Standing in front of a nondescript garage, Steve re-checked the address given to him by a friend of a friend. He sighed and squared his shoulders, reminding himself again how much he needed this meeting. Everything depended on a good outcome. Fearing the garage was not open, he tried the handle of the door, which turned out to be unlocked. Opening the door, he walked in across the gleaming epoxy-coated floor. The garage was deserted except for the shiny blue Shelby Cobra in one bay. And the man leaning under the hood, cursing at the engine.
“Mr. Stark?” Steve asked politely.
Lean and built, Tony Stark stood up and pushed his amber safety goggles up into his wavy dark hair. His t-shirt was a shade tight and his low-riding jeans just barely clung to his hips. Steve had no idea where to look or how to stop staring. Tony rubbed his face, leaving a grease smear on a cheek. “Yeah, call me Tony. Mr. Stark’s my dad.”
“Um, Tony, I’m Steve Rogers. Tasha sent me,” Steve said.
Leering, Tony slowly looked Steve up and down. “You’ll do,” he finally said to Steve, who felt naked under Tony’s bright brown-eyed stare.
“Um, okay,” Steve replied. “You know why I’m here then.”
Tony tossed his work gloves on a cart and motioned to Steve to follow him to a kitchenette with a table and chairs in the back of the garage. Tony swung a chair around and sat, his arms propped across the back. Steve sat down across from him warily. “So, let me tell it to you straight, Army Boy. My father’s will says I can only inherit his fortune if I marry by the age of thirty.” He rolled his eyes and his lips quirked. “He had some odd idea that marriage would make me responsible or something. Right. So I turn thirty in two months, which leaves me no time to seal the deal. That’s where you come in.”
“I was told you were looking for a husband,” Steve carefully said.
“Or wife. I’m not picky. Or, actually, I’m picky or else I’d be married by now,” Tony snorted.
“So, why aren’t you married?”
Tony waved his hand dismissively. “Never thought much about it – always something better to do. I figured someone would show up sooner or later, and I wouldn’t have to worry. But now time’s caught up to me.”
Steve nodded. He didn’t know if that friend of Natasha’s had told Tony how desperate Steve was. This was not Steve’s proudest moment. When he was growing up, he dreamed that when he got engaged it would be moonlight, roses and romance, not brokering a deal in the corner of an antiseptic industrial garage with a stranger from a completely different world. A much wealthier world.
“Okay, what’s your deal?” Tony asked. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want something. I’m all about the inheritance, so you must need money too.”
“Well, I’m in debt.”
Tony shrugged. “Course you are. Most of America’s in debt. So you want me to pay your debts then? Exactly how did you get into debt, Captain?”
“I resigned my commission when I left the Army. I’m just Steve.”
“Just Steve,” Tony echoed. “So why are you here, ‘Just Steve’?”
Steve sucked in a deep breath. He was not ready to share the difficult details of his life with this rather blunt and mercenary man. “I have a lot of credit card debt from my mother’s long illness and her funeral costs. Her medical bills are part of her estate, but I cared for her all last year when she couldn’t work.” Steve nearly wilted under the intenseness of Tony’s sharp brown eyes. “My savings are gone and I’m in bad straits. I have obligations to meet … and – and – my work as a freelance graphic designer isn’t enough to support me and my daughter.” Steve clenched his jaw and he directed his gaze at his hands, frustrated and embarrassed.
“Hold up. I didn’t know that you came with a daughter. Where’s the mother?” Tony snapped.
Steve had recited his life story to enough people that he could get through it without tears. And he was determined to not cry in front of Mr. Supercilious here. He decided grimly that the short version would do. “She died a few years ago.”
“Well, that’s a complication.” Tony tapped his fingers on the table in front of him. “Okay. We’ll deal with it. My friend only said you needed help with money. That’s all you want from me?”
Steve felt profoundly uncomfortable about the whole situation. Not that Tony had said anything rude, but he rubbed Steve the wrong way with his arrogant and condescending attitude. This was such a terrible idea. But then he thought of little Sarah, back at the apartment he currently shared with a couple of roommates. He squared his shoulders. “Like I said, I want to settle my debts and a get a little ahead financially.”
Tony nodded his head. “You and I are on the same page then.”
Then he sprang up from his chair and started pacing back and forth, lost in thought for a few minutes. He turned to Steve. “Alright, here is the plan. I’ll settle your debts after we tie the knot and you sign on the dotted line. We’ll need to stay married for two years to convince everyone concerned that you and I are serious. After two years, we’ll get divorced and I’ll give you a sizeable settlement so you can live in relative comfort for the rest of your life, contingent on you keeping your mouth shut about our arrangement.”
Steve nodded. He swallowed and said, “I can live with that.”
“Good!” Tony exclaimed, clapping him on the back. “I’ll talk to my lawyers and hammer out the details. I’ll have my personal assistant get in touch with you about the prenup, engagement gala, and wedding.”
“Engagement gala?” Steve asked with concern.
“You’re marrying into the Stark family. I’ve been a staple of the tabloids for years. It would raise suspicion if I didn’t do this right. And that means media coverage from start to finish.”
“Okay,” Steve agreed with reluctance.
Tony grinned broadly. “Ohhh, my father’s lawyers and the Stark Industries Board of Directors are going to eat you up. American hero, dead mother, dead wife, and a little daughter. Perfect.”
With that, Tony turned back to his car engine, leaving Steve to wonder exactly what he was getting into as he left. Because he was not at all impressed with Tony, almost verging on dislike.
One subway and bus ride back to his Brooklyn apartment later, Steve returned home just before Natasha had to leave for work. She had pitched in as Sarah’s afternoon babysitter so that Steve could meet with Tony. Three weeks ago after the news from the doctor about Sarah, he had told her about his financial situation. Knowing how bad his situation was, she suggested he contact Pepper Potts at Stark Industries. Natasha was still in touch with Pepper, whom she had worked for on a temp job a few years back. She thought Pepper might just have a solution for Steve’s situation. That led to his afternoon meeting with Tony.
Already dressed for her bartending job, Natasha was watching The Backyardigans with Sarah in the living room. “Hey, Steve. Did it work out?” she asked as he walked through the door.
“Yeah, well, it looks like I got the job,” Steve said. He scooped up a happy five-year old Sarah to give her a kiss and hug.
“Daddy, look!” She showed him the pictures she had drawn that afternoon.
After praising her crayon drawings, Steve settled down on the couch with Sarah in his lap. He patted her mop of curly chestnut-brown hair. “Everything go well this afternoon?” he asked Natasha.
“She’s always an angel,” Natasha said with a smile as she got her purse and keys. “Tell me later how it went, okay, Steve? I’ve got to go to work now.”
“Bye, Tasha,” Sarah called out.
Steve checked the time. “Ready for dinner, pumpkin?” he asked.
Sarah ignored him in favor of playing with her crayons. Steve ruffled her hair as he got up to make dinner for the both of them. He left the television on as he worked in the kitchen. He didn’t have the heart to ask Sarah to help set the table. She was looking particularly tired and worn today. As he cut up Sarah’s chicken, he wondered how he was going to tell her about Tony and that they were going to leave the apartment. Once dinner was ready and on the table, he pulled out the pill box with Sarah’s medication.
“Sarah, dinner,” he called out.
His daughter hopped up on her chair. “Stop, medicine first,” Steve said to her. She shook her head and grabbed a roll.
Steve was not in the mood to argue with her. “Sarah Margaret Rogers, take your medicine now,” he said firmly. As he watched his daughter reluctantly swallow the pills keeping her alive, Steve knew the cost of each pill and why she took it. It killed him to see the dark circles under her eyes and the purple under her nails indicating poor circulation.
