Tony couldn’t help the tiny sigh of relief that escaped him when Professor Selvig told the students to choose lab partners and people didn’t immediately flock to him. His enrollment under his mother’s maiden name had paid off. Stark meant money first and scientific brilliance second. The other students started pairing off - the redheaded girl and the blond boy in the back who’d come in together and chosen a workbench together; the bigger blond boy and the shorter dark-haired boy.
Tony had never been picked last for anything; it would be a new experience, so he sat back, watched the pairings sort themselves out. There were five people clustered in the back of the lab and conversing intently: two black boys, one of whom was in a very expensive suit; a tiny boy who looked all of twelve and was probably some kind of prodigy; and two more boys who’d been practically glued together at the hip, one tall and handsome with sleek red-brown hair, the other smaller and blonder and wearing an inhaler on the lanyard around his neck to go with his student ID and dorm keys.
Tony watched with unfamiliar envy as the tall boy leaned down and smiled at the smaller blond boy, nuzzled his ear, and then nudged him toward Tony.
Tony studied the boy as he approached, took in his fragile build, the hesitance in his gait.
“Hi,” the boy said. “I’m Steve. Want to be lab partners?” His voice was strong, though. Confident. And polite.
“Sure you don’t want to stay with your boyfriend over there?” Tony raised his eyebrows.
Steve ducked his head, a blush creeping up his cheeks. “If I stay with Bucky we probably won’t get any work done, so -“
“I see. You’re with me out of academic self-preservation,” Tony said.
Steve shrugged. “And his. I’m an art major. Bucky likes science, so - I can draw us good diagrams for our reports.”
Tony eyed Bucky, but he was already speaking to the other boys.
“Sure. Partners. I’m Tony.”
“Thanks, Tony. I’ll just go get my books and come sit next to you,” Steve said. “And - hey. You can be part of our study group.” He smiled. He had a nice smile. For a skinny kid, he was good-looking.
“Study group?” Tony echoed.
Steve nodded. “Yeah. Me, Bucky, Sam, T’challa, Peter, Thor, Bruce, Natasha, and Clint.” He pointed to each of them in turn.
Tony looked at them. They all looked at him. Peter waved.
“So, basically our entire lab section,” Tony said slowly.
“That’s why we all signed up for the same section - so we could be together,” Steve said.
Tony studied them all again - T’Challa’s expensive suit, the distinctly foreign air to Natasha’s fashion, how Thor probably belonged on another planet full of tall and superhumanly strong and beautiful people, Sam’s scuffed sneakers and Peter’s fraying backpack. “Are you all friends?”
Steve nodded fervently. “We met at the Guild Hall on our first night here. Well, Bucky and I went to high school together. But everyone else - we’re friends now.”
School had barely been in session for a week and Steve already had a huge gang of friends.
“Guild Hall?” Tony asked.
Steve blushed again. “For Dungeons & Dragons and stuff.”
“D&D, huh?” Tony eyed Natasha, who looked more likely to stab someone with a terribly fashionable stiletto than roll dice modeled after Platonic solids. “Never played. Always wanted to give it a try, though.”
“You could join us,” Steve said. “We’re actually playing D20 superheroes. Well, we haven’t started playing yet. We’re making characters tonight, after dinner, in the lounge next to the cafeteria.”
“Sure,” Tony said. “I’d like that. Now, about science -”
“Right! I’ll grab my books.”
As it turned out, Steve had very steady hands on account of being an artist, was very precise with his measurements, so when it came to handling chemicals he was an ideal lab partner. He didn’t seem to mind when Tony got a bit snippy and bossy, but when Tony went too far Steve fixed him with a look that was definitely a sort of mom look, and Tony apologized.
Tony Stark never apologized.
Except apparently he did. To Steve Rogers. For getting snappy in the lab.
It was Bruce who invited Tony to eat with them at the cafeteria. Tony had enough money that he could try a different Michelin three-star restaurant every night of the week and have change to spare, but he said yes, followed them across campus. They took over the lounge first thing, shuffling tables together, claiming chairs with backpacks and jackets and textbooks and binders, and then they grabbed trays, and lined up to get food.
