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Standard Deviation

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"We are very desperate."

"I'm not doing it," Tony repeats for what has to be the fifth—eighth?—time. "I'm up to my eyeballs in circuits and coding. I don't have time to teach a course."

"I'm sorry," Dean Fury says, leaning over his giant desk and glaring down at Tony, "it seem I phrased that as a question."

"Nick, let's stop and think about this for a second," Tony says, trying very hard to keep the panic out of his voice. He's pretty sure Fury can smell fear. "I'm selfish and neurotic and I don't play well with others. I would make a terrible professor. There's got to be someone else. Anyone else would be a better choice. Really."

"Trust me, Stark, you weren't my first choice. But Professor Pym's still in the hospital after being hit by that bus, Jones is on maternity leave, and Coulson just died." Fury smiles at Tony. It's not a nice smile. "And your grant funding is conditional on your teaching a course if requested by the university."

"You're not going to touch my funding. My research is important. If I succeed with this reactor generator, it will be huge for this school. You're not going to screw that up over one stupid course."

"No? You want to try me?"

Tony really doesn't. Fury is scary when he's like this. But he also doesn't want to teach. He's an inventor, not a teacher. If he'd wanted to teach he'd have fucked around at teacher's college for a year drawing hearts and butterflies and braiding people's hair or what-the-fuck-ever people do while they're learning how to be useless from other useless people.

"There's got to be a hundred grad students at this school. Ninety-nine of them would make better professors than me! Ask one of them to do it."

"Ninety-nine of them didn't blow up the engineering lab last month."

"That is vastly overstating the case. It was one tiny explosion. Contained!"

"Contained by the brand new engineering lab."

“It’s been fixed,” Tony protests weakly, but he knows this isn’t good. He gets it now. This isn't just bad luck or him pulling the short straw. This is punishment. Fury is actually out to get him. He's pissed and so he's going to make Tony's life a living hell for a semester as revenge.

Tony's always hated Nick Fury.

"Let me be clear, Stark," Fury continues. "This course needs to be taught. You are qualified. You will teach it. If you don't—and I know that's not going to be a problem—your funding will be cut and your research will disappear. Am I making myself clear?"

Tony swallows uncomfortably. His research is his entire life. And Dad's made it clear what he thinks of his only son and heir spending an extra two years at university while he dabbles in non-weapons related projects rather than coming to work for him and learning the business. He wouldn't bail him out. Not with this. He can just imagine how happy he'd be to see Tony forced into coming and working for him right away.

"Sir—" he tries.

Fury holds up a piece of paper. "Allow me to illustrate. You see this paper? Let’s imagine for a second that this is your grant. It pays for your research. And this is what will happen to your funding if you refuse to teach this course.” He tears the paper in half viciously. Tony winces. "I’m sure we can find other uses for it."

"I…okay, fine. I'll teach. Fine. It's just the one course, right?"

Fury bares his teeth in a caricature of a smile. "I knew you'd see it my way."

"So what's the course? Physics, Algebra, Materials?"

"Oh, didn't I mention?" Fury asks and by the note in his voice Tony knows it's going to be bad. "You've just graciously volunteered to teach Statistics for the humanities."

"Oh fuck no."

Fury continues on like Tony hasn't even said a goddamn word. "Class is at 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Professor Pym has been kind enough to provide you with his old lecture notes and text."

Tony just stares at Fury in mute horror. Stats. Stats for the humanities. He's teaching fake math to the future fast food workers of America. He's not sure anything's worth that.

"Stark," Fury barks. "What are you still doing in my office? You want to teach another course?"

Tony can't get out of there fast enough.

 

*

 

The walk home from campus takes Steve ten minutes. He walks it in a daze, still unsure whether the last half-hour of his life was real. It had to be real though, didn't it? Surely his mind couldn't have invented a class—or more specifically a professor—who was so god awful. He finds himself outside of the rundown, post-war pile of bricks that he and his three housemates call home, without really knowing how he got there. This must be what "blinded by rage" feels like.

He shoulders the door open and is greeted by Clint, who is sitting on the couch still in his pyjamas.

"Hey," greets Steve as he kicks off his shoes.

He puts his bag down at the foot of the stairs and then collapses into the giant green oversized chair opposite Clint. The chair had been Thor's contribution to the house in their second year. He'd found it on the side of the road on the way home from a pub crawl, declared it "glorious" and promptly dragged it home. At first everyone had given it a wide berth because it was, as Natasha put it, "probably infested with rats," but its spine-felting comfort soon won everyone over and now they fought over who got to sit in it. Clint especially loves big green so Steve is surprised to see him sitting on the couch. Surprise quickly turns to understanding because Clint is watching The Price is Right. Clint watches The Price is Right the way some guys watch football: religiously and vocally.

"You're home early," says Clint without taking his eyes off the TV. Steve isn't a big fan of the game show but Clint can't get enough. It's gotten to the point where he can guess the value of the showcases to within a hundred dollars. It would be an impressive skill, really, if it wasn't also totally useless. When the show switches to commercial Clint looks over at him.

Steve sighs and runs his hand through his hair, "Yeah, class let out early." Usually this would be a cause for celebration but Steve just feels like punching something. "You ever hear of a Professor Stark?"

Clint thinks for a second and then shakes his head. "What class?"

"Stats," Steve replies, trying to keep the venom out of his voice.

Clint nods slowly, "I've taken at least one stats class and I am pretty sure a guy named Hank Pym taught it. Kinda weird but seemed nice enough. I only went to two classes."

Typical Barton.

When Steve had enrolled in stats he'd looked Pym up on Rate My Prof just for kicks. According to the website Pym was supposedly on the level, really fair, and moderately hot. "That's what the course calendar said, but instead we got this Stark guy."

"And?"

"Total asshole. We asked him what happened to the original prof and his response was: 'I don't know, got hit by a bus or had a baby or died or something.' Who says that?"

Clint barks out a laugh, "Are you serious?"

"And that's not the worst of it! The guy practically threw the syllabus at us, told us to read it ourselves and kept referring to statistics as 'fake math.'" Steve feels his blood pressure rising. He has half a mind to complain to the dean. That man had been a total dick! The class had been demeaning.

"Dude, that is brutal! Do you have to take the class?"

"Yes, they're making me take at least one stats class in order to graduate. I don’t get it. How is this going to help me design websites?"

Clint grins "Well, you never know. Do you think it will be easy at least?"

Steve shrugs, "It is stats for the humanities, so I doubt it's going to be mind-altering. And honestly, I think that Stark lunatic would rather give us all A's than risk us having to repeat the class."

As Steve is talking, the front door to the house opens and Natasha comes in. She has a tea in one hand and her iPod in the other. Steve gives her a small wave. She smiles back as she sets down her things and takes off her shoes.

"How old is this guy?" asks Clint. "Is he some antique they coerced out of retirement or something? 'Cause old people hate life and generally try to drag the rest of us down with them."

"Oh please, Barton," quips Natasha, as she playfully bops him on the head with her bag.

"They do!" Clint insists looking up at the redhead. She shakes her head and takes off her jacket. Clint turns back to Steve, "No, seriously, is he old?"

"Not remotely. I think I would be a bit more forgiving if he was, but this guy is young, like maybe a couple years older than us. He isn't a real doctor yet, he's still working on his PhD. He made it pretty clear that he was teaching the course at gunpoint." Clint gives him a slightly bewildered look prompting Steve to continue, "His opening line was, 'Hi everyone, I am the poor sucker that will be teaching you saps.'"

"Wait, what's this?" asks Nat, retrieving her tea and joining Clint on the loveseat. He scoots over to make room for her.

"My stats prof," replies Steve. "Let's just say it’s going to be a long twelve weeks."

"He threw the syllabus at them!" Clint adds.

Natasha raises an eyebrow, "Seriously?"

"Yes," Steve pauses, "Well, he set them down at the front of the room and told us all to take one. Then he said we could read it on our own time and if we weren't bright enough to understand it, we could direct our questions to the TA."

"Wow," says Clint.

"Yeah, the poor TA looked like he wanted the earth to swallow him."

"And what happened after that? Did the prof just leave?"

"Yep."

"No!"

"Oh yeah, he told us to come get a syllabus then said 'see you next class' and left."

"What did the syllabus say? Anything helpful?" asks Nat.

Steve leans over the armrest of the chair and grabs his bag. He rummages through it before finding the slightly crumpled sheet of paper and handing it over to Natasha. He gives her a second to look it over and then waits for her reaction.

"Where's the rest of it?" she asks, holding it up and flipping it over. "All it says is the TA's name, e-mail address and phone number—the prof's name isn't even on here."

"I know," says Steve, exasperation heavy in his voice.

Natasha keeps staring at the sheet, "And then it says, 'Read a chapter per week, you figure it out.'" She keeps reading, "Assignment one due week 4, test week 6, assignment two due week 8, exam during scheduled examination period."

Clint bursts out laughing, "You are so screwed!"

Natasha leans forward, passes Steve back the syllabus and pats him on the knee in mock sympathy, "Well, Steve, good luck with that."

Steve takes the syllabus from her and flops back into the chair. He has the urge to call his Mom suddenly; she'd get a kick out of all this. He squashes the urge and instead begins to mentally go over his courses, cataloguing due dates.

It's going to be an interesting semester, that's for sure.

 

*

 

Staring into the open, optimistic faces of the students in his Stats for Humanities class, Tony Stark has only one thought: he hates his life.

For the next twelve weeks he is going to be holding the hands of a bunch of slack-jawed idiots as they venture into the terrifying world of extremely basic math.

No amount of coffee is going to make this better.

"Alright, everyone, who read chapter one of the textbook?"

A couple kids raise their hands. They are all sitting in the front row, except for a blond guy sitting three rows back to the right. Keeners, thinks Tony. No one reads the textbook, let alone the first chapter.

"Really? The first chapter?" Tony glances over at Bruce, who just shakes his head. "Well, good for you, I guess, but that's going to take all the surprise out of today's lecture. I am starting this farce of a class by giving you a list of definitions." They appear on the powerpoint. "I am not reading that to you. And honestly, if you didn't know the definition of 'variable' before you started, then I fear for the future of America."

He hits to advance to the next slide. A hand shoots up from the fifth row. Oh God. This is not his life.

"You don't seriously have a question about the definitions?"

"No, you just advanced too fast. Can you go back a slide?"

"No. The notes are online, print them off next time. Or better yet, go green and bring your laptop." Tony turns back to the slide. "Okay, next we are going to discuss the different types of variables. Quantitative uses meaningful numbers. Categorical puts individuals into groups. Questions?"

A hand goes up near the back. Tony sighs.

"You know that was a rhetorical 'questions,' right?"

"What?"

"Never mind. Please, share your question with the class." Tony makes a sweeping gesture and schools his face to look somewhere between professional and contemptuous.

"Are dates quantitative or categorical?"

"Can you subtract October 5, 1956 from June 31, 1987?"

"Would I want to?"

"That's not what you asked."

"Uh…"

"All dates are numbers, right? Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a year. However if you wanted to know during which month do people buy the most vodka then a specific month would be considered categorical. But each month has been assigned a number which makes them quantitative. January is represented by a one, etcetera. So what's twelve minus three?"

"Nine?"

"Or…?"

The student stares blankly. God, this is not that hard.

"C'mon, when would we need the most vodka?"

"September?"

"We have a winner! Did that clear things up for you?" Fearing that the moron might actually answer that question—or worse, ask another—Tony quickly hits the enter key to advance to the next slide. "Oh, look, graphs!"

The next ten minutes are spent looking at histograms and pie charts and really, Tony hates his life. The whole time he receives blank stares he silently curses Nick Fury, the faculty of engineering and Professor Pym, whoever the hell he is.

 

*

 

"Okay kiddos, let's get down to the exciting world of hypothesis testing," Professor Stark says from the front of the room, rolling his eyes to make it clear exactly what he thinks of the class he is teaching. It’s only been two weeks since class started and Steve wants to punch his prof in the face. Ten minutes in he can already feel a headache coming on.

"Hypothesis testing is very straightforward, so even this class should be able to grasp it. Basically, we're using a sample to systematically test a claim about a given group or population," he says, clicking forward to the first slide of the powerpoint. "Okay, these are the steps to test your hypothesis. First, you state your hypothesis, then you set your criteria for deciding whether or not the claim is true, then you put together your sample and measure it to compute the test statistic and then you make a decision: was your hypothesis true? See, easy, right?"

Professor Stark gets that annoyed, contemptuous look on his face that Steve has learned means that someone has raised their hand.

"You know how in your hand holding kumbaya classes they told you there are no stupid questions? Well, there are," he says. "But hey, sure, let's reserve judgment. Let's hear your question and then we can decide if it's stupid. Hey, this can be our example. The claim is that there are no stupid questions so that can be our null hypothesis. My alt hypothesis is that more than zero percent of humanities students' questions are stupid. We'll set significance at five percent, since that's what's done with behavioral research studies. And now it's time to test our sample, so let's hear it. What's your question?"

"Um," a student somewhere behind Steve says, "What?"

Steve wants to sink down in his chair with shared embarrassment.

"That's your question?"

"I’m confused," the student says. "Why are we going through all these steps to figure out the significance of a sample, why not just look at the population directly?"

"So you want to test every single member of a population? Sure, let's look at every single question a humanities student has ever had instead of just looking at the stupidity I deal with in this class alone. You have a couple of years to tabulate and analyze all the questions, right? What if our group is the population of the United States of America? Do you want to poll every single citizen of this country for your research?"

"Um. No?"

"Right. So there we have it. So now based on our sample size of the twelve questions I've gotten from this class since I started and the fact that 100% of them were stupid, we are all the way over on the other tail of the curve and we can reject the claim that there are no stupid questions and accept our alt hypothesis that yeah, there really are."

Steve looks down and realizes that he's squeezed his pen so tight it's cracked and his hand is now covered in ink. Great. That was just what he needed. He sighs and rips a page out of his notebook to try to absorb the excess ink off of his hand before digging out a new pen. This class makes him so angry. Who does this guy think he is? He has half a mind to walk out right now, go to the faculty office, and issue a complaint. The guy's a total dick. Yeah, maybe it was a stupid question, but was it really necessary to embarrass and belittle the poor guy in front of everyone? The only thing keeping him in his seat is knowing that the jerk upfront would probably consider driving his students to leave as some kind of petty victory.

When Steve looks up again he realizes that he's missed several slides and the lunatic up front is now walking the class through an example. Well, he read this chapter in the textbook. He should be able to follow this easily enough.

"—the force of gravity upon an accelerating projectile is 9.81 meters per second squared—well, okay, it's actually 9.80665 meters per second squared but for our purposes today we'll just use the more widely used standard because you guys are humanities majors and probably not used to that many decimals—right, so the claim is it's 9.81 meters per second squared but you think that because of the force of acceleration and because you're humanities majors and don't understand how separate forces work, you think it's actually greater than that. So the null hypothesis is that the gravitational force is 9.81 meters per second squared and the alt hypothesis is that the gravitational force is greater than 9.81 meters per second squared. So that's the first step in hypothesis testing. We've stated our hypotheses. The next step is to set the level of significance that will determine whether or not we'll decide the null hypothesis is true."

Steve stares at the front. What? Gravity? He flips through the printed off notes and reads the slides a second time. Steve learned last week that what Stark says in class and the content of the slides don’t always compute. For one, Steve is positive that Stark leaves out steps in his calculations. His version of standard deviation and the one in the textbook are worlds apart. Steve wonders if maybe Stark is like his grandma, who only gives out complete recipes to people she likes. Maybe he only gives proper equations to students who are worthy. Honestly though, this hadn't seemed so complicated when he read the chapter last night. Why are they looking at the statistical significance of gravity? He is so confused… In any other lecture this is the point where he'd put up his hand and ask for clarification. But since he'd rather not be made fun of and called a moron in front of the entire class, Steve keeps his hand down.

He sure feels like a moron though. He looks around to see if any of the other students look as lost as he does. The girl next to him is creeping facebook. The guy in front of him is texting. Is he the only one who's struggling to understand this?

Maybe texting guy has the right idea. Clint said he took Stats, maybe he can help him. He slides his phone onto his lap and texts him: < What do you know about hypothesis testing? >

Clint texts back: < It's how u test ur hyp? >

He sighs. Real helpful, Clint. Thanks.

"…Now the most widely accepted way of working with gravity is Einstein's theory of general relativity, but since it's much simpler and due to your collective lack of scientific knowledge, we'll stick with Newton's law of universal gravitation, which gives sufficiently accurate results for most applications involving sufficiently small masses, speeds and energies…"

Steve doesn't even know what Stark is talking about anymore. How did they end up discussing Einstein and Newton's theories in a class about stats?!

< I'm in stats class and I don't understand the prof's crazy hypothesis testing example. Do you remember anything? I'm so confused. >

< No. That knowledge ship sailed as soon as I handed in my final exam. >

Of course. Sometimes Steve doesn't understand how Clint hasn't been put on academic probation yet. The guy is a total slacker. He doesn't go to any of his classes, crams at the last minute, forgets everything he learned the moment he doesn't need it anymore…and somehow he's still getting A's in all his subjects. Clint was his last hope and now he only has one option left.

Life is not fair.

"…and checking the p-value, we find that there was a ninety-five percent chance of obtaining the sample outcome, which as I'm sure you guys could figure out at least this much, is greater than the five percent we decided we needed to retain the null hypothesis. So our test did not reach statistical significance and we retain our null hypothesis that the force of gravity is in fact 9.81 meters per second squared. Questions?"

No hands go up. Steve's not surprised. Who would risk asking a question after that?

"Fantastic!" Stark says checking his watch. "And we're even early. Wow. Okay, we'll continue on with types of error next class. Now it's time to blow this pop stand!" Stark snaps his laptop closed with a flourish, as the students launch themselves out of their seats in an effort to escape the classroom.

Steve gathers up his stuff and heads over to catch Stark before he takes off. If Stark is going to call him an idiot, he'd rather he didn't do it publicly. He walks over to where Stark is checking his phone, standing in front of the TA who is sitting in the front row looking tired.

After fiddling on his phone for a moment Stark holds it out and gestures excitedly. "Great news, Bruce! I got another seven students to drop my class. High five!" he exclaims, holding out his hand.

Bruce just stares at him with undisguised exasperation.

At least someone involved in the administration of this class is normal.

"Oh come on, Brucey! Don't leave me hanging here! That’s seven less tests we have to mark!"

Steve doesn’t even know how to react to that declaration—where did they find this lunatic? He braces himself and then clears his throat. Stark turns around.

"Oh no," he says. "I already asked if there were any questions. No, no, no. I'm done now, no questions. You'll have to wait until next class."

"My question's a little bit complicated," Steve says as politely as he can. "I didn’t want to ask it in class. I'd actually like to meet with you to go over it during your office hours. See, I'm having some difficulty with the material…"

"What?"

Now who's asking stupid questions, Steve wants to snark at him, but he really does need help so instead he replies "I want to meet with you during your office hours, please."

"Heh, office hours, that's a good one. I don't have an office," Stark says. He looks back at where his long-suffering TA is gathering up his stuff. "Bruce! Do I have an office?" Bruce gives him a look that asks very plainly what he ever did to be stuck with Stark. Steve commiserates. Stark turns back to Steve, "Yeah, no, I don't do office hours."

"Well, can I make an appointment?"

"No. It's bad enough that I need to teach this class three times a week. I'm not meeting with students outside of class time too. That's my time, you can't have it."

"But you're our professor," Steve says as reasonably as he can. Is he honestly arguing with this guy over extra help? He reminds himself that throwing something at Mr. Stark-Mad will not get him the extra help he needs. "It's your job to meet with us when we have issues."

"No, I'm pretty sure that's why I have Bruce," Stark says and he points over to where Bruce was sitting. Looks like someone was smart enough to know when to bail. Steve wishes he had that option.

"I emailed Bruce and he kindly suggested that my professor would be the best person to help me resolve my difficulties with the lecture material," Steve says evenly. Actually, Bruce's email had been more along the lines of 'he's got bats for brains, sorry, I haven't got a clue' but somehow he restrains himself from throwing that in Stark's face.

"But it's STATS! What possible clarification could you need? This stuff is easy! Forget being real math, this isn't even real stats! It's fake stats!"

"Look," Steve snaps, "no one has any clue what the heck you're talking about. I just need more of an explanation."

"Well…have you tried reading the textbook?" Stark asks. Before Steve can answer, he continues, "No, wait, of course you have. You're in the humanities. I bet you read the first chapter too."

"Yes, I did," Steve says. He's not going to apologize for trying to learn. "Look, I get that this course is so beneath you or whatever, but you do understand that we're taking stats because we haven't learned this yet, right?"

"Fake stats," Stark interjects, which is not even remotely an answer to Steve's question.

He sighs. "Can you please just explain what you meant with the example about what the force of gravity is and how it impacts on a missile? I didn't follow any of that. I thought gravity was just, you know, gravity?"

"Oh God save me from dumb jocks," Stark groans, giving him a look like he's just discovered Steve is particularly stupid. Steve clenches his jaw to avoid snapping at him. He reminds himself that he doesn't want to be expelled for decking a prof. Not in his senior year. He just needs this course to pass and there’s no way he’ll give this guy the satisfaction of dropping it. Stark continues, "Okay, fine, clearly you need the help, so how about you come by the engineering lab tonight at eight. You do know where that is, right? I mean, you being in the humanities and all."

"I know where it is," Steve snaps, before turning and stomping off.

If he didn't need this class to graduate, he would drop it in a heartbeat just to never have to deal with Professor Jackass ever again.

 

*

 

Tony's taking apart this circuit for the fifth time when there's a knock at the open lab door. Ugh, it's not that time already is it? He glances at the clock. Eight o'clock on the dot. Mr. Blond pokes his head in the door. Well, at least he can tell time. These days he's not willing to give his students even that much credit. Bruce showed him a couple of the emails the students had sent him, they ranged from, “How much are the two 15% assignments worth?” to “What grade do I need to get on the exam if I don’t do the assignments?”

"Hi, I'm Steve, I'm one of your students… We had an appointment to go over some of the material I was having trouble with?" Aw, yes, Mr. Tall, Blond, What’s Gravity?

"Welcome,” Tony declares putting down the circuit and gestures him over to one of the work desks. “You planning on blocking the doorway all night, Steve, or are you going to come in?"

"I was just being polite," he mumbles. Steve dumps a couple textbooks off the sad looking wheely chair in the corner and pushes it over to the desk. So, maybe Tony could have prepared a bit better for this rendez-vous. Steve casts his eyes around the room. "So…isn't this kind of late for a school appointment?” he asks. “Shouldn't you be home by now or something?"

Small talk? Really? Yeah, sure, Tony’s not busy or anything. He’s happy for Steve to come waste his time.

He can’t believe he's interrupting his research for this crap.

Tony shrugs and picks up a screwdriver, flips it over, once, twice. "As far as I'm concerned, I am home."

Steve gives him a puzzled look, "You live here?"

"Most days. Since this is where my real work gets done," Tony says. "When I'm not being forced to interrupt it to teach students fake math, I mean.” He puts down the screwdriver. “Now let's get this over with. I don't live for teaching stats, you know."

"Oh, I know," Steve says and Tony hears the exasperation in his voice. What has he got to be exasperated about? Is he writing his dissertation on inventing a new energy source? "You have made that abundantly clear."

Tony gives him a toothy grin, "Great, then let's get this over with so that I can get back to stuff that actually matters."

"Um, yeah, okay, I don’t want this to take long either. I wanted you to go over your example on hypothesis testing again. I got really confused by it in class."

Right. He needs help with this, really? Well, it's simple enough to go over. Tony can talk about physics and dynamics in his sleep. He's pretty sure he has on a couple of occasions, actually.

He runs through the example again, explaining that the null hypothesis is that the force of gravity is 9.81 meters per second squared, even on an accelerating missile, whereas the alt hypothesis is that it's greater than that. He sets up the level of significance, he comes up with a data sample and then does the calculations to account for the force of the missile. He walks through the steps to calculate the mean which, really, even humanities students have to know how to do that by now. And then he's only left with retaining the null hypothesis. Easy peasy.

He looks over at Steve, who has a glazed look on his face. Oh God, this is basic, basic stuff. How is this his life?

"Should I go back to the beginning?" Tony asks. He puts as much exasperation as he can into his tone, making it clear exactly what he thinks of that, willing the student to just give this up.

"Please," Steve says instead.

Fuuuuuuck. No, no more. How can he make this any simpler? It’s gravity not thermonuclear astrophysics.

"Okay, so," Tony says, speaking as slowly as possible, "a hy-po-the-sis is a theory of what's going to happen. But you need to test that theory. You can't just say that because you think something is true that means it is, you have to test it first. That's where hypothesis testing comes in. Going into testing you have two hy-po-the-ses—that's the plural of hypothesis, by the way—the first is that your theory is true, the other is that it's not true."

"…I know that," Steve says, sounding exasperated.

"Easy there," Tony says, "You're getting awfully offended for a guy who thought gravity was just, like, you know, gravity."

"As you keep pointing out, I'm in the humanities. I don't study physics!"

"No, no, of course not, you're right. Listen, if this stuff is too complicated for you, I'm more than happy to try to come up with some other examples that your artsy brain can actually handle," Tony lies blatantly. He won't be happy to come up with them, and he's not sure he can dumb this down enough anyway. “Let’s see, are all puppies cute? Oh wait, is this too complicated? Should I have gone with kittens instead?”

Steve glares at him, but his words have the hoped for effect. Steve stands angrily and shoves his stuff back in his bag. Finally.

"Just forget it," he snaps. "I'll figure it out myself."

"Great, you do that," Tony says, watching with delight as Steve storms out of his lab. "Glad to be of help! Bring coffee next time!"

As the door swings shut behind Steve, he can swear he can hear him mutter, "I'll bring him coffee alright. How about an espresso shot to the face?"

Tony can't help but chuckle at that.

 

*

 

Tony presses the heels of his palms into his eyes and glances at the clock. It is almost eight o'clock. Huh. He could have sworn it was a little after three. Wasn't it three like twenty minutes ago? Shit, that means he's just spent the better part of a day working on this seemingly simple experiment. If his calculations are correct, and so far they haven't been, by feeding stable iridium an extra electron, he should be able induce the radioisotopes to react with the palladium and the hydrogen and voila! Power! Except of course the "voila" stage isn't going as planned…

Tony stares at the data on his computer screen. His brain hurts and he's only vaguely aware of a pounding noise inside his head. Time to face facts, Stark. He needs to run the test again. Tony groans and slumps forward over the keyboard.

Maybe he is going about this all wrong…if he uses the non-stable iridium isotope then…if the hydrogen gives up its electron… He erases a couple of lines of data and rejigs the calculations. It registers to Tony that the pounding in his head is actually someone knocking on the door to the lab. Which is ridiculous because no one knocks, unless Strange is locked out again. So he ignores it. Okay, so if the hydrogen is reacting with the palladium to create a thermo—

The knocking persists.

Sighing with exasperation, Tony pushes his chair back, stalks across the lab and throws open the door, "I swear to god, Strange, if you lost your keys again I—"

Except it isn't Strange. It's that blond guy from a couple days ago, the one who didn't know his ass from his elbow and insisted on wasting Tony's time. Shit, what's his name?

"Uh, hi," says Blondie, looking a little startled.

"Hi…" Tony says slowly, suspicious. "You lost?" The blond guy narrows his eyes, but really lost is the only reasonable explanation for why this guy is at the door to his lab. "I think you might be lost. Take the third door on your left, go down to the ground floor, take the fourth door on the right, go outside, head East across campus, Arts Quad will be on your right, you can't miss it. Should I draw you a map?"

Blond guy's—no, Steve! Right, his name is Steve Rogers—face twitches as he takes a deep steadying breath.

"Uh, no, I’m not lost. I, uh, wanted to ask for help again." He gives Tony a strained smile.

Tony stares at him in disbelief. He came back for more? Really?

"I brought coffee," says Steve, face hopeful. He holds up Starbucks.

Tony glares at him but takes the cup and holds open the door to the lab. Steve brushes past him and goes straight for Tony's workspace, eyes sweeping over the messy workbench, lingering on the piles of papers, laptop and scraps of metal. Tony follows him over, kicks an empty chair towards Steve before flopping into his own seat. He takes a sip of the coffee.

"Holy shit!" Tony exclaims, holding the coffee out in front of him.

Steve jumps at Tony's outburst. "What?" he asks.

"This is my coffee," Tony stares at Steve in disbelief. "Like, this is the coffee I always order."

Steve is staring at him, brow furrowed. "Is that a problem?" His voice is unsure.

"No!" says Tony quickly, "It's great - it's more than great. Thank you. But - how did you know?" Tony pauses, "Can you read minds?"

Steve smirks. "No, but I can read."

Does he want a medal? Tony waits for him to continue.

"You come into stats with the same coffee every class, right? Venti black eye," Steve says and gestures to the side of the coffee cup, "They mark it on the side. I dunno, I remembered that you always have two espresso shots in your coffee." He shrugs, "I asked the lady at Starbucks and that's what she said it was called. The only thing I didn't know was if you added cream, but I had a feeling you took it black."

"Huh," Tony nods and takes another sip. He can't help it, he's impressed. Not only that Steve observed and remembered his coffee preferences but that he came back with the coffee in the first place. If Tony were a betting man and someone had asked him the odds on Steve coming back for more help after that first session, Tony would have said a thousand to one. Tony would owe someone money right now. Lots of money. Because not only did Steve come back, he brought coffee. That took stones. It probably meant swallowing his pride too, which if the situations were reversed Tony is sure he'd never have been able to do.

"Alright, what do you need help with?" asks Tony as he brushes his work into a pile at the end of the bench.

Steve pulls out a spiral notebook and the text out of his bag and sets them on the desk. "Hypothesis testing. I am sorry. I'm really not getting the examples. I think I understand it in theory, but why would I use it on a constant like gravity?"

Ugh. Not this again. Tony fights the urge to kick him out of the lab or hit his head off the desk. Didn't he get that it was just an example? What is so hard about pretending that gravity wasn't constant? "Okay, forget gravity. Just put that out of your mind, it isn't important." Steve is giving him that look again and Tony can tell he's about five seconds away from losing his temper. "Seriously," says Tony, raising his hands to placate, "we're forgetting that gravity example ever happened. Hypothesis testing is just what it sounds like."

The tension in Steve's shoulders eases. "Alright, I get that I am testing a query," he says, "but when do I use that as opposed to a z-test?"

"A z-test is part of it."

"But I thought…" Steve starts flipping through his notes.

Tony cuts him off. "The z-test is used to test hypotheses concerning the mean in a single population with a known variance."

Steve stops pawing through the text, giving Tony his undivided attention.

"Okay, so say you were looking at…" Tony thinks, what do normal guys like? "…cars. Say you are looking at cars, but just this one kind of car. What kind of car do you drive?"

"I don't drive a car," says Steve, looking a little puzzled, "I have a bike."

"Like a pedal it yourself kind of bike? 'Cause not only does that kind of suck for you but that really isn't going to work for this example."

Steve chuckles, "No, it's a 1948 Indian Chief."

Tony whistles, "Nice." That is a fine piece of machinery. "Does it have the original skirted fenders?"

Steve nods, "Yeah, actually, it took a long time to get them, one was rusted badly and one was missing."

"What kind of engine? Did you go with fuel injection, 'cause that's not really retro."

"Nope, I kept it classic, 74 cubic inch engine. It doesn't get as much power, but who cares? It still gets up to 85 mph. It was a bitch to repair, had to special order everything."

"You did it yourself?" Tony wouldn't have called that, never would have pegged this guy as a gearhead.

Steve looks at his hands. "Everything I could. I mean some stuff was way beyond me, but I know my way around a bike. If you're interested you should come see it." Steve is smiling like he genuinely wants to show off the motorcycle. Tony can't blame him. He loves showing off his babies too.

Before really considering the implications, Tony finds himself saying, "Sure I'd love to check it out. What are you doing now?"

Strictly speaking this might not be appropriate. He recalls Fury blabbing away about professionalism and ethics and obligations. Tony decides he doesn't care, he's looking at a motorcycle, not accepting sexual favours. Fury can go fuck himself.

Steve gives him an odd look, "Getting help with stats?" He is eyeing Tony wearily like it might be a trick question.

Tony sighs, "Not right now. I meant after."

"Oh, nothing I guess. You want to come see it after this?"

"Why not?" It's not like Tony has a pile of research to wade through before his meeting with Dr. Richards in two days. Oh well, he just won't sleep tomorrow, probably wasn't going to anyway.

Steve grins, "Sure." His eyes shift to his open textbook again, "So, say I was looking at cars?"

Tony pushes aside any more questions he has about the bike. Right, fake math. "Okay, you are looking at a car, a single variable, and…"

Twenty minutes later, Steve pushes back from the bench declaring, "Oh my God, that is so easy." He's almost laughing.

Tony throws down his pencil. He'd been furiously scribbling out the calculations with Steve. Writing out standard deviation by hand is such a bitch. Tony grins at Steve, "I think you were just getting ahead of yourself."

"No, I think you just enjoy making things complicated," retorts Steve.

"What? No way. It isn't my fault that you can't follow some simple examples."

Steve gives him an incredulous look, "Any example that involves the laws of thermodynamics is not simple."

Okay, so maybe that's fair, but he only did that once, and that was because that guy in the second row from the back was being an ass and asking too many questions. Like, really dumb questions.

"I think I've said this before," starts Steve, "but you do know that none of us have taken this before, right? It isn't a refresher course."

Tony pinches the bridge of his nose. "Yes, I’m aware, but it is so basic." It’s so basic it hurts.

Steve just shakes his head. "Then use basic examples. I think it would make your life easier."

"How so?"

"It might put a stop to the stupid questions, for one," replies Steve. He closes his notebook and replaces it in his backpack.

Tony laughs, Rogers might actually be onto something. "But, I've worked in time for stupid questions into all of my lesson plans!"

Steve rolls his eyes and shoulders his bag. "I'm sure you'll manage." He stands and stares at Tony expectantly. What now? "Did you still want to see my bike?" asks Steve.

Oh right! Tony eyes the clock, it is a little after nine. He can totally take a break, yeah sure, why not? Plus it's a 1948 Indian Chief, that’s like a little piece of American history. He's always wanted a bike, this could be research.

Tony stands and grabs his jacket, "Yeah, sure let's go."

They walk West across campus and into the one of the many student ghettos surrounding the university. Tony thinks he recognizes a street they pass from a past house party. Or was it a walk of shame? Either way he'd probably been drunk. Tony checks his phone while they walk. He missed the Jets game.

"Fuck!" he exclaims, staring at his phone.

Steve stops walking, "What?"

"Sorry. Jets lost," says Tony, a little defeated. He shoves his phone in his pocket. Damn it.

"Yeah, I watched a bit, it wasn't pretty. Cromartie totally fumbled that play."

Tony sighs, "Jesus, they need to get their act together."

They resume walking. Steve gives Tony a rundown of the game until he stops in front of an extremely modest two-storey brown brick house. The front yard is dominated by a large oak tree and there's no lawn to speak of, just patches of scraggly grass and mud. The driveway looks like a patchwork quilt except with large chunks missing. Steve leads him up the driveway and around the back to a small shed. Steve pulls out his keys and fiddles with them until he finds the right one. The shed is secured by a small padlock that Tony is fairly confident he could pick with a toothpick. Steve pulls the doors open and fumbles in the dark for a light while Tony waits outside. There's a clicks and the shed is bathed in a warm buttery light. The space is dominated by the bike, hidden under a dust cloth. The inside of the shed features a small work bench littered with various tools and parts.

"So this is where the magic happens?" asks Tony.

Steve laughs, "Yeah, something like that." Steve pulls off the dust cloth and stands back, lets Tony in to look around. Tony can't help himself, he has to touch. It's obvious that Steve has put a lot of time and effort into the bike's restoration even though he probably didn't have a lot of resources. He runs a finger over the leather of the seat, the chrome of the handlebar, the cover of the engine. Steve is smiling, clearly a proud papa.

"She's gorgeous," says Tony, letting awe creep into his voice. "How long has it taken you to…?" He trails off, waving a hand to encompass the whole bike.

"Well, I got it shortly after I turned sixteen. It used to be my dad's. I've been working on it ever since."

Tony can tell that Steve is trying to be casual but his face betrays him. This bike means the world to him.

"Well, you can tell. You've done a great job," he says. "Can I take a look?" He gestures to the engine block.

"Knock yourself out," says Steve with a shrug.

Tony pulls off his jacket and tosses it aside and grabs a screwdriver. Within thirty seconds he has the cover off the engine and his hands covered in grease. Steve crouches next to him, watching him work. Tony asks the occasional question which Steve is able to answer. Turns out he built the engine with a buddy's father the year before coming to school.

"You having trouble with the transmission? Especially first and second gear?" asks Tony, squinting at the engine.

Steve looks surprised for a second. "Yeah, I've been trying to work it out."

"Here, pass me that wrench. You just need to…okay now pass me those pliers…and that ought to do the trick."

Tony realizes that he might have just crossed a line, gotten a little carried away because Steve is staring at him, eyes wide. But then he smiles – a genuine smile. "Wow. Thank you, Mr. St—"

Tony cringes. "Tony, please call me Tony, we're not in class, and quite frankly Mr. Stark sounds like he’s at least thirty. Or my dad. And yeah, just no." He puts the cover back on the engine, resisting the urge to continue fiddling. Steve tosses him a rag to clean the grease off his hands.

"Alright, thank you, Tony." He throws the dust cloth back over the bike.

"Y'know, if you like cars you should come see my babies. I only have the Mustang and the Jag here, the rest are back home, but I've done a lot of custom work. They are magnificent, even if I do say so myself."

Steve is looking a little awed. "You have a Mustang?"

Hadn't he just said so? "Yes…"

Steve must sense his confusion because he immediately says "Sorry, it's just that I don't know too many grad students with a luxury car collection."

True, it's not something he advertises. He generally doesn’t have to. Most everyone already knows who he is, especially in the engineering faculty. Plus, nothing loses you the respect of your peers quite like flaunting your wealth, especially while they tell you horror stories about how they got scurvy one year from eating nothing but Mac n' Cheese for six months. Tony's sure he's been dangerously close to malnourished but that was just because he forgot to eat for a week that one time.

"You ever heard of Stark Industries?" he asks.

Steve thinks for a moment, "No."

"Oh. Well, it's a company my family owns." He shrugs. "It's, uh, big."

"Wait, are you some sort of Paris Hilton equivalent?" asks Steve.

Tony's jaw drops. "You did not just compare me to Paris Hilton, Rogers. There's no way you just made that comparison. My ears must have deceived me." Tony tries to hold onto his indignation but Steve is laughing and he can't stop the smile from creeping up his face. "You are such an ass," he laughs.

Tony checks his phone. Shit, it’s 10:30. He really needs to get back to the lab.

"Well, Steve, I need to get back to work. Thanks for bringing me by. I am serious about you coming by to check out my cars. What's your number?"

Steve pulls out his phone and rattles off his number. Tony adds it to his contacts and sends Steve a message: < This is the illustrious Anthony E. Stark >

Steve snorts once his phone chimes the text's arrival. "I'm adding you as Professor Stark, just so you know."

Tony groans, "Whatever blows your skirt up. I'm adding you as Magic Mike."

Steve gapes at him. “Are you actually admitting to having seen that movie?”

Tony laughs. “No, God no, though one of my girl friends saw it and she wouldn’t shut up about it for a week. It was a very long week.”

Steve just shakes his head. He locks the shed and walks Tony down the driveway. "You know your way back to campus?"

"Yeah, I got it, thanks." He slides his coat on. "Catch you later." He starts walking down the quiet street towards the university.

"See you in class, thanks for your help."

Tony waves goodbye over his shoulder. For some reason he's smiling. He feels almost giddy even though his thesis isn't cooperating, he has a meeting with his supervisor in two days and he still has to write that fucking stats test.

Chapter Text

"Come on, Steve. You can still sign up. The season's only barely started," Brian says over the low thump of the music and the din of people mingling on the lawn.

Steve winces. He feels bad. He and Brian have played on the same Ultimate Frisbee intramural team since freshman year. He does feel a bit like he's letting the team down, but he's a senior now. His focus needs to be on his schoolwork and lining up a job for after graduation. He’s decided that this year school comes first. Besides, he really needs to bring his GPA up again.

"Sorry, man," Steve says, taking another swallow of beer. Brian looks like he’s waiting for more of an explanation but Steve doesn’t feel like going there. It’s a party after all.

The music is loud, but the party is surprisingly tame considering that coming here was Thor's idea. Someone’s brought an ipod dock out onto the porch. It’s blaring the Black Keys, which the neighbours must be loving. There has to be twenty people in the backyard, but the party isn’t out of hand. No one's jumping off the roof or streaking across the lawn—he hasn't even seen a single keg stand! Which is surprising, but not unwelcome. Steve likes the occasional party as much as the next guy but he doesn't know if he could handle one of the crazy shindigs he's come to expect from Thor tonight. And really, it's nice to drink beer with his friends in some random person's backyard without worrying that the night is going to end with him being arrested.

"We really could use you…"

Or at least it would be if he wasn't having a guilt trip laid on him.