After a couple of games, a few bedtime stories and a glass of water, Steve sat by Sarah in her bed as she negotiated for another bedtime story. “No, sweetheart, time for bed,” he said.
She yawned. “Daddy, one more story,” she begged. Steve kissed her forehead. “No, Sarah, sweetie, it’s time for you to go to sleep.” He got up and turned off the light.
He spent the rest of the evening in the living room until it was time for him to go to bed. It was difficult sharing a bedroom with Sarah but that was all he could afford. His roommates Natasha and Clint worked a variety of different shifts, coming and going at all times of the day and evening. They meant well, but the noise and lack of regular routine were not good for his sick daughter.
There was a message on his phone from Pepper about meeting to discuss the details of the prenup, engagement party and the wedding.
Steve felt profoundly morally uncomfortable marrying purely for financial security. He wasn’t able to get a good enough read on Tony to know if he was someone he could live with. But thinking about Sarah sleeping in their shared room, he resolved to see it through.
He texted Pepper back to agree to a meeting time. All he could hope was that he was doing the right thing.
Steve realized that if he thought about being married to Tony as a job, he could put up with the ongoing circus surrounding the two of them. Tony’s assistant, Pepper, gave Steve a six-week schedule that included a meeting with the lawyer to sign a prenup, the engagement party and the wedding itself. She apologized to Steve that she couldn’t plan a large flashy affair. But Steve was fine with the small wedding at an art museum and a reception catered by a famous chef. For all the events, including dates with Tony in very public places, Steve suspected all he needed was to show up as requested and be polite and presentable. He could work with that.
By the time he met with Jarvis, Tony’s butler, to discuss living arrangements, Steve was becoming progressively uneasy about the life he was stepping into. After meeting with Pepper, he had been dispatched to clothing stores to revamp his wardrobe, to a hairdresser and day spa to improve his overall appearance, and to Stark Industries Corporate Communications to meet the media team who would be covering the engagement and wedding press releases. Tony lived in a world of extravagant wealth that Steve had only seen on the television.
Jarvis had been incredibly kind as he showed Steve around Tony’s penthouse apartment before Steve met Tony for their first official date. Steve had been whisked to Stark Tower in a chauffeured car and then into the private elevator that ran straight to the penthouse. Looking at his mirrored reflection in the metal surface of the elevator, Steve barely recognized himself in the designer suit and stylish hair cut.
Then the elevator doors opened up to an imposing foyer where Jarvis, an older man very well dressed in a dark suit and tie, greeted him. “Captain Rogers? As Ms. Potts runs Master Tony’s life at work, I run his life here. We have much to discuss. Perhaps a tour first?” Jarvis suggested. Steve agreed, wondering what was on the other side of the closed door.
They walked through the three-story apartment while Jarvis discussed hiring an interior designer to decorate Steve and Sarah’s rooms. Steve had never lived in a place this large before. Jarvis showed him the formal living room, which had floor-to-ceiling windows, the large kitchen, the formal dining room, a library, and guest rooms. Jarvis had already selected a large corner room with windows along two walls for Sarah’s room and noted how they could knock out a wall to include a playroom for her. Overwhelmed, Steve nodded in agreement.
On the third floor, he showed Steve his room, which was adjacent to Tony’s. The room was the largest bedroom Steve had ever seen, with an en suite complete with shower and a Jacuzzi tub. The wall of windows had a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline and the skyscrapers surrounding them. Jarvis apologized for the lack of furniture in the empty room, save for a bed and nightstand. He then showed Steve the walk-in closet, which was outfitted with beautiful wood cabinetry. “This is Sir’s closet as well,” he mentioned and opened the door that led to Tony’s bedroom. Steve caught a glimpse of the even larger master suite decorated in the latest contemporary style.
“I thought that Tony was living on his trust fund?” Steve asked.
“He is allowed access to assets of the family estate until his thirtieth birthday. If he fails to marry, then he must leave and the Tower will be sold,” Jarvis explained.
Jarvis brought him back to the library to wait for Tony. He was vague as to where Tony spent his time but reassured Steve that Tony would be on time for their programmed date. Left to his own devices in the sleek light wood and aluminum decorated room, Steve selected a book on World War II from a bookcase more filled with toys and art pieces than books. He sat down in an uncomfortable leather and chrome armchair and skimmed through the book, waiting for Tony to arrive.
A half-hour later, Tony poked his head in the door. “Hey there, ready to go?” he asked.
“Where are we going?” Steve said, trying to hide his irritation. He set the book on the end table and went after Tony.
“Somewhere ritzy,” Tony replied. “Oh, Pepper’s made arrangements for paparazzi to get photos for the gossip sites tomorrow. So smile for the cameras.”
Steve noted that Tony cleaned up very nicely in his black suit and mauve shirt open at the collar. He had to admit that Tony had looked great the other day just clad in a t-shirt and jeans. Tonight, he was pushing all of Steve’s buttons. Steve had dated guys in college before meeting Peggy, and Tony was definitely his type. Dinner had suddenly become more promising.
Tony brought him down the private elevator to a waiting town car. Steve liked the feel of Tony’s hand on his back as Tony guided him into the car. Once on their way to the restaurant, Tony looked Steve over with a critical eye. “Not bad. Pepper’s work, right?” Tony asked.
“She did some of the shopping,” Steve answered.
“Good. You have to look the part now that you’re working for me.”
Steve nodded and looked out at the passing streets. He ventured awkwardly as Tony checked messages on his phone, “How was work?”
“Work?” Tony smirked. “I put in a few hours in the garage this morning, I guess. But I had to look at cars this afternoon. There was this Lamborghini you would not believe. So I bought it and a couple of others also. Real classic cars.”
Steve’s mind reeled at the cost. “I thought you had a job with Stark Industries.”
Tony shook his head. “Nope, I just own the company. Obadiah Stane runs it for me. I dabble here and there in Research and Development. But I’ve got better things to do than to go to work.” He gave Steve a sidelong glance. “You know, after the wedding, we could go on a trip to Aruba or St. Lucia or some place like that. If you look half as good in a speedo like you do in that suit, I lucked out.”
The chauffeur pulled in front of the restaurant and Tony tugged on Steve’s sleeve. “Showtime,” he said.
As soon as they left the car, lights from cameras flashed in Steve’s eyes, nearly blinding him. Tony put his arm around Steve’s waist and kissed his cheek. Then he pushed Steve along the sidewalk into the restaurant. Tony was gleeful. “Right on time, just as Pepper promised.”
Steve had to readjust his clothes. Tony called him over as the maitre d’ waited to bring them to their table. Which of course was the best table in the place. But Tony had to stop and glad hand nearly everyone in the place as they walked to their table. Tony had something to say on any given topic from stock prices to shipping woes to where to buy a summer home. Steve was fascinated by Tony’s social talents, because as much as Steve liked people, he was never that comfortable in party or social situations and Tony looked completely at home.
And Steve was flustered a bit when the maitre d’ pulled out his chair for him to sit. Tony smirked and ordered the wine for the table without a glance at the wine list. Steve wondered if this was all for show or that Tony really did live this way all the time. “I recommend the seafood,” Tony said, breaking into Steve’s jumbled thoughts. He tapped the menu.
“Oh, of course.” Steve was glad for the distraction.
During dinner, Tony talked nonstop about cars, robots, consumer electronics, Miami, and pretty much anything that crossed his mind. Steve’s plan for the evening was to get to know Tony better, maybe find something in common. Tony managed to deflect any questions about himself and Steve began to feel like he was having dinner with his boss, not his fiance. And he also realized that Tony never actually introduced him to any of the people in the restaurant.
