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Unplanned Courses

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When he and Tony began, Steve was told to be careful. To remember how young he is and that there’s a bright and wide future ahead of him with many doors, windows and plenty of fish. Steve had never paid much mind though, too caught up in feeling alive.

At the start, the doubts were muted in loud moments, a kiss that exploded like firecrackers in Steve’s ears and touches that started a chaotic riot in his bones, shaking just right until stilled by time.

“You’re my first anything. My first everything."

But eventually a spring that turns into summer cools into autumn and then freezes, and Steve’s never done well with the cold.

“Heard you and Stark broke up,” Bucky says in way of greeting when he drops down by Steve’s side at the lunch table.

Steve appreciates Peggy’s eyeroll at Bucky’s antics, chuckles despite himself when she hurls a tater tot at the dark-headed boy. “Manners, you! God, my father has tanks that are kinder. They’re not broken up, if you knew anything or weren’t getting your intel from Anna Spencer of all people.”

“Jealous, sweetheart?”

“Keep dreaming.”

Bucky gives Peggy a feral show of teeth before turning back to Steve. “What the hell is she talking about? You still with the world’s smallest dollar sign?”

“We’re on a break,” Steve tells him lamely. No matter how many times he says it aloud it doesn’t sound any more promising. Steve wants so badly for it to stop feeling like he’s giving up because he’s not. They’re not.

Bucky snorts. “When did we time warp into the nineties? Are we going to braid each other’s hair next and make plans for a chick flick movie night?”

“You’re a pig and I detest you,” Peggy says with precise articulation and signature ruby red lips.

Bucky’s arms go up in the universal sign of surrender. “Alright, Britain, you’ve got me. I’m obviously a clueless moron. Why don’t you tell me everything?”

Peggy bristles, “It’s hardly my place.”

“I can’t win with you.” Bucky drops his arms.

“Exactly.” And pretty much like always, Peggy soon decides it’s too early in the day to deal with Bucky. She stands with her tray in one hand and her backpack in the other. Steve nearly wilts at the sad smile she sends his way. “Steve, I’ll see you in biology.” To Bucky, with a resigned sigh, "Hopefully, it’ll be eons from now.”

"You're the Hermione to my Ron, Pegs!" Bucky calls out as she walks away.

When she’s out of sight, Bucky turns serious. He peers at Steve, his intention to peel back layers clear. “Seriously. What’s going on, Steve? Do yourself a favor and give the asshole what he wants. He can’t be there for you? Make it fucking permanent.”

Steve frowns. “It’s complicated, Bucky.”

“Bullshit,” Bucky retorts. “On a break from what? And what happens when you get off this break? You’re right back to where things cracked. No offense, man, but I think that’s why it went out of style.”

“No, we won’t be back there. Never again.”

Steve treats the words like pennies flung for a wishing well. If they’re tangible and in the air, maybe they’ll come to life and be true.

"You know better, Steve.”

Bucky doesn’t believe in hoping but he’s always preached against jinxing. According to Bucky, bad luck is always up for grabs.

Steve sighs.

He’s said so much that he wants to take back.

Pathetically, Steve’s a junior when he finally manages to get an invite to a party that doesn’t involve birthday hats and streamers so naturally he sticks to the wall of the living room. He attempts to pose easy in the outskirts of all the dancing and sweaty bodies, the crazy conversations and sloshing cups of beer but no matter how much he tries to relax, Steve can’t help feeling inside out.

“You’re new.”

Steve gets a cup shoved into his hand. He almost fumbles it in surprise but manages not to make a complete fool of himself. He goes to smile at the voice but is sure it just ends up as an scary twist on his face because he’s taken aback when he realizes exactly who’s giving him the time of day. “Uh thanks. And yes. I’m, uh. I’m new.”

Tony Stark laughs, looks pleased. “Good to meet you, New.”

Praying that the blush warming his face isn't visible in the dimmed room, he tries again, “Steve. Steve Rogers.”

“Not as original as New but I’ll take it.” To say that Tony sips at his drink before continuing would be a blatant understatement. His lips are distractingly shiny and pink. “So how’d you end up here? Not really your scene, is it? And I pretty much know all of Rhodey's friends and their proxies."

James Rhodes is the star of the baseball team and the big man on campus who no one has a bad word to say about.

“My best friend is on the baseball team. He plays shortstop. I tagged along with him,” Steve admits sheepishly, pulling at the hem of his blue flannel. “Not even sure where he wandered off to.”

Tony doesn’t make fun though, just nods like it’s no big deal and like he understands. “Tends to happen at these parties. Individual victims getting swallowed by the entire knotting mass. It’s basic physics actually. The person’s place on the sobriety scale verses the pulse of the crowd over the mounting bass of Macklemore. Your friend might be lost forever so you should stay close to me.”

