Chapter 1: all you wanted was to be wanted
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.
Chapter 2: here's to you and your temper
Chapter 2 of who knows how many! In case you missed the previous note, chapter 1 was reworked (7/3/12) with a few new scenes thrown in, so go check that out first!
It’s now Tuesday and Bruce is supposed to be at Tony’s place in half an hour. It’ll take him a good fifteen minutes to walk there. He can’t decide if he should or not, isn’t sure how upset he really is about what Tony said to him. Of course, a week of silence between them in class didn’t help since the project was over.
“I’m not going,” he says to himself. He’s tired of getting used by other people and Tony can invite over one of his real friends. If they aren’t friends and the project is over, there’s no reason for them to be together at all. He really wants to see that element set but he figures he’ll get over it. He’s used to not getting what he wants.
Home isn’t really where he wants to be either but he’s relieved when he finds the driveway empty. His parents are gone for the evening and he can unwind a little bit. After unlocking the door and getting inside, he heads back to his bedroom. His netbook is hidden under his pillow. He spent a very long time saving up the money for his netbook and he’s afraid his dad will find it and use it against him. Or worse yet, his dad will smash it. Grabbing the netbook from under the pillow, he turns it on. He dashes out a quick email to Phil. “Decided not to go to Tony’s today—it’s too weird to hang out with him for no real reason.” Email finished, he stows the netbook safely under the pillow again. Taking out his textbooks, he settles into a boring evening of homework. He convinces himself this is way better than hanging out with Tony and doing chemistry. Loads better.
Bruce is at lunch the next day, carefully eating his ham and cheese sandwich in bites between turning the pages in his novel. He hears a voice hiss Banner behind him and he turns around, puzzled. None of his quiz bowl members share his lunch period so he always spends lunch alone. He sees a hand behind him, motioning. Bruce picks up his lunch and novel and follows the hand.
Bruce feels like he’s been punched in the gut when he sees it’s Tony who has made him come over to this corner.
He bristles, annoyed at the audacity of Tony for interrupting the one good spot in his entire day.
“You didn’t come over last night.” Tony says it as a statement but there’s a question in his eyes.
“You said it yourself. We aren’t friends. And if we aren’t friends, why would I come over?” Bruce pauses. “Do you even HAVE this lunch period?”
“No, I skipped to drag you out of yours. I thought... I thought you’d want to see this. It seemed like something you’d like.”
Bruce smiles wanly. “I don’t need pity. I know I don’t have money like you do and you don’t need to rub my face in it. We did a project together. That’s it. There’s no reason for you to talk to me again so go ahead and reclaim your place in the social structure, okay?”
Anger flashes in Tony’s eyes for a brief moment before he smoothes out his facial features.
“Yeah, I don’t know why I bothered. You’re a social outcast, Banner, and you always will be.” Tony storms off, leaving Bruce behind the building all alone.
Bruce isn’t hungry anymore but he isn’t sure if he’ll get a dinner tonight. He eats his sandwich even though it now tastes like sawdust.
In chemistry class, Bruce switches seats so he’s as far away from Tony as possible. No point in making any of this worse. He wishes Tony would notice and say something to him. But an apology from Tony is never going to happen. He’s heard that Tony doesn’t even apologize to his friends and Tony has certainly proven that friendship is a label that will never be applied to them. Is he allowed to sulk in public? Tony Stark just continues as normal, not even noticing Bruce is doing what he can to avoid him. That makes his stomach twist even more—seems like some real evidence Tony doesn’t care at all.
At home that evening, Bruce finishes off his pack of ramen (he was right about no dinner, his parents are nowhere to be found) and settles down in his bedroom. He works on his homework and finishes it quickly. Too tired for anything else, Bruce gets in bed and switches on the television for background noise. He must have dozed off when he wakes up to a vibration from his phone.
“That’s weird,” he thinks. “I don’t have this number.” Bruce doesn’t have a smartphone or anything. He bought one with prepaid minutes in case there’s an emergency and for texting about club meetings. Anyone who would contact him is already in his phone. Curiosity is part of his nature, though, so he opens the text.
“bruce come over”
“Is this Tony?” He texts back hesitantly.
“yes just come over”
“Tony, no. You can’t just tell me what to do.” Bruce turns off his phone. He’s tired of Tony fucking with him. A little bit of fear settles in his stomach when he concludes Tony might be making him a new target at school. He misses the Tony he saw after school, away from popularity and social cliques.
He turns his phone on in the morning to several texts from Tony. He deletes them all without reading. What a waste.
A few more days of he and Tony not being friends pass. Bruce tells himself that really, nothing has changed at all, but not hanging out with Tony means that his routine is changed now. Bruce isn’t a big fan of change, mostly only sees bad things resulting from it.
Phil can tell he’s in a slump. “Let’s go to the arcade this weekend. We haven’t gone there in a while.”
Bruce agrees. Maybe it’ll be a distraction from everything else going on.
They decide to meet at Phil’s house. Bruce knocks on the front door, feeling a little shy. Mrs. Coulson opens the door and wraps him into a hug. She’s one of the only grownups he trusts. She’s kind to him and manages to make him feel worthwhile. “Do you want juice or a soda? Can I get you anything?” She turns a probing eye on him and Bruce tugs down his shirt sleeves.
“No thank you, Mrs. Coulson.” She sighs a little but anything more she would say is cut off from Phil running around the corner and skidding into the kitchen. “I’ve got my quarters, let’s go!”
It isn’t until they are safely out of the hearing of anyone else on the way to the arcade that Phil asks what’s been going on.
Bruce kicks a rock with his shoe. “I’m not into being cheap amusement for other people. Tony wanted me to come over to show me some chemistry stuff but he ended his invitation with a reminder that we weren’t friends. So...I didn’t go and then he found me at lunch and called me a freak.”
Phil’s eyes are wide. “He called you a freak, really?”
“Social outcast...close enough when you’re Tony Stark.”
“Well. That sucks. But why didn’t you just go over there anyway?” Bruce pauses to consider his answer. They’ve reached the arcade, anyway, and they make it through the doors before Bruce answers.
“I don’t want to be anyone’s pity friend and he doesn’t need to show off all his money to me.”
Phil coughs and Bruce turns to look at him but gets distracted by the fact that Tony is standing right in front of him.
