It’s not as if he’s deliberately watching Tony. No one deliberately watches Tony. Tony just commands attention. He's always so composed, so strong, and Steve would admire him for it if Tony weren’t such a jerk. He’s not sure what Tony thinks of him, but he does care.
Tony is the school’s resident rich playboy, and this doesn’t bother Steve, perse, he just wished that Tony wasn’t such a stuck up prick at times, especially in class because not everyone is as smart as Tony, and no, Steve doesn’t care if Tony can teach this class. He doesn’t care if Tony’s got a MIT honours degree and still insisted on coming back to do his senior year, because he’s hanging off the back of his chair, throat bared to the world, dozing.
Steve always feels vulnerable when he tilts his head up, he knows why, it’s an instinct thing, more prominent in animals, but human are animals too, and baring one’s throat is a gesture of submission. It’s a vulnerability, an offer for someone to take advantage, and God, he wants to take advantage of Tony, he really does, but Tony’s the most popular guy in the school, and the only Steve has going for him is his recent growth spurt, and he’s still uncomfortable in his own body, knocking things over, hitting his head on the doorframe of his car on the odd occasion. He’s still not used to being taller than everyone else for a change, being able to reach the top shelf in his locker, of having the football jocks wanting him on the team.
His fingers itched for some paper to draw on now, to capture the elegant curve of Tony’s neck, the way the light plays on his throat, but he forces his attention past the brunette and to the whiteboard where there are rainbow squiggles that are supposed to represent maths that he is supposed to know how to do, but doesn’t. He put his pen back to the paper and finishes his notes before indulging in the urge to draw.
Each stroke of his pencil against the page is bold, just like Tony. He can’t draw Tony any other way, because soft, smudgy lines don’t work, they don’t define him well enough. No, what he draws is irreversible, carving a small trench in his page where his eraser can’t reach the graphite. He glances up again to see if he’s got the right proportions, not that he can change anything now, and finds Tony staring at him, his stupid, cocksure grin proudly displayed to the world. Or more specifically, right at Steve. He glances back at his page and starts a new drawing, and when he looks back up, Tony’s still grinning at him, teeth too white against his olive skin, eyes sparkling a little too much and Steve’s mesmerised, but Tony’s so bright he’s afraid that he’ll burn himself just looking.
Tony realises that he’s staring back, and something seems to crack, his fingers stiffen on the desk edge, and he wobbles on the back leg of his chair, and for a split second, he’s just a vast whirlpool of hurt and pain and things that are part of Steve’s worst nightmares, but he must be imagining things because Tony’s smiling again, twirling a pencil between two long fingers, bringing it up to his mouth to chew on the already well masticated end.
And they’re stuck like that for another few seconds before the bell rings, loud and sharp and everything that Tony is, and Tony’s gone before Steve’s snapped his book shut on his doodles.
Things go on like they always have, Tony’s laugh can be heard across the cafeteria, and Steve lets his pencil dance across the page brashly, and he’s far too fixated on Tony in his mind, but then he remembers that everyone is, and feels better about liking the genius.
After school, Tony vanishes, and no one knows where he goes.
After school, Steve has art club, and he often fiddles with the paints, Tony’s his muse, so things are always messy and the others hate him for it, Peggy scowls every time, Bucky flicks paint at him, and he just splashes water back.
Things are messy and bright and red and gold and blue and he’s not sure what he’s made so far, and he’s running out of room, so he finds some wire and paper and glue, and builds the canvas out, because Tony’s not defined by society’s rules, he makes things up as he goes, so Steve’s doing the same, and by the end of the hour, he’s got a lopsided and sticky mass of wire and glue and paper, but when it dries he’ll have more canvas to work with.
But then he remembers class, and that falter in his smile and everything that was hidden behind the mask, and he stays late to smear darker blues in the drying cracks in the paint. He locks the room behind him when he leaves, and washes his hands clean in the troughs outside, before heading home.
The school is quiet at four in the afternoon, the silence pierced by the occasional crow, scuffling its claws on the tin roofs, and a stick he just stepped on, snapping it loudly.
Then he hears it, and can’t help but come to a stop.
It’s a strangled sound, raw, harsh, and pathetic, and it scrapes at something in his chest. It’s not a nice sound, it breaks into a scream, which is quickly muffled, and he has to find this noise to make it stop, because it hurts to hear, so whatever is making it must be hurting worse.
He finds the source of the noise, which had broken down into a stream of weak sobs and whimpering words that Steve can only imagine are supposed to be some form of feeble comfort to the person, in the bathroom. One of the stalls is occupied, but the room is empty otherwise.
He knocks on the wall, away from the stall. “Are you alright?” He asks quietly, because the sobbing has fallen to an almost silence, as if the person has stuffed their hand in their mouth.
“Fuck off.” And Steve would recognise that voice anywhere.
“Tony? Are you ok?” He pauses and there is a hitched breath. Tony is trying to stay quiet. He doesn’t say anything else, and sits down, his back against the wall.
The noise rises in pitch and volume again, until Steve wants to crawl out of his skin, and the noise is tearing up his insides painfully, and he wonders what (or who) has made Tony like this. Steve doesn’t move, he just crosses his sneakers under his knees, and waits, and eventually, there is a click, and Tony steps out of the cubicle. Steve surges to his feet and ducks his head to see how Tony is.
Tony grins at him, but it’s a shadow of his usual grin, a cracked mask, too brittle to withstand anything. Steve expects him to make some cutting remark, tell him to go away, Tony’s fine now, but he doesn’t. “Gonna narc on me, Rogers?” He walks to the sink and splashes some water on his face.
“Nope.” Steve shoulders his bag, and walks halfway to the door before pausing. “Want to go somewhere?” He’s not sure why he’s asking; maybe he’s just taking advantage of Tony’s vulnerability. He glances back, and sees Tony staring, as if he spoke in an alien language. He fumbles, and tries to come up with something else to say, but he doesn’t get far.
“Yeah.” Tony shrugs and follows him.
When Steve looks back on it, he considers it a sheer stroke of luck that he stumbled upon Tony’s anxiety attacks.
When Tony looks back on it, it was far easier to say yes to Steve than he wanted it to be.
They probably wouldn’t have it any other way.