Steve tried again just before dessert. “So what do you do for fun?”
Tony twisted a napkin between his fingers. “Party? I spend a lot of time in clubs and traveling to fun places.” He shrugged. “I’m a socialite. I have things to do, places to go. I’m rather busy.”
Before Steve could ask another question, a very stylishly dressed couple came up to Tony. Seemingly relieved to be spared any other questions from Steve, Tony jumped to his feet and greeted them with hugs and cheek kisses. “Sunset! Ty! Last time I saw you was in Ibiza.”
Sunset smiled coyly at Tony, her dark brown hair with blonde highlights shining under the restaurant lights and her brown eyes warm. “Only a couple of months ago, darling.” Then with an upturned lip, she said, “I heard you had to leave under mysterious circumstances.”
Tony laughed richly and threw up his hands. “Sworn to secrecy here. But it was worth it.”
Checking the dining room as they talked, black-haired Ty asked, “So how long are you in town, Tony? We should get together.”
Frowning and shaking his head, Tony said, “I’m booked solid for the next month and a half. Getting married, you know.”
“Oh, who is the poor unfortunate?” Sunset teased.
“Um, well, Steve here,” Tony said, pointing to Steve at the table.
“How lovely. Pleased to meet you, Steve,” Sunset said reaching out to shake Steve’s hand. She glanced over at Ty. Turning to Tony, she added, “We have to go. But I’ll text later. Ask you about how you found this gorgeous man. Maybe he has a friend.”
After his friends left, Tony grew quiet and actually stopped talking while Steve ate his tiramisu in silence. The bill couldn’t come soon enough, Steve thought, after trying to restart the conversation again. “Any plans?” Steve asked.
“Were you planning to stay at the penthouse tonight? Or go back home?” Tony asked distractedly.
“Go back home. The babysitter is expecting me. Unless you wanted to go somewhere else?”
Tony checked his phone. “No. All we had scheduled was dinner.” He tapped a few times. “Come on, Happy’s waiting and he’ll drop you home.”
“Are you coming?” Steve asked, feeling vaguely annoyed. They were going to be living together for at least two years, at least Tony could make an effort to get to know Steve.
“No. I’m going out to a club, not way out to Brooklyn.”
Tony arranged for Happy to pick up Steve away from public eyes. As Steve got into the car, Tony said, “See you at the next scheduled event.” And that was the end of the evening with Tony.
Despite Steve’s innate optimism that things would improve between Tony and him while they spent time together in the run up to the wedding, Steve barely learned anything more about Tony over the next few weeks. All he knew about Tony came from internet searches, and he was a bit dismayed to find the stories about Tony that filled the gossip sites. And, what was worse, that the business press had little good to say about Tony and his lack of involvement with Stark Industries. Steve could not find anything about Howard Stark’s will and Tony’s inheritance, only the odd reference to Tony as a trust fund baby.
Pepper was ecstatic about the press that Tony was getting with his boyfriend Steve and relieved that for once he was on the gossip sites for dating. Over a late lunch in her office, Pepper said happily, “They are going to go nuts after the engagement announcement.” Then she added wistfully, “If we had more time, I could’ve planned the wedding of the year. I bet I could’ve even gotten us a magazine cover.”
Steve nodded. He was still trying to process everything about the engagement and wedding. Pepper knew him well enough that she trusted Steve to show up to his appointments on time. But for the past week he had at least two appointments a day all over the place and was started to feel run ragged.
She went over her checklist. “Engagement party is tomorrow night. And the Bugle will be running a large blurb on the engagement with a picture in Sunday’s paper. You’ve had your tux fitting; the tux will be delivered to the penthouse tomorrow morning. We’ll have a nanny in place for Sarah.”
“Good,” Steve said. “I hope it’s the nanny she’s had before …”
“Yes, same woman. Now, I’ve been going over the guest list for the wedding. Your guests in particular. Are you sure you don’t have anyone else to invite?” Pepper asked.
Steve shook his head. He had invited Clint and Natasha, of course. His only other guest was his best man, his college friend Sam. His best friend from childhood, Bucky, couldn’t get leave from the army to attend. And Steve didn’t have family now that his mother had passed.
Pepper pursed her lips as she continued down the checklist. “I can’t think of anything else right now.”
“I would be fine with a courthouse wedding,” Steve mused.
She shrugged. “That would have been the easiest. Small wedding party, and then we could have had the reception at a restaurant. But we need witnesses, Steve, and as many as we can get. I need to make sure this is all done by the book.”
“For Tony’s sake,” Steve said carefully.
“I’m well paid to look after Tony’s interests,” she replied. “Plus, he’s a friend, so I’m doubly careful.”
“If you’re Tony’s friend, then why didn’t you marry him?”
She laughed a little. “He did ask, if that’s what you’re wondering about. But I turned him down – I’d kill him well before the two years were out. He’s a very good friend and I don’t want to lose that.”
Steve played with a fork. “Why two years? Is that good enough to convince people?”
“That’s the time period Tony’s lawyers figured would satisfy the will.”
“I’ve noticed you’ve haven’t planned a honeymoon?” Steve had been nervous about that. He was certain that he and Tony were entering into a marriage-in-name-only agreement, but he did not like surprises. And he had a suspicion that he was not being told everything.
“Tony doesn’t have the time, really. If it does become an issue as in someone challenging the will, I’ll make the arrangements then.”
Steve still had not figured out what Tony did all day that he wouldn’t have time for a honeymoon. He watched Pepper as she deftly flipped through post-it notes plastered all over her desk, her tablet and her phone. “What do you do exactly for Tony if he doesn’t actually work or anything?”
Pepper paused and sat up a little straighter in her chair. “Tony does many things and I make sure that he has the time to do them,” she replied firmly. “He might be complicated and hard to get to know, but he’s not hard to understand.”
He glanced down at his vibrating phone. A text from the doctor’s office about Sarah. “I have to go,” he said as he got up.
“Okay. I’ll set up another meeting – we need to discuss your charity work.”
Steve stopped at the door. “Charity work?”
“It’s expected. I didn’t think that you would have a problem with it?”
“No, not at all. But I thought that I could keep up with my freelance business.” The concept of not working was very foreign to Steve.
“Ah, if you want a job, I can find you one.” She waved him off. “See you next week, Steve.”
As expected, Steve showed up to the penthouse before the engagement party. He now had his own key card to the elevator and key to the apartment. Having finished Sarah’s room, the interior decorator was making progress on furnishing his room, and she had agreed to arrange things so that he had a drafting table instead of a seating area. He saw that Jarvis had hung a new designer tux in the closet. He was getting used to a closet more than large enough to change in. While checking the fit in the mirror, he heard Tony’s door open.
Tony, dressed only in a towel and fresh from the shower, seemed surprised to see Steve. “Hi, you’re early,” he said by way of greeting.
Steve checked his phone. “Don’t we have an interview in a half-hour?” he asked quizzically.
“Hmmm, time must have gotten away from me,” said Tony with a shrug. He rummaged through his drawers for underwear and socks and pulled out an additional item from another drawer. Then he handed over a present to Steve. “You should have this before the party.”
Steve unwrapped the present and uncovered a very expensive man’s watch, a top of the line Rolex. He turned it over to see an inscription -- Tony to Steve on their engagement. “Wow,” he gasped. “Thank you, Tony.” Setting down the wrapping paper on a counter, he put it on. He could tell it was quality from the weight and workmanship. “I’m sorry I didn’t get you something.” Although he could never afford anything like the watch.