“I don’t do pity friendship but I appreciate the unnecessary assumptions you’re spreading around.” Tony gives Phil a look and Phil slinks off, Bruce’s heart falling down a little with each step away he takes.
Tony looks at him a little bit puzzled. “What did I do to make you—”
“You told me we weren’t friends and not to tell anyone. Seemed pretty clear.”
Tony sighs. “It’s... a little more complicated than that, yeah? I’m sorry Ban—Bruce.”
“Are we on a first name basis now?” Bruce is trying to play it cool, desperately cool. He focuses on a point across the arcade. A skee-ball machine. Anything to avoid actually looking at Tony.
“I was being an asshole, okay. You might have heard the rumors but it’s what I’m good at doing.” Tony’s voice is a little too harsh, laced with something Bruce doesn’t want to identify.
“You, an asshole? Never would have guessed that’d be a rumor flying about.” Bruce pauses there and then goes for what’s really bugging him. “How did you even get my phone number and then end up drunk texting me?”
Tony inhales sharply. “I had a rough night. You were the only person I thought I could talk to about it.”
Bruce decides to let the phone number bit slip; he wouldn't put it past Tony to hack into the school database or something.
"What was so rough about your night?" He manages to keep the impatience out of his voice because he's way more curious about what Tony thought Bruce would understand.
And…there it goes. Tony's eyes close off and Bruce knows he isn't going to find out, not today. But then Bruce sees Tony's body stiffen up. He's about to ask Tony what's wrong and then he hears a voice say "Tony." Whoever that voice belongs to, they mean business, and Tony does not look excited for this person to be there.
Bruce turns around to find himself face to face with a man who must be Tony's father, based on clothes and facial structure. Mr. Stark nods at him brusquely. “Your mother’s finished with her shopping. Time to go.” Bruce recognizes that look on Tony’s face—he’s about to say something that could get him in trouble—but before he does, defeat etches itself onto Tony’s face.
“I’ll text you,” Tony says as he starts to follow his dad’s retreating figure. Bruce nods, trying to figure out the weird relationship going on there. He waits until the arcade door shuts totally before he wanders off to find Phil. Some relaxation, courtesy of arcade games, seems like an even better idea after that exchange.
Chapter 3: you drive me crazy half the time
Trigger warnings: brief mentions of alcoholism and parental abuse.
Chapter 3! Enjoy!
Bruce wakes up to a pounding on his front door. Groggily, his mind provides him with the knowledge that it’s 2am on Sunday. He walks out of his bedroom, wondering why his dad hasn’t answered the door yet. He sees a note from his parents sitting on the kitchen table says they’ll be back in a few days. Bruce sighs; they must have only come home long enough to leave again. He doesn’t remember the last time he saw them for more than a few minutes. The knocking on the front door is getting louder and more insistent. Peering through the peephole, he sees Tony standing on the doorstep, looking disheveled.
Bruce undoes the deadbolt and the lock. He opens the door and stands with his arms crossed, staring at Tony. He smells whiskey on Tony and Bruce forces himself not to wretch. His dad isn’t home; this is Tony standing here. Tony, for his part, is oblivious, pushing past Bruce into the small house.
“You didn’t answer my texts,” Tony complains.
Bruce closes the door behind Tony, locking it again. Knowing Tony the way he does, he figures this conversation will probably take a while.
“I guess I forgot to check my phone. Sorry?”
“Like your pajamas.” Tony fucking winks at him. Bruce flushes, wishing he’d done laundry so he wasn’t wearing Superman shorts.
Bruce squares his shoulders. “What can I do for you, clearly drunk person?”
“I...I really wanted to talk to you.”
“So you show up drunk at my house at 2am? Wait, how do you even know where I live?”
Tony shrugs. “People were going to egg your house at the beginning of the semester. I called it off.”
Bruce swallows, wondering what kind of beating he would have gotten from his dad if that had happened.
“Just go home, Tony. It’s 2am. I need to be asleep. My parents are gone, so I can sleep in.”
Tony stares at him. “If your parents are gone, then what’s the problem here?”
“You being drunk is the problem here. But I don’t care, sleep on the uncomfortable couch if you want.”
“How very kind of you,” Tony drawls.
“Yes, well, you haven’t given me much of an option, have you?” Bruce scowls. He could be asleep and safe in bed and here’s Tony, disturbing his sleep and reminding him of his father, which is a comparison he isn’t comfortable with at all.
“I’m sorry about my dad,” Tony says.
“What?” Bruce is totally confused by that sentence.
“He interrupted our conversation.” Tony flops himself down onto the couch, leaving Bruce standing in the middle of the room.
“Yeah, that’s okay? That stuff happens sometimes.” Bruce doesn’t get why Tony came here drunk at 2am to tell him this.
“I wanted to apologize again for treating you like shit. I’m not good at meaningful social interactions.” Tony closes his eyes like he’s afraid of looking at Bruce.
“So you wanted to have meaningful conversations with me or something?” Bruce is sort of confused about where Tony is going with this.
“Yeah and I want to and I know I’m drunk and shouldn’t be here but I can’t go home and can I crash here?” It all comes out of Tony’s mouth in a rush.
“I, sure, I guess.” Bruce doesn’t know how Tony got here and he’s not really in a state to go anywhere. “You have the sleep on the couch though.”
And then Tony smiles that beautiful smile at him and Bruce feels his stomach flutter. Tony sprawls out lengthwise on the couch.
Bruce turns off the lights in the house and goes back to his bedroom. He locks the door behind him and pulls the covers above his head. He has a lot of cognitive dissonance about Tony being in his house, especially drunk.
When he wakes in the morning, Tony has already left. There’s no note. Bruce wonders momentarily if the whole thing was a nightmare but then he sees how the cushions were propped back in order on the couch. He sighs and starts his day, completely confused about what goes on in the brain of Tony Stark.
Tony ignores him at school every time they run into each other. He’s seen him in class but Tony hasn’t seen fit to talk to him and Bruce is not going to be the one to initiate contact. There’d been no more drunken turning up on his doorstep which Bruce is actually a little disappointed by, although he knows his dad wouldn’t take that very well at all. Bruce has finally gone beyond upset to just being mad and frustrated. Tony Stark is full of issues, apparently. He’s never really met anyone who has commitment issues when it comes to friendship but he’s quickly learning that Tony doesn’t do much of anything normally.
