Tony waylays Carol about five minutes after she gets back from space. The skies over Avengers Mansion are still practically golden with her photons. The rest of the team -- minus Steve, who's at the grocery store on a literal milk run -- is crowding around her, asking her what the aliens were like, if they were nice, how the official first contact went.
It's refreshing to meet aliens who don't want to kill you.
They're called the Hsss, Carol says, or something like it; she knows them from her Binary days, which is why she went up first with the rest of her old NASA pals. They're nice, she says. They're reptilian. They're communal. They pair off.
And then she meets Tony's eyes, over the heads of the rest of the team, and her face goes white.
Okay, that's a problem.
"Team co-leader privilege," Tony says, maybe a little more harshly than he has to, but whatever this is, it looks bad and he has to know about it. "I need to talk to Warbird alone. Everybody else, out."
There's some grumbling, but soon enough the room is clear, and it's just him and Carol, who's wringing her black-gloved hands.
"What is it?" Tony asks. "Come on. I can take the disappointment. Did they not agree on the Avengers as mediators for the negotiations?"
They'd agreed it had been worth a try; they do have a lot of experience with aliens, after all.
"No, they agreed," Carol says, though she sounds reluctant. "You and Cap, Avengers co-leaders, officially approved for diplomacy by the Hsss. They're ready to meet you as soon as possible. They're excited, actually."
That all sounds great to Tony. Exactly what they wanted. "Then what's the matter?"
Carol bites her lip. "Maybe we should wait until Cap gets back to talk about this."
"Um." Carol says. She can't meet his eyes. "There might have been... a small misunderstanding."
Steve doesn't say anything for a good ten seconds after Tony tells him. Tony watches his throat work and his face go pale.
So much for Tony's dream that Steve secretly returned his feelings.
"Let me see if I have this straight," Steve says. "The Hsss have this... thing... about dyadic pair-bonds." Tony is impressed that Steve's picked up that phrase from somewhere. "All of their famous leaders and explorers and scientists and so on, they were what we would consider married couples. So when Carol said that Captain America and Iron Man were the leaders of the Avengers, they assumed that we were--"
"Yes." Tony interrupts him just because he doesn't want to hear Steve say married with that sad, disappointed look in his eyes.
"And nobody wanted to tell them that we weren't?"
"As I understand it," Tony says, "they were so thrilled that they'd finally found some Earthlings who understood how to do things properly, and no one wanted to jeopardize the negotiations by saying otherwise."
Steve's throat works again, and his eyes fall shut briefly. "Okay. Well," he says. "If it's for the mission."
Tony has had about a decade of fantasies of dating Steve. Proposing to Steve. Marrying Steve. None of them ever started like this.
It feels weird to do the whole ring thing when they're going to be married, such as it is, for a grand total of about three days, and not actually in the eyes of the law, just in the eyes of the Hsss. On the other hand, it feels like it would be weirder not to. And maybe the Hsss will notice if they don't.
Tony spends half an hour at a very, very discreet jewelry boutique buying a men's wedding band in yellow gold -- plain, classic, size twelve (someone's got big hands) -- because he's always assumed Steve's a traditionalist like that. Over the years he's considered the symbolism of casting his own ring, adding a core of vibranium -- too obvious, maybe? -- but in the end he thinks that Steve, ever practical, would want something that can actually be cut off in an emergency.
Not that Tony's thought about this a lot, or anything.
They ask him if he wants it engraved, and he imagines he can feel his own heart shredding itself to pieces in his chest.
Yes, yes, he does.
Tony keeps opening the ring box all the way home, taking the ring out, and watching the inscription TO WINGHEAD, FROM YOUR SHELLHEAD gleam in the light.
He wonders what the universe is punishing him for this time.
That night, Steve shows up at Tony's door, and he pulls an identical-looking velvet box out of his belt pouch. His jaw is set, determined, like he's trying to resist torture. He pulls off his gloves and lets them drop.
"I guess we should," Steve says, and he doesn't finish the sentence. They're meeting the Hsss tomorrow, after all.
"Yeah, okay," Tony says, at the same time, and he fumbles for the box in his pocket. His fingers slip. His hands are shaking. "Love, honor, and obey. And all that jazz."
