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Something Better

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One hundred and twenty-two long, agonizing hours.

Hours of walking empty corridors, sleeping in empty rooms. Of nights that were more numb than cold. Of days with the hollow promise that things would be better tomorrow. That eventually, the pain inside Tony would start to calm.

One hundred and twenty-two hours. Tony couldn’t believe it had been over five days already. So many hours of breathing stale air that should be shared by others. Drinking whiskey that had long since lost its taste. Expecting his team to sit in the kitchen and bicker in the mornings only to blink from his dream and return to this Hell on Earth.

He saw Steve’s cold eyes night after night, replaying those horrible moments in a cruel slow motion display. Pointing out his faults. Mulling over what he should have done. Playing a fantasy of what-ifs over and over. Stopping it before it was too late.

Stopping it before their friendship no longer mattered.

But he’s my friend.

So was I.

Taking a sip from his tumbler, Tony chuckled at his own dark thoughts and let his head fall back against the armchair. He knew it was pathetic. Sitting here in what was left of the New Avengers facility, spending days staring at old photographs and sleeping on beds full of rubble and ashes.

In a blink, it had been destroyed. The home he’d built for them. Gone. Just like those days. All of them gone.

He just… couldn’t go home. Not yet. When he had walked into the building’s ruins five days ago, he had to fight the urge to sink to his knees and weep at the sight. To battle the tears that stung his eyes, every inch of him enveloped in a phantom pain of those hits Barnes and Steve had landed on him.

The places where they had slept, eaten, trained—it was all gone. And now, all these hours later, he just stared at those broken remains and all he could come up with was indifference.

 

* * *

 

Someone was walking along the corridor. That was the first sound Tony heard upon waking up. It was still night, still dark outside. Slowly, Tony raised his head, ignoring the way his muscles ached at the weird position he’d fallen asleep in. He... probably shouldn’t make it a habit to sleep on that armchair. His fingers twitched around the glass he’d been holding, only to find that it had long ago fallen to the floor, the whiskey spilled all over the tiles.

The steps were coming closer, and when they came to a stop right behind him, Tony noticed a scent in the air, and it grew with identity and made his heart pause.

There was no denying it. Even after everything, he would recognize Steve’s scent anywhere.

Tony emanated a purposeful sigh and slowly, he allowed himself to reach for the bottle that stood next to the chair. He had an inkling idea that he was gonna need it.

“You stopped drinking,” Steve commented as Tony leaned forward with as much grace as he could muster, reaching for the now-empty tumbler and refilling the glass.

“Yeah. And then I stopped being sober,” he answered quietly, and took a long sip.

When Steve moved around the chair, Tony blinked at him warily, his eyes hazed.

Steve hazarded a slow step forward, hands coming up so Tony would see he was weaponless. He came to a stop in front of the large window front. This room was the only one with no broken glass. If you sat down right here, staring into the forest beyond, ignoring all of those craters in the grass, you could almost imagine that nothing had happened and the facility was still intact. You could almost believe that their hate hadn’t destroyed it all.

When he finally managed to raise his eyes and look at Steve, he felt his body go rigid.

Steve… well, he looked like shit. At least as much as someone like Steve was able to. Eyes sullen, hair astray, stance hunched, both arms wrapped around his own torso. There was no guilt on his face, of course there wasn’t, but he was looking at Tony’s reflection in the glass with an intense sort of regret.

“Do us both a favor and leave,” Tony said after a moment, leaning back in the chair.

The distress that filled his eyes didn’t make it any better. “Tony—”

Leave,” he repeated, more forceful now. He closed his eyes, refusing to deal with this. All of it, the war, this whole mess, it was all over his mind, and he couldn’t make sense of it. They were still trying to pinpoint how many people had lost their lives in those last weeks. They would all be granted a hero’s funeral when their bearings had been recovered. And yet… if you asked him, those who had survived almost suffered a worse fate. Having to deal with the fallout, having to bear all those what-ifs, all those nagging questions on where things had gone so horribly wrong.

He had chosen a side—the side that wasn’t Steve’s—and thus, he had forfeited the lasting remnants of hope on his own happiness. In the process, he had willed his own wishes away, mentally letting go of what could have been if he and Steve had stayed friends just a little while longer.

What could have been if they’d taken that one step further before everything had fallen apart.

