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there still might be a place for us somewhere

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Tony makes it a good ten seconds before breaking the silence. He leans over to Pepper, hands pocketed, making sure to speak louder than he has to just to see all the bigwigs turn and frown at him: “Call me crass, but is this honestly supposed to be artistic?”

The glare he gets in return is a terrifying albeit refreshing combination of vehement and exasperated. One of these days, she’s going to run out of ways to express the percentage of done she is with him.

She hums hard through her nose, and it’s all Tony can do to thank god she’s not speaking through gritted teeth. “Just because you can’t understand it,” she explains, faux-calmly, for what has to be the third time tonight, “doesn’t automatically turn whatever you’re looking at into a-”

She pauses, considering. “Well, a pile of dog shit,” she says finally.

“But it is literally a pile of dog shit,” Tony protests, motioning helplessly at the display in front of them, which is, true to his word, a coiled piece of dog shit- or what he supposes is dog shit, he assumes cat shit is smaller and cow shit is sloppier, he’s not a fucking expert in the shits of various animals- on a pristine white pedestal. He presses his sunglasses despairingly up his nose and, surprisingly, manages to pull that off, due to his seemingly inhuman ability to make any motion despairing. Also pissy. And on occasion, horny.

Pepper’s lips thin. She sighs again, a small, tired exhale, and closes her eyes in a way that Tony’s seen her do hundreds of times, like she’s asking for patience. God knows she’s needed it over the years; Tony has no idea how the hell she’s endured nearly a decade of working for him. Every other assistant he’s had has either quit or gotten fired, both usually after sleeping with him.

“If you don’t like it,” Pepper says, her tone weary and making Tony think of her favourite high-heels wedged firmly in Tony’s eye socket, “you can go and look at another piece. There are rooms full of them, all made by world-renowned artists.”

“Because I just love art.”

“Then mingle.”

“I mingled.”

“Mingle some more.”

“But everyone’s boring,” Tony whines, this time keeping his voice low. He circles to her other side, bumps her shoulder with his. “If you were a good PA, you’d make some flimsy excuse and get me out of here.”

Pepper’s brilliant brows arch at the dog shit. “I’m enjoying myself, thank you very much. Or I was, until you started pestering me.”

“I don’t pester.”

She looks at him. Tony scowls, starts to reply, but she cuts him off.

“You haven’t checked out the paintings yet,” she tells him, and Tony is in the middle of replying that no, he hasn’t checked out the paintings, because he doesn’t give a royal crap about paintings, or any type of art for that matter, and all he really wants to do right now is go home and drink and finish up on his latest blueprints and he can’t since Pepper dragged him along to this stupid publicity thing, and he’s totally firing her the second they walk out of here-

His mouth stops in mid-rant, hangs there for a moment, and then snaps shut.

Pepper looks over after a second. “No, please, continue, I wanted you to finish that part about how you could function as a human being without my help.”

Tony doesn’t answer.

He listens distantly as Pepper says something, and says, “Yeah, not now,” but isn’t sure what it’s a reply to.

It can’t be him, Tony tells himself. Even still, he arches his head, trying to get another look- ten years ago, when Tony had last seen him, Steve came up to his shoulders and was half Tony’s weight, and the guy Tony is currently ogling has at least an inch on him and has the waist-to-shoulder ratio of a comic book character. Good lord.

But then again, he had caught a glimpse of the guy’s eyes as he turned away from him, and he hasn’t been able to forget those eyes through all four years of high school, ever since that first time in the hall when Steve had gotten in a fight with Charlie Turner and made the mistake of glancing up to where Tony had been staring at him. Steve had been rewarded with a split lip, courtesy of Charlie’s barrel-sized knuckles, and Tony had- Tony had-

Pepper says, “Tony, who’s that,” in an increasingly concerned voice, and Tony blinks, hard.

“No-one,” he says, and tries not to be proud at how his voice doesn’t squeak.

He’s pretty sure. Ninety-nine percent.

 

---

 

At first he thinks he’s being over-dramatic, but the longer Steve wears this thing, the more he wants to tear out his cufflinks, shuck his tie off, rip the entire suit off his body and sprint back to his apartment buck-naked, save his briefs.