"Sorry," Steve says a little more firmly, then tries to change the subject, asking "So how's your term going so far?"

"Oh, it's going well enough, I suppose. My thesis advisor's pushing me pretty hard this year, but somehow I still think I'll find time to do it all." Brian gives Steve a meaningful look.

"Good for you," Steve says. He smiles thinly and takes another drink. He's not rising to that bait.

Actually, he’d rather not talk to Brian at all but isn’t too sure how to get out of the conversation without being overtly rude. Steve looks around the yard for a possible escape route. Clint, Thor, anyone. He’s just about to make up some excuse when he spots a head of dark hair over by the fence. Is that…? No, it couldn’t be. What would he be doing here? But actually, it really does look like… oh wow, it totally is. He is at a party with his statistics professor. How about that. Tony’s standing off to the side of the deck, in a small circle of people. He has a beer in hand and is laughing at something a tall brunette just said.

"Well, good luck with the rest of the season, Brian," Steve says, clapping him on the back and wandering over to say hi.

If this had happened a week ago he probably would have found a way to "accidentally" pour his beer over Tony's head, but after the other day, he figures Tony's actually all right. He's still not sure what Tony did to his bike, but she's been purring like a kitten ever since.

"Hey there, professor," he says once he gets close enough for Tony to hear. Tony turns around and grins at him. "Isn't it kind of lame to be partying with a bunch of students?"

"Come on now, Steve, some people at this party are actually cool. Yours truly, for example,” Tony says, waving a hand to encompass himself.

Steve rolls his eyes, "Isn’t this a little lowbrow? I thought professors were supposed to sip brandy in the Faculty Club."

"Only on Thursdays," says Tony with a laugh. "But you do realize that I'm still technically a student, right? I'm not a real prof, I just play one three times a week."

"Well sure, but you're working on your PhD. Doesn't that make you a little old for the undergrad scene?"

Tony cocks his head to the side. “How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know...” Steve says. He takes in Tony’s appearance: blue jeans, band t-shirt that looks old and well loved, carefully groomed goatee, dark hair styled in a way that’s not supposed to look styled. He’s more casual than he usually appears in class. How old are grad students usually? “Mid-twenties?”

"Yeah, no," Tony says with a laugh, "I'm actually only nineteen."

"Seriously?" Steve blurts before he can stop himself. "You’re younger than I am! How does that even work? You must have started your undergrad at—” And Steve doesn’t even know how to finish that sentence.

“Fifteen,” supplies Tony with an elaborate shrug.

Steve gapes at him, “Are you some kind of child prodigy?" ‘Cause seriously, nineteen…nineteen? That's so young. Although that does explain a lot. No wonder his favourite insult is “assclown.”

"Something like that,” says Tony, taking a sip of his beer. “Anyway, you're right, you are kind of harshing my buzz. I mean I was going to get drunk tonight but now that one of my students is here…"

"Uh huh," Steve laughs. "This from someone who isn't even legally allowed to drink yet." This is never going to stop being weird. His professor is too young to drink.

"I'm pretty sure that turning your professor in for underage drinking gets you an automatic fail."

"Is this the part where I blackmail you with this to get an A instead?"

"Didn't think you had that in you, Steve," Tony chuckles. "But if you blackmail me I won't let you check out my cars. When are you gonna come do that, anyway?"

Which is when Clint throws an arm around Steve's neck from behind.

"How many times do I have to tell you, Rogers? Parties aren't for socializing, they're for picking up chicks!" Clint chides. Thor joins them on Steve's other side.

Steve pries Clint's arm off and rolls his eyes. "Clint, Thor, this is Tony. Tony, these are my housemates, Clint and Thor."

"Thor!" Tony exclaims, giving him a big grin. "How you doin', buddy?"

"Quite well," Thor says, clasping Tony on the shoulder warmly. "And you, Anthony, how fares your quest for doctorate supremacy?"

"Slowly but surely, my friend. Slowly but surely."

Steve looks at Thor with disbelief, "Is there anyone you don't know?"

Steve doesn't know how Thor manages it, but he seems to know everyone. Everywhere he goes, he just fits. His family emigrated from Norway a couple years back and yeah, he's a bit of an oddball, but somehow he makes it work. Steve thinks it's probably his confidence or maybe that he’s so completely genuine. Sometimes Steve thinks he's not cool enough to live with someone as awesome as him, but then Thor will grin at him and suggest a party or staging an all-out epic snowball battle and he forgets about it again.

Thor looks like he's actually considering Steve's question, then says “Meeting new people is just a different kind of adventure.” He pauses then grins. “Or as you would say, ‘I get around.’”

"So what adventure did you meet Rogers here on?" asks Tony, pointing in Steve’s direction.

"Freshmen year we were Ultimate Frisbee warriors together. We vanquished all who stood against us!"

Steve grins. This is how he likes to remember his time with the team. Playing on a team with Thor, becoming intramural champs freshman and sophomore years. Thor still plays with the team, but he doesn't give Steve a hard time for not playing anymore.

“Good times,” Steve agrees. “Champs both years I played. Also champions of not getting our stuff stolen.”

“What?” Tony asks.

“There was this one team of real jerks we played. They’d call fouls on everything and play really rough. So one night we were playing against them and everyone’s stuff was just on the sidelines and no one noticed that someone came and stole a bunch of crap—but only from the other team. I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t too broken up about it.”

“No,” agrees Thor. “It was quite fitting.”

Tony laughs. “Well I’d say that’s the real victory right there!”

"Right,” Clint cuts in. “Well, Tony, it was nice to meet you and all but some of us have…other things…other hot young things…to attend to…" Clint's looking at some point past Tony while he talks. Steve follows his eyes and sees a pretty redhead in a tight shirt. Figures. Clint is nothing if not predictable.

He watches Clint take off, making a beeline for the ginger.

When he turns back, Thor has peaced. No big surprise there. Steve can never keep track of Thor at parties. He guesses that when you know as many people as Thor does, you can't really afford to stay in one spot for too long. After all, you don’t “get around” by staying in the same place all night.

As the night’s progressed, more and more people have migrated to the backyard. Someone must have gotten ahold of the ipod because the music’s switched over to some upbeat pop tune that Steve can’t place.

"So the three of you live together?" Tony asks, gesturing with his beer bottle.

"Yeah, us and Nat."

"Cool," Tony says, then frowns down at the beer bottle in his hand. He turns it upside down and the last couple of drops of beer trickle onto the grass. Empty. "I could go for another. Could you go for another?" he asks.

"Yeah," Steve says, knocking back the last of his bottle. They head inside. This student’s house is a little less depressing than Steve’s, with linoleum floors that look like they were actually put down this century. He waves at a girl from his media class as they make their way to the kitchen. Steve opens the fridge and finds it crammed full of beer and coolers. He tries to shuffle the contents to find the Bud he brought.

“Just grab whatever,” says Tony. “No one cares.”

Steve shrugs and grabs two bottles. He opens the first and passes it to Tony before opening one for himself. Tony takes a quick sip of his beer and then examines the label. Steve notices the small silver ring on Tony’s left hand.

Steve holds up his hand and wiggles his pinkie, “What‘s with the ring?”

Tony looks down at his hand, “Oh! That’s my iron ring. They give it to you if you promise not to build faulty bridges.”

Steve nods slowly, “I see.”

“You get one when you graduate from engineering,” Tony continues, “Secret ceremony and everything, but you didn’t hear that from me.” He gives Steve a conspiratorial wink. Steve’s pretty sure all he gets for graduating is a piece of paper and an inspirational speech about following your dreams.

They're on their way back outside when Steve is distracted by a couple of guys on the living room couch, shouting at each other as they race. He pauses in the doorway to the living room. Tony stops too, peers past him to see what he’s looking at. MarioKart 64. Wow. He hasn't played on the N64 in forever. And it has to have been at least ten years since he's played this particular game. He says as much to Tony, who smirks at him.

"Oh, I am just going to mop the floor with you then," he says.

Steve grins. "You can try."

“Mind if we join you gentlemen?” asks Tony, gesturing to the TV. The guys on the couch welcome them enthusiastically, producing some extra controllers.

They join the guys on the sofa and race a couple of times before the other two guys take off. It's just as well. Either they're really terrible or just really drunk. Either way they were dragging things out. It couldn't have been fun for them either. No one wants to lose all the time.

They exit the game to change out their characters. Steve nabs Toad (he'll take Yoshi in a pinch but he really does prefer the little mushroom headed guy) and Tony…

"Princess? Really?"

"Princess is a bitch," Tony says matter of factly. "I don't want to play against her."

"Okay, princess," Steve laughs. "It's just you and me now, mano a mano—or would that be mano a princesso?"

"Okay, one, not the actual Spanish word for princess. And two, you know the expression actually means hand to hand, not man to man, right?" Tony asks.

"Either way, I am going to wipe the floor with you," says Steve, feeling cocky.

Tony snorts, but after a couple of races he's not snorting anymore.

"What the fuck is this?" he complains. "I am the tech master, no one beats me at video games!"

"Apparently I do!" Steve crows and he sails across the finish line in first place once again. He doesn’t want to tell Tony that he got so good playing MarioKart for three years straight while he battled chronic bronchitis. "Sorry, champ."

"Whatever, the mushroom cup is for chumps. Bring on the special cup!"

"Sure, I'll kick your ass at whichever cup you like."

DK's Jungle Parkway starts up and as he's been doing for the past couple races, Steve quickly pulls out ahead, though Tony's not far behind him.

"So where ya from?"

"New York," Steve says, firing his green shell backwards.

"No shit—fuck!" Tony says as it connects and Princess spins out onscreen. "Didn't think you were the type to hit a girl."

"I'll make an exception for Princess," Steve smirks.

"So New York, New York?"

"Yeah, Brooklyn. You?"

"Manhattan."

"Nice—oh no you did not just red shell me!"

"How'd that shell taste, Rogers?"

"I don't know, how's my dust tasting?"

"Temporary," Tony snips. "You get out to see the Mets this summer? You're a Mets fan, right? You seem like a Mets fan."

Steve ignores the first part of the question. He had to stick around in Massachusetts this summer and he doesn't really want to get into it. Instead he says, "Yeah I am…don't tell me you're a fan of the Yankees."

"What can I say? I like to win," Tony says. He can hear the shit-eating grin in his words.

Just for that he fires back another green shell. It misses this time. Damn.

"Win by buying your victories?"

"Now that's the kind of argument losers make."

"Goddammit!" Steve curses. Toad spins wildly as he's hit with a red shell. He bounces on the screen to try to get the spinout back under control.

"Take that, sucker!" Tony sings as Princess passes him easily.

"Enjoy that one in the corner of your screen, Tony, you won't be seeing it for long," Steve promises.

"Mhmm."

"I hope Baltimore takes you out," Steve mutters. He's gaining on Tony again. He gets a mushroom from the next set of prize boxes. If he times this right…

"Baltimore, really? Where's your sense of city pride? You don't hear me wishing the Mets will get knocked out of the playoffs—ooh that's right. They didn't make it."

"Cruel," Steve laughs. He uses his mushroom to whiz by Tony. "So how ‘bout the Giants? They killed it the other night, huh?"

Final lap, Lakitu announces.

"Okay, I see what you're doing here. Don't think I don't see what you're doing, but that's fine. Sure, we can talk about football instead."

Steve just grins as he brings Toad through the next set of prize boxes. He's got a banana. Of-freaking-course. You always get the shitty prizes when you're in first. He's coming up on the big ramp to jump across the water now.

And that's when Tony reaches out and starts shoving at him.

"Quit that, you cheater!" Steve yells but he's laughing, can't help it. He should have guessed Tony would play dirty. He twists his body away from Tony and makes the jump anyway. "You're such a bastard," he says as he makes his way through the turns.

"Was worth a shot," Tony says completely unapologetically.

"Uh huh," Steve says.

They finish the race, one and two.

"I'll get you next time, Rogers," Tony vows as their points are tallied up.

"Promises, promises."

Yoshi Valley begins to load and Tony leans forward to take a swig off his beer.

The lights count down. Right as the last light glows blue, Steve hits to accelerate and…Toad stays exactly where he is.

Tony cackles as Princess shoots ahead into first. Steve hits A again and still nothing.

"What the hell?" He tries to pause the game and can't do that either. He looks down…and his controller is no longer plugged in.

"Oh my god, you dirty little cheater!" he yelps as he jumps up to plug his controller back in. He's tempted to unplug Tony's too, but he's not going to stoop to his level.

"All's fair in love and racing!"

"Yeah, no, that was definitely cheating," Steve mutters as he struggles to catch up. Everyone's got at least a half-lap head start on him. He ought to string Tony up for this.

"Suck it up, buttercup," Tony croons. "Shit happens, you know?"

"Over the line.”

“Aw, don’t be sore,” Tony smirks.

Steve narrows his eyes and hunkers down. He's not going to let Tony win because of this.

The nice thing about this game (at times like this, anyway) is that you get all the good stuff when you're in last place. He fires off a blue shell that has Tony's name written all over it and gets lightning twice. He waits until Tony's in the middle of a tight turn to activate that the first time and manages to send him careening over the edge. He tries it again the second time, but Tony keeps Princess under control. Possibly he's catching onto him.

He doesn't make it back up to first place, Tony's got too much of a head start for that, but he finishes a solid third. It will have to do.

He keeps a careful eye on his controller while they wait for their points to tally and the third race to load. Tony refrains from cheating for the rest of the races and Steve beats him fair and square. (Well, Steve makes the jump at the beginning of Rainbow Road to skip half of each lap but that doesn't count because Tony knows about it too.)

"Winner and still champion!" Steve declares, throwing his fists in the air in triumph as the gold cup is awarded to Toad.

"Did that just happen?” says Tony, staring at the TV in disbelief. “That didn't really happen. Did it? Maybe I had more to drink than I thought.”

“Cheaters never prosper,” Steve replies sagely, barely managing to keep a straight face.

“Whatever, grandma,” scoffs Tony.

"Maybe you just need to be schooled a little more often."

Tony gives him a look, eyebrows raised, "Oh young padawan—"

"Steve!" A warm hand claps him on the back. Steve starts and turns around to see Sam.

“Sam!” declares Steve. He grins up at him, stands and gives Sam the ultra manly half-hug. He hasn’t seen his friend since last April. "Hey, how's it going?"

"Pretty good! Can you believe it? One more year of this and they're gonna set us loose on the world!"

"It's pretty unreal," Steve agrees.

"How about you, how have you been?"

"I'm good. Things are good. I mean, classes are picking up now, but nothing I can't handle."

Steve realizes that he should probably introduce Tony and glances over at the couch, but Tony's gone. He looks around and sees him in the corner chatting with some other people. Tony looks over at the same time and gives Steve a smile. Steve smiles back. Alright then. That was probably enough racing for one night anyway.

"So everything's good?" he says, turning back to Sam.

"Yeah! Well, my landlord is trying to evict me, but I'm fighting it. The lease specifically bans dogs and cats. It says nothing about birds."

"He can't make you get rid of Redwing!"

"No way, no one can. I'll leave that shack before I give him up."

"Good." Sam loves that freaking bird.

"Steven!"

There's no mistaking Thor's booming voice as he pushes his way past a group loitering in the entryway. He's dragging along a cute little brunette that looks a little embarrassed but in a pleased sort of way.

"Hello Samuel!" Thor says when he reaches them.

"Hey Thor. Who's this?" Sam asks.

"This lovely woman is Jane Foster, who has spent the night entertaining me with tales of the cosmos. Jane, these are my friends, Steven Rogers and Samuel Wilson."

They all greet each other.

"So Jane, what are you taking?" Steve asks politely.

"I'm a bit of a science geek. Physics major with a specialization in astrophysics," she says.

"Damn. That sounds impressive," Sam says.

She smiles, "It's interesting stuff. Who isn't captivated by the cosmos?"

Thor certainly seems captivated. From the way, he's looking at her, Steve can tell he has stars in his eyes.

As they make conversation, Steve sees that Clint is chatting up the redhead from earlier. She seems to really be into him, running her finger up his chest and leaning in close to whisper in his ear. He smiles at her but shakes his head and takes off. That's strange. Clint is usually such a player. Steve wonders what's going on there. He shakes his head and returns back to the conversation. Maybe she told him she has a boyfriend? Oh well, it's none of his business whether Clint scores or not.

 

*

 

Sunday Night Football became a house tradition halfway through their junior year. Steve and Thor love the game, Clint likes it well enough, and Nat likes to work on her laptop while the rest of them "cheer on a group of large, sweaty, muscular men in tight pants smacking each other's asses every time they get excited."

They're gathered around the television. Thor's nabbed big green and Steve's squished on the loveseat together with Clint and Natasha. New England's off to an early lead.

"So how was the party last night?" Natasha asks in between plays.

"Magnificent," Thor declares. "Last night I met a wondrous woman. It’s a shame you couldn’t be there, Natasha, I think you would have really liked her. Who wouldn’t? Jane is charming and clever and absolutely extraordinary. We talked all night long. It was an incredible night."

"Oh boy, here we go again," Clint mutters.

Nat raises an eyebrow.

"Thor is crazy about this girl already. Like seriously crazy," Steve explains. "We had to listen to him go on and on and on about her on the way home last night."

Thor proceeds to do just that once again, telling them all about the sparkle of Jane's eyes and the shine of her hair and the sharpness of her wit and the brilliance of her mind. Steve heard it all last night, so he listens with one ear while he turns his concentration to the game. If it was possible to embarrass Thor there would be some good blackmail material in what he's saying, Steve's sure. But since Thor is the living antithesis of shame….

"Wow, Thor. It's really impressive that you can be so sure about this girl after just one night," Clint says. "How can you be sure? I would love your valuable insights into this."

Oh god, here they go again. Steve resists the urge to turn up the volume on the television. Why is Clint egging Thor on?

"I just know," Thor says. "The way I feel when I’m with her...it’s not something easily put into words. But I just know that she’s special. What’s to be gained by second guessing? That just seems likely to end in regrets."

"Right, so was it one big night of love? Steve, Clint, you guys meet your true loves too?"

Clint narrows his eyes at Natasha. "We went to a party, Nat, we weren't contestants on The Dating Game."

"It was fun," Steve says. "I played some video games—they had an old school N64 there, can you believe it?—and saw some friends. It was pretty chill actually. I had a good time."

"Ah yes," Thor says. "Your friend, Anthony Stark! He has quite the reputation among the science faculties."

"Wait a minute," Natasha says turning to him. "Anthony Stark...as in Professor Stark?”

"Holy shit, that was your prof?" Clint exclaims, eyes wide. And suddenly all eyes are on Steve instead of the TV.

"Um, yes?" says Steve, shrinking back into the couch.

"I can’t believe this. The one time I don’t come along and I miss you hanging out with your stats prof." Nat looks disappointed.

"Sorry?"

"Let me just get this straight," Clint says. "We are talking about your stats prof, right? The crazy one? The one who threw the syllabus at you the first week? Lovingly referred to as Professor Jackass? That one."

"Well he didn't actually throw them at us…" Steve tries.

"So what, you're friends now?"

"I guess? I don't know, I like him."

“Anthony is a decent fellow. Why shouldn’t Steven be friends with him?” Thor asks and Steve kind of wants to high-five him.

"Steve, you're hanging out with your prof!" says Clint, blatantly ignoring Thor. "That is not normal!"

"It's really not a big deal…"

"Isn't it weird?" Natasha asks.

"No…should it be?" says Steve. He’s starting to feel slightly hunted.

“I thi—” Thor opens his mouth but Clint cuts him off.

"Well yeah, of course it’s weird! I can’t think of a single prof that I’d want to hang out with after class,” Clint exclaims.

"Tony’s cool…” says Steve with a shrug. Thor nods in agreement. Steve hadn’t really thought about it, the whole professor thing. Tony certainly doesn’t act like a professor 90% of the time. He doubts any of his other profs cheat at video games that blatantly. “And anyway, it's not like I'm hanging out with some bespectacled musty old guy. He's younger than us even!"

"Yes, I understand that he began his studies here when he was but a boy of fifteen," Thor says.

"Yeah, he mentioned that last night," Steve says. "I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be that young and be at college. It’s nuts."

"What's nuts is you hanging out with your prof."

"I really don't see what the big deal is," Steve says. And then because the best defence is a good offence, he asks, "So, Barton, what happened with that girl last night? You strike out?"

Clint glares at him.

 

*

 

Tony makes his way across campus in a daze. He needs coffee. Coffeeee. Coffeecoffeecoffee. The student parking is way too far. Since Fury's strong-armed him into teaching, shouldn't he get to park in the faculty lot now? It's much closer. Fury probably made a special prohibition just so that he'd have to walk that much further for his coffee. The man is a dick.

He walks through the Starbucks doors and makes eye contact with the barista as he gets in line. She smiles at him and gives a little wave. Excellent. Marie always takes care of him.

It's surprisingly busy for this late on a Tuesday morning. He passes his time waiting in line by checking out the very fine back and ass of the customer ahead of him. Damn, where has this one been hiding? Are those shoulders even real? He spends his time in line ogling the fine piece of ass in front of him and in what feels like no time at all, he's almost to the counter, with just the hottie in front of him.

The hottie approaches the counter and orders, "Tall blond, please?"

Heh. Tony could go for one of those too. Make his extra hot.

"Anything else today, sweetheart?" Marie asks.

"No, thank you," Mr. Tall Blond says and Tony startles as he realizes that he recognizes that voice. Oh crap. This hottie is someone he knows. What a shame. Someone he knows and who is off-limits. Life just isn’t fair.

He steps forward. "Hello, Steve," says Tony dryly.

Steve turns around and smiles at him. "Hey Tony," he says. He turns back to the counter, "Can I get a venti black eye too, please?"

"That's mine," Tony says, coming up to the counter and smiling at Marie. He turns to Steve, "I've got this. I think it's my turn anyway. You got the last one."

"Oh, okay. Well thank you, Tony."

"Not a problem," Tony says, passing Marie a twenty. "Keep the change, beautiful," he tells her with a wink.

"Thanks, sugar," she says. "Jan's got your coffee for you down at the end."

They walk down to the end and, as promised, Jan has Tony's coffee ready for him. He takes a large swallow and sighs happily. It’s nice and hot, burning down his throat just the way he likes it. He can already feel his brain coming back online. Why hello there, higher functioning.

"Perfect as always. Jan, you are a goddess," he tells her as she pours Steve's coffee. "So, how's your thesis coming along? Did you ever get Dr. McCoy to approve your research plan?"

"Not yet," she says, passing Steve his coffee, "he's been pretty busy."

"He's always busy. You just need to keep on top of him! If you bug him enough, he'll make you a priority. Otherwise he can put you off forever."

She laughs, "I'll remember that, Tony."

“Works for me,” he says with a grin, before walking with Steve over to the cream and sugars.

"You know each other?" Steve asks him as he pours some milk into his coffee.

"Hm, Marie and Jan? No, not really. I just come here a lot. Pretty much every day, actually. And by pretty much I just mean every single day. I'm not going to say I'm addicted, I just sort of need caffeine to function at all. And when I don’t have it, I can’t stop thinking about it. And also I get these shakes—okay, maybe I’m a little bit addicted.”

Steve laughs. "But just a little bit," he says. Tony gets the distinct impression he’s being humoured.

"Right, well, ours is a special love. And when you love something as much as I love coffee, you just don't see the point in being shy about it. One day I’ll let you see my tattoo," Tony says. He looks at Steve and Steve’s got this smile on his face like he’s got no idea what to make of him and yeah, okay, he's pretty sure he’s completely weirding Steve out. Crap, he's doing it again. Okay then. "So anyway, what are you taking this year? You're a junior, right?"

"Senior. I'm in Art Tech."

Art and technology? Right. Okay. That doesn’t sound like complete bullshit or anything at all.

"Well, that sounds very exciting…for you," Tony says. "So where does technology come in with an arts degree?"

"It’s a glorified multimedia degree. I want to design websites after I'm done school," Steve says, "but really, technology is a big part of art today. Photoshop, Lightroom, flash, xtml are staples of the industry. Digital media is completely changing how we create and use art. I haven't even touched a paintbrush or graphic pencil in months, everything is done digitally with a tablet."

"Huh. I didn't know that," Tony says. He glances at the clock. He really needs to get going. He hates getting in the lab after eleven. Otherwise Strange gets there first and starts touching his crap. "Anyway, it's been really nice running into you but I'm just on my way to the lab…"

"Oh, I'm actually headed to the Burks Science Building," Steve says.

"Well, I guess that means I get some company for the walk," says Tony, giving Steve a grin. “But no offense, why the science building?”

“They have a pretty sweet computer lab on the second floor.”

They head out of the coffee shop and down the path towards the engineering and science buildings.

"So did you catch the game last night?" Steve asks.

"No," Tony says. He's not bitter at all. "I had to rewrite the stats tests from scratch. I already did them back at the start of the year, but when I sent the draft and answer key to Bruce—just as a courtesy FYI thing, which clearly I should never do again because he flat out told me that it was impossible to do in an hour and I had to rewrite it. I don't see why. I did it in the hour just fine. I even had time left over! Anyway, I don’t even know why I’m listening to him. Sure, he’s a cool guy when he’s not throwing me under the bus by giving students my contact info, but it’s my course, right? Since I’m the one stuck teaching this stupid course, shouldn’t I get final say over the content of the exam?"

"Tony, we're not going to have the conversation about impossible standards again, are we?"

"I said I rewrote it, didn't I? I wrote a nice, easy and stupid test for an easy and stupid subject. You and Bruce can both be happy."

"Yeah, we'll see how easy it is tomorrow!" Steve says with a shake of his head. "So…why are you teaching stats in the first place if you hate it so much?"

"Believe me, it wasn't my choice."

"Really? This shocks me," Steve says. "But you're so passionate about the subject."

Tony laughs. "Yeah, okay. Listen, I don't hate teaching per se…okay, well I do. But that's not really the thing. I'm working like crazy on my research because I want to be ready to defend by the spring. I was barely home as it was. And now I have to teach an entire course on top of that. It's interfering with my research and making my workload ridiculous. And all this for a subject that I don't even remotely care about."

"Okay, I can see how that would be frustrating. Why didn't you just say no?"

"As I recall, I did," Tony sighs. "Nine times, actually. But my hands were tied. My funding is conditional. It was either teach or kiss my research goodbye."

"What kind of research are you doing anyway? Something interesting?"

Tony likes Steve. He really does. He's actually a pretty smart guy once you get past the humanities major. And so, he doesn't really know how to tell him that there's no way he's ever going to understand his research without offending him. He decides to just go with the generalities.

“I’m trying to develop a new energy source. The idea is that it will have increased power output without the nasty side effects—pollution, nuclear meltdowns, etcetera—that we get with traditional fuel sources. I’m making some progress, but it's not quite there yet. But once I get this to work—and I will—it has the potential to revolutionize green energy.”

"Wow, that’s actually important stuff," Steve says. He glances at his phone. "Okay, you’ll have to tell me more another time, but I'm gonna be late if I don’t get a move on. I'll catch ya later!"

Tony makes it a point not to watch Steve leave.

 

*

 

"And so we meet again."

Steve laughs from his place ahead of Tony in line. "You weren't kidding about how often you come here, were you?"

"I don't joke about coffee," Tony deadpans.

Steve orders their coffees and they go down to wait for them. Tony's is already ready and waiting, his name scrawled on the side with a heart.

"I didn't realize you came here so often, though," Tony says as Steve collects his coffee.

"Just on Tuesdays and Thursdays," Steve says, adding his milk. "I have a break in my schedule between my graphic design and media classes and this is on the way. I need a little caffeine pick me up to get me through my afternoon classes, you know?"

"Oh, I know all about needing caffeine."

"Yes, you went on about it at length last time," Steve says, the corner of his mouth pulling up.

"It's true. I don't do anything without coffee," Tony says as they head out the door. "So science building?"

"Yup. You headed for your lab?"

"Yeah, I like to be in the lab by eleven every day, though obviously that's a little harder on days I'm teaching."

"So I guess we'll be running into each other a lot more," Steve says with a smile.

"Yeah, looks like."

"So that test yesterday... I'm impressed. It was actually pretty reasonable, I thought."

"I'm glad you thought so. I don't think some of your classmates would agree… I swear I'm going to start stapling McDonald's applications to failed tests."

"Uh oh, maybe I shouldn't have been so confident. I hope you're not talking about my test!"

"Bruce has yours," Tony says. He had actually asked Bruce to take Steve's stuff for the rest of term. Even though he’s not a real prof and he doesn’t want to be teaching in the first place, he’d still rather not incite Fury’s ire. He doesn’t need him fucking with his funding just because of some outdated ideas about appropriate boundaries. "That’s not really his style so I'm afraid there are no McDonald's applications in your future…not until after graduation, anyway."

"Ouch," Steve says, but he’s laughing.

 

*

 

The next week, Tony is waiting in line for his coffee when his phone chimes at him, announcing a new text message. He pulls it out and glances at it. It's from Steve.

< Hey can you get my coffee for me? My class ran late and I won't have time for one otherwise… :( >

Tony texts back: < Sure np > and tucks his phone back away.

Five minutes later he meets Steve outside. Steve grins at him as Tony passes him his coffee.

"Thanks so much, Tony. You're a real lifesaver," he says.

"No problem."

 

*

 

< New eng grad student just required a tutorial on how to use a microwave >
< Never asking her for mechanical advice ever >

< ENGIMINEER. >

< Uh huh maybe you can help me with some tech support. Every time I try to add my art degree to fb it removes the section for current employment >

< You're asking for tech support from me? You’re supposed to be a genius. Are you telling me you’re no good with this stuff? >

< That’s enough outta u arts major >

 

*

 

They are heading towards their respective buildings one morning, coffees in hand, when Steve stops abruptly in front the large display board just outside Burks Science. It’s covered in various posters advertising local events (Monsterilla Playing One Night Only!) and school groups (Knitting Club Meets Wednesday. New Members Welcome). Usually Tony walks right past the thing without giving it a second glance but something has caught Steve’s eye. Tony draws even with him and pretends to consider the display board. A smile is slowly creeping up Steve’s face as he checks out a poster advertising the drama department’s latest production.

“I didn’t know these were out yet,” Steve murmurs, more to himself. He sounds a little awed.

Tony looks from Steve to the poster and back again. “The Drama Society Presents William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” he reads aloud, then looks at Steve, “You want to go see it or something?” Tony tries to remember if they forced him to read the play in high school or if he read it on his own in one of his “I can be smart at everything” fits.

Steve looks at him, “What? Oh, no. God, no.”

“Really? I thought all you artsy guys were into Shakespeare?”

Steve laughs and shakes his head, “I have come to the conclusion that you don’t know too many artsy guys.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Obviously. But then why the sudden fascination?” He gestures towards the poster.

“I designed it,” Steve starts, noticing Tony's odd look. “The poster, I mean. It was our first assignment for Graphic Design this semester. We had to design a poster for the drama department and the best one got printed out and used as advertising for the play.” Steve is grinning, obviously pleased with his work.

Tony nudges Steve aside to get a better look at the poster. It features a night sky contrasted against the outline of a tree with the silhouettes of the various characters. It’s simple yet elegant, drawing on the whimsy and romance of its source material.

“Wow, you’re really good, Steve,” says Tony. He squints at the poster again this time noticing little details like the ribbons on the ladies’ dresses and the consistent shape of the leaves on the tree. “You drew all this? It’s not all Photoshop?”

Steve chuckles, “I drew it all first then doctored it in Photoshop.”

“Even the people?”

“Yep, it’s a vector technique.”

Tony nods, impressed. “It’s good. You’re pretty talented.”

Steve smiles and ducks his head. Tony detects the faintest hint of pink on his cheeks.

“Are you blushing, Rogers? That’s adorable.”

Steve’s blush deepens, “Shut up.”

“You need to learn how to take a compliment, dude.”

Steve laughs him off before looking at his watch and running off to class. Tony stands in front of the display board for a moment and considers the poster. His hand itches to steal it. He walks away instead.

 

*

 

< Oh god, prof gave out a handout and proceeded to read aloud all 8 pgs. Kill me now. >

< And u complained about my syllabus >

< I'm so glad to be paying $42k a year so my prof can assume I can't read. >

 

*

 

Class is over and kids are filing out of the lecture hall when Steve approaches him. Steve is looking maddeningly cheerful and well-rested.

"This week blows,” says Tony by way of greeting.

"Is your giant battery giving you trouble again?" Steve asks.

"It's not – Just because it's a power source doesn't mean – It's not a battery!" Tony sputters.

Steve laughs at him.

"You're treading on thin ice, Rogers."

"Uh huh. So is it?"

"The arc reactor is an incredibly advanced piece of technology that, yes, can be quite difficult on occasion!"

"Too bad you can't just blow up the lab again."

“I never should have told you about that,” Tony mutters. "One tiny explosion and they never let you live it down."

“Come on, at least that time you didn’t mean to do it. I mean, it’s not like that thing with the cherry bombs in the bathroom you got suspended for in high school, right? I seem to recall that you did that on purpose.”

“Yeah, I’m so not telling you any more stories.”

“Sure you will, you can’t resist a captive audience,” Steve says, grinning. And dammit but it’s true. When did Steve get him all figured out? "Anyway, I finish class at four today. Why don't I come over for a little gaming after? When one of my projects isn't cooperating, I find shooting a bunch of stuff always helps."

"Yeah, I could go for that."

 

*

 

< Not to slag my faculty…but the guy next to me just asked me how to spell orange. I fear for humanity. >

< I've always feared for the humanities >

 

*

 

"Thanks for grabbing my coffee for me again, Tony. I had to speak to my graphics prof after class about our midterm projects."

"You should be thanking me. I had to go so far out of my way," Tony says, laughing.

"Oh yeah, you never stop for coffee on your own," Steve deadpans, then breaks into a grin. "Did you watch the Giants game last night?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Ah, so you did."

"I picked those morons in my one-and-out pool and now I'm out because they apparently forgot that a game has sixty minutes! Not thirty minutes, not forty-five. Sixty!"

"That’s the game we love! Or hate. It depends on the day, really."

"Yeah, it's swell. And by that I mean that's what the players’ faces are going to do when I'm through beating them."

"Well…just remember to stop when they turn purple."

"Are you kidding? Purple means 'murder me harder!'"

Steve laughs as he heads towards the science building. "Right. I'll see you around.”

Tony waves and starts walking towards his building when he pauses, an idea occurring to him.

“Hey!” he calls, Steve stops and turns around. “Wanna watch the game at my place Sunday?”

Steve takes a moment to consider, then calls out, “Sure! What time?”

“Come over at six, we can get some pizza or something.”

Steve gives him a big smile and a thumbs up.

Tony can’t help it, he’s smiling too.

 

*

 

< Everyone is making fun of the new grad student for being so young. She is 4 yrs older than me…and just starting >

< That's because you are still a baby. Can I pinch your cheeks? >

< Only the bottom ones ;) >

< LOL >

 

*

 

The door opens before Steve can knock.

"Hey!" greets Tony, blocking the entrance.

"What's up?" Steve asks, looking down at Tony's jacket and shoes pointedly.

"Change of plans," Tony replies, shouldering past Steve and closing the door to his apartment behind him. He puts a hand on the small of Steve's back and gently pushes him back towards the elevator.

Steve lets Tony push him around while his mind processes. "I thought we were going to play Halo or something?"

Tony digs his keys out of his pocket and gives Steve a slightly manic look, "I had a flash of inspiration! So, no video games. New plan is we are going out."

"Okay, where are we going?" asks Steve as Tony punches the 'down' button at the elevator.

"C'mere," says Tony, casting his eyes up and down the hall like he's afraid of being overheard. Steve leans in a little, indulging Tony's theatrics. "It's a surprise," he whispers.

Steve lets out as laugh as the elevator dings its arrival. They shuffle on.

"No, seriously, where are we going?" Steve asks, curiosity getting the better of him. For some reason a surprise from Tony makes him uneasy. Tony just grins and zips his lips. Steve rolls his eyes, "C'mon, where are we going?"

"Live a little, Steve," Tony says, patting Steve's arm. "This is us being wild and crazy."

"Oh boy," says Steve, "This isn't going to be like the time you and your buddies decided it would be hilarious to throw a body into the river, right?"

"No. And it wasn't a body. It was a dummy of Darth Maul. Not our fault that crazy lady thought it was an actual person. No, this is nothing like that. This is way more fun and legal." Tony pouts at him, "Don't make me regret telling you about my wild youth."

Steve snorts in response.

The elevators open and they step out into the underground parking. They walk over to Tony's parking spaces and he holds up two keys.

"Which car?" he asks. It's a thing he started, letting Steve pick the car.

"The mustang," Steve replies without hesitation. He loves that car.

Tony smirks and unlocks the door. "Y'know I think you have a crush on the pony." They climb in and Tony starts the car.

"Who wouldn't?" replies Steve. The engine roars to life and then quietly purrs.

Tony laughs, "So, you have a thing for younger guys?" He throws the car into reverse and backs out of the parking spot a little more quickly than strictly necessary.

Steve wasn't expecting that. He laughs, "I guess I do. But that must mean you have a thing for older women."

"Oh yeah?"

"Please, don't even try to act innocent. You've been flirting with my bike since you first met her. You even got all handsy with her. Not very gentlemanly, by the way."

Tony chuckles but doesn't deny it.

After a slightly white-knuckled drive, Tony pulls up in front of large red brick building. The sign on the front is made of up of rainbow-coloured, neon letters that flash. Steve stares at Tony in disbelief.

"Why are we here?"

"'Cause it'll be fun!"

"But – but why?"

"It's laser tag, Steve, not strippers," says Tony, swinging open his door and getting out of the car. When Steve makes no move to follow him, Tony comes around and opens Steve's door, gesturing for him to get out.

"Laser tag. You've got to be kidding me." Steve stares at the building and back to Tony.

"It's awesome! It's like a real live video game."

"Isn't it for nine-year-olds?"

"And the very immature twenty-somethings. Now c'mon," replies Tony.

Reluctantly, Steve gets out of the car and follows Tony inside. They are clearly the oldest people there who are actually going to play. A couple of moms give them strange looks before going back to helping their five-year-olds put on their coats.

"Doesn't this bring back pleasant memories of birthday parties past?" asks Tony, gesturing to the bored teenager behind the desk who is passing out guns and sensors to a large group of boys. They get in line behind the group.

"Can't say that it does," replies Steve.

Tony gapes at him. "This isn't your first time playing laser tag, is it?"

"What? No, I think I played once in the ninth grade or something."

"Really? This was like the birthday party of choice from ages five to eleven."

"Not for my friends," replies Steve. He vaguely remembers playing tag when he went to visit some cousins in Michigan but other than that birthday parties had been more about cake and balloons.

"If you didn't play laser tag, what did you do for parties?"

Steve laughs, "I am beginning to think that all the birthday parties I went to were out of the fifties or something. We played party games like musical chairs, pass the parcel, and pin the tail on the donkey. Y'know, normal stuff." Steve shrugs. "Oh, and at the end we got loot bags," he adds, smiling fondly.

Tony is giving him that wide eyed stare he likes to give whenever Steve says something obviously plebeian. Steve doesn't let it get to him.

"Musical chairs..." Tony says slowly, then shakes his head. "Whatever, this is going to be awesome. And just a heads up but I am probably going to kick your ass."

Steve rolls his eyes as the group ahead of them finishes up and then it's their turn to register. Tony signs them in, grinning as he nicknames himself TOTG and Steve GIJOE.

"TOTG?" Steve asks.

"Stands for The One True Genius. It's an engineering thing."

"Uh huh."

The bored teen ignores their banter, handing over their guns and sensors and briefly explaining the rules in a monotone that tells them exactly how many rat's asses he gives (none). And then, either because that teenager is a sadist or because he's miserable at his job and wants them to be just as miserable, he puts them in with the birthday party group ahead of them. Turns out you can have five people on each team and there's only eight people in the group ahead, so they have the dubious honour of getting to round out the group. At least he had the courtesy to place them on the same team.

They line up with the birthday party and wait for their turn to play. The kids ahead of them are loud and obnoxious. The birthday boy is obvious by the pin on his shirt proclaiming him such. It turns out he's turning ten.

"I can't believe we're about to play laser tag against a bunch of ten-year-olds," says Steve.

"Don't underestimate them, Steve. That's how they get you. They're vicious."

"I don't doubt it."

"One time, when I was, I don't know, eight maybe? I brought a bunch of mirrors in with me and gave them out to my team. The other kids lost their shit. They couldn't figure out what was happening. "

Steve laughs. Classic Tony.

Then the previous group exits the playing field and it's their turn. Steve enters the dimly lit maze cautiously. His other three teammates went screaming ahead, running up ramps and disappearing into the darkness. Tony remains at his side, eyes flicking left and right. Steve can practically hear him thinking. They don't have the advantage here, the kids are smaller and probably faster, but they have age and discipline. Slowly, Steve starts forming a plan.

He gently touches Tony's arm to get his attention and then nods his head to the right. Tony nods and follows Steve as he starts making his way below the various ramps and bridges. High ground is usually a good bet, but Steve has a feeling all the kids will go for that. What they need is the element of surprise. He makes his way across the room, Tony watching his back. They have a couple close calls but manage to pick off the kids before the kids can get them. Steve can hear the other kids trying to rush the tower. Four out of five members of the opposite team are camping on a high ramp, continuously shooting the other three members of Steve's team. It's the perfect distraction, really. Surprisingly, Tony is going along with Steve's plan, crouching low, waiting for the signal.

