It all started with Pepper.
Actually, it started way before Pepper. Years before. But Tony was always able to divert the subject easily with one thing or another until Pepper had to go and ruin and everything.
See, Pepper was getting married. And the problem with weddings is they’re like the domino effect – when one happens, a bunch follow. Everyone that wasn’t already married suddenly found the need to be, and those who already were either boasted or bitched about being so.
Pepper was the fuel, but honestly, it was really Peter who started the fire.
Peter was sitting on the adjoining table to were Tony was hunched over working down in the lab. The boy was swinging his feet and watching his father with curious, interested eyes as the man stripped and bent wires. Occasionally his small hands would release their iron grip on the cool metal beneath him to adjust his goggles as they were a bit too large and gradually slipped down – but Tony wouldn’t let Peter in the lab without him.
And over the recent months, Peter spent more and more time in the lab with Tony. Sometimes he’d be sprawled across the floor with his crayons and paper, doodling pictures of aliens and monsters and The Avengers (seriously, the kid had talent – nothing to rival Steve, but far superior to anything Tony could manage). Other times Peter would bring some toys or a book to read, and once in a great while if he thought Tony wasn’t paying attention, would try to climb and ride Dummy (“Peter, that’s not nice. Dummy has feelings too.”)
But mostly Peter just watched, taking in every movement of Tony’s skilled and experienced hands as the man created and modified whatever he could get ahold of.
It was a few days after Pepper’s announcement, Peter in the lab with Tony, when out of the blue the six-year-old inquired, “Are you and Daddy married?” in that light, innocent tone that had Tony fucked-over and then some. The voice that always seemed to get him out of trouble with Tony every time.
Tony, barely pausing to even consider the question, answered, “Uh, no, we’re not,” and cursed under his breath when he received a shock from the wires.
Peter then invoked the sacred child law of keep. fucking. asking. “Why?” And if Tony could ban one word from the English language, that three-letter nightmare was at the top of his list.
“Because we’re not,” Tony replied with hints of annoyance.
“How come?” the boy pressed on.
Tony looked up briefly, eyes and voice warning. “Peter, this isn’t something I’m going to discuss with you, so drop it.”
But Peter didn’t quit. “Don’t you love Daddy?”
Defensively, Tony snapped, “Of course I do!” because in the beginning he went through hell from everyone that came in contact with him about not leading Steve on and actually committing to this if he was going to give it a try and, in Natasha’s (and Clint’s, what the hell) case, getting threatened with the most creative of tortures should he do anything to much a make Steve frown; in any way not related to the usual Tony Stark disappointment that most people regarded the billionaire with.
When the boy pulled back away from Tony a few hairs, the man took a deep breath and relaxed himself, pushing his goggles to the top of his head. “Why the sudden interest, P? Is it because Aunt Pepper’s getting married?”
Peter went silent, looking down as his shoulder’s hunched up.
Tony pushed away from the table, using his feet to glide over to his son and grab him from the table to it the boy in his lap. “C’mon, big guy, you know you can talk to me. We can even tell JARVIS to go spy on your Uncle Clint for a while so it’s just you and me.”
The AI chimed in with a light, “As if you don’t already have me monitoring his every move, sir,” to which Tony quickly said, “That walking carney is a hazard to my tower and I swear he destroys more stuff than I do which you’d think is impossible, but he still does.”
“The tally is currently tied,” JARVIS informed.
Tony thought about that a minute before muttering, “I’ll have to take out a window later.”
If JARVIS had eyes to roll, the AI would have.
Tony put his attention back to his son, one hand rubbing at the child’s thin arm, and the other lifting Peter’s chin to look into his eyes. “What’s going on, Pete?” he asked with a concerned softness that most people would never expect out of him. When it came to the boy though, all of Tony’s defenses fell.
Peter hesitated, but eventually shrugged and quietly answered, “People who love each other get married.” Tony knew it wasn’t that simple. With a pointed look, Peter continued. “When Aunt Pepper showed Daddy her ring, he seemed sad. His eyes looked sad. Uncle Clint says you gotta look at people’s eyes to know what they’re thinking ‘n feeling. And Daddy’s eyes were sad, Papa.”
Of course Tony would get the kid that was emotionally sophisticated. The opposite of Tony in his own youth (and present day, many would argue).
“You think Steve’s sad because he and I aren’t married?” Tony didn’t need an answer though. It was something Steve’s brought up to him personally more than once. Something they’ve argued about many times. Tony didn’t want it, Steve did. And at one point, when Peter was still very young, the very topic nearly split them apart.
“Why don’t you and Daddy get married?” Peter asked.
