This lovely cover art was drawn by Midnighta.
To see the image in its full-sized glory, click here.
Please leave Midnighta a comment at the link telling her how awesome her work is!
"Good morning, Tony."
The soft, mechanical voice of Tony Stark's alarm was followed by a series of even more mechanical beeps. Barely audible and yet loud enough to wake him. Nonetheless, Tony woke up slowly, limbs sluggish and eyes encrusted with sleep. He didn't want to get up. He wanted to lay there all day in a bed that was too big and not have to think about the world outside the walls of his Park Avenue penthouse. His Park Avenue penthouse for one.
Feet on the floor, Stark, he told himself. As the bottom of his toes met plush rug he gave himself a little mental congratulations for a job well done. Shuffle over yards upon yards of space to the bathroom. Brush your teeth. Take a shower. Trim your beard. Don't think, don't feel, don't do anything until you get your first cup of coffee and your mind can start running a million miles in a million directions and everything will be okay.
Tony stepped out of his bathroom and into his cold, empty bedroom.
"Good morning, Master Stark," Jarvis didn't say, a tray and silver slip of a cup balanced in one hand. Because Jarvis wasn't there, not anymore.
Don't think. Don't feel.
Tony dressed and traced a meandering path to the kitchen, where his shoe-clad footsteps on stone tile echoed through the hollow space around him. His hands fumbled at the coffee machine, but he had never actually tried to use it before, and he wasn't sure where the beans were kept. He would have to build a coffee machine of his own design one of these days, one that would automate the daily process to have a cup ready for him as soon as he stepped into the kitchen. What was that old joke? Forever: the amount of time it takes to brew that first pot of coffee in the morning. After a systematic, yet fruitless, search of half his cupboards, Tony's intercom buzzed to life.
"It's your driver, sir," said a voice, crisp and clear even over the static. "The company sent me to take you to work."
Salvation in the form of a sleek black town car. Tony wrapped a wool coat around himself and made his way outside, where he found a generically-featured man in a pressed black suit waiting for him. The man wasn't someone Tony had made the acquaintance of before, but that hardly mattered.
"Coffee," Tony murmured, as the man opened the door for him. "Never mind the honey and the mead, coffee is truly nectar of the gods."
"Whatever you say, sir. I know a great place on the way."
Tony didn't particularly care about going to a great place. He would take Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks or any other place that served the fragrant brown brew in thin paper cups. But the fact that the shop was on the way hopefully meant they would be there soon, so Tony closed his eyes, sunk into the leather seat, and just tried to keep his head empty. When the car stopped he opened his eyes again and waited for his driver to open the door.
"Did you know," Tony said, sliding out onto the pavement, "that this will be the 27,567th cup of coffee I've had in my life?"
"It's amazing that you can recall that, sir."
"Oh, I can recall most anything. Just one benefit of having a rather spectacular mind. And please, for the love of God, drop the 'sir.'"
"Of course, sir."
Tony didn't even bother with the sigh that would have been perfect in this situation. Instead he took a passing glance at the posters that covered the bottom half of the coffee shop's glass window and stepped inside.
Brick walls that were obviously part of the original building and showed their age. Red-cushioned booth seating running along a wall, accompanied by small chocolate-colored tables and mismatched chairs. A dark, unfinished cement floor. Tony stepped up to the counter and took in some of the postcards and flyers that sat in neat piles on one side of it: advertisements for a poetry reading, lesbian night at a gay club, a local band playing at some bar Saturday night. The whole coffee shop was. . . typical.
But then so was the smell that saturated the small space. The smell of heaven, Tony thought, closing his eyes as he took a deep, consuming breath. If only there was someone around to serve him.
"Hello?" he called out. "Is anyone there?"
The first thing Tony noticed when the door to the back opened was a lovely, well-formed ass as a woman made her way through the door backwards. Then she turned, and he noticed tits. And that was really all he had to see, except that he happened to glance upward and take in a face that was just as attractive as the body, if a bit overly pierced, especially since the woman seemed to be in her mid- to late- thirties.
"Why, hello," Tony said, lips pulling into a slow smile. "And what might your name be, my dear?"
"What do you want?" the woman asked. Her expression didn't even change, lips pressed thin and eyes bored.
Well, you couldn't win them all, Tony thought, smart enough to know defeat when he faced it. Although he could always hold out hope. "My name's Tony, in case you were wondering."
"I wasn't." The woman brushed long brown hair behind her ear, enough to show a streak of purple than ran through her lower layers. "And I know. Tony Stark, third richest man in the world, and a symbol of everything that's wrong with corporate America. How many rebel groups have you funded with the minerals you need to manufacture your electronics, Mr. Stark? Is it easy to sleep at night when every cell phone you make could be responsible for another rape in Congo?"
"I'm just supplying demand," Tony replied. It was too early in the morning for this. "Perhaps you can take it up with the consumers who buy new electronics, so often without a thought to where the materials they’re made of them come from. But, for now, could I please get a cup of coffee?"
The woman's lips drew into a thin, straight line as her eyes narrowed. There was a long heavy moment before her features relaxed. "Fine. One coffee."
"Just one coffee," Tony said, happy that he wouldn't have to navigate through the fancier drinks on the menu hanging on the wall. Lattes and macchiatos and whatever else. "Black. In the largest size you have."
"Twenty dollars. And it's to go."
"Fine." Tony was half-expecting that, anyway. And at this point he would have paid vastly more for some caffeine.
As the woman walked over to the coffee machines the door to the back opened once again. This time it was an attractive person of the male persuasion, and Tony was never one to discriminate based on something so trivial as gender. Plus he always did have a penchant for redheads. He watched the man, with his skinny black pants and button-up shirt, sleeves rolled elbow high, for just a moment before their eyes met.
"Why, hello," Tony said, smiling and leaning forward. He was about to ask if the coffee shop had a policy of only hiring good-looking workers when the man opened his mouth.
"I'm fifteen," he said.
"Nevermind." And with that Tony turned his head away and waited for his coffee. He was only vaguely aware as the ma- boy kissed the woman on the cheek, mumbled a 'Bye, Jane,' and rushed out the door. Really, Tony thought, what were they feeding kids these days? The boy had looked at least college age.
Finished, Jane glared as she handed Tony his coffee. Tony smiled as he took the cup and pressed it to his lips, relishing the heat and the aroma and, finally, the taste. And damned if this cup of coffee wasn't one of the top ten he had ever had in his life. The eighth best cup, his now firing brain helpfully supplied. Right between cup #11,270, a milky concoction in a small jungle town along the Mekong Delta, and cup #13,401, an espresso at a Mediterranean restaurant Gregory had once owned. And there was something familiar about it, something with hints of cup #1, the first cup he had ever had and the one ranked most highly on his list.
"It tastes a bit like the coffee Jarvis used to make." Tony's tone was soft and open, more than he had meant or expected, and it shocked him a little bit before he recovered. He turned to Jane and smiled. "Yes, well, at least your coffee is lovely, even if the customer service leaves something to be desired. I'll have to come back more often."
Jane looked at him somewhat blankly before she shrugged. "It's your twenty dollars."
Tony walked out as all his synapses started to fire. His mind started to run in different directions, developing the coffee machine he would have to invent one of these days, thinking about the schematics for the government contract he was on, scheming ways to manipulate the board into doing whatever it was he wanted them to do. There were a million things he could distract himself with and now he was actually capable of doing so, all thanks to glorious, glorious coffee.
"How's number 27,567 treating you, boss?" the driver asked, as he opened the door for Tony.
"Oh, marvelously," Tony replied. "You, my new friend, will receive a well-earned raise for the recommendation."
The rest of the day kept Tony as busy as ever. Pepper stayed on top of him as he was led from meeting to meeting. Everything was something of a blur, which was exactly how Tony liked his life. The work-induced blur eventually bled into an alcohol-induced one as meetings gave way to social functions, and he soon had some b-list starlet on his arm and a glass of champagne in his hand. The next thing he knew he was waking up as his clock flashed six o'clock in the morning.
Too early. It was too early. Tony clenched his eyes shut and tried to go back to sleep, but it was impossible. So he got up. Brushed his teeth. Took a shower. Made his way to the kitchen, where he emptied the contents of his pantries in a futile search for coffee beans. And afterward he just sat among the mess, head in his hands and mind blank. He listened to the ticking of the kitchen's analog clock, each second seemingly longer than the last, well aware that the hour hand hadn't yet passed seven.
Maybe the coffee shop was open.
Tony went outside and hailed a taxi, giving the driver the intersection that he remembered from the day before. Before he knew it he was standing outside the storefront and looking into a dark, mostly empty space, chairs still stacked on top of the tables. Just his luck. Really, though, the shop should be open by now in order to take advantage of the early morning rush. This was Manhattan; it just wasn't good business sense to be closed. Tony loitered outside for awhile as he decided what to do. Maybe he should just wait? The shop would be open in less than half an hour and it wasn't terribly cold outside. He could wait half an hour.
Five minutes later, Tony wondered if he should just find a Starbucks. Generic-tasting or not, it was still coffee, with honest-to-God caffeine in it. He was just about to leave when he caught sight of movement inside the shop. The red-headed kid from before. The boy was wearing the same outfit as the other day; perhaps it was a uniform.
Tony started to knock on the glass door, knocks that grew louder as the redhead continued to ignore them, until the door was practically shaking in its frame. Eventually the redhead stomped over and opened it.
"7:30," he said, finger jabbing at the white print on the glass door. "We open at 7:30. And I'm pretty sure, given that fancy watch on your wrist, that you know it's not 7:30 yet."
"Take pity on a poor, caffeine deprived soul." Tony put on his best puppy-dog face, never mind the fact that it hadn't worked on anyone since he was about fourteen. If that didn't work, maybe he could throw some money around.
The redhead rolled his eyes but opened the door.
"You, good sir," Tony said, "give me hope for the future generation."
"Uh huh. What do you want?"
"A large cup of your coffee would be divine." Tony watched as the redhead pulled down a chair on the way to the counter and took that as his cue to take a seat. "So do you have a name, or should I just keep calling you 'the redhead' in my mind?"
"Modi," the boy said. "My name's Modi."
"A pleasure to meet you. I'm Tony."
Modi barely looked up from machines he was now working. "I know."
"How unfortunate," Tony said with a frown. "I don't suppose you'll be lecturing me on corporate evil as well?"
"It's none of my business," Modi said with a shrug.
Good kid, Tony thought. Much better than one seemingly raised by a hippie would usually turn out. Luckily for Tony, Jane was nowhere in sight today, so he could enjoy his coffee without the guilt she would no doubt attempt to elicit from him. He was just congratulating himself on his good luck when Modi approached his table, a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate with a sandwich on it in the other.
"And what did I do to deserve this bit of good will?" Tony asked.
Modi shrugged. "It's leftover from yesterday. We would have had to throw it away anyway."
"Of course." Well, it's not as though Tony had anything against eating something that was only a day old. He had eaten worse, caught up at work and too lazy to look for real food. So he dug in after taking a long, glorious sip of his coffee, surprised at just how good it tasted. "This is delicious. Let me guess: organic, free-range chicken, locally grown vegetables, and homemade dressing."
"Got it in one," Modi replied, more a mumble than an actual sentence. "That's just the kind of place this is."
That much had become obvious enough. Tony contented himself with drinking his coffee and eating his sandwich, letting his mind open up in the way it did every morning after he had his first cup. Modi turned on the music, Johnny Cash playing through the speakers, and Tony supposed that was the kind of retro-hip thing a place like this would play. He wasn't going to complain.
"So, do you live here, Modi?" An attempt to make conversation and build a relationship with his new coffee purveyors wouldn't hurt. Especially if they were open to giving him stale, day-old sandwiches; generosity at its finest.
