Millionaire heiress Kathy Dare has been an on and off flame of Tony Stark's since before his Iron Man days. After a brief romance when Stark was in his mid-twenties, Kathy seemed to disappear from his life, reappearing on occasion to declare that they had reconciled and, at one time, to announce their engagement. None of these reconciliations ever lasted long, the engagement was called off almost immediately – Stark's press team called it a hoax (see page 14 for a complete timeline of Tony Stark's numerous engagements!) – and the couple has not been seen in public together for nearly a decade.
But according to Ms. Dare that's the way Tony wanted it. "He was protecting me," she told our reporters in an exclusive interview. "His life has always been dangerous. First from his business rivals and later, with Iron Man's enemies coming for him, he thought it was too dangerous for anyone to know how much we meant to each other."
Is it possible that Stark's two-year relationship and near-marriage with Rumiko Fujikawa, whirlwind escapades with international superhero Natasha Romanoff, and his current sizzling team-up with teammate Steve Rogers were nothing more than an elaborate cover-story? Dare says yes!
Attempts to contact Stark's exes for comment haven't been easy – Rumiko Fujikawa's PR team denied that her engagement to Tony Stark was in any way a sham. Natasha Romanoff refused to take our calls. And Captain Rogers declined to be interviewed. Is it possible that Stark's "beards" didn't know the true story behind their romances? Kathy denies that Tony would lead anyone on, but admits that she has felt uncomfortable these last few months, worried that Captain America may have gotten in over his head.
Kathy told us that Stark couldn't bear the idea of his first and so far only child being born in secrecy. "He's so excited to be a father," she said with a fond smile. "He can't wait for our child to be born. And he knew that this meant the lies and the secrecy had to end."
When asked if she had any worries about Iron Man's enemies targeting her and their unborn child, Kathy only shook her head. "He'll protect us," she said, patting her belly. "He'll always protect us. He wants us to be with him now and always. He loves us more than anything."
His phone vibrated for the third time in as many minutes and Steve had to force himself not to take his frustration out on the phone itself as he answered the call. "Rogers," he said flatly, ignoring the stares from the other passengers on the subway car. He was probably imagining at least half of them anyway.
"Captain America! I'm calling from the Daily Exposé. What do you have to say to the recent allegations that your relationship with Tony Stark is nothing but an elaborate lie?"
"No comment," Steve said and jabbed the 'end call' button a bit more forcefully than necessary. He debated turning it off with the possibility that someone important might be trying to reach him, then gave in to impulse when the caller ID screen lit up with yet another unknown number. If it was an emergency, they would call him over his communicator. And the only person he was really interested in talking to at the moment anyway was Tony.
The interview with Kathy Dare – the name sounded vaguely familiar, but Steve didn't think they'd ever met – had only hit the newsstands that morning, but it was already all over the gossip and entertainment shows. Steve had so far fielded calls from most of the local papers, People and someone who worked for The View as well as the usual barrage of tabloid writers and paparazzi. Everyone seemed to have an opinion and most of them seemed to share the same one: Tony was a cheating bastard. Though opinions went back and forth on who he'd screwed over worse: Steve or Kathy.
Steve knew better than to get into a debate with any of them, though he had to resist the urge to severely scold one of the paparazzi who had approached him while he'd been Christmas shopping that morning. Hadn't anyone heard of impartiality anymore?
His communicator chirped in his ear as the subway jerked to a stop and he answered as he all but jumped out of his seat to make for the opening doors. "I'm here."
"Bad news," Clint's voice said in his ear. "Someone let Jan answer the house line. I don't know who she's talking to, but she's yelling something about slander, threatening to ruin someone's reputation to see how they like it and giving out some extremely detailed information on your love life. How does she even know this stuff?"
Steve rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Okay, take the phone off the hook before anyone else gets dragged into this."
"Too late," Clint told him unapologetically. "They called earlier and Luke refused to comment because they always make him sound like a homophobe, and now TMZ is running a story about how Luke's a homophobe. It's awesome. He broke a table and is threatening to kiss Tony on the lips the next time he sees him. And Logan got the phone earlier and someone may be pressing charges over some of the things he said. Natasha is recording all the news stories and won't stop laughing. Also, Peter wants to know if you'd be mad if he wrote his own story. Apparently Jonah's pushing him for the inside scoop since he's Tony Stark's personal friend."
