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The Reasons That Lie Beneath

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“Okay, this is ridiculous,” Tony stated, as he removed a clinging Steve from his leg and set him on the couch. The soldier whined a little, then curled in on himself and shut his eyes like a cat.

“You’ve said that thirteen times in the past two hours,” Natasha said, gently wrapping a blanket around Steve and then extracting herself when he tried to pull her down for a hug.

“That’s because it is. It is ridiculous. This whole thing-Steven Rogers aka Captain fucking America aka world’s most cold and distant man, hit by a cuddling curse? Ridiculous. It wasn’t a torture-beam or death-ray that Loki decided to throw at him; it was a goddamn cuddling curse? Ridiculous. I call bullshit. The universe is fucking with us, that is the only logical explanation for this.” Tony declared, glaring at Thor as he walked in as if this was somehow all his fault.

The God beamed back at him with all his teeth. Tony was slightly terrified.

“Has Bruce come up with any results from the energy signature yet?” Natasha asked, hoping it would distract Tony from the annoying pacing he was doing around the living room.

“Nope. It’s too scattered, I’m working on a magic-specific energy tracer, but at the moment it’s nowhere near completion and we’re having to use all our old tech to try and find a match. Thor, how long do you think this is gonna last?” Tony asked suddenly, moving his head to face the burly God, who was knelt down by Steve’s side and reveling in the cuddles he was receiving from the usually stoic super-soldier.

“Nay, my friend. Loki’s trickery is never usually permanent- I was once turned into a turkey for two lunar cycles, but the effects eventually wore off. As I’m sure Captain Roger’s will, too. You have nothing to fear.” Thor assured them, as his face got squished into Steve’s chest as the man started braiding his hair.

Tony didn’t even want to know where Steve had picked up the art of hair-braiding.

Suddenly, Clint burst in through the doors, demanding to see evidence of the incredible wonder that was Steve Rogers showing affection. He was battered and bruised from the most recent fight, and looked to have at least two broken fingers, but it seemed he didn’t even care as he fell about the floor laughing at the sight of Steve tiredly playing with a content Thor’s hair.

Clint got out his phone to take pictures. Natasha snatched it away and crushed it with her bare hands. Clint screamed. Tony rolled his eyes.

How was this his life?

The whole team of misfit-assassins, lonely monsters, mighty God’s and stoic Supersoldiers had only moved in two months ago, and already Tony had seen his life turn into something a hell of a lot weirder than he remembered it.

(See: Cuddling Curse- above)

For the most part and much to his surprise, he immensely enjoyed their company. Tony had lead a lonely life for as long as he could remember, keeping distant from people and never trusting anyone if he could help it. Even the word ‘trust’ just brought back memories of Obi- Obadiah, which he would rather forget.
But now, he was not only working on a team with five other people, but he had invited them into his home. He would wake up and drink coffee with the world’s deadliest assassin and then do battle on the Wii with the Asgardian God of Thunder. It was…peaceful. Nice.

There was just one problem. And it stared with ‘S’ and ended with ‘eve’.

The man was cold. He was distant and emotionless, never going above polite conversation and always leaving before he was given a chance to participate. He seemed to spend all his days in the gym destroying the punching bags, and then for the rest of the day he would simply leave the tower completely.

And it wasn’t like they hadn’t tried. Each one of the had attempted to reach out to the man, with Natasha and Clint challenging him to regular sparring sessions, to Bruce offering to show him around New York.

All they ever got was a short shake of the head and a tight smile.

Even Tony had given it a go; despite the fact he knew Cap probably hated him. At first, when everyone else had been so desperate to try and force Cap out to bonding-meals with them, Tony had decided against that method and simply talked about his day with Steve wherever he found the man. Of course, these were one-sided conversations and only lasted a few minutes, but Tony tried to keep them up, having a conversation with him at least once a day.

He had managed to continue these little conversations long after everyone else had given up on the man- but just when Tony thought he was getting somewhere, and decided to bite the bullet and try asking the guy if he wanted to hang out somewhere other than the gym- Steve would just scowled at him and tell him to go away.

And the worst thing was, Tony knew what Cap was doing. Hell, he’d done it himself for so many years. Steve was pushing people away, because he didn’t want to get hurt again like last time.

He didn’t want to risk losing all his friends again. So he was just refusing to make any.

