Written with love for doctorjamwatson, who said there was no way she was ever going to ship Stark Spangled Banner, to which I replied "challenge accepted."
A/N: I don't know how to end this story, but I figure the ending is just the last thing I choose to tell you, so I'm gonna leave you with this.
Chapter 20: Endings Are Hard
The next morning, they woke up together.
Steve awoke first. He lay quietly for a while without opening his eyes, feeling a deep sense of contentment suffuse his body. He breathed in deep and slow and delighted in the scent that filled his nostrils—a scent he had missed for so long he'd nearly forgotten it.
The heady spice-smell that somehow clung constantly to Bruce's skin—ginger, coriander, garlic and cloves—was more than familiar. But over the past months, something crucial had been missing; something he couldn't identify.
His eyes still closed, just by breathing, he knew now what had been wanting. The tang of metal and grease that always haunted Tony's hair, the ghost of his workshop that followed him around. The two smells mingled together to make an entirely new scent, sharp and smooth in all the right ways, which curled into the corners of Steve's consciousness; a smell entirely their own.
With one final long breath, savouring the scent he'd been craving like a missing limb, he opened his eyes.
Tony was still wrapped around Steve's neck, his neck craned backwards (at what looked to Steve like an uncomfortable angle) to nestle in the crook of Bruce's shoulder. Bruce himself was pressed up against Tony's back, tighter than tight; one arm tucked under his chest, the other slung over to drape across Steve's side.
Bruce had slept the whole night through. No nightmares, not a single tremor or tremble. He'd had good nights before, but never slept so deep or so calm, not without Tony there too. Steve smiled. He wormed one hand slowly and carefully out from under Bruce's deadweight arm. With a gentle touch he smoothed Tony's mess of hair back from his forehead, tucked a wayward curl back behind Bruce's ear.
Tony's eyes fluttered open. He blinked a couple of times, looking disoriented, until the confusion cleared from his eyes. When he saw Steve watching him, he smiled, sleepy and content; a faint blush spread across his cheeks.
Steve chuckled softly and traced the line of Tony's jaw with his forefinger. "Good morning."
"Morning." Tony tipped his head forward, wincing at the cricks in his neck. Bruce grumbled wordlessly and pressed after him, pushing his nose into the back of Tony's shoulder. Tony laughed at the feeling of Bruce nuzzling him like a cat, then pressed a chaste kiss to the corner of Steve's mouth, immediately pulling a face. "Ick, morning breath."
Steve rolled his eyes. He grabbed Tony by the back of the head, ignoring his feeble protests to pull him in for a deep kiss, opening his mouth and running his tongue along Tony's lower lip. When he pulled back, several long moments later, it was to leave Tony considerably more awake.
"Well." Tony's warm brown eyes were dark, pupils blown wide, and his voice was tight with arousal.
"Well, yourself," Steve smirked. "And it serves you right."
"Yeah, yeah." Tony tried—and failed—to look contrite. "So…" He wiggled his hips forward, trying for seductive, and mostly failed at that as well. "Morning sex?"
"Oh lord…" Steve groaned, rolling onto his back. Tony tightened his grip on Steve's neck. "Tony, Bruce isn't even awake yet—"
"Am so," came a muffled grunt behind Tony. "You woke me up with smacking noises."
"Well, I would say sorry, but…" Tony sniggered. He poked Steve in the side. "Bruce is awake, Steve."
"Oh, lord." Steve rolled back towards Tony and kept on rolling, pinning him to the bed, kissing him down into the mattress. Bruce smiled at the two of them, reached a hand out to stroke delicately down Steve's back.
Steve rolled back off Tony, leaving him gasping and breathless, then reached out a broad hand for Bruce, pulling him forward across Tony's chest to kiss him breathless as well. Tony watched them with hungry eyes.
Bruce smacked him gently on the top of his head. "No morning sex. Breakfast."
"…Waffles?" Tony asked hopefully.
His companions traded a look. "Waffles," Steve said decisively. Tony grinned and sat up, rattling off a complicated command to JARVIS before snuggling back down into their arms, wiggling until his back was flush with Steve's chest.
Bruce leaned forward, teasing Tony with whisper-soft touches of his lips against Tony's nose, his jaw, the curve of his lower lip, before diving in to kiss him properly. Tony was more relaxed, now, making him sloppier as he opened his lips, sucking lazily to pull Bruce's tongue into his mouth. When they broke apart, it was to a warm, complete feeling spreading through all three of their bodies. Tony buried his face in Bruce's shoulder again, and Steve drew the three of them as close together as he could get.
After a few minutes, Tony broke the contented silence.