Modi didn't look up from. . . well, whatever it was he was doing, behind the counters and the display cases. "Yeah. In the apartment upstairs."
A convenient arrangement that Tony had already guessed at. "With your mother?"
A complicated family life. Tony could respect that, and it hadn't gone without notice that Modi was being somewhat terse with his answers. Perhaps artless attempts at chatter were unnecessary in this situation. Tony went back to enjoying the delight that was his breakfast, only looking up when the creaking door announced a third presence.
A large, strapping man came out from the back, blond and muscled in a way that made Tony take immediate notice. Earlier in his head he had joked about the coffee shop's apparent hiring policies, but now he was sure of it: only attractive people worked here.
"Good morning, Modi." A rich and commanding voice, with a tone common to many men who were used to their words being listened to. It also held a trace of an accent that Tony couldn't quite place. "A lovely morning, is it not?"
The man smiled and laid his arm over the boy's back, hand clasping Modi's shoulder, but Modi just as quickly shrugged out of the grasp.
"I was just leaving." An even terser tone than the one Modi had used with Tony.
"Isn't it a bit early for your morning classes?"
"Like you even care, Thor."
Curious despite himself, Tony watched out of the corners of his eyes as Modi rushed through whatever else he had left to do. The older man backed off a little bit, crossing his arms over that solid chest and watching Modi with a vaguely frustrated expression. It didn't take much for things to click inside Tony's brain. The shared foreign names (Norwegian, most likely, given what Tony knew of old world mythology) and the attitude typical of so many teenagers when it came to the people who watched over them. This was a parent-child squabble if Tony ever saw one.
At first glance there didn't seem to be much of a resemblance. Thor was thick and broad where Modi was slender. Thor was rough and hirsute where Modi was smooth. Thor was blond and blue-eyed while Modi was red-haired with eyes of vibrant green. But upon closer inspection it was clear that every feature and expression on Modi's face was inherited from his father; the resemblance was actually uncanny. But Tony didn't have much time to ponder it before Modi was leaving, the bell on the door ringing after him with a sad little clang. Thor stared out after him even when he was gone.
"Youth is such a wonderful thing," Tony said. "What a crime to waste it on children."
The words startled Thor, as though he hadn't realized that someone else was in the same room, and his eyes lifted up to land on Tony. A moment passed between them before Thor spoke. "But they're worth it, aren't they? Children. After all, a happy family is but an earlier heaven."
And wasn't that surprising? Looks, muscles, and brains enough to recognize George Bernard Shaw and send a quote right back at Tony. Tony let a slow grin spread over his lips. "I'm not sure how happy a family can be when it involves a teenager. Although I admit to being impressed by your knowledge of famous quotations."
A sound that was something akin to a guffaw, only more attractive by tenfold, spilled from Thor's lips. "I'm honored to have impressed the great Tony Stark."
There was no sarcasm in the statement as far as Tony could tell, so he shrugged at it. "Many would argue that there's no real honor in that."
Thor laughed just a bit more before moving from where he had been leaning on the counter. There was the sound of ceramic hitting together in little pings, then a noise not unlike a faucet turned a little more than halfway on, and then Thor was walking toward him with two oversized latte mugs, one in each substantial hand. Perfect timing, Tony thought with a smile. His relatively meager mug was already mostly finished.
"You're a saint," Tony said, as Thor placed the caramel-colored mugs on the table and sat down beside him.
"And here I thought I was just something of a barista."
"Oh, don't you know? They're one and the same, darling."
Thor laughed again, and oh how Tony was beginning to enjoy the sound of it. A rich sound full of amusement and joy; two things that tended to be absent in his own drifting life. And the fact that he himself was the cause of it was just icing on the proverbial cake.
"Are you a fan of Shaw?" Tony finished his first cup with a large gulp, then took the latte mug in his hands. There was nothing like coffee when it was fresh and hot. The way it warmed his hands through the ceramic, the way the aroma seemed to drift upward oh so easily, Tony could get lost in it.
"Not particularly, no." Thor's hand was almost comically large as it gripped the handle of his own mug. "I've spent much time traveling from place to place, and there's not much else to do on all those planes and trains but read. And so many of the hostels and inns I stop at have wonderful book exchanges. Over the years I've filled my head up with quite a bit of useless knowledge."
"Oh, but that no doubt makes you a brilliant conversationalist."
"I do try," Thor said, with exaggerated humility.
Now that Thor was sitting right across from him, just an arm's length away over the dark mahogany surface, Tony could get a better look at him. Just as handsome as at first glance, with lines and creases around his eyes and mouth that only served to lend an air of ruggedness to him. Visible calluses along his thick fingers. A little bit of strained tension across his shoulders, and perhaps Tony might be interested in easing it out.
Tony leaned forward, just a bit, a lazy hand creeping into Thor's space. "And what do you do to travel so much?"
"I work with various non-profit groups around the globe, usually international NGOs, doing what I can to help with whatever human service projects they're working on."
"Trying to change the world?"
"A little bit at a time, yes." Thor smiled in a self-deprecating kind of way, as though he realized how futile a goal it was. "You're the same way, aren't you?"
"Pardon?" Tony couldn't help but let shock color his words. The first thing people usually thought of when faced with the name Stark was "corporate greed," the second "unethical monopoly," never mind the fact that Stark Industries treated all its employees well, did a fair amount of philanthropic work, and followed the letter of the law. Tony was a little surprised that an obvious progressive activist like Thor would actually have good things to say about him.
"A year ago." Thor leaned forward himself, his hand moving until it was but half a centimeter away from Tony's. "You started to donate vast sums of your personal fortune to many organizations. I was working on an irrigation project in Haiti at the time and we couldn't have implemented our goals without your donation."
"Ah, yes." Tony didn't actually remember that particular donation; he didn't remember any of them, mostly because Pepper had made them. He had just given the order for her to get rid of a good chunk of his fortune in a pique of depression and hopelessness, although he did so enjoy taking credit for her good judgment. He tried to inject some false humility into his voice when he spoke next. "Well, a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer, so I started to do a lot of things."
The planes of Thor's face seemed to actually darken as his expression took on a more somber arrangement. "My apologies."
"None necessary." Tony smiled and made sure to keep his tone airy and light. "I've been cancer-free for months now. I'm perfectly fine." 'Fine' being a relative word. 'Fine' meaning that the tumor in his head was gone and little else. Tony supposed that, in other aspects of his life, 'fine' wasn't exactly the word he would use.
"And yet you've been continuing your donations." Thor's voice was all approval and warmth, almost as pleasant as a fresh cup of coffee. "There's a great man in you yet, Mr. Stark."
"Tony," Tony corrected, making a note to thank Pepper for continuing the donations even though he had told her to stop. He was surprised by just how much he was enjoying Thor's high opinion of him; maybe it was because it had been so long since he had heard someone say something good about him and mean in. It threw him a little. For someone who rarely felt anything less than perfectly poised in social situations, Tony was feeling just a tiny bit off his game. He decided to change the subject. "So where are you from, Thor? I detect a bit of an accent that's. . . Scandinavian, perhaps?"
"I was born in Asgard," Thor said, "but this world has been my home for some time now."
Asgard. Tony wondered if that was the name of a major city he should know; it did sound vaguely familiar. "That sounds delightfully exotic. I've always been based in New York, myself, although of course I do travel. So now you live here with your son and. . . wife?"
"Ex-girlfriend." And from the small smile on Thor's face, it seemed he knew why Tony was asking. Testing the waters, so to speak. "We've been only friends for a long time now."
"Is she Modi's mother?" There was no harm in trying to gather a fuller assessment of the situation he was getting himself into, Tony thought.
If Thor found the question too intrusive, he didn't show it. Rather, he answered quickly enough. "Not biologically, but she did raise him. My work called me away most of the time and Jane seemed the most stable presence to leave him with. She has always loved him as her own."
Tony 'mmm'ed into his coffee mug as he took a sip. "So is there any reason at all I shouldn't invite you out to dinner tomorrow night?"
Thor laughed at the question but didn't look at all shocked. "Possibly, if you detest boisterous company."
"Oh, I can't say I do at all."
The next hour or so passed so easily that Tony didn't even realize that it had done so; only that Thor had gotten up to refill their mugs twice. It was just so enjoyable to talk with Thor, who did prove himself to be quite an adept conversationalist. It had been a long time since Tony had found himself getting along with someone so well and so quickly. They talked about Thor's last project, about ethical obligations of large corporations, about what was going on in major league baseball. Anything and everything, until the bell on the door rang, a familiar perfume wafted toward Tony's nose, and a polite cough made a new presence at Tony's elbow known. Tony's eyes trailed up a fitted black pantsuit and stilled on frowning coral lips.
"Mr. Stark," those lips said, in Pepper's voice. "You have a meeting in fifteen minutes."
Tony tried to at least appear sheepish. "My apologies, Ms. Potts, I seem to have lost track of time."
"It was my fault," Thor said, sending a charming smile Pepper's way. "I didn't realize I was keeping him."
Pepper huffed a bit but didn't really say anything, just trailed after Tony as he stood up and made his way to the waiting town car, where the driver from yesterday was there to open the door for him.
"Thought we might find you here, boss," the driver said with a wink. "That coffee made quite the impression."
"I don't give out raises to just anyone," Tony agreed.
Once settled into the leather interior, Tony found his lap covered with folders and documents, all of which he was glad for. It allowed his mind to shift from socializing mode to business mode with nary a beat missed in between, although he did it more to prevent his mind from wandering down darker paths than he because he particularly cared about his business. He just needed to keep his thoughts occupied. That was good enough for Pepper, who interrupted him every now and then to supply him with necessary details and made sure he worked with a certain level of efficiency. Soon enough, the car slowed to a stop in front of Stark headquarters. The papers were lifted from his lap, but a hand wrapped around his arm before he could get out of the car.
"If you need coffee in the morning," Pepper said, "I'll get you a new butler to make you coffee."
"I don't want a new butler." And then, before he could dwell too much on it, "I want Jarvis."
"I'll get you a new Jarvis then."
No further words were exchanged on the topic and Tony's daily blur began in earnest. A meeting with the board of directors. A review of important documents. A meeting with an engineer they were trying to poach from a rival company. Time spent in research and development. A meeting with the company that manufactured their capacitors. A review of reports to see if they couldn't just build a factory and manufacture the capacitors in-house. A tumbler full of whiskey.
And then Tony was back in the town car, off to whatever social event he was scheduled to go to that night, when he caught a flash of light red hair and skinny black pants out his window.
"Stop," Tony said to the driver. "Pull over for a moment."
It was past nine in the evening. Tony wasn't sure what Modi usually did at that time of night, or how strict Jane and Thor were in raising him, but it seemed a bit odd for a teenager to be sitting against a random storefront on a random street corner looking for all the world like a vagabond. Wisps of soft hair fluttered around his face, which itself was covered partially in shadows, but it was still obviously him. Modi had a thick coat pulled up around him and little headphones in his ears, so he didn't notice at first when Tony approached him.
And once he was beside Modi, Tony wasn't really sure what he was supposed to do. Here he was, standing in the cold, in front of a boy he barely knew. A boy who had given him a sandwich and whose father he was interested in seeing. He debated over nudging Modi with the toe of his shoe or just turning around and leaving, but before he could do either Modi looked up, the skin around his left eye the grey-yellow color of a bruise before it went dark.
Tony cringed. "Ouch."
Modi pulled his headphones out and frowned up at Tony. "Sorry, I don't have any coffee right now."
"It's fine. I happen to have something that's just a bit better." Tony pulled a flask from his inside jacket pocket, showed it to Modi, and shoved it back within the folds of his clothing. "It's a chilly night to be sitting by yourself outside. Can I offer you a ride home?"
