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Leap Year

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FEBRUARY 25th, 2012

The room is so quiet that Steve can hear the tapping of Tony’s fingers against his phone. It’s the third e-mail he’s written since their interview began just over ten minutes ago. Steve swallows the urge to tell him to put it away. It’s probably important, he thinks, he’ll just be another minute.

He avoids the eyes of the committee in front of him. His eyes dart to everything else in the room that he can feign the slightest interest in: the ornate chandelier hanging over head, the gilded lion statue crouched and ready to attack, the burgundy carpet beneath his feet, anything that isn’t the three sets of eyes staring at him from across the mahogany table before him. He feels like a child that’s been sent to the principal’s office and now awaits scolding and punishment.

“And…we…are…done!” Tony says slowly. He smiles wide and toothily. It’s his business smile, Steve knows. “Now, where were we?”

The woman sitting at the center of the table before them purses her lips and readjusts her gold rimmed half-moon glasses. “Mr. Stark, you and your…boyfriend,” she says the word like poison and Steve bristles immediately, “were just telling us why we should consider you for membership to The Cambridge community.”

“Why the Hell wouldn’t you want us?” He asks incredulously while still maintaining his charm. “I’ve been on the cover of Forbes ten years in a row!” He chuckles, turning to appeal to Steve. “Tell them, Steve.”

“He has.” Steve confirms with a stiff smile. He doesn’t like the idea that they have to prove themselves worthy occupants to these people. It’s what Tony wants. He reminds himself. Do it for Tony. “Not to mention we’ve lived in New York all our lives. We’re accustomed to the lifestyle.”

“Where abouts in New York?” The portly man to the left of the stiff looking woman asks.

“Manhattan.” Tony says confidently.

“Brooklyn.” Steve says, squaring his jaw. He sees Tony fidget uncomfortably beside him and notices the way the committee shares side-eye glances amongst themselves. He elects to hold his tongue and takes a sudden interest in studying the New York skyline visible through the window to his right.

“Manhattan…and Brooklyn.” The man on the right side of the table repeats slowly. Steve reckons he looks a bit like one of those sad-faced old beagles but he keeps his thoughts to himself. “How did you two meet?”

“We met at a thing.” Tony says quickly. “Now about the apartment. I think you might like to know that I’m willing to put down the next six months’ rent in full, right here and now.”

This is news to Steve. He turns away from the window to stare at Tony, who has eyes only for the committee. Steve’s stare slowly flicks to the faces of the council and he can see the dollar signs flashing in their eyes. Steve wants to roll his eyes but he doesn’t. He just looks back to the window.

“An interesting offer, Mr. Stark.” The stern woman in the middle says slowly, her eyes flashing with interest behind her thin glasses. “Might we have a week to think on it and get back to you?”

Tony smiles quickly before standing and buttoning his suit jacket all while maintaining the air of the cat that got the cream. “How’s about we say three days? Give us a week and we may find something better.”

The committee visibly tenses. Tony’s got them where he wants them. Steve often finds himself thinking that Tony’s got the whole world aligned just the way he wants it. He absently wonders if he himself is included in that regard. He likes to think not, but he doesn’t dwell on the thought. He may not like where that particular train takes him.

“Steve, babe. We’re leaving?” Tony says, gesturing to the door. Steve nods and rises from the chair, nodding again to the counsel before following Tony’s lead out the door.

Steve follows him, through the lobby, and back out into the blistery New York streets. Steve digs his gloves out of his pocket and Tony reaches for his phone. Steve wonders how many e-mails Tony’s gotten since he’d last checked. Probably dozens. Again, Steve doesn’t dwell.

“I thought we said we weren’t going to mention Brooklyn?” Tony says absently, eyes never leaving his phone.

“They asked. Did you expect me to lie?” Steve asks. He pulls his woolen mittens on, warming his thin fingers. He then adjusts his scarf tighter about his neck. The last thing he needs is to come down with another cold. He’d just gotten over the last one.

