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If Only, If Only

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Iron Man liked to cuddle against Steve when he was tired. There was no other word for it; Iron Man cuddled.

The first time it had happened, Steve himself hadn’t been all that awake to process it. They’d been in the drawing room of Avengers Mansion late one night, Steve reading, and Iron Man looking over schematics of something complicated. Iron Man had asked for some creative input from Steve, Steve had moved to help, they’d both sat down on the small two-seater, and the next thing Steve knew a warm weight had lifted from his side and the sun was up again.

Steve hadn’t thought much of it but in the time between the second and the first, he might have craved that easy warmth – just a little.

The second time it had happened, Steve had been awake and still jittery from the adrenalin of a fight against two-bit powered villains. The Avengers usually came in two categories: the ones who slumped immediately after a fight, and the ones who needed to work off the excess energy. As a heavy hitter, Iron Man would have been the latter, but Steve had been certain that underneath all the layers of armour Iron Man was just a normal man.

Steve might not have known who Iron Man was or what Iron Man looked like back then. Steve might not have known the details of Iron Man’s private life or even his real name, but when Iron Man’s head had dipped onto his shoulder after a long debriefing, he’d thought none of that really mattered. He’d pulled his chair closer to Iron Man’s, waved the rest of the Avengers off, and let the Golden Avenger sleep on his shoulder with a gauntlet resting palm-up atop his thigh.

Steve started to get used to having Iron Man curled to his side with the crown of the helmet pressed to the crook of his neck, and sometimes with an armored arm wriggled into the space between his back and the cushions of a couch. It was comfortable, mentally if not always physically, to know that Iron Man trusted him this much—that anyone could trust him this much.

Or maybe it was simply because only Steve was always the one closest him in these situations. But then, that was why Iron Man sought Steve out in the first place, wasn’t it? That was why Iron Man was always by Steve’s side, wasn’t it? Because he trusted Steve? Because he was comfortable in Steve’s presence? Steve liked to believe that. Iron Man never cuddled up to anyone else anyway.

And as time went on, so did the iterations of the Iron Man armor. There were sharper edges, thicker layers, more components, and fancier instruments added to the armor. The sleekness of memory metals gave way to metal alloy plates. In that time, they worked together like a well-oiled machine but they had their share of fights. Iron Man was always open with his opinions, and the two of them challenged each other, sometimes to not so happy ends. Some nights, Steve would sit in the library or living room of the mansion and wait. Some nights, Steve would be alone, and he would tell himself he didn’t want those sharp plates pressing into his side anyway. Some nights, Iron Man would show at the door with a clunk of metal boots, pause, and then stride in as if Steve couldn’t read the hesitancy in those metal shoulders. Sometimes, one of them would apologize. Sometimes, they would talk heatedly long into the night, but Steve knew he was forgiven if he woke with metal tucked into his neck and a red and gold arm around his midriff. And he couldn’t help but forgive Iron Man then. They always reconciled their differences.

After the tenth, twelfth, twentieth, fiftieth time, Steve stopped counting and simply started expecting. It was a common sight for an Avenger to find when wandering around Avengers Mansion: Captain America and Iron Man, curled together on some seating surface, the Captain usually reading or the both of them fast asleep. And after it had been revealed that Iron Man was in fact Tony Stark, sometimes it was Tony Stark sans armor who was curled around a compliant Steve Rogers.

The first time Iron Man curled into his side as Tony Stark, the true Golden Avenger, Steve felt a little something flutter in his chest. The warmth from the armor and the warmth from Tony’s body were two different things and Steve knew the feel of both now. Two of the men Steve had admired were the same person. The one who gave him a new home and the one who made him enjoy this new home were the same person. Steve felt something like pride that he could be as close as he was to Tony Stark, and closer still to Iron Man. It was like the final barrier had been stripped between them.

Ninetieth, hundredth, thousandth time, over the many years and years, Steve never counted but he could remember every single time he woke with a crick in his neck which was rendered negligible by the peaceful sight of Tony’s cheek pressed to his chest. It made sense now why Iron Man had always been so tired; he’d been living two full lives and never shirked his duties for either. And if he could find rest by Steve’s side then it was the least Steve could do to help.