"I really missed this," he murmured into Bruce's neck. "More than date nights, more than hanging out in the lab or the gym, more than…more than the sex, even."
"More than sex?" Bruce asked drily, feigning incredulity. "You feeling okay?"
"Don't poke fun. I'm serious." Tony's face was sober, his voice calm and unshaken. "I missed this. Missed us. Well, I missed everything, but this the most. Waking up together, I just…" He sighed. "I missed it."
Bruce relented, kissed his temple, tenderly. "We'll have a lot more mornings like this, babe. I promise."
"I know." Tony gave him a half-smile and lapsed into quiet again.
Then, after a moment: "…and morning sex, sometimes?"
Steve groaned and smacked him in the face with a handy pillow, and the bed devolved into a giggling wrestling match until the waffles arrived.
The next morning was more of the same. And the next, and many more after it.
Life was not perfect.
Tony fell off the wagon once or twice, but he kept his word and he kept trying and he stayed in the program and he got clean and under control, and they stood by him through it all. Steve's PTSD popped up again a few times, over the years, sometimes triggered by hard battles and sometimes spontaneous, always terrifying for everyone involved, but he keeps getting help for it they deal and it keeps getting better until they hardly remember it ever was bad. Bruce has an "accident" in his laboratory kingdom involving a pushy lab tech who doesn't recognize him and somehow wasn't properly briefed on protocol, but Tony and Steve calm him down and de-Hulk him and nobody gets hurt except for a few million in equipment and a pair of tighty-whities worn by a no-longer-pushy lab tech.
Life isn't perfect, but there are movie nights and lazy Sunday afternoons and inside jokes and Tony making peace with Phil by conspiring to drive Fury up the wall and life might not be perfect but it's pretty damn close.
After a while there's a small, low-key ceremony, family only. Something to do with rings. Tony denies tearing up to his dying day. Steve and Bruce don't deny it, though, and Natasha tells anyone who'll listen that Tony cried like a baby. It's really not a big deal and Tony's the only person who pays any attention to commemorating it, and everyone knows that he really only keeps track to keep score.
They fight, sometimes for freedom, and sometimes over dirty socks and who skipped out on date night for something stupid and selfish. They go to bed together and they wake up together and the world keeps turning.
Some twenty years later, they're going for a walk in Central Park.
Bruce and Tony went off to track down the ice cream vendor, but that was half an hour ago, and by now they're probably just making out behind the public restroom like a couple of randy teenagers.
Steve doesn't mind. It's a nice day. He sits on a park bench, smiling vaguely and turning his face up to the sunshine. He's pushing 50 now (or 120, depending on how you count), and it seems the serum doesn't stop him from aging, or his many battles from catching up to him. He's still fit, still strong enough to defend his home, but he has aches in his joints and creaks in his bones now, and the warmth of the sun feels nice.
Besides, the world's grown up around him. There are new heroes now, young ones, and young agents and soldiers too. World's in good hands, he thinks, still smiling absently. I can rest now.
Steve had his eyes loosely shut, reclining relaxed on the park bench, when a nearby cough caught his attention. His eyes flew open instantly, and he began craning his neck to find the source of the sound.
He didn't have to look far. The cough had come from a nervous-looking teen waiting a respectable distance from the bench, shifting anxiously from foot to foot. Despite the warmth of the day, she was completely covered, wrapped from head to toe in ratty jeans and an equally questionable hoodie, the hood drawn up to partially obscure her face.
From what he could see, she looked flustered and apprehensive, but defiant and resolved. Steve smiled, encouraging.
"Hi there. You need something?"
She looked at Steve, then at her feet; away, over her shoulder; back to Steve again, back to her feet. She cleared her throat again, swept her gaze in a circle around herself, looking poised to run.
"Hey, it's okay." Steve leaned forward, concerned, his face open and honest. "Come on, come sit down."
He smiled again, hesitantly, as she perched on the bench as far away as she could get from him, on the verge of flight.
"So, what's your name?"
"…Annie." Her voice was hoarse and tight.
"Well, it's real swell to meet you, Annie. What's on your mind?"
"I…" She shifted around uncertainly, looking around again, then fixed Steve with an intense green stare that rooted him to the bench. She spoke with a sudden low intensity, all hesitancy gone, her voice and body radiating focus.
"You are him, right? The Captain?"
"Steve to my friends," he answered, self-conscious, "but yeah, I'm Captain America. Did you…can I…do you need, um…help?" His voice trailed off at the end of his sentence, and he blushed, embarrassed.
"Not exactly—it's just…" She huffed a sharp sigh, frustrated. "How do you do it?"