And every time Tony saw the man sitting in silence by the window, gazing out with such a look of utter sadness on his face, Tony just got this overwhelming urge to protect. He wanted to help, which was surprising, to be honest. Tony Stark had never been known to be particularly compassionate. And yet he wanted to go and talk to the man, to get him to open up and finally let someone in this century help him out.

But he didn’t. Because Tony was a coward and he was afraid of what Cap would tell him. The words from the helicarrier still rung painfully in his ears, and as much as Tony liked to make out that he didn’t care, when they came from your childhood-hero’s lips, the insults hit harder than they normally would.

And so, stood in the middle of the living room after a particularly tiring fight with Thor’s brother, with Steve Rogers desperate to cuddle absolutely everyone and anyone in his immediate vicinity, was a bit of a shock.

 

Bruce had walked in at some point, still looking tired after his recent transformation into the Other Guy, and was checking Steve’s vitals, smiling gently as he pinned down Steve’s grabby arms.

“Well, he doesn’t look to be that badly injured, and although this could end up becoming something worse with time, I doubt that it would. This entire battle was just Loki being an asshole and playing pranks on us. And from what I can tell, he’s just sent Cap into some sort of constant state of, what I can only describe as drunkenness, and desire to hug people? We’re gonna have to learn as we go, seeing as none of us were actually there when the spell was cast, and so no one knows the specifics.” Bruce explained, standing up and looking down at Steve, who was still happily braiding Thor’s hair with a drowsy smile on his face.

“Your hair’s real pretty, Thor. ‘N soft.” Steve mumbled, and Thor beamed even brighter, looking toward the others with his eyebrows raised haughtily.

Tony rolled his eyes again. It was too early in the morning for this bullshit. They had been called out at 4 am, would you believe it? It was all part of Loki-The-Little-Shit’s plan to fuck with them as much as possible.

“What are we gonna do with him? Because I want to go to bed, and I downright refuse to babysit a grown-ass man,” Clint said, and Steve frowned at him a little.

“Let’s just leave him here, give him a chance to rest. We can come check up on him later, but we all still need a break, and I for one do not have enough coffee in my system to deal with this yet.” Tony said, begrudgingly taking charge and gesturing to all their rooms.

They all got up to leave, but as soon as Thor tried to remove himself from Steve’s grip, the man sat up indignantly, looking utterly heartbroken.

“Why’re you guys leaving?” Steve asked in a tiny voice, his eyes wide and hurt.

Everyone paused, shifting awkwardly on their feet.

“We’ve had a very tough morning, Cap, we’re just going to get some rest. You should too, you’re probably exhausted.” Tony said, giving the man a tight smile and patting his shoulder lightly.

And then, because the world is a weird and wasn’t done fucking with him- Captain America pouted at him.

Tony wondered if he was dreaming.

“I don’t want you guys to go.” Steve mumbled, looking down and biting his lip.

Everyone looked at each other for a good five seconds, before Natasha called “Last one to the door is on babysitting duty!” and started sprinting.

Like a stampede, suddenly there were five Avengers all scrabbling towards the door as fast as they could. And as much as the team loved to tease him about his lack of fitness- if there was one thing Tony Stark had always been surprisingly good at, it was sprinting.
(Probably because he had had a lot of practice with running away from bullies as a kid. But no one needed to know that.)

He reached the door after Natasha and at the same time as Clint, yelling in triumph as Bruce touched the door. That meant Thor was last, although to be fair, the man hadn’t even started running. He was still crouched next to Steve looking confused (nothing new there).

“Tough luck, Thor, looks like you’re gonna be on Cap-duty for a while. Have fun!” Clint called, waving his hand as he slipped through the door, grabbing Natasha’s hand and hauling her through with him. Bruce sighed, ran a hand through his hair and shook his head, before muttering a few swear words and stepping through the door too.

Tony turned around, watched Steve giggle as his hands played through Thor’s golden hair, and for a moment, he kinda wished he had been slower.

Don’t be an idiot. This is a horrible situation, remember? He reprimanded himself, turning and leaving the room without looking back, trying to quell the feeling of warmth in his chest at the sight of Steve actually laughing for once.

 

 

It was 3 am, and Tony hadn’t left his lab since waking up. That had been about sixteen hours ago. Now, his hunger was becoming too much to ignore, and with a frustrated sigh, he told JARVIS to save all his progress and finish up. He hadn’t made any real progress on his Magic-Tracer (Fuck, he really needed to come up with a new name for that) anyway, and probably wasn’t going to any time soon.

