Steve is a friend of a friend of a friend. Tony only knows about him because Jan collects people, and he’s someone she’s hoovered up with all the strays.
The point is that Tony knows Jan and Jan knows everyone.
Tony ends up with this large circle of people he knows and hangs with beyond his close friends Rhodey and Pepper. Now, Rhodey is at MIT with Tony, and they know Bruce, who is also at MIT. Pepper is at Harvard. Jan is at Northeastern with Natasha. Natasha is friends with Clint at Emerson, and Clint is friends with Wanda, who’s at Simmons. Wanda knows this guy who calls himself Vision, and he’s supposed to be studying at Berklee. Jan is dating this guy Hank at MCPHS. There’s Carol at Boston University, and everyone knows Thor, who might as well be on a different planet because he’s at Boston College. And Natasha has this on-and-off boyfriend, Bucky, who goes to Wentworth, and he’s friends with Sam at UMass-Boston. Sam and Bucky are friends with Steve, who is at MassArt.
So Tony meets Steve at one of the massive parties that Jan manages to throw in her student apartment. He keeps seeing Steve whenever their friends of friends get together. He sees Steve when Steve’s hair is blue, then there’s the time Steve sports a pink mohawk, and the time Steve is wearing 90s style flannel shirts and multi-color stripes in his hair. Tony hears about who Steve is dating -- a Sharon from Brandeis and then some guy from Tufts (he never catches the name). But he doesn’t know Steve enough to hang out or text him up for the movies or really anything.
The point is that they don’t hang out and they are not friends.
Yet somehow Steve worms his way into the periphery of Tony’s life. He stores stuff at Tony and Rhodey’s apartment, especially his art supplies. Tony finds him eating pizza at home with Rhodey and Carol. Steve is always underfoot at all these parties and things that Tony does with his friends. Tony even spends a couple of hours mashed up against Steve in Clint’s mom’s minivan when Thor insists on a road trip to the University of Vermont to visit his brother Loki.
Then there’s that lunch that fall.
A whole of bunch of Tony’s friends and Steve are meeting for lunch at this new sandwich shop that they all know about. Steve has finally settled into a look -- his natural blond hair, blue t-shirt and this ancient brown motorcycle jacket. It’s a good look on him. Tony approves, everyone in the place approves.
But lunch isn’t turning out the way he expected. His knees are jammed up under this tiny table in this too-crowded sandwich shop filled with college students and office workers. Steve is across the table, shoved into a corner, his tall body wedged into the wall and window. Tony is totally not worried that it’s just him and Steve and that half their friends haven’t shown up and the other half are blowing up their phones saying they have this or that to do and can’t make lunch.
The point is that this lunch is the worst thing in the world for Tony because he’s never actually been alone with Steve ever, they are not friends, he has no idea what to say to some guy from MassArt and somehow he’s sharing a bag of potato chips with this god come to earth.
So Tony and Steve have lunch together for the first time ever by themselves. Tony falls in love so deep and fast with this idiot. And he has no idea why he’s never seen it before -- how goddamn perfect Steve is. They end up spending most of the afternoon kicking around before Steve has to go work on some assignment for school. Tony is more depressed than if all his AI experiments crashed and burned at once.
Tony can deal with hot and cute and all sorts of attractive guys and gals. He’s had crushes before and possibly was in love or something like it before. But this time, he is in way, way over his head.
The point is that Steve is a good guy. Really good guy. A stand-up guy. The kind of guy who would move your stuff and be gentle with the breakables. He walks Tony home when Tony’s barely able to stand after drinking way too much. And the time at Park Street station when the crowds are so thick, and Tony so completely oblivious that he doesn’t notice that he’s getting pushed to the edge of the platform. Steve grabs his arm and pulls him back, and Tony sees a flicker of fear and concern in his eyes until Tony makes a big joke of the whole thing. Tony knows in his bones what a great guy Steve is.
And Steve’s kind of an asshole too, in a way Tony appreciates. Jan brags about not calling home for a couple of weeks. Steve gives her this look, and next thing she’s on the phone for two hours with her mom. People want to do things for Steve. Great things, extraordinary things because he supports them and expects people to always do their best. He’s the type of friend that people don’t tell everything they do because they don’t want to disappoint him.
And, boy, is Steve stubborn. He doesn't back down an inch. Once Natasha drags Tony over to this postage stamp-sized apartment that Steve, Bucky and Sam live in. Sam, on his way to a date, tells them that Bucky and Steve have played video games all day because Steve wanted to win. Steve booms from the couch, “You’re going down, Barnes!” and whoops as he delivers a serious beatdown on unlucky Bucky. Or the time Steve is hell bent on beating Clint at beer pong. Clint never ever loses at beer pong, but that doesn’t stop Steve from trying and then winning.