"You can offer," Modi said, with all the excitement of a child given new socks for Christmas, "but I'll just say no. Home is the last place I want to be right now."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Dude, I don't know you."
Fair enough. And then there was the fact that Tony's skills at comforting others were lacking, to say the least, and so he probably wouldn't have known what to do even if Modi did decide to open up to him. Nod politely and murmur vague encouragements, he supposed. Still, it was a cold night, and he didn't think it healthy for a young man to spend it outdoors. "I'm aware of how unorthodox this is, but if you'd like, you could stay at my penthouse. There are plenty of rooms."
Green eyes narrowed. "Yeah? You've got a white van parked here somewhere? Maybe some candy to give me?"
"I would think central heating and a soft mattress to sleep on would be enticement enough," Tony said. "And if you've followed my life, which has always been very much in the public eye, I think you would find me trustworthy enough, if a bit eccentric."
"You mean crazy?"
A smile and a shrug, because it wasn't as though he hadn't been called worse. "I have money, which means they use the nicer synonyms on me. But it's up to you. I just thought I'd return a favor of sorts."
Tony straightened up his shoulders and took a look around for his car. It wasn't parked anywhere nearby, which meant his driver was no doubt circling the block, and he should be ready to get his attention next time he drove by. Ah, there it was, all sleek and black, slowing toward the curb as Tony held his hand up. He could hear the shifting of clothes from beside him and the sound of a body getting to its feet. So when the car pulled up, Tony opened the door and waved his arm with a flourish as he turned around.
"After you," Tony said.
Modi didn't answer, just shifted his bag over his shoulder and climbed in. And so it was that Tony found himself with a teenager he barely knew in the backseat of his car and heading back to his penthouse, hoping that his driver didn't get the wrong idea and try to sell some salacious story to the tabloids. Tony Stark Takes Underage Boy Home For the Night. Pepper would absolutely love it.
As they approached, it wasn't hard to pick out Stark Tower: the dark, imposing structure stood leaps and bounds over any other building in proximity. Tony didn't miss the expression of awe on Modi's face, nor the fact that it grew as they stepped into the private glass and mirror elevator that went up to Tony's penthouse. When the elevator stopped and Modi stepped out into the grand foyer, the boy didn't seem to know where to look, whether it was at the artwork that decorated the walls, the expensive, modern furniture positioned about, or the expert detailing in every fixture of the room. As Tony watched Modi, he was struck by how tiny Modi seemed inside the space of the room. Tony had always known the foyer was big, but it was another thing entirely to see it with another person within it, a small figure that seemed as though he would disappear into the shadows at any moment.
"I didn't even know places like this existed in Manhattan." Modi's fingers were running over a custom-designed accent table by Naoto Fukasawa even as his eyes were lifting up toward the slightly domed ceiling, three floors above them.
"They usually don't. Most people aren't so self-indulgent as to devote the top several floors of a skyscraper to their personal estate."
"Does anyone else live here with you?" Modi walked deeper in, past the foyer and into the living room.
Tony followed, never one to leave his guests to their own devices. "Not at the moment, no. Although I hear I'll have a new Jarvis soon."
It wasn't a statement Modi would understand, but it didn't seem like he particularly cared about it. Rather, he was busy taking in the view from the floor to ceiling windows, New York filtered through their slightly tinted surface. It seemed as though he were only half-paying attention to their conversation. "Your family doesn't live here with you?"
"Where are they?"
"A cemetery on Long Island. We have a family plot there."
That statement garnered Modi's full attention. Modi's head spun around to face Tony, gaze assessing, a crease between his eyebrows. "I'm sorry, man."
Tony shrugged. There was some flippant answer on the tip of his tongue, but for some reason he couldn't push it out. "So am I."
A few awkward moments later, Modi was opening the glass door to go out on the balcony, and Tony followed him once again. It was colder out now than it had been just ten minutes before, when they had first entered the tower. The breeze from being so high up didn't help either. Instead of scanning the skyline, Modi leaned against the railing and looked down, and Tony joined him. They were so high up and the streets and sidewalk seemed so far away. Looking downward, Tony thought, not for the first time, was like looking into a darkness that could easily swallow him up if he wanted it to. Sometimes he thought it would be so easy to let it.
When Tony looked up he saw Modi staring at him, somber and contemplative. But then green eyes flickered back over the railing.
"Have you ever," Modi began, his tone dark, and Tony didn't let him finish.
"Sometimes I think about it." Tony looked back down into the depths below. So easy, so inviting, and the railing was so low. "I think it's fine as long as it stays as just a thought. I don't think I would ever actually do it."
"Yeah. Just a thought."
A moment of silent contemplation, staring down into those cold asphalt streets, and then they were moving to go back inside the manufactured warmth of the penthouse. Tony gestured around at the hallways and staircases that branched off from the living room. He forced cheer and charm back into his voice because, after all, everything was okay. Everything was fine. "There are plenty of bedrooms, you just have to find them. Take whichever one you want."
"Do you have anything to eat?"
"Probably not," Tony said, remembering the cool lights of his refrigerator and the neat but empty shelves. But then he looked back at Modi, who was looking down at his shuffling feet, and he thought that maybe food wasn't want the boy really wanted. Maybe he just wanted some company. "We could order something, if you want."
They debated take-out, but eventually Modi's health-conscious sensibilities (no doubt instilled in him by Jane) had them calling up the delivery service Jarvis used to order groceries, back when Jarvis was around to do so. Not long after they were on the plush leather couch in the living room, hummus and pita and vegetable platters spread out on the table in front of them. The television was on, showing old cartoon from the seventies, but they were only half paying attention as they ate.
"I suppose we should have ordered a steak or an ice pack," Tony said, after watching a cartoon that he actually remembered from his childhood. "Get something on your eye."
Modi shrugged as he finished chewing and swallowing a baby carrot. "It looks worse than it is."
"Jerks from school." Another shrug, accompanied by a small smile. "It's fine, in ten years I'll be somebody and they'll still be jerks."
Tony laughed a little bit, but it was a short, disbelieving thing. "I'm not so sure about that. My personal bully went on to great success before he died in a freak lightning accident."
There was even more disbelief written in the new arch of Modi's brow. "Tony Stark had a bully?"
"Well, yes, although he was also my twin brother. Strange how much I miss the bastard." Tony's voice had gone dull for a moment, but he attempted to perk it back up as he went on. "But my family relationships have always been complicated, to say the least."
"Yeah." Modi nodded in commiseration even as he scooped up some hummus. "I know what that's like."
"Thor and Jane?" Tony asked. It was an opening in case Modi wanted to talk about it, but Tony wasn't going to press the point if he didn't.
It turned out, Modi didn't. "Among others."
"You have other relatives?" Tony asked. He wondered why they hadn't been called on to watch over Modi when Thor couldn't, but he supposed there would be reasons. There were always reasons.
"Two uncles," Modi said, and apparently it wasn't a sore topic because he wasn't averse to speaking about it. "One's in and out of jail. I think he's some kind of con-artist or high class thief, you know, like Danny Ocean. Jane thinks he's a bad influence, but I've always thought he was pretty fun. And he's always treated me like an adult, not a kid."
"I can see why you would like him, then." Tony gestured to Modi to pass the hummus before he continued. "And the other?"
"Some kind of brain doctor." Modi's nose scrunched up a little, as though he wasn't quite sure of how to explain his uncle's profession. "He travels around the world and does a lot of important work, mostly pro bono. Apparently my grandfather was loaded and left him with all the family money, but he uses most of it on us. He's the one who bought Jane the coffee shop and pays for my tuition and expenses."
"So you're a rich kid, too." Tony couldn't help but chuckle at that. "And here I thought you were just a kid living in a struggling coffee shop."
"Hey, we're not struggling, it's just that you always happen to come by when it's empty." Modi tugged the hummus away from Tony. His tone was rather affronted, but the offense was most likely of the mock variety, considering the smile on his face. "But, yeah, I get a decent-sized allowance."
"Mmm hmm. Hey, why'd you change the channel?"
Modi shrugged. "They started playing infomercials."
"I happen to like infomercials, actually."
They ended up flipping through channels until they found something they were both open to watching. It was some generic comedy, a film that was funny enough when nothing else was on but not at all memorable on its own merits. At some point Modi ended up sprawled on the couch, his head near Tony's hand, and that red hair looked so soft. Like a dog, maybe. Tony reached out and tried to pet it, but only managed one stroke before Modi pulled away.
Modi's eyebrows almost met in the middle of his face as he stared at Tony. "Dude. Creepy."
"Is it?" Tony tilted his head in minor confusion. "I've never really interacted with pets or teenagers before. My apologies."
"Yeah, those two are not the same thing." Modi rolled his eyes, but he was also smiling. "But maybe you should get one. A pet, I mean."
Tony didn't think he'd be very equipped to handle a pet. He had no idea what caring for an animal would entail, for one thing, and he wasn't sure that he had the time to deal with it. "I'm not sure that's a very good idea."
"Dude, you're obviously lonely. I'm just saying a pet will make this big, empty place seem not so big and empty. It might be good for you." And with that Modi flopped over again, back to sinking into the couch as he watched the movie. "But, whatever, do what you want."
A pet. Like a therapy animal, Tony thought, to help him deal with all his conditions. Insomnia when he hadn't drunk enough to pass out, depression, hypomania, manic episodes, obsessive reading of WebMD. Or perhaps he should go see a real therapist, one of these days, instead of just guessing at all his problems with the help of good Dr. Google.
"Perhaps," Tony murmured, before grabbing some broccoli and settling deeper into the couch.
Tony woke up to the smell of coffee. For some reason he was on his couch, a crick in his neck and an ache in his back, and it threw him for a moment before he realized he must have fallen asleep watching television. With Modi nearby. Modi, who must have made the wonderful coffee Tony was smelling and who Tony was going to build a memorial to. Tony let smell rather than memory lead him to the kitchen, where Modi poured a cup of coffee for him without even asking and set it down next to a plate of eggs.
"I should invite strange teenagers back to my penthouse more often," Tony said.
"I'm sure the press would love that once they found out."
The eggs were rather good, if simple (just some scrambled eggs with toast), and Tony wondered if he could hire Modi as his new Jarvis. He supposed there would be issues with Modi's school getting in the way, though. Plus, if things didn't work out between him and Thor, it would be somewhat awkward to have Thor's son around.
"So what are you going to do now?" Tony asked. "As much as I'd like to let you bribe me with coffee and eggs, you can't stay here forever. You'll need to go home sooner or later."
"Sooner rather than later." Modi frowned as he said it and stabbed his own eggs around with his fork. "I need to go back and grab some things for school."
"And when your classes are done? What then?"
Modi shrugged. "Maybe I'll go stay with a friend or something, I don't know."
Tony wasn't quite sure that was even an option for Modi. After all, if Modi had friends close enough to stay with, he wouldn't have been sitting on a random curb the night before. Tony wondered if it was his place to interfere, but he knew what it was like to feel alone in the world, and somehow it spurred him to inquire as to Modi's situation. "Why can't you go home, Modi? Is it something to do with Jane or Thor? Are they. . . abusive in some way?"
To Tony's relief, Modi's eyes widened in almost comical fashion.
"What? No. No, they're not. At all."
"Then why can't you just sleep at home?"
Modi looked down and shuffled his eggs around on his plate. "It's not. . . I just don't want to be there. I don't want to live with Thor."
Tony wondered at that. Thor seemed to be a good man, and he seemed to care for his son, but appearances could be deceiving. Although Tony hoped that wasn't the case. "Why not? He's your father."
At those words Modi tensed, his shoulders a rigid line and his fist tight around his fork. "He's not. I mean, he is, biologically, but he's never been there for me. And now he's back and he wants to play at being a dad, but I'm not interested in playing along with a man I barely know."