Tony sighs and fixes Steve with a stern look. “Of course not. You just know how I feel about you mentioning it. You’re better than Brooklyn, Steve. That’s why we’re doing this, isn’t it? So you can move out and we can move on? Grow?”

Steve looks down at the frost-covered pavement beneath his feet. He holds his tongue against what he’d like to say, about how he’s as Brooklyn as anyone else on that side of the bridge whether Tony likes it or not. But he doesn’t. If there’s anything he’s learned in his twenty-six years, it’s that he’s got to pick his battles. This isn’t one of them.

“No, you’re right. That’s why we’re doing this.” Steve agrees.

“That’s my boy.” Tony says with a smile, wrapping an arm tightly around Steve before letting him go and reaching back for his phone. “We still on for dinner?”

“You know I’ve gotta meet Ma first, don’t you?” Steve asks.

Tony rolls his eyes as he scrolls through his e-mails. “Didn’t you meet her last week?”

Steve snorts. “That’s the thing about weekly beers with my Ma. They’re weekly.”

Tony laughs dryly. “Spare me the sass, would you? I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“Work stuff?” Steve asks.

“Is there anything else?” Tony retorts.

Me? Steve thinks, but only thinks. It was a rhetorical question. Tony doesn’t want an answer. “Dinner sounds great.” He says instead. At least that gets Tony’s attention.

He bends to plant a kiss on the top of Steve’s head. “Great! Great, I’ll meet you there!” He says, already turning to rush away.

“Where are you going?” Steve calls after him. “Thought we were gonna stay at the apartment for a while?” He follows Tony for a few paces before coming to a stop. His slender shoulders slouch beneath his thick winter coat, not that Tony notices. His eyes are back on his phone, darting back and forth over the text of another goddamn e-mail.

“Sorry, Steve. Something came up at the office. Pepper needs me to look over some things, sign some things, you know the drill.” He turns his back on Steve and continues to walk. “We’re still on for dinner, bank on it!” He shouts over his shoulder.

He doesn’t see Steve mock his words behind his back before sighing. “Alright, see you then!” He says as cheerily as he can muster. It’s not very cheerful at all. Tony keeps walking.

Steve rolls his eyes and steps to the edge of the sidewalk, hailing a taxi to take him back to Brooklyn.

***

Tony had glossed over it in the interview, but they’d met at an open house four years ago. Tony’s best friend James Rhodes was in the market for a New York bachelor bad, and Steve had been called in to transform the space into a place fit for a modern swinger. Steve had stuck around for the tour and that’s where he met James and his best friend Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries.

Now, four years later, that’s still Steve’s current occupation: he stages apartments for New York’s elite. A realtor calls and he comes to transform their listing into a place that their buyers can call home. He arrives long before the tour, furnishes and decorates the home to his standard, and sometimes he’ll linger to gauge the success of his work. And when the hopeful homeowners leave, he and a moving crew sweep the room and remove any trace of them ever having been there, leaving the house barren and significantly less welcoming than before.

When he’d first gotten the job, it was the best he could do. Straight out of art school it was hard to find work in New York, never mind one that paid as well as staging did. He’d tried his hand at comic book illustration and graphic design, but when the eviction warnings started piling up; he turned his eye for design on something that could give him security. He didn’t love it, but New York rarely caters to passion, and Steve is no exception.

As he walks into his own apartment, he shrugs off his heavy coat and unwraps his scarf, hanging them both on the coatrack by the door. Several of Tony’s jackets still hang there: forgotten and replaced by something nicer, more expensive. They’re too big for Steve, however, and so they remain, hoping to be picked up again by someone whose shoulders they can hug through the cold months.

He kicks off his winter boots and pads through his studio apartment in his thick woolen socks. He glances at the clock: 4:57. He and his mother meet downtown for beers every Thursday at six and dinner with Tony’s at seven. He figures he’s got just enough time to put together something decent.