So life goes back to business as usual for Bruce. This is an exciting life full of homework and studying and dreaming of a future with a certain something else in it. He begins his walk home, dragging his feet, wishing for a reason not to go to an empty house.
When a car pulls up behind him and honks, Bruce startles and looks around. The passenger window rolls down and Tony is sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Get in,” Tony says, “but be quick.”
Is he in some sort of shitty movie now? Bruce rolls his eyes and gets into the car. Tony immediately rolls the darkly tinted windows back up.
“So, are you kidnapping me as an apology for showing up at my house drunk?”
Tony laughs. “Hardly a kidnapping. You got in my car and we’re both underage.”
Tony hits some buttons on the ridiculously futuristic looking dash and the radio volume increases by several notches. Bruce thinks about how this car probably cost more than his parents’ house.
“Is this classic rock?” Bruce asks. Music has never been something he’s very into and his dad prefers a quiet household. Sometimes he listens to indie pop because it’s catchy but sometimes introspective enough to keep him off guard.
“AC/DC, Bruce. AC/DC. Christ. Did you get deprived of music or something?”
Bruce sits there kind of stonily; he’s a little bit offended. He holds his backpack closely against his knees. He looks out the window as the streets and houses get progressively more attractive looking. He’s not really surprised when Tony’s car takes them to his mansion.
“Well, come on.” Tony is already opening his door and climbing out of the car
Bruce sighs, following Tony out of the car and then into the mansion. He holds onto his bag though, keeps it with him.
Tony yells a quick “Hello, Jarvis!” while he drags Bruce down one of the numerous hallways in the mansion. Tony comes to a full stop in front of a room and Tony pushes the door open, beaming.
Bruce’s jaw drops open. In the room is a fully functional chemistry lab. Bruce hasn’t seen a lot of this equipment in person before, let alone even know what all of it does. Eyes wide, he walks into the room. Tony closes the door behind him.
“Isn’t it AWESOME?” Tony has a huge grin on his face. He’s bouncing up and down on his heels.
“It really is.” Bruce says quietly. He’s amazed that this is actually his life, that he’s in a place with so many possibilities.
“I thought—I know I shouldn’t have come to your place. I was drunk and I’m sorry and all that—“ Tony cuts himself off, looking a little bit sheepish.
Bruce gapes at him: an apology and a regretful look from Tony Stark.
“We’re good there, right? Right. Anyway, I figured you’re the only person at Shield High that would appreciate this the way it should be. So!” Tony looks at him expectantly, like Bruce should start flailing and run over and start working on something.
“You drug me to your mansion so we could do science. You did this as an apology for showing up drunk at my doorstep.” Bruce really thinks he might be in some ridiculous rom-com now.
“Well, this isn’t really part of the apology. You just totally ditched me last time, though. Hence this.”
As much as he wants to yell at Tony for being so absurd—Tony is 17, does he really think he can push people around like this?—he’s mostly overcome with awe at his surroundings. And, well, Tony did apologize and Bruce isn’t quite strong enough to overcome the combination of science and his crush.
“Well...okay,” Bruce says and Tony grins at him again.
Things settle into an easy routine of doing science immediately after that. Once or twice a week, depending on both of their schedules, Bruce goes back to Tony’s mansion and they work on their projects together. Bruce finds quickly that even having skipped up to a higher chemistry class isn’t going to challenge him enough so he’s glad to have this. And Tony. For all of the issues he’s pretty sure Tony has (see: drunkenness and kidnapping), he is always ridiculously excited about their time together. This is absolutely the most intense crush that he’s ever had. He’s not stupid. He knows that he’s only in high school and this probably isn’t going to even go anywhere—but sometimes he lets himself fantasize about a relationship. Wonders what it would be like to take a nap and wake up beside Tony. The day dream is so much better than the reality of their strange pseudo friendship.
Chapter 4: what a rainy ending given to a perfect day
TW: alcoholism, familial abuse
But as far as school goes, things are pretty much the same. Tony will acknowledge him if they pass by each other in the hallway but extended conversations aren’t likely to happen. Bruce likes it, sort of. It makes him feel...special, and singled out in a completely backwards way. People at school get the closed off persona of Tony and Bruce gets the more relaxed version outside of school. It’s not like he and Tony talk about much other than chemistry and engineering but Bruce can work with that.
It’s a warm Friday afternoon just about two weeks after he and Tony have started hanging out so much and Phil invites him to go watch their high school football team’s game with him. Something in the air (and his weekend curfew) makes him agree even though he isn’t a very big sports fan. Bruce doesn’t understand football that much but Phil’s enthusiasm is infectious and he finds himself cheering right along with Phil. He suspects Phil’s crush on Steve Rogers is shared by half the school, judging by the cheers. The game ends with a victory for Shield High and he and Phil laugh and laugh and laugh. He hears a quiet “Oh” from Phil and follows his eyes to see Tony all over Steve.
Bruce knew before this weird sort of friendship thing started that Tony flirts with Steve. It feels different now though, more personal. Tony didn’t even acknowledge Bruce’s existence a few months ago and now they hang out and...Bruce shakes his head. "You’ve got no claim on him, Banner,” he thinks to himself. “None at all.”
But part of him is curious to see what exactly is going on between Steve and Tony. With a bit of adrenaline thrumming inside him, he suggests they go down to the field. “Come on, Phil. Why don’t you go tell Steve what a great game he played?”
Phil smiles shyly but seems to take to the idea. Bruce agrees to walk down there with him because “oh my god Bruce I’m so nervous you have to come with me.” He only hopes that Tony will be gone by the time the crowd thins enough to let them through.
When they finally get down to the field, Tony is still standing dangerously close to Steve. The hot dog and nachos Bruce got at the concession stand settles with a clunk in his stomach. Steve catches sight of Phil and breaks into a smile. “Hey, Phil, I didn’t think you’d be able to make it?” Phil’s smile is so bright that Bruce wonders if it’s actually giving off watts of energy. Tony gives Phil a dirty look and then suddenly notices Bruce.
Maybe it’s being outside, the lights from the stadium, but Bruce thinks this may be the first time Tony has ever really looked at him as anything other than a science geek. Bruce yells a quick “See ya, Phil!” and starts to walk away before this situation can get any weirder. He sighs as he escapes from the group...only to have Tony grab him by the shoulder.
“I didn’t know you liked football,” Tony says.
“It was Phil’s idea,” Bruce says, looking up to the sky, anywhere not at Tony.
