduce Ho Yinsen to the family.
But Ho Yinsen died, and Tony felt more than just shrapnel pierce his heart.
When Rhodey picked Tony up from the desert, Tony asked him for the date. He marked it in his mind, for next year, so he could mourn Ho Yinsen just as he mourned his mom and dad.
An itch formed at the back of Tony's mind until finally one night he woke up in the middle of the night and jumped out of bed. Using the moonlight pouring through the windows, Tony found and pried open the floorboards. The Captain America shield twinkled like a star, but when he pulled it out, Tony found his heart didn't beat the same way anymore as when he had been a child.
No more childhood hopes. No more dreams.
Tony sighed and placed the shield back under the floorboards.
Tony tried to open restoration projects in Vietnam, but he ran into too many roadblocks. The government wouldn't let him do it independently; they wanted full control, of course, and they demanded much more money than they actually needed. Tony eventually gave up. He couldn't fix it now, but he would someday.
For now, he focused on his Iron Man project. Ho Yinsen had bequeathed it upon Tony in his death; it was the least Tony could do to continue it. He quickly scrapped the grey giant for a golden one, but after one or two test trials he felt it wasn't streamlined enough.
Still, he didn't have a chance to build a new one. A new threat appeared: a giant green monster called the "Hulk." Tony had faced it once with little success, but this time he had allies of a sorts: a small couple, Janet van Dyne and Hank Pym, and a god (a god!) named Thor.
The villain was really another god (a god! magic! Tony knew about luck but magic! Real magic!) named Loki. The plan Hank devised was so ridiculous and flawed, but somehow--somehow it worked.
"This whole thing has given me an idea," Janet van Dyne said. And then she proposed it: The Avengers.
Tony went to "consult" with his employer. He didn't really know what to think about it. He didn't want to be part of a team. Teams weren't always loyal. Tony would call the employees on his Stark Industries team 'loyal,' but they weren't family. Only family would stick by you.
But it had been so long since Tony had done something for himself.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Tony painted the new armor gold and red. Gold for prosperity and wealth; red for luck and bravery.
Tony knew he wasn't brave. But he hoped to be, someday.
When he wasn't fighting with the Avengers, Tony worked in the labs. He was constantly looking at his dad and his grandfather's old plans, constantly recreating, redoing--making better what they had already done well. He'd stopped building most weapons for the military--now it was only civilian rescue tech and other conveniences. His dad and grandfather rarely ever had any real blueprints for those types of technology, anyway.
The TVs and banners outside called it the Legacy of Anthony Stark; Tony preferred the Stark Legacy. Even when he was parading and posturing that this was his legacy, he knew that it was his father's. He was just carrying it on. If he could create technology in a garage with no one watching him, he would have taken that instead.
But family was family, and dead was never really dead. Tony collected his blessings--the company, Morgan, his extended family, the Tuc Sac cards he kept in his desk, the quilt on the wall, Pepper, Happy, Jarvis. The Avengers, even.
It wasn't the life he'd always wanted, but he could make it as comfortable as he could--and maybe, just maybe, he could change the world while he was at it.