Steve sighed, turned around and glanced at the room. “I can leave. But you shouldn’t be here, either. Let me take you home.”

Home. What a funny word coming out of Steve’s mouth.

“Yeah? I’d like to say I will beat the ever living hell out of you if you try, but…” He laughed, a soft sound as he lifted his fractured arm. “We both know I can’t.”

Another distant few seconds. Steve stood stock still. “I just want to talk,” he said after a long lost moment.

A dry, humorless chuckle rose to Tony’s throat. Talk, right. Wounded pride was a bitch, Tony supposed. That’s what Steve had come here for: To get the last word. To finally have Tony admit that he had been right all along.

He wouldn’t, though. He had long ago figured out that there was no such thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. And the last thing Tony needed at present was another reminder of what they’d both lost in this war. Thus, he only held up a hand with dry indifference. “My advice, then,” he replied monotonously. “Find someone who cares for what you have to say. We had the chance to talk. You didn’t take it.”

Steve’s brows furrowed with displeasure, and… that was funny. Despite everything, Steve still managed to take offense, even surprise, when Tony dared raise his voice to him.

“I tried talking,” Steve retorted coldly, his tone firm. “You didn’t listen.”

A wry smile spread across Tony’s lips. “Kettle, pot,” he replied, rearranging his position on the armchair and wincing with the movement. “I want you to go, Steve. I’m not kidding. There’s nothing here for you.”

“And there is for you?” Steve asked, then averted his gaze. “I won’t leave. You’re hurt,” he pointed out.

A snort. Then, Tony took another sip. “No kidding.”

He knew how he must look. With the bruises and cuts that the medics had stitched together but that were swollen nevertheless.

Steve made no noise when he moved—he never did, not unless he wanted to be heard. And yet, it came as no surprise when he was kneeling in front of Tony the next moment, looking up at him contemplatively. There was suddenly a hand on Tony’s cheek, and a thumb brushing cautiously over his cheekbone.

And there was something in Steve’s eyes that shouldn’t be there anymore. Something they’d lost the day they parted ways at SHIELD’s headquarters.

“If I could take one thing back…” Steve said, his voice struggling to stay steady, “it would be this.”

“You wouldn’t,” Tony retorted, and he perked his brows with witless irony. “That’s the problem with us. You would do it all over again.” He let that thought sink in. “And so would I.”

Steve’s hand left Tony’s cheek, rubbing his own forehead instead. “You didn’t leave me a choice.”

Tony’s jaw clenched. He allowed himself a moment of deep-rooted wonder that this still managed to make him so angry. He didn’t care; he truly didn’t want to care. “And you still mistake inevitability for choice.”

Steve stood up, taking back a step. Then, he was speaking. “Would you like a glass of water?”

A glass of water?

His expression must have grown skeptical, for Steve immediately glanced down, hands clasping in front of him. “Your voice sounds hoarse. And you reek of alcohol.”

Tony huffed. “Always the charmer,” he said, then met Steve’s gaze again challengingly. “Suppose it’s still scratchy from all the screaming.”

It felt good for the first few seconds; watching the pain on Steve’s face as he twisted the knife to see how much he could make him bleed. Anger was easy. He knew Steve’s anger now. And if he was honest with himself, the pain that followed extended to the very beginning of their relationship.

“Don’t make jokes about this,” Steve said quietly. “Please.”

Tony shifted again and only just managed not to wince at the tender feeling in his lower back. “If I don’t joke about it, I might just go insane.”

At that, Steve walked away and Tony could hear him open a few cabinets in the makeshift kitchen that had once been their living room. He came back into view a few moments later, squatting down in front of him with a glass of water. After a moment of completion, Tony snatched it from his grasp, guzzling down some of it.

Steve held out the other hand, waiting patiently until Tony passed him the still half-full tumbler. His eyes were calm and betrayed nothing. He was simply studying him. “More?” he asked after Tony had finished.

Tony shook his head. “No.”

Steve pursed his lips and considered him. “Those stitches need to be taken out.” His jaw twitched, and his steadfast gaze finally broke. Served him right. “It’ll hurt if you wait any longer.”

“Thanks,” Tony shot back. “That’s very considerate of you.”

And just like that, Steve was in control again. In a flash, his insecurity vanished and self-assuredness poured off his body in waves so powerful Tony was amazed he hadn’t yet drowned in it.