Tony replied, “You gave me cufflinks and you have excellent taste.” He showed him the small ruby-encrusted gold cufflinks.
“Oh,” Steve replied.
“Just make sure the reporter sees the gifts,” Tony added. “See you downstairs?”
“Yeah, I’ll be in the library.” He turned to leave, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Tony drop his towel. The breath caught in Steve’s throat as he noticed the beautiful, well-muscled lines of Tony’s shoulder and back and the swell of Tony’s round, firm butt. Tony definitely had his assets. Tony cocked an eyebrow when he caught Steve admiring him. Stammering that he had to leave, Steve fled before Tony could say anything.
In the library, Christine Everhart, the reporter with Vanity Fair, shook both Steve’s and Tony’s hands and took her seat for her exclusive interview with Tony. Tony had worked with her before, and they bantered back and forth as she asked general questions about where they met, what they liked to do together, the usual questions for a celebrity interview. Tony put on a good show for her, holding Steve’s hand, leaning into him at the right moment, laughing and teasing, the very picture of a man in love. Steve thought he must have a frozen, dazed look on his look during the interview. That is, until Everhart threw a curveball and asked about his wife’s death. “I understand that you were the husband of Peggy Carter, who was killed in a car bombing in Lebanon.”
Steve nodded stiffly. “Yes. It was a terrible shock when she died.” He really didn’t want to talk about it with this woman. Peggy, his wife of three years, had only just sent Sarah to live with Steve’s mother a month before and then suddenly she was gone.
He looked over at Tony, who quietly squeezed his arm. “Steve is understandably still upset, especially since he and his wife had a daughter, so maybe it would be best to stop here.”
“But –” Everhart persisted.
Tony turned cold. “I suggest we move on to other topics,” he said icily. And she did at his insistence.
The interview continued a while longer, with Everhart changing her questions over to asking Tony about his takeover of Stark Industries and his planned new directions. Tony smiled broadly and was very pleased to discuss his company.
Later on, after the party was in full swing, Steve had developed a standard method for handling all the congratulations and subsequent questions. He thanked people and told them that he had met Tony at a Maria Stark Foundation event for sick children. It was love at first sight, and he had been surprised but pleased when Tony suddenly asked Steve to marry him after a romantic dinner. They were very happy together. And so on. Pepper rescued him a couple of times when he couldn’t escape fast enough from pushy guests.
He met and made small talk with the board of directors for Stark Industries, socialites, people who knew Tony from way back, and Foundation members. It was overwhelming after a while, and Steve found himself loitering around the hors d’oeuvre table nursing a drink in his hand. A tall, older man came up and introduced himself as Obadiah Stane. Steve recognized the name.
“Glad to meet the man who convinced Tony to settle down,” Stane said.
Steve replied, “Tony and I are very happy, and we’re looking forward to getting married and starting our life together.”
“Hmph,” Stane replied. “Hope you are able to enjoy it. Tony has always been very wild. So, good luck.” He clapped Steve on his back and went off into the party crowd.
A chill ran over Steve. He narrowed his eyes as he watched Stane’s retreating back. He wanted to know why he immediately mistrusted Stane. He went out to the kitchen to clear his head. Steve poured a glass of water and drank it down.
“I could watch you drink that all night long,” Tony purred. He slid up close to Steve. “How are you holding up?”
“Not to the point where I’d prefer to be back in Afghanistan,” Steve replied.
Tony chucked. “I admit that these affairs can get tedious. That’s why I actively avoid them.”
Steve looked down at Tony and his bright, shining eyes. Then Tony leaned closer and kissed Steve suddenly. Not thinking, Steve put his arms around Tony’s waist and kissed back. He quickly learned that Tony was an amazing kisser. He almost wished they wouldn’t stop.
But Steve jumped back when the flash of the camera went off. Tony just laughed. “I want copies of that,” he joked with the photographer. He turned to Steve and gave a mischievous smile. “That’s perfect publicity.” Then he swanned out of the kitchen.
Leaning heavily against the kitchen island, Steve balled his hand into a fist and thought grumpily on Tony. He really didn’t understand him at all and when he thought he might be attracted to the flighty man, Tony pushed him away. He was going to be stuck with this for two long, long years.
After the wedding, Steve settled into his new job as a part-time graphic designer in the Corporate Communications department at Stark Industries and took up his duties as a Trustee for the Maria Stark Foundation. The graphic designer job was a desperately needed escape from the oppression of his highly scheduled life as Tony Stark’s husband. He had to attend a constant stream of lunches and dinners, exhibit openings, charity events, parties and go to places he had to be seen. On top of that, he had a weekly public dinner date with Tony. And he was not particularly comfortable that their entire marriage seemed to play out in the tabloid and gossip press. But when he sat down to draw and sketch, the pressure melted away.
Even with being married to Tony for a few months, he still felt like an employee going out to a business dinner with Tony. They were getting to know each better in that Steve knew that Tony liked expensive cars, knew something about modern art, and had fondness for science-fiction television shows, but Steve still had no idea what Tony spent his time on. Maybe he wouldn’t have minded so much if he wasn’t finding Tony so very attractive and interesting.
Until Tony came into his life, Steve built his life around Sarah and pushed aside any thoughts of romance until their life was more secure. But Tony was worming his charming way under Steve’s skin. Steve longed now for love and romance and the special connection with a special someone. Yet even though they lived in the same house and were connected by a legal document, Tony stood tantalizingly just out of Steve’s reach.
Steve looked forward to their conversations over dinner and hoped that someday they would spend more time than their scheduled times together. He might have even lingered in the closet hoping to catch Tony. Tony seemed more at ease in the privacy of the room. One night, unexpectedly, Tony opened up about his work at Stark Industries, and Steve was immediately drawn to the passionate, intelligent side of Tony which he rarely saw. But then again, he rarely saw Tony.
One bright spot for Steve was watching Sarah playing in her playroom filled with toys. She took to her own room like a duck to water, though she loved to play with her Legos while Steve worked at his drafting table. Despite the unhappiness of his own life, seeing Sarah happy, warm and safe made him very glad. She would start first grade at a pricey private school Steve could never afford to send her in the fall. It was part of the expectations of their new life.
Steve returned home early one afternoon and he heard noise in the living room. Unexpectedly he found Tony and Sarah playing with small foam rockets. He quietly watched from the doorway as Tony directed Sarah to move the rocket bases so that the rockets once launched would hit specific targets taped to the wall. Sarah stomped on the pump bellows to launch the rocket. If successful, Tony would high-five Sarah. He was business-like in his explanations of how to launch and aim projectiles, but his eyes shone with glee with every successful hit. Steve was surprised to see that Sarah was getting along like a house on fire with Tony. And that Tony was very happy to spend time with Sarah.
Jarvis came out from the kitchen with milk and cookies for Sarah and Tony. Taking a cookie from the plate, Tony gave it to Sarah. “Chocolate chip, your favorite.” Sarah giggled and thanked Uncle Tony.
“Good afternoon, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis greeted Steve.
Sarah ran up to him and hugged him. “Daddy, let me show you! Uncle Tony showed me how to shoot rockets.”
They all spent the rest of the afternoon playing with the rockets and eating cookies. Tony even ate dinner and stayed around to watch The Backyardigans with them. While Sarah explained the characters to Tony, Steve went to get water from the kitchen.
Jarvis was washing glasses. He smiled at Steve. “It does one good to see Master Tony with Miss Sarah.” Steve agreed heartily.
After that afternoon, Steve discovered that Tony started playing with Sarah on a regular basis. Steve wished it didn’t involve shooting projectiles or building killer robots. But Tony made Sarah happy and that’s all that mattered for now. Even if Steve wished that Tony would be that happy spending time with Steve.