He musters up a pitiful smile as a woman beams at him. “Lovely finger-food,” she says.

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, biting down on the urge to go home, shed these goddamn clothes and wear sweatpants until he dies. “They’re, uh, great.”

The woman nods, flashes another red-lipped smile at him, and then moves on.

Steve wonders if anyone would notice if he casually flung himself out of the nearest window. His finger edges along his tie, pulling slightly to loosen it. God, he hates every single detail about these things.

He hears a clipped, polite voice say, “Excuse me,” and he braces himself before he turns.

“Hello,” he says, attempting a smile and probably failing, because the woman in front of him is gorgeous in a way that he could never achieve without Photoshop, her dress looks like it cost an entire year’s earnings from Steve’s first job, and he thinks she might be looking at him sort of funny, but that might be the same paranoia that acts up whenever he walks under one of the chandeliers.

“I’m Pepper,” she says, extending a hand. “Pepper Potts.”

“Steve Rogers,” Steve replies. Shakes her hand not too soft, but not too firm, like Peggy had repeatedly told him before he got out of the limo. Christ, the limo. With a driver who called him ‘sir’ and opened his door for him and graciously pretended not to notice when Steve had tripped over the curb.

He nearly misses it, but her eyes widen. Her hand falters before the handshake resumes. “St- oh. Oh.”

“Uh, you know my work?”

“Yes,” she says after a pause, almost too fast. “I, it’s-”

She clears her throat, a hand skimming through her hair lightning-quick. “You did the, the kitchen piece in the next room?”

“Yeah, that’s one of mine.” It’s one of his portraits of his nana; the one where her hair is loose and spilling down her shoulders, the one where he couldn’t get the light right. It’s not his best, but he’ll take it.

“It’s very good,” Pepper says.

Steve shrugs in the least awkward way he can manage. He’s never been good at this; has always left it to Peggy to schmooze and laugh on cue. “Thank you.”

Her eyes keep making tiny aborted movements, like she’s looking him up and down, but not in the way he’s become accustomed to ever since he filled out. It’s not- it’s more surprised than anything. Maybe a little searching. If that makes any sense.

“Steve Rogers,” she says again, and this time it’s definitely searching. Her eyes flick up, down. “Sorry, but you didn’t go to high school in California by any chance, did you? Winsor East?”

Steve starts to mentally sift through his classmates, trying to remember the redheads, his nana (bless her soul) would never forgive him if Steve couldn’t remember this girl’s name, but she doesn’t fit anyone he remembers seeing, even in passing.

“I did,” he says. “Did-?”

“Oh, no,” Pepper says, and Steve relaxes incrementally. “My boss did, though,” she adds a second later.

“Your boss?”

There’s a hesitation, and it’s so small it’s almost a nonevent. But then her mouth opens, and through the resulting daze it comes like a sledgehammer: of course.

 

---

 

Tony is drunk.

This is nothing new, and this time it feels like it has some kind of hilarious edge to it, and everything’s funny, and he’s reaching the point of drunk where his walk turns wobbly. He drifts away from the conversation he had been having with some asshole who isn’t going to invest in SI, burps loudly, and heads for the balcony.

He’s had a thing for balconies since he was a kid and he could put his legs through the slots. He can’t do that now, but still, it’s comforting to stand there and look out over the city and pretend he doesn’t have to turn around sometime and face the crowd.

Unfortunately, his spot is already taken, and when Tony eloquently tells the guy to fuck off, said guy turns around and Tony’s steps stutter, slow and then come to a halt.

“Not-Steve,” Tony blurts.

The guy starts. “I- you-” He shakes his head, like he’s clearing it. “What?”

“Sorry.” Tony comes to stand next to him, elbows leaning heavily on the balcony ledge. He’s careful to keep a good two inches between them, no matter how un-Steve-y he may or may not be. “You just, you remind me of this guy I used to know a billion years ago.”

“Steve, I guess,” the guy says after a second, weirdly quiet.

Tony nods. Shit, it’s cold out here. He shivers, regrets losing his jacket at some point. He thinks it might be thrown over a table. Possibly a girl. “Yeah. I mean, you’re bigger. Not, like, bigger bigger, I wouldn’t know, I never- we never did. Stuff. And I never creeped his house and watched him shower, or anything. Then again, I don’t know how big you are, either, so.”

