Tony has been lying to his parents.
He wonders what they’d think if they knew the truth: that he’s not really staying after school to work on a group project for A.P. Bio. (He and his lab partner, Bruce, finished their big lab report last week, two weeks before the due date.)
It’s not like he’s even doing anything bad. He's not out with the bad kids in the alley smoking, or spray-painting the lockers, or in some back seat getting a girl pregnant.
No, he’s staying late to watch football practice.
Or rather, to watch football players.
Specifically, one football player. Number 17, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. Fellow senior, and Tony’s crush since freshman year.
All the guys on the Midtown Avengers football team are well built, with huge shoulders and powerful thighs. Tony’s heard girls gush about team captain Steve Rogers being a “Dorito”, with his broad shoulders, slender waist, and firm ass. But Tony only has eyes for Bucky. When the coach calls for a break and the players start pulling off their helmets, Tony watches Bucky shake out that shoulder-length dark hair, sweat flicking off it, and finds himself wishing he were standing right there, to catch in his mouth just a drop of the liquid that had once graced Bucky’s head.
Mental note, he thinks, Never, ever tell Rhodey I thought that, or he will never, ever stop teasing me about it.
Sitting in the horribly uncomfortable bleachers, Tony looks down at his history textbook, trying to pretend he isn’t pathetically pining for the halfback who doesn’t know he exists. He should’ve finished the homework in class, but he’d been too busy staring at--of course--Bucky.
No more than a few words go in before he’s looking up again, and he has to hold back a whimper as Bucky upends a water bottle over his head, looking like a model from a goddamn L’Oreal commercial. Then he laughs at something Rogers says, and his smile is always the most beautiful thing Tony has ever seen, and dear God save me from my pining.
Soon, break is over, and they’re lining up to play again. Bucky’s good, Tony knows (well, he’s pretty sure, he’s never actually paid much attention to the rules of the sport, just the player
s). Bucky’s got the ball, sprinting for the end zone, dodging one player, then another--but then someone tackles him out of nowhere, and he goes down, hard.
Tony’s heart is in his throat.
There’s a whistle. The coach and the rest of the team run over. Rogers is pulling the other player--Rumlow, Tony sees, of course it’s that jerk--off of Bucky, shoving him away.
Bucky doesn’t stand up immediately. Tony wants to run down to him (kiss him better) but he doesn’t move.
Then Rogers is helping Bucky up, and it looks like he didn’t hit his head, thank God, but he’s clutching his left shoulder and even from this distance Tony can tell he’s in pain.
An R2 unit beeps at Tony from his bag, startling him, and he realizes that’s his phone telling him that he needs to head out to meet Jarvis. Part of him wants to text Jarvis that he’ll be late, to wait and make sure Bucky will be okay, but it’s not like he can do anything besides look on in longing from the literal sidelines. So Tony just packs his bags, sends one last gaze at his injured crush, and heads out to the car.
The next day, Tony doesn’t realize he’s stopped in the middle of the hall until Rhodey pulls him to the side.
“Wow, I didn’t realize your pining could get worse,” Rhodey teases.
“Shut up,” Tony grumbles, trying to pull his gaze away from the object of his distraction. Bucky and his best friend Rogers are arguing at Bucky’s locker. His crush looks as amazing as ever, but his sweet leather jacket is only half on, the left half draped over his shoulder, his left arm in a sling. Tony can’t tell if there’s a cast, but the sling seems to indicate Bucky must’ve really been hurt.
“Look, maybe now’s your chance,” Rhodey is saying when Tony finally looks at him. “You help him out when he’s hurt, ease into talking to him, and when you ask him to Homecoming he’ll say yes!”
“Who says I’m asking him to Homecoming?”
“I do. As your best friend, I refuse to let you miss your last chance to go to Homecoming with the guy you’ve been pining after for years.”
“He’s not going to want to go with me,” Tony points out for what feels like the hundredth time. He gestures at himself, nerdy glasses and sweater and all, then at the cool, badass jock down the hall.