Trudging into the kitchen, he opened the nearest cupboard and hoped there was something edible in them. Right now, he didn’t really care what it was, he would even settle for one of Steve’s disgusting protein meals if it was the nearest thing there.

Speaking of Steve-

“Tony? Why’re you still awake? It’s real late, ‘s bad for ya,” Steve mumbled from the other room, where he was sat on the couch facing the TV.

Tony jumped, unaware that there was anyone in the living room. Steve had obviously been woken by Tony- his hair was mussed and his eyes were still half-closed.

Adorable, Tony’s traitorous brain threw at him.

He stopped, surprised at his own internal monologue. Since when had he ever regarded Steve as adorable?

Oh no. This was very not good. Very, very not good indeed.

“Food, Rogers. Food is the key to my heart. And you know me, I get about three hours on a good day. Don’t worry yourself.” Tony said, grabbing some bread and throwing it in the toaster, then turning away and walking toward Steve.

He was probably never going together another chance to talk to Steve without him snapping and being sulky, so he might as well take advantage of the situation.

Steve frowned a little, a tiny ‘v’ shape on his forehead, and Tony was to busy trying to ignore the little voice that was saying cutecutecutecute to notice Steve wrapping his hand around Tony’s and pulling him down until it was too late, and Tony was sat on the couch next to Steve with their hands entwined.

“I do worry though. All the time. Y’need loads of sleep, s’what my ma always told me.” Steve mumbled, rubbing his eye with his free hand and then moving his legs so they were draped over Tony’s lap.

It was so casual- as if Steve had known Tony for years, as if Steve actually liked Tony.

It was nice. Really, really nice. And it took a lot more self-restraint than Tony had expected to untangle himself from the man.

Oh, no. This was so not good.

As soon as Tony had removed Steve’s legs and hands from himself, the soldier’s face fell noticeably, and he tried to reach out to grab Tony’s hand again.

“Please,” Steve pleaded- and who the hell was Tony to resist that face? The man looked so damn sad, it made Tony’s arc reactor break a little.

So he rolled his eyes and held his hand out, which completely lifted Steve’s face up again as he took it gratefully.

It was so weird, seeing him look…happy. The smile, bright and wide and beautiful, all white teeth and perfect lips. His eyes sparkled in a way that only made Tony painfully aware of how dead they had looked before. There were tiny little creases by his eyes, and even a goddamn dimple, for God’s sake, what the hell was Tony supposed to do with that?

“You need to get some sleep, Cap.” Tony told him, trying not to focus on the warmth of Steve’s hand in his own.

“Can’t.” Steve muttered, that little frown returning again as he leaned back on the cushions and huffed out a sigh.

“Why not? You look like you’re about to fall asleep right now, what’s stopping you?” Tony asked.

The toast popped up. It was duly ignored.

“Don’t really sleep a lot. I get nightmares,” Steve said in a small voice, fiddling with the cotton of the blanket draped over him and tightening his hold on Tony’s hand just a little.

Tony wondered how angry Steve was going to be when he snapped out of this. He had never told anyone anything even remotely personal about himself, ever. This was probably some huge violation of privacy.

Tony should leave. It wasn’t his business- Steve didn’t even like him, really.

“How about I stay here, with you? Will that make you sleep easier?” Tony asked.

Shit.

This wasn’t okay. This was three am and no coffee talking. He couldn’t get attached to this Steve- this Steve wasn’t real.

Then Steve smiled so brightly it could probably run the tower for a few weeks on the amount of wattage it produced- and Tony’s resolve crumbled.

“For real? Tony, you’re the best! I dunno why people call ya all those bad things, they aren’t true.” Steve said, his Brooklyn accent heavier than ever as he snuggled down, his legs still curled around Tony as he lay down on the sofa.

Tony chuckled a little sadly, and looked down.

“You’ve called me a few of those bad things yourself, Cap.” Tony said, and he noticed that he was unable to keep the slight bitterness out of his own voice at that.

Steve opened his eyes again, blinking confusedly up at Tony, who steadfastly looked straight ahead.

“No, I wouldn’t do that. ‘Nd if I did, then I probably didn’t mean it. ‘Cause I like you. I feel it, in here.” Steve said, placing a hand over his heart and looking as earnest as he could.

Tony laughed, and patted the hand Steve had placed on his chest.

“Sure thing, Cap.”