He pauses, considering. “What was I talking about before penises? Penesi? Peni-i?”

“Steve,” the guy says, a little strangled.

“Right,” Tony nods again. Continues doing it, because nodding is always a fun thing to do. “Steve. He looked a lot like you.”

“Only smaller.”

“Yeah. A lot smaller.” Tony sniggers. “We’re talking, like, Chihuahua tiny here. Guy was miniscule.” He blinks, and it’s heavier than it should be. His eyelids, he means. “Never stopped him, though.”

“Stopped him?”

“Fighting,” Tony supplies. “He got into fights. All the time. Always standing up for someone or rather. Got his nose bashed in twice before the first semester ended.”

The guy says, still strangely quiet, “Sounds like a dummy,” and god, he even sounds like Steve, which pisses Tony off to the point where he’s raising his voice again.

“He was. God, he could be such an idiot. He never stood down, not once, not with one guy or a dozen standing in front of him. If someone needed help, he’d stand his ground. Got the shit kicked out of him. Idiot,” he adds, and out of the corner of his eye, he notes that the guy is looking more and more like he wants to make a strategic exit, which would leave Tony with no-one to rant to, which he really needs right now.

“Good guy,” Tony says, again, too loud, but it’s enough that the guy stops moving. “Really good. Great guy, even. The fuckin’ best.”

“So not such a dummy then,” the guy says after a while.

Tony sniffs in an answer.

“This guy. You and him were friends?”

Tony snorts. “What? No. God, no. We hung out in completely different circles. He was over there and I was over here- you know how it works.”

“I do.”

“Yeah. So it was like that. We saw each other in the halls and got paired together in Chem class one time, but that was kind of it. Haven’t seen him since graduation. Wanted to, though. Thought about him. Considered looking him up.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“We weren’t… close.” Tony examines his sleeves. He had been worrying them with his fingernails without even realizing. “And, and I, uh. I didn’t treat him as well as I should’ve. I might’ve bullied him a little. Or a lot. Okay, a lot.”

Silence from the side of him, and Tony takes that and rolls with it. “All the time, actually. I went out of my way just to screw with him. This one time, this one time on camp, I put red hair dye in his shampoo.” He giggles, stops, giggles again. “I pulled shit like that on him all the time; I even left a note in the bathroom mirror for when he got out. ‘Love, Tony,’ with three kisses.”

This sets him off laughing again, sniggering stupidly into his arms. “Shit, I wanted to kiss him so bad,” he admits, and it’s muffled, but he knows it’s not muffled enough that the guy didn’t hear that last part, so he barrels onwards, at a loss of what else he could do. “I wanted to kiss him for four fucking years. And I could have gotten anyone, I slept with a lot of people, like, dozens before I became a senior, I’m not exaggerating. But Steve, fucking Steve, god. He was so- he was such a good person and I could never have someone like that. And I wanted him to notice me, always wanted him to notice me, so I was an asshole and pulled his pigtails like a third-grader, I’m such a dick, jeez. And everyone knew how gone I was over him, everyone. His friends, my friends, people we didn’t even talk to. You know his nana called me once? Asked me if I was ever going to suck it up and get over myself and tell him instead of tripping him up in the halls? Shit, if his nana knew, god knows what Steve heard from people. He probably thought I was the world’s biggest loser. Fuck. Shit. Fuck.”

Silence, and more silence, and Tony stays there with his head slumped against his arms for a while until he starts to shiver again, and he looks up and the guy is staring at him with wide, wide eyes so much like the ones that Tony dreamed about for the entirety of high school.

Tony tries for a smile, but it smears. “Sorry. I’m sure you’re a lovely rich guy who just wanted a few minutes of peace out on the balcony. I didn’t mean to go and be all drunken-reminiscing all over you.”

“It’s-” the guy’s throat works furiously. “It’s, it’s fine. Ah. I mean, I did want a few minutes. Of peace. But.”

“But then I boozed the place up,” Tony sighs. He eases himself up, flashes a pitiful smile. “Sorry again.”

He turns to leave, when five impossibly delicate fingers close around his wrist, and Tony frowns down at them before looking up to the guy’s face.

“What.”