He wanders into his room and goes straight for the wardrobe, tossing his mittens on his bed as he passes. It’s still meticulously made, seeing as how it’s hardly ever slept in these days. He usually stays over at Tony’s since the thought of Tony spending more than a minute in Brooklyn is laughable, never mind overnight.

Steve opens both doors of his wardrobe, standing in front of it with his hands on both handles before sighing deeply and pulling out options for tonight. He reaches for the purple dress shirt Tony bought him for Christmas. He hates purple, but Tony doesn’t know that, and Tony always compliments him when he wears it. He sets it on the bed.

He’s got four shirts and two pairs of pants lined up when he hears his front door swing open. “Tony?” He calls out.

“Better looking!” Is the immediate reply.

Steve smiles and shakes his head. “Don’t remember giving you a key, Sam!”

“Don’t remember needing one!” Sam Wilson enters the room still bundled from head to toe in his winter clothes. Steve’s known Sam for years, and he’s right. If Steve hadn’t already handed the apartment’s spare key over to Tony, he’d have given it to his best friend instead. “So I ran into Tony.” He says, moving to lie down atop Steve’s bed.

“Don’t even think about it.” Steve says, eyeing the slush stuck to the bottom of Sam’s shoes. While he watches Sam roll his eyes and stoop to remove his shoes, he responds. “You hate Tony.”

“Tony and I don’t see eye to eye.” Sam clarifies, hopping about on one foot.

“You hate him.” Steve repeats with certainty.

“We have our differences.” Sam concedes, finally kicking off both boots before settling back into Steve’s bed. Steve’s only a little surprised that dust doesn’t fly off the covers.

“You were spying on him?” Steve asks, raising an accusing eyebrow.

“I prefer the term…observing.” Sam says.

“And what did you ‘observe’ him doing?” Steve asks, shrugging out of his sweater.

“Strutting around the Diamond District. I’m gonna be the last unmarried man in New York, you bastard.” Sam whines.

Steve pauses with his sweater caught around his head. The Diamond District. People only go to the diamond district for one thing. Wedding rings. His brain finally comes back online and he continues to pull the sweater over his head until he pops free, blonde hair falling wildly over his forehead. Sam’s smiling like the Cheshire cat.

“You sure it was him?” Steve asks slowly, trying his best not to get his hopes up.

“Pinstripe suit? Sunglasses in winter? Fused to his phone and loving the sound of his own voice?” Sam says, ticking off Tony’s traits on each of his fingers. “Yeah, Steve, pretty sure it was him. You didn’t know he was planning this?”

Steve shakes his head slowly. “I mean, I’d been sneaking jeweler brochures in with his mail, but I always found them in the trash. I thought he mistook them for junk mail.”

“Well, apparently the genius finally took the hint.” Sam says simply, dragging himself from Steve’s bed and slipping his boots on once again. “I hate to run, but I figure I’d better get my sorry ass to a bar and see if I can’t find myself a girl. You sure know how to make a guy feel lonely.”

Steve rolls his eyes but offers no comment. He’s still trying to digest the shock swirling in his gut.

“Don’t wear the purple one.” Sam says on his way out the door. “You look better in blue.” He adds.

Steve wears the purple anyway. Its Tony’s favorite.

***

He looks at his watch for the third time since sitting down at the bar almost twenty minutes ago. Its twenty minutes past six and the two beers sitting on the counter top in front of him are starting to get warm.

Steve turns and looks at the door of the small pub before sighing and turning back to his glass. He can tell that the man sitting two stools away from him is staring at him, so he glances over and fixes him with a curious look.

The man, who’s long beard and hair don’t quite cover the apple logo on his blue t-shirt, smiles slowly at Steve and asks, in a voice that betrays just how many beers he’s had today, “Will you marry me?”

