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Better This Time

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"I’d do it again," Tony said. He planted his hands on his hips as he stared at the viewscreen, watching the pulsing flashes of light as the aurora rippled across the sky.

Steve tipped his head back. The Guardians were resting on a planet more than a hundred light years from Earth, waiting for Gamora and Angela to restock the ship’s stores. It was Quill who had suggested Steve come up to the auxiliary bridge to watch the aurora. The fact that Tony was already there had not come up.

Steve didn’t know if Quill hoped they’d play nice or wanted them to explode at each other and shatter the painfully fragile friendship they’d been rebuilding over the last few months. Steve couldn’t blame him if it was the latter; the way Quill felt about Tony was a secret that everyone knew but carefully didn’t acknowledge.

"All of it?" Steve asked. He tucked his hands into his pockets and resisted the nervous impulse to rock up on the balls of his feet. It was a bad habit he’d learned when he was younger and sick and it popped up whenever he felt defensive.

Tony didn’t look at him, but Steve could still read him. His gaze was steady on the screen, his hands rested easily at his waist and the line of his back was straight and relaxed.

He could still remember the days before Tony left Earth, when Tony couldn’t stand to be in a room with him without a defensive hunch in his shoulders and a defeated look in his eyes. Something about it took Steve’s breath away.

"In a perfect world," Tony said, "I’d definitely do some things differently. But yeah. I’d do it all again." He took a step toward the screen and rested one hand on the screen. The rainbow lights of the aurora pulsed beneath his palm. "I will always regret what it cost me personally. I’ll regret that I hurt people I love and respect. But I would do it again because this world is amazing, Steve. This universe. I’d die to protect this." He was smiling, and Steve thought he looked luminous in the glow of the aurora. "I’d do anything."

"I regret what it cost you." Steve clenched his hands into fists, then consciously made them relax. "And I regret what it cost me too, when I refused to hear you out."

Tony looked at him then. “It wasn’t your fault. I made a decision, and I accepted that a long time ago.”

More than two years ago. Two years without Tony at his side and his back, two years nursing a resentment and an anger that had refused to fade.

Right up until the Guardians came back to Earth at the end of Rhodey’s rotation. Tony had been a different man than he’d been the last time Steve had seen him. He’d been the Tony Steve had fallen in love with all those years ago; confident, happy. He’d been reserved and formal with Steve and some of the other Avengers, but with his new team, with Rhodey and Carol and Thor, he’d let himself relax. And Steve had felt strangely bereft that that cocky, self-assured, flirtatious bastard was a stranger to him.

And without thinking about it, without even really realizing he was going to do it, he’d found himself volunteering for the next rotation as liaison to the Guardians.

Quill had obviously wanted to object. Gamora and Angela had been fully prepared to fight him on it. And Steve was reasonably sure Rocket was still just waiting for an excuse to leave him somewhere. But Tony had just blinked up at him, surprised, but not unhappy or afraid, and welcomed him aboard.

And now, three months later, standing on the bridge of a spaceship, inside the atmosphere of an alien world, watching one of the most beautiful natural phenomena Steve had ever seen, he knew Tony was right.

"Well, in a perfect world I wouldn’t be so stubborn." He rocked back on his heels before he could stop himself. "You and I, we do a lot better when we can agree on a middle ground. I don’t know when I stopped remembering that."

Tony licked his lips. “Right around the time I did, if I had to guess.”

"I might not always agree with your methods," Steve said quietly. "But I was wrong to ever doubt your motivation."

"I should have tried harder to make you understand. Or just punched you until you heard me out. That’s worked surprisingly well for us in the past."

Steve shook his head. “No,” he said, biting back a grin. “No, actually, I feel like we could do better.”

"Yeah?"

Steve shrugged. “Talking is good. I promise, the next time you try to talk, I will listen. And I won’t walk away until we work something out.”

Tony turned to face him entirely. “Look, Steve. We both know I crossed a lot of lines. I’m not asking you to forgive that. I just need you to believe that I honestly thought it was worth it. That I still do.”

"That actually does make it easier to swallow." Steve took a step closer. The heady rush of relief when Tony didn’t take a step back was enough to make his heart race. "I can’t say I’m not still angry about what you did to me. I can’t say I’ll ever stop being hurt. But I had a long time to think about what brought us to that point. And as much as it killed me that you could do that to me, you know what was worse? That room was full of people I considered my friends. And not one of you believed I would be willing to compromise." He shook his head when Tony looked to interrupt him. "At some point I became someone who refused to negotiate. I became so stubborn and self-righteous that men I’d known for more than a decade felt they had no choice but to do that to me."

"Steve-"

"I’m not saying it was right." Steve met Tony’s gaze with a tired, sad smile. "I’m not saying I forgive you. I don’t know if I can. I honestly don’t."

"I don’t expect you to. I never expected that you could."

