"Purpose of your visit?"
Tony paused, the paper cup of cheap coffee that he'd been given when he'd gotten in this god forsaken line hovering inches from his mouth. "We got shot down over your airspace," he said, his voice flat. "By Doctor Doom." He raised one tuxedo clad arm. It had gotten through the whole mess relatively unscathed. He wasn't sure how. "He invited us to a party. There were actual invitations and RSVP cards, it was-” He shook his head. “We came to a party. And then he decided to shoot at us."
The customs officer stopped, his mouth drawing up in a tight little knot. He stared at Tony over the top of his half-moon glasses, his eyes dark slits. Then, he switched his basilisk gaze to Steve. "Purpose of visit?" he repeated, the tip of his pen tapping out a quick, almost frantic, rhythm against the paper of his form.
Tony nearly went over the top of the counter at him. Steve, as if realizing this, clamped a firm hand down on his shoulder, pinning him in place. "We needed to make an emergency landing," he said, sounding entirely too calm for Tony's peace of mind. "Our jet's currently being repaired by an approved crew, as soon as we're able to take off, we'll be out of your hair, sir."
"Fixing the goddamn bullet holes," Tony muttered into his cup. "Goddamn Doom and his goddamn Doombots." Steve's hand tightened, a faint, gentle squeeze. Tony subsided with a sound that would've been an obscenity if he had the energy for obscenities.
The customs officer stared at him, clearly unamused. Tony was pretty sure the guy wasn't amused by much. He wondered if it was an occupational hazard of customs officers, or if the sort of people who became customs officers just lacked a sense of humor in general. Maybe it was on the employment form. He wondered if he could sneak that into the StarkIndustries employment applications.
Probably not. HR didn't have much of a sense of humor about forms, either.
The man pushed himself up out of his chair. It took about five minutes for him to get fully upright, and once he was there, he stopped, as if he'd forgotten why he bothered. Tony stared at him. He stared back. "Wait here," he said at last, picking up both of their passports and their Avengers paperwork. Then, without another word, he toddled off towards a door in the rear of the customs office.
Tony glanced at the huge line behind him. Despite the hour, the queue line was full to overflowing, people perched on top of their luggage and sitting on the floor. Two men, who looked like locals, were playing cards, the draw deck tucked in the pocket of a jacket thrown on the upraised handle of a suitcase. A woman with two small children clinging to her skirts and a baby in a sling against her breast was handing out cookies and dried fruit from wrinkled paper bags. Powdered sugar floated like snow to the floor, coating the toes of the smaller boy. A group of students was clustered together, speaking in halting, uneven sentences, their head bent over well-worn phrase books. Florescent sticky flags marked pages that were apparently of particular interest, fluttering like nervous wings every time they turned a page. An elderly lady in a wheelchair napped, her head hanging forward, her lips parted, her hands folded in her lap. The airline employee pushing her chair appeared only slightly more awake than she was.
On the other side of the glass that separated them from the row of bored, blank faced customs officers, a door opened and then shut with a firm, unmistakable click. Tony glanced at the pile of half-filled forms that the officer had left behind. "Yeah, we're not going anywhere," he said, resigned.
"Don't make this any harder than it has to be," Steve said, his voice pitched low, his head bent next to Tony's.
Tony tried to glare a hole into the uncaring door. "How long have we been friends?"
Steve made a considering sound under his breath. "Five years now?" Steve leaned an elbow on the counter. "Of course, that was before we got into this line, so I'd guess about six now, maybe seven-"
Against his will, Tony's lips twitched. "You think you're funny."
"You just smiled, so apparently, I am funny," Steve said, his mouth kicking up on one side. There was a smugness there that Tony was pretty sure he shouldn't encourage. Not that he had a choice. "No 'think' about it. I just got a bone fide smile out of you, and after today, I would've thought-"
"Yes, yes, you're a funny guy, and I'm very easy when it comes to you, which you should know, after all the years we've been friends," Tony said. He gestured at the room at large with his lousy paper cup of coffee. "So you should know, I never make things harder than they have to be."
Steve choked on a laugh. "Now who's funny?" he asked.
"Not my fault that a lot of things in this world apparently have to be very, very hard," Tony said. "Like this entire trip. And goddamn Victor Von Dumbass and his goddamn-"
"You might've had something to do with how this all worked out," Steve said. Tony turned a stricken face in his direction, and Steve held up a hand, his index finger and thumb an inch or so apart. "Tiny something to do with it."
"And this is how our friendship ends," Tony said, leaning an elbow on the counter. "With baseless accusations and a complete lack of understanding of how I function-"
"Oh, I'm well aware of how you function," Steve said, taking the cup of coffee out of Tony's hand. Tony made a grab for it, but Steve stepped back, staying safely out of reach. He sniffed at the cup, his brow wrinkling. "What is this?"
"Caffeinated motor oil," Tony said, making another attempt to reclaim the cup. "And the only thing keeping me alive at the moment. Give it back."