They make eye contact and Steve gives Tony a nod and the classic two-fingered salute that soldiers use in the movies to mean "move out." At the signal, Steve and Tony both rush the ramp, taking all the kids by surprise. Steve manages to get two of their opponents and Tony one, before everyone scatters.

After that it's just chaos.

Steve and Tony try to stick together as much as they can, but they are big targets and the kids are fast. It's obvious from the way the boys are playing that this whole thing is Serious Business. With only a minute remaining in the round, Steve approaches a blind corner when suddenly one of the kids step out in front of him. Reacting instinctively, Steve shoots and hits the kid square in the chest. For a moment the kid just stands there and stares at Steve like he can't believe what just happened.

"I had a perfect score," says the kid, eyes wide.

Steve chuckles and shrugs, "And now you don't."

"Nice shooting, champ," says Tony, trying to hide his smirk.

The kid narrows his eyes, "Fuck you!"

What?

"Fuck you, motherfucker!" yells the kid.

"Whoa," says Steve. "How do you even know that word? What are you, nine?"

The lights come up, signalling the end of the round. The kid gives them both the finger and runs back to join his friends on the other side of the maze.

"Sweet kid," says Tony.

"Right," says Steve. He looks over at Tony who just shakes his head and grins.

"Well, aside from that assclown, how'd you like laser tag? Best idea ever or BEST IDEA EVER?"

Steve laughs and follows Tony back to the entrance. They hand over their equipment and try to ignore the glares of the party posse.

"That was really fun, Tony," says Steve as they make their way back to the car. "Way more fun than playing video games all afternoon."

"I do occasionally have good ideas, I am a genius after all," says Tony, getting back into the car. "And I just had another flash of inspiration, how about we go grab burgers?"

Steve checks his watch. It's almost seven. Sunday Night Football starts in a little over an hour, but he doubts dinner will take too long. Besides, it’s okay if he’s a little late.

 

*

 

It’s past midnight when Steve makes his way into his house, easing the door closed behind him quietly. The house is quiet. With class tomorrow, his housemates are all already in their rooms. Oh well, so he missed football night this once.

He’s sure they understand.

 

*

 

Steve grabs his coat from the hook next to the door and throws it on. The nights are getting cooler as they approach the end of October. Nat is standing in the entryway, coat on, ready to go, foot tapping impatiently as they wait for Clint. They are supposed to be at the restaurant for nine. Steve glances at the clock, it's nine o'clock now. Thor and Jane are probably there already.

"Barton, how long does it take you to get pretty? We haven't got all night!" yells Steve.

Nat snorts.

Clint emerges from his room and stops dead when he sees Steve at the door. He gives Steve a puzzled look.

"What?" asks Steve, a little confused. Clint is approaching him cautiously, like he's afraid he'll spook.

"You coming out with us?" asks Clint. He looks at Nat, “Is he actually coming out with us?”

She gives him a stern look.

"Um, I thought we were all going out for wings and beer?" Steve says. What’s going on?

“We are, Steve, ignore him,” says Nat, but Steve is still confused.

“Has there been a change of plans?” Steve asks looking from Clint to Nat. “We are still going out, right?”

Clint jams his feet into a beat up pair of leather boots. "No, no change. It’s just strange that you’re hanging out with us… I mean you are coming with us, right?" Clint sounds genuinely bewildered. Steve knows Clint’s trying to make a point but he isn’t sure where he’s going with this. Steve looks at Nat for help, but Nat isn’t looking at him, narrowing her eyes at Clint instead. He’s ignoring her. "For real?"

"Uh—" begins Steve. Did he miss something? What's going on? "Yes? Haven’t I been saying that from the start? I thought the fact that I am standing in the entryway with my coat on, as if prepared to go out, would be a pretty good indication. Where else would I be going?" He gives Clint an exasperated look.

Clint raises his eyebrows. "Oh, I wonder,” he says, “Did your boyfriend ditch you or something?" His smile is teasing but there’s something serious in his voice.

"Clint…" warns Natasha.

"What?" asks Clint, looking over at her.

"What?" asks Steve. Because seriously, what?

Nat ushers them out of the house and locks the door before Clint can answer. They are walking to their favourite watering hole. It's a half-hour walk but worth it so they don't have to worry about driving at the end of the night. Clint's the only one with a car anyway. The night air is crisp and clear, the wind rustling naked branches and the smell of dry leaves in the air. Nat is a little bit ahead of him, Clint by her side. He turns to Steve, walking backwards as he talks.

"No, seriously, I am confused. Your boyfriend out of town? Why are you hanging out with us all of a sudden?" asks Clint.

Steve is so confused. What boyfriend?

He sighs, "Clint, I think you've finally lost it. Boyfriend? What are you talking about?"

"Your new BFF."

Oh. "Tony?"

"No, that other new friend you text all the time."

Steve laughs, "Whatever."

"Just sayin' you spend a lot of time with the guy."

"Oh, c'mon, I barely hang out with him." Maybe Barton has forgotten what it's like to spend time in a library? Because it's not like Tony has an insanely busy schedule or Steve is up to his eyeballs in group projects or anything. Really, they only see each in class and for coffee. Okay and sometimes they play video games or grab a burger, but it’s really not that much. “Is this because I missed Sunday Night Football?”

Clint gives him a look. "No, this is because you missed Sunday Night Football three times. And you haven’t joined us for a movie night in two weeks,” he snaps. Steve pauses. That can’t be right. Wasn’t he just there for...his thoughts are interrupted as Clint continues, “You’re never home anymore. You're always hanging out at his place. What gives, you afraid we'll embarrass you?"

"Right. Listen, I don’t hear you giving Thor a hard time. He’s practically a ghost.”

“One, Thor’s actually getting some.” Clint hold up a hand and starts counting on his fingers. “Two, he actually shows up when he says he will. Three, him and Jane still hang out with us. You just vanish to Stark’s place all the time.”

“Tell me, Clint, do we have a sixty inch smart TV and a PS3?” Steve says. And yeah, that gets a reaction. Clint actually looks impressed for a second. Nat rolls her eyes. Steve smirks. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Be nice to me and maybe Tony will ask you over.”

"Whatever, man. Invite me to the wedding," scoffs Clint.

"With the TV?" Steve asks. He makes a show of considering this. The TV is pretty darn sweet, especially when you compare it to their crappy thirty-two inch, hundred pound monster of a "flat" screen. That thing is practically another housemate.

"So that explains it! It's the TV that's always texting you," says Clint.

Before he can think of a witty comeback, Steve's phone chimes the arrival of a text message. Clint stops walking and stares at Steve. Steve's hand automatically goes to his pocket before he catches the look Clint is giving him and his hand freezes halfway. Should he check?

Clint watches Steve, eyes just daring him to check his phone. Steve decides Clint’s being ridiculous and pointedly ignores him as he pulls out his phone. Really, the text could be from anyone. Thor, Sam…

It's from Tony.

< Now that I’m teaching Fury’s making me do some bullshit professional responsibility seminar thingy. How unethical would it be to get someone else to do it so I don't have to? Is it double wrong to cheat on an ethics test or do they cancel each other out somehow? >

Steve feels the grin creeping up his face, wanting desperately to smile, laugh even. But Clint is giving him that look and even Nat is staring at him now.

"He texted you!" Clint points an accusing finger. "Oh my god, your boyfriend just texted you, right as we were talking about this very thing, didn’t he."

"Shut up, Clint," Steve says, but he’s grinning now. It’s all he can do not to laugh out loud. The thought of Tony taking a professional anything is hilarious. He doesn't care that Clint and Nat are judging him. It’s just a text, right? And anyway, the damage is already done so he might as well text Tony back now. He writes: < They cancel. Your ethics were never tested. >

Clint shakes his head and they resume walking. They’re only a couple of minutes from the pub now.

Once Steve pockets his phone, Nat hooks her arm on his as they walk.

"You should bring him by the house, Steve," she says, "I never got to meet him and he sounds like quite the character."

Steve shrugs, "Yeah, sure." It doesn’t normally occur to him to invite Tony over to their place. There’s just so much more to do at Tony’s and the idea of Tony coming over to their cramped little house is strange.

"Halloween party?" Nat suggests.

“Yeah, he’s coming,” Steve says. Of course Tony is invited to the Halloween party—he already asked him last weekend.

Clint makes a rude noise. Nat glares at him.

Steve fights the urge to roll his eyes. He’s really not sure what’s gotten into Clint. It’s not like he’s been completely MIA. Yeah, he and Tony have been hanging out a bit, but it hasn’t been that much. It’s certainly not as bad as Clint is making it out to be. Sure, maybe he sees his roommates a little bit less than he used to, but it’s not that bad...is it? No, Clint is just being an ass. So what if he likes to have a place to escape to when the house gets too loud? And yeah, okay, so he likes to go over there pretty often because Tony is awesome, one of the funnest people he knows. Not that the house isn't fun. The housemates have a blast together. It’s just...Tony is different somehow. But there’s no way he’s seeing Tony as much as Clint says. Clint’s just exaggerating like he always does, making it sound like he is glued to Tony's hip or something equally ridiculous.

When they get to the pub, Thor is waiting with Jane, pitchers of beer and a plate of wings. Thor's eyes light up when he sees Steve.

"Steven, what a pleasant surprise! Jane and I were just saying that we have not seen you in ages. I certainly did not expect to see you tonight. Did you not have plans with Anthony?"

Steve groans. Seriously? Thor too?

“Ha!” Clint crows triumphantly just as Steve's phone chimes the arrival of another text. Everyone turns and stares at him expectantly. Steve silently curses the universe as he pulls out his phone.

It's Tony. Of course.

< Great. Now I just have to find a sucker who's willing to sit through this slog. > Ugh. Professional development. Good luck with that, bud. But before Steve can reply, Tony sends another message: < You interested? >

Chapter Text

"That wig is ridiculous," says Natasha as she eyes the top of Steve's head.

"What wig?" he asks, trying to look surprised as he pats the top of his head in mock concern. "This is my natural colour."

"Nice try. Where did you find that?"

"Halloween depot. I think it completes the costume."

"It certainly does," Nat laughs and adjusts the feather in her hair. She's dressed as a flapper, all red sequins and black fringe. She looks gorgeous.

The house has been transformed for the party. There are spider webs hanging in the corners and off the lights, pumpkins scattered around the living room and a skeleton hanging on the front door. Someone (Thor) has even created a Halloween-inspired playlist for the occasion. Steve can hear the opening notes of Thriller coming up the stairs. If there's one thing you can say about Thor, it is that he never does anything by halves. This party has been his baby from the get-go and he’s planned one hell of a night. The main event of the evening is going to be apple bobbing. Thor and Natasha have hung apples from the tree in the front yard, and anyone who wants can try and take a bite of the dangling apple without using their hands. Once everyone gets nice and drunk, it's guaranteed to be good for a laugh.

Thor calls for everyone to assemble in the kitchen, and Steve and Natasha head downstairs together. When Steve comes in he sees Clint leaning against the counter, red solo cup in hand, wearing the Robin Hood costume. Again. Clint’s worn that thing every Halloween since freshman year. He claims it's because "the ladies like to feel his arrows." Steve thinks Clint’s just too lazy to buy a new one.

Clint gives Natasha an appreciative look and then almost spits out his drink when he sees Steve.

"Oh my god, that is priceless," he snorts. "Where's the camera?" He pulls his phone out of a pouch on his belt.

Steve grins and strikes an "up, up and away" pose.

"I told you I was going to be Superman," says Steve.

"Saying you are doing something and actually following through with it are two very different things," replies Clint, shaking his head. He fiddles with his phone for a moment, "And now this priceless moment has been immortalized on Facebook."

Steve rolls his eyes. He doubts that’ll be the worst picture of the night to end up online.

It's almost ten o'clock. Only a handful of Thor's friends are here and they've lined up shots on the kitchen table. Thor's buddies are all wearing togas.

"Friends," booms Thor, "Grab a drink! We need a toast to commence the night's festivities!" He passes out shots to everyone in the kitchen. Clearly Jane missing the party for some conference in Boston hasn’t dampened Thor’s party spirit at all.

Steve and Natasha exchange looks as they accept their shots. It is going to be one of those nights. Steve sniffs the contents of his shot glass. Vodka. He can already feel his throat burning, this stuff tastes like paint thinner.

"One, two, three!" bellows Thor and they all throw back their shots. Thor's friends let out a whoop and slam their glasses back onto the table. Steve wheezes. Oh god, that's vile. He thinks he'd actually prefer the paint thinner.

"Another round!" They all dutifully hold out their shot glasses and Thor pours out more vodka into each, ignoring the way it spills onto their hands and the floor when he misses. Thor holds his shot up, "To good friends, good drink and no regrets in the morning!" They all cheers, clink glasses and drink. This time the vodka goes down a bit smoother.

The front door to the house opens and a couple of people Steve doesn't recognize come in. The first two are dressed like Malibu Ken and Barbie. Ken is carrying a case of beer. They wave at Thor, who greets them enthusiastically. The other two are dressed as a sexy firewoman and police officer. They seem oddly familiar but Steve can't place them. They smile at him as they brush past him on the way to the kitchen. Steve can't help but let his gaze wander. Oh right, he met them at the last party. Terri...and Michelle? He's not sure but he thinks they are in the archery club with Clint.

Someone has turned up the music, Steve can hear the opening "Are you ready Steve? Uh huh" that can only be the beginning of Ballroom Blitz. The couples milling in the living room are shaking their hips to the music, singing out the chorus.

"Want a drink, Steve?" Clint calls from the kitchen. Steve ducks in and sees that Clint has pulled apart their liquor cupboard and arranged all the bottles neatly on the counter. He is measuring out amaretto into one of the solo cups. The policewoman (Michelle?) is overseeing the process, calling out "whoa!" as he pours a generous helping. Clint waggles the bottle at Steve, "I'm making godfathers. Want one?"

"They're great," says the firewoman (Terri?), obviously trying to entice Steve down the rabbit hole. "Wanna try mine?" she asks. She holds it out to him.

"I'm alright, thanks," says Steve. He is very familiar with Clint's drinks. Too familiar, really. His stomach turns slightly remembering their freshman year. He couldn't even smell amaretto without getting queasy for a year after the New Year’s Incident. "I think I'll just stick to beer." Steve opens the fridge and pulls out a bottle of Bud.

Clint frowns. "Boring," he says, then seems to reconsider, "Shot then?" This time he holds up the scotch.

Steve sighs, "Fine, let's do a shot." At this rate he's going to be drunk before midnight.

Clint pours them each a shot (the girls both decline) and they toss them back. It is so much smoother than the vodka. Terri and Michelle give them each a high five. Steve can hear more people arriving. According to the kitchen clock, it is just after 10:30. Over the music, Steve can hear some unfamiliar voices and then one familiar.

Tony's here.

Steve leaves Clint and the girls in the kitchen and makes his way to the front of the house. In the entranceway he finds a girl with reddish blonde hair, looking devastatingly cute as a cheerleader. Steve can't help but wonder if the uniform is actually from her days in high school. Next to her…is Batman.

"Steve," says the Batman, obviously Tony, in a low raspy voice, "This is Pepper. Pepper, this is Steve...or should I say Clark?"

So this is the infamous Pepper. She gives him a little wave, which he returns.

Steve chuckles, "Way to give away my secret identity. I thought that was the first rule of the Justice League."

Tony steps into the living room, Pepper following.

"The first rule of the Justice League is don't talk about the Justice League," she says with a smile. She holds up a couple coolers and asks "Can I stash these in the fridge?" Steve directs her to the kitchen. She and Clint meet in the doorway and he gives her a wolfish grin. She keeps walking.

Steve turns back to Tony who is looking around the living area.

Tony's costume is really well put together, complete with cape, mask, utility belt, boots and moulded chest piece. Tony's even remembered to put the black makeup around his eyes. It makes the blue all the more striking even in the dim light of the hall. Steve suspects that he probably rented his costume from somewhere. But then, that would require forethought, which is not exactly Tony's strong suit.

“Do you want the grand tour?" asks Steve as he realizes that Tony has never been here before.

"Yeah, show me where the magic happens," Tony says, grinning at him.

Steve turns to show Tony around, but he hasn't taken more than a step before Thor and Clint wander out from the kitchen. Thor's face brightens when he spots them.

"Welcome to our home, Anthony!" he greets. "It is the tradition of my people to welcome guests with a drink to warm them."

"In other words, shots, bitches!" Clint crows, producing a handful of shot glasses. He's holding the bottle of vodka from earlier in his other hand. Just the sight of it makes Steve wince.

"Yeah, okay," Tony says, taking the shot glass Clint passes to him.

The three look at Steve expectantly and he reluctantly takes the fourth shot glass. Damn Clint and his damn vodka.

"To the good life!" Thor exclaims as they clink their glasses together, then knock them back.

"Holy shit, that's terrible," Tony wheezes. "Did you cut it with turpentine?"

"Paint thinner, I think," Steve says. His throat still burns.

"Pussies," says Clint, but he's grinning at them. "So Steve, you finally decided to let Tony here see the pile of bricks we live in, huh? We were starting to think you were embarrassed or something."

"It's not the house that embarrasses me," says Steve, nudging Clint playfully.

"Shut up, I’m awesome," Clint replies, pushing Steve back.

"You know who is awesome? Our good friend, Steven," Thor says, patting Steve on the back.

"Um, thanks?"

Tony looks amused.

"Steven was a boy scout up until coming to school here. I still remember him telling me all about his adventures with his ‘troop’ when we were freshmen together. Did he ever tell you about the time he organized a bake sale to raise funds so that care packages could be sent to service members overseas? And he volunteered with an animal shelter and then he got a badge of merit for—"

Steve can feel his face going red. "Right, Thor," he says, patting Thor on the arm a little harder than is strictly necessary, "No one wants to hear about that."

"Don’t be silly, Steven," Tony says, grinning. "I would love to hear more about how you rescue kittens in your spare time."

"It’s really not a big deal," Steve mumbles, mortified.

"Do not be so modest, Steven!"

"Don’t you have some drinking games to organize, Thor?"

"Yeah, c’mon, Thor, this vodka isn’t going to drink itself!" Clint says, grabbing Thor’s arm and dragging him off to the kitchen. Clint winks over his shoulder at Steve as they go, and Steve can’t help but feel absurdly grateful that Clint still has his back.

As Clint drags Thor away, he can hear Thor asking, "Is it not the obligation of friends to speak of their friend’s accomplishments?" He doesn’t hear Clint’s response.

"Did I mention I live with lunatics?" says Steve as they disappear into the kitchen. He really hopes his face isn't as red as it feels. Just what he always wanted—to be known as a nice guy boy scout. Tony probably thinks he’s totally lame now.

"We're not all lunatics, Steve," says Nat as she saunters up to them. She is holding a glass of white wine. She observes Tony coolly. "So, I see that the boys have given you a warm welcome."

Tony is looking gobsmacked. To be fair, it’s the same reaction most red-blooded males have to Natasha. After living with her for almost three years, Steve has had time to acclimatize to the fact that she is really smoking hot.

"Hi, I don’t know you," says Tony, mouth still open, "but wow, you are gorgeous."

Steve clears his throat, "Tony, this is my housemate, Natasha. Natasha, this is Tony."

"Steve, you have been holding out on me. I thought we were friends and here you've been living with this beautiful woman and you've never introduced us." He glares at Steve and then turns his most charming smile on Natasha. She looks slightly amused. "I am sorry, but seriously, you are lovely, I feel the need to ask you out right on the spot."

"I am flattered, really, but I generally don't date guys that aren't old enough to drink," Natasha responds with a smirk, eyes flicking to Steve. He gives a little shrug. It’s not like he put Tony up to this. Natasha knows she’s gorgeous.

Tony pretends to be wounded, clutching at his chest. "Ouch, straight for the age. Y'know, I may be young but I make up for it in experience."

Natasha just laughs and pats him on the shoulder. "I need another drink, excuse me, boys," she says and makes her way to the kitchen.

Tony watches her go. "Wow, I like her. She's got fire in her eyes."

"I wouldn't hold my breath," replies Steve. "But hey, maybe she’ll call you."

"Uh huh."

More and more people have arrived and the living room is filling up. Steve is pretty sure he saw a ninja turtle, a vampire, Indiana Jones and at least four zombies. As he looks around the room he realizes that he knows maybe a third of the people present. The music keeps increasing in volume and he realizes that someone keeps switching the song back and forth between Thriller and the Time Warp.

"I haven't seen Pepper in a while…" Steve starts to say as he glances around the room. That's when he spots her standing in the kitchen. Clint has her cornered next to the fridge. He is standing a little closer than strictly necessary, while she sips her cooler evenly. The way her eyes keep darting around the room makes Steve think she's looking for an escape route.

Tony follows Steve's gaze, "I think your housemate likes Pepper."

"Not too sure she's feeling it."

"Definitely not."

"I should have warned her that Clint has a thing for redheads." Tony gives him a questioning look, which Steve ignores. "Should we go rescue her?"

Tony laughs and shakes his head, "Believe me, Pepper is more than capable of taking care of herself." But at that moment Natasha appears next to Clint and makes a show of introducing herself to a very relieved looking Pepper. They begin an animated discussion while Clint gives Natasha dirty how-dare-you-cockblock-me looks.

"Well, crisis averted. Feel like a drink?" Tony asks as he pulls out a bottle of dark brown liquid from the paper bag he's holding.

Steve evaluates the beer in his hand, he's had about half. "Whatcha got?"

In the dimmed light of the entranceway Tony squints at the label on the bottle, "Uh, let's see…Dalmore single malt scotch, aged eighteen years."

Steve almost chokes on his beer. "Eighteen-year-old scotch? Seriously? Just to get drunk on?" Tony shrugs. As they go in search of glasses, Steve's brain is once again trying to comprehend what it must be like to have Tony Stark's life. "That would be like me having a casual glass of Dom Perignon with my Mac 'n Cheese."

Tony scoffs, "Please, Dom Perignon? How pedestrian."

They find two glasses. Actual glasses because Steve refuses to drink expensive scotch out of a red solo cup. Tony pours them each two generous fingers of the scotch. They clink their cups together and take a sip. Well, Steve sips, Tony knocks back half his glass. Oh wow, Steve thinks as the warm liquid slides down his throat, that's smooth.

Tony has launched into conversation about the virtues of hard liquor and the distinctions between malts. He is doing that thing where he talks with his hands and jumps around from subject to subject while Steve attempts to keep up with his line of thought. A small blonde has joined the conversation. She's dressed like a witch in a short black dress and large pointy hat. The two of them begin reminiscing about the quality of Saturday morning cartoons from their childhood.

The conversation gets lively as Pepper and a cute brunette dressed as a pirate join the conversation.

“Tiny Toons was far and away the best,” says Pepper.

“Good but not the best,” says Tony. “I had such a crush on Babs Bunny though.”

Pepper smiles at him fondly, “Of course you did.”

“Scooby Doo was always my favourite,” Steve can't help but add his two cents.

The witch and Tony "boo" at him.

"Animaniacs was clearly superior," says the witch.

"You read my mind, gumdrop, Pinky and the Brain owned," replies Tony and the two of them high-five. "Rogers here," says Tony, jabbing a fingers at Steve's chest, "has terrible tas—holy shit, I think I just broke my finger. What have you got under there?"

"Nothing," says Steve, feeling self-conscious for no reason.

"Don't tell me that's all you," says Tony and pokes him again. Tony lets out a dramatic gasp and turns to the pirate, "Do you think they're real?"

"Well, he is the man of steel," the pirate says as she gives Steve a wink. She and the witch cop a feel too and Steve bats their hands away.

"Guys, stop," he says.

"Don't be upset, gummybear," Tony says, patting his arm good naturedly. "If anyone should be upset, it should be me. You're the one who went back for seconds when they were handing out muscles."

Steve's face hurts from laughing and his head feels kind of swimmy. When he looks down at his glass he finds it empty. Huh? He looks over at Tony and sees that his is just over half full. A quick examination of the bottle reveals that Tony must be on glass number two.

"Has anyone tried the apple bobbing?" asks the witch. They all shake their heads. The girls start giggling madly.

Tony leans into Steve and asks in a stage whisper, "Apple bobbing?" Steve grins and explains the game. Mid-explanation, something across the room catches Tony's eye and Steve can actually see Tony's attention shift from apples to…Peggy Carter. Steve blinks and then has to rule out a drunken hallucination when he sees her standing across the kitchen talking to Thor.

Steve knows how she caught Tony's eye. Peggy looks like she just stepped out of a World War two soldier's wet dream. She is wearing a short white skirt with navy trim and a mid-drift revealing blouse that has a sailor collar and tie. Her hair is curled and pulled back in her trademark victory rolls, her lips are crimson and her sailor hat is tucked under her arm. She's got on a pair of black pumps that make her legs look like they go on for miles… She's even wearing retro stockings, black seams running up the back of her legs, disappearing under the hem of her skirt. The whole thing is unbelievably sexy. Steve swallows. For a moment he has a hard time remembering why they broke up.

"Who is that?" Steve hears Tony ask. He sounds like he's in awe.

Peggy catches his eye just then and gives him a shy little wave.

"My ex," Steve replies as he returns her wave. The better question is why is she here? Steve really wants a drink all of a sudden. He pours himself another finger of the scotch and tops up Tony's glass. He can't even imagine what she is doing here. He tries to mentally calculate how long it’s been since he's seen her.

"What? Are you serious," Tony looks like he is seconds away from slapping Steve on the back and proclaiming "You dog!" Instead his face shifts from awed appreciation to serious solidarity. "Don't worry. Bros before hos and all that. But, damn." Tony casts a glance in Peggy's direction like he can't believe his eyes. "When did you two break up?"

"Maybe a year and a half ago? It has been a while…we don't really talk," replies Steve. He hastily takes a sip of his drink.

"Hey Steve," says Peggy, a soft smile on her face, as she approaches them.

"Hey Peggy," he returns, feeling a little uncomfortable. He introduces her to Tony before finally asking her, "What are you doing here?"

Peggy looks a little bashful, fingers twining in the hem of her skirt, "Y'know the guys over at 107?" Steve nods, they play football sometimes. "Well, they were having a party tonight and a girl I work with was going so I tagged along with her. Then I noticed that you guys were having a party too, so I thought I'd just pop in and say hi." She gives him a small smile. There's an awkward beat where Steve doesn't know what to say and Tony remains silent. "I see you have some apple bobbing going on out front," she adds.

"Oh yeah, that was Thor's idea," replies Steve, feeling some of the tension dissipating.

"I should have known," she replies with a grin, "I don't think I've bobbed for apples since the second grade."

"I certainly hope no one was this drunk in the second grade," inserts Tony.

Peggy chuckles, "Maybe just the parents." She turns to Steve, "Wanna go try?"

They all agree that no one is drunk enough to totally humiliate themselves on the front lawn quite yet. Tony pours them all a shot of the scotch and they knock it back. Pirate and Witch reappear and join them for another round. He’s not sure where Pepper went. By now the scotch is gone, which Steve thinks is for the best because he honestly cannot stop smiling, which is ridiculous because his ex is here and, really, he should be more concerned.

Sufficiently fortified, Tony rallies the group and they all head out the front door. A couple of guys, including Clint, are in the middle of the yard bobbing for apples. Clint has his balanced on the shoulder blade of the guy in front of him. If you didn't know an apple was there, you'd swear Clint was mouthing the other guy's back. The whole lawn erupts in a cheer as Clint finally comes away with a mouthful of mackintosh.

Now it's their turn.

Steve finds himself with Peggy on one side of him and Witch on the other, followed by Tony and Pirate. Peggy, Pirate and Witch set their hats down on the grass. After two failed attempts, Steve realizes that he needs to ditch the Superman wig. Clint holds up his hands to catch and Steve tosses it to him. They both miss by a mile but Clint grabs the wig off the front walk, puts it on his head and disappears inside the house. Steve just shakes his head. Tony apparently had the same idea because he's pulled the mask back, leaving his dark hair sticking up at crazy angles.

He hears Peggy giggle next to him and turns towards her. "You look like an adorable crazy person," she says and reaches up, gently brushing her fingers through his hair, trying to smooth it over. Steve takes a deep breath. Were they always standing this close? Feeling slightly off-balance, he puts a hand on her waist as her hand drops to his chest. They stand like this for a moment, caught. Peggy moves away first. Steve glances over at Tony. Their eyes meet for a split second before Tony goes back to helping Witch try to eat her apple off Pirate's back.

"Can you help me out?" asks Peggy, "I have an idea." Her idea involves having Steve lean back so that she can balance her apple on his chest. But each time she tries to take a bite she misses and her face smacks into him. They are both laughing and between tries she keeps ordering him to "Keep still!"

"I am trying," he says, chest heaving, "It tickles."

This time she puts her hands on his waist to steady them, which Steve is pretty sure is cheating, and manages to take a bite of the apple. She comes away looking triumphant and a little breathless. Steve is pretty sure he knows where this is going but he's determined to ignore it for the time being.

Next, it is his turn. Peggy helps him by catching the apple in the crook of her neck. As Steve leans in to try for the apple, he inhales her perfume. It's the same one she used to wear when they were together. It's distracting, intoxicating really, and it's a few tries before he finally gets his apple.

He looks over to see how the others are doing. Off to the side, Pirate has Tony in a compromising position, her face buried below his neck. With the way his back is arched, it looks like she is sucking on Tony's nipple. Tony catches Steve watching and winks over Pirate's head. Pirate finally surfaces with the apple in her mouth and grabs Tony's shoulders with both hands, pulling him down to her. He grins flirtatiously and takes a bite out of the other side of the apple, before they both laugh and pull apart.

Steve feels Peggy's hand slide into his and he turns towards her. She smiles up at him and gives his hand a small tug, urging him towards the house. The world is slightly blurry and there's a ringing in his ears and part of him would like nothing more than to let her drag him back to the house and up the stairs. But his brain is screaming at him: bad plan. No matter how drunk they are, he knows—knows without needing to think about it—that sleeping with Peggy right now is a terrible idea. Hope dies in her eyes as she reads his decision in his face.

He leans down and presses a kiss to her cheek, whispering "Sorry" as he slowly pulls away. She gives a small smile and shrug as if to say "can't blame a girl for trying," then picks up her hat and places it firmly on her head.

"I think I am going to head out now," she says, then turns and calls, "It was nice meeting you, Tony," blowing him a kiss. Tony waves at her and blows one back. Peggy's smile widens as she turns to Steve. "Say bye to the others for me, will you? It was great seeing you again, Steve." Without waiting for a reply, she turns and starts walking away.

"Need me to walk you home?" Steve calls after her. No matter their history there's no way she should be walking home alone in the dark.

"It's okay," she calls back. "My friend is at the 107 party still, we'll walk home together." She gives him a final wave and keeps walking.

Steve heaves a sigh and runs his hand through his hair. Did that go well? He's not really sure.

He looks behind him. Tony and Pirate are sitting on the front steps chatting, sharing Pirate's apple. When Steve walks up to them, Tony raises an eyebrow at him.

"So…shots?" asks Tony with an impish grin.

"Hells, yes," replies Steve

Thor appears on the front porch, as if summoned. "Friends! I have need of you!" Steve and Tony exchange looks with Pirate. "Come in, we are in need of anchors for our match."

He ushers them into the house and straight into the kitchen.

"This is a terrible idea," says Steve as soon as he sees the setup. Eight cups are lined up, four along each side of the table. It's a relay. Some of Thor's toga-clad friends are milling around waiting for everyone to take their places.

"C'mon, Rogers, don't be such a baby," says Tony as he smacks Steve on the back. A gesture that Steve thinks is supposed to be reassuring.

"No, you don't understand, these people are legends. They are weekend warriors. There's no scenario where this ends well for us." Steve’s voice has taken on a slightly hysterical quality.

Tony doesn't look intimidated. "Sweetheart, I am in my fifth year of engineering, I can drink." He pats Steve on the arm, "Don't worry, I'll hold your hair back later." He flashes Steve a toothy grin, then turns to the crowd, asking "So, who wants me?"

Steve takes the team with Natasha, Sam and Clint, while Tony joins Sif, Thor and Pirate. Pirate gives Tony a cute smile and puts her hand on his arm. Thor explains that you can only start drinking once the person before you is finished and their glass is down. The first team to finish drinking wins. Steve's not too sure what they win other than an epic hangover.

Steve takes his place across the table from Tony, who mouths "you're going down," with a cocky grin. Steve grins back, shaking his head at him. There's no way he’s letting Tony beat him.

Thor shouts out the countdown and it starts. Tony's team starts out strong because Thor and Sif are tanks, but Pirate turns out to be their weak link. At first Steve was worried about the lack of toga-clad crazies on his team but he knows that Nat can drink and Sam's a big guy. Clint is the wildcard—it always depends on how drunk he is to begin with. As it turns out, Clint's in fine form and he slams down his empty cup just ahead of Pirate. And then it's Steve's turn. He picks up his cup and just chugs, eyes watering, throat burning, but he slams down his cup a second before Tony. The winning team lets out a great "Woooo!" and gathers Steve in for a group hug. Clint is being a sore winner, yelling "in your face!" at Thor's team.

"Well played!" says Thor, throwing an arm around Steve's shoulder. "You have proven yourselves. Shall we play again?"

Steve laughs, "Thor, you are awesome." Because, he is, really. "But there is no way I am doing that again." Thor releases him and Tony appears at his side.

"Yeah, Thor, old buddy, I am out," says Tony, and this time Tony throws an arm around Steve's shoulders. "Rogers and I," he gestures to them both, "like our livers." Steve turns his head slightly and looks at his friend. Up close he can see a small scar just above Tony's ear at the hairline.

Steve nods solemnly. Thor and Sif leave to try and recruit others, Pirate has wandered off, and Clint and Natasha are doing that thing where they get all close and whisper to each other.

Mostly alone in the kitchen now, Tony turns his attention to all the bottles lined up on the counter. He picks up a bottle of Clint's less-than-stellar booze and reads the label. They are both leaning against the counter with their shoulders touching.

"Whiskey?" asks Tony, finally taking his gloves off and tucking them into his belt.

Steve vaguely remembers turning down a drink moments ago.

"Sure."

All the chairs in the kitchen have been dragged into the living room so Steve and Tony take a seat on the stairs, about halfway up. Tony pours the whiskey into a glass and passes it to Steve.

"We're going to have to share, sweet cheeks, this is the last clean cup," Tony says. Steve takes a sip and passes it back to Tony. Tony wrinkles his nose as he takes a drink. "This is bad," he says as he swirls the amber liquid, "Like, I am drunk and this still tastes like shit bad."

Steve thinks it tastes fine but then again, he also thinks his friend smells good, and that is not entirely normal. In the living room someone has pulled out Thor's copy of Rock Band and is completely butchering Gimme Shelter. Tony offers Steve the glass. When he takes the glass back, their fingers brush. A thought suddenly occurs to Steve, "You’re great."

Tony leans into Steve's shoulder as he turns to look at him, "What?"

"You are great," says Steve, "just like really great." Wow, the stairwell is kind of blurry and tilty. The smile on his face feels permanent at this point.

Tony grins at him, a piece of dishevelled hair falling in his eye. "I am, aren't I? Do you know who else is great, bubblegum?" Tony pauses, "You."

Steve laughs. "I don't get why you don't have a girlfriend. You're so smart and fun and good looking! And great, seriously. Why don't you have a girlfriend?" Wow, Tony's eyes are so blue. And his hair looks soft and different when it's not pushed back like he usually wears it.

"I don't have time for a girlfriend, buttercup," says Tony. "They are demanding."

"But – don't you—" Steve flaps his hand lamely, "miss certain things?"

Tony smirks, "You don't need a girlfriend to get laid, Steve. But I think the better question is why don't you have a girlfriend, Mr. I-am-built-like-a-Greek-God-and-am-smart-and-sensitive-to-boot. Or at least a fuck buddy, I mean, c'mon, look at you! Your ex seemed like she was game.”

"I – uh," Steve hesitates, "I guess I just wasn't feeling it." His face is hot. "I don't do no-strings-attached well." Why is he admitting this? Nothing says lame like a guy who doesn't like hooking up. He's certain that any second now Tony is going to jump up and demand to see his manhood card before tearing it in half and then putting it through the shredder.

"So, does that mean friends with benefits isn't in the cards for you and Peggy?"

"Not likely," replies Steve. He takes the whiskey back from Tony, leaning on him as the world blurs. He should probably stop drinking now and go to bed. But Steve's comfortable right where he is; Tony's shoulder and the whiskey are warm and Natasha's doing a fair rendition of Black Hole Sun in the living room.

"Clearly we are too awesome to let one person tie us down," concludes Tony.

"I guess you’re all for sex without strings?"

"Oh pudding, we can't all be as emotionally mature as you."

Steve takes another sip of their drink. "Does that mean you'll be going home with the pirate?"

"Pirate?" Tony looks confused for a moment, "Oh her, yeah, no, she's not my type."

Steve looks at him in surprise, "Well, if cute brunettes aren't your type, then what is?"

Tony grins. "Blondes."

 

*

 

Pepper and Tony are in his lab Sunday afternoon after the Halloween party. To say that Tony is hungover would be to greatly understate the matter. He feels like death. Like four-week-old death. Pepper walked in about ten minutes ago chastising him about this and that and really, his head hurts too much to care. He just wants to weld shit and nurse his hangover alone. The room is suddenly silent. Shit. Pepper has been talking the whole time and now she's staring at him.

“Okay, Pepper,” says Tony dismissively. She narrows her eyes at him.

“You're not listening to me, I can tell.”

“I am listening, I just don't care, there's a big difference. By the way, when you texted me and asked if you could come see me in the lab and I said no, what part of that wasn't clear?”

She glares at him, “I need to talk to you and I can tell when you're hiding.”

"Clearly, I need new hiding places," he mutters under his breath and goes back to fiddling with a circuit.

Pepper grabs his arm and turns him around, "What are you doing?"

Tony looks at her blankly and slowly holds up the welding torch.

"Not right now," she says, visibly exasperated, "I mean with that Steve guy."

Tony blinks, honestly surprised. Steve? "What about Steve?"

She raises one eyebrow, "I saw you two last night."

Tony waits for her to continue. Obviously she saw them, since it was Steve's house party. "And…" he prompts.

"And you are so into him!"

"What? No."

"Yes," she says.

"He's my student, Pep."

"Who you are clearly hot for," she says, giving him a pointed look.

"We are friends, Pepper. Friends with a capital F, nothing more."

"Admit it, you think he's hot."

"You'd have to be dead not to. Seriously, just because I think Steve's hot doesn't mean I'm into him, Pepper. It just means I have eyes. I think you're hot too, does that mean we're going to hook up now?"

She crosses her arms and stares at him. "You like him," Pepper says, her tone accusing.

"Well, generally you do like your friends."

"Usually, but not in all cases," Pepper retorts archly.

Tony pouts at her, "You wound me, really. Let's see if I get you a Christmas present this year."

She smiles fondly and pats him on the hand, "Like you ever remember." Her face becomes serious. "Tony, I know how you can get, but this time there is a line you cannot cross. You know that, right?"

Tony sighs and runs a hand through his hair. Are they really still having this conversation?

"Yes, Pepper. I have self-control, y'know. But, seriously we are just friends, nothing more, alright?"

She gives him a long, searching look. "Okay."

 

*

 

< How hungover are you this morning? >

< HUNG. >

< Me too. I came downstairs to find Thor moaning about his "battle wounds" on the couch. He then said "I bring shame upon my ancestors with my weak liver. Valhalla will never accept me." Suspect he is still drunk. >

< Haha I fucking love that guy >

< He is pretty awesome. >

< So when are we doing it again? >

< Ask me when I can blink without wanting to die. >

 

*

 

"Hey boys!” Jan greets them with a smile from behind the counter. “How're you doing today? Steve, how's your marketing project coming?"

"I've been kind of neglecting it," Steve admits sheepishly. "I'll get to it soon enough. Did you have a good weekend?"

"Yeah, it was great. One of my friends from high school came down to visit me so that was nice. I hadn't seen her in forever! So, the usual?"

"Ye—" Steve begins.

"Actually, sweetheart, just a grande Americano for me today," Tony says.

Steve and Jan both turn to stare at Tony in surprise.

"You cutting back on your caffeine, Tony?" Jan asks.

"Just for today."

Steve was sure that, if anything, Tony was going to upgrade to a red eye, not cut back to just regular coffee. Tony looks exhausted today, dark circles under his eyes and hair a mess, stubble filling in his usually precise goatee. And...wasn’t Tony wearing that shirt yesterday? Steve stamps down the mothering urge to smooth down his hair and fret over him. He doesn't think Tony would appreciate it. Instead he pays for their drinks and walks down to the end where Kitty is pouring Tony a fresh coffee. Steve's is ready and waiting for him like it always is since he and Tony started getting coffee together. It makes him smile to see his name written out on the side of the cup, always with a heart or smiley face or some other sweet thing.

"Everything okay?" he asks, looking Tony over carefully. Is he sick?