“He seems to like Steve a lot.” Tony’s face is calculating, considering what he’ll do with this information.
Bruce scratches at the back of his neck nervously. “Maybe? Does it matter?” Just what Bruce wants: to talk to his crush about the football star he was hitting on.
“Honestly, Banner, how socially inept you are is almost cute when you think about how smart you are.” Tony smiles as he says it, making Bruce smile too.
“Well, I don’t think Steve’s going to get away from Phil anytime soon.” He pauses and grimaces for dramatic effect. “Wanna go catch a movie?”
And that movie is how Bruce and Tony became actual friends, do stuff in public kind of people. Bruce doesn’t question it too much, afraid that Tony will change his mind. Tony buys them popcorn and puts tons of butter on it. They watch a sci-fi movie so bad they can’t stop laughing. Each time Bruce grabs a handful of popcorn, his arm brushes against Tony and the contact thrills him just a little bit. It’s dark in the theater and if Bruce doesn’t think too much he can pretend it’s a date.
It’s late when the movie ends and Tony is driving him home. “Do you have a curfew?” Tony asks suddenly.
“No, my parents are usually pretty busy...” Bruce trails off, not wanting to get into the specifics of that situation.
“Cool.” Tony makes an abrupt right turn. “Let’s go for a drive, then.”
It isn’t a question, judging by the tone of voice, so Bruce rolls his window down and lets the warm night air flow into the car.
The car is quiet, neither of them saying anything. Bruce looks at the sky and tries to pick out constellations but Tony is driving pretty damn fast. Bruce thinks it’s maybe been half an hour of driving on roads he doesn’t recognize. They’re on the outskirts of town; he isn’t sure he’s been out here before. His family can be pretty Spartan about things—no unnecessary trips or visits.
“D’you ever get lonely?” Tony blurts out, jolting Bruce out from his thoughts. Bruce looks at him but Tony is staring ahead at the road, knuckles clenched white around the steering wheel.
“Yeah, I don’t have a lot of friends. And...my parents aren’t really around. I spend a lot of time alone.”
“I didn’t mean alone. I meant lonely. I’m almost never alone but I always feel so lonely. I’m popular, you know? I’m not supposed to feel this way.”
Bruce thinks this is a test. If he says the wrong thing, this will all shut down dramatically quickly, maybe even with Bruce being left on the side of the road. And this is maybe the most honest conversation he’s ever even had with Tony. Bruce knows that Tony is a regular person, even if he does have money and popularity and good looks, but this makes it feel real. Tony can feel vulnerable. It thrills Bruce a little bit.
He tentatively asks, “Are you happy? Maybe it’s got nothing to do with popularity.” Bruce thinks it’s bullshit the second it leaves his mouth and he’s sure Tony will agree because from Bruce’s vantage point all he can see is all of the stuff Tony has. Tony can date anyone he wants, do anything he wants. Tony’s cup runneth over or something, why wouldn’t he be happy?
“Maybe,” Tony says. “I’m taking you home now.” Some line has been crossed by Bruce. He isn’t sure what it is; he wishes he did so he could avoid it in the future. He likes this Tony who opens up and isn’t constantly dealing in façade.
When they pull up to Bruce’s house, Tony stops him before he can get out of the car entirely. “I’ll see you around.”
Bruce hums as he unlocks the front door; it’s been a good night. Any joy he felt is quickly stripped away by the sight of his father in the kitchen, surrounded by empty bottles of alcohol. He closes the door quietly and tries to sneak past, hoping his father is too drunk to notice him.
“Get in here, boy.” Bruce turns around, cringing, and walks back to the kitchen. It’ll be better if he placates his dad.
“You were out late. You got yourself a girlfriend or something?” His dad’s tone is harsh. Bruce knows that this isn’t going to go well, not if his voice sounds like this.
“No, sir, I was with a friend, that’s all.” Tony’s a friend. It’s the truth. Always best not to lie to him.
“Made things awful hard on your mom, being gone tonight.” Bruce’s heart stops for a moment, his mind filling with panic thinking about his mom and what he could have done to her.
“Is she...okay?” His brain can barely consider the implications and variations of the word okay.
His dad laughs, his chuckle dark and deep. “She will be. I gave her some things to think about. Get your ass in bed. Turn off the lights when you go.”
Bruce walks away as quickly as he can and then knocks quietly on his parents’ bedroom door. He can hear her sobbing from his side of the door.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Bruce. Just go to bed.”
It’s strange. Bruce was feeling so happy about spending time with Tony, about Tony apparently trusting him enough to share some things with him. And then he comes back to the cluster fuck of his home life. He wishes his parents would...change things. He wants to not have to worry that his dad is going to beat the shit out of one or both of them. He doesn’t like having to do mental inventory of the liquor cabinet to figure out if it’s going to be a bad night. Sometimes he wants his mom to leave. Somewhere she’d be safe, even if it means going without him. He’s getting older; he thinks he could handle his dad if he had to. If she isn’t around, he can at least fight back. For now, he worries that any lashing out on his part will only result in her getting hurt. Like always in his life, he’s powerless and that’s infuriating.
Chapter 5: trying so hard not to get caught up
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Tony is working on some sort of mechanical project—Bruce tends to stick more to playing around with chemistry—when Tony’s cell phone starts ringing. Tony rolls his eyes and answers his phone, sticking it on speaker so he can keep working. “Hello? A little busy, Vanessa.”
The name Vanessa jars Bruce’s memory. Tony’s been hooking up with some cheerleader—Vanessa, his mind fills in—according to the rumor mill. He’d had a surprise sighting of them in the hallway yesterday that seemed to confirm that. “You said we’d go out tomorrow and now you say you can’t go? What’s wrong with you?” Bruce hadn’t waited around to hear what had been said next. Thursdays are his nights with Tony and he doesn’t like to think about the fact that he’s getting Tony in trouble with his sort of girlfriend.
“Why don’t you come over and I can help you unwind a little?” She’s practically purring into the phone. Bruce tries not to feel jealous about the way she’s talking to him. He and Tony are friends but he has no claim on him at all. A crush shouldn’t make him feel so damn possessive.
“Kind of busy at the moment...Maybe I can come by later?” Tony’s voice is still all business, still sounding annoyed at the interruption of his work.
“If you’re not here in an hour, it’s done.” The connection ends and Tony drops the item he was welding onto the bench top with a loud clang. He grimaces.