Brushing the boy’s growing bangs aside, Tony managed the tiniest of smiles and said, “It takes a lot more than love to make a marriage work. I don’t have what it takes, and if I messed it up, I could lose your Daddy forever. You’ll understand that when you’re older.”
Peter shook his head. “Daddy would never leave, Papa,” he answered with confidence. He leaned forward and laid his head on Tony’s shoulder, small fingers resting over the reactor. “Not as long as this glows. That’s what you said, Papa, ‘member? Long as your heart has light, you will always love me ‘n Daddy, and we’ll be a family.”
A rare burning sensation prickled behind Tony’s eyes. He rested one hand over Peter’s, keeping it pressed against his chest, and ran the fingers of his other hand through Peter’s hair. “It’s complicated,” Tony whispered.
“Maybe someday,” Peter said against his father’s chest, “You’ll have what it takes to marry Daddy, and he’ll have a pretty ring like Aunt Pepper’s and no more sad in his eyes.”
Tony laid his cheek against the top of Peter’s head. “Maybe someday,” he replied quietly.
Things only got worse the longer time passed and the closer to Pepper’s wedding they got.
A few months prior to the designated day, Tony was having a long overdue lunch with the bride-to-be, not exactly to congratulate her, but more to tell her off.
“They’re turning against me, Pep,” he said the moment the waiter left to place their order. “Peter’s continuously pestering me if I ‘have what it takes yet’,” he made air quotes, “And anytime anyone mentions something about your wedding, or anything related to such, Steve gets all tense and miserable and we haven’t had sex since you graced us with your soul-selling news. Do you know how painful - literally painful, Pep – it is to be denied sex for almost two months? Not even that tasteless trash they try to pass off as porn helps,” Tony whined. “And don’t tell anyone I’ve resorted to such low desperation because if Steve finds out I’ll really be fucked in the most unpleasant way.”
Pepper, beyond used to Tony, and having an indefinite supply of patience when dealing with the man, gracefully sipped at her glass of water as he ranted. When Tony finished, Pepper half-shrugged and said, “So ask Steve to marry you. You guys already live and sleep together, work together, and are raising a child together. You’re practically married now.”
Groaning, Tony dropped his elbows to the table and held his head up. “It’s more complicated than that.”
Still unfazed, Pepper answered. “Then un-complicate it. You’re running out of excuses and time, Tony. Soon you’ll have no other answer to give but ‘yes’. And while we both know Steve’s too good-hearted to leave you unless you really dig yourself a crater to die in, he isn’t going to wait forever.” Pepper adjusted the slightest bit, hands resting in her lap. “By the time you pull your head your head out of your ass and ask for his hand, Steve may no longer want yours. No one, not even Steve, waits around all their lives for the things they want. They either go out and get them, or lose the desire for them all together.”
Tony dropped his head to the table, the silverware chattering as the vibrations of the action knocked them against each other.
Pepper reached across the table and pressed a hand gently to the side of Tony’s head. “Steve loves you, Tony, and I know you love him; more than you’ve ever loved anyone in your life. I can see it when you look at him, or when someone so much as mentions his name.” Her fingertips brushed lightly against his skin in an almost-petting fashion.
“That man would build you a monument with his bare hands if your narcissistic ass didn’t beat him to it. He’s taken bullets for you, makes sure you eat and sleep because you’re incapable of self-preservation, and no matter how many fights you have and how many 2AM phone calls I get to inform me you’ve broken up, you guys always work it out. What you have with Steve, millions of people spend their whole lives desperately searching for, Tony. What are you so afraid of?”
Tony lifted his head up, supporting it with one hand. “I’m afraid of commitment, Pepper. You of all people should know that. You read all the time how people get married one day, divorced the next. Did you know there’s more divorce than marriage? I can’t risk it, Pep. I can’t risk losing him. I’d rather have him mad at me and arguing with me than not with me at all.”
Pepper stroked his face once more before delivering a slap harsh enough to warrant a few looks from neighboring tables. “For a genius, you’re really fucking stupid, Stark.” Tony frowned, rubbing his already reddening cheek and leaning away from the table. “Divorce happens because people can’t get over their differences enough to make it work. People who get divorced shouldn’t have even been married.”
“Uh, Steve an I practically tried to kill each other once upon a time. Remember?”
Pepper lifted an eyebrow, arms loosely crossing over her midsection. “And now you’re sitting here with me, griping because you haven’t had sex in a whole sixty days, you poor baby,” she said, voice dripping sarcasm at the last few words. “The old Tony would have gone out the first night and brought home the first person he found that had one-too-many drinks and gave him a smile.” Tony felt his other cheek pick up color. “When was the last time you even had a drink, Tony? Just to get drunk?”