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose as he took the steps to street level two and three at a time, emerging onto the street level to the bustle of holiday shopping crowds, garlands of pine wrapped around streetlights, and a small group of carolers performing a rather vibrant rendition of Good King Wenceslas. "Tell Luke everyone knows he's not a homophobe. Tell Logan to stay off the phone until further notice. Tell Natasha I don't want to see any of those recordings when I get home. And tell Peter he can write whatever he wants as long as he waits till we get home tonight." He almost ended the call right there, but he couldn't stop himself from adding, "And tell Luke to keep his lips to himself," before disconnecting.
He hated it when their teammates got dragged into the media feeding frenzy that occasionally surrounded his and Tony's relationship. The frenzy itself was something he could only barely tolerate on most days and usually was content to ignore – he was naïve about the future sometimes, but he knew how the press worked, had seen how the paparazzi followed Tony around like dogs waiting for him to mess up or slip up. He'd known from the day he realized he was in love with the man that if they ever had a relationship it would be in the public eye. And he'd made the decision, that day at Coney Island, that having Tony – even only having the chance of having Tony – was worth the occasional loss of privacy. But sometimes it stung, how deeply they could pry. How happy it seemed to make them when they reported something brutal.
Steve respected reporters. Men and women like Peter who went out and investigated and covered the news as accurately as they could. People who made it their career to give people the truth, to keep the public informed. That was admirable – and brave. There had been reporters during World War Two who had faced death by Nazi fire to make sure the people back home knew what their brothers and sons were fighting for, to make sure the whole world knew what the Fuhrer had done. Steve had thought it took guts to walk through that particular hell unarmed and unprepared, only to go back and relive it at least long enough to make sure the story was told. The people who wanted to know if Tony had tricked him into a sexual relationship, on the other hand, made him want to punch a wall. Hard.
He dragged in a deep breath and let it go, the tension and most of the anger flow out with it. Anger wasn't going to make this better. Tony would be upset over this, Steve knew. Hurt, whether he'd admit it or not. And he wasn't going to make it worse by walking into Tony's office angry. Tony would take it too much to heart and blame himself.
Stark Industries plaza was decorated for the holidays with a huge pine tree draped in brilliant white fairy lights and shining metal ornaments. It gave Steve a bit of a pang to see it like that – he and his mother had gone to Rockefeller Center when he was a child, and the big tree all lit up was one of the few truly happy and carefree memories he had of her.
There were reporters outside Stark Industries, but only a few and all of them from the tabloids, if Steve was remembering faces correctly. They were on the sidewalk, keeping their distance from SI plaza and the front doors, which probably had a lot to do with the extremely burly security guard standing between them and the building. Steve recognized him; he was one of Tony's alternate bodyguards for special events or days when Happy Hogan was unavailable, the one who'd been taking surreptitious pictures of Tiberius Stone's drugged collapse at the party last month. Steve honestly couldn't remember his name; he wasn't one hundred percent certain they'd ever been really introduced. The reporters, recognizing fair game when they saw it, immediately began snapping Steve's picture as he approached, and calling out interview questions. He ignored them.
"Sir," the guard said, and Steve thought he sounded a little wary.
"Tony's in?" Steve asked.
The guard snorted and tipped his head toward the reporters. "Why do you think they're hanging around? Boss is upstairs." He hesitated, like he wanted to say more. "Sir, you know we're with Mr. Stark pretty much every minute he's not in the armor or with you."
"I know," Steve said. "I'm grateful to all of you for protecting Tony in his civilian hours."
The guard nodded once. "Right. I'm just saying. If there was something funny going on, we'd know."
It took a moment for Steve to realize they weren't talking about a possible security breach but were, in fact, discussing Kathy Dare and her alleged romance. "I… hadn't considered that, actually. The confirmation wasn't necessary," he said and the guard just nodded. "But it's appreciated anyway."
The guard shrugged, looking unconcerned. "I'm just saying. Go on in, sir. I'm sure they're expecting you."