Tony had never experienced Meat Surprise or other high school cafeteria cliches, and he was both disappointed and relieved that the food actually looked decent. He picked an entree, a couple of sides, a dessert, and a fountain drink, and followed the others back to their table in the lounge.
Bruce was double-majoring in physics and engineering. Bucky was majoring in mechanical engineering. T’Challa was a poli sci major and an exchange student from Wakanda, which no one but Tony had ever heard of before (and he had to punt about how he’d heard of it, because he knew it from his father, as the only source of Vibranium in the world). Peter was actually fourteen, not twelve, and was a prodigy on scholarship for electrical engineering and probably computer science as well. He was from Queens, and since Bucky and Steve were from Brooklyn he tended to stick with them.
Natasha was an exchange student from Russia but spoke flawless English with an American accent, was majoring in political science and minoring in military history. Clint said he’d been raised in the circus - no one was sure if he was kidding - and was majoring in criminal justice and minoring in music (he played the piano). Sam was majoring in engineering and minoring in Arabic and wanted to join the Air Force, be a fancy fighter jet pilot. Thor was an exchange student from Norway, and he was majoring in physical education, minoring in political science. Where T’Challa was endlessly elegant and polite and Natasha was quiet, observant, Thor was free with laughter and enthusiasm.
Tony watched as Steve, Bucky, Sam, and Bruce all foisted extra food on Peter. Tony remembered being young and hungry all the time, but he felt like Peter was eating more than should have been humanly possible.
“He’s not a garbage disposal,” Tony said finally.
Peter paused halfway through a little cup of rice pudding.
“He’s growing,” Steve said firmly and smiled at Peter. “Eat up.”
Peter didn’t need much more encouragement on that front. He talked about growing up with his Aunt May, didn’t say anything about an Uncle or about his parents.
Once they were finished with food, they took their trays over to the return line, and it was time to build characters for their game.
The rules were simple, the required arithmetic literally elementary. But the possibilities were endless. Bucky was running the game, as the most experienced Dungeon Master. As it turned out, Tony wasn’t the only first-time player. Where Bruce, Peter, and Clint had played before, none of the others had, but they were excited about the prospect all the same.
Tony was pleased that they weren’t all stuck trying to work out of one rulebook, that Peter had acquired digital copies for people to reference on their laptops. Steve, Bruce, Peter, and Clint helped people build their characters. Tony approached his character in the most utilitarian method possible: who was everyone else playing? What skills were lacking that he could contribute? What could his character have experienced that would justify his having those skills?
“Being rich is not a superpower,” Clint said.
“Tell that to Bruce Wayne,” Tony said.
“Money is advanced technology which can look like magic or a superpower,” Steve offered.
Clint huffed. “Fine. Take a resources advantage. Or three.”
Tony gave himself four.
When everyone was finished, they gathered in a circle around Bucky, who asked them to introduce their characters.
“Remember,” Bucky said, “the knowledge you have about each other your characters may not have in-game. That being said, let’s begin. Clint?”
“I am Hawkeye. I am human but I have superior speed, strength, and agility, and am badass with projectile weapons, specifically archery.”
“Archery?” Sam echoed. “What century are we in again?”
“I checked the weapons list and I can have cool stuff like arrows that shoot electricity or sleeping gas or poison gas or whatever,” Clint said.
Bucky made some notes. “Hawkeye it is. Nice to meet you. Bruce?”
“I am The Hulk. I’m giant and green. I’m super strong and super tough, but I have low communication skills and poor emotional regulation,” Bruce said.
Bucky made more notes. “Built-in weaknesses. I dig. Next?”
Peter was practically vibrating with excitement. “I’m Spider-Man! I have superior strength, reflexes, and spidey-sense, so I can sense when danger is coming. And I can shoot spider webs.”
“Out of where?” Bruce raised his eyebrows.