Steve’s totally an asshole.
The point is not whether or not Tony wants this great hot asshole for a boyfriend. The point is whether Steve even knows that Tony is alive.
Steve is killing him. Tony and his friends and Steve’s friends and Steve go all the time to movies, concerts, parties, museums, parks, road trips, libraries, lectures, stores. He hungers for Steve, but Steve doesn’t know he exists. Steve knows Tony as someone else’s friend, not as Tony, ‘potential boyfriend of the year.’
Tony doesn’t even know if Steve actually thinks of him as a friend. So he is dying inside again when their friends all decide to meet up for brunch at this new restaurant. Tony shows up, Steve shows up, and then Jan and Natasha deign to make an appearance. Everyone else is a no-show. They place their orders, but Jan gets an emergency call from Carol about something, and Natasha suddenly remembers that she has an actual real date with Bucky, since they’re talking again. And it’s Tony and Steve all by themselves in this nice restaurant. And Steve’s dressed up nicely, like this is some real thing, not just their friends hanging out. Tony’s suffering from this hangover from hell, he only comes because it’s Steve Time, and he’s blinking and drooling like some mole creature in the awful morning sunshine.
And Steve is gentle and kind and Tony stammers through a conversation of few words and lots of nodding and um’s. And Tony totally thinks he’s hallucinating that Steve’s shyly smiling at Tony like Tony’s actually something special. Especially when Steve gets a call from Sam who has scored tickets to a concert and he changes into regular Steve. Brunch is over.
Jan calls Tony later that day and makes all these exasperated noises as Tony tells her what happened. She threatens to come over and kick some sense into him. Or make Natasha do it.
The point is -- Tony has nothing. Nada. Zilch. He wants Steve so badly. And Steve has no idea. Or even cares. Steve is living in his Steve world and Steve’s world doesn’t include Tony.
Except that Tony has a plan. A great plan. The greatest plan ever. A foolproof plan that will make Steve notice just how much Tony loves him.
And the way Tony decides to do that is to cover Huntington Ave (both sides!) from Mass Ave to Longwood with signs declaring his love.
“Um, Tones, that’s a long distance, maybe a couple of miles or more,” Rhodey says. Tony might take Rhodey more seriously if they weren’t both standing in front of a street sign at 3 a.m. with a bag of electrical tape.
It’s a weekday night, so the traffic and the streets are quiet. No one pays any attention to the two college kids hanging around. Plenty of those in these neck of the woods. Tony puts the finishing touches to the sign, packs up the tape and scissors, folds up his stepladder and moves onto the next sign. He has a long way to go.
Rhodey tags behind. “Come on, Tony, can’t you just ask Steve out like a normal person?”
Tony shrugs. He figures Rhodey wants to be back in bed with Carol but he appreciates that Rhodey came out to support him anyway. Rhodey talks about the fines for vandalizing signs and points out every time he sees a police car glide by. Tony is quick with his work. He checks his map on his phone to see his progress. They’ll be done by 4 if Rhodey finally breaks down and pitches in like Tony has already calculated.
Rhodey is the best, Tony decides for the umpty-umptieth time as his friend groans and holds out his hand for his own roll of electrical tape.
Tony can’t wait until he sees Steve for lunch later that day.
He’s got classes he absolutely has to be at that morning, and the hours drag by until he can hop on the T to get to the restaurant to see Steve. The plan is of course to get there before Steve so Tony can watch and wait at his table. He expects Steve to come through the door with big smiles for Tony and that they’ll plan their date over pizza. It’s perfect and romantic and he’s vibrating from the excitement of it all.
But when Tony ducks into the restaurant, Steve is already there, reading a book at a table near the window. Well, he’ll just have to adjust the plan. Tony slides into the chair across from Steve. It totally strikes him that this is very first time that they are having lunch without their galaxy of friends. A special moment, and Tony waits for Steve to smile and tell him how much he loved the signs he had to have seen on his way to the restaurant. Tony jiggles his leg up and down, just waiting for Steve to say yes.
Steve smiles at Tony. A happy, glad to see you smile. But then he asks Tony about his classes, his experiments, that movie he saw last week. Not a peep about the signs. Tony is terribly confused.
“Um, Steve, did you see anything on your way here?” He had to have seen the signs. At least one.
“What? I ran here from class -- don’t remember much,” Steve admits. He examines his menu.
“Nothing?” Tony bites his lip. What went wrong? He’s heard from nearly all their friends on Instagram already about the signs. Everyone saw them -- it’s totally inescapable since they are (for the most part) in the area. But not Steve?
Steve’s phone buzzes on the table. Once, twice, five times, more than Tony can count. Someone is blowing up Steve’s phone. Steve looks down at the phone and then looks up at Tony. He’s clearly torn between answering the phone, which he forgot to put away, and talking with Tony. Tony should be charmed, but he’s annoyed right now. Steve, who notices every picky, tiny detail everywhere, has somehow managed to walk by a ton of street signs that Tony altered to ask him out on a date.