Tony grunts what Steve can only assume is an affirmative answer as he gulps his black coffee. "I haven't actually been home yet but I made fantastic progress with the arc reactor last night, Steve, you've gotta check it out, it was such a massive breakthrough. I mean, okay, you probably won't understand the technicalities of what I did last night, but the important part to take away from this is that today is a ridiculously amazing day because progress was had! I'm almost caught up to where I want to be with my timetable now. Do you have any idea how huge that is? It’s huge, Steve. Huge."

"Tony, are you trying to tell me that you've been up all night?" Steve says slowly, his horror evident in his voice.

"Sleep is for quitters," Tony says. “I think you are missing the point, Steve—I am almost caught up on my timetable! You should be happy for me.”

"You need to get some sleep!"

“Steve, Steve, c’mon, are you even listening to me?”

“Yes, I’m listening, you just finished telling me that you haven’t slept in over twenty-four hours!”

“I really don’t think you’re getting this.”

"Tony, you need to go to bed right now!"

"Yeah, yeah, I am, I'm going," Tony says. "That's why I only got a grande. This is just a nightcap, lollipop, don't worry about it. Don't want to overdo the caffeine before bed, you know? I mean, I love coffee but even I know that's not a good idea."

"Tony," Steve cuts in. "How often do you do this?"

"Mm?” says Tony over the top of his cup, “Oh, just whenever I get a really good groove happening. When I'm in the zone, I can go for days. This actually wasn't too bad, I mean, I'm done and it's...” Tony pauses to check the time on his phone, “...it’s not even afternoon yet!” He holds the phone out triumphantly, like Steve should be proud. “That's only like twenty-three hours of actual work. That's nothing. You should have seen me in undergrad. I am pretty sure my lab partners thought I was on PCPs or something. So really, it's not a big deal, Stevie. I do worse than this all the time. Nothing to worry about."

"That doesn't actually make me feel better," Steve says. He sighs. "You're not going to drive like this, are you? Come on, let me drive you home." Missing one class won't be the end of the world.

"Ha! You just want to drive my car."

"Or I don't want my friend to end up in a horrible car accident, but sure, a joy ride works too," he says, rolling his eyes. "Look, you don't have to let me drive your car, but then I need you to promise you'll take the bus."

"The bus? You've got to be kidding me," Tony says. "I'm fine, Steve, really."

"Tony…"

"Okay, okay, I'm calling a cab, don't get your panties in a bunch."

"You're sure you're okay?"

"Hunky dory, grandma, now seriously, get going, you're gonna be late to class."

Steve gives Tony an appraising look. "Are you sure you don't want me to take you home?"

Tony bats his eyes at him, "Why pumpkin, I thought you'd never ask!" That startles a laugh out of Steve. If Tony's that quick on his game, maybe he really is okay. Tony pulls out his cell phone and waves it at him. "Seriously, go. I'm calling a cab, I'm fine, go on."

"Okay…if you are sure…"

"Go."

Steve heads off towards the science building, leaving Tony behind to call a taxi. It feels strange to be making the trek without him. He's gotten used to the company. He texts Tony from class to make sure he got home okay, but doesn't get a response. Steve hopes it's because Tony's already asleep and not because he didn't make it home.

Around 2 a.m. that night, Steve is woken by the chime of his phone. He checks it and sees a text from Tony: < Sorry was sleeping. Don't worry so much gramps told you I was fine. I'll see you in class in 8h refreshed and clean and fancy free >

Steve smiles and goes back to sleep.

 

*

 

< I haven't slept in 3 days. Are the walls supposed to be moving? >

< GO TO SLEEP, TONY. >

 

*

 

The girl sitting next to him is furiously scribbling notes. Steve learned a while ago to just print off the lecture slides and annotate. For one, Tony talks too fast, and for another, the equations are getting longer and more complicated. Today's lecture is on t-tests. Tony is, of course, making it harder on himself by not teaching it linearly and introducing topics that he neglected to cover in previous lectures on account of them being "too basic." When a hand shoots up in the back row at the mention of ratios, Steve resists the urge to smile.

"I have a question," the guy at the back says.

Steve is pretty sure Tony's eye is about to start twitching. "Have any of you ever considered that if you didn't interrupt my lectures, you might find that I actually end up answering your questions?"

This isn't the first time Tony's said as much. He's ranted to Steve a couple of times.

“I don’t think you’ve explained ratios in class before,” says the guy in the back row.

Tony levels a glare at him, “Try showing up to class more often.”

This sets off the guy, who insists that he’s a model student. Tony isn’t buying it.

The girl next to him sighs and throws her pen down. "Do you have any idea what's happening," she asks in a hushed voice.

"Sure," Steve whispers back. He lets the girl borrow his notes for a moment while Tony argues with the guy at the back about learning ratios. Tony's right, they already learned them, thinks Steve. Tony had used some far out example involving obscure characters from a 90s video game, which Steve hadn't understood at the time.

"This professor is nuts," whispers the girl as she hands back Steve's notes. "Like, he is a certified crazy person."

"I don't know," says Steve, casting his eyes towards the front of the class, "he's kind of grown on me."

The girl gives him an incredulous look, "I don't understand what he's saying half the time. What do these crazy examples have to do with stats?"

Steve shrugs, "I don't know, but I find the anecdotes helpful. Makes memorizing the material easier. I'll never forget when to use a z-test after that story about trying to buy a new car and the different levels of poor customer service."

The girls snorts, "I guess..."

"Besides, I think he's gotten better?" says Steve hesitantly.

The girl considers the statement and nods, "I guess he isn't using advanced physics examples anymore or calling us morons every five minutes."

At that moment they both tune back in to Tony arguing with the student in the back row over ratios. Tony throws his hands up. "Right. Look, if you don't even know what a ratio is, I suggest you drop the class and try something easier. May I suggest community college? Now, continuing on with the lecture…"

The girl gives Steve a pointed look and goes back to writing notes. Steve resists the urge to smile. Okay, so maybe Tony's still a little harsh but Rome wasn't built in a day, right?

Tony continues on explaining about how they’re looking at both the means and the variability spreads of two groups in order to compare them. He illustrates with a completely inappropriate example about comparing the IQ’s of a random sample of the population versus a sample of Cylons and, after comparing, whether they should welcome their new robot overlords.

Steve catches himself smiling fondly while the girl next to him asks "Cylons?"

"From Battlestar Galactica," Steve tells her, like that explains everything. She raises her eyebrows. Tony’d made him watch the entire first season in a single sitting one Saturday. He’d been very insistent. "Cybernetic workers and soldiers who want to wipe out the human race."

"…right," the girl says, going back to taking notes.

Steve shrugs and focuses on following the example.

Finally, lecture ends. From the front of the class, Tony calls, "Okay, I’ll take your assignments up at the front, kiddos. Just set ‘em on the desk here. If you’re not handing in your assignment today, I don’t want to hear your excuses for why not. Take the zero like good men and women. And for God’s sake don’t cough on your homework and then hand it to me. Technically that is a biological attack and I will have to burn your assignment for the good of all."

Steve hangs back to hand up his assignment last, saying "I didn’t cough on it, but I may have used it as a sneeze guard. That’s cool though, right?"

Tony grins at him. "Get out of here, Rogers, so I can Lysol these assignments in peace."

Chapter Text

Tony’s got a coffee in each hand, grateful for the warmth of the cups as he stands outside their usual Starbucks Thursday morning. It’s mid-November, sunny and not too cold, just the way Tony likes it. Steve’s running late, but because Tony is an awesome friend, at least Steve won't have to suffer the indignity of being both late and uncaffeinated. His phone chirped a minute ago alerting him to a new text message—most likely from Steve asking Tony to pick up a coffee or begging him not to drink his. Tony’d only done that once and in his in defence Steve had been at least twenty minutes late.

Tony takes a sip of his coffee as Steve hurries up the walkway towards him. Tony waves his cup at Steve and grins. Steve is looking a little harried but he gives Tony a grateful smile when he spots the second coffee.

"Hey Tony, I'm really sorry about that. My graphic design prof is being ridiculous today," he rolls his eyes as he takes his coffee from Tony. "A couple of people in the class have been skipping because they're behind on their projects, so she decides to keep us late for a lecture on the importance of proper attendance. The students who are in class. Y'know, the ones who aren't skipping?"

"Yeah…that sucks," Tony says, eying Steve. “I never got why profs cared whether you showed for class. Show, don’t show, whatever. As long as you hand your shit in, I couldn’t care less.”

“I think we’ve established that you are not most profs,” Steve sighs and his shoulders slump. “This feels like a Monday.”

“Mondays must be awesome ‘cause you have my class.”

Steve raises his eyebrows. “Your class is many things but I don’t think awesome is one of them.”

“Incredible? A joy for all?” Tony suggests.

Steve gives him a look, doesn’t even crack a smile. Really, nothing? Tony tries a grin but Steve turns away, walking towards class.

“Thanks for the coffee,” says Steve, taking a sip. “Don’t think I would make it through media without it.”

“I don’t know how you make it through the mornings,” Tony says, shaking his head in disbelief. How Steve makes it to his morning classes five days a week is one of life’s great mysteries. Tony would skip his own class if he thought he could get away with it.

“I almost didn’t make it through the morning, but it had nothing to do with coffee,” says Steve. “Went to have a bowl of cereal only to discover, after I’ve poured the cereal into the bowl, that someone had graciously left me approximately two tablespoons of milk. Two. Just enough to ruin the cereal, not enough to actually eat it.”

Ew. Breakfast. Tony can’t really sympathize. “That’s what you get for eating the most evil meal of the day.”

Steve frowns at him.

It's not that being kept late and having your housemate drink the last of the milk aren't annoying things. (Tony assumes; he's never had a housemate to drink the last of his milk. Come to think of it, he doesn't usually have milk for anyone to finish in the first place.) It's just that Steve has been a bit of a Debbie Downer all week. If Steve was a girl, Tony'd be asking him if it was that time of the month.

“You have no idea what it’s like living with roommates sometimes,” says Steve like he can read Tony’s mind. “Last night Thor had a bunch of people over and they played Dance Central till 2 a.m. And someone else decided to make brownies and left their dishes everywhere. Some days I swear it’s like I live with a circus.”

"I can imagine,” Tony says, distracted. He can’t tell if Steve is fishing for sympathy or if he just needs to vent. But one thing is clear: Steve needs to get out. A change of scenery would probably do him a world of good. What good time can he suggest? Something to get Steve out of the house, meeting new people—maybe a girl, even? Actually, that would be perfect. He bets a good fuck would get Steve out of his funk. An idea occurs to him. “So, anyway, this friend of Pepper's is throwing a party this weekend. She's a cheerleader, so you know she's inviting the whole squad. You should definitely come, Steve. Party full of cheerleaders! It'll be amazing."

"I don't know, Tony," says Steve, looking down at his coffee.

"Seriously? Cheerleaders, Steve. Cheerleaders."

"Y’know what,” says Steve, heaving a sigh, rubbing a hand along the back of his neck, “I'm not really feeling it."

"Well if you come to the party I bet you'll be feeling it, if you know what I mean," Tony says, waggling his eyebrows.

Steve smiles weakly, "I better not. I have a lot going on right now. And honestly, I really don't feel up to going to a party this weekend."

Tony pouts. “C’mon, Steve, consider this your friend intervention. Your frientervention, if you will. It’s unnatural to be so responsible. You need to get out, change of scenery, whatever. But you, my friend, are in need of a night of debauchery.”

“I can’t. I’ve got that communications paper due next week and the draft for my design project due the week after.”

"Weak," says Tony. Maybe the peer pressure angle will work.

Steve shrugs. Tony can tell that he’s lost this one, but he needs to give it one last attempt. Sometimes if he pushes hard enough, Steve gives in. As far as he can tell, Steve’s usually glad he did. Didn’t they have a great time at laser tag? And Steve’d been adamant that it would suck.

“C’mon, it’ll be fun!” says Tony, elbowing Steve in the side.

“No. I don’t want to.”

"Fine, don't come to the party, no big deal," Tony says, waving his hands. “Stay home, whatever.”

"I’m so glad I have your permission,” Steve says, sounding far too exasperated.

Okay. Ouch. Tony puts his hands up to placate and Steve gives him a slightly apologetic look.

“Look, I’ve got to run to class. I’ll – uh – see you around.” Steve retreats towards the science building.

Um. Alright. Tony watches him go before turning and walking towards the engineering building. He glances back at Steve’s retreating form, shrugs off his disappointment and starts mentally calculating how many minutes until the weekend.

 

*

 

< Came home to find the living room reconfigured to stadium seating. WTF. >

< Your housemates are awesome >

< I don't understand. Whyyyyy would they do this? >

< They're trying to bring the movie theatre experience home? >

< Our tv is 26". The theatre experience is NOT happening here. >

< If you’re looking for the theater experience, you could come over? >

< I’ve got a lot of work to do. Maybe another time. >

 

*

 

Steve's running late again the following Tuesday. He comes up the path shaking his head and cursing, "I swear to God, Tony, it's like she's trying to make my life miserable."

"She keep the class late again?"

"Just me this time," Steve says with a frown, taking his coffee from Tony. "She's not happy with my progress on the website redesign. Doesn't think I'm connecting with my non-profit, whatever that means."

"You'll figure it out, I'm sure," Tony says, half paying attention as he thumbs through e-mails on his phone. So many of them are from stats students. He forwards them to Bruce without a bit of remorse. Tony’s already thinking ahead to the weekend. Thanksgiving is this Thursday, which means four straight days of uninterrupted work. He is going to make so much progress on his research. Finally. He can't wait. Plus, Thanksgiving means one less class to teach. Thank fuck.

Satisfied that he hasn’t forgotten anything earth shattering, he pockets his phone and turns to Steve. "Hey, so you missed a really great party on Saturday," Tony says. "I'm surprised you didn't show. I saw your housemates there. Was Thor ridiculously hungover Sunday morning? He looked pretty trashed."

"Not that I noticed," Steve says with a shrug.

“What did you get up to this weekend?” Tony asks. “Please don’t tell me you went to bed early and did your homework like a responsible person.”

Steve visibly stiffens. “So what if I did?”

Tony rolls his eyes, “That was a joke, Steve. Geez.”

Aw man, Steve's still in his funk. What is this week two? He hasn't stuck around after stats class at all and he never wants to do anything and every time they've met up for coffee, he's just been...off. Tony would think Steve was annoyed with him, but he'd talked to Natasha at the party and she said he was the same with them.

Steve seriously needs to get out. He should have come to that party. He clearly could have used it. Even if he didn't meet a girl, at least it would have gotten him out and about and drunk off his ass. Tony’s really not sure what’s going on with Steve. Steve is generally a pretty positive guy. Tony hasn’t known him that long, but throughout their entire friendship, Steve’s always been optimistic and upbeat and just...not like this. But lately it’s like his energy has reversed polarity.

Tony peers at him, notices the dark circles under his eyes for the first time. "Everything okay?"

Steve’s eyes dart away, suddenly very interested in the space above Tony’s left shoulder. "Yeah, fine. I just wasn't up to it." Steve stares down at his coffee. The silence settles between them.

Bullshit.

"Okay," Tony says. He knows better than to push Steve when he clearly doesn’t feeling like sharing. Tony searches around for some positive topic. Steve’s bad mood is starting to get draining. "So, you headed home for Thanksgiving?" he asks as they start walking towards their buildings.

Steve’s step falters and Tony sees Steve's jaw clench out of the corner of his eye. "No."

"Ah, so what's the plan?"

"No plan. I'm just going to stick around here." Steve quickens his pace slightly.

"Really?" Tony's surprised. The thought of Steve spending Thanksgiving alone is…strange. It doesn't sit right with him. Has Steve been acting like this because he's upset he won't be heading back to Brooklyn for the holiday? "How come?"

"My grandma's all the way down in Florida, and I can't really afford to fly out there twice. It's not a big deal though. I'll see her at Christmas." His eyes dart away from Tony’s questioning gaze.

"You're not going to see your parents?"

"No," Steve says, shrugging in an overly transparent attempt to look casual. Does he really think he’s going to fool Tony with that? "They passed away."

"Shit, Steve, I'm sorry," Tony says because he is and it's all he can think of to say. And – oh god. Tony’s mind stumbles over all the questions piling up. What? When? How didn’t he know this about the guy he spends ninety percent of his free time with? He is aware that Steve is an only child like himself but Tony never realized that he didn’t have any family except for a grandma in fucking Florida. He feels like this is something he should have known. How long has Steve been alone for? On a good day Tony and his parents don't get along the greatest but he can't imagine what it'd be like if they were gone. And they're barely in his life… Somehow he can't see Steve being like that with his folks. Plus he feels like a jerk, can’t believe he’s been giving Steve a hard time when Steve’s been facing spending the holidays alone.

“It’s fine,” says Steve with finality, clearly wanting to end this conversation. He shrugs again. "I'm fine," he says. He doesn't sound fine. His voice wavers slightly and he’s clutching his coffee cup, shoulders a solid line of tension.

"Hey, I'm gonna be around too. You should come over." Tony tries to give Steve a reassuring smile.

"Not you too," Steve sighs. He looks miserable and annoyed.

"What?"

"Bucky's family—you remember Bucky, right?” Steve asks. Tony nods. Of course he remembers Steve’s best friend since forever. Steve’s mentioned more than once about how rough it is with Bucky being deployed. “Well, anyway, they’re trying to get me to come join them and Clint's invited me to his step-brother's place, and Thor invited me home too. Nat even invited me to crash her plans with this friend of hers from back home, which I can't even tell you how much no to that. I don't need everyone to feel sorry for me. It's not a big deal."

"Okay," Tony says slowly, trying to take all this in. Steve seems to think Tony’s trying to play the martyr here or something...does he even know Tony at all? He’s not making a sacrifice here. Sure, it’ll mean less time in the lab, but—well, whatever. Steve shouldn’t be alone for Thanksgiving. "I just meant that since you're staying in town and I'm staying in town we could hang. You know, order in, watch the game? It'd be fun."

"What? Tony, no. You must have family plans."

"No," says Tony. He thought they’d established long ago that Tony’s folks weren’t exactly his favourite people. Steve looks at him incredulously. Tony sighs, "I haven't spent the holidays with my parents since I was…actually I can't remember ever spending Thanksgiving with my parents."

Steve looks scandalized. “Never?”

Tony shakes his head. “Let’s just say we don’t put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional.”

Steve eyes him skeptically. "Are you sure? You should really think about going home and seeing them. It's not too late. I mean, the flights are probably all booked by now, but it's not too far to drive."

Steve thinks he flies commercial. That’s adorable.

"Steve, my dad will be working right through till Sunday and my mom's probably skiing in Switzerland or heading to Milan or whothefuckknows. If I go home, it's just going to be to an empty house. It's really not a big deal."

"Really?"

"Yeah, so what do you say? C'mon, Steve, it'll be fun. You know you're just dying to see Thanksgiving day football in HD."

"I…sure, yeah, okay. Thanks." Steve gives him a smile. It's small but it reaches his eyes for the first time in weeks.

"Great, then come over Thursday. We can eat, drink, drink some more and heckle the players. Bring your bag, you can crash."

"Sure, Tony," Steve says as he heads into the science building.

 

*

 

< What time should I be there for? >

< Games at 1230. Come for then >

< Ok. >

< Don’t forget your bag >

 

*

 

Steve shows up around noon Thursday laden with bags.

"Y'know," Tony says when he answers the door, "I'm pretty sure I told you to bring a bag, singular. What, are you moving in or something?"

"These are groceries, Tony," Steve says with a tone suggesting he is showing great patience. "It's okay, I've seen your fridge so I get that you're not familiar with the concept. But there are these stores you can go to that are filled with food, and you can go and buy that food and then you store it in your kitchen. And that way you can make yourself meals instead of ordering take out all the time."

"Not true," says Tony. "Sometimes I get delivery."

"Thank you for making my point," Steve says with a laugh and he hands off a couple of bags to Tony. Jesus, these are heavy. How did Steve carry it all here? What is all of this anyway?

"Okay, wiseass," Tony says as he leads the way to the kitchen. "So what's in the bags anyway?"

"It's Thanksgiving, Tony. We need to make dinner. It's kind of the whole point of the holiday."

"Oh."

He wasn't expecting this. He's never actually done a proper Thanksgiving. Not since he left for boarding school forever ago and he doesn't really remember much from before then. When he'd invited Steve over, he'd thought they'd order in and watch the game. But really, it's Steve. For all his bluster the other day about how it wasn't a big deal, of course he wants to celebrate the holiday. He should have known.

Tony starts unloading the bags. This is kind of ridiculous. There are potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy mix, cranberry sauce, butter, onions, celery, pears, a loaf of bread, some kind of green herb, some other kind of herb, chicken broth and—

"Jesus Christ, is that a turkey?"

"Thanksgiving, Tony," Steve says with a tolerant smile.

Tony wrinkles his nose. "And we're going to cook this. Ourselves."

"Yes, Tony."

"Are you serious?"

"It's going to be fine," Steve says it like he’s trying to talk Tony down from the ledge. "I do this every year with my mom. Or I mean, I did. But anyway, we can handle this."

Tony watches Steve sort ingredients and wonders once again just how long Steve has been alone. If his slip about his Mom is any indication it can’t have been that long ago. Tradition had never been something the Stark family emphasized. Unless ignoring one another on the holidays can be considered a tradition. Tony stopped being bitter about that years ago. But if Steve really wants a proper Thanksgiving dinner, then they'll have a proper Thanksgiving dinner. Never mind that Tony’s never cooked anything in his life. It's just cooking. How hard can it be?

Tony rubs his hands together, "Okay, sure, no problem, let's get cooking."

Tony turns on the kitchen television because he's not missing the Turkey Classic so that they can cook.

"Oh wow, I did not know you had a TV in here and I'm kind of surprised I missed it because that thing is huge!"

"Is it? It's only 42 inches," Tony says with a shrug. "And anyway, when it's not on it does pretty much disappear into the wall."

"Only, right,” Steve says, rolling his eyes. “Okay, do you want to do the potatoes? I'm going to get started on the stuffing."

"Sure, what do I do?"

"Start by washing and peeling them. When you're done, you can cut and boil them."

Tony stares at the bag of potatoes doubtfully. Isn't this one of the ways they punish people in the army? But he empties the bag into the sink and gives the spuds a good scrub. He gets out a knife and runs it along the potato in his hand and—

"Sonuvabitch!"

"Did you catch yourself?" Steve asks sympathetically, looking at Tony over his shoulder.

"I'm fine," he growls, sucking on the finger he’d mauled. There's got to be a better way to do this. Doesn't he have some kind of machine that would do this for him? He abandons the potatoes in favour of going through his cupboards. He's not even sure what he has in these things. But he's pretty sure someone has already invented a device that will do this for him and if so, he should probably own it. It's not that he ever does any cooking, it's just that his parents had insisted he have a fully stocked kitchen and for him, that meant mechanized everything. He pulls out a salad spinner, a blender, some little thing that he's not actually sure what it does and… Yes! Yes, of course he does.

He pulls out the large black and silver mechanical peeler, sets it up on the counter and plugs it in. He set up potato number one. The machine whirs to life, spins the potato around as the blade presses against its skin, and he has a freshly peeled potato and no new cuts on his hands. Excellent. Potatoes two and three go equally well. Piece of cake. He'll be done in no time! On the fourth potato, the gearbox and drive spindle make an awful squealing noise and the machine shorts out.

What the shit is this? He could build a better machine in his sleep.

"Steve, how many potatoes did we need?"

"At least ten," Steve answers. "But I'd do a full dozen, just in case."

Right. If he still needs to do nine potatoes, he is getting his screwdriver.

Twenty minutes later—Tony thinks it's twenty minutes but he can never actually be sure—Tony's in the process of putting the guts of the machine back together. He's tightened the stator, replaced the rotor and upgraded the wiring. What a piece of shit. From now on he's not using anything he hasn't designed himself.

"…what are you doing?"

"Peeling potatoes."

"That doesn't look like a potato."

"Well, obviously not. We're getting there, Steve. Don't you worry your pretty little head about it."

"No, seriously. What are you doing?"

"Well, I'm pretty much done now, but I needed to increase the amount of torque on the motor shaft from the force of the fields so I had to tighten the stator and rejig the rotor, but the strength of the poles wasn't enough for that so I needed to switch over from a winding mechanism to a ferromagnetic rotor. Plus the wires in this thing were absolute shit, so I redid them."

"Um. What?"

Tony sighs. "This peeler was a piece of crap. Now it's not. Because I am a genius. We will have potatoes in no time."

Tony twists the last screw back into place. Potato number four goes back in. He turns the machine on, it whirs to life and…

"Success!" Tony cries. Very, very, very fast success. The peeler now takes down a potato in about as much time as it takes to blink. Brilliant. Tony is a fucking genius. (Well, he knew that already.)

Steve makes a show of pointedly turning back to his stuffing, as though he's not completely fucking impressed with Tony. Bah. No genius is properly appreciated in his own time.

With his new Starkified potato peeler, he gets the potatoes peeled, sliced and boiling in a matter of minutes.

"What now?" Tony asks.

Steve looks up. "Well, we still need to peel and chop the yams and make the thickening for the gravy and the turk—shit." He lets out a frustrated sigh.

"Steve?"

"I forgot about the turkey."

"Um, no you didn't. I know I saw a turkey in one of those bags. I commented on it. I distinctly remember seeing it and thinking 'turkey what?'"

"No. I mean I don't actually know how to cook a turkey.” Steve goes to the fridge, pulls out the bird and sets it on the table with a thunk. They both stare at it. “I…I've never actually done one before. My mom always did that part…" He looks at Tony.

“Don’t look at me, big guy, I can barely make hot pockets.”

“Right...” says Steve, sounding a little lost. “I guess...we could...um...” And Tony catches something else in Steve’s voice that makes something twist in his chest. Well, that is just not acceptable. Steve shouldn't be upset on Thanksgiving over something as insignificant as a notoriously ugly bird.

"Hey, it's no problem,” Tony says, giving the turkey a pat, “I know a guy. I order a lot of food from him. Like a lot. He’ll hook us up. I just need to make one phone call and he'll deliver a perfect turkey in time for dinner. Easy."

Steve's face looks pinched, "Tony, no."

"Why not?" It’s not like either of them has a clue. Tony’s policy has always been to defer to the experts in the kitchen.

"You can't just order in Thanksgiving dinner!" exclaims Steve, voice heavy with disapproval.

Tony crosses his arms. "I'm pretty sure I just established that in fact you can."

“That defeats the whole point, Tony.”

“Isn’t the point to eat as much as physically possible? Who cares who cooked it?” Tony says, but he looks at Steve's expression of horror at the very idea and sighs. Okay then. New plan. Tony is a genius, just look at his beautiful new peeler. He's sure he can figure out something as straightforward as cooking a turkey. Cooking is pretty much the most basic science there is. After studying advanced physics, it'll be a fucking cakewalk.

"Okay, we won't order in. I can handle it," he tells Steve, gathering the turkey in his arms like a baby.

Steve sounds doubtful. "Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. You finish up the sides, I'll tackle the bird." He pats the frozen carcass affectionately to emphasize his point.

“Alright,” says Steve, giving him a “you’re crazy” look as he goes back to shredding bread.

 

*

 

Tony is not one to let a complete lack of experience stop him. He has math and science on his side and really, the internet was invented for a reason. A quick google search for "how to cook a turkey" on his phone gives him the quick and dirty lowdown on what he needs to know. 325 degrees Fahrenheit, twenty minutes per pound. Okay, so far so good. Now to find out how big this sucker is. Tony grabs the turkey and looks at the label. Eighteen pounds. Eighteen fucking pounds. Oh, you've gotta be kidding.

"What, was the store all out of elephants?"

"What?"

"This turkey is fucking huge."

"Well…it was kind of last minute," Steve says sheepishly. "The smaller ones were all gone already. Is it going to be a problem?"

"No, no problem," Tony breezes. He can do this.

The issue is less that this turkey is huge, although that’s certainly a complicating factor. The issue is that the turkey is frozen. The guidelines are clear on defrosting turkeys: five hours a pound. This should've started thawing ninety hours ago…so Monday afternoon. He didn't even know he was doing Thanksgiving then. Fantastic. Apparently you can get the turkey done with only an hour a pound if you put it in cold water, but that's still eighteen hours, which means this turkey is not defrosting today.

Normally he'd just shove the whole thing in the microwave for an hour. That's what the defrost button is for, right? Except the damn sucker's so big, there's no way it'll fit.

So new plan. If he’d normally be taking the turkey from 40 to 180 degrees by cooking for twenty minutes a pound then that's three hundred and sixty minutes…so six hours. It's 1:30 p.m. Already he can see this isn't going to go well… Now he’s cooking from frozen, so 32 degrees to 180 degrees. And the rate of heating is 0.3889 degrees per minute… This is, of course, assuming the internal temperature of the turkey increases linearly, which it very likely does not. He needs to account for the decrease in the rate of heating that comes with cooking from frozen, so dividing by a factor of 1.5, gives a new rate of cooking of 0.2593 degrees per minute. With a change in temperature of 148 degrees, dividing by 0.2593… The new cook time should be 570.77 minutes… or approximately nine and a half hours. And then it still needs to sit for another twenty to thirty minutes after that. Jesus, he'd like to eat some time tonight.

So…newer plan. Time to work backwards here. He'd like to be able to eat by 7 p.m. That means the turkey needs to be cooked by 6:30 p.m. Which gives it five hours to cook. And solving for x… He needs to cook it at 617.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Alright then.

He sets the oven temperature and the turkey goes on a pan and into the oven. Tony doesn’t wait for the oven to heat up. Sure, it's not 617.5 degrees yet, but it will get there. And right now clearly every minute counts.

 

*

 

“Do you smell that?” Steve asks three and a half hours later.

Tony sniffs the air. He can smell the onions Steve sautéed earlier for the stuffing and something vaguely burn-y, like when you spill something on a burner. “I smell something. Turkey, maybe?” Tony suggests. That’s the only thing cooking at the moment.

"I don’t think turkey’s supposed to smell like that."

"I’ll check on it," Tony says, getting off the couch and wandering into the kitchen. Steve follows. The burning smell gets stronger. He switches on the oven light, but still can’t see the turkey at all. The oven’s all dark inside. That’s weird. Maybe the light burnt out? He knows he shouldn’t open the oven door because it screws with the heating, but if Steve doesn’t think the turkey’s cooking right then he needs to check on it.

He opens the oven and inhales a face full of thick black smoke. Immediately, the fire alarm starts screeching as he chokes and coughs and blinks watering eyes. Oh shit. Steve pushes him to the side and pulls out the blackened turkey, setting it down on top of the stove with a loud clattering noise. The oven door snaps closed with a crash.

"Holy smokes!" Steve exclaims, without a trace of irony, tossing off the oven mitts.

Tony opens the windows and turns on the fan. Steve shakes a dish towel to dissipate the smoke. This is exactly why Tony doesn’t cook. This shit is out of control! What a mess. Eventually the fire alarm quiets and the smoke clears. Steve turns off the oven and turns to stare at Tony.

"So… d'you think the turkey's done?" Tony asks.

"Six hundred degrees, Tony? How did you even get the temperature up that high? The oven's supposed to max out at five hundred!" Steve exclaims. There's a note of hysteria in his voice.

"Funny story… I might have made a few modifications to the oven while working from home last year…"

"You're ridiculous, you know that right?" Steve says, but he's laughing.

"I'm an electrical engineer, Steve. Fucking around with power sources is kind of what I do," Tony agrees. "And okay, maybe I have been known to get a little carried away on occasion…"

Tony opens the lid to the roasting pan and they both peer inside, shoulders touching. It looks like someone took a flame thrower to the turkey. The skin is charcoal black.

“Looks appetizing,” says Tony. “Good thing the turkey isn’t the centerpiece of the meal or anything. Oh wait.”

Steve doesn't say anything, he's holding onto the countertop and still laughing. And laughing.

And laughing.

Tony didn't think it was that funny.

And then Steve lets out a little sob and his shoulders hunch in. His hands clench where they're holding the sill. Tony steps away without thinking and tries to get a look at Steve’s face.

Shit. This is bad. Really bad. Shit, shit, shit. Maybe he can, he doesn’t know, distract him or something? He doesn’t know what else to do.

"Maybe I can still fix it… Let me see if I can cut off the burnt parts. It might be fine underneath all of the – charcoal?" Tony says, poking at the turkey with a giant knife and fork and doing his best to pretend that Steve isn’t having some kind of breakdown. The skin spackles when he pushes into it. It looks like the centre of the bird is still frozen though. How does that even work? …and is that melted plastic oozing out? Who puts plastic inside of a turkey?

"It’s not," Steve says, voice wavering.

"Steve?" Tony says, turning towards him and putting the cutlery down. He takes a cautious step towards Steve.

"It’s not going to be fine." Steve’s voice sounds raw and it stops Tony in his tracks. This isn’t about turkey. Whatever this is, he doesn’t think he’s going to be able to distract Steve from it.

"It’s just a turkey, Steve. We can get another one."

"It’s not… Mom always did the turkey. Always. It was her thing."

"I’m sorry. I messed up the math. I didn’t account for the heat distribution."

"My mom…" Steve says, his voice cracks and he stops, swallows, tries again, "Every Thanksgiving, when she was making the turkey, my mom used to say 'You should watch what I do because you don't know if I'll always be around.' And – and I would laugh and tell her not to be ridiculous." He laughs, but it sounds choked, wrong…broken. "I thought she was going to be around forever, you know? That I’d be old and married before I ever had to worry about it."

Tony swallows. What do you even say to that? He has no idea how to make this better.

“And here I am, twenty-one and she’s gone and I haven’t got a fucking clue.” Steve rubs a hand over his face roughly. "I'm sorry, I thought I could handle this. I'm sure this wasn't what you had in mind when you invited me over."

"No, no, it's totally fine," Tony says. He's not going to freak out. He's not.

Steve scrubs his hands over his face again. "I'm okay," he says. "I'm okay now."

Steve is clearly not okay. He's still holding onto the counter too tight and he won't look at Tony. And Tony’s torn between wanting to run away and wanting to pull Steve towards him. But he doesn't know what to do and he can feel panic rising up and his muscles tensing and this is not his area of expertise. He doesn't know how to comfort or soothe or make things better. He's not built for this. He never learned how.

"Of course you are," Tony says, pushing the panic down, struggling to keep his voice light and easy, like the sight of his best friend breaking doesn't terrify him.

"I should have known better than to try to have Thanksgiving without her. It's not the same… I just thought—Fuck, I'm sorry, Tony. I don't even know what I'm doing."

"It's fine," Tony says, still struggling to keep that light tone. His fingers twitch and he starts to reach out to Steve before stopping and putting his hands in his pockets. He's always grabbing and prodding at people, but he doesn't think that's what Steve wants right now, worries that if he tries Steve will shrug him off. "When…?"

"Last January. It was sudden. A stroke," Steve says with a tiny shrug. "I…I just miss her, you know?"

Tony doesn't know. He can't even imagine what Steve is going through. Jesus Christ, it’s not even been a year. Last January. How did he not know this?

They stand in silence for several minutes. Tony feels horribly awkward standing in his smoky kitchen, close enough to touch Steve but too apprehensive to try.

Eventually, Steve takes a deep, shuddering breath and releases it. He steps away from the counter and turns to face Tony.

"I’m good now," he says. His face is red. "I'm really sorry about that." He looks completely embarrassed.

"No, I'm sorry, Steve. I fucked up the turkey. But I can still fix this. There's got to be somewhere I can order a roasted turkey from. We can still have a good old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner, just like you want."

"At... geez, five o'clock on Thanksgiving Day? Tony, it's not going to happen."

"I'm sure I can swing something. Just wait and see."

"No, it's fine. Just forget it, Tony. Honestly, I don't even want Thanksgiving dinner anymore," Steve says. "Can we just… I don't know, do anything else?

"Yeah, sure, of course, no problem," Tony says. "What are you in the mood for? Pizza, Pad Thai, Chinese, Schwarma?"

"I don't even care. A grilled cheese sandwich would be fine. Just…I am not feeling the holiday fare. If that’s okay?"

"Right, sure, I'm on it." Tony looks in his fridge and of course there’s no cheese or butter (both critical ingredients for grilled cheese) and he’s pretty sure they just shredded all the bread for stuffing.

He ends up paying an exorbitant amount to have Chinese delivered within the hour instead of the four hour wait time they quoted him when he first called. Apparently a lot of people screw up their turkeys and end up making last minute calls, or just foregoing the holiday meal headache altogether. But it's all worth it for the look of relief on Steve's face when the food arrives. They take their food to the living room and sit down on the couch together and put on the game, and Steve finally seems to relax.

"I’m sorry you had to witness that," Steve says around a mouthful of Cantonese chow mein. He’s looking deliberately at the TV instead of at Tony.

"I didn't realize it was so recent," Tony says.

"I don't really talk about it. Sorry, I probably should have warned you."

Tony waves the apology off. "So, wait, last winter and you're still on track to graduate this year? Didn't you miss a lot of class?"

"My professors were really understanding. I made it work."

"That's – that's good," Tony says, then hesitates, “Do you mind if I ask about your dad?”

Steve glances at him, “Oh, he died when I was sixteen. He was in the army. He was killed in Iraq.”

Tony swallows hard. Fuck. The motorcycle had been his father’s. Jesus. No wonder Steve loves that bike so much. "You know, I…I've got stronger stuff than beer. I mean, if you want it."

"I'm okay, Tony," Steve says with a small smile. "Really. But thank you."

Tony doesn’t know if Steve is really okay, but he doesn’t seem quite so fragile anymore. They eat the rest of the delivery while watching the Jets (unsuccessfully) try to take down the Pats, yelling at the television when the refs miss a call and high-fiving when the Jets run it into the end zone.

After the game is over and the food is gone, Tony puts on Episode IV: A New Hope. He’s tired and feeling like he’s going to fall into a food coma at any minute, but he’s not quite ready to go to bed yet. Star Wars is worn and comfortable. The perfect way to end a long day.

By the way Steve burrows down into his end of the couch, Tony thinks he agrees. Tony tosses a fleece throw blanket at Steve and he wraps it around himself like a cocoon.

Around the time where they learn Alderaan has been destroyed, Tony looks over at Steve and sees that he’s fallen asleep. He looks peaceful: face slack, lips slightly parted, hair stuck to his forehead. Good. He felt so helpless seeing Steve’s grief earlier, completely unable to offer any comfort. Hopefully he feels a little better now. If Steve realized that Tony was freaking out, he didn’t let on. Probably he was too absorbed in his own meltdown to notice. God, Tony doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s doing. But it seems like he managed to avoid completely screwing things up anyway. He’s glad. Steve…Steve is important to him. He hated seeing him like that. He glances back at the television and sees that Luke and R2-D2 have joined in the dogfight. He’s really got to stop losing track of time like this. And then the Death Star is destroyed, the rebels rejoice and the movie finishes. He turns off the entertainment system. Steve is still sound asleep. Tony stares at him, resisting the urge to brush the hair from his forehead. He takes a moment to marvel at his friend’s strength. He’s lost both of his parents so young, but he hasn’t let that hinder him. And despite how close Steve must have been to them—Tony can tell—he hasn’t let his grief trap him. Hell, until this week, Tony hadn’t even known. Something tightens in his chest. He swallows and moves closer.

"Hey Steve," Tony says, nudging him gently.

"Mrph," Steve says.

"Okay, buddy. Time for bed," he says. Steve pushes his face further into the couch and doesn’t stir. Tony bends down, gets an arm around Steve and pulls. Steve makes quiet protesting noises. "C’mon, big guy, I’m not going to carry you. You’ve got like fifty pounds on me."

"’M tired."

"I know. But I’ve got a nice bed waiting for you. I promise it’ll be more comfortable than this couch."

Steve’s eyes slit open and he grunts his assent. Tony offers him a hand and Steve takes it, fingers wrapping around Tony’s, skin warm from being tucked into the blanket. Tony pulls him off the couch and corrals him towards the spare room. Steve trudges along, clearly only half awake, but by the time they reach the bedroom his eyes are fully open and Tony’s not afraid he’s going to fall over anymore. He keeps his hand on Steve’s bicep anyway. Just in case.

"I got it from here, thanks, Tony," Steve says, pausing in the doorway. Tony reaches in, flicks on the light and then squeezes past Steve into the bedroom.

"No problem, sugarplum," Tony says. Tony tries to remember the last time someone stayed in the guest room and fails. Did Rhodey visit last year? Or was that two years ago? Anyway, the sheets appear clean and upon inspection there are towels and a cake of soap in the bathroom. "Bedroom has an ensuite. It should have everything you need. Good night, Steve." He turns to leave but Steve is still standing in the doorway, a strange expression on his face.

“Good night, Tony,” he says. As he steps aside for Tony to pass, Steve gently places his hand on Tony’s arm. “And thanks.”

Tony looks up at him, into those clear blue eyes, and gives him a smile before heading down the hall towards his room. He hears Steve’s door close with a quiet click. He goes to bed feeling warm.