He had to think a moment but soon sighed in defeat. “Since before we got Peter,” he mumbled.
Pepper’s eyebrow dropped back down to a relaxed level and she leaned back against her chair. “And what’s stopped you? The Tony I knew almost always had a drink in his hand at any given time of day. That Tony almost killed his best friend with his suit because he was drunk and miserable.”
“Hey, Rhodey’s forgiven the whole birthday party incident,” Tony defended.
“Tony.” The tone was all the incentive the man needed.
“Steve, okay? It’s been Steve. Since the damn team was developed, since they all moved into the tower and we first kissed and he convinced me – a spastic, mentally unstable manic who would rather spend endless hours in his lab building robots than being remotely sociable- to adopt an actual living, breathing, attention-needing human, I haven’t once gotten stupidly drunk.” Tony rubbed at his face. “I haven’t felt the need to.”
Pepper’s face transformed into a warm smile. “That’s what love is, Tony. The kind you and I never found together, but have each found in remarkable men. You don’t have to rush out and marry Steve tomorrow, but stop trying to run from the idea – the possibility. Stop arguing with Steve and actually talk to him. Share your fears – that’s the only way you’ll know what to do next.”
Tony narrowed his eyes, pointing at Pepper as he grumbled, “I hate you, Virginia Pepper Potts.”
The woman laughed. “You love me, Stark.”
The waiter came with their food then and Tony became civilized enough to have a proper meal, because he did have class, thank you very much.
But Pepper was right. About everything. She annoyingly always was.
And Tony did love her.
Regardless of his and Pepper’s talk, Tony continued to tiptoe around the subject. The only change was now Pepper was on his tail about the whole thing.
That and weirdly, Steve had kind of dropped the whole topic too.
About a week before Pepper’s wedding, Steve was sitting on the couch reading a book (a honest-to-god hard cover, paper filled, ink-printed letters, book – Tony didn’t know they even made those still) while Tony put Peter to bed after the boy fell asleep watching Finding Nemo.
Tony dropped onto the couch and into Steve’s lap; the man simply raising the book as Tony got comfortable, then dropping one hand to Tony’s hair when Tony settled his head in Steve’s lap. It was incredibly domestic, sickeningly routine, and Tony absolutely loved it.
He loved how stupidly normal they’d become out of suit.
“Whatcha reading?” Tony asked, letting one arm hang over the couch.
“Same thing I was reading an hour ago when you asked, and two hours before that.” Even with the book in his way, Tony could see the smirk on Steve’s face.
Tony poked Steve in the stomach. He’d gotten quite sassy over the years.
“Are you happy?” Tony then asked. “Like this? Here? With me?”
Steve’s fingers paused in Tony’s hair and he moved the book to make eye contact, asking with a little apprehension, “What’d you blow up now?”
“Why does everyone always think I do nothing in my spare time but blow shit up?”
“Because you blow a lot of stuff up,” Steve said calmly. “And you mostly get paranoid and ask me stupid questions when you’ve broken or blown something up. Am I going to have to fill out paperwork? Or listen to Fury angrily complain about you some more? Because you’d think after a decade the man would be used to your destructive nature, but he still lectures me on a weekly basis about controlling you.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “I didn’t blow up or break anything. And Fury needs to stop getting his panties twisted up. They’re preventing that stick from leaving his ass.”
Choosing to ignore the comment, Steve replied, “If I wasn’t happy, I wouldn’t be here, Tony,” because they’d all given up trying to find mutual ground between Tony and Director Fury. The two were kind of like Stitch and that shark-head alien (Fury actually once called Tony an abomination so Tony childishly call him ‘stupid head’ in return since Peter went through a rather long obsession with the Disney movie).
“You wouldn’t change anything?”
Shrugging, Steve’s fingers resumed combing Tony’s hair. “I wish you didn’t spend so much time in the lab, but no, not really. I like things how they are here. A lot better than I ever liked the 40’s.”
“And yet you still read paper books created from a murdered tree,” he teased. Steve tugged at Tony’s hair. The smile Tony had dispersed as he asked, “Even if we’re not married?”
He had to know.
Steve considered an answer and Tony felt nausea pull at his stomach. The blond set the book on the cushion above Tony’s head then looked down with the blue eyes Tony’s grown quite accustomed to in the passing years. “Just because we love each other doesn’t mean we have to get married. I don’t need a piece of paper telling me I can be with you for the rest of my life. That’s my decision, not the governments.” His newly freed hand found Tony’s.