“Sorry, Bruce...I gotta take care of that.”
“You should stick up for yourself.” Bruce says it before he can stop himself. There’s no need for him to comment on Tony’s relationship or hook up or whatever it exactly is.
Tony smiles wryly but doesn’t say anything else. “Come on. I’ll drop you off at your place.”
And, okay, he knows life is unfair but he wishes he had something to look forward to like that. Obviously, he wants Tony, but he wouldn’t mind meeting someone else either. He probably doesn’t deserve anyone at all but it doesn’t stop him from hoping.
Walking into school the next morning, he spots Tony hanging out by his own locker. Were they supposed to meet up? He doesn’t think so but...
“Hey,” Tony says casually. “I took your advice last night.”
Oh. “About Vanessa?” Bruce can feel his heart thumping a little bit.
“Yeah. She obviously doesn’t get how important science is. Not worth my time. But I was wondering...” Tony trails off and if Bruce didn’t know better he’d say Tony looks like he’s nervous.
Bruce’s heart skips a beat. “Yeah?”
Tony suddenly blanches. “Nevermind. I gotta go.”
For as often as they hang out, Bruce doesn’t think he’s ever gotten an accurate read on what the hell Tony thinks about. He watches Tony walk away, wondering. It bugs him for the rest of the day.
The final bell rings and Bruce is headed the hell out of there. He’s looking forward to the sanctuary of his bedroom and losing himself in things that make sense—like chemistry and physics and numbers. None of this...emotional bullshit.
“Hey, Bruce, wait up!” Phil shouts and Bruce turns around to meet him. Phil runs toward him, face flushed and wearing a huge grin.
“What’s going on?” Although Phil is generally a happy kind of guy, Bruce doesn’t know if he’s ever seen him look this excited.
“I kissed Steve last night,” Phil says conspiratorially. Wait, what? Did Phil just tell him that he and Steve kissed?
“How did you two get there—have you guys been hanging out?” Bruce is trying to figure out if he’s been that out of it lately, to miss the build up to something like that.
Phil shrugs, keeping that same grin on his face. “I mean, some, yeah. And...I figured I just had to go for it. To just kiss him.”
“That’s...that’s...awesome!” Bruce says but he’s also thinking about how simple that approach seems to be. Could he try something like that with Tony? Then there’s reality whispering into his ear, reminding him that Phil and Steve actually make sense together, that Steve doesn’t ignore Phil in public.
He listens to Phil babble all the way home and wonders if his luck will pick up soon too.
“Hey, are your parents gone tonight?” Bruce’s phone buzzes with a text from Tony.
“Yeah,” he texts back.
“Cool. See you in 20?” That text isn’t a question, more of a “this is how it is” kind of thing, coming from Tony. Bruce rolls his eyes and finishes the chapter in his book before getting up to look over his appearance. The comb doesn’t do much to his mess of curls but he thinks he looks alright. A few minutes later, a car horn blares outside of his house. He grabs his coat, locks it from the inside, and slams it shut behind him. Of course Tony wouldn’t actually knock at the door.
“What’s the plan?” Bruce asks casually as he gets into the front seat.
“Do you like seafood?” Tony says.
“Yeah, I do.” It’s actually one of Bruce’s favorite types of foods but he rarely gets to eat it.
“Alright, cool. Let’s go to Mickey’s for dinner.”
The name is familiar to Bruce for some reason and he lets it roll around in his brain until he realizes that Mickey’s is where his parents go on their anniversary. So…totally out of his price range.
Feeling awkward, Bruce says “I can’t afford that, Tony.” It’s the truth and it’s better to bring it up now.
“What? It’s fine; I’ve got it.” Tony is blasé about it, like the money doesn’t matter at all.
“You know I can’t pay you back for this.” It’s frustrating; Bruce doesn’t want to be a charity case to Tony.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s cool.”
If this were anyone other than Tony, Bruce might consider the possibility of this maybe being a date. But Tony just likes having people around, even if it means paying for whatever activity.
Dinner passes exuberantly. Tony chugs down soda after soda; the amount of caffeine he consumes explains a lot about Tony’s behavior in general. When the check comes, Tony barely glances at the check and tosses down a stack of bills. He waves the waiter away. “I don’t need change.”
They’re laughing as they walk through the front doors of the restaurant. “Isn’t this easy?” Bruce sings in his head.
It’s getting late at this point and Tony looks pensively at him. “I should get you home, probably.”
Not willing to push his luck with Tony, Bruce agrees.
The drive home is quiet, punctuated by Tony occasionally pointing out a constellation. Bruce knows them all already but listens to Tony talk about star stuff with a smile.
The car pulls into the empty driveway and Tony turns off his car. He undoes his seatbelt but Bruce doesn’t move, doesn’t dare to hope or think or breathe and break this mood.
“Bruce. Come here.” Tony’s voice is low.
He turns his head and leans toward Tony. There’s the briefest touch of lips against his own and he thinks he could die happy, having kissed Tony Stark, if only just for a second. Bruce mumbles “Okay” against Tony’s mouth. Apparently Tony takes that as an invitation and he kisses Bruce again, a little bit deeper. Then Tony moves away and Bruce slowly pulls back, moving to be entirely in the passenger seat again.
Tony laughs a little bit nervously. “So... guess I’ll see you soon?”
“I’d like that.” Bruce smiles at him and practically floats into the house. He’s glad his parents are gone tonight because he doesn’t want anything to mar the memory of this perfect evening. Maybe high school isn’t that bad.
Okay, totally wrong, high school is that bad. Because it’s Friday morning and Bruce has school and all he wants to do is stay in bed longer. He’s pretty scared and sure that he’ll go into school and everything will be exactly the same as always. He thinks something should have changed by now, maybe, the whole world feels kind of different. Turning off his alarm, he drags himself out of bed. He yawns while he picks out clothes for the day. It was maybe only a kiss but it was his first one and it was Tony and he can’t imagine how it could have been more perfect.
He’s about halfway down the hall from his locker when something cold, blue, and... sweet? is dumped on his head. Cold and wet, Bruce stands there for a moment. “Slushie,” he mutters. Two football players high five each other as they run off down the hall. Bruce doesn’t want to cry, he really doesn’t, but it’s cold and wet and he’s in the middle of the hall still and people are starting to look at him. He wipes off as much as he can on his shirt before opening his locker. And that’s how Bruce spends the rest of his Friday in gym clothes. It’s too cold out for gym clothes but he has to walk home like he always does. Part of him wants to know why it happened so he can prevent it but he figures it’ll happen again whether or not he knows why. Bruce Banner, attracting the attention of all the wrong people.