They certainly seemed to be. The security guards in the lobby only tipped their heads in acknowledgement as Steve strode through the doors, and the receptionist at the front desk, who Steve had once seen hurl a stapler with deadly accuracy at a pushy cameraman, only waved at him over the glass menorah as he walked by before going back to her computer.
Tony had a private elevator, off the main lobby, that was only accessible by thumbprint and passcode. Steve's had been entered into the system years ago, in the event of emergency, which happened more frequently than Steve liked, or in case Steve ever felt like helping Tony play hooky and needed to sneak in the back way, which he'd only done once or twice. Three times, tops. As far as Pepper knew, anyway.
The elevator deposited him on the top floor, directly opposite Pepper's desk. It was currently empty, despite the phone being lit up like, well, Christmas. Steve grimaced in sympathy. Pepper liked the paparazzi even less than he did, though she was far better at dealing with them. And she had to deal with the actual business side of things, too. He wondered how many of the calls she'd had to field today were from board members and investors wanting to blame Tony for this latest round of bad press.
Steve pushed open the door that led to Tony's office and stopped dead in his tracks.
The big screen television that was normally hidden behind a retractable wall panel was open and on, the sound muted, but clearly showing yet another tabloid show. The picture in the upper right hand corner was a picture that looked to be nearly ten years old, of Tony and a woman who must have been Kathy Dare. She was pretty, Steve decided, brunette and curvy, a little young-looking, but Tony had been younger then, too. The banner along the bottom of the screen was talking about other things; oil prices on the rise, a bombing in Syria, a protest in DC, the recent elections. All things infinitely more important than Tony's ex-girlfriends, in Steve's opinion, but freedom of the press meant they didn't have to report on only things he liked.
Tony's inner-circle were all there. Happy was sitting on the leather couch by the windows and methodically reassembling his handgun – from the looks of things, it wasn't the first time, either. Rhodey was standing at Tony's shoulder, glowering at Steve in the doorway, and Pepper was sitting on the edge of Tony's desk, leaning into him and saying something in a low and urgent voice. None of them looked happy and Tony – Tony looked rough, worse than Steve had seen him since he'd stopped drinking.
Tony took one look at Steve and went completely pale.
"Tony," Steve said, ignoring the pinched look on Pepper's face or the way Rhodey seemed to be maneuvering between himself and Tony.
But Tony cut him off. He stood and jabbed a finger at the television. "That is not my kid," he said, his voice scratchy and tired and Steve didn't even want to think about how many times Tony had already insisted that to someone today, how many of them wouldn't have believed him. "That is not my kid, she is not my girlfriend, or my fiancée or anything else. We dated for two weeks, Steve. Two weeks, almost ten years ago, and I haven't seen her since." He made a gesture with his hands that looked more like a helpless flail. "She calls and Pepper screens them. And she sends notes that I don't read. And once every couple years some reporter who's hard up for a real story decides that we're having the world's most on-again-off-again romance but that's not true. It's not. I wouldn't." He swallowed, and his mouth was tight and his breath was shaky, but his words were completely steady. "I wouldn't do that to anyone, Steve, but definitely not you. I don't cheat and I don't screw around. I swear she's lying."
"Okay," Steve said. He hesitated in the doorway, a little bowled over by the desperation Tony had put into that declaration.
"Okay?" Tony echoed. He blinked at Steve, then planted both fists on the desk and leaned forward. "Okay? That's all you have to say? Okay?"
"Pretty much," Steve said. He skirted the edge of Tony's desk, patting Pepper's arm and nodding his head to Rhodey, who was easing off with a glare that promised pain and death if Steve said one wrong word. "I believe you. I never thought it was true."
"You didn't-" Tony stared at him. "You didn't?"
"No. Tony." Steve caught one of Tony's hands in his. "There are two reasons why that story could never have been true."
"Two reasons," Tony said warily.
"You are not a faithless man," Steve said quietly. He was aware of the three sets of eyes on them, but he didn't care. These people had been Tony's family longer than he'd known the man, they had the right to know that Steve was going to be good to him. "You said it yourself. You would never do that to anyone. You don't give your heart lightly and you'd never betray someone that way. Don't think for a second I haven't always known that."
