Steve never thought he would be one of those men who sat on park benches to watch the world pass by. Before the serum he always thought he would spend his life working himself to the bone, scraping up enough money to keep his apartment and buy a beer on the weekends. His daydreams changed to war once it came, and he had always known that if he had enlisted, he would have been killed right off the bat. Sickness or a bullet would have caught up with him after he entered the European Theater. After the serum though, he always imagined that he would be saving the world every single day in some way or another. Helping to restore peace somewhere in the world, probably.
Steve had never been idle; his hands had always been working with clay or pencils or paint when they weren’t thrashing at a typewriter in the account office where he’d worked before the war.
But he liked the way his life had turned out, when it came down to it. Several years ago he would have cursed it and several times he had wished he had stayed in the ice longer. Just like always though, life had its way of turning things around.
Early evening sunshine glittered on the waters of the lake, creating shredded pale-orange ribbons on the rippling waves. It was a beautiful evening: perfect weather, a cooling breeze. His hotel was just as cozy as he remembered from last year and the town had only gotten more charming. Tony had always said he hated this place, that there wasn’t anything to do, but he’d always said it with the unconvincing scowl he only used when he didn’t like that he liked something.
Steve’s thumb smoothed over one of the boards on the back of the bench, running over the cracked polish to the worn wood that had become exposed after years of weather damage. A runner dashed by, her tennis shoes making rhythmic plocks on the asphalt of the running path not too far in front of him. Steve looked up passively, his thoughts distracted. The woman was wearing big headphones and an outfit that looked like it had been put together for an athletic wear fashion show, not like something that would be comfortable to be running in. Steve frowned as the woman ran on down the path, watching as her long ponytail swished back and forth behind her like a broken rudder.
Steve snapped to attention and a smile lit up on his face as he turned toward the source of the voice. Peter ran toward him, still sporting that tousled mop of brown hair that Tony had said he was going to get trimmed last week. A green backpack bounced on Peter’s back as he dashed across the bike path and swerved around the side of the bench, right into Steve’s arms.
“Hey, Petey,” Steve greeted, scooping Peter up into his lap. He swore Peter had grown an inch since last week. Every time he visited Steve remembered how much little kids grew. His mother had been lucky; Steve had practically stopped growing after sixth grade. “How was your trip, Pete?”
Peter wriggled free of Steve’s hold and started jumping up and down as he pulled off his backpack. “Daddy bought me and Harry these!” Peter pulled out what looked like a massive dog treat. Steve blinked. Oh, Slim Jims. Right. So Tony had bought them dog treats.
“He bought you those?”
“Your favorite, I know,” Tony said as he came around the bench, ruffling Harry Osborn’s hair.
Steve looked up, an action that subsequently caused his smile to fade almost to nothing. Tony looked great, as usual. He was sporting a black button-up with rolled sleeves and his favorite pair of sunglasses. His hair was perfect combination of messy and smart and somehow matched the sophistication of his black jeans.
“Tony,” he greeted, forcing his smile a little more.
“Hey, Spangles,” came the polite return.
Steve turned his gaze to Harry. “Harry, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you in awhile.”
Harry gave a big shrug. “I’m doing okay.”
Steve smiled. “Well that’s good. Are you looking forward to fourth grade?”
Harry gave another shrug.
“We don’t wanna go back to school, Papa,” Peter whined.
“You’ve still got three weeks,” Steve offered with a smile.
“Three and a half,” Tony chimed in.
Peter gave a dramatic roll of his eyes and Steve froze for a moment because for a fleeting second, that was Tony. Peter had the exact same curl to his lip—even the little snort was the same. Steve reached out to ruffle Peter’s hair before he could think on that anymore.
“Go play with Harry and you’ll forget all about school. And we’ll get ice cream later.”
Peter grinned at the promise of ice cream and after digging out his collection of action figures from his backpack (with Harry rushing to do the same), they were off to the boulders by the lake to set up their world of superheroes.
Steve leaned back into the bench again, extending his arm over the back as he had before. After a moment, Tony sat down on the other side. He kept his face toward Peter, not one turning his head to look in Steve’s direction. A lazy summer breeze rustled the trees overhead and a few birds began to chirp in time with the cicadas.