One Friday, Tony asked if Steve was free to go with him to a car show upstate the next day. Figuring it was going to be another media-covered event, Steve reluctantly agreed. The next morning, Tony showed up in Steve’s room while Steve talked with Sarah’s nanny. Unlike previous times, Tony was dressed casually in jeans and layered t-shirts. He looked good in charcoal and muted red. “Ready to go?” he asked.
“Sure,” Steve said, brushing his hair into place.
Tony seemed more relaxed than usual. He joked about various things in the elevator on the way down to the garage. Then Tony hopped into the driver’s seat of the Audi. In the over 8 months Steve had known Tony, Tony had never driven them anywhere. Sensing Steve’s question, Tony said, “Hey, can’t a guy drive his husband to a car show?” That drew a smile from Steve as he slid into the front seat.
The day continued to get better from then on. There was not a single camera in view as they toured through the classic cars. Tony even left his phone in the car. He talked about the cars, which ones he liked, which were horribly overpriced, which would not sell, which were hot sellers, which were good bargains. He leaned into Steve as they looked at the cars and introduced Steve to the other car enthusiasts as Tony talked cars. Feeling brave, Steve reached out to hold Tony’s hand and was rewarded with an intriguing smile and wink from Tony.
And it didn’t take much for Tony to talk Steve into going to a restaurant for an early dinner. Over dinner, Steve couldn’t help but notice how attractive Tony was, with his thick, wavy hair and bright brown eyes. He liked the warmth of Tony’s hand brushing against his as they ate and talked.
They talked about their pasts. Tony shook his head and said, “My story is as common as they come. Boarding school, MIT, and then back home. I’ve been puttering around ever since.”
Steve had been in ROTC in college and then shipped out to Afghanistan after graduation. He mentioned offhand that Sarah had been a surprise for him and Peggy, his on-and-off girlfriend, and that they they had quickly decided to get married.
“I thought from the stories that you must have married your childhood sweetheart,” Tony said.
“I bounced between dating girls and boys in high school and college, and then I met Peggy. She was the girl for me, but we both were always busy and never really had time together. Even when we were married.” Steve sipped his beer and looked out the window at the street. “So why did your father put in your will that you had to get married?”
Startled at Steve’s question, Tony coughed and drank some water to clear his throat. “Well, the story I tell everyone is that he didn’t think I was a real adult and didn’t trust me to run his company. Marriage was supposed to make me grow up.” Tony leaned back into his chair and twirled a fork in his fingers. He had a rueful look on his face. “My father and I didn’t get along at all. If I were Pepper, I’d say that it was because we were exactly alike. Actually, Pepper says that all the time, so not a surprise there. What my dad’s lawyer told me was that my father regretted wasting his twenties on partying and women. Howard thought that if I got married early I wouldn’t end up like him. Only he decided to force the issue by making my inheritance dependent on marriage. So instead I spent a lot of time trying to overturn the will. But here you are, so you can tell how well that plan worked.”
“That’s not great parenting.”
“Great parenting if you’re a control freak,” Tony pointed out. He shrugged. “That’s not my problem now. My problem now is that Stane is trying to push me out of the company.”
“That – that doesn’t sound good.”
“Not at all. Plus he’s hired a detective to try to prove we have a fake marriage. He’s not doing well on that front. You’ve proven to be the real deal. And we got married in front of all the Board of Directors. So, go us.”
Steve turned back to his meal. He appreciated that his bills were paid off and that he could afford to take his daughter to the best doctors. But as friendly as Tony was, they weren’t in a real marriage. He could not get a good read on Tony today, either. The whole day felt very promising with Tony’s hands on his arm, but Steve had been disappointed before. Then Steve remembered the kiss in the kitchen during the engagement party. And he was ashamed at what he willing to do to try that again with Tony.
“We should head back, I guess,” Tony said.
“I don’t have plans and Sarah is being watched by her nanny,” Steve offered. Now that he had Tony’s attention for himself, he wasn’t ready to give it up.
“Wanna go for a long ride then?” Tony said, low and seductively.
Steve smiled right back. “Yes, that sounds perfect.”
Tony started their ride back to the city on back roads, driving much slower that he ordinarily would, as he told Steve. Steve loved the drive and talking to Tony about cars and baseball and science fiction. Finally, Tony pulled into a park north of the city and parked at a scenic overlook, and they watched the lights go on while the sun set. Tony leaned over and lifted Steve’s chin. He brushed Steve’s lips with his and then went in for a deeper kiss, taking Steve’s breath away. They kissed for a few minutes more.
Coming up for air, Tony said with a sigh, “We should go back.”
“We could watch a movie back at the house.”
“Best idea I’ve heard all day.”
Settled on the couch with Tony, Steve barely watched the film they agreed on. He reveled in Tony’s warm body nestled against him. It was so easy to kiss him and then slip into making out on the couch, enjoying Tony’s hands finding the right spots to get Steve all excited. A little friction was dizzying. It had been so long since Steve was this close with someone and Steve just ached for more.
“Go upstairs?” Tony asked.
Steve nodded and let Tony pull him up from the couch and lead him to Tony’s room.
After the car show, Steve spent more time with Tony away from the cameras and demands of the socialite life. There were the family moments, like the day Steve watched Tony and Sarah fly kites in a park or when they watched movies together in the den. But rarer still were the moments when Tony let his guard down around Steve and they just talked all night long, sometimes ending up in bed. His relationship with Tony had turned into some sort of odd friends-with-benefits deal.
Sarah was just crazy for Tony, even though Steve was still not certain how Tony felt about them. Steve had not realized how deeply lonely he had been after the loss of nearly all his family. Tony put a smile back on his face. But Tony never talked about what he doing during the day or where he went at night when he didn’t want to spend time with Steve or Sarah. Every time Tony was dressed up to the nines and told him breezily not to wait up, Steve was immediately reminded that there wasn’t really a connection between them and that he essentially worked for Tony.
Maybe their current arrangement wasn’t the best thing for Steve in the long run, but he was happy for now. He was willing to take the little that Tony offered. But there was a growing feeling he couldn’t ignore that he was just letting himself be used to get the physical comfort that Tony offered.
But soon he had more to worry about than his troubled feelings over Tony. Three different doctors gave him the exact same diagnosis for Sarah. Her heart condition had worsened and surgery was the only solution. Steve went ahead and scheduled the surgery.
Pepper called him into her office to ask about why he cancelled out of upcoming charity events. “Steve, what is going on here?” she asked bluntly.
“Sarah has upcoming surgery and we have to get ready for it.”
“But everything, Steve? I’ve received some calls about why you aren’t attending. You’ve become very popular with the fundraisers …”
He put his foot down with Pepper. “No, cancel all my appointments. I have to spend time with Sarah before, during, and after the surgery, and she is my priority above everything else.” He explained how sick Sarah was and what they were facing.
With tears in her eyes, Pepper said, “I’m so sorry, Steve. When people ask, can I tell them that you are staying at home to take care of your daughter? It might open up a can of worms you’d prefer to not to.”
“I don’t care,” he replied firmly. “Sarah needs me. I can go back on the dog-and-pony-show circuit after this.”
“We’ll do that. Keep in touch, Steve, I want to know how things go.”
The charity event at Maria Stark ran on longer that Steve had originally planned on. As he passed through the quiet penthouse, he gladly thought that this was his last event until after Sarah’s operation. He believed in the work the Foundation did, especially for underprivileged children, but the events wore on him. Unexpectedly he saw a light on in the library. He went to check, thinking that either the nanny or Jarvis had left it on. But it was Tony, sprawled out in the armchair, his suit coat on the floor, his shirt unbuttoned, tie askew, and a half-empty bottle of scotch on the side table.