“So romantic --” a group of women say as they walk in. “Saw it on Instagram and Amanda’s tumblr -- she’s been taking pictures of all the signs --”
People he doesn’t even know are talking about the signs. Then his stomach sinks. Steve knows. Totally knows. He’s seen the signs and isn’t saying anything because he doesn’t like Tony back. Not in that way. It’s not like they’re even friends to begin with.
That’s the point really. Steve’s a great guy and he’s gonna to let Tony down real easy. That’s why he even agreed to meet Tony for damn lunch at all. Tony is a complete and utter idiot, and now he just wants the earth to open up and swallow him whole..
While he’s calculating how to move to Antarctica to bury himself in AI research and flee his shame, Steve by chance brushes his hand as he gets his water. Maybe not so accidentally if the slight blush on Steve’s cheeks means anything. Tony freezes. He has no idea what’s going on anymore.
Steve’s phone buzzes again. And keeps buzzing. Steve groans. “Can I -- is it okay if I check my phone? I should have put it away -- but I didn’t want to miss any of your texts if you were running late.”
“Sure. Go ahead,” Tony says. He’s in a fog -- he wants to flee but he doesn’t at the same time just in case there is the tiniest chance in the whole universe that Steve is possibly interested.
“Yeah, I’ve been getting messages all morning, I guess,” Steve says. “But this drawing class is kicking my butt so I’ve been in the studio all night working on my assignment then I went straight to class. I, um, got a ride here so I wouldn’t be late.”
“So you really haven’t been outside -- wait, back it up -- you didn’t want to be late, for lunch with me? It’s just lunch, Steve.” Tony attempts to play it all down.
Steve’s eyes slide to the side as he musters up a dim smile. “Yeah. Well. They could have dropped an aircraft carrier in middle of Huntington and I wouldn’t have noticed.” He turns to his phone and checks his messages.
Tony finally notices that Steve looks spiffier than usual. He’s wearing fancier jeans without paint on them, a t-shirt that skims his chest that looks like he might have paid money for it, and this intriguing scent of cologne. The whole look does not say art student up all night drawing for his life. Right. Like Steve came straight from class.
Then Tony sees the growing alarm in Steve’s eyes as he scrolls through the messages. “Um, Tony?”
He’s sitting on the edge of his seat. “Yeah?”
Steve holds up his phone. “The traffic signs -- are they -- are they for me?” Steve’s pulled up someone’s Instagram account with the signs in the right sequence -- “Steve will you go out with me, Tony?” and there’s also the signs with the little pink electrical tape hearts and arrows and some bad puns about stop and heart and something incomprehensible about no u-turns. Tony’s actually embarrassed about the puns. But, hey, in his defense it was 4 a.m. and he totally commits when he’s got a project.
Tony doesn’t know what to say. He can’t get a good read on Steve. He mumbles something. Then he catches something in Steve’s deep blue eyes. Steve’s worried. And, woah -- is that fear? Maybe even fondness? Everything Steve is thinking and feeling is all over his face. It’s all too much for Tony.
So Tony handles it the best way he can. He throws money on the table, grabs his stuff and bolts for the street. Anything to escape whatever the hell was going on at that table.
The point is, that if you soar too close to the sun you get burned. Tony’s made a terrible mistake. But Rhodey and Pepper and Jan will no doubt be nice to him. Maybe they’ll take him out somewhere nice where they don’t card to forget.
But the other point is that Steve runs after him.
Sunk deep in his misery and running on caffeine fumes and too little sleep, Tony heads toward the nearest T stop on Huntington. He feels the tap on his shoulder as the sound of “Tony, wait” hits his ear.
He whirls around to see Steve. He draws himself up to take his medicine, bracing for the blow.
“You didn’t answer me. Are those signs for me?”
“Yeah,” Tony says. “For you.”
“Wow.” Steve says nothing for a minute. Tony’s heart skips a few beats. Then he smiles broadly at Tony. “You could have just asked -- I’d go out with you anytime, Tony.”
“On a date? With me?” The world brightens up. Even on a cold October day in Boston, Tony suddenly feels like he is in paradise.
“Anytime, Tony,” Steve says. He reaches for Tony’s hands, get his arm instead. And Steve kisses him, right there in the middle of the street.
Tony discovers that Steve is a terrific kisser. Later he also finds out that all their friends saw the signs and blew up Steve’s phone begging him for news about that date with Tony. They all saw the signs on their way to and from class and work. All in all, not bad for a small investment in tape.
The point is that Steve has always been his friend, and now is Tony’s boyfriend.
And Tony should have done all this a lot sooner.