Tony closed his eyes. "You are possibly the only person alive who'd call me faithful," he said ruefully.
"I can name at least a dozen. Your friends know better." Steve stroked his thumb over Tony's bottom lip, followed it with a soft kiss.
Tony took a deep breath and seemed to sag a little. "You said two reasons?"
Steve shrugged. "The first one is the only one that matters. But purely from a logical point of view, she had to be lying." He ducked his head and pressed his forehead against Tony's. "You had a vasectomy when you were twenty-one. So the baby couldn't be yours."
"I-" Tony stared at him with huge eyes, then dropped his head against Steve's shoulder, forcing Steve to pull him into a hug. "I had a vasectomy. Jesus. How do you know that? I never told you."
"You did. Years ago, when you'd been drinking. You were talking about Howard and how you wouldn't make his mistakes. You said it had been your twenty-first birthday gift to yourself, knowing that you'd never screw up any poor kid's life by forcing him to have you as a father." Steve pretended he didn't see the way Pepper winced, or Rhodey scowled. He knew his mostly-fond memories of Howard Stark were distinctly in the minority, and he had long ago accepted that the man he'd known had changed in the years after Steve was frozen, and not for the better. "You never seemed to remember that we talked afterwards, and it's not like it came up in casual conversation at any point, so…"
Tony laughed against his shoulder. "Jesus. Jesus. I've been waiting for the world to end since I saw the interview this morning, and you just – you believe me." He pulled back and scrubbed his hands over his face. "Guys, give us a minute, would you?" He waited until the others had left, Pepper pulling the door closed behind her so they could have some privacy, before he took a couple of steps away from his desk and, in a deceptively light voice, said, "If you're just trying to help me save face in front of the others, you can be honest. I'd rather hear it now than later."
Sometimes Steve wanted to track down everyone in Tony's life who'd made him so fast to believe he'd be betrayed and personally smack each and every one of them around with his shield. He'd start with Tony's father. The knowledge that he'd enjoy it entirely too much was only a little disturbing.
He pushed aside the too-familiar surge of hurt and irritation that Tony could think he'd be so faithless. This wasn't about him. And the only way he could prove to Tony that he wouldn't treat him like the others was to stay by Tony's side, to trust him, and to wait for Tony to realize it for himself. It had taken time for Tony to realize it as his friend, and he was aware that they were slowly starting over in all new territory. He would be patient. Tony was worth it.
So he just sat on the edge of Tony's desk and took Tony's hand in both of his. "We're alone now. There's no face to save. And I still believe you." He interlocked his fingers with Tony's, clasped their right hands together. "I still love you."
Tony ducked his head, smiling a little. "I am a trial to have around, aren't I?"
Steve shook his head, tightened his grip on their joined hands until Tony squeezed back. "I'm sorry you have to go through this. You don't deserve to have people treat you this way." He tried and failed not to let it bother him when Tony looked away from him, doubt and self-blame bright in his eyes. "Why is she doing this? Money? Is she hoping you'll pay her to go away?"
"She's not-" Tony broke off and struggled for words. "She's not healthy. We only went out a couple times and she was literally planning our wedding and naming our kids. I broke it off, told her she was moving too fast for me and I woke up that night to find her standing over my bed with a gun."
“God,” Steve said and Tony hurried to cut him off.
“She didn't hurt me. She wasn't thinking clearly. She'd built this fake relationship and this fake future up in her mind until it was real and me breaking things off with her – I think it actually broke her heart, no matter that none of it was real.”
“Did you tell the authorities?”
“No.” Tony got the stubborn-mule look he usually wore when someone was trying to convince him to leave the workshop and sleep, or that he didn't really need to build anymore gadgets into the Iron Man armor. “I didn't want to embarrass her like that. I called her only living family, a distant cousin, and they had her committed to a mental health facility. She's been there for a long time and there's no report that she ever did anything like that again.”
“But she's still fixated on you?” Steve asked. "And you don't have a restraining order against her?" He could picture the scene Tony had described and it made the skin on his back crawl. "Tony, that's not rational behavior.”