“Tony?” Steve asked from the doorway. “Are you okay?”
Tony blinked a couple of times and then glared at Steve. “I don’t like being lied to. Let’s just get that clear right here and now.”
Steve’s eyebrows shot up. He could tell from Tony’s glassy eyes and the smell of alcohol in the room that Tony was very drunk. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Liar. You are a liar.” Tony weakly pointed at Steve and then dropped his arm.
“About what, Tony?” Steve repeated patiently.
“About Sarah. You lied about her ….”
“What is this about, really? I told you everything.”
“Not about the open-heart surgery. Cripes, Steve, she’s only five! Why didn’t you tell me?” Tony snapped. “I just thought she had asthma or chronic allergies.”
“Oh, I see.” Steve stepped into the room and sat down opposite from Tony. “I told you that I needed help with my debt. And taking care of Sarah includes a lot of debt.”
“Again, why didn’t you tell me?”
Steve rubbed his hands on his thighs. “No, I didn’t lie. I didn’t know at the time we agreed to get married that she would need surgery this soon. And yes, she does need open heart surgery to fix a valve. The doctors wanted to avoid doing something drastic, but everything they tried wasn’t working. I only scheduled the surgery a couple of days ago and ended up telling Pepper so I wouldn’t be scheduled for anything.”
Reluctant to let Steve off the hook, Tony tapped his fingers on the chair arm. “Tell me everything from the beginning.”
“Okay. Sarah had a congenital heart problem when she was born ...” Steve told Tony about all of Sarah’s heart problems and how her health continued to decline. Instead of thriving, she was small and fragile. And after his wife’s death, Steve decided to resign his commission and leave the army. His mother was caring for his daughter while he finished up with the army. They were managing, but then his mother developed pancreatic cancer and passed away. Choking up a little, Steve said, “I’d do anything for Sarah, Tony. She’s all that I have now.”
“What do the doctors say? Have you gotten a second opinion?”
“I even got a third opinion. The odds are good, but she is very young and it’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
“Okay, okay. Guess we’ve got to get through the surgery then,” Tony muttered.
Steve celebrated his first wedding anniversary with Tony in the hospital waiting for news about the success of Sarah’s operation. Steve actually didn’t remember until Pepper sent them both a text message asking if they wanted to set up an anniversary date or even a party. Wrung out with worry, Steve was not interested. Tony tried to cheer him up with a piece of cake.
Then doctors met with them to announce that the surgery had been a success. Tony immediately bear-hugged Steve. “Can we see her?” Steve asked with great relief. They were allowed to see Sarah, still under the anesthesia and hooked up to IVs and a heart monitor. As Steve sat down by her bedside, Tony stood behind him and rubbed his shoulder.
Much later, on their way home, Steve turned to Tony and said, “Thank you. I needed the support.”
Tony shifted in his seat. “Well, you know, I’ve invested a lot in you two. Got to see it through.”
Steve didn’t know what to say to that. It was like Tony didn’t have feelings.
In the months after Sarah’s surgery, Steve saw less of Tony than usual. Tony blew hot and cold. He’d spend a lot of time with Sarah watching cartoons and playing games with her during her recovery. He’d talk for a long time with Steve when they ran across each other in the closet. They went on the occasional date without the paparazzi and Steve thought that Tony had a great time. But it was like Steve and Sarah were Tony’s secret family, because Tony never brought Steve along to work events or any place where Stark Industries people would be.
Steve swallowed his disappointment and focused his energies on caring for Sarah, his work projects and charity work. He had fallen a little too hard for an emotionally unavailable man. And as much as he would like to think that maybe whatever was between Tony and him once could have grown into love, that hope died when Tony even stopped making passes at Steve.
It all got worse when one morning on the way to work, Steve saw a big splashy photograph in The Daily Bugle of Tony coming out of a club, his arms draped over Ty and Sunset. Steve tried to put the picture out of his mind. But over the next few days, Tony was all over the gossip pages, often in the company of Ty and Sunset.
One day, Steve was in the kitchen after a late morning run putting together breakfast under Jarvis’ watchful eye. Tony slumped into the room, his hair wild and dark bags under his eyes. Jarvis wordlessly made a hangover cure and served it to Tony. “Ah, that’s the best,” Tony moaned.
Steve side-eyed Tony. “What’s going on, Tony?”
“Oh, nothing, I guess,” Tony replied groggily. “Been busy.”
“Nothing you want to tell me?”
There was a hard glint in Tony’s eyes as he noticed the challenge inherent in Steve’s question. “You keep your secrets, I keep mine.” Tony had not really forgiven Steve for not being forthcoming about Sarah’s illness.
“I explained myself, and I don’t have secrets,” Steve replied plainly.
“Neither do I,” Tony petulantly stated.
Steve snarled back, “You don’t need secrets. You just don’t tell anyone what you’re up to.”
“What’s this really about, Steve?”
Steve couldn’t explain it either. He was just massively angry with Tony for, well, everything. And he felt that Tony had rejected him. He sighed with exasperation.
“Don’t waste my time here,” Tony said tensely.
“You, you’re all over the gossip pages with your friends. And you never tell me what you’re doing any more. I just don’t know what to think.”
Tony had a grim smile on his face. “Jealous all of a sudden? Or just miserable at being left at home? You made it clear that you were just in it for the money, buddy, from the beginning. And the position of my watchdog is already filled by Pepper, thank you very much.”
Steve didn’t have a response. Tony was right -- they were both in it for the money. And he was too angry and jealous and confused to even suggest that he might have feelings for Tony beyond their financial partnership. He slammed his hand on the kitchen table and stormed out of the room.
He didn’t see or hear from Tony for three days after their argument. It was Pepper who called Steve to discuss a dinner party that Tony wanted to host in two weeks. “He wants to celebrate his first successful year as CEO and Chairman of Stark Industries. It’s going to be a big event.”
He rubbed his hand over his face. “And I’m expected to be there?”
“Yes. And Tony would like Sarah to be out of the apartment for the night too. He’s planning on live music and about a hundred people so it might all be too much for her. Could you could come by the office? We have some arrangements to go over.”
Early on the morning of the celebration, Steve met with Pepper as she set up for work in the library. She quickly established that Steve was going to show up on time, dressed appropriately in the latest designer tux she sent over, and wearing Tony’s wedding watch. “Thank god I can count on you to do as asked,” she said. “I might need some Tony-wrangling.”
“Tony hasn’t talked to me in over a week,” Steve replied dourly.
“You know, he does listen to you. But I can talk sense into him if he’s being fussy.” Her phone started to buzz. As she answered it, she shoved over a list of tasks for Steve to do.
The first task was overseeing the movers removing all the living room furniture for the catering tables, arranging party seating and setting up the location for the string quartet. Steve smiled, knowing that Tony must have fought with Pepper over that item. But this was a corporate event and she wasn’t going to hire a rock band for the party. Then Steve had to handle the caterers with Jarvis.
Jarvis and Steve were taking a late afternoon break when Pepper rushed into the kitchen. “Where is Tony?”
“I haven’t seen him,” Steve offered. Jarvis shook his head.
“I’ve been all over the penthouse and he’s not here.” Pepper checked her phone. “He’s in the workshop. Thank god. Steve, go and get him.”
“The workshop? What workshop?” Steve had never heard about the workshop.
Exchanging a meaningful look with Pepper, Jarvis said, “Let me show you.” He then led Steve to a door next to the laundry room in a back hallway. Jarvis slid a key card to open the door, which opened to reveal a hidden elevator.