It was a joy with Tony being open to the Avengers about being Iron Man. It was a fixture of Steve’s life; the way Tony outside of the armor would tuck his fingers under the collar of Steve’s shirt, the way Tony’s sleep-slowed breath brushed across Steve’s shoulder, and the way Tony sometimes threw a leg over Steve’s thigh as if trying to get closer to Steve than he already was. Steve knew it all now, the little secrets of Tony’s life, and he cherished them as he built his life with this man and with the Avengers.

It was during the times when they parted ways that Steve knew there could have been something more between the two of them. They’d never addressed it, but Steve could feel it missing from his life like a lost limb. Every time he managed to get Tony back to his side – every time he fought against his own demons, fought against Tony’s demons – he felt that spark renew between them as if it had never dimmed and it burned brighter than it ever had. Steve took what he could, relishing the time he spent with Tony, savoring each and every one of Tony’s small touches and vowing to keep himself worthy of the trust given by a man who didn’t hand out trust so easily.

It was Extremis that did it. It took away everything human Steve lov—liked about Tony. Tony Stark was a workaholic. Tony would always be a workaholic. But since Extremis, Steve was never able to catch Tony in his down time because Tony never had down time anymore; he’d programmed it out of himself. A very long time ago, Tony as Iron Man had likened himself to a machine, a robot. That was when he had a chest plate attached to himself all hours of the day. Now, Tony’s skin was pristine, wiped clean of all the little scars and imprints of injuries left through the years. Tony looked as gorgeous as he ever had, so soft and human except he wasn’t. He wasn’t human like this. Steve missed it. He missed having Tony leaning on him. He missed having Tony coming to him for help.

Then there was the war over Registration and Steve…Steve didn’t miss that.

And afterwards, after coming back to life and fighting off Norman Osborn, Tony wasn’t by his side anymore. They’d come to a tentative truce during their romp through the Nine Realms with Thor but something had changed. Steve couldn’t look at Tony without seeing all that the other man had been willing to throw away over a nonsensical law. And Tony…who knew what Tony was thinking anymore, and how much he really remembered after the brain delete. Tony wouldn’t look at Steve. Tony wouldn’t be near him. Tony no longer spoke to him outside of their Avenging work.

Steve ran his Secret Avengers, kept an eye on the premier Avengers team, and he let himself reminisce. It wasn’t the same. The Avengers used to be a family. Maybe they still were, but Steve wasn’t there to be a part of it. He ignored the way Tony stole glances at him. He ignored the way Tony would linger after their brief Avengers meetings. He ignored the way Tony couldn’t decide whether to use his first name or his last name to address him. He couldn’t read into it because it would all be wishful thinking and projection.

It was only after the fiasco with the Hood and the Infinity Gauntlet that Steve realized he couldn’t take it anymore. He’d raged and yelled at Tony. He’d thrown down ultimatums. He couldn’t understand how Tony could keep something like the missing Infinity Gems a secret from him. How Tony could think to take it upon it himself and his little group of ‘powerful men’ to take matters of world security into their own hands. Didn’t Tony trust Steve anymore?

And Steve realized then that Tony didn’t, not really. Tony might have broken Steve’s trust but Steve had also broken Tony’s: during the Civil War, multiple times, again and again refusing Tony’s hand, sometimes literally, just so he could keep his moral high ground.

He wondered why of all their disagreements over the decade they’d known each other that the war over Registration had been the straw. Had it merely been one too many? Had it been because of Extremis? Had it been Tony who pulled away? Or had it been Steve? Steve didn’t know. And as he watched the receding back of Iron Man after having destroyed the Gauntlet, Steve realized he could have just lost one of the most important relationships in his life over matters that could have been avoided if they’d only talked.

 

*

 

Tony’s private floor of Avengers Tower was quiet when Steve walked in. He hadn’t been to this floor since before the Civil War and he hadn’t really expected for his old codes to work anymore but they had unlocked the doors just like old times. Just like when he’d been welcome to go in and out of Tony’s rooms as he’d pleased.

The sun hadn’t yet set and the floor was dark enough that Steve could only just make out the silhouette on the couch in the center of the open living space. He trusted that Tony was aware of his presence – had been alerted as soon as he’d called the elevator to this floor – but he made his footsteps loud just in case. The silhouette shifted just a little as Steve moved closer.