Steve squints dubiously at him and then raises an eyebrow. "You're promising to obey me?"
"Uh," Tony says. He hadn't thought they'd get as far as actual vows. "Probably not."
Steve's smile is faint. "Probably better that way."
Before he can chicken out, Tony grabs Steve's hand, palms the ring in his other hand, and blurts out, "I promise to love, honor, and probably not obey you, and, uh, take you as my totally-unlawfully-wedded husband, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, until death do us part, or for at least the next seventy-two hours." He thinks that's all the major elements in there, possibly in something approaching the correct order, but also his mind has blanked out completely, so it's hard to tell. "Uh. With this ring I thee wed?"
It sounded sort of amusing in his head, like a joke, but it sure doesn't feel like one when he says it out loud. It sounds like a real vow.
Steve blinks owlishly at him, eyes wide and shocked, and Tony takes this opportunity to slide the ring onto Steve's finger. Perfect fit.
"Same for you?" Tony asks. His voice is hoarse.
"Same for me," Steve says, firmly, and he takes Tony's hand. He's staring Tony in the eyes, intent; he's not backing down from this. He clears his throat. "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part."
Okay, so Steve remembered more words than he did.
He's still looking at Steve's determined -- and oddly sad -- face, so he doesn't register the weight of the ring on his finger until Steve's dropped his hand.
He looks down. The band on his finger is black, textured, dull in the muted light.
"It isn't metal," Steve says, softly. "It's carbon fiber. Non-conductive. I asked them what would be a good material, if you did a lot of electrical work." He licks his lips. "I know it doesn't look like much, and it's not anything fancy or expensive, but... they said it was a good choice. Something you could wear."
Oh. Steve thought about him. Him, specifically. What kind of ring would work best for him, if they'd been doing this for real. Tony doesn't know what to say.
"I like it," Tony says, and he smiles. "Thank you."
Steve's turning his own hand this way and that, admiring the ring. He looks a little dazed. "I like mine too," he murmurs. "It's perfect."
Abruptly Steve's face seems very close.
"Uh," Tony says. "I-- I guess we shouldn't-- I guess that's all, then."
"Yeah," Steve echoes. "That's all."
He wonders what Steve would do if he suggested kissing him.
Later that night, Tony slips the ring off his finger to find that the inside reads YOU'VE ALWAYS BEEN MY FUTURE, and he kind of wants to cry.
As Carol promised, the Hsss are thrilled to meet them.
"I am Thsssth," the first six-foot-tall lizard says, and -- he? she? they? -- they gesture to a nearly-identical-looking other lizard. "This is my mate, Khhh."
"We are the lead diplomats of the Hsss," Khhh says. They're married, just like Carol said. "We are very pleased to meet you." They drop their jaw in a gesture that might be a smile. Their tongue flicks out.
"Likewise," Tony says. "My name is Tony Stark, and this is my--" oh God oh God-- "husband, Steve Rogers. We lead the Avengers together, and we are pleased to meet you on behalf of Earth."
Steve's hand slips into his, barely perceptible through the armor, and the Hsss make approving cooing noises.
Tony lets himself pretend, for half a second, that this is real.
The first day of the talks goes well. They're given quarters on the Hsss flagship, and Tony knows better than to anticipate anything other than the cliché oh-no-there's-one-bed scenario.
Admittedly, the oh-no-there's-one-giant-nest scenario is... novel.
There's a sort of pit dug out in the middle of the floor, and it's filled with all sorts of multicolored pillows, in different shapes and sizes. It actually looks comfortable. Weird, but comfortable. Tony thinks there might be sand at the bottom.
"Is this not acceptable?" one of the Hsss attendants -- of course there are two of them -- asks, sounding nervous. Their tail flicks from side to side, agitated. "These are the finest sleeping quarters in the fleet. We have researched your species and added the fabric pillows for you. Do they not meet your expectations?"
"These are fine!" Steve says, hastily. "Um. These quarters are... lovely. We're honored."
The other Hsss makes a mollified-sounding hissing noise, and then it's him and Steve alone.
"Well," Steve says, eyeing the pillows. "This is going to be a night."
Tony sighs. "Come on, lover boy, into the pillow pit with you. Let me just get the armor off and I'll join you."