"Um, do what?" Steve was instantly wearing what Tony still liked calling his "lost puppy dog" look.
"How do you not…" She glared at her hands, twisted them together, fidgeted in her seat. Steve, still completely lost, was on the verge of breaking the tense and awkward silence when she burst out: "How do you not hate them?!"
"Hate—hate who? What?" Steve's eyes were wide and panicked.
"People." Her voice cut through the air like a knife, dark and sharp. "Everything—everything you've seen, all the war and hatred and cruelty, how can you not— Captain—"
"Steve, please." He cut through her stuttering tirade with one outstretched hand.
"Um, Steve, then." She faltered only a moment, flashing a quick smile before her face turned stormy again. "Steve. After all the things you've seen. People are cruel, people hurt you and lie to you and use you and take advantage of you when they're supposed to be the ones protecting you and—"
She cut herself off, her eyes beading up. He murmured "Annie," trying to soothe her, but she just shook her head.
"How can you not, just, hate humanity? How can you keep fighting?" She looked right into his eyes, all her defenses dropping away, big green eyes pleading for answers. "How can you still believe people are worth saving?"
"Wow. You, um…" Steve scratched the back of his neck, overwhelmed. "You're awful young to be so angry."
Her eyes flashed. "Being young doesn't make me blind, or stupid. Or helpless. And there's plenty to be angry about." Her jaw set. "Just forget it."
Steve grabbed at her forearm as she moved to stand and run off. "No, please, wait, don't— I'm sorry. I didn't mean that quite how it came out. Please stay."
She sat down again, but jerked her arm away from his touch and kicked at the ground like it had personally offended her. "My opinion's not worth any less 'cause I'm young. Not everybody gets to have a nice sheltered childhood, ya know. I've seen some shit."
"I do know," he responded, calm and sad. "I know about hard childhoods. I grew up in an orphanage, did you know that? Back in the 20's. I never knew my parents."
"You might've been lucky," she muttered, picking at one of the frayed holes in her jeans.
Steve took a deep breath and let it out slowly, absorbing the implications. "…Annie," he began, carefully. "Annie, have your parents been hurting you?"
She shot him a look. "Not anywhere you can touch."
"What does that mean, exactly?" he asked, testing the ice.
"It means I'm fine."
"I said I'm fine," she snapped, maybe a little louder than she meant to; she looked around again, retreated in on herself. "It's not—they don't hit me or anything. They don't even, like, yell at me. I don't think they care enough about what happens to me to. They just—they don't…sometimes, the way they are with me, it's like I'm not… I think they forget I'm human, sometimes. They talk to me—about me—like I'm just this experiment gone wrong, a busted thing they don't think's worth the effort of fixing." She dug her toe into the ground again, scowling.
"I'm sorry," Steve whispered, helplessly. A bully was a bully, but…this wasn't the kind of thing a shield could deflect. This kind of evil didn't have a face for punching.
"Whatever." She shrugged, a calculated nonchalance taking over, the walls going back up. "I can deal."
"You shouldn't have to," he mumbled, soft and self-conscious, but she just rolled her eyes.
"You could fill a book the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica with 'should have's, but it won't get you anywhere." She leaned back on the bench, stretching out her arms and legs and then going limp, arms hanging loose over her head and face turned skyward.
"I just… I don't want to be them, you know?" She shot Steve a halfhearted smile. "My dad, he's so pissed all the time. The bastard hates the whole world, he's got a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. I don't think he even knows what he's holding the grudge for, just blames the whole world and everyone in it for everything that's wrong in his life. I don't want to be that, I can't."
She scuffed the ground with her shoe again, sighed. "But I mean, you were right. I'm angry. The world's not fair! And people suck so much! But I don't—I can't live like that, I can't turn into him, I can't spend the rest of my life hating people, but there is so much wrong to be pissed over and I don't know how to let it go."
Green eyes, fraught with emotion, met clear blue. She turned to face him again, turning sideways on the bench to look straight into his face. "So how do you do it? I mean, you've seen so much of the worst of everything, doing what you do. How can you still believe in people?"
Steve chose his words carefully. "This is going to sound kind of corny, but…honestly, I just focus on the good. No, really," he added hurriedly, seeing her skeptical expression. "Everything I've seen in all my life, the good has always outweighed the bad in the end. Scout's honor." He held up three fingers in a mock salute.
"Were you really a Boy Scout?" she asked dubiously.