“Did you want to pick up my resignation in person?” Tony’s modulated voice came through the darkness.

Tony was still in the armor, the new one. It was sleek and organic, like nothing Steve had seen before, and he hadn’t had time to admire it in action as he usually did. It had always been Tony who’d been eager to tell Steve all about the ‘newest doohickeys’. Tony didn’t do that anymore.

Steve should be angry. Steve should be wary. Tony had finally let him in on the Illuminati’s activities but Tony had also proven that he could still hide things from Steve; he could hide things no longer as innocuous as a secret identity. Steve shouldn’t even be here, but all he could think of was how he couldn’t remember the feel of Tony pressed close to him all those years ago. He couldn’t remember the brush of Tony’s hand across his neck. He couldn’t remember how warm Tony could run. He couldn’t quite remember the low hum of the armor when it had been plastered to his side.

He couldn’t quite remember, but he knew he missed it almost painfully. And he was going to try and fix this broken thing between them.

“You did good today,” Steve began. “Not many people can wield the Infinity Gauntlet and not be tempted by its power.”

There was a pause, and Steve made his way around to the front of the couch, looking down at Tony who was slumped against the opposite armrest, face plate down.

“You could,” Tony said with a small shrug.

Steve hesitated, unsure if he was still welcome, and he kept himself in this spot a respectable distance away. “We need to talk,” he said.

Tony snorted, the sound distorted by the armor. “I wasn’t aware we were together enough for you to use that phrase.” He shifted and the red and gold of the armor reflected a flash of the dying light from the wall of windows. “I will say this, though: you can kick me from the Avengers but I won’t let you stop me from being Iron Man.”

Steve chose to ignore how close to home the first sentence from Tony hit him and chose instead to address the rest. “I’m not kicking you off the team. And you’ll always be Iron Man to me. This is about something more personal. Just, us. I want to talk about us.” He saw the slight shift of armor before Tony moved to stand, facing Steve with that impersonal face plate.

“I thought this wasn’t personal,” Tony said, derisive. He gestured at Steve and then at himself. “We’ve covered this. You do you, and I’ll do me. We do what’s best for the Avengers, the world, and try not to kill each other while we’re at it. The Illuminati will look after the gems. You keep being the top cop—”

“No. Not that. I want us to stop hiding from each other. I want us to stop jumping to conclusions. I want us to trust each other and tell each other—“

“You mean you want me to trust you and tell you everything about my private life that you don’t want any part of anymore—“

“That is not what I meant—“

“Then what do you mean, Commander, because that’s about the only thing you’ve demanded of me. Tell you everything. Defer to you. You said you were done with me—“

“Tony, listen to me!”

Tony stopped his pacing at Steve’s raised voice and Steve took the opportunity to close the distance between them.

“I want us back,” Steve said and poked Tony hard at the center of his armored chest. “I want Shellhead and Winghead back. Us. Two Avengers who trust each other, with no secrets between each other, who can fly out together to save the day and come home and laugh and sleep together in peace.”

The entire armor twitched and Steve scanned Tony up and down, alarmed.

“I—We—You—We never slept together,” Tony said quickly, backing away. Steve followed.

“We cuddled,” Steve said. “You cuddled me, but then I cuddled back so I think it counts as ‘we’.”

“What.”

“We cuddled—“

“I’m having trouble trying to process Captain America saying ‘cuddle’ and admitting to participating in the act—“

“I’m not Captain America anymore—“

“—and I don’t remember any of this.”

Steve bit back his defense. For a moment, he panicked. He knew Tony didn’t have any memories of the months following Steve’s ‘death’ or of the Civil War that preceded it, but maybe there was more to it than Maria, Ms. Potts, and Rhodey had explained. Except everything they’ve said and everything Steve had needed to do to revive Tony from that brain delete pointed to Tony valuing this friendship too much to simply wipe….

