Bruce can pinpoint the exact moment he set eyes on Tony Stark and thought “Oh, um, yes.” It was his freshman year of high school. Bruce had happened to end up on the sophomore side of the gym during the homecoming game assembly. Tony Stark (although he didn’t know his name at the time) was a few rows over. His laugh was loud and genuine and Bruce desperately wanted to know what was so funny. When he found the source of the laughter, Bruce felt the beginnings of a ridiculous crush blossom. It was only later, when he identified Tony by name and found out details, that the crush actually began to have some bearings behind it.
He doesn’t think, not really, that he and Tony will ever speak more than a handful of sentences in his high school career. The sentences they could potentially speak are likely to be “Sorry!” (from Bruce) and “Get out of the way!” (from Tony).
Phil, his best friend, is always trying to convince him not to be so much of a downer. “Anything can happen!” he says. “This is high school!” But freshman year was a whole year ago. They’re sophomores now and the magic and possibility of high school is definitely the dream of someone still in middle school. High school is shit, maybe in slightly different ways, but Bruce as a sophomore is concerned about getting through it. Dating someone, anyone, seems unlikely. He’s not even pretending Tony will ever know his name.
Tony Stark is unobtainable. Bruce knows that, mostly, but he can’t help crushing from afar. Tony Stark is one of the most popular kids in school. He’s a junior but he may as well be a senior with all of the might and popularity he commands.
Bruce is a sophomore, low on the totem pole, captain of the quiz bowl team and heavily involved in the Chemistry club. Tony probably doesn’t even know who Bruce Banner is.
This doesn’t stop Bruce from flaring with jealousy when he notices Tony laying it on thick to Steve Rogers, the All-American Quarterback. He’ll probably end up getting some fancy college ride and playing football all four years and then the NFL.
Bruce is smart enough to end up in the second level Chemistry class his sophomore year, bypassing the intro requirement because of test scores. Tony is in his classes and Bruce slumps his head onto his desk. He is not, not prepared for a full semester of trying not to look at him throughout every class. He isn’t sure why Tony is even in this class. He figures it’s laziness on Tony’s part—the rumors all declare that Tony should be skipping a few grades. But who can blame a popular kid wanting to enjoy as many years of that as he could?
Excitement is the last thing to cross Bruce’s mind when the teacher announces there will be a partner project and the teacher is picking the partners, thank you very much because everyone would pick their friends and no one would expand their minds at all. Bruce doesn’t know a single person in this class and he is extremely self-conscious of being the only sophomore in the class.
And then the teacher says “Bruce Banner and Tony Stark” and Bruce’s heart constricts. Tony lazily turns his head and figures out who he is based on the fact that he’s the only person in the room he doesn’t know.
“Are you some kind of nerd?” Tony asks him. “You’re not a junior because I know all of them so you must be a sophomore or something.”
“I—my test scores got me into this class. And I really like chemistry.” Bruce stammers, wanting Tony to stop looking at him, examining him.
“Well, let’s get this dumb thing over with. Where and when are we going to work on this?” Tony stretches out, his body filling up the desk.
‘Think calm thoughts, Bruce. Don’t pay attention to his body. He’s a jerk. He doesn’t care about you.’
“A coffee shop?” Bruce suggests meekly.
“Totally boring. You can come to my place. Tomorrow at 6:30. Don’t be late. I want to get this finished fast.”
Phil’s waiting for him outside when the day ends. “Well, how was it? First day as a sophomore and all that?” Phil is enthusiastic and Bruce laughs.
“Not everyone is as excited about assignments as you are.” Phil gives him a deadly serious look. “Okay, okay, fine, I am too.”
“How’s your chemistry class?” Phil is more of a social studies and history kind of guy so he isn’t in any higher level science classes.
“Um, it’s fine, I guess. Tony Stark is in my class.” Bruce mumbles the last bit, hoping Phil won’t actually pick up on any of that.
The grin on Phil’s face is huge. “Oh yeah?”
“And we’re doing a class project together.”
Phil stops mid stride. “This has potential,” he says with gravitas.
“As much potential as you and Steve Rogers, I bet.” Phil shoves him and Bruce stumbles.
“At least Steve and I are friends!” he protests.
“Does pining after someone and occasionally talking to them make you friends, now?”
“No! We hung out the other day. We watched a movie.”
“Woah, wait, you’re serious?! That’s awesome!” Bruce can’t help but be a little jealous of that, even though he’s really excited for Phil.
“Yeah. He said we’d watch another movie sometime soon. But Tony Stark, what are you going to do?”
Bruce shrugs. “I’m going to his place tomorrow to work on the project.” He’s nervous and excited. “I’m sure he’ll just be an asshole, though, and expect me to do the work.”
“I’m not sure about that,” Phil says carefully. “I think there’s probably more to him.”
They’ve made it to Bruce’s house now and Phil looks at him a little expectantly, like he wants to come in and talk more, but Bruce waves him off.
“I’ve got a lot of homework, sorry. See you tomorrow!”
The next day Bruce stands outside the Stark Mansion, his hand hovering nervously over the doorbell. He knew Tony’s family had money, he just didn’t realize how much money. At 6:30pm on the dot, Bruce rings the doorbell. A butler answers the door and Bruce gulps. The butler peers at him.
“Mister Tony said he was expecting someone. Please, follow me.”
The butler leads him to a living room that Bruce suspects is bigger than his bedroom and living room combined. Tony is flopped on a couch, watching something on MTV. He sits up when Bruce comes in the room. The look on his face means business, Bruce thinks.