"I'm pretty certain this isn't actually edible," Steve said.
"Hasn't killed me yet, so-"
"Yeah, the list of things that haven't killed you 'yet' is pretty long and gets more worrying for me with each passing day," Steve pointed out. He sucked in a breath, and, before Tony could do more than curse, downed the rest of the coffee in a single swallow. He came up coughing, his face flushed, a hand clapped to his mouth.
"I hope you enjoyed that," Tony told him.
"God, no, that was VILE," Steve said. He sounded shocked, and Tony struggled against an entirely inappropriate sense of satisfaction.
"Good," he said, just as the customs officer reappeared from the rear office.
He tottered over to his chair, hefting himself into it with an audible grunt of displeasure. Next to their forms, he set a mug of tea. "Now. Where were we?" Tony gaped at him, his mouth hanging open, and the officer glanced from him, to Steve, and back. "Did you drink the coffee?" he asked.
Steve managed a nod. "It's... Strong," he said.
"It's shit," the officer said, glee coloring the words. He tapped the end of his pen against the cup. "Tea. Much better."
"I'll keep that in mind," Steve said.
The officer nodded, a pleased look on his face. Then he looked back down at his forms. "Now. Purpose of visit?"
Steve's arm clamped around Tony's waist with a speed and a force that Tony hadn't thought was possible. In a second, he went from standing on his own to being pinned against Steve's chest, his feet barely on the ground. "Hi," he whispered, amusement sweeping over him. "What're we doing?"
"Keeping you from creating a second international incident today," Steve whispered back.
"We're here for unscheduled, unforeseen repairs," Steve said, ignoring him. "Our plane sustained damage leaving Latveria. There is an approved ground crew that was dispatched by the local SHIELD office attempting to get it back up and running now. We estimate it will be ready to go in a few hours. By morning at the latest."
The officer studied him. "Latveria?"
The officer nodded, then leaned to the side. "Ay," he called, rattling off a string of words that Tony didn't have a chance of following. But in the line, one of the students ducked under the stanchions, working his way to the front of the line. A quick exchange between him and the officer, and he handed over his phrasebook. The officer bent over it, flicking through pages until he found what he was looking for. He looked up. "Doom is a-" He stabbed his fingertip against the page. "Asshole of man."
"Yes," Tony said with all due gravity. "Yes, he is."
The customs officer closed the dictionary and handed it back. The student retreated back to his place in line, and the officer reached for his stamp. "Case will be reviewed in the morning, if you are still here. Until then-" The stamp came down with a very final sounding thump on first Tony's paperwork, then Steve's. The officer pushed them back across the counter with a wide grin. "Welcome to Symkaria. Enjoy your stay." He leaned to the side. "NEXT."
"Are you KIDDING me-" was as far as Tony got before Steve reached past him and scooped up both their passports.
"Thank you, we appreciate your understanding," Steve said in that bright voice that he used when he was really hoping no one noticed how many things in the general vicinity were on fire. For some reason, it almost always worked.
It worked here, too. The customs official just waved a hand at them, his attention already focused on the rawboned woman in the mink stole and cutoff jeans that moved up behind them. Before Tony could get another word out, Steve lifted him off his feet and hustled him towards the exit of the line. "This is undignified," he said, from between clenched teeth.
"So's jail," Steve shot back. "Behave."
"I'm buying this entire country," Tony said, as they exited into the airport proper. He resisted the urge to kick Steve in the shins. "You planning on putting me down?"
"You planning on making a scene?"
"When do I ever-"
"I'm not even going to let you finish that lie, really, you're just embarrassing yourself." But Steve's arm loosened, lowering him to his feet. He leaned forward, his mouth so close to Tony's ear that Tony could feel the heat of his breath. "Behave."
And the thoughts going through his head were the exact opposite of behaving. Tony peeled Steve's arm away from his waist, ignoring the dirty, filthy, horny part of his brain. It was hard. That was a pretty big part. "Buying the whole country."
"Stop it," Steve said, and he was grinning, his blue eyes bright, his hair flopping over his forehead. "Remember rule 22."
"Was that the 'don't punch a head of state' one or the 'mocking of others tech is only allowed when they're actively breaking one or more laws or international statutes' one?" Tony asked.
"It's the 'no threatening colonialism' one," Steve told him.
"We have entirely too many rules, you know that?" Something smelled like coffee. Immediately distracted, Tony headed in that direction, leaving Steve to trail after him.
"We have most of them for a reason, and the reason is you," Steve said. They were attracting stares, which Tony wasn't surprised by. It was late, and the battered old airport terminal was typical of Soviet era buildings: big, impersonal, and gray. The sight of Steve was going to turn heads under ordinary circumstances. Dressed in a perfectly tailored tux, he was capable of stopping traffic.
Not that there was much traffic in here at this hour.
"Be fair," Tony said. "Some of them are Clint."