“You don’t know that until you ask! Come on, I dare you to at least go talk to him.”
Tony’s about to refuse when he sees Bucky fumble his books and clutch his arm, clearly in pain.
“Fine,” he agrees, and nervously approaches his crush.
“I’m not an invalid, Stevie, I can get to class by myself.” Bucky closes his locker with a bit more force than necessary, then gives the lock a spin. He turns to Steve and holds out his good arm.
“I know; I’m just sayin’, Buck, you don’t have to.” Steve has his own pencil box in one hand, and Bucky’s notebook and history textbook in the other. He’s clutching the latter like Bucky’s going to tackle him to get them back.
Which he might. He’s had his left arm in a sling for less than a day now, and he’s already sick of being babied by Steve “Mother Hen” Rogers. It’s bad enough his separated shoulder means he’s out for the rest of his last season on the team; not being allowed to walk to class alone would just add insult to injury. “Your art class is on the other side of the building. If you don’t head that way now, you’re not gonna get there before the bell. I’ve got an excuse to be late, you don’t,” Bucky reasons.
Of course, Reason is never enough when Steve has an idea in his head of what’s Right. “I’ll be fine. I just don’t want you to hurt yourself more--”
Bucky deftly grabs his book and notebook from Steve one-handed, cradles them in his right elbow, and starts down the hallway...
And a kid walking the other way jostles him just slightly, jarring his shoulder and making him drop the books. “Shit!”
“Language,” a passing teacher scolds.
Bucky clutches his arm and mutters an apology, and when the teacher’s gone, glares at Steve. “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so.’”
So Steve instead gives him a Look that says ‘I told you so.’ It’s not any better.
Then Steve is starting to bend to grab Bucky’s books, but someone else gets there first.
“I, uh, I can help, if you want--I can carry your stuff to class,” a small voice stammers.
Bucky turns and stares. It’s that fucking adorable Tony Stark, whiz kid extraordinaire, the prodigy who skipped two grades and is even further ahead in advanced quantum mathematics or some shit, reaching down to pick up his books.
“We’re going to the same history class?” Tony adds, turning the statement into a question, like he’s not sure Bucky’s ever noticed him. He’s got a book bag slung over one shoulder, and he’s holding Bucky’s books half out like he’s ready for Bucky to snatch them away.
But Bucky latches onto the offer. “No, yeah, that’d be--thanks,” he says, and glances back to Steve. “Stevie, Tony can help me, I’ll be fine.”
Steve blinks in surprise, then turns his megawatt smile on Tony. “Okay. Thanks, Tony!” he says, and Bucky turns in time to see the adorable blush on the kid’s face at Steve’s sincerity. Then he sees the kid’s eyes flick down to Steve’s ass as his friend turns and calls, “See ya at lunch, Buck!”
Oh, so that’s how it is. Tony’s trying to impress Steve by helping his best friend. That’s... well, it makes sense, Steve is a wonderful (if often bullheaded) guy, and Tony’s an incredible, sweet, and adorable genius... they’d go well together. Bucky swallows, not sure why he’s suddenly feeling a little disappointed, but he smiles at Tony. “Okay, then, shall we?”
Still pink from his Steve-induced blush, Tony nods, and they head to history class.
After history, Tony knows he and Bucky both have lunch, so he offers to carry the other’s books again.
Tony follows Bucky to the table where the athlete sits with his friends and sets down the books.
“Hey, Tony, thanks for helping Buck out,” Rogers stops him. “You wanna sit with us?”
Tony looks over to the table where he usually sits with his own friends. Rhodey has just put his legs up on Tony’s usual seat and is crossing his arms knowingly. Pepper’s book bag is placed beside them a moment later. There’s definitely still space for Tony to sit, but the message is clear.
Turning back to Rogers, Tony says, “Uh, sure.” He can feel his cheeks heating as he takes a seat beside Bucky.