There was silence for a good minute, and Tony thought Steve had finally drifted off, meaning that he could get his toast and then get the fuck out and try and ignore the problem of his ridiculous crush that seemed to be growing with every passing second speaking to the man.

But then,

“…Why d’you always call me Cap? I- I have a name, you know. I don’t think anyone’s called me Steve since I came…here.” Steve asked. He didn’t sound angry, or offended- just heartbreakingly sad.

Again.

And it made Tony feel like the worst person in the world. Is this really how Steve had been feeling, the entire time? Had Tony really never called him Steve? Sure, he used the names like Cap and Rogers a lot more frequently, but…

Oh, God.

He’d never called his teammate by his own first name.

“I’m sorry, Steve. You’re Steve to me from now on, okay? I didn’t mean- I guess I just thought you preferred… no, you know what, I don’t really have an excuse for that. I’m sorry I was a jerk. But it’s pretty much the only thing I’m good at. But I swear I didn't mean to upset you- I wouldn't… i wouldn't do that.” Tony said, and he really meant it.

He’d been an asshole. Everyone had. Steve was obviously struggling with fitting in far more than any of them had ever realized- and that needed to be rectified. Tony himself would rectify it, and he wasn’t going to stop until he saw Steve laugh without help of a curse in place.

“You’re not a jerk, Tony. You’re nice. You talked to me, when everyone else gave up.” Steve mumbled, his eyes closing again and a little snore escaping from his lips as he finally let sleep take him.

Tony realized that he had been sat there staring at Steve with his hand clasped around the other man’s for five minutes, and the worst thing was that he didn’t even want to move.

Motherfucking Shit.

 

 

“It seems that Cap has taken an interest in you then.” Clint said, raising his eyebrows as he found Steve draped around Tony on the couch where they had both fallen asleep last night. It seemed in his sleep, Steve was even clingier- he had pushed his head into Tony’s neck and his arms were wrapped around Tony’s waist as if he were just a giant human teddy bear.

Tony’s head snapped up from its resting place on top of Steve’s fluffy blond hair, and he blinked sleepily up at his friend, who was sipping at a coffee and giving him one of his ‘knowing looks’. It just made him look a little more insane than usual.

“I wouldn’t say me in particular, more like I was the closest available object that was cuddle-able.” Tony replied as impassively as he could.

Maybe it didn’t help that his own legs were curled in against Steve’s stomach, and his arms were bent around Steve’s shoulders. It didn’t exactly scream ‘unwilling volunteer’.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of, Tony. It’s nice to see that Cap is capable of any emotion at all, actually.” Clint mused, flopping down on a couch and reaching for the remote.

“Hey, don’t say shit like that, Clint.” Tony said suddenly, a note of command in his voice as he snatched the remote away before Clint could get his hands on it.

Clint looked at him in confusion, his eyes narrowing in suspicion as Tony stared right back.

“Um, Tony, last time I checked, it was the truth. And anyway, what’s with the sudden sensitivity? You call him an emotionless robot just as much as any of us do.”

“Did you know that he hasn’t been called Steve since he got pulled out of the ice?” Tony asked.

Clint stopped, as if he were racking his brain to try and prove Tony wrong. When he came up blank, his eyebrows furrowed in concern.

“Did he tell you that last night?”

“yup.”

“That’s…not good.”

“Nope.”

“We should probably start being nicer to him, huh?”

“Yup.”

Clint stared at Steve, who was still resting with his head pressed against Tony’s shoulder, looking more peaceful in his sleep than anyone had ever seen him. He took a large gulp of coffee.

“Why did he tell you? I was with him, a few hours before we all went to bed. I asked him if he was coping okay, and he just said yeah. And then hugged me. How come he’ll speak to you and not me?” Clint said sullenly, his lower lip sticking out a little.

Tony froze. Well, that was news to him. And the truth was, Tony had no idea. It’s not like the Captain had liked him any more than the others before all this had begun- in fact, it was more apt to say he liked him less.

His inner ramblings were cut off when the man under his arms stirred, letting out a sigh of breath that tickled on Tony’s neck and sent a shiver down his spine for entirely different reasons.

“Hey Clint,” Steve mumbled, stretching like a cat and then collapsing back into Tony again.

“Hi, Ca-Steve. You had a good time last night, I presume?” Clint asked, grinning at Tony as the man turned away in embarrassment.

“The best! I’ve got Tony to thank for that, though.” Steve said happily, oblivious to Clint’s silent laughter as he looked up and beamed at Tony.