“Do you remember when I used to wander Avengers Mansion at night?” Steve started to say, hoping he was going in the right direction. “Do you remember when we used to talk into the night? It started there. You helped me relax into the future. And you helped me relax at the end of the day when I couldn’t sleep. That old two-seater with the gold trim?” Steve traced its outline with his hands in the air. “We talked a lot in that seat. We fell asleep there a lot as well. Together. It started there, it started from there, and it never stopped until—until last year. Until Extremis.”

Tony was standing stock still but there was something like relief in the line of his armored shoulders.

“I’m not coherent in the mornings,” Tony said. “And I’m not—I’m not coherent when I’m tired. Or hungry. Or both.”

Steve almost laughed at this truth. “I know.”

“Oh my God,” Tony said. He buried his face into his hands with a loud clang of metal hitting metal. “I—I—I don’t think I knew I was doing it with you. To you. “

“It wasn’t a bad thing,” Steve said, honest, “It helped you as much as—“

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Why didn’t you say anything? You could’ve said something. You didn’t have to sit through that for—for years. Why—“

“Because I liked it.” Steve cut in quickly, hoping to forestall the panic rising in Tony’s voice. He’d never been good at these things. He steeled himself and carried on. “I think you did as well. It helped me. And I miss it. I—I want it back. What we had. I want it back. All of it.”

Steve stood silent as he let Tony absorb his words. Maybe he should have been clearer. Maybe he should have been more forward. But what he’d said was the truth and he wouldn’t withhold it anymore. Not when it might’ve avoided an entire war. Even so, he couldn’t help but tense when Tony lifted his head from his hands and the face plate came up to reveal a face of utter disbelief.

Steve’s heart sank.

“You can’t just wave away everything that’s happened,” Tony said, incredulity coloring his tone, hands waving desperately. “You can’t just make me—make us go back to that just because life’s too hard now. Just because I might’ve liked it and because you’re lonely or—“

Steve reached out and held tight onto a flailing, armored wrist. The armor hummed beneath his fingers as it charged with power at the sudden movement. He loosened his grip but kept his hand in place.

“Tony,” Steve said firmly. “You were one of my best friends. We have issues to work through but I still want you in my life” —he took a deep breath and let go of Tony’s wrist to lace their fingers together, palm to palm— “and this was also something I’ve considered for a long time. This“ —he squeezed at Tony’s hand, hoping the armor would let Tony feel it, hoping Tony would understand the intimacy of the gesture— “was something I’ve also wanted. Still want. You and me. Us. If you’ll allow it.”

He let go of Tony’s hand and stepped back with all his cards finally open on the table. Whatever Tony decided, at least he would know now that Steve still cared. That Steve still valued their relationship. That Steve still wanted everything they’d once had and maybe even more.

Tony was silent for a long time and Steve looked away, giving him a semblance of privacy for his thoughts.

“I miss it too, Steve,” Tony said in a small voice, finally. “I hate this chasm we have between us now and I don’t even remember how it happened. There’s still the guilt every time I…. But I remember everything from before, and I wanted this, too, maybe even before you knew I was Iron Man.”

Steve turned back sharply at the words, something like hope surging in his chest.

“But maybe we should start from the beginning,” Tony continued, looking away from Steve’s hopeful gaze. “We should start again. As friends.” The armor dissolved around him and Steve was faced with a Tony Stark with rumpled hair, creased shirt, and frumpy slacks – and he was as gorgeous as ever. He shook his head and looked back at Steve. “I can’t—We can’t be together like that with us as we are now. But maybe we’ll get there one day?”

Steve couldn’t object. Steve wouldn’t object. Steve might have jumped too fast head first into his confession and this was the best outcome he could have hoped for. They were once again setting out on the same path, traversing the same life together, side by side. It was all Steve had ever wanted.

Steve smiled, happy for the first time in too long. “Then I look forward to us working together once again, Shellhead.”

Tony gave him the smallest and most genuine of smiles in return and Steve committed this feeling to memory – this new turning point in their lives. Steve would do his best to earn back the trust of this man who had dragged him through all the highs and lows of life. And he knew Tony would do the same.

“Likewise, Winghead.”

And if their eyes lingered for too long, well, they’d get there one day.

 

*

 

The first time Tony cuddled against Steve, eyes bright and lucid, the two of them knowing exactly what it was they had between them, Steve thought himself the happiest man in the world.