Steve's lips twitched. "Okay, a lot of them are Clint.” He started ticking them off on his fingers. “Clint, Natasha, Carol, Thor-"
"You can't just list the whole team," Tony said. "That's- No, Steve."
"Sam and Jan are pretty well behaved, actually, so-"
"Jan has got you so hoodwinked, it's not even funny. She is absolutely the cause of like, 90% of our problems, but when you show up, she just acts surprised." Tony spread his hands, looking around with wide eyes. "'Who could've done this? We have no enemies?'"
"We actually have a lot of enemies, so-"
"It's- It's a joke," Tony said. Steve stared at him. He sighed. "Look, it's late, I'm tired, I'm banned from helping with the repairs-”
“You threatened an airport official with a power drill, Tony.”
“Look, we don't have to get into the reasons WHY I'm banned, it's completely unimportant, the only thing that mattes is that I am going to go stir crazy if I have to sit here and watch SHIELD grunts make a ruin of my plane, and we've got a day pass in our passports. Wanna hit the town?" He tucked his hands in his pockets. "We're dressed for it."
Steve glanced down at himself, then at Tony. "I'm not really up for anything fancy," he said, with a lopsided smile. “It's been a very long day, Tony.”
“You're telling me. I had a champagne bottle used as a deadly weapon against me, and that's only the second time in my life I can say that.” Tony threw an arm around Steve's shoulders. "Come on. Let me introduce you to the joys of ordering food from a street vendor in the middle of the night while wearing a tux."
"Why do I think this is going to end badly?" Steve asked, but he was smiling when he asked the question.
"Because you're a cynical, cynical man," Tony told him. "Come on. Let's find the local equivalent of an overcooked hot dog. My treat."
The center of the city was barely contained chaos.
"This is not my fault."
Steve bit back a smile. "You're efficient," he agreed, catching Tony's elbow before he could get swept away by the crowd, "but not even you could make this much trouble, this fast."
In the fractured light of the streetlights, he saw Tony's teeth flash in a feral sort of grin. "You always did underestimate me, Rogers." He twisted around, watching the crowds. "But yes. Even for me. This seems excessive.”
The streets were full of people, holding signs painted on cardboard and sheets, rainbow flags tied around people's shoulders and dangling from upraised fists. There was singing and chanting coming from various groups, and something that Steve would've identified as parade floats moving clumsily through the crowds. On them, girls with shaved heads combat fatigues also wore flower crowns and small domino style masks, their hands covered in glitter as they tossed fistfuls of rainbow confetti into the crowd. Musicians and DJs were scattered in each moving platform, the traditional instruments mixing with modern house music to form a riotous, almost cacophonous sound. Dancers followed behind, shoes kicking up gleaming rainbow clouds with each step.
"So, I'm guessing gay rights protest?" Tony asked, grinning. A teenager wearing a mask along with his patched, ragged jeans and well-worn t-shirt darted out of the crowd, grabbing Tony's arm. He said something, his smile brilliant, and then pressed a kiss to Tony's cheek. Laughing, he dashed away again, the glitter in his hair gleaming as he disappeared into the crowd. Tony grinned after him. "Very amiable protest, but yes." He was laughing when he looked in Steve's direction. “Maybe a little bit gay.”
Steve had never envied a teenager as much in his life. Partially for the pure joy on the kid's face, the complete embracing of who he was and what that meant, and partially because he could kiss Tony so easily, without even thinking about it. Without having to consider what that meant, what Tony would think it meant.
Steve took a deep breath. He absolutely was not in love with one of his best friends. He had to keep reminding himself of that. Maybe someday he'd actually believe it.
Steve squinted at a few of the signs passing by. He didn't speak the language, but the symbols had become universal, it seemed. "Love is love," he said, because those were some of the few English words that were visible. Two older women stepped around him, their arms linked together. They were wearing masks as well. "The masks are new."
Tony nodded. “I like it. Stylish."
Steve choked on a laugh. "You would."
Tony gave him a look. "Please. You've worn a few in your time, too." He put his hands up on either side of his head, his thumbs planted on his temples and his fingers wiggling. "And wings. Tiny, adorable wings."
"I don't know if you expect me to be ashamed of the wings, but-" Steve grinned as confetti came fluttering down, settling in Tony's dark hair. His fingers twitched against his palm as he resisted the urge to brush it away. "Not going to happen."
"I expected nothing less." Tony grabbed his arm. "Come on. Let's find out where everyone's going."
This was a bad idea. He knew it was. But Tony was grinning at him, his eyes bright, his cheeks flushed, and Steve had always liked a good, honest protest. "Fine," he said, and when Tony let go of his sleeve, moving away, Steve made a grab for him. "Oh, no. You're not losing me in this."
"I'm not going far," Tony said, but he wove his fingers through Steve's, his grip firm and strong. "Try to keep up, old man."