“I am perfectly happy right now, right here, with you, Tony Stark. You’ve given me more than I’d ever dreamed I’d have, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love you, I want to live the rest of my life with you, and I want to raise a dozen kids with you because you’re an amazing father, and an even better lover. I don’t have to marry you to have those things as a reality.” He lifted Tony’s hand up and kissed the calloused knuckles.
If Tony could possibly love Steve any more, he’d probably remove the reactor just to take his heart out and hand it over. Whatever Tony did right in his life to get such a perfect man was beyond him, but he had never been so grateful for his all the shit that he’s gone through than in that moment.
After a few minutes of silence, Tony remarked, “A dozen kids is a bit adventurous, don’t you think? I’m just fine ending it with Peter. And Clint, because while at this point he’s pretty much a lost cause, it’s important to try our best and hope he turns out somewhat human one day when he’s a big boy.”
Steve snorted and playfully hit Tony’s head, releasing his hand to pick up his book again. “You can try to hide it, but you love being a dad,” Steve said while resuming his reading.
Tony turned to the side to watch the rest of the cartoon film, wrapping an arm around Steve’s waist and the other over his legs with his head happily on Steve’s groin.
“Maybe someday,” he whispered to himself.
Pepper’s wedding was beautiful.
It was at one of Tony’s beach houses because right after Pepper had told them she was getting married, she informed Tony he was paying for everything. Tony didn’t mind – he owed Pepper at least a hundred weddings. And at least ten first-born children.
Dozens of paper lanterns hung from trees, rose petals scattered all around with a thick patch creating an aisle. There was a white arch decorated in exotic flowers and diamonds that sparkled like stars when the light hit them. The small pond was filled with lilies and floating candles, and each chair was draped in silk from the back to the legs.
Pepper herself was what made it all stunning. She wore a simple white dress that was backless except a few strands that crossed over her lower back. There were no sleeves to the dress, the bust decorated in lace and pearls that were only really noticeable up close. It was form-fitting to the hips, loosening enough to create an elegant flow around her legs, and trailing back in the smallest of trains more common in an evening gown than a wedding dress.
The woman’s hair was braided and swirled around her head, woven with vine a few flowers matching the arch. Her veil was short, barely reaching her collar, and her jewelry the diamond set Tony had given her as a birthday given some number of years ago.
But the most radiant part was the smile on Pepper’s face as she walked the aisle behind the little girls scattering more petals around. The look of true love was written all over her.
The look Pepper had told Tony he gives to Steve.
After the ceremony, everyone gathered for the reception that started with the traditional and cynical bouquet-toss. Many of those who participated were young girls that Tony had never seen in his life, laughing rather hard when Clint used Natasha as a spring board to soar into the air and grab the bundle of flowers before anyone else even had a chance.
The celebration carried on into the late night, people gradually leaving until it was mostly those really close to the newlyweds that remained. Bruce was taking random pictures and showing Thor how to work the camera because somehow the demi-god had never encountered such a device in all his time on earth.
Clint was mostly avoiding Natasha who, in turn, made it her goal to be within two feet of the man the entire evening with random cutlery in hand and a devious expression. For a while it was amusing to watch the woman chase her fellow agent around, but when enough was enough Coulson stepped in and grounded Clint to the chair until they left, at which point Natasha stalked off to talk to Pepper instead.
Around ten Peter had fallen asleep, covered in glitter (where did it even come from?) and clothes a mess from playing with the other children who were there. He’d only finished half his cake before passing out on the plate, cheek coated in frosting and piping. The sight was as funny as it was adorable.
And Tony – he spent the entire night with Steve, hands locked whenever the two didn’t need them for other things. He’d convinced Steve to dance a few times, insisting Steve was getting better and better with every song, and that his shoes were tough enough to protect his toes.
Everything was perfect and Tony was overwhelmed how happy he was.
When Coulson and Clint were M.I.A. after the wedding, returning about a week later with matching gold bands on their hands and looking a little worse-for-wear, no one said a thing.
Clint was the one to finally blurt, “I married Phil. In Vegas. The day after Pepper’s wedding.”
Thor, hanging around for a bit before returning to Asgard, jumped from his chair to envelope them in a hug and declared, “What a magnificent union! Most congratulations to you and the Son of Coul! May you both have long and joyous lives with an abundance of sex!”
Tony snorted into his mug of coffee as he passed, offering a, “Cool,” to the news and disappearing back to the lab.
The following day Coulson officially moved into the tower, and that was that.
A month later, The Avengers were facing off against the latest alien invasion in the city because apparently New York was the place to invade, seriously. Tony was firing blast after blast at the squid-octopus-whatever-the-fuck ships with giant mechanical tentacles that were crawling through the streets; ignoring Steve’s orders in favor of doing his own thing.