 

*

 

Steve wakes feeling disoriented. He glances around the room groggily. For a minute he forgets where he is, but then he remembers: Tony's. The room is dark and in the faint light he can make out the shape of furniture. He can hear the sound of traffic on the street: a car honk, a door slam. All unfamiliar. Tony's spare room is spacious, with its own balcony and bathroom, but the décor is sparse and impersonal, no pictures or knick knacks. The bed is huge. Steve thinks there's probably room here for three, but it doesn’t feel luxurious. Instead it just makes him feel small and lonely lying in the centre. He rolls onto his back, wide awake, and glances at the clock: four in the morning.

He flops an arm over his eyes, remembers yesterday and grimaces. He still can't believe he lost it over turkey—burnt turkey, but turkey nonetheless. He'd known that coming to Tony's for Thanksgiving was going to be risky but in the end he'd thought the distraction would be healthier than the soul-crushing sadness that had been threatening to overwhelm him for the past two weeks. Oddly enough, he'd felt better after his turkey-induced breakdown. Tony hadn't run screaming from the room, he hadn't cracked jokes or offered platitudes. He'd just been there. Sure, it was a little embarrassing, he hasn't known Tony that long and he doesn’t like people to see him being weak, but at least he didn't feel alone.

He must drift off because when he opens his eyes again there is sunlight peaking through the curtains. The clock on the nightstand tells him it’s almost ten. The apartment is silent. Steve throws off the covers and opens the door to his room. He feels a little awkward. It occurs to him for the first time since September that this is his professor's home. Despite having class with Tony three times a week, Steve never thinks of Tony as Professor Stark. He’s just Tony, Steve's friend.

Weirdness aside, Tony hadn't said anything about what to do in the morning. The door to Tony's room is closed, the kitchen and living room are dark. He must still be sleeping.

Steve makes his way to the kitchen and turns on a light. It looks the same as it had the night before; dirty dishes and glasses piled high in the sink. Everything is as they'd left it, with the exception of what looks like a dismantled computer motherboard sitting on the table. Its parts along with several tools are spread across the tabletop. Steve eyes it momentarily before thoughts of food overcome his curiosity. Even though Steve knows the fridge is empty except for last night's leftovers, he still goes through the motions of opening the door and inspecting the contents. After rifling through a couple cupboards, Steve determines that Tony has absolutely nothing for breakfast.

"Guess I am going out," he says to the empty kitchen.

 

*

 

An hour later, coffees and grocery bag in hand, Steve finds himself standing outside Tony's building, shivering in nothing but sweatpants and a sweatshirt in the cold November morning. He's locked out. Perhaps deciding to go for a jog before grabbing breakfast wasn't one of his greatest ideas. Steve looks at his watch: it's a quarter past eleven. Tony should be awake by now…but if he isn't he is going to kill Steve. Steve punches in the call number so Tony can buzz him up anyway. He’d rather take his chances with his not-a-morning-person friend than hypothermia.

A sleep muffled, "'ello" comes through the speaker on the third ring. Steve winces.

"Hey Tony, it's me. Can you let me up?" he asks.

"Who?" says Tony, voice rough.

"Steve."

"Ugh," is the only reply he receives before the buzzer sounds and the door clicks open. Steve hops into the elevator and hits the button for the twelfth floor. As he waits, he takes a sip of his coffee, letting the hot beverage warm him from the inside out. Once back in the apartment, Steve finds Tony in the kitchen, setting up the coffee maker.

"Good morning," says Steve, deliberately cheerful. If the 10 a.m. classes have been any indication, Steve is pretty sure that Tony is not a morning person.

"I hate you" is Tony's reply.

Steve chuckles, "But I have presents."

Tony turns around looking slightly suspicious, but his face lights up when he sees the venti black eye in Steve's outstretched hand. Tony lunges for it, takes a sip and sighs with contentment.

"I think you have a caffeine problem," observes Steve as he moves about the kitchen, getting out a bowl and pouring himself a large helping of Shreddies.

Tony doesn't dignify that with an answer.

"Want any?" Steve asks, shaking the Shreddies box, and Tony, looking vaguely disgusted, shakes his head no. Steve shrugs, adds milk to his bowl and then sits down at the table to eat.

"Thanks for this," says Tony, saluting him with the paper cup. "But just for the record, the one food I always have on hand is coffee."

"Tony, I hate to break this to you, but coffee isn't food."

"Yeah, okay," he scoffs.

Steve rolls his eyes and takes another bite. They sit in companionable silence. Tony is engrossed with something on his tablet and has taken up a screwdriver and the discarded motherboard. Steve nurses his lukewarm coffee and watches him work.

It is noon by the time Tony sets down the computer parts and declares: "This is a holiday dedicated to sloth and gluttony. Therefore I propose that the rest of the day be spent playing Halo, drinking beer and eating junk food. Prepare to have your ass kicked, Rogers."

Steve considers Tony's proposition. A day dedicated to mindlessly sitting in front of the TV, swilling beer and eating their weight in chips? Sounds perfect.

 

*

 

They've been holed up in Tony's apartment playing Halo for two or maybe five hours, Steve's not sure anymore. He's not even sure what time it is. He just knows that his eyes kind of burn.

They are in the middle of a particularly intense firefight that has Steve thinking a lot of four-letter words when Tony's phone starts to ring. Frankly, Steve's surprised he even hears it over the roar of the surround sound.

"You gonna get that?" Steve asks without taking his eyes off the game.

"Get what?" Tony replies, mashing his controller violently.

"Your phone."

Tony ignores the next four rings, finally checking the caller ID after he takes a rocket to the face.

"Fuck," he mutters as he glances at the display. He looks momentarily conflicted before he says, "Sorry, I have to take this." He stands up, tosses the controller onto the couch, puts his phone up to his ear and says "Hi Mom."

Steve twists on the couch, eyebrows climbing as he watches Tony exit the living room. Mom? The distraction causes him to die and when he turns back to the screen, his avatar's body is lying in a crumpled heap in a corner. Tony's character has re-spawned but is about to get a sword to the face. Sighing, Steve hits the button to leave the game and then mutes the television. The music abruptly cuts out and the room falls into silence, broken only by the occasional burst of dialogue and the ticking of the clock in the hallway. Steve shifts on the couch and sets his controller down next to Tony's discarded unit. He can hear Tony in the kitchen moving about; the soft creak of the floor, the opening and closing of the fridge door. The conversation must be one-sided because Tony isn't saying a lot. In fact, from what Steve can hear, he sounds bored...or nervous. But, it is his mom. Steve understands that Tony doesn't have the best relationship with his parents, but at least she's calling. He'd give anything to hear his mom's voice.

"Where are you?" he hears Tony ask. Only hearing one side of the conversation, Steve guesses that Mrs. Stark must be far away indeed when Tony continues "What time is it there anyway?" This is followed by "Yes ... Good … Okay."

Steve stares awkwardly at the television, feeling like he should turn the game back on rather than eavesdrop. But it doesn't feel polite to keep playing without Tony either, so he picks up his beer bottle for something to do with his hands, fingers making quick work of the label.

Tony's voice raises and lowers. He must be pacing between the kitchen and the hall. As his voice fades, Steve looks down and sees that he's shredded the damp label into tiny bits. He looks around for something new to distract him and finds a stack of coasters piled neatly on the coffee table to his left. They are silver, he notes as he selects one and turns it over in his hands. The small square gleams in the dim light. It's probably real silver, he decides, before picking out another and placing them under their drinks.

"I am teaching now," Tony says, his voice suddenly louder. Steve starts, turns and sees Tony standing in the doorway to the living room. He is backlit; the harsh light from the kitchen casts his shadow across the floor. He steps in and walks towards the balcony. After moving the curtain aside to look out the window, he turns to give Steve an apologetic look and makes the "blah blah" hand motion. Steve mouths "take your time" and gives Tony a reassuring smile because honestly, he doesn't mind. It’s Tony’s mom.

"Statistics," Tony answers, still looking at Steve. "No, Mom, I am not majoring in stats," his voice is tinged with exasperation. "Electrical engineering," he says, then adds, "We've been over this." Steve cringes internally. Doesn't Mrs. Stark know what her only son is doing at college? But then, he isn't really one hundred percent sure what Tony's research involves either. The last time he asked, Tony has done a lot of hand waving and rambling about electrons, circuits, math and theories Steve didn't even know existed. He'd been able to boil all the technobabble down to something that sounded like a new battery and had left it at that. And yet, there’s a tension to Tony that Steve hasn’t seen before. Something in the line of his mouth, the brief flash of something dark in his eyes. It makes Steve's hand twitch.

"Listen, I have to go," says Tony. "I have a friend over and I don't want to, y'know, be rude or anything." Tony flashes Steve a quick grin, which fades into a frown. "No, you don't know him, Mom." The 'you don't know any of my friends' is implicit in his tone. "Steve," he says as he turns away, pacing back into the kitchen. "Steve Rogers," he hears Tony say and then there's a pause. "What does it matter?" Tony says, anger creeping into his voice. "He's here because he doesn't have anyone to spend Thanksgiving with either." There's a pause and then Tony groans, obviously annoyed as he returns to the living room.

Steve realizes too late that he must look horrified because Tony apologizes immediately.

"Sorry 'bout that," he says, tossing his cell onto the couch cushion next to Steve before collapsing onto the couch himself.

Steve recovers quickly and tries to give him a reassuring smile, barely resisting the urge to pat Tony on the shoulder. "No worries. Is everything okay?"

Tony smiles weakly, "Peachy." Steve gives him a long look—he doesn't look okay. But if he doesn't want to talk about it, who is Steve to pry?

The silence stretches. Finally, Steve gestures towards the television, "Wanna keep playing?"

"Better not," Tony replies, voice sounding tired. "My Dad is going to call in approximately three minutes."

Steve blinks, "Really?" Do Tony's parents have some sort of system?

"Yeah, it is a tradition we have. Mom calls first, I piss her off, she calls Dad and then Dad calls to yell at me." Tony stares ahead at the blank TV screen, his smile wavers.

Steve pauses, unsure of how to proceed. "Do you want me go?" he asks quietly.

"No way," says Tony, a little too loud, "You’ll miss the main event. Phone calls from my Dad are always entertaining." But he won't look at Steve, averts his eyes even in the reflection of the television.

Steve doesn’t know what to say to that. His dad is going to call to yell at him? What would happen if the phone call with Mrs. Stark hadn’t gone badly, would Mr. Stark call at all?

"Where is your Mom?"

"Uh – um, she's in Madrid, I think."

"Do you see her often?"

Tony laughs and gives him a look, "You're kidding, right?"

Steve wasn't kidding. He shakes his head. This whole dynamic is foreign to him; his family was nothing like this. It was small and warm, not cold and distant. Tony looks like he's going to shut down, shut him out. The thought of Tony pushing him away now bothers him more than Steve would like to admit. Tony’s face goes carefully blank and Steve thinks that he's probably had a lot of practice pretending not to care.

Tony heaves a sigh and sinks further into the couch, "I see her three or four times a year maybe. Mostly at Christmas and the Annual General Meeting."

"And your Dad?"

"About the same. We actively avoid each other."

As if on cue, Tony’s phone starts ringing. He smiles weakly at Steve before taking a deep breath.

"Hi Dad! To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?" snarks Tony. Steve cringes; this isn't going to go well. To Steve's surprise, Tony stays on the couch, propping his feet on the coffee table and leaning back.

"Why do you insist on being an asshole to your mother?" Steve hears Mr. Stark ask in a voice so loud, Tony pulls his phone away from his ear momentarily.

"Happy Thanksgiving to you too," he returns.

"Don’t be a jackass."

"Who me?" asks Tony innocently. He’s obviously trying to wind his father up.

"Answer me." Mr. Stark's voice is so loud he might as well be on speaker phone.

"Mom just gets uptight when I point out uncomfortable truths, you know that. It's her thing, like trying to buy love is yours." Tony says it casually, like his father just asked him about the weather.

"Everything you have is because I bought and paid for it, don't forget it. Everything. Your cozy lifestyle, the cars, the toys, the stupid research, the—"

"Pretty sure I earned that last one on my own."

"Don't you dare interrupt me when I am talking to you."

"Yes, sir!"

"I won’t have any of your cheek. I don’t have time for this. You apologize to your mother. Really, Tony, I have never met someone so—"

"Alright, let's hear the list…" Tony rolls his eyes.

"Ungrateful…"

"Yep."

"Worthless…"

Tony flinches. "Heard that before."

“Arrogant...”

“Knew that.”

"Self-obsessed…"

"Oh, that's new."

"Cruel."

As Steve hears the list of adjectives he can't help but wonder if Mr. Stark even knows his own son. In what universe would anyone consider him cruel?

"You forgot selfish," Tony volunteers.

"That goes without saying."

"Of course."

Mr. Stark's voice gets softer but Steve is pretty sure he hears him say: "Honestly, I don't know why we bother some days."

Tony sits up, his bravado vanishing. "We done?" he asks, then hangs up without waiting for an answer.

There's an awkward moment where Steve isn't sure if he is supposed to say something or wait for Tony to talk. Tony, who still isn't looking at him, begins to fidget with his phone.

"Well, that was fun. I am really sorry you had to witness that, Steve. Wow. Talk about awkward. I mean, that was getting hit on by your drunk cousin awkward. Trust me, that happened once at—"

"Tony," Steve interrupts, putting a hand on Tony's shoulder. He feels Tony tense but he immediately stops talking and looks at Steve. "It's okay," says Steve gently. "Really, it's okay."

"Yeah," Tony says and visibly deflates. They sit on the couch in silence for a moment.

Steve nudges Tony with his shoulder. He hopes it comes off as reassuring rather than creepy. He's rewarded with a small smile from Tony. "Wanna talk about it?" Steve asks.

The smile vanishes.

"No," Tony replies. Steve watches as he stands up and pours himself a measure of hard liquor from the bar, knocking it back in a single swallow. He clears his throat, "Alright, shall we go back to killing one another and blowing shit up?" He settles back onto the couch and gestures towards the television.

"Sure," replies Steve with a little too much enthusiasm. He picks up his controller.

"Halo still?"

"Uh, yeah, sure whatever," says Steve. He still feels off-kilter. "Halo still good for you?"

"Hmm," Tony mumbles, getting off the couch to peruse the collection of games he has stored in the entertainment unit. He picks one out and holds it out to Steve: "Ever played Gears of War?"

"Is that the one where you massacre each other with chainsaws?"

"The very same," Tony replies.

Steve makes a face. "I only played the first one. It wasn’t my favourite."

Tony is looking at him like he just lost his mind. "But – but you kill stuff with chainsaws. Graphically."

"But the plot sucked and the game was really short."

"I am not sure that we can be friends anymore."

"Oh please," says Steve and tosses one of the throw pillows at Tony as soon as his back is turned. It clips him on the shoulder. Tony freezes and turns around slowly.

"Just for that, we are playing all three Gears of War," he declares before picking up the pillow and tossing it back at Steve. Steve laughs, catching it easily and replacing it on the couch.

"Can I just ask you one thing?" Steve knows that he's pushing it but he can't help himself, a part of Tony and Mr. Stark's conversation keeps nagging him.

Tony considers for a moment, shrugs then says, "Go for it."

"What did your dad mean when he said your research was stupid?"

"Oh," says Tony, looking surprised and then a little relieved, "he wants me to come work for him."

"And…" Steve prompts.

"I don't want to," replies Tony. "Well, not yet anyway. Do you know anything about my family?" Tony turns towards him, "Do you know what the family business is?"

Steve thinks for a moment. Had he heard of Stark Industries before he met Tony? He shakes his head, feeling a little guilty, "Not a clue actually."

"Not surprising," says Tony, dismissing Steve's guilt with a wave of his hand. "Stark Industries deals primarily in military contracts making weapons and satellites for the government. It's all missiles, drones and thermo-imaging. Which is cool, I guess, if you like that sort of thing, but it's not what I want to do. It's not the vision I have for the company and Dad doesn't get it. He thinks the PhD is my way of avoiding responsibility." Tony pauses, "He thinks this is a stupid, teenage phase."

Steve doesn't even know what to say to that. Tony's here doing something that few people can do and his dad chalks it up to teenage rebellion? The whole situation makes him feel angry and strangely protective of Tony. But what kind of parent says such horrible things to their own child? Telling Tony he's cruel…that he's worthless? He'd caught the way Tony had flinched.

Tony might put on a show of nonchalance on the phone, might pretend that his dad's words don't affect him, but clearly that had hit paydirt. Steve doesn't think it's the first time Tony has heard words like that from his dad either. He tries to imagine what it would be like for his mom not to even know the most basic things about him, for his dad to be the one poking at all his insecurities. He shies away from the thought. It makes him feel sick.

But he can't say any of that to Tony. No matter what they do, they're still Tony's parents. Steve doesn't think Tony would appreciate him saying bad things about them. It's different for Tony to say those things. They're his parents.

And anyway, Tony said he doesn't want to talk about it. But then…why let Steve listen in?

Gears of War loads up on the television screen and Steve makes a show of groaning "Why do you even own this game?" He doesn't really mind that much right now. Sure, he hates the game, but Tony's clearly down and if this is what he wants…

Steve and Tony are slicing their way through the first campaign when Tony speaks up, seemingly out of nowhere.

"They've always been like this."

Steve makes what he hopes is an encouraging noise. He wants to know more, but he doesn't want to push Tony too much. He isn't sure where the edges of their friendship are anymore and he's afraid that if he pushes too hard, he'll push Tony away.

"Mom is all about Mom. She doesn't really care about anything but what makes her happy. Fashion, vacations, and her various little projects that somehow always end up abandoned halfway through," Tony continues, giving Steve a rueful little smile. "Somehow I never make that list."

Steve swallows but doesn't say anything. Tony is clearly venting and he doesn't want to interrupt. And anyway, he has no idea what to say to that.

Steve is clearly a little distracted by what Tony is saying because he screws up the active reload and his gun jams. While he's trying to unjam the gun, he gets killed.

"You didn't tell me you hate this game because you suck at it," Tony says.

"It's a stupid game."

"Right," Tony drawls. They play in silence for a couple minutes before Tony starts up again. "Dad just wants to keep her happy so he doesn't have to deal with her himself. Divorces are expensive, you know. That's why he goes crazy overprotective of her whenever I wind her up. Can't have me stirring the pot after all."

"Locust incoming from the South," Steve says quietly.

"I'll take care of them. So really, he's worse. I mean, she can't help that she's so self-absorbed. She doesn't even realize she's doing anything wrong. She actually thinks she's a good mom because hey, at least she called. Not on Thanksgiving day of course but that's a minor detail right? But Dad—he knows exactly what he's doing. He just doesn't give a shit. Look out on your left… On your left, Rogers, on your left!"

Steve's avatar dies another violent death. "Crap."

Tony sighs. "I'm getting really sick of reviving your ass, Rogers."

"Sorry…"

They play in silence for a couple minutes longer.

"So he doesn't want to deal with her and he sure as shit doesn't want to deal with me. The only part of me he's even remotely interested in is my brain and that's just because he thinks he can use it for his precious company. That's why he hates my research so much. He can't use it, so it's worthless. Just like if he can't use me…"

"They're missing out," Steve interrupts, voice quiet but firm. Maybe he shouldn't say anything, but he feels compelled to let Tony know that he thinks he's worth something, whatever value that might have for Tony. It's not like he's anyone important, but he is Tony's friend. "I know they're your parents, Tony, but if they can't see how amazing you are, then they're idiots."

Tony's mouth quirks. "Oh, sweetheart," he says, "you say the nicest things. And also I guess you haven't known me long enough to realize what an ass I can be."

“I'm in your stats class, Tony. I think I have an idea," Steve says. He bumps his shoulder against Tony's companionably. "For some strange reason, I like you anyways."

"Ah, I knew you were too good to be true. I've finally figured out what's wrong with you. You're a crazy person."

"People who like Gears of War shouldn't throw stones."

"Don't be bitter because your game play sucks, sunshine."

They take out another hoard together. Tony continues to outplay Steve (because Steve really is terrible at this game), but Steve finds he doesn't mind terribly. When he looks at Tony out of the corner of his eye, the tension's drained out of his shoulders and the tightness around his mouth has relaxed. To Steve that's worth a couple of hours of truly terrible gaming.

Chapter Text

At 9:30 a.m. the next morning, Tony emerges from his bedroom still wearing his pyjamas.

"Coffee's on," Steve says, looking up from his second giant bowl of Shreddies for the morning. He's been up since seven.

"One pot isn't going to be enough with you here," Tony says around a yawn. "Uh, no offence."

Steve gestures towards his orange juice with his spoon. "I'm good," he says. "I don't have my coffee first thing in the morning, remember?"

Tony's eyes go wide. "Wait, you mean that when we get coffee that's your first hit of the day?" He sounds mildly horrified.

Steve rolls his eyes. "Coffee's hard on an empty stomach."

Tony just shakes his head then shrugs. "More for me," he says, reaching up high into his cupboard for a mug. The t-shirt he wore to bed pulls with him, exposing the skin of his lower back where his pyjama pants hang low on his hips. Steve swallows and averts his eyes.

"Anyway," Tony says, "as much fun as it was kicking your ass at Halo yesterday—"

"Please," Steve scoffs. Gears of War, sure, but not Halo.

"—I really do need to head into the lab for a couple hours this afternoon. I'm ridiculously behind on my timetable. You mind?"

"Nah, I really should get some work done for graphic design anyway. Our final projects are due in two weeks and I've barely started."

"You wanna come with?"

When Tony had invited him over for Thanksgiving, he’d figured he’d be back at his place and getting work done by midday Friday. He certainly hadn’t planned on staying multiple nights. He’s pretty sure Tony hadn’t planned on him staying over so long either. Still, he can’t say that he minds. The house will be empty and he enjoys Tony’s company. And if he can get some work done and spend time with Tony? All the better.

"Yeah, sure, I just need to bring my laptop." Steve smiles. "Besides, the library still has that liquids ban."

"Heathens."

 

*

 

With coffee in hand, Tony opens the door to his lab. As expected, it's empty. Everyone is home with family or slacking off. His bench is a disaster—right, he’d forgotten about the disaster that was Wednesday afternoon. He gives Steve an apologetic look before trying to clear a space.

"Um, sorry, there's isn't a lot of room," he says.

Steve puts his bag down on a chair and tries to help him tidy.

"I am scared to touch stuff," Steve admits as he tentatively pushes a pile of paper out of the way.

"It's fine. Most of this is marking anyway." Tony grins at Steve so he'll know he's joking. Well, mostly.

Steve gives him a small look of disapproval and Tony chuckles.

He uses one arm and sweeps it across the corner of the desk. "Here ya go." It's a small space directly across from him but it should do. Steve shrugs and tugs a chair over.

Tony makes himself comfortable in the other chair and arranges his workspace.

"How do you find anything? This place is a disaster," Steve observes, picking up random sheets of paper. Tony imagines Steve being ultra-organized and neat; he just has that air about him.

"Usually I try to keep things a bit more orderly here, but when I think of things I have to write them down." A lot of the paper is random notes to himself. "Before I left on Wednesday I couldn't find something. Hence the disaster."

Steve nods and picks up a piece of paper. Tony can see that it's a technical drawing of some sort, something he'd sketched in the wee hours of the morning a couple weeks back.

"What’s this?" Steve asks, holding it up.

Tony glances at it. "Oh, an idea I had for a microprocessor." Tony shrugs, he's pretty sure the design is flawed but he might be able to salvage it. Steve looks momentarily impressed.

"But aren't you working on a battery?"

Tony glares at Steve, who's smirking at him. Don't react, that’s what Steve wants, he reminds himself. He takes a deep breath, "I am working on an arc reactor, Steven. But sometimes my mind wanders. I might give that to R and D at Stark Industries. See if they can make something of it."

"You design stuff for your family’s company?"

"Occasionally."

"Wow," Steve looks at the drawing again before setting it down. "You know, for someone who likes to rag on artsies you aren't a half bad artist yourself."

Tony barks out a laugh. Him, an artist? Ha! "No, no, I can sketch technical things and render them with modeling software but I am no artist. I can't even draw stick people."

"Your ability to visualize is incredible though."

Tony hadn't thought about it that way before. It’s just something he does. The way things work, move, interact just comes to him. Like math.

Steve sets up his laptop and looks absorbed. Tony does the same. They sit in silence for a few minutes before Steve bursts out laughing.

"That doesn't sound like an essay on semiotics in modern media, Rogers," Tony says, trying to sound stern.

Steve looks vaguely guilty. "Semiotics can be hilarious," he tries, then swivels his computer around so Tony can see the YouTube video he’s got loaded. He removes his headphones and ups the volume, then hits play. Tony watches as a cat moves in time to Awolnation's Sail. The cat creeps across to the window sill, then jumps. It doesn’t even come close to making it across. Before Tony can stop himself, he's laughing.

"If that's your essay material then you really are—" But before he can finish Steve cuts in.

"Have you seen the Panda Cheese commercial?" Steve asks. Tony shakes his head. Steve flashes a grin and quickly searches for it.

Thirty minutes later Tony's face hurts from laughing. They'd quickly segued from videos to Steve's favourite webcomics.

"Alright, Rogers, enough's enough," Tony says, waving his hands and pushing away Steve's laptop. "You are a terrible influence on me! We've been here for forty minutes and all we've done is laugh at the internet."

Steve chuckles, "Isn't that the point of the internet?"

Tony gives him a look.

"Okay, the point of the internet is porn. But I can't be that bad of an influence. There's no way I am worse than Pepper."

"Pepper?"

"Sure, don't you study with her?" Steve gives him a curious look.

Tony has never studied with Pepper. Not once. Actually, he never studies with anyone and he resents the people he's forced to share lab space with. It occurs to him that Steve is the first person he’s really been comfortable with in his space like this. He's comfortable with Steve, with him here, with him at his apartment... comfortable with him in all his spaces. He doesn't really know what to do with that revelation so he files it under Things to Think About Never.

"Pepper and I don't study together…” Tony starts, but he doesn't really know how to describe their relationship. He doesn't have siblings but he imagines that if he had a sister, she would be like Pepper.

Steve just hums a response before turning his attention to his laptop. Tony watches him for a moment before opening Excel and getting to work.

 

*

 

Tony shifts in his chair and stretches out his legs. His foot bumps against the leg of the desk. He gives it an experimental tap just in case the leg is actually attached to Steve. When it doesn't move, he taps it again.

"That's my leg," says Steve.

"What?" Tony replies without taking his eyes off his screen.

"That's my leg you're tapping."

Tony looks up at Steve. He looks slightly amused.

"Oh. I guess you need to move your leg then," Tony says, bumping his foot against Steve's leg to emphasize his point.

"Or you could move yours." Steve glares at him over his computer screen. Ha. Nice try.

"Could but won’t," says Tony with a shrug. Clearly Steve has never played chicken with Tony before.

"I was here first," Steve says, like Tony should care about under-desk-foot-space territory claims.

"I am not moving," says Tony, matter-of-fact. His lab, his rules. Plus he's comfortable. Evidently Steve is too because he just sighs and rolls his eyes but he doesn't move his leg.

 

*

 

Tony's not sure how much time has passed when Steve clears his throat and finally removes his leg from his space.

"I am going to get a soda from the vending machine. You want something?" he asks, standing up and getting out his wallet from his back pocket.

Tony considers. "I guess I could go for a Coke." He reaches for his wallet but Steve waves him off and exits the lab.

Steve returns five minutes later with a Sprite and a Coke. He passes Tony his soda.

Tony reaches for the Coke without looking. "Thanks," he murmurs. He screws off the top and takes a sip, while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his screen. Tony hears the hiss of Steve opening his soda and looks up from his screen to see Steve taking a long gulp from his Sprite. Steve has his head tipped back slightly, exposing the line of his neck. His throat works as he drinks deeply. Tony can make out a hint of Steve’s collarbone peeking out from the collar of his plaid button-down.

Steve lowers the bottle and meets his gaze. Tony swallows, throat gone suddenly dry, and takes a sip of his Coke. His eyes shift from Steve’s lopsided smile back to the spreadsheet of data on his computer. He tries not to notice the way Steve licks his lips.

 

*

 

Tony's pretty sure they've been in the lab almost five hours when he starts to feel the first stab of hunger. The Coke suppressed his appetite for a bit but now he has that vaguely hollow feeling that sugary drinks always leave him with. That's why he prefers coffee. When he gets hungry enough, he just add milk and sugar and it drinks like actual food. His very own caffeinated meal supplement.

However, it isn't his hunger that snaps him out of his data processing daze—it's Steve. Steve has been remarkably quiet since buying the drinks, but about twenty minutes ago he closed his laptop, propped one knee up on the desk and began furiously scribbling in one of his notebooks. Usually Tony is the master of tuning people out, especially since his labmates have really unfortunate taste in music, but curiosity more than anything finally steals his attention away from his research. When he looks up, Steve is staring at him intently, pen in hand.

"What are you doing?" Tony asks, breaking the silence. Because what is he doing?

Steve starts and his pen wavers on the page. "Oh!" he says and looks down at his page. Tony raises an eyebrow. Steve makes a poorly concealed attempted to cover the page and says "Nothing."

"Nothing?" repeats Tony.

Steve meets his gaze across the table. Is – is he blushing? Tony's curiosity is officially peaked. What could Steve be doing that he'd be embarrassed about?

Tony eyes the notebook and Steve follows his gaze. Before Steve has a chance to react, Tony lunges across the desk and snatches the notebook. Steve yelps but he's too slow. In the four seconds Tony manages to hold onto the notebook, he sees a messy illustration of the lab, complete with piles of paper, laptop and Tony.

Steve pulls the notebook back but not before Tony notices the way Steve has captured how the light of the laptop must play across his face, the way the shadows gather between the textbooks on the shelf behind his head… The way Steve was able to capture the intensity of Tony's eyes. All with a pen on paper.

"You're an ass," Steve says, looking seriously annoyed as he closes the notebook and sets it on the desk firmly. Tony knows he should feel guilty about invading Steve's privacy like that, but honestly, the guy is so fucking talented he should be bragging about his art every chance he gets.

"Do I really frown like that when I’m concentrating?" Tony asks, rubbing his hand along his brow.

Steve just glares at him. "Clearly, I didn't want you to see that."

"Why not? You're amazing."

Steve doesn't appear impressed by his flattery, but he sits down again. Tony tips the screen of his laptop down so he can lean forward.

"Honestly, Steve, that's a really good drawing." He smiles, hoping his sincerity translates. "You should show me more of your stuff."

Steve leans in a bit too, face softening. "I drew that with pen in a spiral notebook. Not exactly my greatest work, Tony."

"You'll have to show me your greatest then," Tony says, meeting his eyes. Steve gives him a bashful smile. Christ, how can he be so adorably modest? "In the meantime, could I maybe keep the one you just did?"

Steve looks surprised and hesitant. He looks like he's trying to read something in Tony's face, like he's trying to decide if Tony's just teasing. Slowly, Steve opens his notebook, flips to the back and deliberately rips the page out. He passes it to Tony without a word. Tony holds up the drawing and inspects it more closely this time. There's something about the messy, sketchy style that he finds endearing. Mostly he's just impressed that Steve actually drew it—that Steve was able to capture him, the lab, everything.

"Hey, you forgot to sign it.”

Steve obliges him and scrawls his name in the corner. "Happy?" he asks as he hands it back.

"Very," Tony answers, smiling brightly. He slides the drawing into the front of his laptop case for safekeeping while he decides where to display it.

Well, that was a fun interlude. Tony re-adjusts his laptop screen. Where was he? Oh right…algorithms. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Steve watch him before opening his laptop.

Not even five minutes later the hunger is back. His stomach growls and Steve looks up at him.

"Hungry?"

"Yes," Tony admits. "You?"

"Starving."

Tony stares at his research for a moment. He really needs to get more work done, but it really does feel like his stomach is trying to eat itself. Normally he’d ignore his hunger and push through, but Steve is hungry too. Tony mentally catalogues the food at the apartment. They'd polished off the Chinese takeout and after all the chips and beer yesterday he could go for something more substantial than fast food. There are still the leftover sides from their aborted attempt at Thanksgiving dinner, but he’s pretty sure Steve won’t want that. He still feels bad for messing that up.

Tony smiles slowly. "Let's pack up, I know the perfect place for dinner."

 

*

 

"I don't know why I didn't think of this before because seriously they have the best pie," Tony says as he pulls open the door of the small diner. It's a tiny place, cramped and shabby with kitsch paraphernalia plastered to the walls and cracked vinyl upholstery. Tony loves it.

He leads Steve to his usual booth and they slide in opposite each other. Within minutes, Wendy, one of the waitresses, is bustling over. She greets Tony by name and gives him a wink as she pours them each a cup of coffee. Tony grins back at her. She knows him so well. The staff here is older, but they always take good care of him. She pulls out the pair of menus tucked under her arm, but he waves them off.

"Two specials, please, and a…Sprite?" he says, glancing at Steve. He remembers Steve drinking Sprite the day before and he's pretty sure he doesn't usually drink coffee in the evenings. Something about caffeine jitters. Which is totally okay, it just means more for him. Steve gives a small nod.

"Be right back, boys," Wendy says, heading back to the kitchens.

He can see the flash of curiosity in Steve's eyes, but he doesn't ask. Tony hopes he's not making a mistake.

Steve raises an eyebrow—Tony's pretty sure he's been rubbing off on him—and asks "So… Come here often?"

Tony shrugs and drums his fingers on the table, "I like it here."

"I am not judging. Well, maybe a little, but seriously is there a restaurant in Cambridge where you aren't on a first name basis with the wait staff?"

Tony laughs, “Cupcake, I have been at this school for five years and I can proudly say that I have never cooked myself a meal. I would have thought that Thursday's fiasco made that obvious. You get to know people when you aren't willing to cook. Ever. Besides, the staff here are really nice."

"Oh come on, you're not telling me that was your first time cooking."

"Does making coffee count?" Tony asks, cradling his cup in his hands.

"No."

"What about reheating leftovers?"

Steve laughs. "You're joking, right? C'mon, you've got to have made soup or a grilled cheese or something before."

“I’ve made sandwiches,” Tony offers. Once. He thinks he made a sandwich once.

“Doesn’t count.” Steve isn’t being fair, sandwiches totally count. There’s more than two ingredients involved. Also, you can toast the bread first. Totally counts as cooking.

"Well,” Tony says, waving his hand dismissively, “that's what my master list of places serving great takeout is for." It’s actually a multi-tab Excel spreadsheet with columns rating the quality of the food, the drinks, the service and how much variety the menu has. It also lists dishes that are especially good and staff he particularly likes. It is a work of art. But Steve doesn’t need to know about that.

"You’re hopeless," Steve says, shaking his head, but he's smiling fondly. "Since moving out of the dorms I rarely eat out, usually the housemates or I cook. The most I’ve eaten out has been with you."

Tony gestures at Steve with his coffee cup. "I think that's a sign you need to get out more."

"I think that's a sign you need to learn how to cook." He gives Tony a knowing look, most likely recalling the disaster that was Tony’s attempt at cooking turkey, which totally wasn’t his fault. Turkey isn’t exactly entry-level kitchen stuff. Really, they should have started with instant noodles.

"Maybe you can teach me," Tony says with a wink.

"Well, I could try…" Steve looks skeptical, like Tony just asked him to train cats to wash cars.

He gives Steve his best pout. "C'mon, I'm a genius. I pick things up quickly."

Steve gives Tony a considering look. "Yeah, but I'm going to need some kind of insurance in place first. I've heard you genius types are prone to blowing places up. And I don’t want to be held responsible." Tony can make out the hint of a smirk on Steve’s lips.

"Eh,” Tony shrugs, “blowing stuff up is getting old. I'm looking for newer, better ways to screw up now. Tell me, what are your thoughts on melting?" Tony puts both his elbows on the table and rests his chin in his hand as innocently as he can.

"Oh god."

"Yeah, I think I’m done with explosions,” says Tony as he taps the fingers of his other hand on the table, “I am turning over a new leaf. From now on I am dedicating myself to melting.” He leans forward and lowers his voice, “Say, do you know what happens when you add tert-butyllithium to…pretty much anything, actually? Because I do."

He can tell Steve is trying not to smile. “Lemme guess,” he says.

“It sets it on fire,” Tony says at the same time Steve says, “It melts.” Steve shakes his head but Tony can see the smile.

"You've always been a troublemaker, haven't you?" Steve asks, nudging Tony’s foot under the table.

Tony laughs and nudges him back. "You don't know the half of it. Not just with explosions either. Did I tell you about Christmas when I was eight?"

"I don't think you did." Steve takes a sip of his Sprite, runs his fingers through the condensation on the side of the glass.

"Okay, so I think I've mentioned that my dad's kind of a workaholic, right? So he used to do a lot of work from home especially over the holidays. Or at least he did until that Christmas. That year, while he and my mom were at the S.I. Christmas party, I decided to play with the business computer at home."

"Uh oh." Steve’s hand stills.

"And when he tried to get some work done the next day, he was pretty upset to realize that his computer played Jingle Bells every time he opened a file."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

“He had to open a lot of files. My coding wasn’t that sophisticated so it sounded like something out of an 80’s video game. He thought he had a virus and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.”

The expression on Steve’s face is caught somewhere between impressed and horrified and Tony hasn’t even gotten to the best part yet.

"He used this computer for his defence contracts, Steve. Everything on it was locked with at least two passwords, encrypted and behind a firewall. He was pissed." Pissed was putting it mildly, but he doesn’t really want to go there—Steve has already witnessed enough of his family drama.

Steve laughs. "Trouble. Maker."

"Hey, just because you've never gotten into trouble in your whole life. C'mon, how about you tell me more about your boy scout adventures? You get a merit badge for helping old ladies cross the street?"

"Shut up," Steve mutters, covering his face.

"Aw, pumpkin, did they not give merit badges for that? What a rip off."

"I wasn't a perfect kid either, you know. I used to get into all kinds of trouble."

"Oh, Steve. Forgetting to return your library books on time isn't exactly real trouble."

"Shut up, that's not what I'm talking about," Steve says.

"Well, don't keep me in suspense here. Tell me about how you stayed up past your bedtime and lied to your parents about brushing your teeth."

"Oh no, I was much too good to do anything like that," Steve says with such an earnest look that Tony knows he's messing with him. "You’re right. I didn’t get into any real trouble. I just got suspended my freshman year of high school, that's all."

Tony’s jaw drops. “Suspended?” What? Steve ‘Mr. Perfect’ Rogers got suspended from school? There’s no way. “What did you do?” Do they suspend people for being too nice in public school?

“I got suspended for fighting.”

"You. In fights. Right," Tony says, trying to put as much of his disbelief as possible into his voice. Steve wouldn’t hurt a fly.

"It's true."

"No way, I'm not seeing it. You're not the kind of guy to use your size to beat the crap out of someone."

Steve gives him a small smile. "Okay, so when I say fights, it’s more that I used to get beat up a lot."

"What? Yeah, right." Tony gives him a skeptical look. Steve is massive. Tony’s pretty sure he can handle himself.

"No, I am serious. I was pretty small growing up. Until I was about seventeen I was always the smallest guy in class. I got my growth spurt pretty late. But I had a smart mouth and…that's really not a good combination."

Tony tries to picture this smaller version of Steve and has a hard time wrapping his mind around it. Tony’s a little over six-feet himself and Steve is taller than him still, and broader. He can’t imagine a little Steve, let alone one that people would pick on.

Tony's eyes narrow. "Now when you say beat up…"

"Just schoolyard scraps, Tony," Steve says with a shrug. "But Bucky always had my back and anyway, they left me alone after I filled out."

"You mean once they knew you could take them?" Tony shakes his head. “Wait, how’d you get suspended if people were beating you up?”

"Apparently, I wasn’t supposed to hit back. Zero tolerance policy. It was only for a day and my mom argued with the principal to have it removed from my record. Anyway, I'm just saying that I'm not a perfect goodie goodie or whatever."

"Mhmm," Tony says, finishing his coffee and reaching across the table for Steve's mug. Steve surrenders it willingly. "Seeing as I am always telling you tales of my wild youth—” Steve gives him a look but Tony continues, “—I think it’s about time that you gave me some blackmail material.”

Steve contemplates the question before leaning forward. "Okay, maybe nothing as crazy as the stunts you and your engineering buddies have pulled off, but there's been a couple of times I've been caught with my pants down so to speak." Steve has this embarrassed look on his face, like he can’t believe he is going to tell Tony this.

"So to speak?" Tony echoes, raising an eyebrow and Steve actually blushes. Tony grins. Oh, this is going to be good. "Spill," he orders.

"Um, okay, so remember Peggy?"

Oh yeah, this is going to be so good. Remember Peggy? Does he ever. "Yes…"

"So in freshman year it was kind of hard to get any alone time together because of living in the dorms, right? You know how it is, roommates and all that." Tony doesn't really know, he skipped out on the whole residence thing, but he nods anyway, eager to hear the rest of the story. "But she had a car. So when we couldn't kick our roommates out, we'd go for a drive and, uh, park."

"Go on…"

"So we took her car out one night and we ended up parking in an empty plaza, behind this big department store. Or at least we thought it was empty. And she was, um, well, you know, and right as it was starting to get good, there was a knock on the window and…I kind of just then…yeah…"

Without meaning to, Tony’s mind conjures the visual of what that must have been like. Steve in the driver’s seat, head thrown back. The windows fogging up with their body heat—no. He mentally chides himself. Not going there. Nope. Not the kind of thoughts you have about friends. Right.