Seeing Steve smile like that was almost worth the abuse he was going to get from Clint.

Almost.

Slowly Steve stood up, declaring he was going to go and eat the entire kitchen, stopping to give Clint a tight hug before wandering into the open kitchen a few meters away.

“I’m almost getting used to the constant hugging, you know. It’s gonna be weird when he turns back.” Clint said, and Tony didn’t fail to see the slight sadness behind his eyes when he spoke.

“Not if we can get him to open up, it won’t. And believe me, we’re going to get him to open up. He needs us, he needs friends, Clint. He’s alone in a world he has no idea about, and that must suck. And…I don’t know, I feel like this is just an insight into how he could be- obviously not with quite as much constant hugging- but the other parts. The parts where he laughs, where he smiles and- and he’s happy. We can make him happy Clint. We just have to try.” Tony explained, letting his gaze flicker over to Steve, who was making waffles with his arm wrapped tightly around Bruce’s shoulders.

“Tony, we tried doing tha-“

“Well we didn’t try hard enough! Listen, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Someone going through an emotional trauma like that…it’s messed him up. But we’re fucking Avengers, Clint. We save the world in a morning and then go back to bed when it’s over. We can do this.”

“Do what?” Thor asked, throwing himself on to the nearest piece of furniture and gazing lovingly at his pop tart before devouring it in one bite.

“Tony’s gonna achieve the impossible.” Clint said dryly.

“Aye, friend Tony, I’m sure whatever you are endeavoring to achieve is not within reach of normal man. However, you are not normal man, and I am confident of your success in whatever task you are partaking in.”

“He’s going to try and make non-cursed Steve like us.”

Thor laughed heartily. Tony scowled.

 

 

Over the course of the next five days, the Avengers ended up spending an awful lot time in the living room together, watching TV and generally just being incredibly lazy. Steve liked it better when they were all together, so he could share his seemingly boundless affection around- but for some reason, the man always ended up gravitating towards Tony. It would always be him who got landed with a snuggly supersoldier, curling up next to him as they watched TV or holding his hand as he made the team food (yes, he was the group-cook. Shut up, he was good at it, okay?).

Tony often wondered why Steve had picked him, of all people, to attach himself to. It wasn’t like he was the cuddliest person, if it was that Steve was looking for, he should’ve gone to Thor. That man gave hugs out almost as much as Steve did, and the guy wasn’t even cursed.

But when Steve was sleeping soundly on Tony’s legs or shoulder or wherever he had planted his head at the time- he couldn’t really find it in himself to care too much.

It was possibly the most bittersweet experience of Tony’s life. Having Steve this close, this loving at all times of the day, it was like heaven. Tony had long since realized that his feelings ran a lot deeper than just a crush- they always had. Tony had just never really understood it properly. And so now, with Steve constantly by his side, giggling at nothing in particular and looking more relaxed and happy than Tony had ever seen him, he knew that he was just falling in deeper with every second.

But on the other hand, he knew that this was going to end soon. Thor had taken a brief outing to Asgard to ask one of his magical buddies for advice, and all he’d come back with was that it would fade on it’s own after a while, and they just had to wait it out.
It had been five days. Sooner or later, his time was going to run out. Steve would be horrified, possibly punching Tony in the nose for taking advantage (because lets be honest, there was no way Steve was going to come out of this oblivious to Tony’s feelings. By now, every Avenger in the room, and possibly some of the cleaning staff, were very much aware of the situation. Steve would have to blind not to realize.), and then never leave the gym again.

He wanted to try and distance himself from Steve before it happened. He had to- Tony didn’t even want to imagine what would happen if Steve woke up from his magic-induced trance while he was playing big spoon with tony on the couch. That would be so many levels of awkward. And possible pain, if Steve decided punching was the way forward.

So yeah- distancing.

 

Tony tried not to think about it too much when he went down to his lab instead of the living room with the others.

The magical energy tracer was still at a dead end- but he was working on it. They were still working with a lot of variables, no signature was ever the same, but Tony knew that he was close. He just had to persevere, push through until he came out the other side. It would probably take a few days of no sleep, but he could do that with ease. When first designing the Mark II, he hadn’t had a wink of sleep for five days.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t factored in the amount of sleep his body had been getting used to having over the past few days, curled up with Steve on the couch. He had tended to drift off whenever the supersoldier had, which was an awful lot by his standards.