Steve grinned, warmth curling through him. He should pull away. He knew it. But they were far from home, and, despite what they were wearing, no one was paying any attention to them. Probably because there were people wearing things that were far more eye catching. A man in what appeared to be a collection of mismatched leather pieces and two different feather boas passed by, going in the other direction, and Steve caught himself laughing, bright and real, at nothing in particular.
For the first time in about seventy years, he felt like he could blend in.
Tony glanced over his shoulder at him. “You losing it already, Cap?”
“Lost it a long time ago,” Steve said, and Tony's hand tightened on his, his fingers firm and familiar. “Move it. I've got your back.”
“When do you not?” Tony said, but he was already plowing forward, through the crowd, through the showers of confetti, and Steve followed behind him, just glad to be along for the ride.
Steve wasn't sure how he did it, but somehow, Tony found the center of the chaos, an array of tables and small booths where people in matching shirts were handing out bottles of water, packages of prophelactics, and multicolored domino masks. Tony slipped through a pack of older ladies in matching red hats, tugging Steve along with him.
“Hello!” he said, to the woman behind the table. He pointed at the box of masks. “How much?”
The woman blinked at him. “English?” she asked, her brow furrowing.
Tony nodded, already pulling his wallet out of his pocket. “Enough?” he held up a few bills of the local currency, and pointed at the masks again.
She frowned at him, then at Steve. Steve tried a reassuring smile. It didn't work. She turned and ducked around the edge of the table. Steve watched her go, his eyebrows raised. “That went well,” he said.
Tony braced a hand on the table. “I blame you,” he said, propping his other hand on his hip. “I'm charming. You just-” He waved in Steve's general direction. “Loom.”
“Sorry, I'll try to be shorter in the future,” Steve said, amused, as the woman reappeared, dragging a young man by the arm. His glasses were crooked on his nose, and his hair had been bleached and the tips frosted in pale blue.
The woman pointed at them, a spill of words washing over them. The boy blinked at them. "English?" he asked, his voice curious.
"Yes." Steve smiled at him. "Sorry."
The teenager laughed. "Good practice for me." The woman nudged him, pointing from Tony to the masks, speaking rapidly. The boy nodded. “Free. We take donations.” He pointed at the wooden box at the end of the table. “But free.” He grabbed a few from the box and held them out. “Take one!”
Tony folded the bills and dropped them in the box, earning himself a pleased smile and a nod from the woman. Steve reached out and took a black mask from the boy. “Thank you.” Tony reached around him, taking a red one with glitter swirls along the edges. “Subtle.”
“Always.” Tony turned his over in his hands, a faint smile curling the edges of his lips. He glanced up. "Why?"
The teenager hummed for a second, his nose wrinkling. "Not everyone-" he waved a hand at the crowd. "Dangerous. To be here. Some people-" He stopped again, one finger tapping at the table, where the rainbow flag rested. "No one knows."
"They're not out," Tony said.
"Out, out, yes. Not out," the boy agreed. "But everyone should be here. This-" He gestured again, his face bright, his cheeks flushed below the edges of his glasses. "This is for everyone. Tonight, it's for everyone. But not everyone can be seen. So-" He tapped the mask. "If no one is seen, everyone can be seen?"
"If everyone wears a mask," Steve said, "then everyone's safe." The boy nodded, his teeth flashing in a grin. Steve smiled back. "Safety in numbers."
"Yes! Hide." The boy nodded, a firm dip of his chin. "Be safe. Okay?"
"Thank you," Steve said, as Tony slipped the mask over his face.
“Looks good,” the teenager said. He reached out, grabbing Steve's hand and shaking it firmly. “Glad you came. Thank you!” The woman nudged him, whispering something to him, and he nodded. “Enjoy the photo ops! We have Instagram filter!”
“What?” Steve asked, but the boy was already heading off to speak to someone else, a basket of masks balanced on his hip. Steve watched him go, bemused.
“Huh, what do you know,” Tony said, staring down at his phone. “They do.”
“Photo ops?” Steve asked.
Tony glanced up. “Photo ops,” he said, reaching for the mask in Steve's hand. “Lean over.” Steve bent forward, just a bit, and Tony slipped the mask over his head, tucking the elastic in place behind Steve's ears. Steve's eyes fluttered shut, his lips falling open as Tony's fingers smoothed his hair down. “There.”
Steve looked up, and Tony was grinning at him, his eyes brilliant in the hollows of his masks. “What do you think?” he asked, giving Tony a lopsided smile. “Can I pull it off?”
Tony pressed a finger to his pursed lips, his eyes narrowing. “You make it work,” he said at last, his face softening. He held Steve's eyes for a second longer, then turned away. “Come on. I haven't had my picture taken in at least ten hours; much longer and I'm going to go into withdrawal.”
Steve grinned. “Well, when you put it like that, I guess we've got no choice.”
“Let's go punch Doctor Doom.”