Steve became aware of the negative space between them. In his mind, he drew it out on paper, a rough sketch of the angles of Tony’s legs, mismatched from his own and somehow combative of them. That was always the way Tony had been—he had always been blunt opposition to Steve, but in a way Steve could never quite understand. Even before the divorce it had perplexed him. Even when he had loved Tony with all of his being, he had always been able to see that something didn’t fit.
“How was the drive?” Steve asked, watching as Peter’s hands flew out, tossing an Army general into the sky in what appeared to be an explosion.
Tony shifted, hooking his elbow over the back of the bench. It left just enough space from Steve’s hand to be distant. “Well, I’m very caught up on the drama at Anderson Elementary,” Tony replied with a bit of a smirk. “But yeah, it was good.”
“Have you been to the house yet?”
“Yep. Stopped by so that Harry could see it. He almost made me feel cheap, the little brat.” Tony said it with a smile though. Steve knew he loved Harry—and he knew it was partly because Tony was so relieved that Peter had friends. A best friend, at that. “How’s the hotel? I mean, assuming you’re there again.”
“It’s nice. Just like I remembered. It even has the same old couple running the place.”
Tony snorted. “You guys bond over your shared life experiences?”
Steve rolled his eyes and didn’t answer.
Silence settled over them again and Steve found himself tempted to ask how Tony was doing. They had just seen each other last week at Peter’s soccer game—hell, they’d cheered for him together from the sidelines and Steve had stopped him from getting in a fight with the ref (who was in high school, by the way).
Peter chucked a foot soldier into a nearby tree, prompting a gasp (in character) from Harry. Apparently they now had to decide if it was worth going after him, since he was “pretty dead,” according to Peter.
Tony finally broke from staring ahead and looked at Steve. “Does it ever bother you, the way they play?”
Steve shrugged. “I did the same thing with Bucky when we were kids. Except we didn’t have the toys.” When baseball was rained out or the other kids were playing, World War I broke out on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. “I probably gutted Bucky with a bayonet a hundred times.”
Tony reflected on that answer for a moment, but Steve knew what was coming next. “You didn’t answer the question though.”
Steve let out a sigh. “No, it doesn’t bother me. There’s memories, sure, but little boys play war. If that’s what he wants to play, then he can go right ahead.”
That answer seemed to be more what Tony had been looking for and he turned his attention back to the boys.
Another beat of silence. This time the trees hissed.
“He looks more and more like you every day,” Steve said quietly.
“Yeah, he does,” Tony replied.
It was better, Steve knew, that they had decided on Tony being the father of their child through surrogacy. There was never even any talk of Steve being Peter’s father really, though both of them had been concerned about the risk of Peter becoming an alcoholic later in life. There were a few recovered documents from Erskine that indicated that a serum recipient was “not advised to reproduce” due to fears that the serum may alter the reproductive process. Another side effect that hadn’t been mentioned to him.
Peter was Tony’s biological son, and that was that.
“He acts like you though,” Tony tacked on a moment later. “I swear, every week he’s at my house it takes longer and longer to get him to eat like a kid and stop calling women ma’am.”
Steve cocked a brow, casting Tony a sidelong look. “So he shouldn’t call them ma’am?”
One corner of Tony’s lip quirked up. “It’s cute when he’s a kid, and it’s adorable when a hundred and seven year-old male model does it. But unless you’re in the military or you’re in the South, calling a woman ma’am is just weird.”
Steve opened his mouth to correct Tony about his age, but then he remembered that it was true as of a month ago. A hundred and seven and he only looked a year or two older—if that—than when he was twenty-five.
“Has it really been ten years?” Steve asked.
Tony laughed. “You’re tellin’ me. Extremis gave me some new blood, but I still feel old as hell.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Tony, you aren’t old.”
Tony leaned his head back to rest it on the back of the bench. “Mm. Well, I feel old. Come on, what else is there to do in life? I mean, outside of Avengers and all of that. Fell in love, got engaged—which was a big step, if you remember—got married. Then we had a kid, then…” He trailed off with a little shrug of his shoulders.