"Steven Rogers," Tony says, shaking his head as much to clear it as to tease Steve. "Didn't figure you were one for exhibitionism."

"I'm not!" Steve protests. "We were just… Anyway, he threatened to call the cops on us and we couldn't drive out of there fast enough."

"So that only happened the one time?"

Steve's blush deepens and that's answer enough.

Tony laughs. "You dog."

"Well, what else were we supposed to do? You can only kick your roommates out so many times before they dig their heels in. I mean, you must have done the same thing."

"Please,” Tony scoffs. “Can you see me with a roommate?" He decides not to mention all the times he’s been caught doing the very same thing. In a car, in a movie theatre, on a roller coaster... Something to save for later.

"Ah, you're one of the lucky ones who got a single room, huh?"

"I've lived at the same apartment since starting here."

"You didn't do the dorms in first year?"

Tony almost laughs. "Me in the dorms? Can you imagine? No, that would have been a disaster." He can’t even imagine how badly things would have gone if he’d stayed in the dorms for his freshman year. He would have been ostracized.

"Why's that?"

"Well, for starters I was fifteen, remember?"

Steve shakes his head. "I don't know why I keep forgetting that."

"It must be my maturity." Or because technically I am your professor, Tony adds silently.

"No, that's not it," Steve says, tapping his chin thoughtfully.

"Jerk."

"So does that mean you've been living alone since you were fifteen?" says Steve, brow pinched.

"No, my parents were worried I would get into trouble, so they sent me a glorified babysitter. It didn't stop me getting into trouble of course, but it did make it a little harder."

"You are a troublemaker," Steve says fondly. "So what happened to him?"

"I sent him packing when I turned seventeen. I figured if I was old enough to have a degree, I was old enough to live on my own. Thankfully my parents didn't fight me on that one."

"That must have been weird."

"Eh, it wasn't so bad. Well, for me anyway. I’m pretty sure I scarred that poor guy for life,” Tony says. When Steve raises his eyebrows, he continues, “I can’t even tell you how many times that guy walked in on me jerking off.” Steve laughs and Tony smiles at him. “Anyway, most days I feel like I just traded one babysitter for another. But at least I’m free to take care of business without an audience…unless I want one. She doesn’t live with me after all."

"What?"

"Pepper seems to think she’s my new babysitter," Tony supplies.

"I haven't really gotten to know her very well, but she seems nice enough."

"She's the best," Tony tells him honestly. "As long as you don't mind all the cries of 'Tony, you need to sleep!' and 'Oh my god, when was the last time you ate, Tony?' and 'For god’s sake, Tony, for once in your life you need to take something seriously!’"

"Oh yes, the horror of someone caring about you," Steve says, rolling his eyes.

Actually, now that Tony thinks about it, Pepper would be a good fit for Steve. They're both too good for their own good. God only knows how they put up with his dumb ass. And he seems to recall that Steve had wondered where she'd gone off to a couple of times at the Halloween party. Does Steve like her? They’re both gorgeous. They would be a good couple. He thinks of putting it to Steve, but something stops him. It just doesn’t feel right.

"Sure, mock my pain," he snarks instead.

That's when dinner arrives. It is a plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, yams and dressing all smothered in gravy. There's even a small bowl of honest-to-god cranberries for them to share.

"Can I get you boys anything else?" Wendy asks.

"I think we're good, Wendy, thanks," Tony tells her. His voice comes out softer than he intends. She nods, then disappears with a motherly smile. Tony turns his attention to Steve, who is staring down at his plate. Steve isn't saying anything. Was this a mistake? Should he have stuck to the anything-but-holiday-fare request Steve had made two days ago? What if this is too much? He's almost afraid to breathe as he waits for Steve to react.

"This looks amazing," Steve says as he picks up his fork and tucks in.

The tightness in Tony's chest eases and he starts in on his own plate.

A couple mouthfuls in Steve puts his fork down. "It's perfect," he says, giving Tony a little smile. It's true, the turkey is tender, the mashed potatoes are creamy and the cranberries add just the right amount of sweetness, but that's not why Tony agrees with him. Their eyes meet from across the table and Tony smiles back. Steve's smile gets bigger, taking up his whole face, eyes bright and damn. Something inside of Tony unravels with that smile.

"I thought you'd like it—Jesus, you have the perfect smile," says Tony around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. "I didn't want to say anything but it's distracting, honestly, no wonder old people love you." Tony pauses as a brilliant idea occurs to him. "I bet you could get away with anything. No, really, stop laughing, I mean it. Think of the possibilities. We could become master con artists. I'd be the brains and you'd be the brawn and if we're ever questioned by the police you'd just flash them those pearly whites of yours and they'd be like, no way, case closed, can't be this guy, not a chance, not with a smile like that."

Steve laughs, cheeks going pink. It's a good look on him. "You're crazy," he says.

"Brilliant," Tony corrects. "And there's that blush. Seriously, we could get away with anything! I mean, who would believe the blushing puppy is part of a devious mastermind team? So what do you say? Wanna help me take over the world?"

"Hmmm…what's my share?"

"Forty percent."

"Sixty," Steve counters.

"Fifty-fifty partners. Final offer."

Steve grins at him. "Deal."

 

*

 

"I think I am going to hit up my lab today," Steve says over breakfast Sunday morning. It's just past ten and Tony has finally emerged from his room. He beelines for the coffee and pours himself a giant mug.

Tony looks surprised. "You have a lab?"

"Yeah, it has a whole bunch of Macs and all the software you can dream of," Steve replies. "I can only download so much, plus my laptop is kind of crappy and it can't always handle the graphics. Some of the files are huge." Steve finishes off the last of his cereal and puts the bowl in the dishwasher.

"Makes sense," Tony says. He takes a seat at the kitchen table and watches Steve over the top of his cup. "I did notice that your laptop was a little on the shitty side. How old is that thing anyway?"

"I got it for my freshman year," Steve says. It had been a graduation gift from his Mom and Grandma. Steve is pretty sure he has an unhealthy attachment to that failing piece of technology.

"So by now it’s about on par with the Apple III. Maybe I can tinker with it?" Tony offers. Steve hesitates. He remembers the potato peeler on Thursday. He knows what happens when Tony starts to tinker. It’s not that Tony’s not good at what he does, it’s just that he has a feeling he won't even recognize his laptop once Tony’s finished with it.

"Maybe over Christmas you can have at her," Steve temporizes. "Just in case it explodes or you bring it to life or something." Not that Steve doesn't appreciate Tony's offer but he has seen Tony's laptop. It looks and behaves like something out of science-fiction. It accepts voice commands and will even gives suggestions to Tony. He'll explain the sentimentality later—he's already embarrassed himself over turkey, he doesn't need to add a computer to the list.

"Fine," Tony concedes.

Steve exits the kitchen and makes his way to the guest room. His stuff is mostly packed and he tried to make the bed the way he'd found it. It still looks like a rumpled mess but judging from the fact that Tony hasn't once made his own bed the entire weekend, Steve is reasonably sure that Tony doesn't care. He shoves the last of his toiletries into his overnight bag and closes it with a zip.

He looks up and notices that Tony has followed him. He's leaning against the door frame, coffee cup in hand, watching Steve with an unreadable expression on his face.

Steve stands and shoulders his bag. "Well, I guess I'll just take my things with me and get out of your hair," he says with a smile. "Thanks for letting me crash here and everything." He's been at Tony's all weekend and Tony must be looking forward to having his apartment to himself again.

Some emotion Steve can’t identify flickers across Tony’s face. "It's okay. I am not sick of you." His face breaks into a smile. "I was actually thinking that we could go see a movie tonight."

Steve is intrigued and a little surprised to realize that he isn't sick of Tony either. A movie sounds really fun. It’ll be a nice way to end the weekend after getting some work done in his lab.

"Sure, what movie did you have in mind?"

 

*

 

"I can't believe we are paying money to see this," Steve says as they stand in line to purchase their tickets. The theatre is pretty crowded with the usual holiday moviegoers. Still, Steve doubts that the movie they are going to see is going to be particularly busy, mostly because it was released over a month ago to less than rave reviews.

"It is going to be awesome," Tony says, voice full of exuberance. Steve gives him a look. "It is going to be hilariously terrible, c'mon! There are zombies, explosions, bad-ass chicks—you can't go wrong."

"It can go wrong," says Steve, grinning. "It can go very wrong."

"So wrong that it's right?"

Steve rolls his eyes and laughs. He's been missing this all day. After breakfast he'd hid out in his lab for a couple of hours. He knows logically that he had work to do and it was probably a good idea to give Tony some space because despite what he’d said this morning, even if he wasn’t sick of Steve already, he had to be itching for some time alone. But the time in his lab had been so boring without Tony there to keep him company and provide a distraction when he needed a break. The world is just kind of dull when Tony isn't around. Tony is fun and entertaining. Like now, Tony is excited as anything to see a movie that most fourteen-year-olds would probably consider godawful. But so help him, Steve is excited too. Excited to watch Resident Evil 5 with Tony.

They pay for their tickets and cue up to get some snacks.

"Whatcha getting?" Tony asks. He is staring contemplatively at the candy display.

"Just popcorn and a soda," Steve replies. He doesn't mind candy but popcorn is definitely his movie snack of choice.

"How predictable," sighs Tony.

"Whatever, I know you're going to eat half of it anyway."

Tony laughs, "Damn, there goes my evil plan."

The guy at the counter is giving them a strange look, which Steve chalks up to general dissatisfaction with his job. Tony gets three different kinds of candy and insists on buying Steve's popcorn and soda.

"I can buy my own popcorn, Tony."

"But you bought like three weeks worth of food for Thursday. So, my treat."

Tony is looking very determined and really it's not worth arguing about a bag of popcorn that Tony is going to eat half of anyway.

Steve sighs, "If it makes you happy."

Tony smiles at him.

"Thank you," he says once the food is handed over.

As Steve predicted, the theatre isn't crowded. There are a couple groups of people sitting around halfway up and off to the side. Steve lets Tony pick where he wants to sit and after some consideration Tony chooses centre back. The movie doesn't start for about twenty minutes so they take their seats and relax. Steve munches on his popcorn and Tony steals the occasional handful. Steve only makes a half-hearted attempt to smack his hand away. Tony sets about noisily opening his multiple bags of candy and offering them one by one to Steve. Steve declines.

"So on a scale from one to Catwoman, how bad do you think this movie is going to be?" Steve asks.

Tony considers this for a moment, "Where on the scale is Alien vs. Predator 2?"

"A seven."

"Oh, then this is going to be an eight. At least. In retrospect we should have brought booze and developed some sort of drinking game." Tony pauses. "We could drink for every plot hole?"

"I don't think we'd make it out of here." Steve considers for a moment. "It might make the movie better, though."

Tony snorts, "Couldn't make it worse."

As they are discussing the merits of public drunkenness, two teenagers enter the theatre and sit two rows down and a couple of seats over. The way they are gazing at each other makes Steve think that they probably aren't here to watch the movie. The couple lasts for about forty seconds before they start sucking face. While Steve doesn't object to a little PDA, he can't help but feel a little grossed out.

"Wow, those two are really going at it," Tony observes in a voice that Steve’s pretty sure is meant to carry.

Steve shakes his head and shrugs.

"Kids these days," Tony quips.

"You're probably the same age," Steve deadpans.

Tony makes an indignant noise and elbows him in the side. Steve yelps and the two of them start laughing. Steve is pretty sure the whole theatre is looking at them now. Well, except for the teenagers, who are still going at it.

"I am not that young," Tony exclaims. "I'll be twenty in March. And you're what? Twenty-one?"

"Your birthday's in March?"

"Yeah, the third."

"Nice, we'll have to do something."

"Sure," says Tony dismissively. "When's your birthday?"

"Beginning of July," Steve answers. He’s not quite ready for the inevitable teasing that will result when Tony finds out exactly when his birthday is.

"Oh, that's the summer. Too bad, gumdrop, I'll be in New York. You're on your own." Tony gives him a teasing smile.

Steve laughs and nudges Tony with his arm. "Where do you think I'll be?"

Tony looks a little surprised. "I didn't know you'd be in—" The sound of a sucking, kissy noise completely derails Tony's train of thought. Tony's face twitches as he turns from Steve to look in the direction of the teens. "So have you seen that show, ‘16 and Pregnant’?" Tony asks loudly while staring pointedly at the teenagers.

"Maybe once," Steve says slowly, not really sure where this is headed. He would really like Tony to keep talking about New York, but by the way he keeps glaring at the teenagers Steve can tell he's on a mission.

"Did you know one in three teenage sexual encounters leads to teen pregnancy?" Tony continues, voice rising.

Steve raises his eyebrows. What? Tony looks at him expectantly. Ohh.

"Ye – yeah," starts Steve, "I also heard that one in four teenage sexual encounters leads to syphilis. That happened to some teenagers at my high school. Had sex, got syphilis and died. True story."

Tony lets out a shocked gasp. "Wow, the dangers of teen sex. Death and pregnancy. Both are pretty life-ruining when you're sixteen."

"So is getting kicked out of movie theatres at twenty-one," whispers Steve, so just Tony can hear. Tony shushes him and looks over at the teens.

The teenagers have pulled apart and are giving Steve and Tony nasty looks. Tony blows a kiss at them and Steve gives a little wave. Thankfully they don't go back to tongue wrestling. Steve and Tony share triumphant grins.

The theatre dims and they settle into their seats. Tony is reclining in his chair with his legs propped up on the seat in front of him, while Steve is slouched in his seat, long legs stretched off to the side. Their arms are touching on the rest and Steve can feel the warmth from Tony's arm through the cotton of his shirt. Steve holds the popcorn between them so Tony can steal unhindered.

They watch the previews in relative silence, broken by Tony’s occasional comments of “Okay now we have to see that” and “Why is that movie getting a sequel?” and “I wouldn’t see that movie even if it meant I never had to teach another Stats course again!”

Steve just smiles, amused.

At some point during the previews, their hands meet inside the bag. Tony's fingers brush ever so lightly along the back of Steve's hand, only the whisper of a touch, and Steve jerks his hand back, startled. He can feel the goosebumps prickling up his arm. That must have tickled more than he realized.

Tony murmurs "Sorry" and pulls his hand back.

Steve drinks his soda and focuses on the movie screen.

The movie gets started and, predictably, it is terrible. However, Tony supplies a never-ending commentary, ranging from making fun of the plot and make-up to the poor quality of the graphics. He seems to find the name Ada Wong particularly hilarious.

At one point Tony leans into Steve and whispers, "I think they stole the dialogue from a twelve-year-old's creative writing assignment."

Steve laughs. He’s enjoying himself and Tony’s arm is warm where it’s pressed against his, the pressure comfortable. "Twelve? Really? Seems a little old."

“Truth,” Tony agrees, laughing, before leaning back in his chair again. Steve’s arm feels cool where they were pressed together.

The movie rolls on and Steve thinks this is probably one of the worst horror-esque films he has ever seen. But Tony is rapt, grinning at the stupid dialogue and even worse special effects. Steve also suspects that somewhere along the way Tony has played all the video games, while Steve hasn't even seen any of the first four films. He finds himself watching Tony out of the corner of his eye more than he watches the movie. Tony is fun to watch, he cringes and flails and gets intense at all the right moments.

What is he doing? He tries to shift his attention back to the zombie apocalypse on the screen, but he can't help but stare at his friend's profile in the shifting light of the theatre: the line of his nose, the cut of his jaw, the vibrancy of his eyes. Those blue, blue eyes.

Steve shifts in his chair at the same time Tony does and their shoulders touch. Steve is still holding the bag of popcorn and Tony has a bag of candy in his lap. Tony turns his head toward him and mutters something unintelligible.

Steve doesn't respond because at that moment the lights from the movie play over Tony's face, highlighting his cheekbones, making his eyes bright and his lips look soft. Steve looks at Tony and his breath catches.

When had Tony gotten so gorgeous?

"Steve," Tony says, bumping him with his elbow. "Did you hear what I said? I don’t think there are enough zombies in this movie to fill in all the plot holes."

Steve tries to shake his mind out of its haze and focus on what Tony is saying, but his mind feels foggy and slow. He forces a laugh which, to his ears, sounds a little forced. Tony grins up at him, bright and open. Something twists deep in Steve’s belly. His eyes fall to Tony's lips.

He starts to lean forward because it feels so natural but he catches himself before he can do much more than shift in his seat. He wants to close the distance between them and press their lips together. The revelation hits him like a fist to the gut: He wants to kiss Tony.

…where had that thought come from?

Instead he swallows hard and says "Maybe you can borrow some zombies from the first four films?" then leans back so that their arms are no longer touching. Steve's heart is slamming in his chest and he can hear blood rushing in his ears. What was that? He can feel panic lighting through his veins. Did he seriously just think about kissing Tony?

Steve is reminding himself to breathe when Tony reaches over and grabs a handful of popcorn. Steve freezes and then, as calmly as physically possible, he passes Tony the entire bag.

"Here, have the rest, I'm done," he whispers.

Tony shrugs and takes the bag from him. "Candy?" he offers in return, holding up a bag of fuzzy peaches. Steve shakes his head and faces forward. His pulse is racing and the dark of the theatre feels overly intimate. He keeps his eyes glued to the screen. Don’t look at Tony. Do not look.

Steve grips the armrest tightly. Calm down, Rogers. Breathe. It's just Tony. Tony. His friend. His professor. He keeps repeating this to himself, but there's no denying the hammering in his chest and the heat in his cheeks. He can’t deny what he’s feeling.

He desperately wants to kiss him.

Shit.

 

*

 

Steve survives the drive home from the theatre through sheer force of will. Tony chatters non-stop about the movie and Steve tries his best to fake that everything is fine. Everything is fine, he keeps telling himself. But as much as he tries, he can't bring himself to make eye contact with Tony.

All Steve can think about is that if Tony looks at him right now, he will know. If he takes just one good look at Steve, he’ll see everything he’s thinking all over his face and then their friendship will be over. He can’t let that happen.

He thanks Tony again for letting him stay all weekend before getting out of the car, almost forgetting his bag in his haste to get away. Steve wants to run up the front steps, needs to put as much space between him and Tony as possible, but he forces himself to walk normally. The walk to the front door feels like it takes an eternity, and when he reaches his destination, he slips inside as quickly as he can.

He doesn't let himself look back.

Thor is the only one in the living room when Steve walks in. He's watching some sort of documentary on medieval warfare. Steve mumbles a greeting and then runs up the stairs. He doesn't want to talk about his weekend right now. Doesn’t want to think about what all of this means.

He shuts his bedroom door, locks it, turns and faces his room and, safely alone, lets the panic overwhelm him.

What is happening?

Tony. He wants Tony?

He tries to think about Tony and, despite the panic and all his inner turmoil, Steve wants to smile. He likes spending time with him, getting up to crazy things that he’d never do on his own and even quietly doing their own work in the same lab. Meeting Tony was the best thing about this semester. He looks forward to Stats class and their bi-weekly coffee breaks. Getting coffee with Tony is the main reason he has a perfect attendance record in media.

He shakes his head. He needs to snap out of it. He’s acting like he has a crush on the guy—

Oh god.

"I have a crush on him," Steve whispers to his empty room. It feels like the admission breaks something inside of him.

He kicks his bag to the side, flops on his bed and scrubs at his face, pressing his hands to his eyes. It is so obvious now. He has the hugest crush on his friend. Even as he thinks it, he knows that crush isn't the right word—neither is infatuation. Tony makes him laugh until his face hurts, makes him feel happy and comfortable. More than that, he trusts Tony—it wasn’t so bad losing it on Thursday because Tony made him feel like it was okay. Like he was safe. He’s let Tony see him at his best and worst.

He likes Tony. A lot.

But that can't be right, can it? This can't mean what he thinks it does. Steve's mind keeps stumbling over the obvious. He's not gay. He’s not. He likes women. He’s always liked women. Right? Right, he likes women and Tony’s a guy and so he can’t like Tony because Steve doesn’t like guys. ...Does he? Of course not. He feels like he would have noticed sooner if he did.

No, this whole thing has to be some kind of miscommunication between his brain and his subconscious and he's just overreacting. He can't possibly want Tony like that…

He tries to think about other guys he knows. He’s never thought of a guy like this before and trying to come up with another guy he thinks of as attractive has him coming up blank. But then he thinks of Tony—his bright blue eyes, his clever hands, the way his t-shirt clings to his shoulders, the bow of his lips—and he realizes that he could get lost in those eyes, wants to feel those hands on him, wants to run his hands along those shoulders and under that shirt.

He wants to feel those lips on his.

Steve groans and runs his hands through his hair. He wants his friend. Oh god.

Oh god.

This is going to ruin everything. He is going to lose him.

God, no. He’s going to lose Tony and that’s the worst part of this. His eyes sting at the thought. These last couple months have been so amazing, like he'd found a missing piece of his life. Tony's come to occupy a space that neither Bucky nor Clint could fill. Without Tony, there'd be a void, a giant Tony-shaped hole in his life. And he's been happy. But now it's all ruined. What has he done? How can he ever look Tony in the eye again? How can Steve just carry on like normal? Like nothing's changed?

Steve takes a deep breath and tries to approach this rationally. Maybe nothing has to change. He still wants to be friends with Tony and there’s no reason he can’t just pretend, is there? He just has to pretend that he doesn’t want Tony. It shouldn’t be that hard. It can be his little secret with himself. It’s not like anyone has to know. How would they? His mind flits through their activities over the past couple of months, tries to see how it looks from the outside. They hang out after class and go for coffee, play video games and text constantly, go to the movies and dinner and have sleepovers and…Shit. The evidence is damning when stacked like that.

Steve recalls with horror all the times Clint has called Tony his boyfriend. How even Thor has called him out on their incessant texting. Natasha’s insistence that she get to meet Tony. The last person she’d done that with was a girl he was seeing. Shit, shit, shit. It looks bad, looks like they are dating, like they already have something going on.

And oh god, how can Steve go to class now? Horror fills him as Steve realizes that if it’s this obvious to his friends then it must look like something to the other students too. If even Clint was able to figure it out… Even though nothing has happened between them, it looks bad. And if a rumour that Tony is dating one of his students were to spread all the way back to the Dean, Tony would probably be fired at worst, or have his funding cut at best.

How had he been so blind?

This whole thing could completely destroy everything Tony's worked for. Steve knows how much the reactor-battery-thing means to Tony, what it symbolizes. Steve couldn't handle it if he was responsible for crushing Tony's dreams.

Things can't stay the same, Steve realizes. Pretending isn’t enough. He can't do anything about the way he feels but he can ensure that Tony doesn't suffer because of his stupid crush. Steve reaches for his bag and pulls out his laptop. He waits for it to boot and then navigates the university's website until he finds the hours of operation for the Office of the Registrar. It opens at eight. He checks the clock, 3:28 a.m.—only four and half hours to go.

What he needs right now is space. Maybe he's running from the situation but he doesn't care. He needs space to figure all this out, space to get a handle on things, space to deal with this.

Space away from Tony.

 

*

 

The man behind the desk is giving Steve a wide-eyed stare. Steve can only imagine how he looks. After last night's epiphany he hadn't slept a wink. The clerk types in some stuff on the computer.

"Dropping a course this close to exams…you know that means you take a zero, right?"

Steve tightens his jaw. "That's fine."

 

*

 

By the time he gets home it is ten o’clock. He's missed his first class and he's going to miss his second, he thinks, before he remembers that he doesn’t have a ten o’clock Monday class anymore.

He falls face first into his bed. He doesn’t want to deal with this.

Not even half an hour later, his phone starts to ring. He stares at the display.

It’s Tony.

He lets it go to voicemail, then turns off his phone. He can’t deal with this right now.

He buries his face in his pillow and doesn't open his eyes again until 6 p.m.

When he turns his phone back on, he sees that he has a new voicemail and two texts—all from Tony.

Steve puts his phone away without looking at them.

Chapter Text

Tony’s flying high as he walks into the lecture hall Monday morning. He’s always hated the holidays—all of them—but for once in his life it hadn’t felt like an obligation or like he was missing out or just a chance to get work done while the rest of the world slacked off. It had felt like something real. He’s suddenly and terribly grateful that Fury made him teach this stupid course, otherwise he might have never met Steve. And isn’t that hilarious, that something that was meant to punish him has given him something so great? Just goes to show Pepper and Rhodey that he can too forge meaningful friendships with people who aren’t them.

As he hooks up his laptop to the system, he thinks about Steve’s face after the waitress brought dinner out on Saturday and finds himself grinning, embarrassingly, up at the front of the room with no apparent reason for it. Oh well, who cares what his students think?

The weekend was perfect. It doesn’t even matter that he didn’t even get half as much done as he intended to and he’s once again fallen behind on his timetable. It’s nothing that a couple all-nighters won’t fix anyway. And he’ll pull another all-nighter…soon. Maybe on Wednesday? Actually, no, not on Wednesday. Steve finishes class early on Wednesdays and he’s been meaning to convince Steve to attempt drunken bowling. He’ll suggest it after class. It’s going to be awesome.

He runs his PowerPoint and stands up in front of the class.

"Today's lecture is on Goodness of Fit," he announces. He knows he’s smiling a little more than the subject necessarily deserves but can’t bring himself to be bothered by it. "Hold onto your oh shit handles, boys and girls, because this is some honest-to-god real stats we're covering today. Can you just feel the excitement in the air? Electrifying."

The students just give him bored looks. Either he's lost his touch or they're just used to him by now.

"The idea behind goodness of fit is pretty simple. We want to see if the sample comes from the population with the claimed distribution. So what we're asking is if the frequency distribution fits a specific pattern. And we have two values for that – the observed value and the expected frequency. If you understood variance, you shouldn't have any troubles here. If you struggled then…well, why haven't you dropped this class already?"

He glances over at where Steve usually sits to see if he is giving him his patented look of disapproval and…Steve isn't there. Huh?

"So the idea is that if the observed frequency is really close to the expected frequency, then the square of the deviations will be small…" he says, but he's only half paying attention to what he's saying. Steve isn't in class today. He hasn't missed a single class all term. Tony hopes he's not sick. Steve did seem a little off when he dropped him off last night, maybe he was coming down with something? "So the expected frequency is the null hypothesis and—"

A hand goes up towards the back. Tony doesn't hide his impatient sigh.

"Yes, what is it now?"

"I don't understand."

"Okay, what don't you understand?"

"Um...any of it?"

"Well, that's unfortunate," Tony says. He knows he doesn't sound particularly troubled by the student's difficulty. Probably because he doesn't particularly care. "I'm not going to start the lectures over from day one, though, so you're going to need to pick a particular problem or pony up for some tutoring."

"I – not everything. Just this stuff with the null hypothesis now. Didn't we already do hypothesis testing at the beginning of the year? Why are we doing this again now? And I don't understand why we're using all these different hypothesises for everything. I thought scientists just came up with one prediction and then tested it? I don't get why suddenly there's all these different ones."

These dumbasses are going to be the end of him.

"The difference is that now you're not testing your research hypothesis, you're testing your data," Tony says. "It's pretty similar to the stuff we were doing at the beginning of the year—or it will be until we get to the math—but now we're testing our assumptions about the data. We want to know if the frequency data matches an expected distribution. So the null hypothesis would be that the various hypothesised proportions are correct."

"I don't understand."

Oh, Yoda give him strength. They haven't even gotten to the formulas and graphs yet. If this idiot doesn't understand this stuff now, his brain is probably going to bleed out of his ears once Tony starts explaining chi-squared.

"Right, let's try an example. Okay let's say your sample is made up of memes," he says, trying to remember what Steve had said about using basic examples, even though he’s pretty sure it hasn’t actually helped with the problem of dumb questions any. Case in point… But as Tony speaks, his pocket vibrates. He pulls out his phone to glance at the new email as he continues, "And there’s a hundred of them. Sixty are philosoraptors and forty are—what the fuck?!"

He rereads the email to see if he's misunderstood, but no, it still says the same thing. He must have gotten dozens of these notifications during the first two weeks of class. But this…

There's two weeks of class left and the Office of the Registrar is telling him that Steve just dropped his class. What the ever loving fuck? There has to be some kind of mistake, right?

His students' awkward giggling pulls him from staring at his phone. He looks up and meets Bruce’s disapproving eyes. Yeah, he’s probably being unprofessional, but fuck it. Steve just dropped his class. And anyway, when doesn’t Bruce look disapproving?

He looks down at the email again just to make sure he isn’t imagining things. But no, he’s still staring at an automated notification that the following student, Steven Rogers, has withdrawn from a course he is teaching. Why would Steve drop his class? They just spent four full days together. Why didn’t Steve say anything? It just doesn’t make sense that he would drop stats, especially not without saying anything to him. He tries to think back to Saturday. Had Steve brought his stats text to the lab? He seems to remember that he did, so surely he couldn’t have been planning on dropping then, right?

…Did something happen?

"Professor Stark?" says a petite girl in the front row. "Are you okay?"

It occurs to Tony that he’s been standing at the front of the classroom staring at his phone like some kind of moron for several minutes now.

"I – yeah, I’m fine. Something just came up. We’ll pick up where we left off on Wednesday. Class dismissed!"

Tony’s never gathered his crap up so fast, mindlessly cramming his laptop into its case, not even caring when half the cord is left hanging out the zipper. And then he’s darting from the classroom and calling Steve’s number. Something must be wrong. Did something happen to Steve? The phone rings a couple of times before Steve’s cheerful voice is telling him that he’s very sorry to have missed his call but he’ll call back as soon as he can. He hangs up without leaving a message. The worry rises up his throat and he wonders if it’s possible to choke on it. God, what if he got hit by a bus or something? He swallows uncomfortably and tries not to imagine horrible scenarios, tries not to think about Steve getting hit by a bus. Or maybe not a bus but something bad. He hits redial. It goes straight to voicemail.

And now…now he doesn’t know what to think. Either Steve’s phone just died…or he’s screening Tony’s calls. All the worry that was rising up Tony’s throat drops into the pit of his stomach. He swallows painfully and forces his voice to remain level.

"Hey Steve, it’s, um, it’s Tony. I just wanted to make sure that everything’s okay? Just – just call me and let me know you’re okay." He takes a deep breath, then says “Please, Steve” and hangs up the phone.

Either something is really, really wrong, or he’s screwed up somehow.

With his track record… He tries to cut off the thought. Surely he’d know if he’d done something wrong? Steve’s never been afraid to call him out before. He wouldn’t just cut him out without saying anything, right? Plus, Steve’s not an idiot. It’s two weeks before exams. Tony’s not so self-centered that he thinks Steve would lose a credit he needs just because Tony pissed him off. That’s ridiculous.

No, he’s overreacting. He takes a deep breath, then texts Steve: < heard you dropped my class…everything ok?? >

He doesn’t get a reply right away, but he didn’t really expect to. Maybe Steve’s battery died or he’s in a deadzone. But he’s sure he’ll message him back when he gets a chance and then they’ll laugh about what a huge misunderstanding this was.

Tony tries really hard to believe that.

Except Steve doesn’t call him or text him back all day. By mid-afternoon, he’s half out of his mind with worry and he hasn’t been able to concentrate on a damn thing. He knows he probably shouldn’t, but he can’t help himself. He sends another text: < Please call me >

Steve doesn’t call him.

Around four in the morning he gives up pretending he can focus on his research and finally leaves his lab. Steve still hasn’t called and Tony’s pretty sure he installed the reactor's program wiring backwards.

What’s wrong?

 

*

 

When his media class finally lets out, Steve’s the first one out of his seat. He’s tired and caffeine-deprived and desperate to get home. He hasn’t been able to focus on anything but the giant mess that is his life and he just wants to hide away in his bedroom for the afternoon. Or possibly the rest of his life. He hasn't quite decided yet.

He's coming down the stairs when he sees the very reason he wants to hide under the covers. Shit. Nonono.

Tony.

He tries not to react, but from the thin line of Tony's mouth he can tell he hasn't succeeded. He feels bad but at the same time… God, he really doesn't want to talk to Tony right now. He's not ready for this. How can he face him when he still feels raw and out of control? No, he can’t. He needs more time to try to figure out what this thing is and what it means and how it even happened and what he's going to do and god, he really doesn’t want to do this right now.

But Tony's standing right there, arms crossed and clearly waiting for him. Any thought that maybe this attraction to Tony is merely his mind playing some sort of horrible trick on him evaporates instantly as he takes Tony in. He looks gorgeous. He's wearing a dark blue coat, Steve loves him in blue, and his hair is all soft, like he didn’t bother styling it, like Steve could run his fingers through it. His ears are tipped red from the November cold. Steve wonders how long he’s been waiting for him out here. There are dark circles under his eyes and his face is pinched tight, tension showing clearly in every line of his body. He looks tired, Steve realizes. The sight of him still makes something swell in his chest and Steve swallows.

Why hadn't he noticed that Tony made him feel this way before?

And Tony left him all those messages. The texts had made Steve’s stomach twist into violent knots. He wasn’t brave enough to listen to the voicemail, afraid of what he would hear in Tony’s voice. He knows he worried his friend and he feels terrible about it but he thought he had at least until Thursday. He just needs more time.

Time, however, appears to be something he no longer has. He adjusts his bag on his shoulder as he makes his way over to where Tony is waiting.

"Steve,” Tony breathes. “Are you okay? Did something happen?"

Steve tries to push down the rush of guilt Tony’s words bring on. He looks at some point past Tony's shoulder and says "Yeah, I’m okay. I’m sorry if I worried you. Everything's fine."

He can feel Tony’s eyes searching his face. “Steve—” Tony starts, then stops. He reaches out for Steve’s arm, squeezing gently. Steve feels too hot all of a sudden and like there isn’t enough air. He can’t do this right now. He can’t. But Tony’s talking to him still, asking "Did you get my messages? I called you. I was…worried when I found out you dropped the class. I thought maybe something had happened?"

Steve looks desperately at anywhere but Tony, trying to disentangle himself from Tony’s grip without being too obvious about it. This is his friend, he reminds himself. His very male friend. Who cheats at video games and is way too smart for his own good and makes coffee looking deliciously rumpled in an old t-shirt and pyjama pants and jokes about bad movies and smells entirely too good when he's holding onto Steve in public and Steve just wants to pull him close so that he won’t sound worried like that and then he can hold him and kiss him and oh god Steve needs to get away from him right now.

"Yeah, I was going to call you back. I’m sorry that I worried you, I didn’t mean to, but like I said, everything's fine," Steve says. He considers it a small victory that his voice doesn’t come out completely strangled.

Tony crosses his arms. "Okay, so you wanna tell me what's going on?”

Tell him what? That he’s overwhelmed by his unexpected attraction and the very sight of Tony is more than he can handle right now? That now that he’s recognized that his feelings go beyond friendship he doesn’t know how to act around him anymore? That he wants Tony so much that this conversation is tantamount to torture? He can’t tell him any of those things, so he does the only thing he can. He lies more.

“Nothing’s going on, Tony,” says Steve, looking away.

“Everything’s peachy?” asks Tony, voice incredulous.

“Yep,” Steve says, tucking his hands into his coat pockets, trying for an air of nonchalance.

Tony shakes his head, his expression going from disbelieving to angry. “How ‘bout you cut the bullshit?”

Steve shuffles his feet. “What are you talking about?”

He needs to stop talking. Why is he asking questions? He needs to be ending this conversation, not drawing it out.

Tony fixes him with a look. “Let’s see, you drop my class, don’t return my calls, don’t answer my texts, and then you don’t show for coffee this morning, but I’m supposed to believe everything’s fine? Do you think I’m a fucking moron?”

Steve flinches at Tony’s tone, but he still doesn’t have anything he can tell him. “Look, I am sorry I didn’t call you back, I am sorry I missed coffee, but I am not at your beck and call. I got busy, alright? Or is that not allowed?” Steve can hear himself talking, hear the angry words tumbling from his mouth, but he feel powerless to stop them…

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Tony snaps. His voice turns sarcastic, "We've only been meeting up twice a week for two months. But sure, everything’s fine, you just happened to not show up the day after you drop my class and start dodging my calls."

“Nothing is wrong,” Steve insists, clenching his fists. “I don’t know what else to say. What more do you want from me?”

“How about a fucking explanation?” Tony snaps back. He takes a deep breath. “Look, I clearly did something, so how about you just tell me what it is so that we can move past this.”

No. No. Nonono. This is wrong. This is not what he wanted. Tony didn’t do anything.

“What are you talking about? I just finished telling you that nothing’s wrong. So I don’t know where this is coming from but…” Steve lets his voice trail off, keeps his eyes focused on the toes of his boots.

“Steve,” Tony starts, voice going soft, “you cut me out right after the weekend. I must have done something to upset you. Help me out here. Did I say something at the movies?”

Steve’s head snaps up. How did Tony manage to strike so close to the truth so fast? Shit, shit, shit. Why can’t Tony just drop it? What is he even doing here anyway? All Steve wanted was one freaking week to process this and get himself figured out and then they’d be fine. Why is Tony doing this to him? Can’t he just back off for once? Steve’s panic gives way to anger. He’s tired of fumbling for answers he doesn’t have like an idiot. Tony needs to just leave it alone so this conversation can be over and Steve can finally breathe again. But that’s not what Tony does. Tony pushes. He pushes and pushes and then he pushes some more. Steve needs to shut this down and get away now. He’s done with this.

“I know this might come as a surprise, but not everything’s about you, Tony. God, you really are self-obsessed.” It’s like someone else is talking with his voice. As the biting words leave his mouth, he hears the cutting tone and wishes he could take them back, but it’s too late.

Hurt flashes across Tony’s face before it closes over, going carefully blank. For a horrifying moment Steve is reminded of the look on Tony’s face when his dad called and said all those hurtful things. What did he just do?

Tony smirks at him and drawls, “Yup, you know me. Who else would things be about?”

Steve swallows hard. Right now he would give almost anything to have Tony snapping or yelling at him, anything but this cold indifference.

“Tony – I didn’t mean—”

“Save it. I don’t even know why I bothered,” he says acidly. He turns away from Steve.

“Look, Tony,” Steve cuts in, desperate to smooth this over. How did they get here? This isn’t what he wanted… He’s not sure how he managed to make such a mess of things. It’s not fair. He thought he had more time to figure this out. “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this. It’s only stats class. You hate it anyway.”

"You're right,” says Tony, voice cold, “what does it matter to me? One less paper to waste my time on."

Steve watches Tony walk away with his heart in his throat.

He's pretty sure he couldn't have messed this up any worse if he'd tried.

 

*

 

Steve walks into Starbucks early Wednesday morning. It's earlier than he cares to take his coffee and the line is nearly to the door, but it's the only time he can be sure he won't accidentally run into Tony. Tony'll be teaching stats right now, so it should be safe. He’s just not ready to face him again after he’d made such a horrible mess of things. And he'd rather drink his coffee too early than go without like he tried yesterday. Steve's gut clenches painfully at the memory of Tony’s hurt then carefully blank face. He still can't quite believe he said those things. It feels a little like a half-remembered dream, like something that happened to someone else because surely this couldn’t be his life.

Steve gives Jan a tentative smile when he finally makes his way to the counter.

“Steve, how’re ya doing today?” asks Jan, bright smile on her face.

Wallowing in self-loathing, you? “Good,” he says, giving her a weak smile in return.

"We missed you yesterday,” she says, punching in his order. “Your class go late again?”

Steve gives her a puzzled look. What?

“I just thought your class must have gone late. Tony was in here yesterday, he bought your coffee then loitered in front of the store. He was out there a while. Your prof have something against letting you guys out on time?” She chuckles and hands Steve back his change.

"Oh, um, I don’t know," he mumbles, trying to shrug it off. Yesterday...Tony bought him coffee and waited outside Starbucks for him? For how long? Steve feels vaguely nauseous. He’s been a terrible friend.

He looks down at the coins in his hand and that’s when he realizes that Jan charged him for his and Tony’s usual drinks.

“Later, Steve,” she calls as Steve shuffles down the bar and waits for his drink.

“No venti black eye today,” Steve says when he sees Marie go for the espresso machine. She pauses and then looks down at the cup in her hand.

“Didn’t you order…?”

“Not today. Tony’s not with me.” Even saying that feels like a punch to the stomach. He’s not sure he wants the damned coffee anymore.

"But… you and Tony always come together…" says Marie, wrinkling her forehead.

Apparently he's never getting coffee here again. Living in a caffeine-deprived stupor would be a thousand times better than this.

"It’s not a big deal. Tony's perfectly capable of getting coffee on his own."

Her features shift from confused to concerned and she lowers her voice. "Steve," she says gently, "is everything okay? Did you and Tony get in a fight?"

"What are you talking about? Everything's fine," he says. Oh god. They know. He’s so glaringly obvious that even the Starbucks baristas have him figured out. He just needs to get his coffee and get out and then he’ll be free to find a hole in the ground to hide in and he is never coming out again. "So, um, can I get my coffee?"

"Oh, right, sugar. Yeah, of course," she says. She smiles at him, but it's strained with sympathy.

Steve is pretty sure he's red to the tips of his ears. Marie keeps casting him worried looks as she pours his blond. She gives his hand a gentle pat when she passes it to him.

Steve grabs his coffee and races out of there so fast he forgets to add his milk, which of course he only realizes once he's already out the door. Well, that's too bad for him. He's not going back in there. Not after that. He’ll just drink it black.