Three days have passed since the slushie incident not that he’s keeping count or anything but it is Monday after all. He’s a little concerned about whether he’ll get slushied again, so he grabs an extra set of clothes and tucks them down in his bag. He thinks for a second and adds a washcloth too, just in case. He really, really wants to text Tony and tell him what happened but Bruce thinks the kiss may be more than he deserves already. They haven’t spoken since Thursday but that’s not really strange for them—at least Bruce hopes it isn’t.
When Bruce enters the hallway of Shield High, he looks around suspiciously, scoping out the hall for any football players with a grudge. (He isn’t sure what he did but he’s a geek and fair game for anyone.) He makes it to his locker slushie free and he lets out breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Grabbing his books for the first few periods of the day, he closes the door and then turns around.
“Jesus!” He yells. There are two people standing right in front of him. How the hell did they sneak up on him?
“Nope, but I have been called god in bed before.” It’s the guy talking, blond and muscled and Bruce squints and—
“Are you on the archery team?”
“Yep. Clint Barton, at your service.” He punctuates his sentence with an eyebrow waggle and Bruce blushes a little at how provocative it is.
The girl by Clint’s side speaks. “Ignore him; he’s an idiot. Natasha Rushman.” She offers her hand and Bruce shakes it. Her handshake is firm and he can almost feel her appraising him.
“Can I...do you need something?” He’s seen the both of them around but he can’t imagine what they could possibly want from him.
“We saw you get slushied on Friday. You’re going to be one of our friends now.” Natasha says that in a way to make clear it isn’t a question or a demand but a complete matter of fact.
“Yep. What she said. Welcome to the club, Bruce.”
“You can’t just make me your friend.” But then again, who is he to be turning down friends?
“Wrong. You’re in the chemistry club, on quiz bowl. You have second period lunch and you got slushied Friday and if you hang with us it won’t happen again.” Natasha enunciated each word carefully.
“May as well give it up, Bruce. Tasha doesn’t take no for an answer.” Clint’s laughing as he says it, like he really does want Bruce to be friends with them.
“Okay,” Bruce said, admitting defeat, even if he isn’t too sure what the hell is going on. He’d really just like to get to class.
“Great! See you at lunch.” Clint smiles at him. For a second, Bruce thinks about Clint and that smile and by then Clint and Natasha have already walked off.
Bruce groans. Why couldn’t any of this ever be simple?
New characters! Obvious Glee reference!
Chapter 6: still trying to figure it out
Bruce sits at his usual table at lunch. He doesn’t know where Clint and Natasha sit and maybe the whole thing is a joke anyway. He’s proven wrong when trays slide onto the table. Natasha nods at him and Clint smiles at him lazily. They spend the lunch period eating and talking and Bruce feels pretty damn good. The slushie seems like it happened ages ago to a different person and who needs Tony? Bruce can make his own friends (even if they seem to have picked him out first).
“We decided you should be our friend a while ago but we had to wait for the right time to cement it.” Natasha says, twirling a piece of her red hair around a finger.
“Does she always talk like that?” Bruce asks Clint.
“Like she’s in some old spy movie? Yeah. Part of her endless charm.”
Natasha glares at Clint but Bruce thinks he sees some fondness in her eyes directed at Clint.
“So, heard you’ve been hanging with Stark.” Bruce is a little taken aback at how direct she is. She reminds him a little bit of Tony.
“What? No. We just... we have a class together.” Bruce lies to her because he kind of likes having this secret, hanging out with someone popular and no one else knowing about it at all.
Natasha rolls her eyes like she doesn’t buy it. “So it’s a secret, then.”
“What’s a secret?” Okay, yeah, Natasha sees right through him, despite his best efforts to be opaque.
“The fact that every Thursday you spend 1700 - 1930 with him.” Bruce blinks. That’s…uncannily correct.
“How do you even know that?” Bruce is more impressed than scared even though he should probably be unnerved by the fact that she knows all of that..
“I make it my business to know things, Bruce, especially concerning people I spend time with.”
“Did you vet me?”
Natasha smiles slowly at him. Bruce makes a mental note never to get on her bad side because he suddenly sees the destruction that smile could bring.
Bruce feels a little helpless. Clint is smirking between bites of a cheeseburger, clearly enjoying the situation.
“Anyway, Clint and I are going to the park tonight at 1800 and you should come.”
“That’s not a question, is it?”
The same smile pops back up on her face. “Good. You’re learning.”
When Bruce slinks into chemistry class, Tony doesn’t even look in his direction. He’s apparently very absorbed in his textbook which Bruce thinks is just a cover for ignoring him. What would Tony actually need to study in the textbook? When the end of day bell rings, Tony rushes out of the classroom before Bruce can even think about stopping him.
“Okay, then,” he mutters to himself. He’s not going to freak out about Tony not speaking to him.
He heads to the library, figuring he can stay there for a few hours until it’s time to go to the park. Bruce isn’t sure if his parents are home tonight and he doesn’t really want to find out.
Homework makes the afternoon pass by pretty quickly and Bruce slips on his hoodie as he leaves the library. It’s definitely fall weather but he can still fight off the chill with his hoodie. The park is almost empty except for a few joggers are running around the edges of the park.
“Bruce!” He hears Clint yell. “Come over here.”
He follows the sound of Clint’s voice to a small clearing in the trees. “Tasha isn’t here yet. You’re a little bit early and she likes to show up exactly on time.” Bruce looks up and finds Clint dangling from a tree branch.
“Is that a biohazard symbol on your hoodie? Nice.” Clint laughs and it’s something deep that reverberates in the space.
“Science dork. Can’t help it.” There’s a moment and Bruce feels Clint considering him more than is visible and then Natasha shows up and the moment shatters. Judging from the look on her face, she has a pretty good idea of what she just missed.
Clint jumps down from the tree, brushing a few leaves off his jacket. Natasha casually walks a few steps toward him and punches him in the side. “Ouch,” he complains but he’s smiling.
“We’re going to teach you to fight.”
“What? Why do I need to know how to fight?”