Steve eyes him warily. Tony isn’t exactly towering over him but he’s got strong and steadier shoulders. Steve can see. He has a weird way of getting a good idea of people’s shoulders, their healthier build. But Steve doesn’t want to be weird tonight, wants normal so he replies with a simple, “Okay.”

Surprise passes over Tony’s features quickly, easy to miss. He shrugs. “Alright then. Follow me. Despite what all these imbeciles believe, this isn’t the best atmosphere that this place has to offer.”

Tony’s right. He leads Steve through the living room, down two halls and up a main flight of stairs, then a short few that one wouldn’t know about unless they’re looking for them. He leads Steve to the sky, vast and right above their heads. It's even dotted with stars.

The other boy takes a seat on the roof and pats the space next to him expectantly.

It's only March so it's not too warm but Steve lowers himself onto the shingles anyhow, extremely cautious of his balance and how his limbs drop and fold. After making sure his cup won't tip over, he stares into the night. Steve can’t keep the wonder out of his voice. “This is amazing.”

"It’s beautiful, right?”

How Steve feels is how Tony sounds and Steve is breathless for a while because he’s never connected with anyone like this before. It feels like a branding, stubborn and not needing his permission. Suddenly, Steve remembers an old adage and figures this must be the kind of scar his father talked about, the one you wear proudly.

“Very beautiful,” Steve agrees. He smiles at Tony, whose head is still turned upward. “Thank you for sharing this with me.”

His mom is worried and Steve feels shame from his scalp to his soles. Steve can’t lose count of how many times he’s worried her.

She’s organizing their bookshelf again when he walks in through the front door. She moves her gaze from the titles and regards him brightly. The worn lines on her face are overwhelmed and it’s a pleasant sight, matches the silvery straw-colored wisps that frame her expression. “How was school? What’d you end up getting on that monochrome project, the midterm?”

“A 97.”

“Again? It deserved an A+ in my opinion.”

“It’s the highest mark Erskine gives out," Steve tells her, not for the first time. "No one does better than that. He doesn't believe in perfection.”

She hums negatively and then curiously. “Did you see Tony?”

He joins her and places Irving where he belongs, right next to Hosseini. He allows himself a stretch of silence. “I saw him a couple of times. I didn’t talk to him if that’s what you’re asking. Didn’t want to bother him.”

The back of his mom’s knuckles are kind under his chin and she looks at him perfectly square, demanding to be heard. “You are not a bother, Steve. It’s unfair of you to decide that for him. Let Tony have a say in who you are to him.”

"I just—Mom." He stops, pained and wanting to cry; he can feel the edge of his breaking point, like it's underneath his feet. “I’m afraid.”

“Steven, who wouldn’t be? Life doesn't come without moments that make us want to run and hide. I think we both know that very well," she says regrettably, her blue eyes somber. "At first, I thought it was too much for you and too serious. You're so young but you've always been handed a heavier deck, haven't you? Only makes sense for you to fall for someone in the same fashion.”

She kisses the top of his head, pats his cheek lovingly. Her hand brushing his coat lightly, she finishes, "He's good for you and I know you've brought happiness to his life as well, you have that effect on people. Why would you cheat either of you out of what puts a smile on your face, sweetheart? There are no rewards in this sacrifice."

The tip of the pencil scratches sharply against the paper, catches awkwardly every few centimeters. Steve takes better control of Tony’s hand in his and creates smoother paths of the precious graphite, less crude shadows and more patches of light.

“We make lovely trees,” Tony states, tilting his head at the drawing. He leans back more against Steve’s chest, or maybe Steve shifts closer forward. It doesn’t really matter. Steve lets himself take comfort in the smell of Tony that comes with his next inhales, the mix of soap, cotton and metal. “Yep, it’s official. Forget MIT aspirations. I’ll go to art school with you because obviously I’m genius at this too.” He nods decisively. “I’ll just stick with you and do my thing.”

Steve ducks his head and laughs in between Tony’s shoulder blades. “I think it’d be an incredible disservice to the world at large if you left engineering behind.”

“Is that your roundabout way of saying I suck?” Tony laughs with him.

After a beat, Steve presses a kiss to Tony’s neck. “Nope.”

“I can imagine your face right now, Steve and it’s full of lies.” He doesn’t sound particularly offended though. “You’re lucky your lying face is also a gorgeous one. Fine. Keep your art, Picasso. Sitting this long on my ass kills anyhow.”

Steve watches Tony script their initials in the curling edge of the paper.

“At least we’ve got a whole year ahead of us,” Tony says. He puts the drawing aside and pulls Steve’s arms more securely around himself, like a safety belt. “Don’t have to worry about leaving each other until this time next year. Whirlwind romances are for the birds anyway. And who knows, you might be holding onto the inventor of teleportation right now. Fuck Skype.”