"But here’s the thing." Steve took a deep breath. His chest hurt, his throat burned, and there was an unpleasant heat behind his eyes. "I can understand why you thought you had no other choice."

Tony shook his head fiercely. “Steve, no.”

"I can understand it. I hate it," Steve said flatly. "I hate what it says about both of us that it came to that." He took another step closer and pulled one of his hands free, reaching out and letting his fingers rest on Tony’s wrist. Not holding on. Just touching him, connecting them. "But I know that it won’t happen again."

"I just told you I’d do it all over again," Tony said. He shook his head slowly from side to side. "How can you possibly know that?"

"In a perfect world, you said." Steve slid his fingers around Tony’s wrist in a loose hold. "We both regret what this cost us. So we take back what we lost."

Tony was staring down at Steve’s hand. His own fingers were slowly curling and uncurling, as if he wasn’t sure whether to pull away or reach out. “How do we do that?”

"We trust each other." Steve took a breath and closed his eyes against the heat that stung him. When he opened them again, Tony was staring up at him. "If you swear to me that next time you’ll talk to me first, before you start planning a worst-case scenario, I’ll believe you."

When he spoke, Tony’s voice was hoarse. “How can you-“

"Because I know you. Because you lied to me, and you hurt me, but it killed you to do it. So next time we skip all that. You trust me. You trust me enough that you come and get me and you tell me what the threat is, and what your assessment is." He slid his hand down to tangle his fingers in Tony’s. "And I trust you. I trust that you’ll come to me first. I trust that even if you come up with a solution that I hate, you’ll be trying your hardest to save us all. And then we sit down and we don’t. Walk. Away. Not until it’s fixed. No matter how long it takes, or how many reinforcements we call in. We don’t leave the negotiating table until we find something we can save the world with." He squeezed Tony’s hand. "Can you do that? Can you trust me like that again?"

"How can you-?" Tony exhaled in a long, shaky breath. "I should be asking for your trust. Not the other way around."

"We’re both asking. We’re both taking a chance." He tugged on Tony’s hand gently. "I think we can do this. The two of us can do anything we put our minds to. We just need to remember how to work together."

Tony’s fingers curled around Steve’s and squeezed back. “It’s been a while. We’re out of practice.”

Steve shook his head. “You know, if you ignore all the lying, we weren’t doing so bad for a while there. The Avengers World was pretty brilliant. We built one of the strongest teams together. I mean, admittedly I did end up using them to hunt you down, but the fact that they even could is a testament to our effectiveness. Even SHIELD couldn’t manage that.”

"Please. SHIELD." Tony injected as much disdain into the word as he could. "As if I couldn’t think circles around them any day of the week." He squared his shoulders. "I don’t know if I’m ready to go back to Earth. I don’t know if I can be an Avenger again. Maybe not for a long time."

"I’m not asking you to go anywhere you don’t want to go. I know you have a place here, and a purpose. I just want to trust you again. And I need to know that you can trust me."

"I already trust you, you idiot." Tony gripped Steve’s hand a little tighter. "If you promise that you’ll hear me out instead of shutting me down, I believe you. And regardless, I promise I won’t start planning doomsday scenarios without you again."

"Okay then." It felt too easy and at the same time it left Steve drained and exhausted. "That’s settled."

"Just like that?"

"We can’t change what’s been done. I meant it, when I said I didn’t know if I could forgive you for violating my mind like that. We’re both going to have to live with that." Steve ran his thumb over the soft skin on the back of Tony’s hand. It was marked with small scars from combat and working with his hands. Steve had, at one point, memorized them all. There were new ones now and he wanted to know what had caused them. "I think I can. What about you?"

"I can," Tony said slowly. "But I still don’t want to go back to Earth."

"So we stay out here." Steve lifted his gaze to the viewscreen. "You show me the galaxy you fought so hard to save."

"They need you on Earth."

"Earth did just fine without me for seventy years." Steve met Tony’s gaze. "I need to be here. I need to be with you. Because if I’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that I’m not half as good at anything as when I’m doing it next to you."

Tony’s eyes were a more brilliant blue than any sky Steve had ever walked under. His smile was brighter than any sun. “You idiot. That’s my line.”

"All the more reason for me to stay." Steve took the last step closer until there was only inches separating them. "You gave me a home once. Do you think you’d be willing to do it again?"

Tony shook his head, his eyes bright and wet. “I’d give you anything,” he said in a husky voice. He closes the last few inches between them, and his body against Steve’s was as familiar as the taste of his mouth. “Anything. We can do this,” he said, pulling back to press his forehead against Steve’s, to cup Steve’s face in his hands as they breathed together. “I love you. I trust you. I don’t deserve you, God help me. But I won’t lose you again. So yeah. I’d do it again.” He touched his lips to Steve’s, just a brush of a kiss. “Let’s do it better this time.”