Tony’s mostly quiet through the conversation, but gets to be on a first-name basis with Bucky, Steve, Peggy, Sam, Nat, and Clint. He learns that Bucky’s injury is a shoulder separation, and that while the sling should only be necessary for a couple weeks, he won’t be able to play football for the rest of the season.
“Do you think Rumlow did it on purpose?” Nat asks.
Clint seems to agree, “The asshat has always hated you for being a better halfback than him.”
“We gotta tell Coach Coulson,” Steve says. “He’ll kick Rumlow off the team.”
Bucky shakes his head, while trying not to lose pieces of the burger he can only hold with one hand. “We don’t have proof--football players get hurt like this all the time, it’s easy to call an accident--and besides, then the team would be down two players.”
“We’d manage. I’d rather have to work a little harder for our wins with a team I can trust than have a player that deliberately hurt you.”
“You’d still have to prove it,” Sam points out.
Tony’s heart is beating faster as he offers, “What if we get him suspended for cheating?”
Everyone looks at him.
“I know he’s used a cheat sheet during a government test before, and based on the ‘studying’ I saw him doing yesterday, I’m pretty sure he’s planning to do it again. If I warn Ms. Hill about it and she catches him, he’ll get in trouble, and probably kicked off the team.”
“The prat would deserve it,” Peggy says.
Tony doesn’t look over at Bucky.
He does look up at Steve when the blond says, “You should probably have reported him anyway.” The look on his face isn’t judgemental, though, just assessing.
Tony shrugs. “I don’t go around telling on people--sometimes they have good reasons for cheating, and they’re just going to cheat themselves in the long run--but in this case, yeah, Rumlow totally deserves it.”
Steve holds his gaze for another moment, then nods.
Tony finally glances at Bucky, and blushes at the smile he gets.
It’s Bucky’s second day stuck in the library last period instead of in Phys Ed because of his damn shoulder. He’s been given sports-related articles to read and answer questions about to earn a grade for the class while he’s out, but he finished the week’s work yesterday, so now he’s trying to make sense of his physics homework.
He stares at the free-body diagram, trying to figure out what he’s missing. Dr. Foster made it look so easy in class...
“You look like you’re trying to set that book on fire with your mind.”
Bucky looks up to see Tony standing by the table he’d chosen in the library. “Uh, hi, Tony. What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you that. This is where I sit this period.”
“Huh?” This was where Bucky sat yesterday, and there’d been nobody else in the library all period but the librarian.
Tony holds up a book. Differential Equations and Boundary Value Problems.
What does that even mean...? Oh, right, that’s probably his super-advanced math. “Independent study?”
“Kind of,” Tony answers. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to the university for the lecture, but the other days I work on the homework here.” He glances at the table.
“Oh, uh, sorry... I’m here ‘cause I can’t do Phys Ed, but uh, I can move...?” Bucky starts to stand, but Tony shakes his head.
“No, you don’t have to--uh, I usually sit here, actually,” he says, gesturing to the chair across the table, “If you don’t mind sharing...?”
Bucky finds himself trying to nod and shake his head at the same time. “Sure, I mean, I don’t mind.”
Tony gives a quick grin and sits. He looks for a moment like he’s going to say something more, then shakes his head and opens his book.
So Bucky goes back to his own homework. Or rather, goes back to glaring.
After a moment, Tony’s voice interrupts again. “The normal force.”
Bucky looks up. “What?”
“That’s what you forgot.” Tony gestures to the free-body diagram. “Do you... if you’re having trouble with physics, I could help.”
“Don’t you have your own work to do?” Bucky is dismayed at how Tony recoils a little at his response, so he adds quickly, “I mean, help would be great, but I don’t want to distract you if you’ve got your own work.”
Tony gives him a small smile and shoves his book aside. “I’m a little ahead anyway,” he says dismissively, then stands and comes to sit in the chair to Bucky’s right.
Then he leans in close, and Bucky can feel his body heat, wants to breathe in his scent, and wonders whether this will be more distracting than helpful after all.
The bell signals the end of the school day, and Tony looks up in surprise. The last hour helping Bucky with his physics has flown by--not just helping him with individual problems, but explaining everything in different ways to help Bucky better grasp the concepts.
