Howard tapped his fingers against the steering wheel and stared out the window at Steve's apartment building. He probably should have gone up with Tony, but the very idea sent a chill up his spine. This was a bad idea, such a very bad idea, but Tony wanted Sarah there for his congratulatory dinner and Howard had screwed up the original plan. Well, okay that was unfair to himself, but he wasn't about to blame Steve for getting sick.
He took a deep, cleansing breath and just managed to get himself calmed down when Steve, Sarah, and Tony walked out of the building. He heart pounded in his chest and he needed to calm the fuck down. Steve said that Sarah wasn't going to call the police on him, and even if she did, he and Steve had been very careful the past week. There wasn't even a love bite on Steve's body.
He watched as the three of them walked over to the car, then there was an awkward moment when they tried to decide who would get shotgun. Finally, Sarah opened the back passenger-side door and slid in; Steve climbed in beside her.
Howard looked back and smiled. "Hey, Steve, Sarah."
"Hey," Steve said softly and reached over to touch his cheek.
Sarah's jaw clenched, but after a moment, she pasted on a bland smile. "Hello, Howard. Thank you for the invitation."
"It's my pleasure." He was a businessman, he was used to sounding sincere even when he was lying out of his ass. He turned back around and turned the ignition.
Tony fidgeted and looked over his shoulder at Steve. "You're gonna love this place. They have the best sushi in town. My friend Rhodey told me about it. You remember Rhodey, don't you, Steve?"
"Oh, yeah, I met him last summer. He was really nice."
Howard let their conversation wash over him.
At dinner, Howard kept his eyes on his plate and concentrated on his food. Across from him, Steve kept glancing at him, then at Sarah, frowning. Every once in awhile, Steve would bump his shin, but he wasn't going to be the first one to say anything.
God, he could really use some sake right about now.
Steve sighed noisily and then said, softly, "Mom."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "So, Howard, how are things going with the Expo?"
Howard set down his chopsticks and drank some water. "They're going well. It's a bit… busy. I really shouldn’t have—" His mouth went dry and took another drink. "I really shouldn't have taken time off. I'll be working a lot of late nights until we get everything set."
"And then there'll be a lot of late nights during the Expo, too." Steve said, excited. "It's going to be so cool, Mom. Businesses and inventors from all over the world are going to showcase their tech."
"And, of course, I'll be debuting there." Tony raised his chopsticks in the air and bowed.
"You're the cutest debutante I've ever met." Steve smiled sweetly at him.
"Aww." Tony fluttered his eyelashes. "You say the nicest things, sugar pop."
"Of course, I've never met any other debutantes before." Steve reached over and stole a piece of Tony's sushi roll.
"Hey, stay away from my dinner! Dad, make him stay away from my dinner." Tony curled his arm around his plate.
Howard smiled. "I'll buy you another roll. I'll buy you each another roll."
"It's the principle of the thing, Dad. The principle." Tony narrowed his eyes at Steve and lunged for his plate. Steve was quicker though, he shoved the last of his roll into his mouth and smiled. "Punk. I'll get my revenge."
Steve just smiled wider and slid his foot up Howard's calf.
"I'm glad things are going well for you, Howard." Sarah gave a forced smile.
He moved his leg away and ignored Steve's slight pout. "Thank you. I hear you have a new trustee at the hospital."
"Yes, one with actual experience in running hospitals. It'll be a nice change of pace."
"That's great. Just… great." The last time he was at a dinner this awkward was Thanksgiving dinner right after he came out.
Maybe he'd order sake and have Tony drive them home.
"That was a really awkward dinner yesterday," Steve said, lying on the bed, his head hanging off the edge, watching Howard pick through ties.
"It certainly wasn't the most comfortable situation I've ever been in." He held up two ties and tried to decide between red and burgundy.
"Why don't you have any green ties?"
"Because green isn't a power color." Maybe he'd just go with a gold instead. "Speaking of power colors, that's an impressive red you're turning. What are you doing?"
"I heard that if you have sex like this, the orgasm is amazing."