"Nah. Too skinny." That got a laugh. "But seriously. I know it's hard to see the good when there's mountains of bad right in front of you, but people come out all right, at the final count. Some of it's big stuff, like the way people come together and support each other after a disaster, and the way people sacrifice for each other, ordinary people who run into burning buildings to save strangers' lives, you know?"
She was nodding thoughtfully; Steve pressed on. "And sometimes it's small stuff, real small sometimes, the little things people do for each other. Like holding doors open for someone with their arms full. Or…" he smiled, letting nostalgia fill him with warmth, "someone who takes a risk, jumping both feet in and going on hope, just trusting. Or someone who works to make themself better and to grow just because they love someone. Little things."
He came out of his reverie to see her smirking at him knowingly; he cleared his throat, self-conscious. "So, yeah. People do suck, a lot of the time. And we can do really horrible things to each other, for really senseless reasons. I've seen a lot of it. But…when we're good, Annie, we are so good. People can be so kind, and so caring, and so beautiful. And reminding myself of that, of all the wonderful things people bring into the world, helps me forgive the bad stuff."
She was grinning at him, now, a sort of impressed incredulity stamped on her face. "Does that, um…does that help?" he asked, voice wavering.
"You're like a walking Hallmark card, aren't you?" she laughed, shaking her head.
"Um, I don't…what?"
"You're the real thing," she murmured, ignoring him and speaking more to herself. "Really the real thing. I'll be damned."
"Sorry, sorry." She shook the cobwebs out of her head, coming back down to earth. "Yeah, that helps. It helps a lot. Thanks, Cap."
"Um, anytime," he offered, still uncertain. "Listen, is there something—you shouldn't have to be treated that way, I want to help you—"
"You already did," she cut him off, standing and stretching.
"I know what you meant. But I can deal." She grinned over her shoulder at him. "Thanks."
Steve watched her walk away, staring in the direction she'd taken long after her retreating figure was lost to his sight. He probably would have sat there for hours, lost in thought, if Tony and Bruce's reappearance hadn't jolted him back to reality.
"Hey, Cap'n Cutie," Tony teased, tapping him gently on the head with the bottom of a big cone before leaning over to plant a kiss in his straw-blonde hair. "Whatcha thinkin' about?"
"Emotional abuse of minors."
"O…kay." Tony pulled a face at Bruce before flopping down on the bench next to Steve. "Cheerful. What brought that up?"
"I met this girl, and she… She asked me how we can keep trying to save people after all the bad stuff we've seen. It just made me think…there's so much left to do, you know? I know we've got young people to carry the torch and keep up the good fight, but…well. I know things are in good hands, but it's hard to let go. There's too much wrong in the world for me to be ready to pack it in. But we're getting older, and there's still so much left to fix…"
"I know what you mean, but we just have to trust that the world is getting better. We'll do as much as we can for as long as we can, and put our faith in the next generation of heroes to fix the problems we can't solve." Bruce sat down on Steve's other side. "Besides, we've still got a few years of fight left in us."
"I know, but…"
"But nothing. We are badasses, always were and ever shall be, it's the natural order of things. Now eat your ice cream before it melts." Tony jabbed the cone into Steve's face, smearing vanilla on his nose. Steve rolled his eyes and snatched the ice cream out of Tony's hands. Tony grinned like a maniac and grabbed Steve's head between both hands, kissing his face clean before sobering and sitting back down, leaning against his shoulder.
"You know what this reminds me of?"
"Nope," Steve answered, relaxed.
"You remember that little 'party' they threw us? When I got out of the hospital and we all got back together?"
"Vaguely. Why?" Bruce asked, tipping his head sideways to look across Steve at Tony.
"Just something Pepper said."
"What did she say?" Steve asked around a mouthful of ice cream.
Tony flashed him a bright grin. "She's not worried. World's gonna be fine."
"Wait, that—that's it?! We're just 'gonna be fine'?!" Steve stammered out, indignant.
"Yep, that's it!" Tony chirped, and hopped off the bench, bouncing on his heels. "Come on, let's go get some peanuts!"
Steve stared after Tony, open-mouthed, as Bruce ran after him, calling: "you already had two ice creams, you don't need—Tony, wait!"
Tony didn't wait. Steve stood by the bench watching Bruce chase Tony in circles through the park. He stretched his arms, shook the creaks out of his shoulders, and smiled up at the sun.
World's gonna be fine, he thought. Sounds about right.
A/N: As most of you have probably already guessed, Annie was a little cameo for my excellent friend doctorjamwatson, for whom I wrote this story.
So, that's it. They got their happy ending, as promised. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! Keep an eye out for one more 'deleted scene' from this 'verse—I kinda want to explore how they got together, maybe with some awkward first-time sex.