“Thanks for your help,” Bucky says as he stands and picks up his book and notebook one-handed.
“You need help carrying your stuff to--wherever?” Tony suddenly wonders with horror, “You don’t have to take the bus, do you?”
With rich parents, Tony has never had to take the bus, but he can only imagine it’s crammed full of other kids, and wouldn’t be comfortable on a normal day, let alone with an injury. He knows Bucky would normally drive, but doesn’t know if he can with his arm in a sling.
“Nah,” Bucky says, “I’m just going to watch practice until Stevie’s done, and get a ride from him.”
Tony hesitates, then asks, “Do you like watching practice? I mean, when you can’t...?” He trails off at the frown on Bucky’s face, sorry to have brought it up.
“It’s fine,” Bucky says, clearly trying to brush it off.
Tony summons the courage to say, “I could--I mean, you could get a ride home with me, if you want.”
Bucky looks surprised, then nods. “If you’re sure--that’d be great, thanks! I’ll let Stevie know...”
Tony carries Bucky’s books to his locker, where he hands Tony what he needs to bring home and sends Steve a text that Tony will be giving him a ride. Then they make their way to the car.
It’s the silver Benz, which is a little disappointing--Tony wishes Jarvis had brought one of the flashier cars today, because the thought of riding with Bucky in the Cobra with the top down is suddenly one of his greatest fantasies.
Bucky seems impressed enough, though. Tony introduces him to Jarvis and Bucky tells him where he lives (not the worst area of town, but nowhere near the wealthy neighborhood of the Starks). It’s nice not having to sit in back alone--Jarvis sometimes lets him sit in the front seat, but his mom scolds him if she sees him there.
When they’re on their way, Bucky says, not for the first time, “I really appreciate the ride, an’ you helpin’ me out these past couple days. I know Stevie really appreciates it, too.”
Tony shrugs. “Glad to help.” Then he finds himself at a loss for conversation. Rhodey said this would make it easier to talk to Bucky, but Tony’s not sure that’s true. Helping with physics, sure, that was easy, but just sitting and making small talk with a guy like Bucky? “So... uh, you and Steve are close, huh?” Obviously. Stupid question.
Bucky smiles, though. “Yeah, Stevie’s the best. He... you know, he hasn’t been to a dance with a guy yet.”
Tony blinks, a little confused by the topic.
“Last year he was supposed to go with Peggy to prom, but he kinda freaked out last minute because he’d suddenly realized he was bi--not even gay, but bi, so Peggy was pretty pissed at him for standing her up. But he was freaking out a little, until I told him I was bi too, and, well, now...” Bucky trails off with a shrug, that sweet smile still on his face.
For a moment, Tony rejoices at the confirmation that Bucky is attracted to guys. Then the other shoe drops. Bucky and Steve are... together. “That’s... great. I mean, he seems like... a really good guy.” Tony means it, too, even as his heart is breaking.
“He really is,” Bucky says.
When they reach Bucky’s place--an apartment building that’s seen better days--Tony gallantly carries Bucky’s things up for him, getting a grateful smile from his mother.
He won’t stop being nice to Bucky just because he’s suddenly realized he never had a chance with him in the first place.
Steve: So how was the ride? Was it a limo?
Bucky: nope, “just” a benz, which was “slumming it”, tony said
Steve: And how was Tony?
Bucky: hes great
Bucky: you like him, right?
Steve: Yeah, he’s a good guy
Bucky: u think ur gonna ask him to homecoming?
Steve: Why would *I* ask him?
Bucky: u said u like him
Steve: Not the way you like him
Steve: You’re the one who should be asking him out
Bucky: but he likes you
He’s startled by his phone suddenly singing “I wear your granddad’s clothes--” Steve is calling.
Bucky hits Answer. “What?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“You’re a punk. Why am I--?”
“You think Tony likes me.”
“Buck, he has been mooning over you all week. Longer than that, probably. You’ve got to be the reason he’s been coming to watch practice.”