Natasha gives him an ‘are you kidding me’ look and calmly responds with “so you can defend yourself against those idiots at school?”
“I can’t fight them at school.” He could get expelled for fighting and that would mean not getting to go to school and he would be in serious trouble with his dad. Even the thought of it panics him.
“What if they find you outside of school?” Bruce hasn’t connected those dots yet, hasn’t considered the possibility that they might be ballsy enough to go for him while he isn't at school. Honestly, he assumed he was just under everyone’s radar.
“Exactly. Now, just observe.” And suddenly anything casual in Natasha has disappeared—she’s all business now.
Clint and Natasha fighting is something totally new and mesmerizing to Bruce. Their bodies twist and turn, blows connecting but not doing damage. The limits of their bodies are known to the other-it’s more playful than powerful although he’d hate to be on the receiving end of one of Natasha’s kicks.
“Well?” Natasha looks at him expectantly.
Bruce pushes his glasses up on his nose, smiling nervously.
“Go ahead, try to hit me.” Clint is taunting him but it’s still got that same playful energy from before. Bruce throws a fist out and Clint easily stops it.
“I’m not very good at this,” Bruce mutters.
“That’s why we’re here.” Natasha smiles at him, a real smile this time.
Maybe an hour passes before Bruce begs for mercy, citing being too damn tired to go for anymore.
“Good work.” A quirk of Natasha’s eyebrow lets him know she’s actually pleased.
“Not too bad for a newbie,” Clint says.
Bruce laughs. “I didn’t think my you guys would beat me up on my first day.”
“I’ll walk you home. It’s on my way.” Bruce is surprised by Clint’s offer and Bruce feels wary but nods acceptance. Natasha disappears in her own direction fairly quickly.
Bruce and Clint walk together and he’s a little taken aback by how nice Clint and Natasha are, albeit intimidating, especially considering they are both still in high school.
When they get to Bruce’s house, he notes the darkness in the house with relief. He doesn’t want his dad to ruin this friendship before it can properly start.
“I know we just really met today Bruce, but I was wondering if you wanted to hang out sometime, you and me?” Clint looks nervous and Bruce is trying to puzzle out why he would be nervous.
Before Bruce can respond, he watches Clint’s face tense up. He opens his mouth to ask Clint what’s wrong.
“I’d appreciate it, Barton, if you kept your paws off my boyfriend.” Tony appears out of nowhere, wrapping an arm around his waist. Bruce’s face is frozen and Clint is glaring at Tony with a thunderous face.
“Whatever, Stark. You aren’t doing a very good job protecting him. Rushman and I had to pick up your slack.” Clint shifts his gaze, turning back to Bruce. “I’ll talk to you later.” Bruce nods his assent and waits for him to get out of sight.
Bruce pulls himself away from Tony. “What do you mean, boyfriend? Since when are you my boyfriend? And what are you doing here?”
“I mean, I took you out to dinner...” Tony is turning on soft eyes, puppy dog eyes that Bruce is doing his damndest to resist.
“Yeah, and you kissed me and then ignored me the next few days. Pretty mixed signals, don’t you think?” Bruce is getting annoyed. Yeah, he gets a little bit of a thrill about Tony calling him his boyfriend but it doesn’t make sense since last he checked they aren’t even dating.
“What did Barton mean about you needing protection?” Tony changes the topic quickly.
Bruce sighs heavily. “Some football guys slushied me yesterday morning when I got to school.”
“And you didn’t tell me? I can do something to those assholes.” And there’s real anger flashing in Tony’s eyes there.
“You weren’t around, were you? When I saw you in chemistry, you ignored me and then ran out after class.” Bruce wants to be flattered by Tony caring but it feels like too little too late. He could have been around or even better actually talked to Bruce after their date.
Tony pauses, like he’s trying to remember the day before. “I wasn’t ignoring you; I just had to be somewhere.”
“Okay, and what about the weekend? Do you normally kiss someone and then ignore them?”
Tony looks a little bit gobsmacked. “It honestly didn’t occur to me...” He frowns. “Let me make it up to you.” And then Tony kisses him, a hand curling in his hair.
Bruce pulls back from the kiss even though he can’t believe the words as they come out of his mouth. “Stop, Tony.”
“What? What’s the problem?” Tony looks so forlorn and Bruce can feel his own heart beating with the effort to stay mad.
“I can’t...I can’t do this back and forth thing. You can’t just show up and tell me what to do after ignoring me for a few days.” Bruce crosses his arms, letting his body fold up into a defensive pose. He may not deserve Tony but he also wants something a little clearer than what this is turning into.
“I like you, Bruce. Sorry I’m not...great about showing it.” Tony looks almost vulnerable when he says it.
Bruce sighs and resigns himself to the fact that he can’t stay mad at Tony, not when Tony is moving towards him and slinging an arm around him.
For tonight, it’s enough. Bruce is willing to take this as progress, a small step forward in whatever this thing is between the two of them.
Chapter 7: the saddest fear comes creeping in
I updated! I'm sorry it took me forever. I'll try to do better next time? Thanks for sticking around!
Brief use of anti-gay slur.
It seems pretty simple to Bruce, really. He and Tony make sense, as much as anything in his life ever has. Bruce isn’t really concerned about the gender and sex thing; he’s a scientist in training, after all, and sexual attraction is only a part of a bigger kind of attraction. Yet…being the boyfriend of Tony Stark doesn’t change as much about Bruce’s life as he thought it might.
Natasha and Clint are firmly his friends now. They eat lunch together, hang out after school, sometimes even go to the mall and pretend to be glad to be there. Wednesdays they walk to the public library and argue over new releases. With the two of them, Bruce allows himself to think for the first time about getting out of here, away from his dad, maybe even college. Separately, it seems like none of them have a future but together they just might.
Being a secret boyfriend is hard. He sees Tony at school and wants to go up to him. He wants to be able to gush to him about something that happened in class and he has to tone it down. Bruce can’t touch Tony, of course, not the way that he wants to. He’s never had someone he wants to touch so much.
Tony isn’t one to make proclamations about things that matter and Bruce gets that most of the time. Some days, though, when the football players are tearing into him, Clint, and Natasha, it would be nice to use his trump card. He isn’t dating Tony for the perks of it, not at all, but it would be nice to get acknowledged.
If people knew he and Tony are dating, they might look at him as a person instead of just another nerd to trip in the hallways.