Steve offers him a tight lipped smile and shakes his head. “No can do. I’m engaged.” He says, pointedly tucking his ring-less left hand into his pocket.

“Engaged!” Steve holds his breath and turns in his seat. Naturally, Sarah Rogers and her sixth sense for terrible timing would choose now to sweep through the door and seek shelter from the blustering winds. “My baby’s engaged?” She cries with a delighted chuckle.

Steve looks nervously about the bar while pulling his mother into her seat, begging her to keep her voice down. “Ma, ma, everyone can hear you!”

“Oh, I could shout it from the rooftops, Steven! I’m so happy for you!” His mother continues excitedly, grabbing her mug and downing half the glass in one go. “I couldn’t believe how long it was taking him, Steven! Why, your father proposed to me after a week!”

The man two seats away belches before slurring, “I proposed after thirty minutes.” He leers in Steve’s direction. “Specimen.” He adds with a wink.

Steve visibly shudders before turning back to his mother. “He wanted to wait until the time was right, I suppose.” He says with a shrug.

His mother nods before turning every which way in her seat, clearly looking for something. “So where is the lucky fella?” She asks.

Steve buys himself time by taking a sip of his beer before answering. “Something came up at—.”

“Work!” His mother cries exasperatedly. “Work, work, work, it’s all the boy ever does! Surprised he didn’t up and marry that arc reactor he’s always blathering about.” She adds with a chuckle. “But never mind, he asked! And on a Leap Year!”

Steve tilts his head back and groans, “Please don’t tell the story again, Ma.”

“I’d love to hear the story.” Steve’s suitor from two seats away says.

His mother smiles and leans over Steve to better see the man on the other side. Steve should have known she’d be all too excited to tell this story to willing audience. “Well, I was just going to tell my Steven that he’s carrying on the family tradition! My husband proposed to me on the Leap Year, and his father before him, and his father before him! It’s a Rogers’s family tradition, you know! Take your love to the motherland, propose on the 29th of February, and the rest is history!” She says wistfully.

“The motherland.” Steve scoffs. “I’m only 3/4th Irish, Ma. Dad’s Ma was a Brit. I’ve never even set foot in Ireland.”

“Oh, shut it, Steven. You’re 3/4th’s Irish, but 100% Rogers. I had half a mind to buy you and Tony the tickets to Ireland myself.” She scolds, though she’s clearly too over the moon to put much force behind it.

“Yeah, well, you’d have only needed to buy one. Tony’s leaving for a business conference in Ireland tomorrow, and if I don’t get out of here now, I’ll miss our dinner.” Steve says, glancing at his watch before hurriedly hopping from his seat and pulling his winter coat about his shoulders.

His mother squawks and sputters, gesturing at their half-drunk beers. “Steven, we’ve only just begun!”

“I’m sorry, Ma. I’ll make it up to you!” He says, dropping a warm kiss on her forehead and dropping enough money on the counter to cover their drinks, plus a few more rounds if she so wished. “Lunch next week! On me!”

“You bet it’s on you, boy!” She calls to his retreating back as he rushes out the door.

***

Steve looks around the busy restaurant: waiters in white dress shirts and black ties run every which way, the music is cool and jazzy, lights twinkle overhead, and Steve can’t pronounce a damn word on the menu. This place has Tony written all over it.

“This place is packed.” He observes. Tony hums while he consults his options on the menu. Steve purses his lips and tries again. “You must have had these reservations for months.”

Tony nods slowly. “Yeah…” He says absently. “Made ‘em as soon as I heard about the conference in Dublin. Wanted to make sure I took you out before I left.”

Steve smiles and looks back down at the menu. His lactose intolerance and peanut allergy knocks out the half of the menu and he’s just beginning to mull over his salad options when Tony abruptly snaps his menu shut.

“You know how much I appreciate what you’re doing, don’t you?” He asks, finally looking at Steve for the first time since they say down. “How you’re changing your life to fit my schedule? Leaving Brooklyn and all that.”

