The first time Steve seriously considered marrying Tony, it was less about the actual act of getting married and more of a realization that couples broke up.
That sounded stupider than he meant it. What actually happened was that Clint and Natasha broke up for the fourth time in six months; it wasn't really permanent and they all knew it, but Clint was in sour mood anyway. He'd stormed down to the training room in a fit, demanding that Steve spar with him. Steve had obliged, Clint had snapped at him when he'd gone easy, and they'd eventually fallen into a fairly brutal match. Steve won, which wasn't too unusual, but Clint seemed more like he wanted to get beaten up than anything else.
Steve had asked about it after, once he'd given in and knocked Clint around a bit like he wanted. Clint, grateful that Steve had understood and not gone easy on him, talked about it a little, as much as either of the spies ever talked about whatever was going on between them.
"She claimed I was getting too attached." Clint had grunted, wiping the towel over his face.
"But you're together." Steve had frowned a little, unsure why that was a bad thing.
"Right. But I mean, aren't you supposed to be attached?"
Clint had given an sloppy shrug.
"We were casual, I don't know. It's whatever man, all couples break up eventually anyway, right?"
Steve had fallen silent. He and Tony had started casually, but Steve had certainly grown very attached. Steve was more than attached, he was practically codependent—his and Tony's schedules were tangled together after years of adjusting an hour here, switching times there, so they could meet in the middle as much as possible.
Steve got up later so he could wake up with Tony; Tony got up earlier. Tony had started eating breakfast with him instead of just grabbing a bagel and heading into the shop. Steve had adjusted his runs, going after he made breakfast for them instead of first thing in the morning. When Steve spent mornings at SHIELD, Tony picked him up after and they went out for lunch. When he didn't go to SHIELD, he brought Tony lunch in the shop instead, made sure he took a break. There were hundreds of little things like that, a flexible routine of compromise and codependency that Steve had been surprised to hear wasn't the norm. Clint must've caught on from the look on his face, and scrubbed a hand over his own in exasperation.
"That sounded more bitter than I meant it to. Obviously I wasn't talking about you and Tony, I just meant casual couples."
"What's the difference?"
"I think the two of you have like three or four years on us—"
"No, I mean…" Steve had tried to phrase himself better. "How can you tell if a relationship is meant to be casual or serious?"
"I dunno. You sorta have to figure that one out on your own. Figure out if you're both in it for the long haul, or…not."
"Like wanting to get married, that sort of long haul?"
"Not always." Clint had shrugged again. "I think you can want someone in your life long term without necessarily wanting to get on board that wagon. But yeah, that too. You thinking about it?"
"It's occurred to me," Steve had admitted, looking down at his hands, "I'm not sure if Tony would be receptive."
"Tony's an idiot who doesn't know what's good for him." Clint had rolled his eyes. "You can't really think he'd say no, though. You're his entire world, Steve; he'd marry you in heartbeat."
He hadn't given it much serious thought before that conversation, but after it, he couldn't stop. Clint's comment about casual couples, about how they all broke up eventually, solidified the idea to Steve that he didn't want that. Obviously he didn't want to break up, but suddenly he didn't even like the idea of it being a possibility, a thought that could even go through his head. That they could, so casually, with one of many simple, cliché sentences—we should break up; it's over; I want to see other people—be done, just like that, after everything they'd been through. Suddenly and fiercely, Steve found himself craving permanence.
He didn't drop many hints, or any solid ones at all really, because he wasn't good at it and if he tried too hard he knew he'd just end up spoiling it. The ones he did attempt, however, were received enthusiastically—when he added more "forevers" to the promises he kissed into Tony's skin at night, Tony's eyes always went a little softer and he kissed Steve a little harder, murmuring back forever, baby between their lips. He tried to work in the future tense a lot too, with phrases like "of course I remembered, I'm always going to remember" and "I'm not letting that go for at least another twenty years" and anything else he could think of. If Tony caught on to Steve's train of thought he didn't show it, but he was definitely receptive.
So Steve got a ring.
Well, made, actually. He got Bruce's help with it, since asking Tony to help him skim off a sliver of his shield and weld it into a ring would probably give away his intentions. It took roughly two weeks to make, and it took Steve another two to work up the nerve. He carried the ring with him everywhere in the meantime, fiddling with it damn near constantly in his pocket. Steve could've drawn it with his eyes closed after a day or two, the smooth, curved metal an easy muscle memory. But he wanted to know how it looked on Tony, how the cool vibranium would feel against his fingers when their hands entwined, and it was the relentless desire to know that finally convinced Steve to quit dawdling.