When Bruce finally tells Clint that he and Tony have resolved things, he isn’t expecting the vitriol from Clint that he receives. He’s just invited Clint over to play some videogames and maybe work on some homework, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to work out.
“I don’t get what you see in him, Bruce.” There’s a look of agitation on Clint’s face that Bruce has never seen before and it makes something twist in his stomach.
“He, uh, he’s really smart. And he likes me, I think.” That’s why people kiss each other, right? Because they like each other?
“Yeah? Hate to see how he treats someone he dislikes, then.” Clint says darkly.
Bruce throws a pillow at Clint. He doesn’t really want to think about what Clint’s been saying, doesn’t want to consider if maybe it’s true. It’s not like he has a slew of past experiences to draw from and he’s okay with anything that means he gets to kiss Tony more, even if the secret boyfriend thing makes him feel unwanted. Clint and Natasha tracked him down at school and befriended him; why couldn’t Tony be a little more open with his own feelings?
“I mean, do you blame him? I’m social suicide. He probably only gets away with talking to me at school because he can say he’s using me for grades.” Bruce’s joking smile falters as he tries to process whether that scene could actually be playing out.
“So? What the guy takes you out on a date, kisses you, but refuses to talk to you in public? That’s not weird to you at all?” Clint’s fingers are toying with a loose thread in the bedspread and Bruce is afraid to look up at Clint’s face.
“We talk at school sometimes! And he knows I’ve got you and Nat.” He’s got more than one friend now with Nat and Clint and Phil. And he’s also dating the most popular guy in school? He’s not exactly going to complain even if the relationship isn’t public knowledge.
“If he’s really your boyfriend, he shouldn’t be worried about what people think. I wouldn’t be.”
“What do you mean, you wouldn’t be worried?” Bruce thinks he’s got the point of what Clint’s saying, but he’s afraid to actually explore that any further.
“Never mind,” Clint says as he stands up from the bed. “I’ve gotta meet up with Nat; we’re going to catch a movie. I’m sure you and Tony will be very happy together.”
The door to his room is shut before Bruce can try to convince him to stay.
Days with substitute teachers aren’t Bruce’s favorites because it means that no real learning is going to happen. Usually the chemistry teacher leaves behind worksheets that Bruce fills out in about twenty minutes of a fifty minute class. He puts his worksheets in his bag carefully and pulls out his dog eared copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s gotten him through the past few years when he first stumbled across a copy in a used bookstore.
“Hey, fag,” Bruce hears from a few desks away. He keeps reading; he doesn’t want to assume they’re talking to him when they aren’t. Maybe if he keeps reading long enough they’ll get bored.
The next thing he sees is a blur of movement as the book is ripped from his hands and thrown to the ground. A small noise of protest leaves his throat before he can stop it.
“Can I have my book back?” He says it more calmly than he feels. Bruce looks to the front of the room, but the substitute teacher is gone and the door to the hallway is ajar. Great, they timed it.
“I don’t know… Tony, what do you think, should we give the nerd his book back?” Jason—Bruce thinks that’s this particular asshole’s name—grins as he slowly tears the cover off of his book.
Tony is silent and Bruce’s blood starts to chill. Tony isn’t even speaking up for him as a classmate, let alone a friend or a boyfriend.
He’s all too glad when the bell rings and Jason high tails it out of there. Bruce picks up the battered book and slides it back into his bag. As an afterthought, he grabs his cell phone and turns it off. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone tonight.
The next day he decides he overreacted. It’s Saturday and things don’t seem so bad anymore. Tony probably had a bad day and didn’t feel up to defending Bruce from his friends. It isn’t ideal but Bruce knows that it couldn’t have been malicious. Maybe he’ll text Tony later and they can go work on one of their science projects.
He opens his email account, humming to himself. An email from an unknown sender sits waiting for him. Normally he’d delete it, but the subject line says, you need to see this” and there’s a photo attachment. Clicking on the email, he waits for it to open. He squints at the screen. Is that a picture of Tony? He downloads the file and opens it up in full view to see Tony with a blonde girl on his lap. Tony has his arm around her waist and Tony is very pointedly looking at one part of her anatomy. She has her arms around his neck in a very proprietary gesture. Bruce closes his email, heart beating rapidly. There’s probably some rational explanation, he thinks, but he doesn’t have any idea what it could be. It’s Saturday, and he has a day full of homework, studying, and Phil had said something about going to the park later.
But then he decides that all of this isn’t okay. He texts Tony and asks him to come by. Tony shows up that afternoon, hair looking mussed and so goddamn handsome Bruce considers ignoring the email. But no, he squares his shoulders and prepares for a confrontation.
“I wanted to show you something.”
Tony arches an eyebrow at him, waiting, his face as close to innocence as it ever is.
Bruce opens up his email account and pulls up the picture, trying to ignore the heavy feeling of dread in his stomach. Maybe he should’ve ignored the whole thing as some sort of mean spirited prank.
Tony laughs but there’s something forced about it. “Oh, that? The party last night got a little out of hand, that’s all.”
“Yeah?” Bruce responds evenly. “Then how come she’s sitting on your lap and someone bothered to email it to me, saying I needed to see it?” In the picture, Tony is looking at the girl with pure lust, a look Bruce doesn’t think he’s ever received from Tony.
“It’s not a big deal. Someone’s just mad at me and sent you this photo.”
“But it’s a big deal to me! Did you kiss her? Did you make out with her?”
Bruce moves away from Tony and looks at him, taking him in.
“There’s a hickey on your neck,” he says quietly.
“It didn’t mean anything. I was drunk and she was there and it just happened, okay?” Tony’s fiddling with the sleeves of his coat and Bruce is having trouble looking away from those hands he’s spent so much time holding.
“You know, you could take me to these parties with you. We could go together.”
Tony’s face scrunches up and laughter bubbles up from Bruce’s throat.
“Right, I forgot. Popularity. That’s why we have to keep this low key and secret. I was okay with it when I thought you cared about me, but you clearly don’t. Not if you’re letting other people all over you and you couldn’t even be bothered to stick up for me as a classmate.”
The beginning of a word emerges from Tony’s mouth but it dissipates into the air.
“Go. Get out.”
Tony walks away, out of his room, and Bruce closes his bedroom door. When he hears the front door slam, he lets the panic hit him in full force. Clint has been incredibly perceptive the whole fucking time and Bruce has been too stupid to pick up on it.