"More people in your life who care about you isn't a bad thing." Tony wasn't sure if Modi would listen to him, or even if he was saying the right thing, but he felt the need to say something. Better than saying nothing. "But, obviously, it's your life and your choices to make."
"Yeah. Right. Thanks." Modi pushed his eggs away. "So, you gonna give me a lift home, or what?"
By the time Tony was done taking a shower and getting ready for work, the driver was outside the tower waiting for them. They spent the short ride in silence that was neither awkward nor comfortable, and soon enough Tony was back at the coffee shop for the third time in as many days. Perhaps it was fate playing a hand in things. But before he could get too sentimental over the matter, Tony stepped out of the car and followed Modi inside, where they were assaulted as soon as Modi stepped over the threshold.
"And where have you been?"
It was a feminine yell, laced with equal parts anger, worry, and relief. Arms were thrown around Modi's body, squeezing hard enough to make the boy go pale, but they let go so that Jane could wrap her hands around his biceps and proceed to lecture the boy some more.
"Do you have any idea how worried I've been?" she asked. "The only reason I didn't call the police was because Thor talked me out of it, but I've been up all night waiting for you. Where were you? What happened to your eye?"
"Like you even care." The anger in Modi's voice came as a surprise to Tony. Modi jerked out of Jane's hold and all but ran away, his parting words filling the air before he disappeared behind the back door. "You're leaving me behind, anyway!"
Jane stood there for a moment, staring after him with her hand on her mouth and little worry lines beneath her eyes, before she turned a narrow glare on Tony. "And what exactly do you have to do with this?"
Tony threw his hands up in pseudo-surrender. "I just gave him a place to stay for the night."
"You what?" Jane's glare could have been a knife for how sharp it was. "You took home a teenager you barely knew and you didn't think to contact his family? Who does that? If I find out you did anything to Modi, you can bet the police-"
"Jane." Thor placed a careful hand on Jane's shoulder as he interrupted. "It is fine. Tony is a friend."
"Don't even start." Jane turned on Thor and pressed a finger to his chest. "It's not safe for a teenage boy to stay out all night by himself, let alone go home with strange men."
"Modi is no child. When I was his age, I set out alone on a journey across the nine-"
"I don't want to hear it. I'm going to talk to Modi."
As Jane left the room Tony and Thor turned toward each other, both with smiles that could only be described as sheepish. Tony supposed that Jane did have a valid point. It was one he hadn't bothered to think of, but he was glad that Thor, at least, didn't seem to be holding it against him. He would have to charm Jane's forgiveness out of the woman later.
"She's right," Tony said. "I should have called."
"We are listed, but what's past is past. There's no point in being upset about it now." Thor walked behind the counter, where he pulled out two mugs and started to fill them with coffee. "Jane wishes to be married, to a very good man, and Modi isn't taking it well. He feels as though he's being abandoned."
As Thor passed a mug to Tony their fingers, quite by Tony's design, touched and lingered over the ceramic surface. Thor's fingers were thick and rough underneath Tony's. His skin was warm, almost as warm as the heat leaking through the mug, and Tony made sure to enjoy the moment before pulling away.
"He's a teenager." Tony remembered what it was like to be a teenager. His critics would say it was because his development was no doubt arrested at that point, but he remembered how the world used to seem so small and all his problems seemed so big because of it. "He'll eventually realize that things aren't as bad as they seem."
"I hope so. I apologize for involving you in this. . . family drama."
Tony shrugged. He didn't really mind at all, but maybe it's just because it gave him a distraction. He tended to like distractions. And while alcohol was a sound choice for that kind of thing, Tony Stark always was a man who enjoyed variety. "It's certainly livening up my day, at the least. More importantly, how are you coping with it?"
"I'm trying my best." Thor smiled a little over his mug, although really it was barely a smile at all. Just a thin, slightly upturned tick of the lips. "It's not something that comes easily to me, and I'm ashamed to say that there's much I don't know about Modi."
"Well, of course, you were rather occupied with saving the world. But the important thing is that you're here now."
At least those statements put a genuine smile on Thor's face. "Such a flatterer, Mr. Stark. Your tongue is known to have considerable skill."
Ah, what a perfect opening. Tony smirked, leaned in close to Thor, and looked up from slightly lowered lashes. "In more areas than just flattery."
"What the hell is this?"
Modi's voice, Modi's hands pushing Tony away, Modi's eyes glaring at him as Tony fell back several steps. Tony's mug fell from his hand to clatter, broken into shards and pieces, on the dark floor. He found himself pushed outside even as Modi called back toward his father to just "stay out of it."
For his part, Tony was torn between being confused and being offended. He had been nothing but pleasant with Modi, had thought they were getting along, and had believed that Modi wouldn't mind if Tony flirted a bit with his father. Modi didn't even seem to like Thor, really, although Tony realized that didn't necessarily mean a lot; Tony himself knew all too well how complex parental relationships could be. Still, he thought being forced out of the coffee shop was a bit much.
"I don't believe that my actions necessitate-"
"Just stay away from my dad!" Modi pushed Tony one last time and glared up at him.
Tony could almost sigh. Moments like these, with all their uncomfortable and illogical emotions, were exactly why he usually didn't get involved with single parents. "I really think this is a discussion we should allow Thor to have with us, considering he's the subject of our conversation and a grown man capable of making his own decisions."
"Except he's not," Modi snapped. "He's delusional. Literally. He suffers from a delusional disorder where he thinks he's Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and you're a creep for taking advantage of him."
Stunned and confused seemed like the right combination of words to sum up Tony's mental state at the moment. His mind procured a chuckle and a witty rejoinder, but by that time Modi had already disappeared back into the coffee shop, leaving Tony by himself on the sidewalk.
"Boss," his driver said, as though a dramatic scene hadn't just transpired in front of him, "you have a meeting in ten minutes."
"Of course." There was always a meeting, always a distraction, at least when he could help it. He got into his car and off they went, but he couldn't ignore what had happened with Thor and Modi. He had dated crazy before, in the more colloquial sense of the word, and they tended to be rather fun experiences. This, however, was something entirely different. Perhaps this was something he shouldn't involve himself in. And yet. . .
"The devastatingly handsome man at the coffee shop I've been patronizing. Find out what you can and let me know." The words were said not fifteen minutes later as Tony walked into his office and were directed toward the long-suffering Pepper Potts.
To her credit, Pepper refrained from rolling her eyes or emitting a drawn-out sigh. A rather perfect personal assistant, that one. Instead, she simply jotted down a quick sentence on her notepad before turning the conversation to matters of a more pressing nature, the request sure to be dealt with. And so it was that Tony found a crisp manilla folder sitting on his desk come noon, alongside the platter of fresh sushi that comprised his lunch.
Thorlief Golmen. He was a psychiatric nurse with a master's degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing. Smart cookie, Tony thought, but then he already knew that. Certainly Thor wasn't any kind of genius, but he was sharp and clever enough to hold Tony's interest in a conversation of considerable length, which was more than Tony could say about most of the pretty young things he slept with. Thor had been working on a doctoral degree when the delusions started, and no cause was ever conclusively determined. Aside from his adamant belief that he was some kind of thunder god, his mental facilities were completely intact; he was as competent and intelligent as he had been before his condition manifested. One part of Thor's delusions was that his father had sent him to Earth in order to make it a better place. To that end, he had spent the last several years travelling around the globe with the financial backing of his brother Balder, working with whatever NGOs could use him.
There was more, of course. Things about Modi and how Jane was given guardianship over him when he was an infant, but the information wasn't very illuminating. Public business records for the coffee shop. More facts about Thor's career as both a nurse and a humanitarian. Lots of things that didn't hold even the slightest bit of interest to Tony. When he was done he dropped the folder back onto his desk and sunk back into his chair.
Really, it wasn't so bad. Thor was still basically sound of mind. Tony had dated worse, hadn't he? He wasn't taking advantage of Thor, was he? Without even thinking, Tony soon found himself with his phone sitting on the desk in front of him, nine blocky digits splashed across the screen. Thor's phone number. He could call and cancel, but where would that leave him? Alone for an empty three-hour block in his schedule, save for the company of perhaps a very good bottle of whiskey. Or maybe he would find himself in the kind of dark, dank bar where everyone left everyone else alone, where he could cry into a glass while sitting at some corner table, as he apparently did from time to time, if his drivers were to be believed.
His thumb traced over the glossy surface of his phone. Lingered on the green icon stamped with the stylized image of a telephone. He wasn't sure how long he sat there, considering, but he was still staring at those numbers when Pepper's heels clicked their way into his office.
"Your next appointment is here, Mr. Stark."
One last look, and then Tony was clearing the screen and slipping the phone into his pocket. What was the harm in one dinner?
Several hours later, Tony was patting himself on the back for a choice well made. He sat in a private room in a Russian restaurant, decorated in the kind of ornate, gilded style that Russians thought was the height of elegance but that others would call gaudy, and was laughing over a bottle of ridiculously marked-up vodka.
"You can't be serious," Tony said, already drunk. "I refuse to believe that your father counts bears among his drinking friends."
"Oh, but they're not just any bears," Thor countered. His cheeks were a healthy red from the alcohol they had been imbibing. "They're the warrior bears of the Great Horvalli Forest. A more belligerent bunch of drunks you'll never see; why, my father once incited war by accidentally spilling winkles on the scabbard of a drunk Horvalli bear."
Tony couldn't help but laugh at the image that appeared in his head of a bear roaring and pulling out a sword in the middle of a crowded drinking hall. Delusional or not, Thor's tales of Asgard were a delight to hear. "That must have been quite a mess."
"It took near seven moons to have it straightened out. As soon as they signed the peace treaty they were drinking together again, and then an Asgardian servant had the misfortune of stepping on one of Horvalli general's capes! It was another war, of course."
"Of course." Tony's expression and tone were all mock-seriousness as he poured more drinks for them, the clear liquid sloshing over the tops of their tall glasses. "What else could there be?"
"But the Horvallis are great fun when they're not declaring war. I have no doubt that you would enjoy their company."
Tony tried to entertain the thought of drinking with warrior bears, but it was too ridiculous, even for him. Still, he got another laugh out of the idea. He found himself wondering if it even mattered if Thor believed himself to be some god of antiquity; it made for more fanciful stories, at the least. And the delusions had definitely not impaired Thor's intelligence, as he had been able to engage in a rather heated discussion over the too-large role of corporations in politics earlier that night.
"I'm certain that I would." Tony said, leaning forward and spilling his drink a bit in the process. "And maybe one day I will. But I do believe that, at the present moment, we may very well be overstaying our welcome here."
They had finished dessert what seemed like ages ago, and through the open door Tony could see that the rest of the restaurant was empty. There were still lights on, of course, but there were no more customers, just workers lingering as they finished cleaning up.
"And what do you propose we do with the rest of the night?" Thor asked.
Tony pretended to give the question serious thought. "Ice skating at Rockefeller center? Hot chocolate at Serendipity? Any other manner of whimsical date suggestion?"
Thor chuckled at the trite options. "Or we could do something even more generically cliché and go take in a movie."
"There was a new comic book movie I've been interested in seeing." Tony briefly wondered if he was indulging his inner geek a bit too much, but then decided that Thor was not likely to care. "An adaptation of Astro City. I don't suppose you've heard of it?"
"I'm afraid I don't read comic books," Thor said. 'But I believe I've seen a trailer."
"Perfect. Now all we need to do is find a late night showing, which should be easy enough."
"This is New York," Thor agreed.
Tony flashed his most charming smile. "My thoughts exactly."
They were outside the restaurant and about to get into Tony's car when Tony noticed a chill around his neck; he had forgotten his scarf inside the restaurant. He told Thor to wait in the car as he ran back inside to get in, apologizing to the pretty, blonde hostess as he did so.