It was a late morning, a weekend, and Steve woke lazily to sight of morning sun dappled on tan shoulders, a slow smile spreading over Tony's lips as he saw Steve wake. Maybe it was the indulgent view; maybe it was the rough, pleased note in Tony's scratchy morning voice as he rolled on his back to say, "Mornin', babe." It was probably a little bit of everything, coupled with the intense desire to hold onto it all forever, that urged Steve forward. To wrap an arm around Tony's waist and tug him closer, nestle his chin the crook of Tony's shoulder, murmur sincerely, "Will you marry me?"
Tony said no.
More accurately, Tony shot off the bed, hit the floor hard, and popped up with wild hair and wide eyes to tell him fuck no.
"What?" Steve's throat was so tight it was a miracle he could speak. Was he breathing? He wasn't sure.
"I mean, Jesus, Steve." Tony scooted backwards. He rubbed a hand over his face, then again, like if he did it enough times he might still wake up and this would just be a dream. "Don't get me wrong, I love you, of course I love you—"
The pressure in Steve's chest relaxed minutely, hope for some strange, insane misunderstanding blossoming—
"—but I'm not marrying you, and if you want to, maybe it's better if we—if we break up now."
The words sounded so reluctant it was like they'd been ripped from Tony's throat, which was confusing enough, but what was Steve even supposed to say to that? His chest seized back up again, his head still reeling, and it was like he was four feet tall and ninety pounds all over again. He wondered if he crawled back under the covers, if they could pretend he'd never opened his mouth. How could he have been so stupid? Why had he been so hell-bent on surprise? If he'd talked to Tony first, he could've avoided this—this heartache, pure and simple, stronger than anything he'd ever felt.
"Fuck, please don't look at me like that." Tony ran a hand through his hair aggressively. "I'll go, you shouldn't have to—I'm sorry, Steve. I am."
He stood, taking a step towards the door, and Steve's hand shot out to catch his arm instinctively. He stopped himself, clenched his hand, let it drop. Tony turned back anyway.
"I just—why? Did I…" Steve shook his head.
He'd been in the future so long now, and things still tripped him up. He didn't want to ask if he'd done it wrong, he would only look stupider for not knowing, but it was easily possible. Maybe it was too early in the relationship, or too late and he'd missed his window, or maybe it was because he hadn't kneeled, hadn't shown Tony the ring, God, Steve just didn't know—
"Steve, baby, no." Tony, reading his mind as well as ever, looked torn for a flicker of a second. He caved quickly, taking two quick steps closer and joining Steve on the bed again to pull him close, press a kiss to his hair. Steve burrowed his face against Tony's chest and just inhaled. First thing in the morning or late at night, fresh from a shower or three days since one, stripped naked or dressed to the nines, the faint scent of metal clung to Tony like a second skin. Steve loved it. "It's nothing you did, honey. It was perfect, you're—you're perfect. It's me, okay? I can't—we shouldn't—it's not smart."
"Nobody gets married because it's smart, Tony."
Tony gave a short laugh, though he cut himself off quickly. "I know. But it's really…we can't, Steve."
"What does can't mean?" Steve insisted, the shock wearing just thin enough that frustration could begin to seep through.
"What do you think?"
"I think I'm not an idiot, I saw it on the news—"
"Legally, we can, yes, I didn't mean—"
"Then what did you mean?"
"Steve…" Tony's tongue darted out to lick his lips anxiously and the little wrinkle in his forehead appeared, the one that meant he was having some sort of internal struggle. Steve wanted to fix it, but to do that he had to know what was going through the man's head, first. "Do you really want this?"
"Of course I do."
Steve leaned forward, reaching out a hand to cup the back of Tony's head and pull him in. He poured every ounce of love and devotion he could muster into the kiss, tried to pass along every dream he'd ever had of them together. Tony melted against him, his hands digging into Steve's sleep shirt tight enough that his knuckles must've turned white. He held on as long as he could, and the moment Steve had to break for air Tony was turning, rolling off the bed and starting to walk away again.
"Let's just…" Tony looked pained. "Let's leave it at that, okay?"
"But we're not…we're not still breaking up, are we?" Steve did grab his wrist this time, more confused than ever and certainly not letting Tony leave without some form of an explanation.
"I don't want to," Steve insisted earnestly. Tony stared at him for a long minute, then sighed. Steve spoke up again before Tony could. "You didn't even think about it before answering. Why isn't it even an option?"
"Steve…you're just…" Tony huffed another sigh, ran a hand through his hair. "You're not thinking this through."
"Is this the part where you tell me what a bad idea you are? Because you tried about fifteen variations of that speech four years ago, and I don't know if you've noticed, but I don't seem to be going anywhere—"
"No, Tony." Steve had worked through shock almost completely now, and could focus solely on confusion, on trying to figure out what exactly was going through Tony's head. "We've been together for years; we're good together, we're happy, I know we are. I couldn't possibly be so wrong about that—"
"Then why would you react to a proposal like I'd threatened to beat you?"
"You flung yourself out of bed!"