“No,” Steve said, but Tony was pretty sure there was wiggle room there. He was grinning as he took a bite of the flatbread stuffed with sausages and a mix of pickled vegetables. The wax paper wrapping it crackled as he tried to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand without dropping his drink.
Laughing, Tony fished a napkin out of his pocket. “You'd think as a native New Yorker, you'd be better at eating on the move,” he said, wiping Steve's chin.
Steve fended him off with one hand, his eyes bright and his cheeks pink beneath the curves of his mask. “We could stop, you know,” he said, rebalancing his load so he could take the napkin from Tony. “Eat like civilized people.”
“Waste of time,” Tony said. Someone nearby was selling something fried, he could smell the crisp, heavy smell of melting sugar and hot oil. Tony followed his nose, leaving Steve to trail along behind him. “The line for punching Doctor Doom is short. Just saying. We could get that done now-”
Steve leaned over his shoulder. “I've had enough bad propaganda pictures of me punching world leaders in circulation,” he said. “I'm not faking it with a cardboard cutout.”
Tony grinned back at him, feeling happier than he had in a long time. He was pretty sure at least part of that was the drink he'd picked up at one of the stands lining the main square. He wasn't sure what was in it, but it was definitely alcoholic. Like a hot toddy, but stronger, and full of spices he wasn't used to. But it was definitely very, very alcoholic.
“Don't be gauche,” he said. “They've got a guy dressed up in a very bad costume, so-”
“No,” Steve told him, but he was smiling. He offered Tony his sandwich. Tony picked a sausage out of it, popping it into his mouth. Steve did the same, licking his fingers clean. “I did the one with the King's office, or maybe it's the Prime Minister's, I don't even know-”
“I choose to think that it was the local variation on the Oval Office,” Tony said. “You make a good King slash president.” He stopped short, his eyes going wide. “We should-”
“No,” Steve told him.
Tony gave him a look. “You don't even know what I'm going to say.”
“I don't, and I'm still comfortable with my 'no,'” Steve said. He took the cup out of Tony's hand, stealing a sip of it before Tony could get it back. His eyebrows arched. “How drunk are you right now?”
Tony took the cup back. “Not drunk,” he said, his tone arch. “Just comfortably relaxed.” A pack of dancing women went by, signs decorated with peacock plumes held high, and beyond them, Tony spotted a battered panel van with a fryer set up by its back bumper. Elated, Tony made a sharp right, drawn by the promise of something desperately unhealthy.
The women running the stand were dishing out paper plates of heavy, dense fried dough, dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, and piled high with syrup drenched fruit. They were apparently well used to tourists; it took only a few gestures for him to collect a plate of steaming dough and rough chunks of apple. The woman handed him his change and stuck a fork in the fruit with a practiced gesture.
Tony collected his drink and turned, expecting to find Steve right behind him. Instead, he came face to face with two young women. “Hi,” he said, because they were staring at him, eyes wide behind their masks. The two looked at each other, whispering to one another. Amused, Tony took a sip of his drink. “Can I help you two?”
One of the girls, a tall, lanky teenager in a pair of heavy military style boots and a flowing dress, caught his hand. The other, a shorter girl with long black curls and round pink cheeks, grabbed his other arm. Together, they pulled him forward.
“Hey, now, what-” Before he could lose something, he tossed back the rest of his drink, swallowing it in two quick gulps. The warmth hit him almost immediately, curling through him as he threw the cup at a nearby trash can. “Okay. What are you doing?” he asked one of the girls. She pointed at him, and plucked at the cuff of his tux jacket. “Oh, you like my clothes? Great. Me, too, but-”
Either they didn't understand English or they were pretending they didn't so they could avoid talking to him. It wouldn't be the first time. But as they ducked past a display made to look like the bow of the Titanic and ran across the floor of a New York disco, circa 1975, he found himself laughing. “I don't know where we're going, but can we go back to the Titanic, because that, that was amazing, seriously, I don't even know what's happening here, but that was an amazing work of engineering considering that it's plywood and canvas and a lot of duct tape, so-”
The two girls came to a stop, and Tony nearly lost his fried dough. He bobbled the plate, trying to keep the apple filling in place, looking around in confusion.
In front of them was a small raised dais, almost lost in the midst of larger, louder setpieces. On it was a small table piled with stacks of paper and folders, a small metal goblet, and a couple of candles. An elderly man, wizened and bent with age, was perched on a rough wooden stool, a bible in his lap and his thin, gnarled hands folded over the grip of his cane. He looked up as the girls finagled Tony up the single step onto the platform, a smile creasing his cheeks. Unlike just about everyone else around, he wasn't wearing a mask, but his thick, round glasses gave him a wise, quizzical appearance, and white hair was dusted with confetti. He was in a robe of some sort, heavy and possibly as old as he was.
