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tomorrow is stronger than yesterday

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The paparazzi stop swarming them after two months. After seven, there’s sometimes someone across the street when they come out of the house, but other than that, they’re usually left alone.

After a year and a half, the divorce becomes final.

That day is a good day. It’s during the summer before college and Tony and Maria spend it together, a whole day around each other, which they’ve done a lot more lately. Before Maria left, they hadn’t spent more than a few hours at once together since Tony was a toddler.

When dinnertime comes around, so do Sarah and Steve. Tony and Maria are making pasta in the kitchen, which is something else they’ve been doing a lot lately. They all help with the dough, then feed it through the pasta machine, which feeds it out in thin, long lines. They’re going with spaghetti today, one of the first pastas Tony and Maria had been taught how to make.

“We know how to make all sorts,” Tony tells Steve as they sit together in the piano seat, waiting for the pasta to boil. “And no cooking disasters! Except the gnocchi. That was inedible.”

“It didn’t look that bad,” Steve says, who had received a Snapchat about it.

Tony rolls his eyes. Steve will eat anything, no matter if it’s burned or wilted or about to go off. He’s going to get food poisoning one of these days.

He looks towards the kitchen. He can hear the faint sounds of Sarah and Maria talking - they’d kicked their sons out to boil the pasta and finish off the sauce. Tony can’t hear the conversation properly, but he can imagine it - often when Sarah and Steve come around to help with the pasta, Sarah comments on how refreshing it is to cook from scratch. Tomatoes from a market rather than a can, pasta made by their hands rather than coming from a packet. She doesn’t comment on the expensive ingredients, but Tony’s caught her trading looks with Steve, all raised eyebrows, like, how much do you think this olive oil cost? I don’t even want to think about it.

Next to him, Steve puts his fingers on the piano keys. He checks over with Tony, then presses down, playing the first few chords of “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”

Tony’s mouth twitches. “Nice.”

“It’d be nicer if you taught me better songs,” Steve says, withdrawing his hands.

“What? Mary Had A Little Lamb is a classic.”

“It is a classic. For four year olds.”

Tony grins. “We’ll see if we can fit piano lessons into your already busy schedule.”

Steve smiles back. He glances over his shoulder, then back at Tony, and leans in.

Tony meets him halfway. He’s been getting to kiss Steve for six weeks now, but it’s nowhere near losing its luster. Every time is just like the first, except nowadays Tony gets a chance to bask in it. Their first kiss had lasted about half a second, with Steve leaning in and then back out like he wanted to check Tony’s face for a reaction. Tony thinks his reaction was along the lines of “stunned and confused,” which was probably why Steve had started stammering an apology before Tony had gotten with the program and dragged him back in.

From the kitchen, there’s a shout of laughter from Maria.

Tony turns towards it, a knee-jerk reaction. Maria has been different since she left Howard, but different in the best way. She’s been growing into a happiness Tony hadn’t thought was possible. About half a year into the separation, she’d started laughing like this sometimes, loud, sharp laughs that come out surprised by their own force.

Steve’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He gets it out.

“The gang wants an update,” he says. “I’ll tell them we’ll be on time for the movie.”

“Unless the sauce goes horribly wrong,” Tony says.

Steve shrugs, texting. “You and your mom have been making that sauce once a week for ages. I think it’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, but it’s not me and mom. It’s my mom and your mom.”

Steve shrugs. Puts his phone back in his pocket. “Oh, you think Ma’s going to pull some weird poor person cooking trick and mess up the recipe?”

Tony laughs with him, but both of their laughs are stilted. It’s still kind of awkward to bring it up - Steve’s family in near poverty and Tony’s family still technically rich even with Howard leaving them with such a small percentage of their previous income - but it’s usually fine nowadays, unless Tony offers to buy them a new washing machine or something. Which he’s learned not to.

Another peal of laughter from the kitchen, this time from both of their moms.