"Don't worry about it, Mr. Stark," she said. "You're not even our last guest for the night."
Well, that was good to know. Tony didn't exactly want the wait staff to grumbling to the media the next morning about how demanding of a guest he was; he had enough bad publicity as it was. He made his way back to the room they had been dining in, grabbed his scarf, and headed back out. He was near the hostess stand when he saw the couple that must have been the restaurant's other lingering patrons. He could only see them from the back, at first, with just a glimpse of their profiles. A tall, dark-skinned man in an expensive wool overcoat. An Asian woman in red charmeuse. He would have thought nothing of it, but as he approached them the man suddenly turned, and Tony felt his whole world start to spin as his stomach fell to the floor.
Tony hadn't seen him since Greg's funeral. So why now, of all times? Why here, of all places? In Tony's mind he could smell freshly dug dirt and smoking meat from the barbeque restaurant outside the cemetery. He hadn't even looked at Tony then, not even when Tony had given the eulogy, and that had been infinitely better than the hard, blank look he was giving Tony now.
"Stark." A greeting said with no affection or even familiarity, in a dull tone that matched his expression.
A stagnant pause, and then Jim was putting a hand on his date's lower back and leading her away. Let's go, he was saying, over her curious protests. And it was just so easy for him to walk away. To treat Tony as though he were nothing of consequence, when Tony felt like his whole world was crashing down all over again. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall as he waited for the vertigo to pass. He tried not to think of Jim's face, a dozen or so odd years younger, looking equal parts hurt and betrayed. He tried not to think of Greg standing beside Jim, a smug smirk on his face that only Tony could see.
After a while the dizziness faded, but it left Tony feeling like his entire body had been hollowed out. He forced himself away from the wall and toward his waiting car. He nearly threw up as he opened the door and slid into his seat, his mind still spinning in the past, his eyes closing as his body slumped back.
"Anthony." Thor's concerned voice seemed so distant, even if it did originate mere feet away. "Are you alright? You look pale."
Tony tried to pull himself back to the present and used Thor's voice to do it. He was here, now, and Thor was right beside him. . . Thor, who liked him well enough, who didn't hate him, like all the others. He opened his eyes and looked over at tall, blond, and handsome. It seemed unreal, that there was someone who was becoming something like a friend to him, someone who could potentially actually care about him, and at the moment Tony just wanted to reach out and touch and make sure that Thor was real. He placed a hand on a solid shoulder and instantly wanted more. Proof that someone actually liked him, if only for a night.
"About that movie," Tony said, "perhaps we could watch a video at your place instead."
Thor smiled. "If that's what you want."
Of course, things ended up taking a decidedly different turn. An inquiry made as soon as they stepped into the coffee shop assured Tony of their privacy (Jane and Modi were at a late dinner with Jane's fiancé in an attempt to warm Modi to the upcoming nuptials), and then they were attached at the mouths as they cut a clumsy path toward the staircase.
"I suppose we won't be watching that movie," Thor mumbled, as they crashed through the door of his bedroom.
Tony couldn't help but smirk. "Smart cookie."
They tumbled onto the bed as they pulled each other's clothes off, all limbs and flailing and somehow making it work. Lips. Tongue. Hands. Cock. They were falling over each other, rubbing up against one another, and in Tony's consciousness there was a pressing need to be closer, to feel more. To lose himself in mindless rutting and remind himself that he was capable of feeling connected to another person. His hands ran downward over golden skin and hard muscle, settling on thick thighs the span of which his fingers couldn't bridge. Lips followed where fingers traced, and Tony took his time moving his tongue in languid paths over the expanse of Thor's inner thighs. . . and the object between them.
It was limp, at first, which made its length and thickness all the more impressive. Heavy might have been one word Tony would choose to describe it, resting as it was atop a pair of perfectly round balls as though it was weighing down on them. Delicious might be another. Smooth and uncut, with just the perfect amount of foreskin, just enough to cover the head of it. It positively called out for someone's mouth to worship it. Oh, the ode Tony could write to Thor's penis, all in iambic pentameter, if only he had the time. Instead, he traced a path from tip to base with his tongue before sucking the whole thing into his mouth.
Thor's breath deepened as Tony did so, a guttural noise coming from the back of his throat as Tony swallowed him completely. One of his hands ran over the stubble of Tony's cheek and through the short strands of Tony's hair. Tony could feel Thor's cock twitch in his mouth, could feel Thor's heart rate increase under his palms.
Tony's hands gripped Thor's thighs as he swallowed Thor's cock to the very base, a feat that was only possible because Thor was still soft. And this was the part Tony loved the best, when he had the opportunity to experience it. He loved the feeling of a soft cock growing hard in his mouth, of it lengthening and widening, of soft flesh turning into something much more rigid. He loved the knowledge that he was the one responsible for it. He loved the way his mouth was forced off as the cock inside it grew bigger. And he loved the feeling of strong fingers pressing against the back of his head and neck, trying to keep him there, trying to keep that cock shoved as far down his throat as possible.
Tony wasn't sure how long he was there on his knees, between Thor's legs, as Thor sat on the edge of the bed kneading his scalp and moaning above him. It was long after Thor was fully hard, but Tony always did love sucking cock. Eventually, though, he pulled away, replacing mouth with hand for a few lazy strokes so he could look at what he was working with. He certainly wasn't disappointed. Thor had a perfect mushroom head, large and flushed pink now that it was free of its foreskin, and it was even more impressive now that he was hard. And hard he was. . . Tony had been with men of extremely generous endowment before, and sometimes it was difficult for them to achieve or maintain full erections, but he could see and feel that Thor didn't have the same problem. He wondered how it would feel to have that huge thing inside of him, opening him up and stretching him out. But there was something else he was interested in as well. . .
"Can you turn around, Darling?" Tony asked. "I'd like to see if your ass is as magnificent as I imagine it would be."
Thor laughed as he turned around, until he was bent over the edge of the bed. And, really, Tony had to congratulate himself on his excellent taste. Thor's backside curved outward in the most delicious way, round and firm and, most importantly, large. It was the kind of ass Tony could bury his face in for hours or fondle for days. He moved his hands onto Thor's cheeks, cupping them, kneading them. He pulled them apart so that he could see Thor's hole, small and pink and twitching just a little bit. Just a few inches below it he could see Thor's full balls and hard cock, pressed downward and against the mattress.
"I don't know which is more perfect," Tony said, "your dick or your ass."
Thor didn't miss a beat. "Hopefully you will have occasion to enjoy them both."
That was a suggestion that Tony quite liked. He smirked as he leaned forward, pressing his face in between those cheeks, dipping his tongue out to lap at Thor's hole. He just ran his tongue over it at first, back and forth, as his hands continued to knead and spread the cheeks of Thor's ass. But it wasn't long before he pressed onward, both literally and figuratively, his tongue tracing over that puckered rim and pushing in. Thor's hole twitched once before opening up for him, accommodating him as he started to fuck it with his tongue. Thor squirmed underneath the ministrations, short, low moans coming from his lips every now and then.
As Tony busied his mouth at Thor's hole, he also reached a hand down to his own cock, neglected and oh so hard between his legs. He started to stroke it, but not too fast, not too hard, because the truth was he could come just from this, just from rimming Thor's lovely ass. He pulled his tongue out, licked and sucked his way down Thor's taint, his balls, his cock, and back up again to dip inside that little pink hole. Tony really could do this for hours. But eventually, reluctantly, he pulled away, taking some sense of satisfaction from the sight of Thor's hole, wet and slightly puffy.
"Do you mind if I fuck you now?" Tony asked.
Thor turned to Tony with a cheeky little grin. "Do your worst."
Tony wondered if that was an invitation to fuck with just spit as lube, but then he caught sight of a suspicious jar of Albolene on Thor's nightstand. Well, that would do nicely. Tony didn't waste too much time slicking himself up and opening Thor up even more. Just enough, and then he was watching as his cock slid into Thor's perfect ass. He grabbed onto the flesh of Thor's cheeks, squeezed and pulled them apart, and watched as he started to fuck the other man. He watched as his cock moved in and out of Thor's ass, faster, harder, as the noises of their fucking (grunts and heavy breathing and flesh slapping against flesh) filled the space around them. And then he watched as he came, as semen spilled out around his cock, still thrusting in and out of Thor's body.
Tony pulled out and dropped to his knees, where he wasted no time in leaning forward to lap at Thor's hole once again. He licked up the come that was dripping out of it, then delved his tongue inside to try to get every single drop that he had deposited there. When he finally pulled away, Thor turned around. Large hands grabbed Tony's head, and Tony let them lead him back into Thor's lap. He opened his mouth obediently, closing his eyes in pleasure as it was filled with hard, pulsing cock. He let Thor hold him there, let Thor start fucking his mouth, a good length of that huge monster ramming down his throat with each thrust. Tony placed his hands on Thor's thighs to make sure Thor didn't choke him, but he loved this. He loved almost gagging on cock, loved having his throat used like a sex toy. It was almost too much when he felt his mouth being filled with that familiar, bitter, and absolutely delicious taste, but then Thor pulled out with a grunt and Tony felt streams of hot come shoot all over his face. Thick strands of it, in unrealistic, porn star quantities, splattering all over his skin and beard.
When Thor was done, Tony leaned down to briefly nuzzle against his cock before sucking into into his mouth, hoping to milk out any last drops that remained in it. It was softening, though, and soon enough Tony was satisfied that he couldn't get anything else. He set about cleaning off his face instead, using his fingers to collect the errant come and licking it off. Thor helped, considerate as he was, tongue moving to lick away other trails left on Tony's face.
After that they ended up on the bed together, sated and spent. Usually, at this point post-coitus Tony would fall asleep. He would let his paramour for the night sleep over, have a delicious breakfast catered and ready when she (or he) woke up, and then send her (or him) on their way, never to hear from him again. This time was different, though, not the least of which was because Tony was in Thor's home instead of his own.
He had filled that empty feeling inside of him for a brief spell, but now it was back, growing, encompassing. He half-lay, half-sat against Thor's pillow, his eyes focused on the grey ceiling and his fingers twisting in the sheets. Things were so quiet, and he hummed a song inside his head to keep from having to hear his own thoughts. A solid hand ran through the hair at the side of his head. He turned into the touch, into Thor's large palm, and found himself staring into clear blue eyes.
"Would you like a sandwich?" Thor asked, oddly serious. "A cup of coffee? A companion to listen to your troubles? I quite recommend the last one."
Tony could have laughed if he had been in a different kind of mood. "Am I that obvious?"
"You seem out of sorts," Thor said. "If you have need or want of it, I will listen. I will help, Anthony."
Tony could almost believe him. He played with the words, with the story. He could feel it shaping on his tongue, but before he could say anything the door to the staircase slammed open and they could both hear Jane and Modi practically screaming at each other.
"I don't know what the point of that was," Modi was saying. "It's not like the guy's going to be my new dad or anything. You don't actually have anything to do with me, so you might as well just forget about me and go off and be happy with Derrick. Maybe you can even have some kids that actually belong to you."
"What are you saying? How can you say that?"
"It's true, isn't it? It's why you're moving out and leaving me here."
"You know Derrick and I both love you, and you're welcome to come visit whenever you want. He has a spare bedroom that he already says is yours whenever you want to sleep over. The only reason I'm not taking you with me is because you need to spend time with your father, building an actual relationship."
"Yeah, because it's not too late for that at all." A sarcastic quip, followed by the sound of another door slamming, closer this time.
Thor and Tony listened for just a bit longer as Jane pounded on the door, making entreaties for Modi to come out and talk.
Tony turned toward Thor. "You're not going to go help?"