“Or you are,” Bucky points out.
“But today he offered you a ride home instead of watching me.”
“‘Cause he knows that you worry about me, so helping me out would make you like him.”
Steve’s voice is softer, warmer when he replies, “That is true. And I do like him. But Buck--I like him because he’s good for you, because you both clearly like each other.”
Bucky shakes his head, not that Steve can see it.
“Don’t shake your head, I know I’m right.”
Bucky frowns at the phone. “Stop that.”
“Stop what, knowing my best friend?” The smirk is audible in Steve’s voice.
“Tony’s--why do you think he likes me?” Bucky tries not to let the hope into his voice, but Steve suddenly has him doubting his previous certainty of what Tony’s motives were. But it made so much more sense, that rich, sweet, brilliant Tony Stark would go for clean-cut, noble, and confident Steve Rogers over rough and ragged Bucky Barnes.
“The way he’s been helping you all week. The way he’s been looking at you. It’s a lot like the way you look at him.”
“I...” Bucky swallows. He wants to believe Steve. Steve doesn’t lie. (Well, that’s not true. He knows of a few times Steve has lied, usually to protect someone. But this isn’t the type of thing he’d lie about.) Could Tony really want Bucky?
“Just talk to him,” Steve insists. “Ask him out. He’ll say yes, Buck.”
“I’ll think about it,” is the most Bucky can promise.
“So, you brought him home? Met the parents?”
Tony looks up at Rhodey, whose teasing smirk disappears.
Tony swallows around the lump in his throat, tears restarting at the question. He just shakes his head and looks back in his locker, more to look away than to get anything from it.
“Hey, Tones.” Rhodey puts an arm around Tony, closes his locker, and drags him to the nearby men’s room.
“What’s goin’ on? If Barnes did something to you, I’ll kill him.”
Tony shakes his head again. “He didn’t do anything. An’ he’s never gonna. ‘Cause he’s in love with Steve.” He tries to pull himself together, refusing to be crying in the bathroom just because a boy doesn’t like him.
Rhodey’s eyebrows go up. “What?”
“It’s all your fault,” Tony accuses, while knowing it’s unfair. “If you hadn’t dared me to talk to Bucky, to help him, I wouldn’t be feeling this shitty now. I wish I’d never listened to you.”
His best friend looks at him sympathetically for a moment, then pulls him into a hug.
“I hate you,” Tony mutters into Rhodey’s shoulder, while clinging desperately for comfort.
Bucky honestly considers asking Tony out.
But then, on his way into the bathroom the next morning, he hears Tony’s voice, sounding distraught.
“If you hadn’t dared me to talk to Bucky, to help him, I wouldn’t be feeling this shitty now. I wish I’d never listened to you.”
Bucky stops. What?
Tony has only been helping because he was dared to? And Bucky can’t imagine what he did to make Tony feel so bad, but clearly he did something.
Well, if helping Bucky hurts Tony, then Bucky will stop making him help.
He leaves his history book in his locker, confident he can carry just his notebook without help. He stays after history talking to a girl from his English class so Tony doesn’t think he has to walk him to the cafeteria. He doesn’t have to worry about seeing Tony in the library or being offered a ride home because he knows the genius has math class at the university that day.
The following day he borrows his sister’s Hello Kitty backpack, not caring that the straps are too small for him to even sling over his good shoulder. It fits his books so he can carry his own shit, and doesn’t need to accept help from anyone.
Steve keeps mother henning him, now about his emotional state as well as physical. Tony keeps looking sad and turning away whenever he sees Bucky.
So Bucky does his best to get by on his own.
Tony is halfway through his slice of grease-on-cardboard cafeteria pizza when Rhodey stands up and says, “Tones, I need your help in the bathroom.”
Tony looks up in confusion, then turns to Pepper, who raises her eyebrows. “You think I have any interest in knowing what happens in the men’s room?”
Still unsure what’s going on, Tony drops his pizza and follows his friend out of the cafeteria.