“I think they’ll manage,” Steve says. “How is Maria, anyway?”

“Good,” Tony says. “Still running all five of her charities. I can’t get used to her having an actual schedule. Like, I know where she’s going to be . And it’s here! She’s here all the time, most evenings and weekends!”

He gestured around at the apartment.

“I keep expecting this to be a grace period,” he says. “But - not so far? I don’t know, maybe it’ll change now the divorce is final -final-”

“She’ll still be around,” Steve says. He covers Tony’s hand on the piano. “She really likes this new life. Everyone can tell.”

Tony smiles to himself. His apartment used to be the last place he’d bring his friends to hang out, but nowadays he has at least a few people over in a week. There’s no surprise appearances from Howard to worry about, nor all the clean, empty space that some of his friends got weirded out by. Now there’s a “normal” number of rooms, all of which are a kind of home-y that Tony didn’t see in real life until he finally made friends in high school and went over to their houses.

“And she’s really glad you’re going to NYU,” Steve continued. “She’ll want to be around in case you come by.”

Tony squeezes his hand. “Sorry, are you talking about your mother or mine?”

Another peal of laughter. Both of them twist to watch the light from the kitchen. It was Sarah this time. She had cried when Steve had told her he not only got into college on a scholarship, but he was able to stick around the city for it. 

This dinner was one of many the two families had shared since the divorce, and all of them promised they would continue after the boys left for their dorms.

“Children,” Sarah yells.

“Coming,” both of them call, getting up from the piano chair.

“Before college starts,” Steve says as they walk. “You’re teaching me something more complicated than Mary Had A-

“Got it,” Tony says. “We’ll have your fingers blurring on those keys by the first day of the semester.”

Steve snorts, but keeps his hold on Tony’s hand until they sit down at the kitchen table, and only lets go then because they have to focus on dinner.

“Sit down ,” Maria tells Sarah as they come in from the kitchen. Maria holds a pot with one hand and pushes lightly on Sarah with the other. “You stirred, I can handle serving-”

“The cheese ,” Sarah says, and runs back into the kitchen.

Maria watches her, sighing, and then starts doling out pasta from the pot. It’s coated in sauce, thick and red and creamy. And familiar, now that they’ve made it together so many times.

“Thank you,” Steve tells her when she gets to his plate.

“You helped,” she reminds him.

“Not with the sauce,” Steve says, picking up his fork. “It smells delicious.”

“You have very little sense of smell, but thank you,” Maria says. It’s wry, but less of the cutting wryness that she used for most of Tony’s life. Now it’s bright and fond, and if there’s any sharp edges, none of them are bad enough to cut yourself on.

“Did Steve just try to compliment you with the smell,” Sarah says as she emerges from the kitchen with a small grater and a hard wedge of cheese. “Steve-”

“Quit ragging on me,” Steve says. “I can smell some things, I can definitely smell this if I get close enough-”

“Yeah, shove your face right in there,” Sarah says, sliding into her seat and placing the cheese and grater on the table. She rubs Maria’s shoulder as she serves her own plate and sits down. 

Sarah says, “I got the mini-grater, like you asked.”

“It’s normal to have different sized graters,” Maria says. “You like the mini-grater.”

“I have no strong feelings about the cheese grater,” Sarah says, taking it and grating parmesan over her pasta. “This sauce does smell great. We did a good job. You guys too, with the pasta. Congratulations, everyone.”

She hands the grater and cheese around, and everyone congratulates each other on the meal. Soon every helping of pasta has a dusting of cheese, some dust more copious than others, and dinner begins.

“So will you make your movie,” Sarah asks after the initial silence that comes with eating. “Or do you have to duck out early?”

“We have time,” Steve says. “We don’t have to rush.” 

“We can help clean up after,” Tony adds. 

Sarah beams at them. Wipes some sauce off her chin.

“Aw,” she says. “Look at our boys.”