Thor's eyes were on the closed door of his bedroom, but he hadn't moved from his position. "I've been absent from his life for so long, I feel like it's not my place to come between him and Jane."
"Impuissance doesn't suit you," Tony said, more observation than actual judgment. Still, the remark had the effect of getting Thor to look up, the blank look in his eyes replaced by a bit more conviction.
"I'll go talk to him," Thor said.
They both got out of bed and pulled on their clothes before opening the door to the hallway, where Jane was still knocking on Modi's door. There were little worry lines around her eyes. Her lips, when not moving in an attempt to get through to Modi, were pressed together thin and tight. Thor placed a hand around her shoulder and squeezed.
"I'll take care of this," Thor said. "Why don't you go get some rest?"
Jane nodded, raising her hand to her mouth and making a sound that sounded something like a muffled cry as she turned to walk away. She had already disappeared around the corner when Thor turned to Tony.
"Could you go to make sure Jane is well?" Thor asked.
Tony actually turned to see if there was some newly arrived third person that Thor was speaking to. Of course Tony could be charming at the best of times, but he tended to be absolutely hopeless at the worst of times. He wasn't very adept at comforting people who needed it, Modi being a prime example, and it didn't help that Jane already disliked him.
Well, nothing for it.
"Of course," Tony said, resigned to the task. He made his way around the corner of the hallway where Jane had disappeared. There was a door there, along with a window at the end that was obviously open from the sudden chill that surrounded him. He went to close it before he realized it was open for a reason. Directly under the window was a gently sloping roof, and sitting on top of the dull red shingles was Jane. She sat with her knees to her chest, wrapped up in a fluffy purple parka with a cigarette between her lips, and Tony thanked whatever gods were in existence that she wasn't crying. Her hand was shaking, though, just a little bit. Tony was at a loss as to what to say, so he settled for something completely unrelated. "We switched our coltan suppliers to an artisanal mining group in the DRC that doesn't have any connection to militia groups. We can guarantee that the minerals we use are conflict-free, and unlike other companies might just buy their minerals from other countries to get around the issue, we're actively supporting the Congolese economy."
Jane made a noise caught somewhere between a laugh and snicker, and yet it still managed to seem fairly humorless. Her eyes shifted to the side to look at Tony. "Well, aren't you the good samaritan."
Tony shrugged. "I try."
"Thor did tell me that you're a good person."
"And do you believe him?" Tony asked.
Jane shrugged. "He seems pretty vehement about the issue, so I figure why not? Besides, you haven't proven him wrong yet."
Tony took that as permission to join Jane on the roof. It was cold without his coat and scarf but it was nothing he couldn't bear, and he was loath to interrupt the good mood between them to go get his things. He sat down next to Jane and took in the view, which wasn't much. The backyard terrace of some restaurant or bar. Little wooden tables with benches that didn't match.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Tony asked, because it seemed the generic, safe lead-in.
"Do you really want to listen?"
Jane turned her whole head toward him then, considering. Tony could see her make up her mind before she even said anything. The line of her shoulders slumped and the muscles around her mouth eased, just everything about her relaxing in some minute way.
"You know," she said, "I wasn't happy when I heard Thor was bringing home a baby. We weren't together at that point but we had never broken up, so there was that sense of betrayal, plus I didn't think he was in the right mental state to raise a kid. But when I met Modi for the first time, when I first held him in my arms, it was love at first site."
There was a smile on Jane's lips now, a sweet little upward turn that somehow made Tony uncomfortable. He remembered his own mother, maybe the only person in his house besides Jarvis who had cared about him, and even then she had cared about her friends and her parties more. He remembered his father, who had never made it a secret that he had preferred Greg over Tony. Tony couldn't imagine either of them talking about him with that type of smile on their face.
"When Thor wanted to keep traveling," Jane continued, "I didn't even think before I offered to watch over Modi. As far as I'm concerned, he's my son. I couldn't love him any more if he was my own flesh and blood. I would ask him to move in with me and Derrick in a heartbeat, except Thor's back for good and he wants to have a relationship with his son." Jane's eyes were almost plaintive as they stared into Tony's. "When Thor told me he wanted Modi to live with him, I thought about it for such a long time. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think it was in Modi's best interest. Because the fact is, it tears me apart inside to leave him here. . . but Thor's his father. It would be selfish of me to keep him, wouldn't it?"
There was a well deep inside of Tony, filled with what he didn't know, and he felt like it might be overflowing. This was a world he had never been a part of. It was a family, a real one, full of people who cared about each other, not just strangers who happened to live in the same house and share the same blood. He felt like the worst kind of tourist. He could barely bring himself to put a hand on Jane's shoulder, to mutter something about Modi being a teenager and how he'd realize in time that she wasn't abandoning him. Apparently it was enough, because Jane smiled and nodded and seemed to relax even more, but Tony felt nauseous all over again. He thought of his parents, of Greg, of Jim.
Of Jim and everything that had gone wrong, everything that had been set in motion with Tony's own two hands.
This was a world he had never been a part of. A world he could never be a part of, simply because he didn't know how to function inside of it. He would just ruin it all over again.
"I should go," Tony found himself saying. "The three of you have a lot to work out tonight."
When Tony returned to the hallway outside of Thor's room, he was somewhat relieved to find that Thor wasn't there anymore. Maybe he was inside Modi's room, maybe he was somewhere else entirely, but Tony didn't put too much thought into it as he picked up the remainder of his things. A short car ride later and he was back on his living room couch, the room so dark that it seemed like it was going to swallow him up. It was so quiet that he could hear the clock in the kitchen ticking. This was what he was familiar with, he told himself. This was what he was comfortable with. Better this empty, dark room than something he was bound to mess up; Thor's family didn't deserve to be dragged into his inevitable messes. He fell asleep slumped down on the couch, a glass tumbler in his hand, his head lolling to the side.
Tony woke up to the smell of coffee. For a moment he thought that he had fallen asleep at the coffee shop, that he would wake up to Jane, Modi, or Thor brewing a pot of coffee. But when he opened his eyes he only saw some atrocious painting he had bought years earlier, hanging several yards in front of him. Footsteps sounded from his right, and he looked over to see a man holding a tray with a cup of coffee on it. Relatively young, maybe in his early thirties. Tall and solid. Average in appearance.
"Good morning, sir," the man said, as he placed the tray on the coffee table in front of Tony. "Ms. Potts hired me to be your new Jarvis, starting today."
Tony looked the man over as he reached for the coffee. He guessed, just from the man's bearing and Pepper's modus operandi, that New Jarvis would be bodyguard, driver, and servant all rolled into one. Tony lifted the cup to his lips and found the brew inside satisfactory. "You know, this is my twenty sev-"
But Jarvis was looking at him with a blank, uninterested expression. Politely paying attention, or else pretending to, and not much more.
Tony shook his head. "Never mind, it doesn't matter."
"Would you like some breakfast, sir?"
"I suppose I would." Tony said nothing more than that as he stood up and shuffled to the bathroom. He brushed his teeth. Took a shower. Trimmed his beard. Checked his cell phone, on which he found one missed call from Thor. He ignored it.
And then it was back to work. Meetings. Contracts. Luncheons. Dinners. Cocktail Parties. Back to the haze that comprised his life. Thor called, maybe once every other day, and he ignored it every time. Once Thor called while Pepper was leaning over Tony's shoulder, going over paperwork, and she raised an eyebrow as he hit the mute button. But it was for the best, really, and he was sure that Thor's calls would taper off as time went on.
Supermodels he didn't care about. Actresses that didn't expect anything from him. Those were the types he should associate with, not a family whose warmth he could practically feel even when they were fighting, a family he had no idea how to be a part of.
It was maybe a week, maybe a week and a half, it was hard to tell when all his days seemed to blur into one another and he had people to keep track of important dates for him. It had grown colder in that time span, and the chill in the air was so sharp that it could almost bite. It was already dark outside when Tony stepped out of his car and toward his apartment building. He was pulling his coat on closer to shield himself from the cold when a figure rushed toward him.
He was surprised to see that it was Jane, and for a fleeting moment he had the terrifying thought that she was there to tell him off for sleeping with Thor and then running off. The worried expression on her face, however, quickly disabused him from such notions. She started talking a mile a minute, and it was all he could do to keep up with what she was saying. Something about Modi leaving a note and running away, the police not doing anything until twenty-four hours after the disappearance, a snowstorm coming, and didn't Tony like Modi? Didn't Tony have connections that could help find him? Jane would give him free coffee for life, anything, if he helped-
"Slow down," Tony said, putting an arm around Jane and leading her inside. "Let's get you inside where it's warm. Don't worry, I'll do anything I can to help find Modi. Jarvis, make Ms. Foster a cup of coffee, will you?"
"Tea, actually, if that's okay," Jane muttered, already calming down a bit.
"Anything you want, Darling."
Roughly twenty minutes later Pepper was in Tony's apartment, looking only mildly put out by the fact her boss was forcing her to work overtime on something that had nothing to do with business. More than anything she seemed sympathetic as she finished introducing Jane to a NYPD detective and some other officers.
"They'll ask you the questions from here on out," Pepper said, "try to answer them as fully as you can."
"Of course. Thank you so much, Pepper."
Tony sat to the side and listened as they asked Jane all the expected questions. Where she last saw Modi, how she knew he was missing, etcetera, etcetera. When their questions seemed to taper off, Tony interrupted to ask one of his own. "What's Thor doing?"
"Running around New York," Jane answered. "Looking for him in pretty much every place we've known him to go, but it's a big city with a lot of ways out. He could be anywhere."
Pepper was back with an assortment of baked goods now, and she placed them on the table for everyone gathered there. She started to talk to Jane about business at the coffee shop, no doubt trying to get her mind off of more troubling things now that the police had enough to go start their investigation. For his part, Tony thought about where Modi could be. When Tony had been young, he had fantasized about running away and joining the circus, but Modi seemed more creative than that. Tony had heard of teenagers running off to places like Catalina Island and New Orleans; places that seemed fun.
"Maybe he went to Coney Island," Tony said with a laugh, getting even more depressed thinking about how dreadful that place would be in the winter. It was sad enough during the summer when there were crowds to disguise how run-down and outdated it was, he couldn't imagine how bad it must be now that it was empty.
But Jane actually looked up at the idea. "He used to love Coney Island. When he was little, I would take him there on the weekends."
"You don't think he'd actually go there, do you?"
Pepper was already getting off the phone, having taken the last few seconds to call for a car. "It's worth a shot."
As Pepper led the way out of the room, Jane hung back and whispered to Tony.
"Are all your employees this efficient?" she asked. "It's a little terrifying, but mostly extremely impressive."
Tony couldn't help but smile. "Of course. I wouldn't be able to get away with working so little if I didn't hire the best of the best."
On the car ride, a plan of attack was developed, mostly by Pepper and Jane, and Tony soon found himself being dropped off at Nathan's. The restaurant was closed, of course. The overhead doors were pulled down and shut tight. The yellow of the sign was less cheerful than it would be during the day. There were still enough street lights to illuminate it, to illuminate the path toward the boardwalk, little circles of yellow light spreading dimly into the night. Each step grew more and more cold as Tony got closer to the beach, and he hugged his arms tight to his body as he stared out into the ocean. The night sky was reflected on its surface, waves of black crashing into each other, hints of white froth barely visible.
And to his left, the way toward the amusement park. Tony walked toward it, toward the old rides and fairground attractions. Even in the dim lighting you could see the chipping paint and the cracked wood of the buildings. Empty and dark, it was like a ghost town. It was hard to believe that this small collection of rides, the likes of which you might see in any state fair or rundown carnival, was once a renowned attraction that astounded and delighted all who came to see it. Now it was nothing more than kitsch and cheese; Tony had friends who had grown up in Manhattan who had never even cared to come here.