“We figured out we didn’t work,” Steve said, glancing over at Tony.
Tony wouldn’t look at him. “We got divorced, yeah. Now we’re just along for the ride with Peter because that’s what parents do. You know, when we aren’t saving the universe and stuff.”
“That doesn’t mean your life is over,” Steve said with a chuckle.
“I’m not saying that, I’m saying that there’s nothing left to do in life in that respect. I’ve got Peter. That little nut is my life now.”
The action figures were abandoned as Harry took off toward a nearby swing set. Peter ran after him, but after a few steps he slipped in the grass.
“Peter!” Tony and Steve said at the same time, both of them sitting up.
Peter didn’t even say anything to them; he got right up and kept running.
Steve let out a sigh of relief and turned himself a little more so that he could keep an eye on the boys.
Tony pulled out his phone and skimmed through a few things. Steve watched his concentration face make an appearance as Tony tapped out a text, but it faded as soon as the phone was clicked off and put back in his pocket.
“You could get married again,” Steve said, looking away.
“What?” Tony’s sunglasses came off. Steve immediately wished he’d kept them on so Tony didn’t look so damn expressive.
“You said there’s nothing else to do in life. I’m saying you could get married again. People get married after divorces—in fact, usually people get married after divorces.”
“Yes, thank you, Captain.” A little huff escaped Tony’s lips, the telltale noise of him fighting not to say something. “I’m not getting married again. I did that once and look where I ended up.”
Steve smirked. “Sitting on a bench with your ex-husband on vacation?”
Tony nodded, staring down at his hands. “I got lucky with you,” he said quietly. “Somehow after all of the shit that happened, you didn’t take him away from me.”
A familiar aching started in Steve’s chest, like a scar was being melted off. “He’s your son, Tony. I never would have done that to you, or to Peter. No matter how angry and hurt I was back then, I wasn’t going to let Peter grow up without you in his life.”
“Yeah.” Tony let out a slow breath and straightened in his seat again. “You could at least stay in the house.”
Steve shook his head. “We’re not married anymore. I’m not staying there.”
They had been through this argument a hundred times. They had worn it thin to the point where just bringing it up again caused them both to start trying to change the subject.
Tony won, as usual.
“Have you bought any school supplies for Peter?”
Steve bit down his backup question about ice cream and shook his head. “No, I haven’t. I was planning on taking him when he came over for my week.”
A moment of silence passed between yet again as Steve focused his attention on Peter as he swung on the swing set, laughing in that way only little kids could. Peter had been the true hero in this situation—somehow he had gotten through the divorce without the side effects most kids had. Four years later and he was happy spending a week with one dad and the next with the other. It helped that Steve and Tony lived close.
Then Steve turned his face to Tony, watching those dark eyes take in the scenery. Tony never seemed to actually look at things for the beauty of them and he didn’t do that now: he analyzed, calculated, and found a million ways to fix, improve, succeed. His brain was always working, always busy.
“You’re always going to be the love of my life, you know,” Steve said quietly.
Tony gave a little snort. “Yeah, I know.” He turned, locking eyes with Steve. The analyzing gaze turned softer, but Steve knew Tony was still working, attempting to fit together all of the scattered puzzle pieces. “Why don’t you stay the night?”
“Tony, please,” Steve sighed, a familiar lick of annoyance reminding him exactly why their marriage had ended.
“I mean so you can be there in the morning. Have breakfast with us and be there when Peter wakes up. You remember how it is on vacation. The kid’s in love with life.”
Steve shook his head, though he did remember. It was the same way around Christmastime: Peter’s face lit up and he had a shine in his eyes that was so innocently excited that Steve immediately felt okay about everything in his life. “I don’t want him getting any ideas.”
“Ideas that we might still love each other?” Tony asked, almost incredulously.
Steve gave him a look, but Tony’s gaze was firm. “Ideas that we might get back together.”
Tony rolled his eyes, but his real emotion came out with the impatient sigh. “Right.” He paused, gritting his teeth. “Most of the time I think you don’t want to try it again because you know it’s going to fail, but sometimes I think it’s just because you couldn’t stand going back on one of your decisions.”