"I was surprised—"
"Why? Is it too soon? I'm not impatient, Tony, I could—and would—wait. I'm not demanding we get married tomorrow, or at all if you're so opposed, but I don't think I deserved…" Steve gesticulated wildly to mimic Tony's freakout. "That."
"You're not thinking about this, not really, not all the way through." Tony shook his head. "I have. Okay? I have. A lot. More than a lot. I wish…well, I wish a lot of things, but we just can't."
"You're going to have to explain yourself a little better than that, Tony." Steve wasn't trying to demand anything, but he still didn't understand what 'I can't' was supposed to mean exactly. Commitment issues seemed unlikely after so long. Issues with marriage, specifically? "I think you owe me that much."
"Steve, you don't get it, you haven't thought it throu—"
"So explain it to me!"
"Great, yeah, sure." Tony threw up his hands. "You really want to have that conversation?"
"What conversation?" Steve frowned minutely.
"The conversation!" Tony growled, "You brought it up, not me."
"We've talked about this before?" Steve was completely lost now.
"No," Tony conceded reluctantly, "But we should've. A long time ago. I thought—I don't know what I thought. I figured for once we were on the same procrastinate-as-long-as-possible page."
"I don't have the slightest idea what you're—"
"Do you even know how old I am?" Tony blurted in a burst, talking over him.
"What? Of course I—this is about your age? Are you kidding me?"
"No, I'm not fucking kidding you! Jesus, Steve." Tony spun away, then back to face him again. "Yeah, last week? That's only gonna happen more y'know, among a billion fucking other things—"
"Last…" Steve started, then stopped. Oh. "This is because you couldn't get it up once?"
"It's only going to happen more and more often—"
"And you think that matters to me?"
Tony only scoffed. "That's a nice sentiment in theory, but it's kind of hard to do anything if I can't even—"
"I don't give a damn how often we have sex!" Steve interrupted, close to a shout. He restrained himself quickly, dropping his voice. "For God's sake, Tony. The sex is—it's good, of course it's good, but it's you I'm in love with, you I want to spend the rest of my life with. Do you really think I'm going to check out just because there might be some occasions down the road when we'll have to remember that we're not eighteen anymore? That's life,Tony." Steve rose, climbing off the bed to pull Tony into his arms, kiss him once, softly. "And I want to spend mine with you."
Tony fell quiet for a long moment, then, barely a whisper,
"Of course you, who else would I—"
"No, Steve, me. Down the road, hell, I'm not eighteen anymore already. It's not that 'we' won't be eighteen anymore, it's that I won't be. You don't age. I'm going to turn eighty fucking years old someday, and you're still going to have the sex drive of a teenager. What then?"
"What do you mean what then?" Frustration colored his voice again. "Are you asking if I'm still going to love you? If I'm still going to want to be married to you, want to be with you forever? Yes, Tony; yes to everything, always. The 'worse' of our 'for better or worse' has so far included supervillains, alternate dimensions, and the near-weekly near ending of the world, you don't think I can stick around through a few mishaps in the bedroom?"
Tony shoved him away, his hands curling into fists at his sides, his eyes flashing. Steve could tell he was furious and humiliated, that he felt Steve had backed him into a corner.
"Look, you want to talk about it, Steve? Let's fucking talk about it: someday, sooner than we'd both like, I'm going to get old. Not middle-aged, not 'getting up there', old. We're not talking about a few 'mishaps in the bedroom', we're talking about the fact that I'm going to have wrinkles and saggy skin and all-grey hair and probably health problems and definitely sex problems and god fucking help me if I get dementia but it could happen, Steve, it could all fucking happen and you're still going to be young and gorgeous and deserve so much more than I can possibly offer. The idea that I have to watch you move on from me someday is crippling enough, but if you think I'm going to let you become my husband only to watch your love for me turn into regret and guilt and resentment, you've lost your fucking mind."
Steve was utterly speechless.
"So let's just…" Tony made an abortive hand gesture. "Take it off the table."
Steve shot almost entirely off the bed, barely keeping his balance with just one hand on the mattress, using the other to grab Tony by the shirt and slam their mouths together. Tony seemed too stunned to really respond, and Steve just kissed him harder. He only released him to swing his legs off the bed, stand and take Tony's face in both hands.
"If you think I would ever do that to you, you've lost your mind," Steve told him fiercely, insulted by the thought and furious with himself for not realizing sooner the lies Tony had been telling himself. "I don't know how we'll cross those bridges. I don't have all the answers. But I don't love you for your body, and I'm not going to stop when it's not what it once was. I want to get married, but whether or not that ever happens won't change the fact that I will always love you."
"This isn't something you can wave some magic love wand at and make it all better, Steve, getting old is not a fucking fairy tale—"
"To do it together, yeah. For me to just sit around collecting dust on my own, not so much." Tony turned his head to the side, pulling his face from Steve's hands, though he didn't move away.