 

*

 

Tony sits on his couch, the lights all off. Light filters in from the street and his laptop screen casts strange shadows across the living room. Tony's staring at it without really seeing. He's supposed to be writing. Jesus, he's so behind right now. Even if everything hadn't gone to shit with Steve he's still about a week behind schedule. Dr. Richards is going to freak.

And he still has to draft the stats final. Fuck.

This week has not gone according to plan. Tony's pretty sure that if his life came with an index, he'd find the last couple of days under “W” for Worst Week Ever. Which is a shame because Thanksgiving would be filed under Best Weekend In Recent Memory.

And that's where things don't add up. The weekend had been absolutely fantastic. Spending time with Steve had been so much fucking fun. And then… Boom, not talking. Out of nowhere.

It’s not that Steve dropped his class. That’s weird, especially because it’s so close to exams, but weird he can deal with. It’s not even that Steve didn't return his calls. He can understand that maybe after four days together, Steve was sick of him and just needed a little space. He knows he can be a lot to handle in concentrated doses. No, the real issue is that Steve fucking lied about it. He stood there and lied to Tony's face. God, he hadn't even been subtle. And then when he’d gotten angry… He's never seen Steve like that before.

Everything's fine.

What bullshit.

Tony launches himself off the couch and paces the length of his apartment.

Everything is not fine. It isn’t even in the same county as fine.

And Tony still has no idea what he did. He’s tried to reason it out, to look at things empirically but his mind keeps getting stuck on the what. What did he do? It’s not uncommon for him to fuck up, but usually it’s pretty obvious how he did it. He knows he fucked up again. He has to have. Why else would Steve just shut down, shut him out like that?

He scrubs his hands across his face, feels the exhaustion burning his eyes. He feels frayed. Maybe staying up all night Tuesday and most of Wednesday hadn't been the greatest idea but every time he’d thought about sleep his mind would flash back to seeing Steve on the steps of the science building.

What did he do?

His phone buzzes softly on the coffee table, alerting Tony to an incoming call. He eyes his phone suspiciously. There’s no reason to get his hopes up, he knows. It's not Steve. There's no way it can be Steve calling him now.

Tony snatches up his phone, breathes out a quick "Hello."

"Hi, Tony," says Pepper.

Pepper, right. Not Steve. He should have known. She texted him yesterday and he thinks the day before.

"Heya, Pep," he says, trying his best to keep the weariness out of his voice.

"Wanna buzz me up?" she asks.

"Uh – wait, you're here?"

"Sure am."

"At the apartment?"

There’s silence. Tony can imagine her rolling her eyes. Of course she's at the apartment. Tony punches in the door code and the line goes dead. He has exactly two and a half minutes before she gets here. Exactly two and a half minutes to pull himself together. He gives himself a mental shake. This isn't anything he hasn't dealt with before, he reminds himself. People are shitty all the time. People disappoint you. And he’s a bit of a fuck up himself, so what did he expect?

Tony turns on the lights, boots up iTunes and cracks open a beer. Everything is normal. Yep. This is just him, chilling by himself. No breakdowns here.

He's just sitting down on the couch again when he hears a knock on the door. Sighing, Tony gets up and pads his way to the door.

Pepper is standing there wrapped in a green coat, perfectly accessorized with a cream coloured scarf. She has a coffee in each hand. Her smile turns to a frown as she takes him in.

"You look like shit."

Damn it all, he forgot he hadn't shaved in three days, hadn't even bothered combing his hair after his shower.

"I'm a little stressed right now, Pep," Tony says. That’s a perfectly rational explanation for his complete lack of personal hygiene, right?

She gives him a knowing look and comes in, closing the door behind her. She sheds her coat and boots, then follows Tony into the living room.

"I thought you might be stressed so I brought this by the lab." She holds up the coffee. "Although I think it's probably cold by now."

Tony takes the cup from her and sips it. Stone cold. "That’s what microwaves are for. Thanks, Pepper." He leads the way to the kitchen. "I was in the lab most of the week. My lab partners pretty much threw me out after thirty-six consecutive hours."

Pepper rolls her eyes. "You are going to kill yourself, y'know that?"

Tony laughs until he sees the concerned look on her face. He gives her a wry smile, knowing that she can tell that something isn't right. The microwave dings and Tony retrieves his now hot coffee.

Pepper stays for a little over an hour talking to him about the horrors of group work and the various projects she’s working on. He lets her voice soothe him and her chatter distract him.

 

*

 

When Steve finally makes it home after his last class Thursday, he’s beyond exhausted. He hates this week so much.

As he’s toeing off his boots and preparing to escape up the stairs to the sanctuary of his room, Clint pokes his head out of the kitchen.

“Steve, you’re home!” He joins him in the entryway, Natasha just behind him. “Guess what, we’re in for a treat tonight. Thor’s making roasted pork!”

“Come on, Clint and I are just preparing the vegetables and potatoes now. You can help us,” Nat adds.

“Nah, thanks for the offer, guys, I had a late lunch,” Steve says. He feels trapped with Clint and Natasha bearing down on him, eyeing him intensely like they’re trying to steal his secrets. He needs to get out of here.

“But you love Thor’s pork.”

“If I get hungry, I’ll have some leftovers.”

“What leftovers?” Natasha asks suspiciously. “I didn’t see anything in the fridge.”

Clint is looking him over, concern clear on his face. “Did you even eat last night?”

“‘Course,” Steve tosses over his shoulder as he heads up the stairs. What are they, the dinner police? So what if he didn’t eat last night? It’s not a big deal. He’ll find something to eat later…if he gets hungry.

He spends the rest of the night alone in his room trying to distract himself from his sexual identity crisis by working on his graphics project. He doesn’t do a very job focusing on it, though. He spends a lot of time staring at his computer screen without seeing and wondering how he’s ever going to fix things with Tony.

 

*

 

"I’m sorry," Steve says. He and Tony are outside their usual Starbucks, Tony watching him with guarded eyes. He needs to make this right. "I was a jerk the other day. I’m just going through some stuff right now. I mean, it’s not a big deal, I’ll deal with it, but yeah – stuff. Anyway, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you."

"Steve…what’s going on? You know you can talk to me, right?" Tony’s voice is soft and pitched low. Steve looks at him and their eyes meet and it’s too much for Steve. He looks away again, stares instead at where Tony’s sleeves are rolled up, exposing his strong forearms. Focus, Rogers.

"I know. I just – I can’t. I’m sorry," Steve says miserably. He rubs the back of his neck. He feels so stupid. Tony deserves an explanation but he can’t give him one. All he can do is apologize and hope Tony’s willing to take pity on him and be his friend again, even though Steve hasn’t provided him with any good reason to.

Tony puts a gentle hand on his shoulder and squeezes. His hand is heavy and warm through Steve’s thin cotton shirt and he can’t help leaning into the touch a little bit.

"It’s okay. I get it," Tony says. "We all have shit to deal with sometimes. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, but you can if you want. I mean, I can’t guarantee I’ll be any good at helping but I’ll try, y’know?"

"I know," Steve says and he’s so damned relieved, he nearly sags under the weight of it. Tony still wants to be his friend. Thank God. "Thanks for understanding."

"No problem," Tony says easily. He pats Steve’s shoulder a couple times and Steve thinks he’s going to move his hand away, but instead he slides it across to rest at the nape of Steve’s neck, his thumb rubbing little circles into the skin exposed above the collar of his shirt. He tries to suppress the shiver the touch sends running down his spine. He’s torn between wanting to pull away and wanting to stay impossibly still so that hand never stops.

"Tony," he says helplessly, raising his eyes from where they’ve been fixed firmly on the ground to search Tony’s face.

Tony’s face is soft and inquisitive and hopeful. "I’m glad we’re friends," he says, and then pulls Steve forward by the hand on the back of his neck so that he can fold him into a warm hug.

Oh, Steve thinks, this feels nice. Tony’s hand is still stroking across the back of his neck and the other is a solid presence across his back. Tony’s chest is warm against his. He wraps his arms across Tony’s back carefully, trying to control just how much he likes this.

Tony turns his head towards him and his lips tickle Steve’s cheek when he murmurs "you had me worried" into Steve’s ear.

This time Steve can’t hide his reaction to Tony and his proximity. He feels his cheeks flushing.

"Sorry," he mumbles into Tony’s shoulder.

"For worrying me?" Tony asks and Steve can feel the movement as Tony smirks against his jawline. Tony still hasn’t let go, hasn’t moved away. "Or for trying to hide this from me?"

Steve swallows, licks suddenly dry lips. "Tony…"

"Were you ever gonna tell me, gumdrop?" Tony whispers into the skin of his neck, rubs his lips along the sensitive skin there.

Steve moves his hands to Tony’s hips and squeezes tightly, trying to hold on as Tony’s touches light his nerves on fire. This also pulls Tony flush against him and oh. Tony is – he’s – oh. His breath is coming too fast and he knows he’s holding on too tight but Steve just wants.

And all the while Tony is still murmuring in his ear, saying "—been thinking about this for so long, been thinking about you—oh. Steve. Oh yeah—" and Steve realizes that he’s grinding his hips into Tony’s now, trying to get some kind of relief. Tony’s bare chest feels so good against his and he smells so good and – and – and Steve just wants him so much and—

He pushes Tony down onto the bed, enjoys the way Tony presses up into him, the way he breathes “Yeah, c’mon” when Steve runs his hands over his body.

He buries his head in Tony’s neck, breathes him in before darting his tongue out to taste salt and sweat. Tony makes a little noise at that. Steve desperately wants to find out what other noises he’ll make for him. He runs his hand down Tony’s chest, teases inside the elastic of Tony’s boxer-briefs.

“Can I?” he asks, dizzy with it, with how much he wants the man beneath him. He wants to touch him and kiss him and hear the sounds he makes when he’s excited and on the edge and losing it. He wants Tony to touch him. He wants it all.

Tony grins permission up at him, wraps his arm around the back of Steve’s head and pulls his mouth down towards him and yes, Steve wants this, wants him, and he’s going to get to touch him and kiss him, finally, just like he’s wanted and—

Music blares through the room, startling him. He jerks, surprised, and then smacks his hand into the snooze button on reflex. He’s breathing heavily. Where did Tony go? His hands and lips felt so good. He wants… And then he blinks and takes in his bedroom. Right, his room. He was asleep. That was a dream.

A dream.

He feels like he can’t breathe with the weight of his disappointment crushing his chest. None of that happened. He and Tony never made up. Tony’s still mad at him. He never apologized and Tony never accepted him without explanation. He fights to get his breathing back under control, to get himself back under control.

Tony doesn’t want him. He never did.

He wishes desperately that he could close his eyes again and return to the dream, return to Tony’s friendship and forgiveness. To his kisses.

But he’s wide awake now and can’t even finish what the dream started. The devastation of realizing it was all just his mind taunting him with what he can’t have is more than enough to kill the impressive morning wood the dream had elicited.

Steve rolls out of bed and throws on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. He’s going to the gym.

 

*

 

It's official. He can't concentrate, hasn't been able to all day. Tony snaps the lid to his laptop closed and slumps back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. He keeps replaying Tuesday's confrontation over and over, trying to make sense of what happened.

Steve is mad at him, that much is obvious but what Tony can't figure out is the reason for Steve's anger. Why is Steve mad at him? What did he do? He picks his phone off the desk and scrolls through his messages, sees his texts to Steve, still unanswered. He doesn't get it. He stares at his phone, contemplates sending Steve another message. Is that a good idea? Tony doesn't know anymore.

What he really needs is some advice, an impartial third party who can look at the situation objectively, see what's gone wrong and tell him how to fix it. He thinks for a moment. He knows Pepper would be happy to help and she’s already figured out that something is wrong, but she has these strange ideas about his and Steve’s friendship that will colour her advice. He needs someone else.

He scrolls past her contact to his other best friend and hits the call button.

Rhodey picks up on the second ring. "What's wrong?"

"Hey Rhodey!" says Tony. He suddenly feels foolish, calling for friendship advice. Really, he's almost twenty, shouldn't he have it figured out by now?

"Don't 'hey Rhodey' me, what's wrong? Did you blow something up again?"

"What? No. Nothing's wrong. Can't a pal call a pal from time to time?" Tony backpedals, trying to inject his voice with lightness. He pulls himself out of his chair feeling fidgety all of a sudden.

"Pals don't call pals at 2 a.m. unless there's a problem."

"It's 2 a.m.?" Tony briefly pulls his phone away so he can check the time. It's 1:55… He looks towards the window and sees nothing but darkness. Right, two in the morning. Oops.

"Tony…"

"What? That means nothing. You know I don't keep regular human hours." It's true, Rhodey's been his friend long enough to know that. Nothing strange there. "And don't pretend like you were asleep, sugar bear, I know what your 'I just woke up voice' sounds like. This is more of the 'I am feeling pissy' voice." Tony finds himself almost wishing phones still had cords, just so he'd have something to keep his hands busy while he paces the floor of the lab.

Rhodey heaves a sigh. "It doesn't matter, Tony. What matters is that you're calling me at 2 a.m. Usually you attempt to stay within the bounds of social norms when making phone calls. Unless, of course, something's wrong."

"Nothing is wrong! I am just calling to shoot the shit, see how you're doing. How's life? You still working on that degree?" Totally legit reason to be calling someone, right?

"Yes, Tony, I am still in school. Not everyone breezes through undergrad in two years." Rhodey sounds tired on the other end of the line.

"Slow and steady wins the race, right, sourpatch?"

"Whatever you say. Only psychopaths call their friends at 2 a.m. to talk about school. Y'know unless there's some sort of ulterior motive for this phone call, like there's a problem."

Goddamnit, he wishes Rhodey didn't know him so well sometimes. It's annoying when he's trying to deflect. "Noth—"

"Spill it or I am hanging up."

"You are such a bitch." Tony heaves a sigh. Here goes nothing. "Fine. Why don't people like me?"

"People like you, don't be ridiculous. I like you."

Tony frowns. "You don't count."

"Gee, thanks." Tony hears Rhodey sigh. "People like you just fine."

"No. People like my name or my money or my brain, they don't usually like me. So, what's wrong with me?" Tony realizes he's making sweeping gestures to his empty lab and quickly pulls his hand in. He folds his arms across his chest instead, cradling his cell between his chin and shoulder.

"You want a list? Alphabetical or chronological?"

"Sweetheart, why are you being such a dick tonight? I am serious, I want to know. Honestly." He does. He knows why his Dad doesn't like him, that he gets. He is disobedient and runs his mouth at every opportunity. But Steve...when it comes to Steve, Tony is lost. What went wrong?

"Well, if I had to guess, I'd say that sometimes you can be a little much. People don't always know how to handle you."

"But—" That couldn't be it. If Steve couldn't handle him, he'd have gone running sometime in October.

"I can't help you if we're going to beat around the bush. This isn't coming out of nowhere, Tony. What happened?" Exasperation is creeping into his voice.

"Well, you remember me talking about Steve?" Tony ventures.

Rhodey scoffs, "Uh yeah, your new BFF?"

"Jealous, sweetpea?" asks Tony with a grin.

"He can have you."

"Thanks," Tony deadpans. He needs to get the conversation back on track. Tony rakes a hand through his hair. "The thing is…Steve stopped talking to me."

There's a silence on the end of the line. "What do you mean stopped talking to you?"

Tony takes a deep breath and throws himself into his chair. "I mean, like, we hung out on the weekend and everything seemed fine and then Monday rolls around and bam! He's not talking to me. Won't respond to my texts, doesn't answer his phone, nothing. Then Tuesday, I try to talk to him after he doesn't show for coffee and he's clearly pissed off. I tried to find out what's going on and he just kept saying that everything was fine when clearly it wasn't. And I haven't heard from him since." Tony clears his throat, "And then I might have said something I regret but he said stuff too. He said some really hurtful shit, Rhodey, so I must have done something ‘cause that’s not like Steve. And now I don't know how to fix this."

"Tony—"

Tony pushes forward, the words not wanting to stop now that they've started tumbling from his mouth. "'Cause clearly I did something to fuck it up! I always do something. It's why I can't have nice things, right? But I keep replaying the weekend and every time I come up blank. What did I do? I want to solve the problem but the math is all wrong. I'm missing too many variables. And I know it was me, it had to be me and—and I miss him. And—"

Tony sags against the bench, lays his cheek on its cool surface. He hadn’t admitted that much to himself until this moment. It’s only been a couple days and he misses Steve, misses him in a way he didn’t know he could miss people.

"Okay, slow down. You need to start from the beginning. Tell me more about the weekend. What did you guys do? What happened?"

Tony closes his eyes. "Nothing happened. I invited Steve over for Thanksgiving, 'cause his parents are gone and mine don't give a fuck, so I thought we could hang out, it'd be fun. And that's what we did. Thursday Steve attempted to cook—" He decides to gloss over his involvement in the turkey debacle. Rhodey would get sidetracked by the thought of Tony Stark in the kitchen. "—Friday we played video games all day, Saturday we studied, Sunday we studied and went to see a movie."

"What movie?"

"Resident Evil."

Rhodey barks a laugh, "No wonder he's not talking to you."

Tony groans. "It wasn't that bad…okay, maybe it was, but the point is, he was talking to me at the theatre and during the movie."

There's a pause. "During the movie?"

"Yes…" There’s something in Rhodey’s voice that makes Tony sit up. A sinking feeling settles into his stomach.

"Oh no. Tell me you didn't," Rhodey groans.

"Didn't what?"

"We've been over this before!" Rhodey barks into the phone.

"Over what?" says Tony, feeling a little panicky, mind whirling as he tries to remember all the conversations he's had with Rhodey about inappropriate behaviour.

"That thing you do when you flirt non-stop and use pet names inappropriately."

"Wh—" Flirt? Really? But, it’s Steve, he doesn't give a shit. Tony feels a little relieved. The flirting is harmless. That was Tony's favourite part about hanging out with Steve. He felt like he could be himself.

"Aw, Tony, you can't do that with straight guys," says Rhodey, "He doesn't know you're just messing with him!"

"What? No, no, honey bear, you've got it—"

"Please tell me you didn't call him that."

"I don't know—it's Steve! He knows how I am. It hasn't bothered him before."

"Let me guess, during the movie you leaned in close and whispered in his ear and started calling him cupcake or some such nonsense?" There's a hint of accusation in Rhodey's voice.

Tony flashes back to the theatre. "Maybe…when you put it that way…”

"The dude thinks you were hitting on him! How many times have I told you? You can't flirt with guys like that, not straight guys anyway, it freaks them out." Rhodey pauses for a second, "Wait, is he straight?"

"Uh, yes. As an arrow." If Tony was sure of one thing it was Steve's heterosexuality. But—Tony's mind snags on the thought—Steve thinks Tony was hitting on him?

"Okay, just making sure. But, anyway, he totally thinks you were hitting on him. That's probably why he's not talking to you. Give him time, he's just freaked out."

Tony is stunned. Hitting on him? This is bad. This is very, very bad. "Fuck."

"Tony?"

"This is bad, Rhodey,"

"What? Why?" Rhodey sounds confused.

"This just went from bad to worse! The thing is—Steve is my student! I met him in my fucking fake math class and now he thinks that his prof was hitting on him! He probably thought I was going to proposition him or threaten his grades or something! Oh god." Tony doesn't care that he sounds hysterical.

Of course Steve freaked out. Without even realizing he was doing it, he managed to put Steve in such an awkward position. He’d been so blinded by the newness of the friendship that he’d never thought to see how things might look from Steve's angle. He hates the idea that his behaviour might have been taken by Steve as him abusing his position. No wonder Steve hadn’t wanted to talk to him.

"Tony, calm down," says Rhodey. "Since that wasn't the case and you're aware of your flirting now, go talk to him.”

"But you don’t understand, Rhodey. When I confronted him, he denied everything. He’s not afraid to call me out so why all the lying?”

“He’s your student, Tony. Maybe he didn’t think he could say anything. Maybe he wasn’t entirely sure. I don’t know. I just know you need to talk to him. You can’t let this fester.”

“I don’t think he’ll be talking to me anytime soon."

"You need to talk to him. You need to tell him that despite appearances you are sorry for your behaviour, it won't happen again and that's not at all what was happening." Rhodey pauses, "'Cause that's not at all what was happening, right?"

"No, of course not," Tony replies, a vague sense of déjà vu creeping into his mind.

"You don't like the guy?"

"I like him, he's my friend," says Tony.

"Don't play dumb with me. You're not attracted to him?"

"Okay, fine, he's gorgeous, but no, just no. He's my student."

"And…?"

"He's my student, Rhodey." The more Tony says it the more he feels like dirt. He can't believe he put Steve in this situation.

"I know, I know. It's just that you keep saying that like it's some sort of impenetrable defence. Teachers have fallen for their students before, it's not that uncommon. You sure there's nothing there?"

"Nothing. It's Steve. He's my friend. And anyway, apparently he was so offended by some flirting , he felt the need to completely shut me out. He’d never be interested."

"Alright, Tony, whatever you say. The point is you have to make this right. You need to talk to him."

"I will. I promise. I'll talk to him as soon as—I dunno." He feels the urge to bang his head off the desk. He knows that Rhodey is right, he has to talk to Steve but the idea of facing him now is making him want to run away and hide in the lab for the foreseeable future.

"I am sure you'll figure it out. You're not the smartest person alive for no reason," Rhodey says.

Tony scoffs. Sure, smartest person alive. "Thanks, Rhodey. Seriously."

"Anytime—but maybe next time you could call at normal people hours?"

"It's not a crisis if I call at one in the afternoon."

"Good night, Tony."

"Good night, Rhodey, and thanks again."

 

*

 

Nobody said it was easy
It's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh, take me back to the start…

Steve lies in his bed, letting the music wash over him. He can't imagine how the week could have gone any worse. It's hard to believe that only a week ago he was so, so happy and now… Now he's somehow managed to ruin the best part of his life.

Today has been the worst day since the disaster that was Tuesday. Ever since that goddamned dream this morning…he keeps catching himself hoping it could be that easy. He knows it won't be. He can still see the hurt in Tony's eyes before he'd shut down and pretended that he didn't care.

He just wants to be friends again.

The only consolation in this entire mess is that it's Friday and he's done for the day, which means that for the next two days he should be able to hide out in his room without having to face anyone. Thank god.

He's still not sure how he made it through the week. If it wasn't so close to finals, he would have blown off all his classes but the last thing he needs is to fail a course—another course, he amends, since he'd taken that fail when he dropped stats.

The fail is really the least of his worries though. He'd take another one if he thought it would fix this, if this morning's dream could be just a little bit real. Just the part where they made up, that’s all he’s asking for. He knows the rest is never going to happen. But if they could just make up and be friends again... It's what he's been wishing for all day, every time his mind would wander before he'd realize with that same sense of crushing disappointment that it hadn’t actually happened.

Real life is never that easy.

All week long, all he's been able to think about is Tony. How much he misses him, how much he wants to fix this, how much he wishes he had never screwed things up so badly in the first place, how sorry he is for everything. But he's not an idiot. He knows there's no way to make this better.

He still can't believe he said those things. Tony let him sit in on a private conversation and he threw that trust back in his face, used it as a weapon to hurt him with.

He just wishes—

There's a knock at the door and then it swings in. Clint never waits to be invited in to Steve's room, but it's never really bothered him before now.

"Everything okay in here?" Clint asks, letting the door swing shut behind him.

Oh yeah, everything's great. Laying in bed listening to depressing music is just his idea of a good time.

"I'm fine, Clint," Steve says, biting down on the urge to yell at Clint to just leave him alone.

He doesn't want to see anyone right now but rationally he knows that how he's feeling isn't Clint's fault. He has no one to blame but himself. And anyway, he's already ruined one friendship this week by being a dick, he's not going to ruin another.

Clint eyes him before plopping himself down on the bed next to Steve. He leans back against the wall, snagging Steve's pillow for behind his shoulders. "You sure?" he says, "You've been spending a lot of time in here…"

"Yeah, just tired," Steve says, sitting up too. "Don't worry about it."

"You're listening to Coldplay, dude. That can only mean one thing."

"That iTunes is on shuffle?" Steve suggests.

Clint just gives him a look. "Okay, two things. One, you have terrible taste in music, and two, you're upset about something. So come on, talk to me here. You've been hiding out in your room all week. What's going on?"

"There's nothing to talk about," Steve insists.

"Dude, we've been friends for four years and your poker face sucks. You think I don't know when something's bothering you?"

"Clint…" Steve says. Please don't do this.

"When you were upset last week I didn't want to push because I knew you were facing down spending Thanksgiving without your mom for the first time," Clint says quietly, clasping his hands over his chest and looking up at the ceiling. "I even get why you didn't want to come home with any of us. But you seemed to cheer up after you and Tony decided to do your own thing and I thought you'd be okay. But you've been even worse this week and I'm concerned about you. Do you need to talk to someone maybe? I know the school has resources." Clint looks Steve in the eye. "You know there's no shame in asking for help, right? It doesn't mean you're weak or whatever."

Steve swallows hard. Shit. "Clint, it's not – I'm not – I appreciate what you're trying to say, I really do, but this isn't… This isn't about Mom. Really, I am fine."

"You don't think you might be struggling with complicated grief?"

"I don't even know what that is, but look, it is still hard sometimes, but I'm not… Please don't make this about my mom. It's not about her."

"But you are admitting that there is something?"

Steve looks away. "I can't talk about it right now. It means a lot to me that you're trying to be there for me, it does…but I just can't, not right now, okay?"

How can he talk about this with anyone when he still isn't entirely sure where his head is at? And he can only imagine what Clint would have to say if he knew just how horrible a person Steve could be.

"Okay, I'm not going to push you to talk if you don't want to, but I don't think you should be spending your days cooped up in here either. You need to get out. Whatever's bugging you, hiding away from the world isn't going to make it better."

"I don't know, Clint…" Steve's pretty sure the only time he hasn't been making everything worse is when he's been in here. If he'd stayed in on Tuesday instead of going to class, Tony probably wouldn't hate him right now. At least not as much.

When you try your best, but you don't succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need

Clint elbows him. "Random playlist, you said?"

"Just a coincidence."

"Sure it is," Clint says. "You really need to get some new artists for your Songs for Crying Into Your Pillow playlist."

"Shut up," Steve says.

"C'mon, I'll make you a deal. Come out with us tonight and I won't push you on this."

"Um…"

"Okay then, it’s decided. We're going out! Now turn off this depressing music and go shower or something. You kind of smell."

Clint claps him on the back and heads out of the room, presumably to go fetch Thor and Natasha.

Steve sighs. Looks like he is going out.

 

*

 

They are sitting in their usual booth in the dimly lit pub, sharing a couple pitchers of beer. The surface of the table has seen better days as has the velvet upholstery covering the bench. The place was busy when they got here but is slowly emptying. Their waitress, usually attentive, is chatting up the bartender while he pours drinks for a group of middle-aged women sitting at the bar.

Clint and Thor are demolishing a basket of chicken wings. Steve is nibbling on a plate of cheese fries, Nat leans in close to him as she nabs a few.

"Steve, you really missed out last night," Natasha says. "I can't believe you skipped out on roast pork. It was to die for."

"Thank you, Natasha," Thor says, licking hot sauce off his thumb. "I have always believed that the true joy of cooking is in sharing the meal with friends."

"Here, here," Nat says.

Steve hunches over his pint. "Sorry, guess I just wasn't that hungry," he says, feeling guilty. He shouldn't have come out tonight. Why did he let Clint talk him into this?

"You haven't been hungry much this week."

"Well, you know how it is," he says lightly, "you spend four days stuffing your face, it takes a little while to get over your food coma."

"Oh man, do I ever know what you mean," Clint agrees. "My brother's wife made the largest freaking spread on Thursday. I stuffed my face so much, I thought I'd never move again. They literally had to roll me to bed that night."

"She a good cook then?" Steve asks.

"Seriously good," says Clint. "I remain convinced to this day that her cooking is the main reason he married her. I mean, don't get me wrong, she's nice, I like her a lot, but her food is killer. I'm not entirely certain that I didn't die Thursday night."

"Sounds like you had a good time," says Natasha.

"I did." Clint tosses a bone into the small bowl casually. "Okay, sure, Barney kept bugging me to do my homework and at first I was just like 'Do you even know me at all? I don't do schoolwork!' but then he kept pushing and I was like 'Ugh, go die!' Just because he's older doesn't mean I need him to parent me. I'm an adult!"

"Well," Thor says carefully, "sometimes an older brother is just trying to look out for his younger brother… Sometimes even if a younger brother is technically an adult, he still acts like a child…"

Clint glares. "You are not seriously comparing me to your brother are you?"

"I'm thinking there's a story here," Steve murmurs.

"Right, you took Jane home to meet your family, didn't you?" Natasha asks. "How did it go?"

"There were highs and lows," Thor says. "I have been looking forward to introducing Jane to my parents for several months now. They, of course, loved her as much as I do. Loki, on the other hand…well, he requires more of that extra parenting Clint mentioned earlier than he should."

"Uh oh. What'd he do this time?" Clint asks.

"He told Jane it was a Norse tradition to salt your plate before serving the meal. He said we do it to ward off evil spirits."

"That doesn't sound so bad…" says Steve.

"He then told her we throw the salt over our shoulders. It hit Mother."

"Loki's a dick," Clint says.

"Jane handled the situation as gracefully as she could and Mother wasn't upset, but it disturbs me that he would act cruelly to someone so important to me," Thor says. "I suspect he is jealous."

"That sucks," Steve says, though frankly, he's a little jealous too. Thor's so lucky. It all seems so easy for him. He met Jane and right away she was as crazy about him as he was about her. There's none of the confusion that seems to be all he feels lately. Steve bets Thor's never said horrible, cruel things to someone he cares about because his head is so messed up.

And when Steve starts commiserating with Thor's bratty brother, he knows he has issues.

"Well, my Thanksgiving went pretty much exactly as expected," Natasha says. "Alex and I made dinner and then headed out at midnight and blew our student loans on lots of cheap stuff we don't actually need. We didn't actually get to sleep until three o'clock Friday afternoon."

"I can't believe you braved that madness." Thor shakes his head.

"Every year. What's life without traditions, right?" she says.

"Speaking of…did you talk to your family at all?" Steve asks. Nat’s family cut her off freshman year. Steve still doesn’t really know the details, it’s not something she likes to talk about. He just remembers that there was some kind of trial. And Natasha had to testify.

Natasha shakes her head. "After Babushka hung up on me last year? There didn't seem to be much of a point." She shrugs and eats another one of Steve's cheese fries. "I don't need family, I have new seventy-percent-off ass-kicking boots."

Clint smiles at her. "We ought to embroider that on a pillow."

"You get right on that, Barton," she laughs. "So what about you, Steve? How was your Thanksgiving?"

Steve swallows hard, remembers kitchen disasters and take out with the game, endless hours of video games and surprisingly productive hours working side by side. He had such an amazing four days, so much better than he ever could have imagined. And it’s something he’s never going to have again.

"Surprisingly good, actually," he says. "We – uh – had a bit of a disaster with the turkey, but I’m pretty sure that’s my fault since I’m the one who let the guy who’s never cooked a day in his life tackle a turkey. We ended up ordering in Chinese."

"Nice," says Clint.

"Sounds like it turned out, anyway," says Natasha.

"Yeah…" says Steve, and he can’t keep his sadness out of his voice.

"Steve?" Natasha puts a tentative hand on his back.

Steve stares down at his beer, like it can tell him what to do. He’s been so miserable all week, hating himself for what he did to Tony. Being out with his friends…he’d almost forgotten about it. He’s just…so tired of being unhappy, of not knowing how to fix this. He looks around the table. Everyone just look back at him patiently, not saying anything. It’s clear from looking at them that they are concerned.

"Tony and I got in a fight," he blurts.

"Over the weekend?" Clint asks.

"Did you get on each other’s nerves from spending so much time in each other’s company?" Thor suggests.

"No, this was on Tuesday," Steve says. He swallows. "It was my fault."

"What happened?" Natasha asks.

Steve winces. He’s ashamed of his behaviour. He really doesn’t want to tell them… But at the same time, he realizes that he needs to talk about this with someone before he drives himself crazy. And he really doesn’t know what to do. Maybe they have some ideas.

He plays with the condensation on the side of his glass and tells them, "I was ignoring him and then I ditched him for coffee on Tuesday and then he came to talk to me after my class and I said some really terrible things I’m not proud of. I feel awful, guys, and now I have no idea what to do."

"Um, what happened?" Clint asks slowly. "You said it was a good weekend, right? Did he do something in class Monday?"

"Um, that’s another thing," Steve says, cringing, "I dropped stats."

When no one says anything for seconds longer than Steve is comfortable with, he looks up at them. Clint is staring at him. Thor looks confused. Natasha’s biting her lip.

"I will admit that I do not understand what has brought this on," Thor says, "but it seems to me that you should apologize to Anthony."

"I don’t think that’ll be enough," Steve sighs. "The things I said… I think I really hurt him."

"Isn’t that what apologies are for?"

"Yeah, but he’s going to want an explanation and I still have no idea what to tell him."

"Steve, buddy, I’m really not trying to pry here, but I’m just not following this," Clint says. "Why did you drop his class and start ignoring him? I just – I don’t know if we can really help you without understanding the situation."

"No, that’s fair," Steve agrees, running a hand over his face.

God, he can’t do this. It’s one thing to worry that they already suspect, that they might have known before he did, it’s another thing to come right out and tell them. And what if he’s wrong and this is coming out of nowhere for them? He’s only just starting to get used to the idea. What will they think of him? No, that’s not fair. None of them have ever been anything but completely accepting of him—and each other—in the past. When Natasha went through that mess with her mother in first year, Clint was with her all the way, even when other people were hissing that she was an ungrateful bitch. And Thor has never expressed anything but support for his brother coming out last year. And, of course, when he was an absolute mess after his mother died, they were there for him completely. And even recently when he was being totally unbearable and antisocial, they were still there.

If there’s anyone he can tell, he realizes, it’s his friends.

He swallows and takes the plunge. "I realized that I have a crush on Tony and I kind of panicked," he says in a rush. They all stare at him for a moment but only Clint really looks surprised.

"Oh," says Thor, frowning at his mug. "Well, that is easily fixed. Once you tell Anthony how you feel and apologize, then your relationship can move forward. I am sure he will understand."

"That… That’s big, Steve. It sounds like this was a lot for you and you maybe didn’t handle this as well as you would have liked," Clint says. "But you really need to talk to him sooner rather than later. The longer you let this go without explaining, the more damage it’s going to do to your friendship."

"But – I can’t just tell him," Steve protests. "What am I going to say?"

"Is a relationship with Tony something you want to pursue?" asks Nat.

Steve remembers last night’s dream, how much he liked having Tony under him, and he can feel himself reddening. He ducks his head.

Natasha coughs delicately.

"Right then," Clint says.

"You need to tell him the truth," Nat says.

"Indeed," Thor agrees. "Knowing your true feelings will go a long way to explaining your actions and then you can make up."

"Yeah, that’ll go over well," Steve snorts, burying his face in his hands. "Hey Tony, sorry I was a dick, I just realized that I have feelings for you. Oh and speaking of dicks, you don’t mind that I have one, do you? What? That completely freaks you out? Alright then."

His friends are quiet for several long moments.

"Why would that be an issue?" Natasha asks slowly.

Steve lifts his head and fixes her with a look. "Because we’re both guys?" he suggests. Isn’t that obvious? Why does she think he’s so upset?

"I don’t get the impression that’s something Tony cares about," she says. "I mean, he flirts with you a lot for a guy that’s entirely straight."

"You think Tony flirts with me?" he asks. She raises an eyebrow at him and wow, she really thinks… Tony might actually… That means that maybe they could… He takes a long drink of beer. The thought is almost too much.

Thor is frowning. "I thought it well known that Anthony does not discriminate in his affections."

Steve chokes on his beer. When he finishes coughing he stares at Thor. "What?"

"I have seen him leave parties with both men and women. It seems to me that he has never tried to conceal this. I assumed you knew." Thor shrugs.

"Uh," Steve says intelligently. No, he definitely didn’t know that. Tony likes men? "Wow. Okay. Um, he never said and I guess I just assumed…" He swallows. Holy shit.

"So are you going to tell him?" Clint asks.

Tony likes guys. Tony flirts with him. There’s a chance that what he’s feeling isn’t entirely unrequited. The possibility that Tony might actually want to be with him too… Isn’t that worth taking a chance on?

"Yeah," Steve breathes. This is more than he ever hoped for. "Yeah, I am."

He’s going to do this. He’s really going to tell Tony how he feels. What has he got to lose at this point? And maybe…maybe Tony feels the same way about him. Maybe he can have this. His chest feels tight, his head swims as the thought settles over him, leaving him with mixed feelings of hope and trepidation. He’d just assumed it could never happen, but now…

Steve feels a smile break across his face, doesn’t even try to hide it. He can do this.

"So…shots?" Clint asks, grinning at him.

Steve laughs. He seriously has the best friends. "Maybe just another round."

"Why not both?" Thor says, standing to wave their waitress over.

"Come on, Steve." Nat throws a warm arm around his neck. "It’s a good end to the night, right?"

"…Yeah, okay," Steve agrees. "Why not indeed?"

Clint and Thor fist bump.

Seriously. The best friends. And anyway, possibly waking up with a hangover tomorrow morning will be infinitely better than the way he woke up this morning. He smiles over at Clint, absurdly grateful that he dragged him out despite his protests. For the first time in a week, he feels like he can breathe again.

He’s got a plan.

He can’t wait to talk to Tony.

Chapter Text

Saturday afternoon finds Tony up to his elbows in the arc reactor's delicate wirework. Strange is making an obscene amount of noise as he works away on whatever the hell it is his research involves. All Tony can hear is high-pitched whirring noises followed by a succession of loud beeps and a bang. He tries to block out the noise Strange makes but the beeping sets his teeth on edge. He doesn't mind a bit of noise while he works usually, not really. But his noise usually involves some rock music, not the sound of the damn centrafuse spinning for four fucking hours. And Tony doesn’t care what Strange says, he totally stole Tony’s protractor.

Who's idea was it that he should have to share his lab space anyway?

Tony is so focused on soldering wires together and blocking out Strange's incessant banging that he doesn't notice the figure standing practically on top of him until it clears its throat. Tony looks up and…

Shit.

"Steve," he blurts.

He's not sure how long Steve has been standing over him. He looks nervous, hands toying with the hem of his coat, eyes apprehensive. Tony wishes he'd known Steve was coming. He hasn't had time to figure out what he's going to say to him yet. And what's he doing here anyway? Oh god, this is the part where Steve finally calls him out. This is going to suck.

"Hey, um," Steve says, rubbing the back of his neck, "can we talk?"

Tony nods mutely and shuts off the welding torch.

"Privately?" Steve adds, nodding in Strange's direction meaningfully.

Yup, totally about to tell him off for his horrible, inappropriate professor ways. Fuck his life.

"Sure," Tony says, throwing on his coat. He's not crazy about the idea of Strange witnessing this either. "Let's take a walk."

Steve nods and follows him out of the lab. They make their way down the engineering building stairs in silence. Tony's extremely conscious of the space between them. When they get out into the quad, Steve turns to him.

Well, better get this over with. Tony opens his mouth to apologize and—

"I'm sorry," Steve blurts.

"What?" Tony says intelligently. What's Steve got to be sorry for? Tony's the one who acted inappropriately.

“I'm sorry, Tony,” Steve repeats. “The way I acted on Tuesday…I'm really ashamed. You didn't deserve that. I still can't believe I said those things but I want you to know I didn't mean any of it. I'm so, so sorry."

"Steve, I'm the one who should be apologizing," Tony cuts him off. And he should be. He's the one who fucked up and crossed lines that weren't meant to be crossed. Still, Steve’s apology eases some of the tension in his chest. If Steve came back and Steve is sorry too then that means that he probably still wants to be friends with Tony. "I – I didn't realize what I was doing or how it might be interpreted – how you clearly did interpret it. I didn't think, but that’s no excuse. I know I put you in a really awkward position and I feel awful. I need you to know how sorry I am."

Steve's mouth twists. "Sorry for what?"

Right, he knows this. A vague apology is no apology at all. He’s sure Pepper or Rhodey or Pepper and Rhodey both covered this in one of their many, many lectures on the subject of apologies. Well, spit it out, Stark.

"This is about my flirting, right?" Tony ducks his head and keeps his hands buried in his pockets as he talks. "I know I crossed the line. You don’t have to worry, it won’t happen again. I know it seems like—"

"Wait, no, Tony—" Steve tries to interrupt but Tony soldiers on. This is important.

"—like I don’t take the whole professor thing seriously—because who am I kidding, I don’t—but I do take abuse of power seriously. If I’d stopped and thought for just a minute…" Tony shakes his head, but keeps his eyes down. He’ll never get this out if he has to look at Steve’s disappointed face the whole time. "I never meant to put you in an uncomfortable position. We’re friends, Steve. I’m sorry if you think—god, this is awkward—if you think that I was hitting on you. I wasn’t. I would never do that. Never."

"Oh," Steve says quietly. Tony risks looking up at him and crap, Steve looks tense, jaw held tight. He avoids Tony’s eyes, like the scenery over Tony’s left shoulder is immensely fascinating. Is he making this worse? Tony can’t tell, he only know that he needs to fix this, needs to make sure that Steve understands.