The problem was that both of those things were true. Steve pursed his lips a little, looking down at the bench. “We still love each other and we both know that. But loving each other doesn’t mean we’ll have a good marriage. We know that. We tried.”
“We never tried to fix it, Steve,” Tony shot back, but he wasn’t angry. At least, not yet.
It was Steve’s turn to let out the impatient sigh. “We had a great marriage until things went south—“
“Every marriage is great before it goes south, Cap,” Tony interrupted.
“—but I think I knew it wasn’t supposed to last. You need space and a lot of time to yourself. When I married you, I thought that would change. I wanted you to change for me, and that wasn’t right. But now that we’re divorced, I’m happy. I know exactly what to expect and how to feel about you. This works better for me—a lot better. Don’t tell me it doesn’t work better for you.”
Tony swallowed hard, staring at him almost like he might explode into an angry fit or into tears. Steve didn’t know which. “Just because it works better doesn’t mean I don’t miss you.”
Steve’s gaze returned to the bench and he began picking at the peeling lacquer on the bench again. “That’s the tradeoff that works.”
“It’s fucking torture, Steve. Is it not torture for you? To sit there and know the person you loves feels the same way but won’t fucking do anything?”
Steve opened his mouth to answer, then shut it again, turning his face away.
Tiny footsteps made thudding noises on the grass as Peter and Harry raced back toward them, still laughing with their cheeks dusted pink from running around so much.
“Papa, we saw a big birsd!” Peter cried, climbing up onto Steve.
He let out a grunt as Peter’s knee dug into his thigh, but then he was smiling again. “A big bird, huh?”
“Yeah, it was really big,” Harry added, hopping up to sit between Tony and Steve. Tony gave Harry’s hair a ruffle.
“Do you know what kind it was?” Tony asked. “What’d it look like?”
“Big!” Peter exclaimed.
“Big, Tony,” Steve repeated with a grin.
Tony rolled his eyes with a smile. “Right, sorry. I forgot. A big bird.”
Peter wrapped his little arms around Steve’s neck and rested his head on Steve’s chest. “Papa,” Peter asked in a tone Steve knew to recognize when Peter wanted something. “Can we go get ice cream now?”
Steve let out a dramatic sigh. “I dunno. What do you think, Tony?”
“Hey, I’m the fun dad. Let’s go,” Tony replied with a wink to Harry. “Grab your stuff, guys. Make sure you didn’t leave any toys stranded out there.”
As quickly as they had joined them, Peter and Harry were off again to gather up their toys, fueled with the desire of ice cream. Steve stood up, brushing off his shirt where Peter had gotten a few pieces of grass on it. Tony followed him up and put on his sunglasses again, even though the sun was already bright orange and sinking into the lake water.
“It is torture,” Steve murmured as Peter gathered up his action figures with his smile that was a miniature version of Tony’s. “But it’s worth it to me because I would rather have Peter grow up with parents who love him more than anything else and who will always have time to support him than for him to grow up dealing with us fighting, making up, and fighting again. We’re a better example to him now than we were before. I know you know that.”
Not even Tony could deny that they were better divorced than married.
“I always thought maybe I could make you selfish,” Tony said, crossing his arms and staring at the boys through his sunglasses. “I thought maybe that’s why we divorced. Then you refused to take any money, you gave me joint custody, you didn’t even let me pay for your goddamn cab when you left the courthouse after my lawyers tore you apart. You let the media call you a gold digging super slut and I never once heard you complain.” Tony curled his hands into fists. “And even after that shit I pulled with my lawyers and everything else to hurt you, you helped me. You helped me! And even though we love each other still, you don’t come back. I don’t get how you can do that.”
“I just told you—“
“I know. And I know you’re right. But I could never do what you do. Living in a fucking hotel while your ex husband rents out a giant vacation house. Living in a two-bedroom apartment barely big enough for two people while your ex husband owns ten houses and a tower. I think about calling you all the time, wanting to be with you again. I’ve made those calls, you never have. I almost get offended because it makes me feel like maybe you don’t love me.”