“Am I also holding onto the first teleportation traveler?”

“Nah, we’ll let Dummy have the honors. He adores you.”

“Mean,” Steve says with a grin into Tony's skin, so happy.

They’re curled into each other, human parentheses and slicked with liquid salt, when Tony says, “Pepper wants to meet you.”

“Peggy wants to meet you,” Steve replies with an obnoxious grin. He knows it’s obnoxious because he’s high on endorphins and that tends to make his whole body feel like a crescent moon. “She wants to quote, unquote, put you through your paces.”

"Isn't meeting each other’s parents supposed to be the terrifying part? Why do we have such scary friends?” He shudders dramatically and shakes the fragile frame of Steve’s tiny bed. He lies still when Steve pinches the skin on the inside of his elbow. “Sorry. My parents are heading to a conference for the company this weekend. They can come over; that’d be cool. We'll have a little shindig."

“You should invite Rhodey, too." Steve worries his bottom lip. “And uh, how about Bucky?”

“Bucky hates me,” Tony stresses the verb and sounds very much his fifteen—soon to be sixteen, Steve has to constantly remind himself—years. “He wants to throw me into a fire, Steve. I see it every time I so much as walk his way.”

“He doesn’t hate you,” Steve assures. Tony harrumphs and Steve presses on. “He really doesn’t. Bucky doesn’t have it in him to hate anyone. He just—he has a history with money.” Steve’s history. Fundraising in the second grade. Carrying an old Fourth of July bucket around homerooms before the morning announcements, disappointedly staring at the loose change and whispering that it wasn’t enough. “It’s a long story. Get to know him, please. You two could become the best of buds.”

Snorting, Tony says, “Don’t go asking for miracles now.”

Steve talks over him, “It’s true! You’re more alike than you think.” He kisses Tony, slow and sweet while wrapping his hand around the Tony’s humid, sensitive cock. He’s learned to twist from the base to the top, knows how to pull a high whine out of Tony. “Please.” He presses a kiss to Tony's lips, then his cheek. He whispers again, "Please. My mom's working the night shift. Won't be back until the morning. Do it for me. I'll make it worth your while."

Tony pulls Steve over him, slots their legs together, stretches his toes to touch and bend with Steve's. “Promises, promises but if this is going to become a habit of yours…” He flexes up with a smirk. “You could steal my soul from me. Have anything you want, babe.”

They've only been at this for a few weeks but Steve thinks Tony means it. It terrifies him; he imagines that it's the same for Tony. Steve lets himself be satisfied with the drum of Tony’s brave heart under his tongue.

Every once in a while, Steve feels like a ghost, a foreigner in his own shoes. The school counselor calls its survivor’s guilt, compares the kids of St. Jude to an army of soldiers. Dr. Coulson is gentle whenever he reminds Steve that his inability to fit in is not a fault in Steve’s character, just a circumstance of missing years of his childhood. He encourages Steve to let the world in again, be a part of it and step out of convenient corners. Corners are only good for collecting dust and sheltering shadows. He needs to let himself be drawn out.

The words echo around Steve, are hands at his back when he walks into Tony’s workshop.

He finds Tony hunched over a machine overflowing with wires, tugging at this and that fiercely.

Steve clears his throat, watches Tony's back tense up. “Jarvis said you'd be down here. He let me in." His traitorous heartbeat picks up, has Steve breathing his most shallow in recent days. Unevenly, he says, "I um—I hope you don’t mind.”

“If I minded, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now, Steve. Hasn't been so long that you've forgotten that.” Tony pulls off the protective gloves that Steve had gotten him for his birthday. He stands and leans back against his cluttered table, gives Steve his attention. “How are you?"

"I'm okay," Steve says.

"You've told me that before," Tony reminds him.

"I did," Steve agrees. "I feel bad about that. I'm telling you the truth now though. I'm not...I'm not sick anymore, Tony. In any sense."

Steve's taken by surprise when Tony hurries over to him with urgent strides. He expects anger, for Tony to lash out because he put them on break over a phone call for pete's sake but Steve finds himself in a tight and desperate hug. With all he's put Tony through, he shouldn't hug back, bury his face into the other boy's shoulder, take comfort, take so much but he does. He selfishly holds on to what Tony gives.

"I still hate you," Tony mumbles, fists strong and bunching the back of Steve's clothing. "Hate you more than you could possibly understand at this moment."

"That's alright."

"Fuck you."

Huffing out a breath that's not quite a laugh, Steve replies, "That's alright too." Pulling back but keeping his hands on Tony, his arms, his shoulders, anywhere, he says quietly, "I'm so sorry, Tony."