After the short ride down a few floors, the elevator door opened and Steve looked into a large laboratory filled with computers, servers, half-built robots, and tables covered in mechanical parts, electronics, and machinery. Tony was in the middle of it all, wearing goggles as he welded, wearing a black tank top and ripped jeans. Steve whistled low at the amazing place that he had no idea was under the penthouse. And Tony had never looked hotter.
Jarvis smiled gently at Steve. “Remember he loves you,” Jarvis said as he nudged Steve to get off the elevator.
Steve looked at Jarvis in shock. But the elevator door closed and whisked Jarvis away, leaving Steve behind. He sighed, squaring his shoulders, and turned to face Tony. Because Tony was now staring at Steve.
“Um, Pepper sent me to get you,” Steve said.
Tony was pushing the goggles to the top of his head. “Oh, I’m late getting ready.” He looked reluctant to leave.
“Is this where you spend your time?”
“Yeah, this is my secret lab. I, um, kind of develop products here for a side company I started when I was in college. Didn’t want Dad to take over my work. And I’ve kept it ever since.”
“So you spend you time here?”
“Here or at that garage where we met. That’s where I work on my cars. But we’ve got to get going if Pepper let you know about this place.”
Tony pushed Steve, who was still staring at the workshop, back into the elevator. He keyed in the floor for their rooms. “Please don’t tell anyone about the workshop, Steve. I do my most important innovative work there and there are people who would do anything to get in there.”
Steve looked over at Tony, who looked very vulnerable. “You can trust me, Tony.”
Tony fell very quiet and said nothing as the elevator opened up in the hallway just outside Tony’s room. Steve was surprised -- Jarvis had told him that the door was just hiding a mechanical panel. “We have to get ready for the party, Steve,” Tony said. Then he looked up at Steve with big, liquid brown eyes. “Trust is a hard thing for me,” he said and gave Steve a brief kiss.
Three hours later, dressed in his tux with champagne in hand, Steve circulated through the party crowd. He made small talk as best he could and was grateful when the conversation turned to the Maria Stark Foundation. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tony making the rounds. Tony’s charm and buoyant energy drew his attention and he could only smile as his eyes followed him around the room. He so involved in watching Tony that he didn’t notice Obadiah Stane sidle up next to him.
“Here to support Tony?” Stane asked.
Steve had rarely seen Stane since he married Tony. “Of course.”
“How strange, given that Tony is constantly humiliating you with all those tabloid stories,” Stane said smoothly.
Steve had never been good at lying, but he didn’t trust Stane in the least. “I’m sure that all that gossip is just made up.”
Stane laughed. “Yeah, that’s probably what’s going on. The reporters and paparazzi just missed seeing Tony on the party circuit since you got married.”
Steve didn’t like the glint in Stane’s eye. “Have you tried the crab rangoons?” he asked, trying to change the topic.
Pepper had warned Steve that he needed to act the role of the supportive spouse. She’d heard that Stane had spies in the crowd. Steve wondered why Stane even cared at this point, since Tony and Steve had been married over a year by now, and had been seen in public way too many times holding hands and kissing, and had even consummated the marriage, if Stane was that much a stickler.
Ty and Sunset were in the corner sniggering and laughing over something with Tony. As Steve passed by, Tony snagged his arm and drew him close. “Oh, here’s the old ball-and-chain.”
If Steve didn’t like Stane’s ill-masked dislike, Steve really didn’t like Ty’s oiliness and Sunset’s contempt. Once Steve joined them, they immediately changed the topic to the latest parties they had attended, the clubs they had gone to last week, and their plans for this week, making it so very clear that Steve was not included in any of it and was most certainly unwanted. What made it worse was that Tony didn’t defend Steve at all, but laughed at their jokes.
Steve felt low and humiliated and found an excuse to leave them. He escaped to the kitchen where he commiserated with Jarvis, who had taken a dim view of the caterers. Jarvis mentioned to him that he had never seen Stane at the penthouse before, and that Tony never let Ty or Sunset out of his sight when they visited. Before Steve could ask more, Pepper retrieved him for the speeches.
Stane spoke first about how successful Stark Industries was now that Tony had taken over the reins and what Stark Industries had to look forward to in the future. Another board member praised Tony for his future-based thinking and all the innovations he had brought to the company. With a lot of loud clapping and shouts, Tony was pushed up to the front. “Speech, speech!”
Tony smiled widely at them. “Thank you, everyone, for all the nice things you said.”
Steve sipped his champagne and looked around the room. He saw Jarvis and the catering staff lined up along the buffet tables to listen to Tony.
“I want to thank you all for coming out tonight. And thanks to my assistant, Pepper Potts, for organizing this wonderful shindig.”
In the back of the room, Steve noticed Ty and Sunset slip furtively into the kitchen, checking to see if they were being watched.
“Next, I have to thank my wonderful and supportive husband, Steve.” Steve had to stop and turn as people clapped for him. “One terrific year of marriage and here’s to many more, Steve, light of my life.” He toasted to Steve and the corporate wives next to Steve smiled at him.
“Now, let’s talk about the future of Stark Industries. We have a bright future –”
Freed from the attention, Steve carefully maneuvered through the kitchen door. The two sneaks were nowhere to be seen, but he could hear their low voices. Loud applause in the living room filtered in as Tony talked on about medical technology. The noise covered Steve’s footsteps as he tread as quietly as he could, in dress shoes on tile, toward the laundry room behind the pantry.
His suspicions were correct. Sunset and Ty were trying to force open the secret elevator. “Stop right there,” commanded Steve, in his best Army captain’s voice.
Sunset kept trying to break into the key code for the elevator as Ty swung at Steve. He was no match for Steve, who dodged his pathetic attempt to tackle him. He stepped aside and Ty skittered across the tile floor and slammed into the wall. Ty struggled to get up but Steve pinned him firmly to the wall. Seeing Ty incapacitated, Sunset tried to escape, but Steve blocked her. “There’s no way out,” he said firmly. Only Jarvis’ apartment was at the end of the hallway and he knew it was locked.
Before long, Jarvis and Pepper came running in with the police to take them away. As they were discreetly removed from the apartment, he caught Tony’s appraising look. Then Pepper said, “Go back to the party. We’ll take care of them.”
After the party, Tony, Pepper and Jarvis were sitting around the kitchen table. Pepper updated Tony on what had happened. Tony groaned. “It was all a setup, a complete setup.”
Steve patted his shoulder. “You didn’t know.”
“I should have, though. Ty and Sunset were always fun to party with, but I knew somehow that they had to be up to something.” He grimaced. “They never wanted Steve around, and suddenly the paparazzi knew exactly when to show up to get the worst pictures. I was such an idiot.”
Tony got up and started pacing around. “I bet they were watching for just the right moment to try to break into the workshop. Hmmm, I wonder if Stane put them up to it. He was very cagey tonight. I’ve got work to do to prove it.” He ran a hand through his hair. “That’s why Stane didn’t get too angry when I got married and got a hold of my father’s shares. It wasn’t like he was going to inherit the estate – all that was going to charity. He made a show of trying to push me out, while all this time he was planning to steal my technology and patents and all my intellectual property. He could bankrupt Stark Industries from the inside. Brilliant and evil at the same time.”
Putting his arm around around Steve and Pepper, Tony stated, “All the people I trust in the world are in this room. Except for one person, but she’s six and more interested in her Legos than in corporate espionage.”
Steve smiled up at Tony, who ruffled his hair. “I owe you, Steve, I owe you.”