How Tony could hate this man and love him so much at the same time was beyond him.

“Ten days ago, I was in Washington, minding my own business,” Steve said coolly. “Then I get this call from Natasha who says someone's issued a kill order for James Barnes. And that you were on board with it. I was… I needed to get him out, and you wouldn’t move. You didn’t… I told you he didn’t do it. And I begged you to let us go.”

Tony blinked and sat up straighter. He ignored the pain that jabbed abdomen for no reason other than it was there and wanted to be remembered. Steve was staring at him with such raw intensity that he nearly forgot everything else. “I wasn’t on board with it, I tried to—” He offered a dry chuckle, wincing as he moved to sit up a little more. “I had it handled. I would’ve made sure they didn’t kill him. And you wouldn’t listen.”

“He never would’ve seen daylight again,” Steve shot back loudly. “With the act set in place, they would’ve thrown him into some cell and let him rot there! That’s worse than death, for something that was out of his control from the start! You knew that!”

“And that matters to you!” Tony spat, throwing the empty glass at the floor, hearing it shatter. And good God, there were tears in his eyes now and he couldn’t keep his voice steady anymore. This was a train-wreck waiting to happen, and yet, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “He matters to you. He is your friend. I got the memo Steve, just—just fucking leave.”

With that, he stood up, stumbling a bit as he tried to walk out the room. He could hear Steve follow a second later, and before he reached the door, there were hands gripping his upper arms to the point of pain.

He was turned around, and pressed into the next wall. Steve stared at him with a mixture of wan disbelief and pent-up hurt; but in the end it was the anger behind his eyes that coaxed Tony not to look away again. “You think you don’t matter to me?” Steve whispered, voice shaking. “After everything?”

“I was your friend, too,” Tony shot back, finding himself clutching at Steve’s shoulder, and the imminence of his tears grew even sharper.

And God, why did Steve come here? Why now when it was all too late? To rub salt on the many wounds Tony was sporting? To make it hurt worse?

“Whether you want to admit it or not: I was your friend,” Tony said, voice choked, and he fisted both hands in Steve’s shirt. “You were mine. You were my—”

Everything. You wound your way in my life and at some point, you became my everything. And you threw it all away because you couldn’t trust me.

When Steve spoke again, Tony could hear the steady slide of tears in his voice. The same that he covered well but not well enough. “I didn’t want any of this,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” he retorted coldly, staring at the ground. “Take it from me, things don’t always go as planned. In fact, if you take a look at a random chapter out of my non-written memoirs, things usually end up going to shit.”

Steve stepped closer—even closer—every part of them just barely touching. “Tony…”

That soft sound of his name coaxed Tony’s eyes back to Steve’s, his eyes wide and imploring. He wisely ignored the way his chest constricted at the emotion he saw in those eyes. The emotion that had been there long before, had been strong and alluring, often making Tony contemplate if he could get away with kissing Steve right in the middle of a debriefing.

“You really think I don’t… that what happened doesn’t…” Steve shook his head, and now there really was a tear sliding down his cheek, and that was so unfair. Steve didn’t get to cry over that lost chance, the what-if they’d never gotten to try. “It killed me. It made me… I don’t even know what it made me, and I didn’t realize how much you had changed my life until it was changed. Until…” Steve stifled a shaky breath, wiping his eyes irritably with one hand. “Until you stood on the other side of this… this war. And I—I didn’t know how to fix it without losing Bucky in the process. But that didn’t change how I felt about you, how I… how I still feel.”

Tony tried hard to ignore how those words affected him. He didn’t want to give Steve that. Didn’t want to believe anything he was saying. The moments they’d had—the ones when Steve stood a little too near, or their hands lingering on shoulders just a fraction too long; the ones with longing looks and contemplative stares—they were gone.

Moments that had become meaningless in the face of their hate.

And now, standing so close to Steve, pressing against him chest to chest, Tony needed desperately to remain angry. To maintain that much of himself. To remember how he felt the moment Steve’s fist had broken through the helmet, hitting him over and over again.

And yet. With the sight of Steve’s tears… Tony came close to losing all sense of control.

Perhaps that was all that love had ever taught him. How to hurt someone before they had a chance of hurting him.

“Why did you come here?” he asked when Steve didn’t say anything further.

Steve took a low breath. “Natasha told me that Pepper wanted me to know you’re back here, and I came because I had to… because you were hurt. I needed to see if you need medical treatment.”