He reached out, touching Tony gently on the breast, a few soft words spilling from his lips. Tony didn't understand them, but somehow, he didn't have to. Even he knew a blessing when he heard one, and to his surprise, his eyes burned. He nodded, just a little. “Thank you,” he said, and the man smiled up at him, kindness writ large on his face.
Tony twisted around as Steve slipped through the crowd, relief washing over his face. He hopped up onto the stage. “I lost you.”
Tony grinned at him. “Not for long.” He looked back at the old man, who was struggling to his feet now, setting his cane against the side of his stool. “No, you don't have to-”
The old man opened the bible, his fingers smoothing the delicate pages. He smiled first at Tony, then at Steve, and Tony was suddenly very, very sober.
“No,” he said, holding up his hands. “No, we're not-”
There was the sound of applause from behind them, and he twisted around. The two girls who had brought him here were both watching, their hands clasped together, wearing identical grins. An older woman leaned her folded arms on the top of a sign, her long gray braids wrapped around her head like a wreath. Two men, wearing the olive drab outfits of soldiers, stood nearby, one with his arms looped around the other from behind.
Tony gave them his best smile and a wave. “I know we're dressed for a wedding, but a man's got a right to expect a proposal, so-”
Tony's stomach turned over, his skin icing over in an instant. Almost as quickly as it had hit, it was gone, his face going hot as he turned to stare at Steve. “What?” he managed.
Steve took the plate of fried dough out of his hand, setting it on the small wooden table nearby. “Marry me,” he repeated, and when he looked up, his face was full of joy. He leaned in, his face boyish in its brilliance. “Unless you want a better proposal?”
The image of Steve down in front of him on one knee morphed into one of just Steve on his knees, and both of those were unacceptable, both of those would haunt his dreams in ways he didn't even want to contemplate. Tony squeezed his eyes shut, struggling to breathe. “No, that's fine, that's-” He was not a child. He'd been in love before, and it hadn't worked out then, either. He could handle this. He had been handling this, for weeks, for months, for years.
He didn't want to think about how long he'd been in love with Steve Rogers. If he allowed himself to dwell on that, he would lose what was left of his mind.
Tony opened his eyes, and Steve was right there, right in front of him, still smiling, bright and full of light and warmth, and Tony wanted to scream at him, wanting to shake him. “Listen, buddy,” he said, and he was shocked at how steady his voice was. “I'm not the kind of guy who gets married on the first goddamn date, what the hell?”
He tried not to see the crowd they'd attracted, people piling up around the edges of the platform. He was used to being a spectacle, but trust Steve to take 'making a scene' to an entirely new level. Because Steve was still smiling at him, and if he was concerned, or embarrassed, it didn't show on his face. Tony supposed not everyone had the extensive experience to cultivate a 'complete disaster' sense the way he had.
“Marry me, and I'll go punch the faux Doom,” Steve said, and it was such a goddamn Steve Rogers thing to say that Tony felt something inside him snap.
“These two photo ops are not at all the same thing,” Tony said, but it wasn't a no. He knew it wasn't a no, and judging by the way Steve's smile turned just a tiny bit smug, he knew it, too. Tony wondered when he'd lost the upper hand in this conversation. He'd never had the moral high ground, but for an instant, he'd had the upper hand. “Not at all.”
“Fine.” Steve leaned in. “I'll punch Doom twice and buy you breakfast.”
Tony stared at him, his heart in his throat. “We tag-team Doom and I want lunch next week, too.” Steve was laughing now, his face alive with it, and Tony knew this would be the ruin of him. He wasn't sure he cared.
“Done,” Steve said, and he looked at the priest, giving him a smile and a nod. The old man adjusted his glasses, nodding back. Steve fished his phone out of his pocket. “One second.” He turned, grabbing Tony's arm to pull him in next to him. “Smile.”
“Are we really selfieing this?” Tony asked him, but he smiled anyway. Then he took the phone out of Steve's hand, turning to the girls who'd gotten him into this mess. “Picture?” he asked, holding it up, and the tall one took it with a pleased smile and an enthusiastic nod.
“Ready?” Steve asked.
Tony reached out, adjusting Steve's bow tie. “How are you still wearing this?”
Steve tipped his chin up, letting him do it. “I didn't want to lose anything. It's a rental.” Tony stopped giving him an incredulous look, and Steve grinned at him. “Ready?”
No. Not at all. Tony smiled back. “Sure,” he said.
The 'ceremony' was mercifully short. The 'priest' said a few words, pressed a gentle palm to Steve's forehead, then Tony's. Tony resisted the urge to lunge for the edge of the stage as the priest gestured at Steve. Steve, grinning, said, “I do.”
The old man looked at Tony, and Tony was pretty sure he could see eternity in the depths of his eyes, in the dark shadows behind his glasses. The world spun on its axis, and he wasn't sure if it was the exhaustion or the alcohol or the situation itself, but he heard himself say “I do,” the voice echoing as if from a great distance.