“My wrists,” Peter said, a little defiantly but also blushing, because he wasn’t ignorant about spider physiology, “so I can use them as grappling ropes and stuff. Swing through the skyscrapers like my own urban jungle.”
Bucky nodded. “I dig it. Steve?”
“I’m a super-soldier,” he said. “The result of experimentation with a kind of serum that made me fast and strong and also age very slowly. I fought in World War II -”
“Wait, I thought this was a modern setting,” Peter said.
“It is,” Steve said, “but I was cryogenically frozen when my fighter plane crash landed in Antarctica.”
“Where my people found him,” Tony chimed in.
Bucky looked at him. “Your people?”
“I am Iron Man,” Tony said, “a super gazillionaire who’s a technological genius, and I have a flying suit equipped with an AI and missiles that’s powered by an arc reactor.”
“Arc reactor?” Bucky asked.
“Electromagnetic?” Bruce pressed, eyes lighting up.
Tony shrugged. “Sure. We’ll go with that. And - my grandfather was part of the company that funded the research into the super-soldier serum, so we went looking for Steve.”
Bucky glanced at Steve, since Tony had interrupted and pretty much hijacked his character intro, but Steve was nodding.
“Okay,” Bucky said. “Backstory connections. I like it. Natasha?”
“I am Black Widow, a Russian assassin who was created to be faster and stronger on a variant of the super-soldier serum taken from a sample of Steve’s blood when he was captured by some Nazi soldiers during World War II.” She smiled sweetly.
Steve looked delighted, and Bucky scribbled down more notes.
“I am an Air Force Pararescue soldier who has awesome mechanical wings that allow me to engage in aerial combat, plus my own badass training.” Sam grinned and twirled his pencil.
Tony offered him a fistbump. “Aerial combat for the win.”
T’Challa was playing the Black Panther, a name he selected with no small amount of smirking, who was connected to the Panther God, had superhuman senses, reflexes, speed, and healing, and a suit made of an alien alloy that acted as armor and also gave him badass claws.
And Thor was playing...Thor. God of Thunder.
“That’s not really a superhero,” Bucky said slowly.
“I wield the hammer Mjolnir, which allows me to fly, and I am strong and fast and very brave - and very popular with the ladies,” Thor said.
“But gods are immortal,” Peter said. “Doesn’t that kind of take the fun out of it? The challenge.”
“Among my people,” Thor said, “gods can die. We call it Ragnarok.”
Bucky considered. “Okay. Built-in weakness for the God of Thunder. I’ll take it. Thank you, everyone. Leave your character sheets with me, and I’ll see you Friday night.”
“Friday night,” the others chorused, like some kind of demented AA meeting, but they dispersed quickly after that, Bucky and Steve, Natasha and Clint, the others on their own.
Tony watched them go, drained the last of his water. Were they his friends? Had he finally made real friends, actual friends? Who didn’t care about his name or his money?
He lay awake that night, unsure about what had happened. His nice private dorm room, which had seemed so cozy and exclusive, felt quiet and empty without Sam and Steve ribbing each other, Natasha calmly deflecting anything Clint threw or flicked at her, Bucky and Peter asking each other about random hole-in-the-wall eateries in the heart of New York City. They were making plans to go get shawarma - and make everyone come with them.
Even though they all had the same chemistry lab, none of them were in the same chemistry lecture section, and Tony wasn’t sure he’d see any of them till Friday night.
But on Tuesday morning, Peter asked, a little nervously, if he could sit with Tony in the cafeteria.
And on Wednesday afternoon, Steve fell into step beside him as they walked across campus, quizzing him extensively about his character for Friday’s game, what the suit looked like, what an arc reactor looked like.
Thursday at lunch, Sam and T’Challa and a boy named Scott sat with him. Scott was thinking of joining the game on Friday, if Bucky would let him - he had a blank character sheet and a copy of the core rulebook, would get it all filled out. He wanted to play Ant-Man, a guy who could shrink or grow thanks to a hi-tech suit.
“Does anyone have any actual superpowers in our team of superheroes?” Tony asked.
“Natasha says she found another girl, Wanda, who might want to play. She’s designing a chaos witch, I think,” Sam said.