“I’m looking,” Maria says. And she is, she’s looking as she eats as she does everything else: with slow, careful precision. She twirls her pasta like she’s taken a course telling her how to do it.

Or, more likely, her mother taught her. That’s how Tony learned, anyway. He’s known to eat messily when he’s drunk or not paying attention, but with pasta, he always eats it neatly, no sauce down his shirt or anywhere else it isn’t meant to be.

Maria makes eye contact with Tony and smiles. Tony smiles back and eats another mouthful, watching his mother look over at Sarah, the two of them sharing a look that means they’re thinking about how their darling boys are dating after years of stumbling around each other like idiots. It’s not a look that happens often, but Tony has overheard them talking about them more than once. They were almost as excited as their friends had been about it.

Clint had told them, “If you idiots didn’t get your act together before college we were gonna go old school and lock you in a closet until something happened.”

The others had confirmed this.

Tony doesn’t think their moms would’ve stooped to that, but they definitely understood the sentiment. Before Steve had asked Tony out on what Tony didn’t realize was a date until Steve kissed him twenty minutes in, Maria had tried to bring up the issue at least once a week for months. Later, Steve revealed that Sarah had been doing the same.

Sarah makes a noise into her pasta. She swallows her mouthful, says, “Has Bucky mentioned leaving his rainjacket behind? I found one in the lounge at home, I think it’s his-”

“It’s his,” Steve says. “I have it here, we’re giving it to him tonight.”

Sarah points her fork at him. “Good. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow. Okay, that saves us a trip over to his. My evening’s freed up all of a sudden.”

Maria asks, “I have that new movie you were talking about.”

Sarah makes another noise into her pasta. “I can show you the miracle of microwave popcorn! You got some, right?”

“I brought some, yes. My expectations are very high for this popcorn.”

“It won’t disappoint,” Sarah says. “Can’t beat microwave popcorn.”

“Aw,” Steve says. “Tony, look at our moms.”

Tony chokes, but only for a second. By the time Steve reaches over, his airway’s already clear. Tony waves him away, eyes watering, the laugh still coming out weakly, in unison with Maria and Sarah’s.











 

 

Clean-up doesn’t take much. They have a dishwasher, so they only rinse the plates, utensils and cooking instruments before slotting everything into the racks. 

Steve’s wiping the counter down when Maria holds her hand out for the cloth.

“Let us be good hosts,” she says. “Go help Sarah find the movie in the DVD collection.”

“We’ll be here forever,” Sarah calls from the lounge. “Who needs this many-”

“I’ll help her out,” Steve says, and heads for the lounge. He touches Tony’s elbow as he passes, and Tony runs a brief hand down his arm. This has been new; all the casual couple-touches. Tony still feels like an idiot sometimes for doing them - his parents barely touched each other - but they’re still nice.

He leans against the kitchen cupboard. Watches Maria wipe the counter.

“Want me to make some tea,” he asks.

She glances back at him. “That would be lovely.”

Tony flips the kettle on, then goes for the assorted teabags. Maria’s pretty serious about tea, so there are many. He gets out peppermint, because that’s what Maria likes after dinner - at least, she’s started the habit of drinking it after dinner since she moved here - and Sarah drinks whatever Maria’s having, insisting she can’t tell the difference and it’s all hot water to her.

Maria rinses out the cloth, then puts it under the sink. She comes to stand with Tony as he gets out a pair of mugs.

He gets out her favorite one, then checks over at her. She’s smiling at the mug like she’s pleased he thought to pick it. It’s new, the mug and the fact that she has a favorite one. It’s dark brown and filled with spiralling white flowers. Tony got it for her birthday a few months after the separation.

They wait in comfortable silence as the water boils. As it’s about to click off, Maria’s phone rings.

She steps away to answer it. “Hello, this is Maria Carbonell.”

She pauses. “No, I can’t tonight, unfortunately. I can’t do tomorrow, either. I’m otherwise occupied. How about we talk about this tomorrow morning, after I come in? Thank you. Alright. Goodbye.”