It was starting to snow, and the small flurries made the setting look like a sad oddity of a snow globe. Tony slowed as he walked past an old homeless man, huddled up in multiple coats underneath the exhaust vent of some building's heating system. He slipped a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket and stopped to hold it out to the man. "Why don't you find yourself a place to stay for the night?"
The man looked up, his eyes a clear but hard shade of blue. His face was a roadmap of lines, but from the squareness of his jaw and the straight edge of his nose, it was possible that he had been handsome once.
"I don't need your money," he said, drawled out like some kind of New York cowboy.
"Come on," Tony tried, "don't let your pride keep you out in this cold tonight."
"I can handle a little snow. I fought in the war. I killed Nazis with my feet about to fall off from frostbite."
Tony decided that it wasn't worth it. He turned and started to walk away, making a note to tell Pepper to do something to get the man somewhere warm tonight, all the while half-listening as the old soldier kept lecturing on after him.
"That's the problem with this generation, they're too soft. That's why this country's gone to shit. Just look at this hellhole. . . I remember when it used to be great. American ingenuity and engineering, and now it's just a decrepit pile of shit."
Just a crazy veteran lost in the past, living in the shadows of the world he remembered. Tony finished sending a text to Pepper asking her to arrange some kind of help for the man, and then he was back on the hunt for Modi, not that he knew where to look. He was walking through part of the amusement park now, all boarded up game kiosks and rides. A wooden roller coaster, dreadfully small by modern standards, loomed like a memorial to a bygone era above him. And despite the variety of colors splashed across the setting, everything seemed to be washed out with an invisible shade of grey.
"Modi?" As Tony called out for the boy, his voice seemed to disappear in the air close to him, as though it were hidden in the little white cloud of his breath and dissipated right along with it. Modi probably wouldn't hear him, and Modi probably wouldn't answer even if he did.
Tony was walking past a ticket kiosk when he saw it: a topsy turvy building painted in colors that would have been garish had they not been dulled by time. But it wasn't the irregularly shaped faux-windows of the facade, the gaping mouth of an entrance, or the thin turrets that projected like tumors from the sides of the structure that caught Tony's attention. It was a small door at the side of the building, just barely visible in the shadows cast against it, and the narrow sliver of darkness where door should have met door frame. Tony made his way toward it and confirmed that the door was ajar. Even closer, and he could see that the lock had been jimmied open. Well. . . chances were good that he was either dealing with a thief without the good sense to rob a place that actually had something valuable to steal or a runaway looking for a place to get out of the cold. He figured he would take a chance on the latter.
It was darker inside than it was outside, thanks to the lack of street lamps and moonlight in the building. A flick of a light switch found it predictably useless, producing nothing more than a sharp, clicking noise that echoed in the space. Thankfully, Tony had access to the flashlight app on his ever-so-dependable Starkphone. It didn't light up much, but it lit up enough.
Tony was in a back corridor, full of exposed wood and gathered dust. It certainly didn't seem to put the "fun" in "fun house.". He walked down the hallway, stopping just briefly to look at the gears and levers inside the bottom half of one of the walls. Apparently the public portion of the fun house was elevated, like a stage, and here in the back Tony was able to see the machinations that allowed the floors to do such utterly fantastic things as tilt a few degrees or drop a person into a pit a few inches deep. And to think that those were attractions that pulled in the crowds by record numbers, once upon a time.
The hallway ended at a door that was completely ordinary in every way, just a door like any other. Tony put his hand on the doorknob and turned. . . and there he was in a large but cluttered space that must have been a storeroom. There was a small light in one corner of it, dim glow casting shadows over nearby odds and ends, and he made his way over there even as he took in his surroundings. A broken mirror in a bright green and purple frame, a spiderweb of cracks on its surface breaking up an elongated, twisting version of him, part of a large wooden disc, the edge of it splintered and jagged, a relic from the kind of attraction that might have been found in a funhouse circa 1920. Old signs hand-painted with neat cursive, proclaiming the way to various marvels.
Modi was lying in between an old armoire and one of those heavy-duty flashlights that were roughly the size and shape of a lantern. He had pulled some tarps off the stacks of boxes that littered the room and had made a little bed for himself, headphones in his ears as he bobbed his head to the music. Tony poked him with a nearby two by four.
"What the hell?" Modi's eyes went big as he scrambled away, nearly knocking the armoire over on top of him, but his eyes narrowed again as he saw Tony there. He pulled off his headphones. "Are you stalking me? Did you put a tracking device on me or something? I'm warning you, man, I know kung fu."
Tony huffed a little bit at the accusation. "Relax. I'm just helping Jane look for you. What serendipity to find you here."
But Modi was already grabbing his things and packing up. He had gotten to his feet when Tony grabbed his wrist, jerking him to a stop.
"I won't tell her where you are," Tony said.
Modi's muscles were tense underneath Tony's fingers. He looked like a startled cat the instant it was deciding whether to run or fight, all rigid lines and pent up energy. "And why wouldn't you?"
Tony shrugged. "I used to run away too, you know. As long as you promise to check into a warm hotel, I'll go back and tell Jane you're safe and well. Then you can go home tomorrow and we can have happy endings for all."
Modi's eyes were still narrowed, but his muscles seemed to relax, if only minutely. "They don't generally let kids just check into hotel rooms, and I'm not going back."
"I'll check into one for you," Tony offered. And he was certain Modi would go back; Tony had always gone back, and his family had never even been worth going back to, especially after his mother died.
"Thanks, but no thanks." Modi settled back into his nest of a tarp. "But I will hold you to your promise not to tell Jane."
"I never actually promised. . . "
"Doesn't matter. I'll just run if I see you get your cell phone out or once you leave to find her. Even if I don't really know kung fu, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to outrun you."
Now it was Tony's turn to narrow his eyes at Modi. "Smart boy. Maybe I should offer you an internship at Stark Industries."
Tony supposed there was nothing for it. He sat down on the floor and leaned back against something, nearly jumping when he looked behind him and saw that something was a taxidermied coyote. He decided the huddle next to a moldy oil portrait with the eyes cut out instead.
"So why don't you want to go home?" Tony asked, even as he shivered and pulled his coat closer. He noticed that Modi didn't seem any worse for wear in a sweatshirt. . . what he wouldn't give to be young again.
"Why?" Modi shifted a little. He eyed his headphones, as though he was tempted to put them on and just ignore Tony. "You going to try to convince me I should?"
Modi snorted, which was at least something. "Trying to get brownie points with Thor?"
Tony frowned at the question and looked away. He was actually hoping to get through this whole thing without having to see Thor, as minimal as the chances of that was. "You probably won't have to worry about that anymore."
"Yeah? It'd be weird, anyway, dating him." It seemed as though Modi was in a more loquacious mood now that he knew Tony wasn't a threat to his plan. "He's legitimately crazy, you know. Once, the only time I asked him, he told me that my mother was Hela, goddess of the dead."
"Did he?" Tony was sure that Thor had an entertaining tale to explain that turn of events. He wondered if it had anything to do with drinking bears. At any rate, it was a story he was probably never going to hear.
"Hey. Are you okay?"
Tony looked up to see Modi staring at him, eyebrows slightly creased in worry. He hadn't realized that he had been lost in his thoughts or looking out of sorts at all. "Sure."
"That didn't sound too convincing," Modi said.
This time, Tony tried to interject some cheer into his voice. "Everything's just peachy keen."
"Uh huh." There was quiet for a long time, as Modi just looked at him. He was very obviously contemplating whether he actually wanted to discuss his father's love life. Apparently, whatever empathy he felt for Tony won out, although the next question did come out rather grudgingly, low and mumbled. "Did things go badly with Thor?"
"Not at all," Tony said. He pulled his legs to his chest and set his chin on his knees. "Everything was going splendidly."
"But I don't have to worry about it."
"I just realized that I wasn't good for him or your family. Whatever problems you all may be having right now, it's obvious that you'll work it out. You care about each other. I just don't see myself fitting into that kind of normal, happy environment." Tony didn't realize it himself, but his tone grew more and more morose with each syllable, until it very nearly matched the darkness of the room around them.
"Jesus, could you be any more melodramatic?"
Well, that was a first. Tony wasn't sure if he appreciated being called melodramatic by a teenager who had just run away from home because he didn't want his mother-figure to get married. But before he could make his displeasure over the question known, Modi was speaking again.
"One, you're really out of touch if you think my family's normal," Modi went on. "Two, your whole self-pity act is really lame. Rich guy feels sorry for himself, boo hoo."
"Well, isn't that the pot calling the kettle black."
And as someone who could see humor in the darkest of the dark, Tony couldn't help but bite out a laugh. They really were two peas in a pod. Soon Modi was joining him, and their laughter seemed to lift the dust and the cobwebs all around them.
"We're a pair, huh?" Modi asked, a little sadly, once they had settled down.
"Mmm hmmm." And Tony wondered what that said about his mental state or maturity level, the fact that he could so easily relate to a 15-year-old. It felt a little less cold, though, and he wondered if that had anything to do with good company. "I think. . . more than falling in love with Thor, which I can see happening in the future, I've already fallen in love with you and Jane a little bit. Or with the idea of family, I suppose."
That prompted another round of laughter from Modi, although there was a sarcastic tinge to it. "Family."
"Yeah. I've never been able to be figure out how to have a real one."
Modi frowned a little at that. "Oh, yeah. Sorry. I remember hearing about that it the paper, about you and that Russian model or actress or whatever you were engaged too."
And here Tony hadn't even been thinking about Natasha. He hadn't thought about her in years. He had been devastated when he had found out she was selling his company's secrets to competitors, of course, but he had gotten over it quickly enough. It hadn't been so great a loss, especially compared to Jarvis' death, or to. . . Jim. "No, it's not. . . " Tony paused to sigh. A part of him was astounded that he was treating a teenager as a confidant, but he supposed it really wasn't all that surprising. "I was more referring to my own biological family. To the fact that I was sadder when my butler died than I was when I father did. To the fact that my twin brother was sleeping with my high school sweetheart."
"Ouch." Modi's face scrunched up in shared pain.
"No, no, now I'm exaggerating for dramatic effect." Tony sighed again. Well, it's not as though they had anything to do but talk, here in this cold, dreary house. "We were never actually together, Jim and I. The three of us had one of those sitcom-style love triangles where no one gets together until the series finale. The only difference was there was no series finale, so it just went on for years, through high school and college. But I was winning, I was on the verge of something really good with Jim. Something like a family."
As Tony trailed off, Modi scooted closer.
"So what happened?" Modi asked.
"My father died shortly after we all graduated." That was probably the beginning of the end, Tony thought. "He left me the company, which shocked the hell out of us all. Greg sued, of course. He theorized that I had tampered with the will or some other such nonsense. I had my lawyers fighting it while I went on with business as usual. One of the first new hires I made was Jim, him and a man I knew named Reed Richards. Reed was a genius; we got along splendidly. I gave him carte blanche to do whatever it was that he wanted. Well, it turned out he was a sociopath, and what he wanted was to blow up Washington in some twisted attempt to garner an ex-girlfriend's attention."
Modi's eyes widened. "The anti-matter attack of-"
"Yeah," Tony interrupted. Modi would have been a baby at the time, but Tony figured they'd still be talking about it in schools. It was a pretty big deal. "Almost two hundred people died, including members of the President's cabinet, a Supreme Court justice, and Jim's sister, who was interning on Capitol Hill at the time. And I'm the one who signed off on it. I thought it was an energy project."
He almost shook to remember it. There was a memorial, of course, a candlelight vigil, and the way everyone had looked at him. . . and the feeling that he deserved it. In his mind he was reliving it all over again: the journalists camped outside his various apartments and houses, the government investigation, Jim's expression of hurt before Greg pulled him away. All those people killed. Tony's stomach turned and he felt like he was going to throw up.