The crowd cheered, and it was over. Feeling relieved and foolish and elated in equal parts, he turned to smile at the crowd. He gave a little wave as someone threw confetti into the air. It fluttered down around them, and he laughed. "Thank you, much appreciated, who's next, because-"
Fingers, warm and firm, slipped under his chin, holding him still, and then Steve's lips brushed across his cheek. Startled, he turned, and Steve was right there, eyes bright and gleaming in the shadows of his mask. Tony felt his face heat, an embarrassing response for a man of his age, but Steve's fingers were still cradling his jaw, and his lips, lips that Tony had absolutely not had filthy, filthy thoughts about during more than one Avengers team meeting, were right there, right-
The fact that Tony leaned in and kissed him was probably to be expected.
It was quick, almost chaste, his lips ghosting over Steve's, both of them unnaturally still, as if they knew it wasn't going to last. It shouldn't last, after all. It wasn't real.
But when Tony pulled away, he was breathing hard, his pulse throbbing in his ears like he'd just done ten rounds in the suit. Steve blinked at him, his long lashes fluttering, and Tony caught himself grinning. "Sorry," he said, the words almost lost in the cheering of the crowd. "I've got a reputation to maintain."
The slow, incremental dawning of Steve's smile was still one of the most beautiful things he'd ever seen. “I'd heard things,” he said.
“Don't believe them,” Tony told him. “I'm a paragon of virtue.”
“Wow. That's disappointing.” The old priest was holding out a page to them, and Tony watched, his head spinning, as Steve filled out the empty spots on the form and signed with a flourish. He held the pen out to Tony. “So am I. This is going to be one hell of a boring marriage.”
“Right.” Tony didn't even look, he just scribbled something like a signature on the page. “Boring.”
He needed a drink. A very strong one.
Ellen pushed her face deeper into her pillow. "Go away."
She gritted her teeth. "Go. Away."
There was a beat of silence. Ellen squeezed her eyes shut, trying to ignore the way her head was pounding. It was an impossible task. “Ellen.”
“I will have you fired and replace you with a pretty boy who can use a telephoto lens properly,” Ellen said. “You're the worst photographer. I hate you.”
Another moment of stillness, and then something crashed down on her bed, almost sending her flying. Shrieking, Ellen grabbed for the blankets, clutching them to her chest. Jesse was sitting in the middle of the mattress, clad in battered cargo shorts and an olive drab tank top, her booted feet hanging off the edge of the mattress. “Bitch, do not insult my art,” she said, her eyes narrowed at Ellen. Despite what they'd drunk last night and the painfully early hour, she seemed completely awake and healthy, her dark brown skin clear and her eyes bright beneath the fringe of pink curls that crowned her head.
In comparison, Ellen was pretty sure she looked like she'd been dead a week or so. Of gangrene.
“Please go away,” she said. “Let me die in peace.”
Jesse gave her a look that was distinctly unimpressed. "Shouldn't've drunk so much," she sing-songed, her head bouncing from side to side with each word. The visual effect was enough to turn Ellen's stomach, and she slapped her pillow over her face. "Your hangover is unimportant to me, wake up and smell the news."
"I filed my story last night. It's over. It's done," Ellen muttered into her pillow. "I don't care about anything, because I filed my damn story.”
“Yeah.” Jesse pulled her phone out of the pocket of her cargo shorts. “''Statutory Surprise in Symkaria,'” she read aloud. She gave Ellen a look. “Really, you had to go for the alliteration?”
Ellen held up her hands. “'Statutory Surprise in Symkaria: Same Sex Marriage Made Legal Overnight,'” she said, still pleased with that.
“You missed your calling, you should've been writing headlines during the 1800's,” Jesse said, flopping out on Ellen's bed. Ellen considered kicking her. “Article's good, though.”
Ellen reconsidered the kicking. “Of course it is,” she said, rolling over. “Considering we got here six hours after King Stefan signed the damn bill with absolutely no warning.” She punched a fist into her pillow. “No. Warning.”
“Lame Duck Prime Minister looking to get himself into the history books,” Jesse said. She patted Ellen's hip. “It's fine. Everyone else was caught just as off guard. We got here, right?”
“We got here,” Ellen said. It had nearly killed her, but they'd made it in time to do some interviews, take some pictures, file the first Western dispatch from the celebration. Then she'd had a little too much to drink and way too little sleep. She pulled her pillow over her face. “There is- There is nothing happening, there is no news, there's nothing at all, there is nothing you could tell me that could get me out of this bed."
Something fluttered against her stomach, and she fumbled for it. "Don't know. This might," Jesse said.
She sounded smug. Which was, really, kind of unusual. Ellen pushed the pillow away from her face, holding up the photo in front of her. It took her eyes a very long time to focus.
It was a very well composed shot. If she hadn't been in the middle of the same mess as Jesse had been last night, she would've thought it was staged. But there was no chance that was the case, and that meant, Jesse had gotten very, very lucky.