After all the excitement with Steve tossing Ty and Sunset out of their lives, and Tony driving Stane out of Stark Industries was over, Steve and Tony fell into a comfortable routine. They had resumed their friends-with-benefits relationship from before. What they had now was more than their initial roommates-with-rings agreement, but still far less than a fully committed marriage. The uncertainty nagged at Steve, especially as he noted that their second anniversary was only a couple of months away. He worried more as he sensed that Tony was starting to drift away again.
During his workouts, he tried to sort out exactly what he wanted. He knew that he had strong feelings for Tony. He was spending more of his nights in Tony’s room, to the point that he had practically made over his bedroom into his own art studio. They had their date nights and family outings, blessedly free of the press and paparazzi. But he didn’t see any signs that Tony was open to discussing a change in their agreement to divorce over two years, and Tony avoided talking about it. Although he might want things to be different, Steve was still a realist. He felt vaguely disappointed and cheated somehow.
He could start over again, he’d done that all his life – he’d go back to Brooklyn, and with the financial settlement, he could get his own apartment and set up his own business again. He’d have Sarah and maybe that was all he needed.
But when Tony returned from a business trip to California, things took a decided turn for the worse. He began to pick fights with Steve over petty things, like the cap off the toothpaste in the bathroom or what to watch on television. Within two weeks, they were fighting constantly over something or other after Sarah was sent to bed. Steve hated how he was interacting with Tony and hated the verbal slugfests that only ended when they were both tired. But they couldn’t stop.
It all came to a breaking point one late night when Tony complained that Steve washed and put away the dinner dishes. He pointed out that he had hired Jarvis for a reason and that Steve didn’t have to do the dishes.
“I like doing the dishes. And Jarvis and I made an agreement that he’ll let me do the occasional chore around the house and I won’t interfere with anything else,” Steve replied.
Tony rolled his eyes and huffed. “The point is that you don’t have to do any of it to begin with. I don’t understand you at all.”
Steve could feel the fight just beginning. “Tony –”
“Seriously, Steve, what’s wrong with you? I give you this entire life paid for and you just throw it in my face.” Tony raised his voice.
“Over dishes? You’re crazy,” Steve snapped back.
“Maybe you should just leave, Steve, if you can’t get with the program here.”
“Is that what you want? Because you can get it if you want.”
Just as they were both winding up, Steve saw Sarah, crying and clinging to her teddy bear, walk into the living room. “Daddy, Uncle Tony, stop fighting.” She tugged on Steve’s jeans and went to hug Tony’s waist. “Don’t fight anymore. Why do you want us to go? Don’t you love us, Uncle Tony?” She looked up at the stricken Tony.
“Come on, Sarah,” Steve coaxed her, working on projecting calm and quiet.
She clung to Tony. “Don’t want to go,” she wailed. “Want to stay here.”
Finally Steve had to pick her up and take her to her room. She kicked up a fuss and couldn’t stop crying. He brushed her hair, read a few stories, gave her water to drink, gave tummy rubs, anything to calm her down. But she kept asking if they were going to leave home and what was going to happen to Uncle Tony. Steve was not going to lie or make up stories even if it comforted Sarah. All he could say is that he and Uncle Tony had a lot to talk about and that they would tell Sarah if anything was going to change.
Thoroughly upset by the time he returned to the living room after Sarah finally went to sleep, he wondered if he would have to hunt Tony down to discuss this. He was completely surprised to see Tony waiting for him on one of the couches. Tony didn’t even have his phone with him, he was just waiting for Steve. Steve down in the chair opposite from Tony.
“How is she?” Tony asked.
“Okay, I guess. She’s asleep.”
“Sorry about that,” Tony offered. “I didn’t think she heard us.”
Steve bit his tongue from responding with something sarcastic. “We can’t keep doing this,” he said sadly.
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “It’s getting close to the end of the contract – guess our nerves are frayed.”
Steve suddenly remembered something that Pepper had told him a long time ago. Tony is hard to get to know but not hard to understand. He noticed that Tony was still upset and jittery. But he had to ask. “Do you really want to end this?” Steve leaned forward with his hands clasped in front of him. “Or are you just pushing me away?”
Tony slumped back into his chair and ran his hand over his face. “Do you want to stay? Because I don’t know if you want to.”
Steve was rocked to his core. “I thought – I thought that you knew that I was open to staying if you wanted me to stay.”
“Despite my multitude of talents, mind reading is not one of them.”
“Oh.” Steve looked down at his feet and shifted to move closer to Tony as best he could. Maybe, just maybe, his dreams of Tony and Sarah and him as a family were going to come true. He reached out for Tony’s hands. “Tony, I’ve been crazy about you for months, but I didn’t know if you felt the same way about me.”
“Are you nuts? I thought you liked me as a friend, but no more than that. I was the one falling crazy in love with you.”
Feeling thunderstruck that Tony felt the same way as Steve felt about him, he squeezed Tony’s hands. “Tony, I wouldn’t have slept with you if I wasn’t interested in more,” Steve replied. He had not been filled with this much hope in years.
“Really?” Tony drew in closer.
“Really. I want everything you want to give me. And I don’t lie,” Steve said. He slid over to the couch to sit next to Tony.
Tony nuzzled against Steve’s shoulder. “Steve, you’ve been so good to me. I know that I didn’t entirely trust you – I’ve had people after my money for years – but you actually seemed to care about me for me, and not just my money. Once I started falling for you, I didn’t want my life to corrupt you, so I did everything to protect you.”
Steve hugged Tony tightly, loving how his head fit just perfectly into the crook of his neck. “So, you weren’t certain that you could trust me, so you didn’t tell me everything.”
“I couldn’t risk it – I had hidden my work for so long, and then you didn’t tell me how sick Sarah was. At that point, I didn’t know if you had other secrets. But you have been honest with me, and I should’ve trusted you instead of listening to Ty and Sunset, who acted like my friends but only meant to steal everything from me. You’ve asked for nothing but my time and attention.”
Pressing his head into Tony’s hair, Steve kissed the top of his head. “I do want this to work, Tony. Very much. Sarah loves you, and I love you.”
“I love you and Sarah too, Steve. I’ve been so worried that you wanted out of this marriage. I had to push you away before I got hurt.”
“I’d never hurt you, Tony. And I don’t ever want to leave.”
“I promise I won’t let you,” Tony vowed.
They held onto each other and began to kiss, entwined together on the couch. Steve could feel through Tony’s touch how much Tony wanted him. He held nothing back from Tony, deepening their kisses, letting himself be vulnerable in ways he had not before. Overwhelmed with Tony’s revelations and love, Steve stilled Tony’s hand on his thigh and asked, “What now?”
“Stay here with me, forever and ever, you and Sarah. But you’ll have to move into my room.” Tony stood up and tugged at Steve. “And, in the morning, we’ll book a family vacation to Disney World, and I am going to spoil you and Sarah rotten.”
Steve laughed. “But first, let’s go upstairs. Let me show you how much I love you.”
Tony swatted at Steve playfully and teased, “You stole my line, Army boy.”
“Then make me pay for it, billionaire,” Steve retorted. They both laughed as Tony shoved himself off the couch.
Watching Tony head towards the stairs, Steve smiled widely and more happily than he had in years. He looked around the penthouse in almost disbelief. He had come so far from his lonely days sharing a bedroom with Sarah to living here in an Architectural Digest showplace. And he had Tony, who was vibrant and full of life and in love with Steve, just as Steve dreamed up over the past two years.
“Hey, where’d you go?” Tony asked from the landing.
“On my way,” Steve replied joyfully. He had so much to look forward to with his new family.