“I,” the guy says. He swallows again. “Your assistant. Told me you were here. At the art expo.”

“And I’m supposed to… sign a cheque?”

“No,” Steve says. “I came out here because I didn’t want to run into you. I was just about to leave, actually.”

“Oh,” Tony says. “Great. Thanks for telling me. Hey, while we’re chatting, do you think you could do me a favour and take a few thousand dollars in exchange for your eternal silence about everything I just said?”

“What?”

“Five thousand dollars?”

What?”

“Fine, ten thousand. Twist my arm.”

“I’m not- Christ, Tony, I’m not taking your money, I won’t tell anyone,” the guy says, aghast, like Tony hasn’t brought people’s silence a hundred times before.

Tony nods. “Awesome. I trust you with that about as much as I’d trust Fury with my balls, but whatever. Who are you, anyway?”

“I walked around with red hair for two months,” the guy blurts.

Tony freezes.

“It took two months to wash out after we got home from camp,” the guy- oh god, Steve- says, his voice firm in a way that means it’s only that way because he’s keeping it like that. “I kept the note. I still have it in a drawer somewhere. I thought I lost it when I moved into my dorm in my freshman year of college and I just about tore my room apart trying to find it before my nana came in and said she found it in the pocket of a pair of pants she was about to put in the wash.”

“You, uh,” Tony says. Calmly. Clearly. Not panicking in the slightest. “You,” he says again, forgetting what the hell comes after that. Finally, when the breeze picks up and the warm fingers around his hand suddenly feel even warmer, he croaks, “Steve, holy shit, what? And how. How would be-”

“I started working out,” Steve says, lifting and dropping those gorgeous shoulders that could bench-press a truck. Or Tony. Oh, god.

“Yeah, no shit,” Tony says. His hands might be shaking; he’s not sure. “So, ten thousand?”

Steve’s brows draw inwards. “I’m not taking your money.”

“Right,” Tony says, connecting the dots through his fumbling mind. “Right, of course, you don’t need it anymore. You’re a bigshot artist, huh? Nice work, you’d have to be pretty impressive to get a piece hanging here.”

“Tony,” Steve says, and just that, just how he says Tony’s name, it cracks Tony wide like it always has, leaving a gaping hole and access to every shitty thing he’s ever done or said or felt, every shining accomplishment, every bad dream, every fucking thing Tony is, and he makes it sound simple in his mouth.

He starts to say something else, but before he can get it out, Tony sucks in a breath and pulls his wrist out of Steve’s grasp before he can be tempted to do anything else, like lean in. “So, good for you. Live your dreams, that’s what I say. Well, it was nice catching up, gotta run-”

Steve says, “Please,” and Tony, damn him, pauses.

He turns, keeping his eyes trained on the space above Steve’s shoulder. “Look, could we maybe forget this ever happened and you can casually not mention this to anyone important so I don’t get laughed out of my next board meeting?”

“If that’s what you want, but I- I don’t want to. Forget this happened.”

Stupidly, Tony’s gaze flickers from the air to Steve’s face, all open and earnest and beautiful, still the guy who stood up that first day of freshman year and kept standing up after he got knocked down, still the same guy who stubbornly refused to wear a hat after coming into school with bright red hair, still the same guy who had Tony’s heart without asking for it.

Tony watches, breathless, as the breeze pushes Steve’s hair into his face. “You kept the note.”

Steve nods. “Most of Senior year, I kept it in my pocket. It was- stupid.”

“Yeah,” Tony breathes, and thinks about those three tiny kisses in a row at the bottom of the paper, and sways forwards.

Their hands get muddled in each other’s suits.

Tony kisses him lightly, one, two, three, and Steve huffs a shaky laugh against Tony’s lips before the kiss is deepening, mouths opening into each other. Steve’s tongue brushes Tony’s teeth clumsily, and Tony tugs him closer, hands gripping.

“You kept the stupid note,” he says when they come up for air.

“You dyed my damn hair fire engine red,” Steve replies.

“Your fault. I was smitten.”

“Most guys just give their crushes flowers.”

“And you got a spiked shampoo bottle, because I’m a dick like that. Lucky you.”

“Lucky me.”

They’re grinning too hard for the next kiss to be anything other than laughable, but neither of them mind.