Steve nods slowly, “Sure, I know you appreciate it.” He says. Not that you ever show it. He thinks.

Tony smiles quickly before reaching into his pocket. “Good. That’s why I got you this. Because I appreciate that you’re taking that next step, so I figured… it’s the least I can do.” From his pocket he pulls a tiny black leather box, and Steve’s heart just about stops beating in his chest as he slides it across the table.

“Tony…” He says breathlessly, shaking fingers reaching out to grab the box. “Tony, what did you do?” Tony doesn’t answer, only smiles and shrugs, gesturing for Steve to get on with it. With his heart hammering in his chest, Steve slowly opens the box.

Inside are two gold, diamond encrusted, “Cufflinks?” Steve whispers.

Tony continues to smile. “Sure, yeah! Figured you could use some new ones. Yours were looking a little worn the other night, I noticed. Doesn’t look good, especially not for a tenant at The Cambridge.” He adds.

Steve continues to stare at the box. The cufflinks are gorgeous, absolutely stunning, but he’d been hoping…he’d honestly believed…

“Hey, it’s Stark, what’s up?” Steve looks up, eyes still wide with shock, to see Tony with his phone pressed against his ear. When Tony notices Steve’s attention is back on him, he holds up a finger and continues to talk. “Thought we had it stabilized before I left? Can it wait? I’m with—. No that’s not what I’m—. Okay. Alright. I’m coming.”

He hangs up and looks at Steve with wide, apologetic eyes. “Steve, honey…”

“Work.” Steve says quietly. “I get it.”

Tony smiles fondly and rises from his chair. “Of course you do, it’s why I love you.” He says brightly, plucking his suit jacket from the back of his chair and pulling it up his arms. “This is gonna take all night, so I won’t see you ‘til I get back from the conference. You be good in the meantime, alright?”

Steve nods jerkily, staring at the stupid fucking cufflinks taunting him from the center of the table.

“Alright. I love you.” Tony says quickly, dropping a chase kiss to Steve’s lips before turning and dashing away.

“Love you, too.” Steve says to no one.

***

Steve sleeps in his own bed for the first time in months. It feels oversized; though sleeping in Tony’s frankly colossal bed has never felt much better. At least then he had the added warmth of another person’s body. Now he only has himself and his thoughts, which have chosen to run wild and unchecked tonight.

Perhaps he’d been stupid to think that Tony was ready to get married. He was only a few years older than Steve, for God’s sake. They were still in their twenties, still susceptible to change and growth. Who knew what the future holds for them? Maybe Tony’s just being cautious.

You could always ask him, yourself. A voice that sounds an awful lot like his mother suggests. He rolls fitfully about his bed, trying to shake the thought from his mind. That would be stupid. Completely idiotic.

His traitorous eyes flick to his laptop regardless. Beside it sit the cufflinks, thrown aside as soon as Steve got into the room with them. He chews the inside of his lip and continues to stare at the laptop.

“Fuck it.” He whispers, rolling out of bed and sitting down at his desk. He hasn’t sat here in ages. It’s usually where he draws, but Tony and staging have kept him away in recent months.

He squints against the light of the screen and opens his browser, immediately searching for flights from New York to Dublin. His finger pauses over the ‘enter’ key, and for another minute he debates the pro’s and con’s of this decision.

He’ll have to take the week off of work. He’ll have to pack a travel bag. He’ll have to board a plane and leave the safety of New York for the first time in his life.

He presses the key anyway, consequences be damned. I love him, don’t I? He thinks to himself, justifying his own actions. Do you? His thoughts echo back. Steve ignores this Sam-like thought and proceeds to book a flight out of JFK for tomorrow morning.

It’s been four years. Steve thinks as he crawls back to bed. He falls asleep believing that after waiting on Tony Stark for four years, he’s not leaving Dublin without a ring on his finger.