But then talk shifted away from the game to their classes. Sam was taking an advanced math class for engineering, the same class as Tony, but a different section. They could study together, right? Sam’s Nana sent homemade cookies every week, and he was more than willing to share.
Tony still wasn’t sure if they were friends, even though they were all nice to him, waved at him when they saw him. But on Friday night he showed up at the lounge next to the cafeteria at the appointed time with a six-pack of Diet Cokes (he might or might not have researched D&D etiquette, which involved caffeine, snacks to share, his own dice, a couple of mechanical pencils, and his own miniature for battle planning).
T’Challa had sprung for pizza for everyone. Sam had homemade cookies from his Nana, as promised. Peter came with enough junk food that Bruce and Natasha joked that he’d knocked over a cinema concession stand. Clint and Thor supervised the arranging of the tables so they were more or less sitting in a circle.
“Before we get started,” Steve said, “I brought presents.”
“Any more presents and we’re all going to die of clogged arteries and rotted teeth,” Tony drawled, but Peter perked up.
“No, not food.” Steve placed a shoebox on the table, lifted the lid away carefully, and lifted out -
Iron Man. Red and gold, just as Tony had envisioned him. An inch and a half tall, a bright blue glow in the center of his chest. Spiderman, in blue and red. The Hulk, big and green, with ragged purple knee shorts. Every single hero created in miniature.
“I wasn’t entirely sure what each of you wanted, but I did my best based on what you told me -”
Natasha scooped hers up. It looked much like her, slender but curvy and wearing sleek back, carrying a pistol. “They’re perfect,” she breathed, awed.
Steve blushed, pleased. The others examined their miniatures, professed admiration of Steve’s skill. Steve was blushing so hard Tony was afraid he might catch fire. Instead he had to take a puff from his inhaler. Bucky leaned in, pressed a kiss to his hair, smiling, proud.
“Well,” Steve said, “we’re friends, and friends do nice things for each other, right? So - let’s play!”
Bucky straightened up, rubbed his hands together, and his smile, which had been sweet for Steve, turned distinctly wicked. “All right. Here goes. Let’s start with - Peter. You’re in your apartment in Queens, with your Aunt. And - Tony has just knocked on your door. Tony?”
Tony rapped on the table obediently.
Bucky pitched his voice higher. “Peter, get the door.”
“Yes, Aunt May.”
“You open the door,” Bucky said, “and there stands New York’s very own super gazillionaire, Tony Collins. What do you do?”
“Holy moly, are you really Tony Collins?”
“In the flesh, kid. You gonna let me in? And - is that your aunt? She’s hot. For an aunt. For any woman.”
“Hey!” Peter protested.
“Not your actual aunt,” Steve said gently.
“But his actual aunt is hot,” Clint said.
Peter blushed. “Yes, that’s my aunt. And no, you can’t hit on her. I don’t care how rich you are.”
Bucky grinned. “Roll a diplomacy check. See if he buys that.”
Peter selected the icosahedron die, rolled it across the table. “Twelve.”
“Tony is totally going to hit on your aunt. You let him in.”
Tony fired off his best wolf-whistle, which set the others to laughing.
Bucky said, “Tony’s here to offer you an internship at Collins Industries. Are you in?”
“What’s the internship for?” Peter asked.
Tony said, “Kid, we’re gonna change the world.”
Bucky told Tony to roll a diplomacy check. Tony had pumped a lot of bonuses into his charisma-based scores, because he knew how much charm could get a guy places looks or money or even genius couldn’t (though he was under no illusion that a good portion of his own charm was looks and money and genius - but not to these people, who didn’t know about his money or genius).
“Twenty-six,” Tony said.
Peter squinted at his sheet. “How did you -?”
“You let him in all right,” Bucky said, “and you get him a drink when he asks, leaving him alone with your aunt for two minutes. When you return from the kitchen, Tony’s got your aunt’s phone number.”
Peter looked mutinous, but the others laughed.
And Tony thought that maybe this college thing would be all right after all.