Steve gives him an unimpressed stare, as Tony starts loosening sections of his armor -- and then Steve's still staring, as Tony removes the gauntlets.
"You're wearing the ring."
Tony glances down at his hands. "Um. Yes. Aren't you?"
Steve pulls off his gloves; his finger glints gold. "Yes, but I thought that you didn't want--" He breaks off and sighs. "Never mind."
Okay, apparently Steve thinks Tony isn't even invested in this fake marriage. Great.
It turns out that the pillow pit -- which has warm sand at the bottom, thank you, reptiles -- is sloped all the way around, meaning that if there are two people in it they will inevitably both roll into the middle. Meaning that there is no way to avoid cuddling up to Steve.
It also turns out that Steve's very cuddly.
Tony hates his life.
They're at the dinner closing the second day's negotiations when Thsssth, across the table, leans over and asks Steve, "So, how is it that you two fell in love?"
Tony tenses. They hadn't actually come up with a story for this. He hadn't thought the Hsss would ask. He waits to watch Steve stutter, stammer, go blank, because everyone knows Steve is a terrible liar.
But Steve just brightens right up. "It's a bit complicated," he says. "I was in... well, kind of a coma. Do your people have those? I was injured and it was cold and I went to sleep."
Thsssth makes a noise that sounds enthusiastic. "Torpor. Hibernation. Yes, yes, we have that."
Tony muffles his laughter with his hand. Oh. Lizards. Close enough.
"Well," Steve says, "I was asleep for a very long time. Years. And when I woke up, Tony was... he was right there. The first person I met, really." His smile is reminiscent. Like this is real. Like he's not faking this. Clearly Steve's gotten better at lying since Tony met him. "He was... so kind. So caring. And I think that's when I fell for him. From the beginning. Just like that."
Sure, that was when it started for Tony, but it's not like Steve knows that.
Khhh coos. "How romantic."
"I always thought so," Steve says. He's smiling, and then he looks at Tony -- and the smile is wiped right off his face.
God, Steve hates even pretending to be in love with him. It isn't fair.
For once, everything goes exactly to plan. The preliminary negotiations conclude on the third day, they bid the Hsss farewell, and here they are sitting in the space Quinjet waiting for launch clearance back to Earth.
Tony glances over at Steve, who's in the copilot's seat. He looks meditative. He looks... sad. He's probably counting down the minutes until this mission is over.
"Can't wait to not be married to me anymore, huh?" Tony asks, and he forces a laugh.
Steve jumps, like the question was a surprise. He turns around to meet Tony's gaze. "Is that really what you think?" His voice is low, quiet, trembling.
"When you look miserable like that," Tony says, "yeah, it is." He folds and unfolds his hands. He's got the armor off right now; he can see the ring. He'll have to take it off soon. "Look, I'm sorry it was so awkward and terrible and I'm sorry you had to do this with me. We can pretend it never happened. We can go back to normal. I'm sorry it was awful for you. I get that I'm nothing like what you ever wanted. I get that. I'm sorry."
And then Steve's hand settles on the back of his neck, ever so gently. Steve's thumb strokes his jaw.
Tony's heart is pounding. "Steve?"
Steve half-smiles. "That is the exact opposite of the problem I've been having, actually." He's wide-eyed. Nervous. "I'm starting to think maybe it's something we have in common."
"Steve?" Tony repeats, because he can't be saying what Tony thinks he's saying, because that would mean that--
Steve leans in and kisses him. It's tentative, at first, gentle, and then it rapidly increases in intensity when Tony drags Steve out of his seat and halfway into his lap.
"Yeah." Steve tips his forehead against Tony's and smiles. "Not being able to do that -- that was the problem."
He takes Tony's hand in his, rubbing his fingers over the ring on Tony's hand.
"I still like the ring, by the way," Tony says. He takes a breath. "I think... maybe I'm not going to want to take it off."
Tony glances up and sees Steve's smile, close and sudden and blindingly bright.
"We could do it all again?" Steve offers. "Wear nice suits, have some friends over, have a party after, maybe some cake and dancing?"
This is probably the weirdest proposal in the history of the universe. Tony thinks it sounds amazing. God, they could do this for real, this time.
"Sure, why not?" Tony says. "I mean, we've already got the rings."