"Never again," Tony demands in a thinned-out voice. "Never again are you going to do something like this to me. Do you have any idea how fucking awful it is to find out my boyfriend is in remission only because he might relapse?" He punches Steve's shoulder twice. "To hear you hacking out your lungs while you insist on being stupidly noble and push me away. You don't talk to me. You could be dying for all I fucking know and you don't talk to me so I think that you hate me—"

"I don't hate you. Couldn't ever, Tony. Please don't think that. I—"

Steve cuts himself off, cups Tony's face and kisses him, tries to show him how much he cares. Steve kisses Tony until they sigh apart and melt back together. Leaning his forehead against Tony's and trembling because he can feel himself being righted, fitting to where he belongs, Steve repeats, "I do not hate you."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Tony asks impatiently. His expression is still slightly guarded. Steve wants to bulldoze those walls, never give Tony cause to build them again. "Before you got sick, when you did? Any point in the last ten months would've been awesome."

Steve inhales deeply and let's it out but it does nothing to help the shake in his tone. “With you, there’s details. Things that I never really thought about until I met you. School is what I planned for and worked hard at. An art scholarship so I could even get to go to college. It was the only part of growing up that I attached myself to. I never thought of having someone. I didn't want to burden any more people than I already had."

He continues with a small and easy smile, "But then you came along and sort of ruined all of that. I want you in the future I dreamed up and the one that I didn't. I want details in my future outside of art school. You make me want to claim things, Tony. I want to claim you and I haven’t wanted to possess anything since I was eight and leaving a doctor’s office with my mom holding onto my hand for dear life. Never felt like I had any right to.”

Tony kisses him full on the mouth, chaste and slow. He stays within an inch. "Steve, you're not the only one whose world has been tilted on its axis. You're not the only one about to shit their pants in this relationship."

"Classy," Steve interjects with a fond eyeroll.

"Point is," Tony says, ignoring him. "I'm here. I've always thought you were strong and I now know just how strong. What you've had to go through, I'd take it away in a heartbeat if I could but I can't unfortunately. But from here on out, I'm gonna be around. I respect your strength but I'm not letting you go through anything alone ever again. Fuck that, okay?"

"Yeah," Steve agrees, practically speechless. He embraces Tony again with no intent of letting him go. "Yeah, okay."

"Steve. Hey, Steve."

The voice is soft and surrounding, gentle but insistent. It penetrates through the thick and heavy fog Steve's still under. Cool lips press to forehead, under his eyes and then at his forehead again. "Christ, you're hot. Steve. Babe, wake up."

Groaning, Steve turns into the hand stroking through his hair and opens his eyes. It's a painful task but Tony's relieved smile is worth it.

"Hey," he croaks out. "What are you doing here?"

"Missed you in class today," Tony admits quietly, snug and sitting at his side. He's wearing a hoodie that's way too light for November and Steve would say something about it but his mom took the day off and probably already gave Tony an earful. "Don't check the messages on your phone, by the way. They're embarrassing. At least up until eleven. That's when Peggy filled me in during French. I became slightly less panicked. You look like shit."

Steve's laugh turns into a racking cough. He does a horrible job of fanning away Tony's concern. "I'm fine. Really. I am. I look a lot worse than I feel. It's just a cold." Shrugging, "Tis the season, right?"

"Well you're not wrong," Tony concedes. "Although I'd prefer for your perfect attendance record not to be in jeopardy."

"I don't have perfect attendance."

"Not after today, yeah."

Instead of laughing, Steve just chooses to smile, is happy to make room when Tony decides he wants to sprawl on the mattress alongside him.

They lay in a comfortable silence until Tony speaks again. Steve has to open his eyes and he's not entirely sure that he didn't nod off at some point. "What was that?"

"I said I made you soup." Tracing patterns on Steve's chest, he continues, "Well Jarvis actually made it because kitchens and I don't agree but it's the thought that counts. It's hot and sour. Sure to knock out whatever's ailing you."

Steve wants so badly for it to be as simple as that. "Thank you. Where is it?"

"Downstairs. Not at all intimidated by your mom's gigantic pot of chicken noodle," Tony informs him.

"She tends to go overboard," Steve murmurs against his temple. He takes a moment and then breathes out, "I could go for some hot and sour though. Mix things up a little."

Tony picks his head up and there's a light to his face, as though Steve's just made his whole day. "Yeah?" Steve nods. "Okay. I'll go get it. Warm it up for you. What? I can operate a microwave, Steve. I could make you a microwave, asshole."

His kisses the tips of his fingers before touching them to Steve's lips. Softly, he adds, "I'll be right back. Try not to fall asleep on me again, alright?"

And oh, Steve's a lot in love with those eyes, close and warm. He's a lot in love with all of Tony, really. Steve aches deep, in a way that isn't just physical. He wants to let Tony know how much he loves him but he thinks it's a conversation that should be saved for when he gets better. Tony deserves that.