Steve had always been known for his self-discipline. His own self-discipline, not the kind that meant he was to sit idly by while people did wrong around him. He had only missed a week of church when he was too sick to go, and now it was when he was too busy on a mission. He still didn’t drink that much except for an occasional beer with the team of a few shots with Natasha. But he had been particularly strict on himself when he had gotten a divorce.
Unbeknownst to Tony, Steve had cracked dozens of times. He had sobbed himself to sleep, took the subway to Stark Tower only to run into the nearest alley to vomit because he just couldn’t. Peter was most important and whatever Steve felt in those moments of weakness, he refused to let them hurt Peter. Sam Wilson said he was being ridiculous, that kissing Tony again or holding him didn’t mean they were going to get back together again. Yet Sam had never offered to take him over to see Tony because Sam knew just as well as Steve did that separation was what was best.
“It’s just different now,” Steve dismissed quietly.
“Yeah,” Tony said with a snort. “Sure as hell is.”
Peter and Harry scampered back over to them and then started running ahead toward the ice cream shop. Peter knew the location by heart and Steve nor Tony was worried about him getting lost here. Peter didn’t go all the way there though and stooped down to look at something on the ground not thirty paces from them. Probably a bug. Peter was very into bugs at the moment.
“I’ll get ice cream,” Tony said.
Steve shook his head with a smile. “No way. I get to be fun dad this time.”
Tony shot him a look over the rim of his sunglasses.
In return, Steve gave him a playful knock with his shoulder. “Speaking of being Mr. Fun Dad…Slim Jims for them? Really?”
“You are not seriously about to yell at me for that.” Tony rolled his eyes and jammed his hands in his pockets. “We had a cupboard full of them while we were married and you said nothing about them back then.”
“They still aren’t anything close to healthy,” Steve tacked on, eyes glinting with mischief.
Tony stopped walking for a moment. Steve got a few steps ahead and turned around, cocking a brow.
“Sorry,” Tony explained with a hint of a smirk, “I’m just suddenly remembering why I love not being married.”
A laugh burst from Steve’s lips before he could stop himself. Maybe it was tinged with a tiny dash of anguish, but he laughed all the same. He had been married to that man at one point—the man who let his son convince him to buy Slim Jims because Tony just couldn’t tell Peter no. Tony started laughing too, and soon enough they were both standing there cracking up, hurting and healing all at once.
“What? What?” Peter was suddenly there, bouncing up and down in front of Tony, desperate to know what was so funny that both of his dads were laughing.
When Steve recovered, still biting his bottom lip to keep from laughing, he slipped his arm around Tony’s shoulder. “Daddy just reminded me of something really funny, that’s all.”
Peter frowned, did a dramatic eye roll and marched away, dragging a confused Harry along by the hand. Steve watched them walk ahead, then started a little when he felt Tony turn into his chest, his arms wrapping around him.
Steve hugged back with his one arm, but didn’t fully embrace him. Tony let out a little sigh and Steve rubbed his back a little to try to sooth him. It had been such a long time since they allowed each other this kind of closeness. Steve had almost forgotten what it felt like to be held by someone who loved him. But he still couldn’t let himself hug back. That would give Tony the wrong impression.
Tony pulled back rather abruptly a moment later and cleared his throat.
“You okay?” Steve asked, his voice thickening with concern.
Tony nodded once, readjusting his crooked sunglasses. He started walking again.
Time had been cruel to their love. The wedding ring Steve had never expected to receive was once cherished and worn every day on his finger. Now I sat in the box it had come in, shoved in the furthest corner of his top dresser drawer. Tony’s was still on his finger, glimmering in the evening light like the hope Steve knew still flickered in Tony’s heart that somehow this would change.
It wouldn’t, but Tony Stark didn’t like to let things go.
“Let’s get that ice cream, Rogers,” Tony said weakly.
Tony might not have known it, but a part of Steve would always have that same blind hope. It was that part of Steve that had a cupboard full of Slim Jims sitting there unopened, waiting for the day Tony ran out and needed his favorite stupid snack.