“Okay. I’ve divided the assignment up into parts. You can do the research and I’ll do the presenting and everything will be fine.”
Something about the laissez-fair attitude of Tony rubs Bruce the wrong way and he starts talking before he can convince himself what a bad idea the whole thing is. Tony Stark is a somebody. Bruce is a nobody who should know better.
“Actually, I think we should split up the research and both of us can present our project.
Tony raises an eyebrow at him, looking impressed that Bruce dared to challenge him.
“Okay,” he says. “We can do that.”
As much as he doesn’t like admitting it, Bruce is developing a substantial admiration for Tony as they work on this project. This is a real crush, not just the “oh my god he’s so pretty and popular” kind of thing. Bruce will admit that he himself is smart but Tony is a genius. When Tony shows up to their next meeting with orbital diagrams and figures all beautifully written out, Bruce knows he’s a goner. He thinks he was one already but this? Seeing Tony Stark with all of this chemistry written out? Yeah, he may as well resign himself to spending the next two years in high school staring after him.
Another breezy fall afternoon finds them working on this chemistry project at the Stark family Mansion. Bruce is glad that Tony has computers and technology that no else has. It makes it easier for Bruce to explain why it's better for them to always meet at his place. Bruce doesn't remember the last time he'd dared bring someone to his house. His dad had made it clear quickly that home is for family members and not for anyone who might dare to poke at their dirty laundry.
Tony munches on a cookie while Bruce finally gathers up the nerve to ask him what’s been bugging him since they first started working on this project. Bruce has personal verification that Tony is way too smart for this class so why does Tony bother with it at all?
“Why are you even in this class? Couldn’t you be in the next one?”
“I’ll tell you a little secret, Banner. Once you start skipping classes, you eventually run out of ones to take. Plus, it’s an easy A.” Tony smiles easily, stretching out on his leather sofa.
“Couldn’t you just graduate early?” Bruce is not at all paying attention to the way Tony’s legs look in those dark wash jeans. Not that he is even noticing what Tony’s wearing, not at all.
Tony clenches his jaw tightly; it casts a shadow over his face. His eyebrows furrow when he starts to speak. “Yeah but good ole dad won’t let me. He thinks I need the typical high school experience.” Tony rolls his eyes, like Bruce couldn’t tell from the venom in that sentence exactly what Tony thinks of his dad’s ideas.
Bruce hasn’t considered that angle. “So...socially? Doesn’t your dad get that--?” Bruce clamps his mouth shut. Finishing that sentence is probably a bad idea.
The grin on Tony’s face indicates that he probably has a good idea where that sentence is going. “That I’m popular and charming? Yeah. That’s what he thinks the problem is. Thinks I need some humility.”
Bruce laughs at that, can’t help it and when he looks up there’s a crinkle around Tony’s eyes. “Okay, maybe I could use some humility but it’s hard when I’m this awesome.”
“No comment.” Bruce steels his face in his best poker face, deliberately ostentatious with it.
“Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed.” Is Tony leering at him? That kind of looks like a leer but with Tony, it could easily be confused with his default resting face.
Bruce blushes, that comment suddenly seems laden with innuendo and intention, given the way Tony is now looking at him. Yes, of course he’s noticed how awesome Tony is but that doesn’t mean Tony needs to know it. That kind of information in Tony’s mind gives Tony an even bigger upper hand on this weird school friendship thing between them.
As he gathers his stuff, Tony’s smile slips. “Yeah, yeah, sure.” Tony hands him a notebook. Their fingers brush as Bruce accepts the notebook, and Tony’s hands are warm.
Bruce squeaks out a good bye and rushes out of the mansion. His heart thumps as he walks home. He absentmindedly counts the cracks in the sidewalk as he thinks about Tony’s fingertips against his. Things got a little close there and hiding this silly crush is getting harder by the day. He’s beginning to suspect that he may not be that secretive. Tony is a flirt, sure, but it sort of felt like there was some knowledge and purpose in what Tony was doing back there.
The project is only an assignment for a few weeks and they finish it pretty quickly. Bruce is smart, Tony is a genius, and the project isn’t that hard. The project is going to get an A even if they hadn’t tried as much as they did. Bruce is pretty sure that he and Tony will go their separate ways after this. They might have had fun working on the project together but high school hierarchies are rigid. Bruce knows they won’t hang out anymore and he doesn’t blame Tony, not really. Bruce isn’t sure he ever wants to be popular but he can’t imagine giving it up either. And Tony hanging out with Bruce? Tony with his latest season pre-ordered clothes and Bruce wearing his clothes til he grows out of them or they fall apart. This isn’t going to go anywhere.
“So, I dunno, do you want to come over next week? My dad got me one of those kits that has every element in it.”
“I’m sorry, what?” Did Tony just ask him to hang out?
“Yeah, I mean, you seem like you like chemistry a lot and I don’t know who else would care.”
There’s a little bit of snark to Tony’s voice but not much.
Bruce pushes his glasses back up from where they’ve fallen down his nose. “I’d like that,” he says carefully.
“Cool! Same time as usual, yeah?”
Bruce smiles. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
Something about what Bruce says rubs Tony the wrong way, he guesses, because suddenly Tony is The Cool Kid again.
“Don’t tell anyone though. It’s not like we’re friends.”
Bruce takes that as his cue to leave the Stark Mansion and he does, wishing Jarvis a good night as he does. Tony’s right, though, as much as it hurts to admit. He and Bruce aren’t friends. Tony just wants to show off. The pain of Tony’s brush off makes Bruce’s eyes sting.