Tony nodded reluctantly. "I don't think she's ever tried to come see me in person. If she has, security hasn't let me know about it. I think if she had, Pepper would have taken the restraining order out for me, whether I wanted to or not."
"Do it. Please," Steve said. "If nothing else, it'll giver her less credibility if she tries something like this again."
Tony gripped Steve's hand. “Kathy isn't – she's in a facility, Steve. Reporters can't just walk into a hospital and start interviewing people. Someone paid that reporter to make this whole thing up.”
Someone. Someone who had reason to want Tony's name dragged through the mud, someone who wanted to hurt both of them in one fell swoop. Someone who'd used the tabloids to hurt Tony before. Steve took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I already know who it is, don't I?”
Tony's mouth twisted into something like a smirk. “Yeah. Probably. I can't prove it – we'll probably never prove it. The interview that started all this was from a freelance reporter, someone who'd never sold a story before. As near as Pepper's been able to find, it's a pseudonym.”
Steve wanted to hit something very hard. Barring that he wanted to clutch Tony to his chest and never let anyone else near him again. Neither one would solve any of their problems. “Someday soon, we're going to have to deal with Tiberius Stone.”
Tony exhaled heavily. "Yeah. I got this same lecture from Pepper and Rhodey this morning. I know. And I already arranged for a paternity test tomorrow." He offered Steve a tired half-grin. "This is probably a hoax, but it'll take a few days to clear it all up. And if Kathy is pregnant, you and I both know it couldn't be mine, but the reporters are going to want outside proof."
It was a good idea, though part of Steve wanted to force them all to take Tony at his word. "I'll go with you."
"You don't have to," Tony said half-heartedly. He combed his fingers through Steve's hair, the way he did late at night when he was staying up working, and Steve had fallen asleep beside him, or with his head in Tony's lap. "It might be easier for you if you distance yourself for a few days till this all blows over."
"I'm going to pretend you never said that to me," Steve said quietly, but fiercely.
Tony looked down at him again, and if he looked a little surprised at Steve's adamant tone, he mostly seemed relieved. "I am so lucky to have you. I still don't know how it happened."
It could have been self-deprecating, or morose, but all Steve heard in Tony's voice was a sort of wonder, the same way Steve felt when he thought too hard on how slim the odds were that it took ninety years, a war, and a lifetime in the ice for him to fall in love with his best friend. He squeezed Tony's hand again. "Do you have much more to do here? I'll wait and walk you home."
"Pepper was in the middle of trying to convince me to give up and call it a day when you got here." Tony squeezed Steve's hand. "I might have been avoiding going home and facing you. All of you." He shrugged a little. "If I'd remembered the conversation about the vasectomy, I might have panicked less. Reason seven hundred and forty-three why I should have stopped drinking sooner." He pulled Steve up from the desk and into a kiss, soft and sweet – not chaste, Tony rarely inspired feelings in Steve that could be described as chaste, but unhurried.
"Take Pepper's advice," Steve said long moments later. "Take the day and come with me. We can get lunch somewhere private and you can help me pick out a Christmas present for Jan because I think she'll cry if I try to buy her another sweater. Then we'll go home and turn off the phones and ignore the TV and I'll spend all night showing you how lucky I am to have you, too."
"Jesus," Tony said for at least the fifth time in the last fifteen minutes. "We don't even need to go home. There is a perfectly good couch right there and Pepper knows better than to come in here before we give the all clear. We could just –" He broke off abruptly and Steve tightened his grip on Tony instinctively as he realized Tony was staring at the television.
"Don't look at it," Steve said. "Just ignore it. We can deal with all that tomorrow after the paternity test."
"Oh my god," Tony said, shocked and delighted. His eyes were wide and his mouth curved in a wicked smile. "Steve. Steve. It's my birthday. Power-Man and Iron Fist are making out on live television. Oh my God. Every joke I have ever made about their bromance is now retroactively true."
Steve glanced at the television over his shoulder, where the footage of Luke and Danny Rand in the middle of what looked like a fairly steamy clinch had pushed Tony's story off the screen entirely. "Huh," he said. "As long as he isn't still trying to kiss you."