The shot was framed on all sides with a fall of glittering, multicolored confetti, the individual pieces forming an out-of-focus swirl. It gave the image a sense of motion, like a wave, or an explosion. Caught in the center were two well-built men, both dressed in tuxedos and masks, one tall and broad and blonde, the other more compact and lithe, with a dark goatee and black hair.
They'd been caught in profile, the blonde's fingers cradling the brunette's chin. He was smiling, his body canted forward, his head tipped to the side. The dark haired man was turned away from him, as if the blonde had caught him off guard. Beneath the edge of his glittering red mask, his cheeks were flushed, his lips parted.
There was something intimate about their posture, about the way that the black edges of their formal clothes seemed to bleed into each other, like there not fully separate entities. In the middle of a party, of a celebration, they were still, they were seeing only each other.
Ellen yawned, holding the photo back out to her. "Nice work. Good. You should submit it somewhere.”
Jesse didn't take it from her. “After you passed out last night-”
“Fuck you,” Ellen said, flopping back on her bed. “Fuck you specifically, I-”
“After you passed out last night,” Jesse repeated, unconcerned, “I ended up talking to a couple of the guys down in the hotel bar.” She tucked a leg up under her. There was a sort of wired energy to her posture that Ellen had learned to respect. “Practiced my Russian.”
Ellen wadded up a pillow behind her. “How'd that go?”
Jesse shrugged. “So, know what they were financing with donations last night?” she asked. Ellen just stared at her. “Marriage licenses.” She shoved a hand through her hair. “It's one of the main stumbling blocks to actually, you know, getting married. Symkaria doesn't have a waiting period, or even blood tests, but they make sure people think hard about getting married by making it really expensive.”
Ellen blinked at her. “How expensive?”
“Prohibitively expensive,” Jesse told her. “And even though the parliament approved the bill and the King signed it into law, like, in six hourse, the locals are worried, as you might imagine, about legal challenges. So a lot of people who've been together for years wanted to get the deed done before someone tried to turn back the clock.”
Something clicked in Ellen's head. “Wait, were people really getting married last night?” She grabbed the photo. “Is this-” She realized she was grinning. “They got married?”
Jesse nodded. “We were late-”
“Yeah, fuck layovers,” Ellen said.
“But the guy I talked to last night said they'd managed to pay for the marriage licenses for eighty-nine couples yesterday, and yeah.” She flopped over to the side to point at the picture. “If you look in the background, you can see the priest? So these two got married. I mean. Pretty sure they did. The licenses that the couples signed will be official record today, so we'd have to check with the town hall to check and see.”
Ellen stared at her. “Why... Would we do that?” she asked at last.
Jesse took the picture out of her hand and held it out in front of her. "Look closer," she said. She braced a hand on the edge of the bed, her short hair falling forward over her forehead. "Look at the goatee."
Ellen squinted down at the picture. The man on the right, the dark haired one with the facial hair, had been caught in profile, his head tipped up to give a perfect view of his jawline. Her eyes narrowed, a vague sense of familiarity hovering in the back of her mind. "It's... A goatee," she said, but she didn't sound certain, even to her own ears.
Jesse stared at her. Ellen stared back. “What?” she asked at last. “What are you seeing that I'm not-”
Jesse took the picture from her and dug into one of her pockets, coming up with a blue marker. She snagged the cap in her teeth and yanked it off, leaning over the picture. For a second, she scribbled at it, then held it back up. She'd drawn a blue mask and cowl on the blonde man. “How about now?”
Ellen stared. “Is that-” Her head snapped up, so fast that she ended up swaying in place, her head spinning. “Is that STEVE ROGERS?”
Jesse looked around the edge of the picture, nodding and smiling. “And that makes this one-” She tapped the brunette, and Ellen recognized that jawline at last.
“Holy fuck,” she breathed. “It's-” She couldn't even get the words out. She might've been hyperventilating. She might've been having a stroke. “It's-”
“Tony Stark,” Jesse filled in for her. She pointed to the background of the photo. “And THAT'S a priest.”
Ellen stared at nothing in particular. “You're telling me that Captain America and Iron Man flew to a foreign country and got married. To-” She clutched her forehead, and wondered if this was how God was punishing her for drinking too much, for getting too wrapped up in the story she was supposed to be covering. “To EACH OTHER.”
Jesse threw her hands in the air. "Yeah. I think they did."
Ellen sucked in a breath. "Oh, my god, you are so rich. This is-" She held it up. "This is the holy grail, this is-"
Jesse leaned in. "Only if it's true. Only if we can prove it." Her dark eyes were alight. "Wanna help me prove it?"
Ellen grabbed her arms. “I love you,” she said, and she meant it, more than she'd ever meant anything she'd ever said in her life.
Jesse's eyes rolled towards the ceiling. “Right,” she said, but she was smiling. “Get your hungover ass out of bed, and let's go pound on the door of city hall.”