She hangs up, slides her phone into the pocket of her dress. 

“We can reschedule,” Tony says.

“Hmm?”

“Tomorrow,” Tony says. “It’s not important, it’s just dinner, we don’t have to do this every-”

“I’ve missed out on enough dinners with you,” Maria says. “Everyone I work with knows the rules, I’m not available to see them after 6pm on weekdays and rarely on weekends.”

Tony nods. “Because you have a schedule now.”

Her mouth twitches. “Because I have a schedule now.”

Tony pours the tea, then steps back to let it steep. 

“It suits you,” he says. “Ms. Carbonell.”

She nods. “I always thought so. It suits you too.”

“Thanks,” he says. He’s still getting used to it: Tony Carbonell . He likes it. Instead of the bright, sharp lines of Stark , now he has warm, rolling syllables. There are also the associations he has with both names, but he’d rather focus on the sounds.

“I’m looking forward to seeing it on a patent someday,” Maria says.

Tony shrugs. “Give me two more years. It’d be one, but I have to get past all the tape our dear Howard put up.”

Her face goes tight, so Tony hurries to fix it: “Hey, no, joking - it’s not a big deal, we both knew how he’d be. Whatever sabotage he tries to pull, you know I can find a way around it. I’m really good, mom.”

Her face has mostly smoothed out by the time he’s finished talking. 

“I know,” she says. She reaches up and tucks his hair out of his face. It’s been growing out; he hasn’t been having his usual monthly haircuts. “You are good. I can’t wait to see what you’ll become.”

Tony, mortifyingly, has to blink hard for a few seconds and clear his throat before he goes back to normal. When his voice is steady again, he says, “I should-”

“Yes,” she says. She squeezes his shoulder. “That movie will start whether you’re there or not.”

“Can’t miss out on the ads,” Tony says, voice still thin.

“Right,” Maria says, who hasn’t watched a movie in theaters that weren’t private for almost twenty years. She turns towards the tea and picks up the mugs, says, “Have fun, bambino .”

“Always do,” Tony says. “Do you want me to get the popcorn?”

Maria pauses. She turns towards the microwave, where a finished bag of popcorn has been sitting for about two minutes now.

“I’ll get it,” Tony says.

Maria puts down the mugs to get a bowl, and Tony shows her how to pinch the popcorn bag and not get burned by hot air while opening it. They pour the popcorn into the bowl, Tony picks it up, Maria gets the mugs, and both of them head for the lounge. 

They’ve found the DVD. Sarah’s on the couch with a crocheted blanket, watching the menu screen of a movie. 

Steve’s beside her, but he stands when Tony comes in.

“Are we going?”

“We’re going,” Tony says. He stands out of the way to let Maria through, and she comes to the couch with the tea. She sets it on the coffee table in front of them and sits next to Sarah, who drapes half the blanket over her legs.

“I’ll be home before you,” Sarah tells Steve. “See you - tomorrow morning, I guess, if we’re both going to bed. If you do end up coming back here, send me a text, okay?”

“Okaymomthanks,” Steve says, rapid-fire and averted eyes, as he always is when Sarah alludes to Steve having a sex life.

Tony grins at him. When Steve notices, he rolls his eyes.

“See you, love,” Maria tells Tony. 

Tony’s grin turns soft. He nods at her. Tomorrow night they’ll try a new recipe and afterwards, they’ll play something on the piano. Nothing trying, just for the music and the closeness, and Maria will tease Tony about becoming a world-famous musician. Tony will laugh, but he’ll consider trying music school sometime, and then think about how many paths he could go down now that he isn’t tied down to Stark Industries. The future could go any way he wants.

But for now, Tony and Maria are watching movies with their friends. Both of them are happy for the other in a way that they didn’t know they could be.

“See you, mom,” Tony says, and then they leave each other, but not for long.