"Well, we're not having sex now, so…" He gestured for Steve to sit up.
Steve did, and immediately grabbed the files off the nightstand. "What's this?"
"Resumes for my PA." Howard sat next to him and pulled a file out of his hands.
"You still haven't picked one? Howard, the Expo is a month away!"
"I know, but I've been busy."
Steve went through the files, looking at the pictures of the potentials—Howard might not remember names, but he never forgot a face—and reading their resumes. Then he began to separate them into piles.
"What are you doing?"
"Picking your PA." Steve hummed softly. "No, definitely not that one." He tossed the file on the floor.
Howard scooped up the file and opened it. "What's wrong with him?"
"Redhead." Steve looked up. "You're not allowed to hire a redhead."
"I'm pretty sure that counts as a biased hiring practice."
"So fire me." Steve smiled. "Oh right, I don't work for you. Now go away."
"I don't know that I should let my sixteen year old boyfriend pick my new assistant."
"Seventeen in three days. And anyway, these are your top ten, right?"
"Right," he said.
"Well, there you go. You were probably going to pick at random anyway." When Howard opened his mouth to protest, Steve gave him an arch look.
"Oh, fine! Choose away."
Steve grinned and kissed him.
An hour later, Steve walked into the den and slapped a file on the desk; Howard looked up from his computer in surprise. "There. Your new assistant's name is Annie Maddox."
Howard opened the file and flipped through it, staring at the picture of a very unassuming young woman. "Okay. Why her?"
Steve shrugged and sat on the deck. "She's been a personal assistant before, she's got a BA in physics from NYU with a minor in business administration, and she looks nice."
Howard rolled his eyes and pushed the file aside. "Alright. Thank you."
"You're welcome. " Steve put his bare foot on Howard's thigh and rubbed gently. "So what are you doing for the Fourth of July?"
"Working." He cupped Steve's calf and slid his hand up to rest on the back of Steve's knee. "Then I'll probably go to Obi's barbeque after."
Steve nodded thoughtfully and wiggled his toes. "Sounds like a good plan."
"I'm not going to your birthday party," he said, just in case Steve had ideas. Steve was very fond of having ideas.
"I don't want you at my birthday party." He pressed the ball of his foot against Howard's crotch and rubbed.
The words might have stung, if Steve hadn't been—fuck! Howard closed his eyes and groaned. "Good."
"That doesn't mean you're off the hook. You might not like birthdays, but I do." Steve smiled. "You okay, there, Howard? You look a little flushed."
"Son of a bitch!" Howard moaned and arched into Steve's foot. "You better not make me come in my pants."
Steve slid his foot away and Howard cursed. He hopped off the desk, pulled off his shirt, and shimmied out of his shorts. He cocked his hip and grinned. "Where would you like to come, Mr. Stark?"
Howard swallowed hard and his cock twitched. "I've got a lot of work to do."
"This won't take long." Steve attempted to slide into his lap.
He wanted this, he did, but… but…"No," he said and his tone was enough to make Steve pause, then pull back.
"What's wrong?" Steve asked, hesitantly.
No, he was *not* going to give in. "I'm busy."
Steve's expression hardened. "Oh, I see." He walked around the desk and sat in one of the other chairs. "I'll wait."
"You can't just sit there naked. I could… I could be hours!"
Steve clasped his hands in his lap. "Sure I can."
Howard pinched the bridge of his nose. "Steve."
"We haven't had sex since I got sick! And I get that this whole thing has been traumatic for you, Howard, but it hasn’t been a picnic for me either!" Steve jumped to his feet. "Don’t you want me anymore?"
"Of course I do. Of course, I want you. I just… I…" He didn't even know what he wanted to say. He was still trying to deal with all the intense emotions that'd been running though him since Steve went into the hospital.
Steve walked over to him and touched his face. "Don't you trust me?"
"Of course—You're not the one I don't trust. I just…"
"You don't know what you want." Steve looked away, but not fast enough; Howard could see the trembling of his lips.
He swallowed hard. "I know I love you. I just need to deal with a few skeletons."
"Sure." Steve gathered his clothes and pulled them on.