He watched Thor take a few down with lightning, and Hulk rip the tentacles off others so the bodies crashed down for a beating by the others. Tony looked to were Steve was, shield flying out in a swirl of red and white at their attackers, pausing for the briefest of moments to take in just how amazing the man truly was.
It was in that pause when Tony’s guard was down that he barely caught the sharp, “Iron Man!” from Clint before he was hurling through the sky from a metal tentacle. The whole thing happened too fast for Tony to kick in flight again, dropping like a swatted fly until he crashed into the side of a particularly hard building.
He heard Steve yell, “Tony!” through the comm system before the connection was severed and the suit’s power cut off while Tony helplessly plummeted to the ground. Tony heard his bones crack when he collided into the cement, and felt the warm slickness of blood both inside and outside of his skin.
The worst feeling was the push of shrapnel towards his heart when the reactor gave out from the trauma because Tony felt as though he was getting stabbed from every direction while having a heart attack at the same time. His brain screamed at his body to move but his muscles wouldn’t comply.
He was really going to get hell for this one.
Tony laid there for what felt like an eternity before the emergency release system was activated and his faceplate lifted to reveal a panicked, cowl-less Steve hovering above him. “Tony!” The man stressed, fingers pawing at Tony’s face until his eyes opened again (when did they even close?). “Tony, your reactor’s not working and – Tony, you have to keep your eyes open. Come on, Tony, you have to stay awake.” Steve voice was begging, and Tony felt even worse.
“I need a medical team here now,” Steve barked into his comm with desperation and aggression. “Tony, keep your eyes open. Talk to me, okay? Tell me how to make the reactor work or how to get you out of the suit or fuck, just say something!”
If Steve was swearing, it really had to be bad.
“Peter…” Tony exhaled, his body getting tenser and tenser with every ragged breath.
“Peter’s safe, at the tower. He’s waiting for us to come home, Tony.” Steve face drained of color when he looked down Tony’s body, hand lifting into Tony’s view with the unmistakable redness of blood coating his ungloved fingers. If Tony was leaking, it really had to be coming out. Shit.
Tony could hear the feet of the medical team approaching, though he wasn’t too sure what they could do to help him. SHIELD medics were pretty inept for being part of the secretive government agency. Tony didn’t know how much blood he’s lost so far, or how they’d reboot his stupid reactor, and Tony really wanted some coffee right now to help him think.
“You can’t leave me, Tony,” Steve shakily told him. “I waited seventy years in ice for you, and you can be damn sure I’m going to use all this stupid strength the serum gave me to hold onto you for a lot longer than this.”
Tony chuckled, pain rippling out through his chest, and he tried to reply but everything started melting away into fuzzy silence, and all Tony could see was an endless amount of black.
When Tony woke a few days later in the hospital, he was simultaneously relieved and pissed. He hated hospitals. Though not as much as he hated dying.
First he took inventory of himself, determining what he could feel and hear. His toes moved, his fingers twitched, and above the steady tune of spaced beeping he heard a very hoarse, “Tony?”
That’s when the familiar feeling of fingers in his hair disappeared.
Tony opened his eyes, easier said than done, he discovered, and squinted at the bright light overhead. He closed his eyes again from the burn, hearing another soft but clearer, “Tony. Tony, open your eyes.”
Turning his head to the side, grimacing at the stiffness in his neck, he saw Steve sitting close to the bed beside him; his usual bright blue eyes red and beyond exhausted. But relieved. A lot of relief. “I am so mad at you,” Steve said, but was smiling with sincere happiness. “I’m getting quite tired of watching you die. Especially when it happens several times over a few days, you drama queen.”
“W’app’ned?” Tony asked; voice scratchy and rough.
“You got pin-balled by some aliens and cement. You lost a lot of blood, broke about half your bones, diced a few organs, and died about six times between hitting the ground and right now. Do you know what it’s like to watch the person you love die not once, but six times?” Steve’s smile dropped and his voice started cracking like he was losing control. “To tell your six-year-old that his father might never wake up? That he may never see him again? Tony, I give you orders for a reason, and you-“
“Marry me,” Tony cut him off, thankful for whatever wonderful cocktail of meds he was pleasantly enjoying.
Steve froze, staring. “What?”
“Marry me,” Tony repeated. “Marry me, Steve Rogers. Be Steve Stark. Or Stark-Rogers. Or Rogers-Stark. Whatever sounds best.”
Steve stared a moment longer before his face went blank and he stood up.
He pulled his hands away from Tony and with what Tony knew all-too-well as emotional and physical drainage, Steve looked Tony dead in the eye and said, “No,” before leaving the room.