“So you climbed on your damn white horse and came in to make amends, that’s it?”

“Something like that.”

“Anyone ever told you that the road to hell is paved with good Samaritans?”

Steve’s jaw clenched, and the hands still resting on Tony’s arms moved to his cheeks once again. “You, Tony. I came here for you. And because…”

Another pause as Steve trailed off, and Tony had to physically force himself to stay calm. “Because what,” he snapped, his eyes a tad hazy.

“You know why,” Steve said, breaths ghosting over Tony’s face. “You have to know why.”

The air around them grew tight. Constricting. There were so many things to say, so many that had remained unsaid for so long. Things Steve deserved to know, despite of it all.

Tony’s own self-imposed distance was broken the second Steve had touched him, and on some level, he had known it couldn’t last. A familiar pain was rising in his chest. He couldn’t let go of this, despite how Steve had hurt him. And Tony wasn’t thrilled by how weak that made him, but for the impossible affection of one man, he would sacrifice anything.

He already had.

And he hurt Steve, too. It seemed they couldn’t take one step without destroying each other. Yet, there were some things that were worth the hurt and always would be.

Tony could feel Steve’s heart thudding against him. Pounding. His blue eyes were large and the sight of fresh tears encircled him with a sense of hope.

“Tell me,” Tony demanded. “Say it, Steve. You damn well owe me that much.”

He felt Steve trembling against him. His hands still cupped Tony’s face, his fingers rubbing imperfect circles into his skin.

And when he finally made his move, swallowing him in a fierce kiss, Tony had seen it coming. There was still that lost moment of surprise that it was happening now, but if he was honest with himself, they’d been heading towards this for months. And once, he would’ve grinned against Steve’s lips the second they touched his, would’ve dug his fingers in Steve’s neck, holding him as near as he possibly could. He would’ve playfully nipped at his lower lip, taking his time to explore his mouth with as much laziness as Steve would’ve granted him.

Now, though, their kiss was melted savagery with yearning, pure desire and anger, and tenderness mixed with cruelty. And in this moment, Tony loved him—loved him and hated him in equal measures.

“Coward,” Tony murmured against those lips, pouring all of his outrage and despair into the kiss, while Steve was pressing himself against Tony furiously. It hurt, putting pressure on all those parts of his body that were still tender, but right now, he didn’t care. It felt as though Steve was trying to shove him through the wall, as if he wanted to vent the rage that still clamored inside him and Tony was the nearest target.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Steve huffed against his lips, defensive façade falling over his face. “Shut up.”

He could feel Steve’s arousal digging into his stomach, and as if reading his thoughts, Steve’s fingers set to work on Tony’s belt buckle only moments later. He was panting now—they both were. Breathing hard against each other’s lips, their eyes laden with single-minded determination.

“Tell me to stop and I will,” Steve said, his free hand tugging on Tony’s legs until he wrapped them around Steve’s waist. Sound drowned away in favor of their mingled gasps, Steve’s fingers setting to work, and his brilliant blue eyes consuming him whole.

Tony cracked a wry grin, his eyes sizing Steve up. “If you think I will stop you now, you really haven’t been paying attention.”

Steve swallowed hard at that almost-confession, leaning in, probably so he wouldn’t have to look Tony in the eye while he opened the fly of his pants, tugging him free. Shifting stance so they’d be on the same height, he made quick work of his own jeans, aligning the both of them at last.

Tony would’ve loved to see—see the both of them together—but Steve was all but towering over his body, shielding them from sight as he wrapped a warm hand around their lengths. The dry friction made Tony cry out and clutch at Steve’s shoulders with new vigour. How he could feel so out of control so soon was beyond him, but all he could do now was pull himself closer and thrust against Steve’s erection.

Steve moaned almost helplessly, and then brushed a series of wet, needy kisses on Tony’s throat. His lips were soft and nearly affectionate against Tony’s skin and some well-hidden part of him swelled with newfound warmth.

It was a loving sense of being unloved. A moment of love and hate wrapped into something that was purely them.

“Tony,” Steve moaned, before his mouth travelled to Tony’s again, swallowing him in a kiss once more. And, Tony thought idly, whatever personal hell he would put himself through in the days to come… this was worth it.

It was worth all of it.