"Babe, come on." He got up and put his hands on Steve's shoulders. "I need some time, just a little time."
Steve wrapped his arms around Howard's waist and pressed his nose to Howard's neck. "I'm scared. I'm scared they ruined everything."
"They didn't ruin *anything.* I love you, Steve. I love you." He nuzzled Steve's hair.
"But maybe I should give you some space?" Steve trembled in his arms.
"Just until Saturday. And then we'll celebrate your birthday, you and me. Okay?"
Steve nodded. "Yeah, yeah, okay."
"What the fuck was that, Howard? What the fuck was that?" Obi threw the contract on Howard's desk and fuck, what could Howard say? What could he fucking say?
The meeting had been a disaster from the start. No matter how hard he tried, he was still struggling to find his groove. Either he was shoving his foot in his mouth or he was making promises he *knew* he couldn't keep. "I know I screwed up, okay! You don't need to say anything."
"Like hell I don't!" Obi got in his face. "This isn't the first contract negotiation that's gone up in flames because you haven't been able to do your damn job, Howard. What the fuck is up with you lately?"
"Nothing." He crossed his arms over his chest and looked away.
"Nothing? You disappeared off the face of the Earth for a week and a half. No one in the office could get hold of you and now this cluster fuck of bad meetings. Do you know the board is talking about censure?"
"What? Censure? I've been a little off my game, but… goddammit!" Howard ran his fingers through his hair.
"You better wow them with this Expo, Howard." Obi put a hand on Howard's shoulder and squeezed painfully. "I don't know who or what has got you twisted around, but you need pull yourself together and man the fuck up."
Howard shrugged off Obi's hand and said, coldly, "Thanks, I'll keep that in mind."
Shit! He hated it when Obi was right.
"Tony, wait," Howard called out as Tony headed towards the garage, a brightly wrapped package in his hands.
Tony stopped and frowned. "What's up, Dad?"
"Give me a second to get my gift and we'll drive to Steve's party together." He looked down at his clothes. "Maybe I should change, too. I'm a little rumpled."
"You're… You're going to his party? Is that a good idea?"
Howard grinned. "Relax, Tony. I'm sober and even if I wasn't, Steve's a little too old for a clown." (1)
Steve was in a deep discussion with a cute little brunet as he and Tony headed towards a grouping of decorated tables and benches under a large tree. Howard wiped his forehead and wished that he had left his jacket in the car. Fuck the park. Next year, they'd have Steve's party at the mansion.
"Hey, birthday boy," Tony said loudly as they drew closer.
Steve, turned, startled, a smile forming on his lips. Then his eyes lighted on Howard, and he ran forward, smile broadening. He looked as if he was going to hug Howard, but at the last minute he scooped Tony into an embrace and swung him around. "You're late!"
"Ugh, put me down!" Tony struggled in Steve's arms, but he was smiling, too.
Steve set Tony on the ground and turned to Howard. "Hello, Mr. Stark. Thank you for coming." He reached out and touched Howard's arm; he eyes were bright and he looked overjoyed.
"Hi, Steve. Happy birthday." He held out the gift in his hands, glad that despite everything, he decided to come.
Steve flushed and took it. "Thank you. Will you be able to stay long?"
"Only for an hour, but I wanted to see you on your birthday."
Tony rolled his eyes and made a gagging sound. "I'm gonna get a Coke."
"Oh, yeah, we should get out of the sun. Would you like a soda or some punch, sir?" Steve grabbed Howard by the sleeve and pulled him towards the other guests lounging in the shade. Sarah was staring at them, her mouth a tense line.
"A Coke would be great, thank you."
Steve nodded and said, softly, his voice trembling with emotion, "I really am glad you're here. So glad, Howard."
Howard smiled, because, God, how could he not smile at the utter brilliance of Steve's happiness. "So am I, babe. I'm so glad I'm here, too."
Steve blew out the candle on the cupcake, then pulled out the still smoking stick of wax and handed it to Howard. "You're supposed to sing 'Happy birthday.'"