"It doesn’t mean anything,” Tony states, flapping his hand around. “I’m just a flirt, Steve. Really. I flirt with everything on two legs—and several things that aren't. Hell, I flirt with inanimate objects...” He gestures to the quad as if to prove his point. Steve’s expression is strained. “...So it doesn’t matter whether it’s guys or girls or friends or whatever. It’s all meaningless, you know? I just hope that you can overlook my lapse in judgment."

Steve looks at him finally. "So you do like guys…" He says it slowly, carefully.

"Yeah…but Steve, that doesn't mean I like you.” Steve winces and Tony breaks eye contact, concentrating on the pavement in front of him. Steve looks like he’s waiting for the sidewalk to open up and swallow him. God, he hopes he didn’t just ruin things by confirming that he’s not completely straight. He never got the homophobic vibe from Steve before but that isn’t always an indication of a person’s comfort level. Jesus, this is awkward. “I mean, I like you, obviously, just not like that,” Tony corrects. “So who cares who I like? You don’t have a problem with me being bi, do you?"

"No," Steve says loudly. Tony whips his head to look at Steve. That protest was a little over the top. Steve looks like he was startled by his own voice. He gives Tony a strained smile. “No,” he repeats with less gusto, voice soft, "I mean, no, of course not. It’s fine, Tony. So you're not…”

"No, I'm not into you," Tony confirms. He sighs. How else can he put this? "Just because I like guys, doesn't mean I like you that way, right? I mean, take you and Natasha. You like women, but it’s not like that with her, right? I mean, you’ve never had anything going on with her, have you? Because if you have and you didn’t tell me—” He cuts himself off. It’s not the time for this. “Right, well anyway, you and me, we’re like that. You’re like – like a sister to me, Steve. So you don't need to be freaked out at all."

"Okay," Steve says slowly, swallowing hard. "That…clears things up."

They pause their walk once they reach the west side of campus. Steve shuffles his feet, lets his arms hang limply at his sides, looking off into the distance. Tony lets the silence stretch, unable to get a read on the situation. If Steve’s okay, why does he still look so uneasy? They are still friends, right? That’s why Steve came to talk to him in the first place, so they could move past this terrible misunderstanding.

"Um, Steve,” Tony begins, “I know I messed up, but I really wish you would have come and talked to me first. Why didn't you tell me I was making you uncomfortable? If you’d’ve just said something, I could’ve explained—"

"I know, I’m sorry. You’re right, I should have talked to you first.” Steve gives him a thin smile. “I guess I just panicked."

Tony chuckles. "I guess I should just be glad you didn’t punch me or something."

"What?" Steve looks horrified. "Tony, I would never—"

Poorly timed, Stark. He lasted three seconds before offending Steve again. Way to go.

"No, sorry, joke. Bad joke. Well kind of a joke. But I wasn’t trying to say you would. I just…” Tony waves off Steve’s protests. Once Steve looks soothed, Tony says, “But you know I wasn’t responsible for your grades, right? Bruce has been marking all your stuff since September. Because we’re friends and I was trying to be fair. I thought you knew that."

"I guess I just wasn’t thinking," Steve mumbles.

"Right, well this is still my fault. I’ll go talk to the dean or something. I can explain what happened and take full responsibility and I’m sure they’ll let you back into the course."

"What? Tony, no." Steve’s eyes go wide.

"Why not? This is my fault and you need stats to graduate, don’t you?"

"What’s done is done,” he says firmly. “I’ll just take it next term. It’s not a big deal."

"I’m pretty sure you missed the drop deadline, peaches – um, I mean, Steve. I’m pretty sure you missed the drop deadline, Steve.” God, he is really screwing this up. He’s never going to convince Steve to let him make this right if he can’t be appropriate for even thirty seconds. “So that means you’re taking a zero on your transcript. I can't let you do that because of me."

Steve frowns, creases appearing between his eyebrows. He can’t seriously think Tony is going to let him fail a class over this, can he?

"No, no, it’s fine. I’m the one who overreacted."

"But Steve—"

"I don’t want you to get into trouble because of me!" he snaps.

Tony falters. He didn’t expect this from Steve, doesn’t know what to make of this protective reaction. Does this mean Steve is really serious about continuing their friendship?

Steve takes a breath, then continues, "Look, this has clearly all been a misunderstanding. You didn’t mean to flirt with me, I overreacted, it’s fine. It’s totally…fine.”

"Right," Tony agrees. He needs to show Steve that he’s serious about their friendship too. "I just want to be friends with you, Steve, that’s it, I promise."

"Yep, yeah, I got that," Steve says, rocking back on his heels.

"Okay. So…"

“Friends?” says Steve, tilting his head, a ghost of a smile on his lips.

Tony smiles. “Friends.”

"Um, well, I know I interrupted your work, so I should really let you get back to it and we’re really close to my neck of the woods so I’m gonna…" Steve trails off, jerking his thumb in the direction of his place.

"Right, sure. I guess I’ll see you Tuesday?"

"Actually I’m trying to cut back on my coffee. All that Starbucks adds up, you know? But if I give in to my cravings I’ll text you, okay?" He gives Tony a small smile.

"Um, sure, okay," Tony replies slowly. He can’t help but feel like he just missed something.

"See you, Tony," Steve calls over his shoulder with a wave as he heads off towards home.

Tony watches him for a moment and fights back the urge to go running after him. That went well, right? Steve isn’t mad at him. Hell, Steve even apologized for the way he handled things, which Tony never expected. And they’re friends again. That’s good, isn’t it? This is exactly what he wanted…

Once Steve disappears around the corner, Tony heaves a sigh and turns to start the trek back to his lab. He tucks his hands into his pockets against the cold.

Steve wants to be his friend. Sure, he still seems a little uncomfortable with Tony’s sexuality, but he’s clearly trying. That’s enough. They’re friends, so it’s not like this changes anything. It doesn’t make a difference. Because it’s not like he likes Steve.

Sure, Steve is stupid-hot, but he’s always known that. And so what if he had him over for four full days and didn't get sick of him? He’ll admit that he likes to spend a lot of time with him but that doesn't mean…

And so what if he wanted to be there for Steve when he was freaking out and Tony didn't mind not being alone when his parents called and pissed him off because Steve was the one there? And okay, so it’s possible Tony was miserable when he thought Steve didn't want to be his friend anymore. And yeah, so maybe Steve’s remarks on Tuesday had cut deeper than most people’s because what he thinks matters to Tony.

But he doesn't…

Tony swallows against the lump in his throat. He can’t help feeling like he’s still missing something, a variable, some piece of the puzzle. Part of the equation just doesn’t make sense.

Steve dropped him, his class, and he’d walked away without explanation. And sure, Steve apologized, but shouldn’t he still feel angry and betrayed?

But…

Steve came back.

Tony stops mid-stride, the realization hitting him like a physical blow. Steve came back. Over the years, Tony’s had a lot of so-called friends drop out of his life once they got what they needed from him. But unlike all those other part-time friends and users, Steve had actually come back. Just like after that first disastrous meeting way back in September, Steve turned up at his lab ready to try again.

And Tony had let him.

Because it was Steve.

Oh god.

Oh fuck.

After all that protesting, all that denial, all the confusion, the missing variable is so laughably obvious.

He does. He likes Steve.

For a moment Tony feels like he’s had the breath knocked out of him.

When did this happen? How did this happen?

No, he knows how. Steve is…god, he's everything Tony's ever wanted. Even setting aside how good looking he is, Steve's smart and funny and always up for Tony's crazy ideas. He knows better than to try to offer advice when Tony's upset and somehow still manages to make him feel better. He doesn’t judge Tony's fucked up family shit. And Steve is good. He cares about people and doing the right thing and despite Tony's many, many shortcomings in these areas, for some crazy reason Steve likes him anyway. Steve came back. And he wants to be his friend, even after the terrible position Tony put him in. Even after Tony cost him a credit.

Because the very idea that Tony was hitting on him had sent him into a panic.

Fuck.

Tony feels the exhaustion of the last week catch up to him all of a sudden. He's just so tired. He just finished reassuring Steve that it wasn't like that and now… What a time for this revelation.

Fuckity fuck fuck, fuck his fucking life, fuck.

He can take care of this. He'll get it under control. He can’t risk Steve’s friendship again. It’s fine. Fake it till you make it, right? He’ll just keep this under wraps and soon enough he’ll have forgotten he ever felt this way.

Steve's friendship is enough. It has to be.

So Tony will just bury this somewhere in between his need for his dad's approval and his hopes of ever having a healthy relationship. It’s fine. He can do this.

After all, Tony’s got a lot of experience wanting things he can’t have.

 

*

 

Steve leaves Tony on the edge of campus. It takes everything in him not to run the whole way home.

Good god, that was painful.

Steve takes the steps to his house three at a time and throws open the door. He lets the screen slam behind him and pulls the inner door shut.

He sheds his coat, aims to put it on the hook, misses and doesn't even care. He wants this day to end. Now. Actually he'd like it if this day had never happened. He sighs and scrubs his hand across his face. He almost wants to laugh when he thinks about how foolishly optimistic he'd been the night before. But really…what had he expected? Did he really think he could go over to the lab, say “Hey Tony, I like you” and have everything fall into place?

Grow up, Rogers. He’s such an idiot.

He kicks off his shoes and debates whether to crash on the couch, watch movies and pretend like this isn't his life, or maybe get an early start on happy hour. Steve doesn’t believe alcohol is the solution to heartbreak, but if having the object of your affections basically hand you an essay entitled "Why I Don't Like You: An Overview of Just How Much" isn't an excuse to drink, Steve doesn't know what is. He just wants a beer. Yes, he'll get a beer, sit on the couch and figure out a plan for moving forward.

It's not like he's never crushed on someone who didn't return his feelings before, right? This is clearly the rejection the first sixteen years of his life were preparing him for.

Only, Tony hadn't said that he didn't like Steve, he'd said that he could never like Steve. Would never like Steve. But that doesn't make sense, does it? Hadn't Nat said that Tony flirted with him? Hadn't Thor thought they were dating? The ladies at Starbucks certainly do. Doesn't that mean anything?

Apparently not.

Yeah, he needs a drink.

He heads for the kitchen, but as he nears he’s hit by the smell of coffee. He walks in…

And almost walks right into Clint.

"Jesus!" swears Clint. "When'd you get home?" He takes a step back from Steve, side-eyes the coffee pot. Steve follows his gazes and notes the coffee cups.

Steve squints at him. "A minute ago."

Clint nods in an obvious attempt to look nonchalant. His jeans are slung low on his hips, the top button undone.

"Why aren't you wearing a shirt?" Steve asks after a beat. It’s not like Steve cares if Clint goes around shirtless—but it's two in the afternoon and Steve is pretty sure Clint was dressed before he left to talk to Tony. He hasn’t even been gone an hour.

Clint looks down at his bare chest like he just noticed and then casually does up the button on his jeans. "I was…just grabbing something to eat. Didn't think anyone was around. I thought you'd be gone for a while." Clint points to the stairs and gestures to himself, "I'll just go…" He bounds up the stairs and disappears.

Steve shrugs and helps himself to a cup of coffee. Probably a better idea than beer in the long run. He opens the fridge to retrieve some milk.

"So, how'd it go?" asks Natasha, appearing over his left shoulder.

Steve gives her a look then closes the fridge door a little more firmly than necessary. "It was a goddamn disaster, Nat."

Natasha puts a hand on his shoulder, "What happened?" She pulls out two chairs from the table and they sit. Steve cradles his coffee.

"He doesn't like me, simple as that."

"Oh," Nat replies, looking surprised, "What did he say when you told him you liked him?"

Steve looks down at his coffee. "I didn't. There wasn’t any point. He basically went on a diatribe about how he doesn't like me and was sorry if I thought that. He apologized for flirting with me, said it all meant nothing and seemed to think that the whole fight was because I thought my professor was hitting on me." Steve sighs.

"And you didn't correct him?" says Clint. He's standing in the kitchen entrance, fully clothed and looking slightly horrified.

"No!" exclaims Steve. "What do you say to that?"

"You tell him he's wrong!" Clint shoots back.

"You weren't there, Clint, you don't know what he said," Steve says, looking up at his friend, too weary to be annoyed.

"I don't care." Clint crosses his arms. "You can't let him keep thinking that you two fought over a little flirting. That's ridiculous."

"Clint," Natasha cuts in, "I think Steve did the best he could under the circumstances."

"No, Nat, he wussed out." The two are glaring at each other now. Then Clint looks over at Steve and shakes his head. "Steve, man, you took the easy way out."

Steve stares at Clint. Really? Clint is really giving him a hard time right now? After he just told him that Tony wasn't interested. Can’t Clint see how upset he is?

"Tony practically gave me a dissertation on how unattractive he finds me. He was extremely passionate on the subject.” Steve can feel his voice rising but he can’t seem to help it. “And after listening to all that, you expected me to, what, share my feelings? Get real!"

"But all his assumptions are based on a false premise!" Clint snaps.

"Look," says Natasha, "Steve did the only thing he could do. Admitting that he liked Tony then would have only strained the friendship. Say what you like, Clint, it's awkward when someone has feelings for you that you don't return."

Steve gives Natasha a grateful look, thankful that someone gets it.

"But sometimes you have to fight for the things you want, Natasha," Clint says quietly.

Steve gets what Clint is saying. He does. And that probably explains why he feels so horrible right now. He lied to Tony. Sure, he didn’t say "yes, your flirting is a problem" but he didn’t deny it either. Steve isn't an idiot. But there was nothing else to say, no other explanation to offer that wouldn't feed into more lies. So he'd let Tony jump to conclusions…

"It's done, Clint," says Steve, shoulders slumping. "I can't dwell on that. He doesn't like me, end of story."

“Okay,” Clint says. He wraps his arms around Steve and gives him a brief hug, patting his shoulder before pulling back, then saying "I’m sure you'll work it out, Steve. And like Nat said, you're still friends. That's something, right?" He gives Steve a smile.

Steve smiles back. Clint and Nat are right. He's confident that he and Tony can salvage their friendship, and maybe it won't be the same as it was before but at least they're still friends and for now, that will have to do.

 

*

 

Tony sees Pepper giving him an appraising look over the top of her mocha frappuccino. Oh crap. He knows that look. And really, he should have known better. This isn't the "friendly get together to catch up" that she'd suggested. This is going to be a full-fledged grilling. Oh joy, he loves those.

He takes several gulps of hot coffee to fortify him. Maybe he should have gotten an extra shot of espresso in here. A shot of brandy would've been even better. Why doesn't Starbucks offer those?

"Are you ready to talk about last week yet?" she asks.

Wow, straight to it. Pepper sure isn't wasting any time.

Tony gives her his best innocent smile. "What about last week? You mean when I got a shitload of research done? Because that was awesome."

She purses her lips. Yeah, Pepper knows better than to buy anything he's peddling. That girl is too smart by half. Still worth a shot though, right?

"Tell me about it," she suggests.

Tony eyes her suspiciously. Pepper has complained on more than one occasion that hearing about electrons and programming and atomic reactions makes her cross-eyed. But she waves him on with her straw impatiently and fine, Tony loves his research, if she wants to hear about it, who is he to say no? So he tells her all about the proton fusing, wire soldering and test simulations he ran last week. She lets him prattle on.

"And what did you get done on the weekend?" she asks when he finishes.

"Oh you know. More work. Work, work, work. You know how it is," he says, drumming his fingers on the table absently. When she continues looking at him expectantly, he continues, "Come on, this has to be boring you, Pep. You can't possibly be this interested in my research."

"Oh, I'm just trying to figure out when you talked to Steve."

He tenses. "What are you talking about?"

"Oh, Tony. It's Tuesday. Don't tell me you still haven't talked to him."

"I don't know what you're talking about. Why would I have to talk to Steve?"

Pepper huffs an impatient sigh. "I believe you were going to apologize?"

Apologize… Shit. How does she even know about that anyway? He knows he didn't tell her anything. She shouldn't even know that he and Steve fought. The only person he talked to was—

"Motherfucker. I'm gonna kill that blabbermouth."

"Oh, come on, Tony. You know you were going to have to tell me sooner or later."

"No, I was pretty much counting on later coming never."

"He was worried about you, Tony. We both are."

"It's fine though, totally fine. Nothing to worry about!"

"Mhmm," Pepper says, swirling her frap with her straw. "So when are you going to talk to him? You need to handle this delicately. Start out by asking if you made him uncomfortable and see what he has to say."

"No, it's fine. We talked already."

"And?"

"You'll be happy to hear you've been proven right again, Pep. I crossed the line. So go ahead and get it over with. Tell me you told me so."

"What?" Pepper stops with her drink halfway to her mouth, staring at him over the crest of foam on top of the rim.

"My flirting made Steve uncomfortable, just like Rhodey thought. So you can say it."

"He said that?" Pepper says, lowering her cup back to the table without taking a sip. Why does she look surprised? Isn't this par for the course?

"Yeah…"

Pepper gives him a curious look. "So what set him off?"

"Um, my flirting? I thought I just said—"

"No, I mean, why was this suddenly a problem? You've been flirting with him since September and now it suddenly bothers him out of nowhere?"

"I, uh, I don't know," Tony says. He tries to remember what exactly Steve had said about what upset him and fails. "I didn't ask. I mean, I'm sure it was something I did."

"So what did he say? Just snapped at you that you needed to back off?"

Whoa, where is this coming from?

"No, no, Pep, it wasn't like that at all," he says, "He apologized for how he handled things too. I don't know, I didn't get too caught up in the details."

He'd just wanted to smooth things and get the conversation over with so they could go back to being friends again. He didn't need the particulars of his screw up.

Except…why hadn't Steve said anything before? He didn't think his flirting was that much worse on the weekend than it had been previously… But Steve is kind of naïve, maybe he hadn't noticed the flirting before. Except it's not like Steve was acting any differently during the weekend. Tony would have noticed if he had given even the slightest inkling that Tony was making him uncomfortable. Did someone point the flirting out to him?

Or…Steve made a point of confirming that Tony liked guys. Was the flirting okay when he thought it was a joke but maybe someone referenced Tony's bisexuality and suddenly it wasn't so fine anymore. Tony's head hurts. He doesn't want to think about this.

Her mouth twists. "I guess I'm just surprised…"

"Yeah, me too. I didn't expect Steve to come talk to me like that. It was clear he was really sorry even if he was pretty worked up by the whole thing. I had to make it clear that I didn't mean anything by it, that I'm not into him like that."

"Since when?"

"Noooooo, Pepper,” Tony whines, “not this again. We're just friends! You know that, we've been over this before." There’s no way he’s confessing that she was totally right about his not-so-platonic feelings for Steve.

"Yeah, I didn't believe it then either."

Okay that was back in, like, October. There's no way he felt like this back in October…did he? This is totally not fair. No way Pepper figured out his feelings that much before him. Shouldn't the first person to know how he feels be him?

"Come on, Pepperoni," he wheedles. "Don't do this."

"Tony Stark, I don't know who you think you're talking to here, but I can smell your bullshit a mile away."

"So what?" he says, squeezing his coffee cup a little too tight. He feels laid bare with Pepper right now. He can't hide from her and right now all he wants to do is hide. So he tries one more time. "Now I can't have friends without wanting to fuck them?"

"Except you're not just friends with Steve,” she says. “It's more than that. You're smitten with him. Every single minute you're not in the lab or in the classroom, you're spending it with him. And when you're not with him, you're texting him. Or talking about him."

"It's not like that," Tony croaks but his throat has gone dry.

"I've never seen you like this, Tony," she says, shaking her head. "I mean, you've even ditched your research to spend time with him. I've known you a couple years now and you've never done that before. Not even when you were dating Sunset. And you invited him over for Thanksgiving when I know for a fact you hate the holidays. Weren’t you looking forward to having several days in the lab free from interruptions?"

"We worked…" Tony tries, but the protest is weak even to his own ears.

"You wouldn't do that for just anyone. Not for just any friend."

"I'd do it for you."

"For a day, yeah, but not four in a row. And you've known me a lot longer."

"Just drop it," he snaps. She stares at him without saying anything. After several long moments of this, he breaks. He can't handle her looking at him like that. "Okay fine, you're right, I like him, okay? Are you happy now? But look, he doesn't like me, Pep. He dropped my class and avoided me for a week over a little flirting. I was only able to salvage our friendship by swearing up and down that I don't like him like that. Can you imagine if I told him I want more?"

"Tony…"

"He'd never speak to me again," Tony sighs. "I can't…" He lets his voice trail off. He feels so defeated. He likes Steve. A lot. And he'd rather bury these – these feelings than let them destroy the friendship entirely. If Steve cut him out for good, he couldn't handle it.

"Do you really think he'd do that?"

"He already did once. I mean, hell, he's taking a fail on his transcript because he freaked out so bad. Why else would he drop my class two weeks before finals?"

"Maybe," Pepper says slowly, "he didn't want to be your student anymore."

"Well, yeah, obviously. Not after I failed completely as a prof."

"That's not what I meant." She pauses, tilts her head, looks at him. "Wait, you still think of yourself as his prof?"

"No, but forgetting that is what got me into trouble in the first place, isn't it?"

"So you really don't think—"

"Pepper, stop," Tony says. The last thing he needs is to have any surviving hopes. "He doesn't like me like that, trust me. Steve's like 150% straight."

She stares at him quietly for several long moments.

"So what are you going to do?" she asks finally.

"Same thing I've always done," Tony says with a shrug. He can do this. "Get over it."

"And in the meantime?"

"I don't know, I have to figure it out. I, uh, I'm not quite sure how to act around him anymore, to be honest. It's not like I ever stop flirting. I don't know. I'll work out something." Tony knocks back the last of his black eye and stands. "Okay well this was…awful. See ya later, Pep."

As he stomps out of the Starbucks, he imagines himself stomping on the flickers of hope Pepper had stirred up. Hope is the last thing he needs. No, what he needs is to get over this.

 

*

 

Steve is draped across big green, design textbook open on his chest. He's on chapter four. He's supposed to be on chapter twelve.

It's late afternoon and Steve is done all his classes for the day. The house is unusually quiet for midday, with the TV off and the kitchen empty. The only sound is the ticking of the clock on the wall above his head. Steve closes his eyes for a moment; reading about design isn't exactly titillating and he's had a stressful week.

"Hey," Clint says, materializing suddenly beside Steve.

"Gah!" Steve startles and nearly sends his book flying. Geez, where'd he come from? That guy is like a ninja sometimes.

Clint chuckles while Steve clutches his chest. "Give a guy some warning. You almost gave me a heart attack."

Clint settles on the couch, sprawling across the entire length. When Clint doesn't say anything, Steve picks up his book again.

"What are your plans this weekend?" Clint asks after a beat.

Steve shrugs. "Mmm, nothing much. Thought I'd finish up design." He lifts his textbook so Clint can see how much there is left to read.

"You're not hanging out with Tony?"

"No." Steve shakes his head. "I haven't heard from him since our chat."

He hasn't, not really. Steve texted him twice to let him know that he wouldn't be getting coffee on Tuesday or Thursday, but all he'd gotten back was an "alright" and "ok". Steve feels vaguely guilty about avoiding Tony, but Saturday's rejection still stings like an open wound.

"You're not going to," says Clint, staring up at the ceiling.

"Huh?"

"You're not going to hear from him."

"Why?" Steve's pretty sure he and Tony are friends again, at least on paper they are. True, things have been a little cool this week, but texting is a two-way street. Why wouldn't Tony text him?

"’Cause of how you ended it," replies Clint, looking at Steve out of the corner of his eye.

"What do you mean? We ended on friendly terms." Although the whole not showing up for coffee thing probably wasn't helping the situation.

Clint turns to face Steve. "If he thinks flirting is the problem, he's not going to initiate conversations with you. He's going to be on his guard."

"I highly doubt that," scoffs Steve. Tony isn't exactly the type of person to worry about offending someone. Surely Clint remembers the horror stories from stats class.

"Okay, so if a girl you liked suddenly said, ‘Please stop flirting with me, it makes me uncomfortable,’ would you continue to text her?"

"No, I guess not," Steve says slowly. He has the sudden urge to bang his head off the coffee table. Why does this all have to be so damn complicated? They made up, for crying out loud! Why would Tony feel the need to tiptoe around Steve's feelings? The answer is obvious, of course. Because Steve made this whole mess about his feelings.

Damn it all to hell.

He eyes Clint. He gets the feeling this conversation is some sort of intervention.

"You'd wait for her to make the first move, right?" Clint returns his gaze to the ceiling.

Steve glares at Clint over his textbook, "I know what you're doing."

Clint tries to look innocent but the grin gives him away. "And what is that exactly?" When Steve doesn't deign to answer, he continues, "You have to talk to him, Steve."

He's right, of course. Steve pulls his phone out of his pocket, types out a quick message to Tony, and hits send before he can over-think what he wrote.

< Hey, wanna hang out tomorrow? >

Steve sets his phone down on the coffee table and looks over at Clint. "Happy now?"

Clint laughs. "Yeah."

Steve rolls his eyes as his phone chimes the arrival of a new message.

< Sure what did you have in mind? >

Steve thinks for a moment. How can he let Tony know that everything is fine so they can go back to how they used to be?

He texts: < Video games? > He’s already hit send when he realizes that he is essentially inviting himself over to Tony's, but he figures a healthy dose of Halo ought to get things back to normal.

His phone shows that Tony is writing, then vibrates in his hand. < Ok. 5pm? >

Steve almost replies "it's a date" before realizing how horribly that would go over and hastily deletes the message. He amends his message and hits send: < Sure, see you then. >

Steve wants to be excited about seeing Tony. And he is, mostly. After all, who doesn’t look forward to seeing their crush? But their texts felt so formal and lacking in any real warmth. There was no teasing. It was all just perfunctory.

Maybe Clint’s just getting to him, but there’s a significant part of him that’s freaking out.

Why is he convinced that this is going to go terribly?

 

*

 

It's five o'clock on the dot when Tony buzzes Steve in to the apartment. Tony looks around his place. It looks fine but he isn't sure. Should he have tidied more?

After talking to Pepper on Tuesday, Tony spent a good chunk of the week in his lab trying to get Steve out of his head. It seems the only time he wasn't thinking about Steve was when he was up to his elbows in wiring.

He wasn't surprised when he got Steve’s text Thursday telling him he wouldn't be coming for coffee. He was disappointed of course, but he figured Steve probably needed space. After his untimely little revelation, Tony probably needed some distance too.

He'd thought about texting Steve numerous times over the course of the week but had chickened out each time. After all, if he didn't talk to Steve then he couldn't flirt with him. It’s strange to stop flirting only after realizing that he likes Steve. And these new boundaries feel strange and foreign. To be honest, he isn't even sure where exactly the boundaries are now. What can he say to Steve? It’s frustrating.

But when Steve texted him yesterday, Tony still couldn't help but grin.

Yeah, he's a goner.

Tony heaves a sigh. How is this going to work? It was complicated enough before he'd puzzled out that he had feelings for Steve. Before, it was just casual, friendly flirting, but now Tony feels like he's got some deep, dark secret that needs to be hidden at all cost.

There’s a rap at the door. Tony takes a deep breath and opens it.

And there's Steve.

Gorgeous, sexy, smart, funny Steve. Fuck.

Steve's face is open, eyes bright and friendly. He gives Tony a little wave and he's even got a bag of chips in his hand.

"Hey," he says.

"Hi," says Tony, stepping aside to let him enter and carefully closing the door.

"Munchies." Steve tosses Tony the chips.

Tony catches the bag. "Thanks."

Steve toes off his shoes, removes his coat, and follows Tony into the apartment.

"So, how's your week been?" asks Tony after the silence stretches. He takes the chips into the kitchen, Steve right behind him. The air feels heavy somehow.

Steve shrugs. "Wasn't the greatest week of my life, but it was okay, I guess."

That's an understatement.

Tony nods. "Can I get you anything to drink?" he asks as he opens the fridge. "I've got beer, some milk—but that might be left over from the last time you were here—and orange juice—also yours, I believe. And, of course, I've got coffee."

Steve is looking at him strangely from across the room. "Um, I'll have a beer, I guess."

Tony snags two bottles from the fridge and passes one to Steve, careful to make sure their hands don't touch in the exchange. Hand touching would be extremely inappropriate, right? Right.

"So, how are your classes?" Tony opens his bottle and tosses the opener to Steve. He contemplates the chips for a moment and decides to put them in a bowl. Bowls minimize the potential for accidental hand touching. Does he own a large bowl? He must.

Steve talks a bit about his design project and a group presentation he's working on for media while Tony rummages in the bottom cupboard.

"What are you doing?" Steve asks after a moment.

"Looking for a bowl." Tony surfaces from the cupboard empty-handed. He glares at the cupboard and kicks the door closed.

"You keep your bowls above the fridge," Steve says with a smirk.

Tony grins at Steve and shakes his head. "Of course you know my kitchen better than me, sweet— um, Steve." Tony cringes. "Sorry." He turns away immediately, but not before he sees the smile slip off Steve's face. Fuck. Tony boosts himself onto the counter, pulls down a large bowl and empties the bag of chips into it. He gets down off the counter and turns to glance at Steve. "Do you want anything else to eat?"

Steve is leaning against the doorframe, face neutral.

"No, thank you," he replies. Steve's voice sounds different somehow, quieter, more reserved.

"Alright, we're all set then." Tony grabs the chips and his beer. He gestures Steve through when he doesn't move from the doorway.

Steve’s eyes search Tony's face for a moment before he finally turns and walks into the living room. Tony feels a small wave of anxiety. He's messing this up, isn't he?

"Great weather we're having," Tony says before he can stop himself.

Oh god, did he really just say that? Steve's shoulders stiffen but he doesn't turn around. Tony wants to kick himself. What is he doing? He's acting like he's at one of his mother's soirees trying not to offend some ancient relative, not hanging out with one of his best friends. Ugh. He just doesn't know what's appropriate anymore.

Steve flops onto the couch and Tony follows suit, careful to leave a respectable amount of space between them. He sets the chips and beer on the coffee table.

"I think it's supposed to get warmer later in the week," Tony adds, now that he's committed himself to one of the most impersonal conversation topics possible.

"Really?" Steve says, staring at him. "We're really going to talk about the weather?"

“What’s wrong with the weather?” When Tony starts something, he finishes it. Besides, the weather is least likely to lead to accidental flirting. “You don’t care about unseasonal warm spells?”

"Would you just stop it?" Steve snaps.

"Stop what?" he asks helplessly. Steve can’t get mad at him for this. This is totally above board.

"The way you're acting!" Steve gestures with one arm, which Tony supposes is supposed to encompass his behaviour, but he can't be sure. Steve's voice is tight with exasperation, but Tony doesn't understand what he's done to make him sound that way. There was only the one little slip, surely Steve can’t be that mad over it? He's being so careful…

"You're going to need to be more specific," Tony says. "I'm honestly not sure how I screwed up this time. What did I do wrong? I really didn't think… Is this because I almost accidentally called you sweetheart? Because I caught myself. I’m trying, Steve, I really am. At this point, I don't know what else I can do."

Steve runs a hand through his hair. "You don't have to be so careful, Tony."

"No," Tony says. "No, I do, or else I'm going to start flirting with you. I told you, Steve, it's not something I mean to do, I just flirt without thinking."

"So flirt then, I don't care," says Steve, sounding exasperated.

That brings Tony up short. "What?"

"I'm not upset about the flirting, Tony," Steve says, and okay, now Tony's really confused because that doesn't make any sense at all. Isn't that what this whole thing's about? He eyes Steve suspiciously. "I get that you're not interested in me like that, okay? You made that very, very clear. But you don't have to go acting differently because of me. Just be yourself."

Tony shakes his head. "But we talked about this. I thought this was what you wanted…" When did he step into bizzarro world? Steve's the one who barely talked to him for two weeks because Tony made him uncomfortable.

"Of course not. I don't want you to be a completely different person. I never said that," Steve says sharply.

"No, you said that my flirting freaked you out and that you panicked,” Tony says, frustration creeping into his voice.

"I didn't say I wanted you to change!" Steve retorts.

"Of course I had to change!” Tony exclaims. “I was making you uncomfortable! Steve, I'm an all or nothing kind of guy. I'm either in full blown playboy mode or I'm, well, like this. There's really no in-between, toned down, just-a-little friendly mode. I'm sorry."

Steve clenches his fists. "Stop apologizing! I'm not asking you to change at all. Just go back to being you.” He pauses for a breath. “Look, I understand that it doesn't mean anything. I can handle it."

"Really? ‘Cause apparently you can’t."

“Tony—” Steve says, voice pleading.

“I don’t know what to do here,“ says Tony, gesturing to the space between them. “You stop talking to me because I make you uncomfortable, I apologize, I change, and now you’re saying it’s not good enough?” His disbelief infuses his voice.

“No, Tony, I—”

“This isn’t easy for me, Steve.” It’s not. It’s not fair really that he has to constantly censor himself, constantly be on his guard on the off chance Steve decides to end the friendship again.

“I get that and I am sorry,” Steve says quietly. “I know I’m sending mixed signals. It’s just because I want—" Steve cuts himself off abruptly and looks away.

"Steve?" Tony asks tentatively.

"Never mind." Steve shakes his head wearily. "Just be yourself, okay?"

"It sounded like you were about to tell me you want something?"

"It's nothing. It's fine." Steve picks up his beer and takes a drink, careful to avoid Tony’s questioning gaze.

"But you started to say that you want—"

"What I want doesn't matter,” he says, eyes flicking to Tony’s face.

"No, it matters. A lot, actually," says Tony. He goes to put a hand on Steve’s arm but stops himself.

Steve looks down at his hands. "It's stupid, don't worry about it."

"Steve, I am so fucking confused here. Would you please just tell me what's going on?" For the last week Tony has been trying to play by Steve’s rules and for what? To get yelled at more?

"Please don't do this, Tony. Please don't make me say it." Steve looks tense and desperate. And he's red—that can't be a blush, can it?

"Please, Steve," Tony says quietly. What does Steve want from him? How can he fix this if he doesn’t understand?

Steve exhales. "I'm saying that if we can't be more than friends, I at least don't want to be less. So please, just go back to the way you were before, okay? I miss that Tony. The one who wasn't so…careful all the time. And this…whatever…" Steve flaps his hand, "I'll deal with it."

What?

"More than…?" Tony echoes. Did he hear that right? Tony can barely breathe around the bundle of nerves in his chest. Steve can't mean… He doesn't… Tony has to be reading this wrong, right? He swallows hard. "What will you deal with?"

Steve turns his head to the side and gives Tony a long look. "My feelings," he says finally, voice tight. His grip on his beer bottle has gone white.

"Your feelings," Tony repeats dumbly. Does he mean his discomfort? Because surely Steve couldn’t possibly mean the other kind. “You’re going to have to spell this out for me. You’ve been having a lot of feelings lately.”

“What does that even mean?” Steve demands.

“Exactly,” says Tony, “What does that mean?”

“You’re talking in circles.” Steve throws his hands in the air, practically vibrating with tension.

“No kidding. You’re not making any sense.” He scowls. “You were going to say something so why don’t you just spit it out?”

Steve glares at him. "I like you, Tony," he snaps.

"You know, generally when people say that they're not glaring at—oh my god, you like me? Wait, no, you can't like me, that doesn't make any sense. I'm misunderstanding you, right? I cut you off before you got to the but."

"The but?" Steve echoes, scrunching his forehead. At least Tony's not the only one completely lost in this conversation anymore.

"You know, ‘I like you, Tony, but you're too loud, too annoying, too difficult, just too much, etcetera, etcetera.’ Whatever, you’ve got a lot of choices. Take your pick."

"You're fine the way you are," Steve sighs. "I wasn't saying that at all."

"This still makes no sense. You can’t like me.” Tony boggles. “You're the one who went running because my flirting scared you!"

"I didn't disappear because of anything you did, Tony," Steve says quietly, rubbing the back of his neck. He seems to be finding the ceiling fascinating. "That, um, that was when I realized…"

"…that you like me."

"Yeah."

"And just so we're clear…you don't mean like 'Gosh, Tony, you're such a good friend. I like you a lot!'" Tony knows he’s being difficult, but he can’t help himself. He actually can’t wrap his head around what Steve is saying. It can’t possibly mean what he thinks it means. Did the definition of like change when he wasn’t looking?

Steve sighs, crosses his arms defensively. "No, Tony. So now you know but it's not a big deal!"

"The hell it isn't," Tony declares, turning to face Steve squarely.

Steve stiffens. "Please… Nothing needs to change. You don't have to act differently. Just be you."

"Because you like me.”

"I think we've covered this," Steve says exasperatedly.

"You're an idiot," Tony says.

"Right. Maybe I should go…" Steve says and then he actually starts to stand up and hell no. Tony catches Steve’s arm and pulls him down again.

"Sit down. You're not going anywhere," Tony orders. "I'm an idiot too.” He runs his hand through his hair, lets out a little laugh. “We are both idiots!"

"Tony…?" Steve says and Tony sees hope in his eyes for the first time in weeks.

And god help him, but he's hopeful too. Could it really be that Steve feels the same way about him?

He leans into Steve, says "Tell me if I'm reading this wrong," and kisses him.

The kiss is brief, just a closed mouth press of lips, but Steve doesn't jerk or pull away. When Tony leans back, Steve blinks at him, eyes wide.

"But you said—" Steve starts.

"Let's not focus on what I said. The past is the past, water under the bridge, water off a duck's back, totally not important!"

"You said I was like a sister to you, Tony," Steve deadpans.

Tony winces. "I might have said some things that weren't, strictly speaking, true," he says. Steve raises an eyebrow at him. He so regrets teaching Steve that move. He huffs, "I thought that's what you wanted to hear! You could've said something too, you know."

"Why do you think I came to your lab? I was going to tell you, only then you kept going on and on about how unattractive you found me and how you could never like me!"

"Right. I think we covered this with the part where I declared I was an idiot too.” He leans in closer to Steve. “Because obviously you are stupid-hot."

"Right," Steve chokes on a laugh, but he's smiling. "So when you said—you know what, I don't care. Can I kiss you again?"

Tony nods wordlessly. This can't be real, he thinks as Steve cups his face in his hands. This is his birthday and Christmas all rolled into one. And then Steve closes the distance between them and his lips are back on his and it certainly feels real enough and oh, this is nice.

Steve's lips are every bit as full and soft as he'd dreamed they'd be and then Steve's coaxing Tony's mouth open and his tongue slides in and that's about when Tony loses all ability to think. The slide of Steve’s mouth against his is perfect, he didn’t realize how desperate for it he was until now, when he’s finally allowed to have it. How could he ever have thought this wasn’t everything he’s ever wanted? Tony slides his tongue along Steve’s and it’s wet and hot and so good that Tony can barely even stand it.

And then Steve pulls him closer and makes a little noise that Tony feels all the way down. He grabs onto Steve’s bicep for some kind of purchase, he needs an anchor in all of this, and oh god, Steve’s bicep. He squeezes harder and maybe a little noise escapes him too but he’s not entirely sure because Steve is kissing him. How can he be expected to be sure of anything? He’s not even sure of his own name.

When he’s been thoroughly kissed, Steve breaks away and presses his forehead against Tony’s. Tony’s gratified to see that Steve’s out of breath too.

“Okay, I get it now,” he says. “You like me.”

“Shut up, Tony,” Steve says, but his voice is that deep, fond tone that Tony adores.

"So wait a minute. Does this mean that all of this—you dropping stats and avoiding me and acting all weird—that was because you like me?"

"Um. Yeah," Steve says. Tony stares at where Steve's blush disappears under the collar of his t-shirt. He wants to follow it all the way down.

A thought occurs to him and he pulls back to stare at Steve incredulously. "Wait a minute, you mean you're taking a zero on your transcript because you like me?!"

"Yes?" Steve says. "Okay, when you put it like that it sounds stupid but I wasn’t lying when I said I panicked when I realized how crazy I am about you. And then I started to think that the whole thing just looked bad and I didn't want you to get into trouble because of me."

"You were concerned for my honour. I'm touched," Tony says around a grin. "Don't worry, I took care of it. As far as the school is concerned, you were always going to take stats second term."

Steve stares at him. “What?”

“Let’s just say the registrar’s network security is not the most advanced.” Tony smirks.

Tony,” Steve says disapprovingly.

“What? I wasn’t going to let you take a freaking fail!”

“So,” Steve says, drawing the syllable out slowly, “really, it’s like I was never your student at all.” Steve’s eyes go bright and ohhhh, Tony sees where he’s going with this.

He pulls Steve in again, catches his bottom lip between his teeth, and yeah, he could definitely get used to this. He never wants to stop kissing this gorgeous man.

Shit.

"Wait,” he says, pulling back. Steve looks at him questioningly. “You only do relationships.”

"Yes…" Steve says slowly.

"I don't do relationships. This is terrible." He sees Steve’s face fall and pulls him in close again, says "No, you don't understand. The horrible part, darlin’, is that I want to with you."

Steve gives him a ridiculous lopsided smile that should look goofy, but Tony just finds it sexy.

“You asking me out on a date, Stark?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I guess I am. So what do you think?”

Steve just kisses him again. And really, that’s answer enough.

* * * * * * *
The End

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