He had been getting about eight hours of sleep a day for the past five days. That was about double the amount he usually got.

Groaning in frustration and exhaustion, Tony leaned back on his chair and cursed Loki for the billionth time. That stupid spell and that stupid man with the stupid blond hair that was making his heart do stupid things.

Fucking Magic. He couldn’t stand the stuff.

“Jarv, clean up for me, will you?” Tony mumbled, getting to his feet and turning out of the workshop and up towards his bedroom, with its gloriously soft sheets and comfy mattress. The magic-shit could wait.

Sinking down into the sheets, he let himself drift off into a light sleep.

Damn, he loved his bed.

 

 

“Tony?” Called a voice from in front of him.

Jerking up, he whipped around with his arm raised in his repulsor-firing position and looked at the person in his room. He hadn’t exactly been having the most peaceful of sleep, and so having someone randomly appearing at the foot of his bed was… well, alarming was putting it lightly.

But it was just Steve, looking agitated and upset, which was unusual considering how he had seemed to be in a permanent state of happiness for the past few days. His hair was messy and his eyes were wide and red-rimmed, and it looked like he was shaking.

For a brief moment, Tony wondered if Steve had finally snapped out of it, and was now coming to murder him in his sleep.

But then Steve started crying. Silent tears that slipped down his face and onto the fluffy carpet under his feet, and Tony disregarded that thought immediately as he crawled over to Steve and threw his arms around him in a tight embrace.

“Hey, honey, it’s okay, I promise, I’m here. Don’t worry. Oh, Steve, what’s wrong? Sweetie, you gotta tell me what’s happened, you’re scaring me. C’mon, Steve, talk to me,” Tony begged as Steve choked back sobs and buried his face in Tony’s shoulder.

“Nightmare,” Steve gasped, clutching Tony’s shirt in his fists and scrunching his eyes shut as he tried to block out the images that were still haunting him.

“There- there was ice. And snow. And t-t-trains. Bucky, Bucky, he…Tony, I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t- he’s gone and it’s my fault. And now-now I’m here, and they’re all dead and they left me behind and I was gone for so long and I don’t fit in here and-“

“Hey, hey, Steve, it was just a bad dream. Just a nightmare. Take some deep breaths with me, okay? In and out and in and out, just like that, yeah.” Tony said, inhaling deeply and allowing Steve to copy his rhythm.

Gently, he pulled Steve on to the bed and wound his arms around the man’s shaking shoulders, rocking him back and forth softly. Seeing Steve like this, shivering and choking back tears- Tony wondered how many times Steve had woken up and had no one there to hold him and tell him it was alright. How many times he had just cried himself back to sleep, alone and missing the life he had left behind so much that it physically hurt.

Eventually, Tony had to stop thinking about that. It would just make him start crying too, and no one wanted that.

“Steve? You know I care about you right? And so does Clint, and Natasha and Thor and Bruce. You mean a lot to us- me especially. You will always, always, have a place with us. You fit in just fine.” Tony said, letting his fingers run through Steve’s hair and hoping that Steve was calming down.

It seemed to be working. Steve was still crying- tony could feel it on his shoulder. But at least he breathing properly now, and he wasn’t shaking quite so much.

So they sat there. Tony, carding his fingers gently through Steve’s hair and rocking back and forth like the way his mother had used to a very, very long time ago. And Steve, still holding Tony’s shirt like it was the only thing anchoring him to this world and shaking as he relived the worst moments in his life.

“It wasn’t…It wasn’t a cuddling spell. I don’t think.” Steve whispered after five or so minutes, when he had got his breath back enough to speak.

“What do you mean?” Tony asked, pausing his hair-playing just for a moment as he gave Steve opportunity to answer.

“I…he was taunting me. Kept saying I was a man who didn’t belong in the past and didn’t belong in the future. He- before he hit me with the beam-thingy, he asked me what I desired most in the future, and told me he’d give it to me.” Steve explained, his voice shaking.

Tony frowned, trying to understand what Steve was saying. If Loki was giving Steve what he wanted most in the future, then why was he just cuddling everyone?

 

But it wasn’t just hugs, was it?

 

Tony had noticed a few days ago that Bruce’s initial assessment was probably flawed- Steve wasn’t just wanting to cuddle everyone. It was hand-holding at the table and arms-around on the couch. Legs over laps and heads resting on stomachs.

It hadn’t been hugs Steve wanted most in the future. It was just simple contact.