"It wasn't your fault."
The statement came so quickly, so simply, that it startled Tony. But Modi's voice pulled Tony right back into the present. Into a dusty, dark room full of old junk.
"I should have been supervising Reed," Tony said. “Keeping track of the projects at the company."
"You didn't know." Modi said it as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. "How could you? If he was as smart as all that, he had probably been hiding everything anyway, and I'm pretty sure your job includes more delegation than it does micro-managing."
Tony shook his head. "Jim warned me that something wasn't right with Reed, but I didn't listen to him. Can you blame him for blaming me?"
"He's an asshole." Modi said it like it was truth, like Jim wasn't the best man that Tony knew. "He should have understood. We all make mistakes. Some are just really big ones."
Tony couldn't help but laugh. He had been responsible for all those deaths. He had ruined his relationship with the man he loved. He had started drinking then, in the frenzy of it all, and he had never really stopped. "How can you call that just a mistake?"
"Because that's what it was. If it was your fault, all those articles we had to read about it in school would say something. They'd talk about Stark Industries. But they don't, not past a mention, because as far as everyone's concerned it was the act of one deranged guy."
"You know," Tony said, "you and your dad both have a way of saying things that almost makes me believe them."
Almost. He still felt sick to his stomach, still felt the unfinished lives of all those killed weighing down on his shoulders, but it was subsiding, if only temporarily.
The change in Modi at the mention of his father, on the other hand, was instant. Modi had been leaning toward Tony, expression relaxed. Now, his eyebrows drew together and he threw his body to face the other direction. "I don't want to talk about him."
"Oh, come on. I just poured my heart out to you, you could at least tell me what this is all about."
Modi was silent for so long that Tony decided that he wasn't going to reply. So Tony started to count cracks in the floor instead, deciding what to say or do next. He had made it to twenty-four when Modi spoke again.
"It's just not fair," Modi said, uttering the slogan of disenchanted teens everywhere. "I liked my life before. Thor wasn't around, sure, but Jane was, and she loved me enough for all my relatives combined. The most Thor ever did was call on my birthday every year, and I'm pretty sure that Uncle Balder had to remind him to do it. But I was okay with that. I thought things were pretty good. But then Thor came back and everything got turned upside down. It's not fair that I have to live with him and not Jane just because he suddenly decided that he wanted to be a father, not when he's spent the last fifteen years ignoring the fact that he has a son."
Modi's voice was starting to crack, and Tony pretended not to notice.
"He's just a stranger," Modi went on, voice low. "I don't want to have to live with a stranger."
Tony couldn't see Modi's face at the moment. Just the soft red of his hair and the curves and lines of his shoulders and back. They might have been shaking, just a little bit, but it could have been the cold or the shadows that caused it.
"When I had dinner with Thor the other day," Tony said. "He spent a lot of time talking about you. The volcano you built when you were six for a class project, and how your fingers were dyed red for a week. The ode to ice cream you wrote when you were nine. Your role in the school play when you were eleven. A banana, was it?"
"Pineapple," Modi mumbled.
"Ah, I knew it was some kind of tropical fruit." Tony's voice went a little softer, a little more subdued. "You might think he's a stranger, but you're not a stranger to him. He never ignored you or forgot about you. He called Jane whenever he could just to ask about you. He thought he had to make personal sacrifices because his work was more important, but I get the feeling that he regrets it."
Modi sniffled. "He should have thought of that fifteen years ago."
Tony smiled, even though he knew that Modi couldn't see it. "Well, a wise man once told me that we all make mistakes. Some are just really big ones."
There was near silence as Modi shifted, only the sounds of his moving clothes projecting through the space. There was another sniffle and then a grumble. "That's awful advice."
Tony laughed a bit, but not for too long. The levity went out of his voice as he spoke again. "He loves you, you know. He only wants a chance to make things right between you."
Tony could practically feel Modi thinking in the quiet that followed. Eventually, though, the boy sat up, turning to face Tony once again. His hair was a little dishevelled and his eyes were possibly just the slightest tint of pink, but he looked more relaxed.
"You know what," Modi said, "it's getting a little cold. Maybe we should go home."
Tony smiled. "Yeah."
After they got up, Tony threw an arm around Modi's shoulder, and they started to walk out of the funhouse. Soon enough they were outside. A thin blanket of snow had already covered the ground and the buildings, with more of the powdery white stuff still falling, and it made everything look just a little bit magical. Tony could almost see what this place had been like in its heyday, the sense of joy and magic it must have inspired in the people who came from so far away to see it. He texted Jane and they walked toward the street, enjoying the scenery around them.
"I guess I don't mind you dating Thor after all," Modi said.
"Are you sure?" Tony asked. "I'm not confident that I know how to have a healthy relationship. I might just ruin things."
"If you do, then we'll help you fix them," Modi said. "That's what families do."
Tony liked the sound of that.
Jane was already there when they got to the street. The first thing she did was run to Modi and envelope him in her arms, tears rolling down her face.
"Idiot," she said. "Jerk. Brat. Don't ever do that to me again, I was so worried. What if something had happened to you?"
Modi's arms came up to wrap around Jane's back. When he spoke, his voice was muffled in her collarbone. "I'm sorry, Jane. I'm okay."
Jane barely let go of him as they drove back to the coffee shop, her arm around him as she fussed over how he should be wearing a coat and what exactly was he planning on doing by running away? Tony just smiled as he watched the mother and son act, noticing Pepper do the same.
And of course Thor was waiting back at the coffee shop. He was standing outside, covered with snow, as if a statue, and Tony wondered how long he had been there. He watched Modi get out of the car, and for a few beats they just stared at each other, neither exactly sure of what to do. But then Thor reached an arm out and pulled Modi tight against his chest.
"Your note said you would be gone forever," Thor said. "I am glad to see it did not speak the truth."
"Yeah," Modi agreed. "Me too."
The three of them started a conversation then, Thor, Jane, and Modi, and Tony just watched them as they stood and laughed and smiled underneath the soft lights of the coffee shop. He felt strange and awkward, three yards away, not knowing how to join their circle or even if he should. Maybe this was family time, he thought, and he turned to go. Just as his hand touched the door handle, however, another hand clamped down on his shoulder.
"And where do you think you're going?" Thor's voice; of course it was Thor's voice.
The window of the car was open, and Tony could see Pepper through it. She only smiled and nodded.
"I'll send the car here to pick you up in the morning," she said, and with that the tinted window started to obscure her from view.
Tony took a breath and turned around. Thor was smiling at him in that genuine, open way that he had, and he put both hands on Tony's shoulders as they stood face to face.
"You were not returning my calls," Thor said. "I thought we had a bond worth more than just one night of companionship."
Tony smiled back. "Darling, perhaps I was just playing hard to get."
And Thor's resounding laugh was just as robust as ever. "I had a grand scheme in place, inspired by one of your classic films. I was to go to your apartment with a boombox, hold it aloft, and play you a romantic composition. Rock You Like a Hurricane was the one that came to mind."
"The other residents in the building would have loved that," Tony said with a laugh.
Thor's hands moved to Tony's scarf and tugged Tony forward with it.
"Thank you," Thor said, before pressing a kiss against Tony's forehead, "for finding Modi."
And if it was still cold outside, Tony couldn't feel it. All he felt was warmth and heat.
"Now," Thor continued, "Derrick is bringing so-called Chinese take-out. Will you not join us?"
Tony looked over to where Jane and Modi were both smiling at him. "I suppose I will."
They all went into the coffee shop, then, and they decided to eat there instead of the upstairs kitchen. Modi pulled some chairs from the top of a table. Thor started up the coffee machine. Derrick arrived shortly, arms loaded with plastic bags from which wafted the most mouth-watering of aromas. He was a surprising milquetoast of a man, skinny and bespectacled, but from the way he doted on Jane and the way she looked at him, Tony wondered if two people had ever been more in love. Dinner was a loud affair, full of laughter, voices speaking over each other, and the occasional errant chow fun noodle flying through the air. Tony loved every second of it.
One Month Later
"Good morning, Tony."
The cheerful, feminine voice was followed by what sounded like knocks on wood, and Tony blinked his eyes open to see Jane standing in the partially open door.
"Coffee's ready," Jane went on. "I brought a cup up from the shop for you."
Tony got up and then nearly tripped over a pair of jeans on his way to the bathroom. Really, he had to talk to Thor about letting him hire a cleaning service for the place. Especially since, with Jane moving out soon, the communal areas would start to suffer as well. After brushing his teeth and getting ready he made his way to the kitchen, where there was, indeed, a hot cup of coffee waiting for him. Modi was still there as well, putting the finishing touches on a sandwich that he would soon be stuffing into a paper bag.
"You're going to be late," Tony said, in a sing-song voice.
"I know that," Modi sang back to him, before resuming a normal manner of speaking. "Hey, you're coming to my school play tonight, aren't you?"
"You're in a play?"
Modi rolled his eyes and Tony laughed.
"Thor's picking me up after work," Tony said. He watched as Modi ran out, then finished his coffee and grabbed a granola bar from the pantry. Thor was manning the front of the coffee shop, and Tony gave him a kiss goodbye on the way out. Then it was a short ride to Stark Tower and Pepper meeting him at his office.
"I'll need to see the contracts for the Worthington deal," Tony said, as he came in, "and I'd like an update on the improved solar energy source R&D is working on."
"Yes, sir." Pepper's voice was more cheerful than Tony had ever heard it, matching the big smile on her face. It must be nice working for a competent boss for a change.
It was a long day but it went by fast. Just as Tony was finishing up and about to grab his coat, his secretary's voice buzzed over the intercom.
"I'm sending someone in to see you, Mr. Stark," she said, her voice static and buzzing, and Tony wondered why he wasn't being given a say in the matter. That question was answered, however, when Jim Rhodes stepped in through the door.
At first Tony wasn't sure what to say or do, so he just sat there as Jim approached his desk. Jim himself seemed stiff and equally unsure of himself, and he turned his face away to the side as he put a box down on Tony's desk.
"Yeah." Jim fiddled with the edges of the box as he spoke. "I meant to do this earlier, you know, after running into you at that restaurant, but I've been busy. Moving to Hong Kong. My fiancé's from there."
"Oh," Tony said, as speechless in his awkwardness as Jim was rambling.
"It's some of Greg's stuff. Old family albums. Been gathering dust in the attic, and I figured you might want to have it."
Jim turned his head toward Tony, but he still wasn't looking at him, eyes lost somewhere in the box. "You know, after everything went down, after everything had settled, I wanted to get in touch with you. Greg always had an excuse why I shouldn't, back then, and when his excuses ran out I guess I felt like it was too late. It had been too long." And here Jim finally did look up at him, brown eyes full of things that Tony couldn't read. "But it really makes me happy to see you're doing good now. You are doing good, aren't you?"
"Yes," Tony said, finally finding his tongue. "Well, mostly. I have more good days than bad, and that's all that I could wish for. It's all that anyone could wish for, really."
A small smile pulled at the corner of Jim's lips. "Ain't that the truth." Jim fiddled some more with the box before letting go and taking a step back. "I better go. You take care, Tony."
"You too, Jim."
As Tony watched Jim leave, he was still unsure of what had just happened. The short exchange had been awkward and fumbling and hadn't offered anything in the way of closure, but somehow Tony felt lighter for it. He smiled as he stood up, moved the box to the side where he would deal with it come Monday, and made his way downstairs. Thor was waiting for him in the lobby and swung an arm around his shoulders as he approached.
"A night of fine theater awaits," he said, before leaning down to give Tony a kiss hello.
Tony could only smile, too happy to do much else.