"I don't sing. Try not to get cake crumbs on the duvet." Howard tossed the candle in the wastebasket and hung up his jacket. By the time he turned around, the only evidence there had been a cupcake was a smudge of chocolate frosting on Steve's upper lip.
"That was great." Steve grinned at him.
Howard sat on the bed, leaned over, and licked at the chocolate. "So it was. What did you wish for?"
"If I tell you," Steve said, "it won't come true."
He snorted, because he knew Steve was going to say that. "So what's that?" He gestured to the small box with a bright red bow sitting next to Steve.
"Oh, I brought you something." Steve handed it over to him.
"Well, this is unusual." He took off the bow and pressed it to Steve's forehead, then took off the lid. He blinked at the leather collar nestled into the white tissue paper lining the box. "Thank you, but I don't have a dog."
Steve gave him an exasperated look. "It's for me."
"You want a dog?" He ran his thumb along the fur on the inside of the collar.
"Howard, come on." Steve lifted his chin. "Put it on me."
"Nope," he said, pressing a kiss to Steve's throat. "Talk first. What sort of game are we playing here?"
Steve shrugged. "I thought you could boss me around."
"That would certainly be a change of pace. But I don't need a collar for that." He sighed. "What's going on in that pretty little head of yours?" Steve blushed and he certainly wasn't expecting that.
"I want us to pretend that I'm a… a… slave and you bought me. For… for pleasure."
"You want to pretend to be a sex slave?" Howard cupped Steve's face and stroked his jawline. "And I'm the master who cruelly uses you. Fucks that pretty mouth and that tight little ass."
Steve nodded, his breath coming a little faster.
Howard considered the idea for a moment, then smiled. "Take off your clothes and kneel on the floor."
"That was fun," Steve said, breathlessly, and Howard hummed softly in agreement, gently stroking the collar that was still around Steve's neck.
"Where'd you find the collar?"
"Online." Steve kissed Howard's jaw and smiled. "You like it?"
"It's lovely." Howard gently looped his finger in the O-ring attached to the collar and tugged.
"Careful," Steve said. "You'll leave a mark."
Howard made a surprised sound. "I've never heard you say that before."
"That's because my mom didn't know before." Steve let out a little huff of annoyance. "She's always looking for bruises and marks on me. She tries to be sneaky about it, but I see her looking whenever I take off my shirt."
"Is she making things difficult?" Not that Howard could do a damn thing about it if she was.
"Sort of. Not really." Steve sighed. "Oh, I don't know. She wants to me to see a therapist. And she's been reading up on… masochism and… and the other day she sat me down and tried to have a sex talk with me!"
Howard couldn't help himself, he snickered.
"It's not funny, Howard!" Steve tugged on his chest hair. Hard.
"Ouch! And yes, babe, it's a little funny."
"You weren't the one sitting there getting grilled. She wanted to know if we had a safeword and whether or not I knew about safe, sane, and consensual and were we using protection. She asked me if you knew about sub drop."
Steve shook his head. "Nothing, it's not important."
Howard wasn't too sure about that. He made a mental note to find out what "sub drop" meant. "Sounds horrifying, But she does have a point, we should probably have a safeword."
"I don't need a safeword." Steve hugged him and pressed a kiss to his shoulder.
"Maybe I do," he said softly. "Maybe I need the both of us to have a safeword."
Steve lifted his head and looked at him seriously. "Okay. Why don't we… why don't we use the standard ones? You know, red for 'stop' and yellow for 'give me a second.'"
"Alright, that sounds good." Howard kissed him. "So what did you tell your mom about us?"
"The truth. I told her that you take care of me and that you make sure I don't get in over my head. She still wasn't happy, but I don't think she'll ever be." Steve looked upset about that, so Howard hugged him.
"She loves you and she's worried about you. I certainly can't fault her for that."
Steve grunted and snuggled closer to him. "Are you alright, Howard?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm alright. " And he was, mostly. "I'm sorry that I scared everyone."
"You don't need to apologize for that." Then Steve said quietly, "Are *we* alright?"
"Oh, babe, we're perfect."