"Sweetheart, I don't care. You already have wrinkles and scars and grey hairs—"
"Yes, you're making me feel wonderful right now, really, you ought to write a proposal manual, you're doing fucking great—"
"Shut up." Steve told him, his voice a gentle contrast to his words. He took Tony's face in his hands again, firm, forcing eye contact. "I don't care if your skin sags, Tony. I don't care what color your hair is, or if it falls out altogether. And for God's sake, the way you talk you'd think sex was the only form of intimacy—when we can't have sex, we can just spend time together, you know, if that's not too much of a hardship for you. When you start to have health problems, if it's arthritis or dementia or anything else, I'm going to be hunting down solutions, not ducking out the nearest exit. What the hell kind of man do you think I am, that I'd only love you when things are good, that I'd take off running when you needed me most?"
Tony's eyes flickered down. Steve continued.
"I love you. I've been trying to find a stronger way to say that lately, a way to express the depth of it; spending the rest of my life with you barely scratches the surface, but it's all I've come up with so far. When I find better words, I'll let you know."
Tony was silent for a long, endless moment.
"Sometimes," he eventually murmured, voice soft, eyes still downcast, "After I have a nightmare, after you calm me down, I hear you keep talking, but I stop listening. Instead, I lay there and I do the math for how improbable this all is. That you're here in this time at all. That you, out of everyone, love me, out of everyone. That you've stayed, all this time, through every mistake, every failure, every nasty argument that should've had you walking out the first open door. That I've genuinely stopped expecting you to, something I didn't even believe myself capable of. I've spent my whole life looking for problems to solve, predicting the fallouts of events that haven't even had a chance happen; it's second nature, but you…you don't deserve that, Steve. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Steve pressed a kiss to his forehead. "We don't have to get married if you don't want to, Tony. But I'm not going anywhere."
"Is that still…" Tony swallowed, hard. "On the table?"
"If you want it to be."
"You got a ring, or was this just a theory, or…?" Tony was trying to be gruff, nonchalant. It was cute.
"I have a ring," Steve answered, though he didn't move to retrieve it.
"You're going to make me beg, aren't you?" Tony sighed wryly.
"It'd be nice."
"Would you, oh pretty please with cherries on top—" Tony's voice went high, overly dramatic as he rolled his eyes, but there was a hint of a smile curling on his lips. "—show me the ring?"
"Since you asked so nicely." Steve chuckled, releasing Tony from his arms reluctantly, climbing back over the bed to reach into his nightstand.
It was a familiar weight in his palm, a nice metaphor for the security and permanence it promised, and Steve glanced back at Tony hesitantly. He wasn't sure if wanting to see the ring meant Tony was alright with it now or not, wasn't sure quite where Tony had landed on the idea, if it'd be alright to get down on one knee now or if that would send Tony racing off again. He was suddenly very aware of the fact that they were doing this at eight in the morning in sleep tees and boxers; they still had morning breath, for cripes' sake. Not that anything so trivial had ever stopped him from kissing Tony in the mornings before—and doing far more—but still. He was suddenly realizing the utter ridiculousness of his lazy morning proposal.
"Hey." Tony stepped forward to loom over him on the bed, expression both apologetic and a little sad, seeming to have finally realized how his reaction had made Steve feel. "I was—am, a little—scared, but that's not on you, honey. You're…I've never been more sure about anything than I am about you."
"You could've been a little clearer about that." Steve choked on a laugh.
Tony just gave a quirked smile, grasping Steve's hand to open his palm and take the ring. He ran a thumb over it slowly, then, with a breathless, reverent exhale, "Vibranium?"
"I had a great line ready," Steve admitted, "About how you already have my heart, and how this could just be a physical representation of that."
"Sounds like a good line." Tony nodded, eyes still on the ring. "Bet it'd be pretty hard to say no to a line like that."
"That's what I'd been hoping."
"It'd be pretty tacky of me to use your ring to propose to you, huh?" Tony mused.
"Very," Steve agreed, but he was smiling so wide it hurt.
"What do you say?" Tony held up the ring with a cheeky grin. "Marry my dumb, old, tacky ass?"
"Well, when you put it like that…" Steve reached out and caught Tony's free hand in his, tugging him into a kiss. Then, with a smile, "…fuck no."
"Okay, I deserved that."
"You did." Steve caught his lips again, kissed him a moment longer before relenting. "Put on the ring, and I might consider forgiving you."
"Fair enough." Tony slipped it on and took Steve's other hand, rubbing his thumb there soothingly. "Yeah?"
"Yeah what? Yeah marriage?" Steve laughed.
"Yeah." Tony settled his arms around Steve's neck, tugging him back into bed with a smile. "Marriage."