Tony's blood ran cold, and he could've sworn the light in his reactor flickered a little.

“Steve... out of the battlefield and discounting this week- when was the last time someone hugged you?” Tony whispered, shutting his eyes and praying for an answer he knew would never come.

“1942.”

Tony sagged, groaning into Steve’s hair.
70-odd years. And no one had touched him.

“At first, when it hit me, I thought it would just end up killing me.” Steve admitted, and tony could hear the defeat in his own voice, the bone-deep grief that must have been eating away at him from the moment he had woken up in the 21st century.

Tony stopped rocking him then, trying to come to terms with what Steve had just told him.

“Oh my God, Steve.” Tony said, unable to even think of anything other than what Steve had said.

I thought it would just end up killing me

And Loki had been trying to show Steve what he wanted most in the 21st century.

Tony felt like he wanted to throw up.

Steve had been living in his house. Using his gym and eating his food and trying out his inventions and all this time, he had been silently dying a little more every day. Fading away until there was nothing more than a shadow of who Steve had used to be.
He hadn’t even been touched since 1940.

Pulling away suddenly, Tony gripped Steve’s shoulders as tightly as he could and looked straight into his eyes, trying to think of something, anything that he could say to try and make this better.

Please don’t. Steve. I’m begging you. Jesus, why didn’t you- why didn’t you say anything? I could’ve helped you- could’ve done…something. ” Tony asked, his voice breaking at the end as he let his own head fall into Steve’s chest, feeling the beautiful, amazing, steady heartbeat under his cheek and trying not to think about how many times that it had been at risk of never beating again.

“You did help, Tony. You did.” Steve said quietly.

“Steve, I sat there and pretty much ignored you while you were going through the hardest adjustment of your entire life.”

“You spoke to me. Every day. And every time I said nothing- every time I pushed you away or outright snapped at you, you always came back. You know, those conversations were pretty much the only reason I…pretty much the only reason I kept going.”

Tony froze.

He had talked about how much he hated the chair he was always having to sit in. More than once.

And it had kept Steve alive.

“What can I say? You’re interesting.” Steve said, and maybe Tony had been talking out loud, he couldn’t really tell anymore- all he knew was that the man in front of him was admitting to being suicidal, and that tony had somehow managed to keep him alive through his ridiculous ramblings.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Steve murmured, and he laughed a little bit- a sad, broken little laugh that spoke more words about his state of mind than words ever could.

Because laughter was never supposed to sound that sad.

“Steve. Promise me, you won’t. Ever.” Tony pleaded, lifting his head so he was forehead-to-forehead with the person that he had pretty much fallen head-over-heels in love with in the space of five fucking days, and trying not to let the tears start falling from his own eyes.

 

And then Steve shook his head.

 

“I can’t. ‘Cause I can feel this spell-thingy, I can feel it fading and you’re not gonna wanna be around me after that and I- I’m so tired, Tony. Of everything. I can’t be alone again. I just- I can’t.” Steve muttered resignedly, and he was fucking twenty-seven years old, he shouldn’t be sounding that horribly jaded and weary.

“I promise you, Steve. I promise you on the suits and I promise you on JARVIS and everything else I hold dear in my fucking life, I will not leave you. I don’t care if you turn back into the grumpiest, angriest person in Earth’s history. I don’t care. I’ll still stay. And if I promise to stay with you, to help you- can you please, please promise me you’ll keep going. Even when it gets hard. Promise me you’ll keep going.”

Steve paused, looking down at his hands, which were still firmly latched on around Tony’s shirt, and then he nodded. A tiny, weak little nod, but a nod all the same.

It was like a huge, all-consuming wave of relief passed over Tony. He pulled Steve back into a bone-crushing hug, choking back on his own tears as he let his cheek rest in Steve’s fluffy hair.

He had promised. And Tony knew, he knew better than most that promises didn’t hold any definite assurances in this kind of thing- but it was a start.

 

“Can I stay?” Steve asked, and their foreheads were still touching and Tony knew that this was a bad idea, that this was going to hurt like hell in the morning but he nodded his head anyway, because it was Steve and since when had he become unable to say no to Steve?

So he lay there, with Steve’s hand clutched in his own because this time it was Tony who had reached out to grab for it, and Steve’s brilliantly, beautifully warm and living body pressed up against his own, and he wondered at what point he had fallen quite so in love.

 

 

Tony woke up.

 

            He was alone.