When they get to the men’s room, Tony hears a familiar voice--“What’s goin’ on, Stevie?”--and hesitates, but Rhodey grabs him and pulls him the rest of the way in.
Bucky is standing there looking wide-eyed and nervous, gaze darting everywhere but to Tony. Steve, arms crossed, looks up at their entrance and gives Rhodey a nod.
“James Rupert Rhodes, what is going on here,” Tony growls at his friend.
“What’s going on here is an intervention, because you two knuckleheads can’t get your heads out of your asses,” Rhodey answers.
“What?” Tony asks.
“Bucky,” Steve says, and wary eyes turn to him. He asks matter-of-factly, “Are you in love with me?”
“Uh. What?” Bucky seems weirdly blindsided by the question, considering they’re dating. “Stevie, no, you know I love you like a brother...”
“Wait, what?” Tony asks, bewildered.
“Tony,” Rhodey says in the same oddly leading tone Steve used, “Were you only helping Bucky because I dared you to?”
“I...” Tony glances at Bucky, who’s still not looking at him. “Of course not.”
Rhodey continues, “Was it to get Steve to like you?”
“No! Why would I--is that what you thought?” Tony asks Bucky.
Bucky finally looks up, pain in his beautiful blue-grey eyes, and gives a little nod. “I did--then Steve said he thought you liked me, but then I overheard you saying that helping me made you feel shitty, so I left you alone.”
“I never--oh,” Tony remembers crying at Rhodey in the bathroom. The morning Bucky stopped talking to him. “I’d just--I thought you’d told me you were dating Steve, and I was... jealous,” Tony admits. “I was gonna keep helping you anyway, but then you started avoiding me.”
Bucky takes a step closer to Tony. “You were jealous ‘cause you wanted to date... me?” he asks, like it doesn’t make sense.
Tony’s heart is pounding, but he forces himself to admit, “I’ve wanted to date you since freshman year. You’re cool, and funny, and hot...”
“Well,” Rhodey’s voice interrupts, “I think they’ve got it from here, don’t you, Rogers?”
“They’d better,” Steve grumbles, but he claps a hand on Bucky’s good shoulder warmly before following Rhodey out of the bathroom.
“Well, uh--” Tony starts, just as Bucky’s saying, “So--”
Tony gestures for Bucky to go first.
The other boy hesitates before blurting, “Do you want to go to Homecoming with me?”
Tony feels a smile break across his face. “I thought you’d never ask.”
The night of Homecoming arrives terrifyingly quickly.
Meeting Howard and Maria Stark is intimidating, although not as terrifying as the shovel talk Bucky gets from Jarvis on the way over. Standing in a huge entryway that feels more like a the lobby of a museum than the entrance to a family home, Bucky hopes the stitched-up hole in his nicest blazer isn’t too obvious, and that the empty left sleeve over the stupid sling he’s still stuck with doesn’t look too ridiculous.
The discomfort is totally worth it, though, when he sees a nervous Tony appear at the top of the lavish staircase. In the cute little sweaters Tony wears to school, he looks adorable. In the perfectly tailored royal blue suit he’s wearing now, he’s drop-dead gorgeous.
“Wow,” Bucky says, and then fails to come up with more words.
Tony’s face transforms, uncertainty giving way to an easy grin. “You’re not so bad yourself. You clean up nice... not that I mind seeing you dirty, either.”
“Anthony,” his mother scolds, trying to hide a smile.
Tony’s father heaves a sigh, like he’s given up on his son behaving as the prim and proper heir to a fortune. “Well, better get your pictures now,” he tells his wife. Her need for pictures at home was the reason Jarvis picked Bucky up first and brought him back here before the dance.
Bucky still feels a little out of place, posing with his date in front of a painting that probably cost more than Bucky’s mom has made in her life. But when he turns from the camera to see the look of wonder and joy in warm brown eyes, Bucky knows he belongs here, with Tony.
Years later, that picture will be the first in a slideshow of Tony and Bucky’s relationship, playing at the reception after their wedding.