Steve’s kiss was just as singular as Tony had always imagined it to be. And when Steve opened his hand, letting go of them in favor of spitting in his palm and taking hold again after, Tony threw his head back with another long groan. His weak heart was pounding so hard, he was sure it would break through his chest. He felt hot all over, his mind spiralling helplessly into a fog, and right now, he didn’t care if reason ever decided to come back to him.

Steve wasn’t his, Tony knew that. But for the moment he might as well have been.

“Faster,” he demanded, and when Steve’s hand set into motion, stroking them faster, the spit and precome barely enough to make the slide easy, it was good, so good. It was pain and desperation and lust, and maybe something he didn’t dare yet to even consider.

When Tony’s head dropped back against the wall, eyes wandering upwards until they clashed with Steve’s, Steve didn’t look away. “Can’t hide from me, here,” Tony whispered.

“I never wanted to,” Steve said, his face pained for a moment, then full of wonder on the next upward stroke.

Tony’s eyes watered, as their thrusts grew harder and more frantic. Steve was going to knock the life out of him, but Tony didn’t care. At this point, nothing mattered but staying as close to him as he could.

“Want you,” Steve added, as if an afterthought.

Tony leaned back in, running his tongue over Steve’s lower lip. “About time you admitted it.”

This was a snapshot. A stolen moment in time. Steve was here now, but he would leave again. That was the way it always was between them. They met, created a mess, and part ways. They’d be back together eventually, but there was no way to tell what kind of face they would wear.

Would they think back on what happened here? Would they care at all?

He shouldn’t give a damn, but he did. This moment was Tony’s. Theirs. Steve was with him now. And he’d be damned if Steve forgot again how close they were.

Steve was stroking them even harder, and Tony eventually settled his hand on top, mimicking the rhythm. Their fingers were massaging them with abandoned frenzy, an almost brutal assault that would’ve hurt had it not felt so good. And every time they wrapped their hands around the heads, circling and squeezing, Tony fell a little more. Needing more. Needing—

“Stay,” Tony gasped. “Stay.”

Steve was murmuring words that might have been an agreement. Murmured broken promises into Tony’s neck as his body wound tight and he finally gasped and spilled himself between them. Something in Tony crashed and collided, and he slumped against him, touching every cell of Steve, every nerve, every inch he could reach.

There could be another war now... and he wouldn’t care.

Long minutes passed before Tony fought for some sliver of common sense. The rest of his resistance had fallen to the wayside, leaving his body boneless, and his heart soft.

That was never a good thing. But he’d always been a fool when it came to love.

Steve pulled back only slightly, resting his brow against Tony’s. “We shouldn’t stay here.”

There was a significant pause at that; Tony released a quaking breath and met Steve’s eyes again. And then, pedal-soft, pressed his lips to Steve’s. “I can’t leave, yet.”

Steve was still for a moment, then nodded. “Okay.”

He didn’t know what to do with that, but then Steve set into motion, his hold on Tony tightening as he walked through the doorway. Tony let his head drop on Steve’s shoulder, and whenever he opened his eyes, he saw the broken remains of their home, the debris, the numerous holes in the wall, the shattered pieces of what had once been theirs.

Only belatedly, he realized that Steve was walking towards his own bedroom. Tony knew how it looked in there, how much destruction they’d wreaked… but he didn’t have the heart to tell him that any of the other rooms would’ve been a better choice.

He knew how good it felt to wrap himself in some layers of familiarity.

To his credit, Steve only paused for a second when he stepped inside. His body stiffened and Tony could hear a small sigh, before he walked around one of the torn Iron Legion suits, and set Tony down on the still mostly intact bed.

Tony saw his eyes trail over the marks where Tony’s hands had already swiped off the dust and rubble days before. He probably knew that Tony had slept here before, but when his gaze turned back to him, there was no mockery, only sad understanding.

When Steve kneeled on the bed, Tony kissed his cheek reverently. Together, they lay down face to face, and Tony’s heart was aching with how much he wanted this, his whole self wrapped in this moment.

“I don’t know how to fix this,” Tony admitted, and for the first time in so long, he was able to see beyond the rage and grasping that tiny chance that might not have been lost, after all.

Steve smiled. It was a small fragile thing, but there nevertheless. “A friend once told me: If you can’t fix it...”

Tony huffed, reaching for Steve’s hand and cautiously entwining their fingers. “...you build something better.”