Tony knows this is what he gets.
He’s surprised to even get this much, if he’s being honest.
He’d been a nerdy outcast at his old school and he’s become one at the new school quickly enough. He doesn’t care what they call him, doesn’t care about making new friends or learning to socialize. He’s here to learn. To figure out how the world works and utilize that knowledge to push humanity towards a better and brighter future. He has goals and dreams and the drive to achieve them. High school can suck it, as far as he’s concerned.
Then he meets Steve Rogers.
Steve, who smiles and offers him the seat next to his like they’re already friends instead of groaning about being stuck with the new kid. Steve, who practically starts a fistfight in the middle of class when Rumlow calls Tony a freak of nature for getting one too many questions right. Steve, who catches up with him after class to insist Rumlow’s a caveman and Tony’s brilliant and does he want to study together sometime?
Tony’s used to being used for his brain. It’s practically par for the course with Steve’s particular type. The letterman’s jacket he’s wearing screams jock, not to mention the fact that everyone in school seems to know and adore the guy. He means to say no. Make up an excuse, wave goodbye, switch seats the next day.
Something about Steve makes him hard to say no to. How handsome he looks when he smiles doesn’t exactly hurt either.
So they study together. Sometimes they talk instead of study, which at first Tony chalks up to Steve being willing to listen to some nerd ramble if it means getting out of studying, but…he’s so attentive it’s hard to believe after long. He seems to make a point of remembering the things Tony tells him, mentioning them when Tony least expects it. He’ll ask about Rhodey sometimes, if Tony misses him (like a limb) and if there’s any update on when he’s moving to NYC (not soon enough). He’ll ask what city Tony’s parents are in this week (who knows) and if they’ll be home for the holidays (unlikely). He even asks about Dum-E, who Tony had mentioned off-handedly and Steve now refers to like it’s his loveable albeit idiotic dog. Steve mentions wanting to meet him like he means it, like he would actually be at all interested in a bucket of bolts Tony threw together for a science fair.
They’re not friends, exactly. Tony knows that. They study together and Steve smiles like he’s happy to see him and maybe Tony starts hiding in the stands at football games to watch Steve do what he does best, but Tony knows the score. Knows what he’s good for.
Then Steve kisses him, and, well. That’s just another thing he’s good for.
It happens in Steve’s room. The door is open but his mom is downstairs and honestly, Tony’s pretty sure neither of them really mean for it to happen. One minute Steve’s leaning into his shoulder, trying to get a look at the page Tony’s on. Tony turns to tell him something. Steve starts to move away, then…stops. Leans closer instead. Takes Tony’s face in one hand and meets his lips.
If Tony thinks for a minute that maybe Steve means it, well, that’s his own damn fault.
Of course the first thing Steve does when they separate is to bite his lip and ask nervously,
“Um, would you…I mean, I was thinking maybe we could—”
Tony knows how this part goes. Not tell anyone is the nice version. Keep this a secret, that’s alright. Just be fuck buddies are words he doesn’t want to hear come out of Steve’s mouth.
“Yeah, same page,” Tony agrees and Steve brightens, relieved. “We shouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Oh.” Steve forehead goes a little crinkly, a little confused, then smooths out. Probably surprised Tony agreed so quickly. “Of course. If that’s—sure.”
“Yeah.” Tony keeps his voice light. He’s not bitter. He knows this game too well to be bitter, even if Steve possibly had him fooled for the briefest of seconds. “Close the door?”
Steve closes the door and Tony puts the conversation out of both their minds.
So they’re fuck buddies. Mostly. Steve is apparently in no rush for home base, which Tony tries not to read into. Just like he tries not to read into Steve’s new way of texting him either, the miss u’s and the ur coming to my game right?? and the one good morning sunshine followed by sun and heart emojis. It’s sent at an ungodly early hour the morning after Steve knows he stayed up way too late, so it’s mostly Steve being a cheeky asshole, but Tony quietly screenshots it anyway.
He’s been going for months now but he starts letting Steve catch him attending his football games, can’t help but smile fondly at how serious Steve looks as he scans the crowd intently. Can’t help but laugh as Steve accidentally bumps into Sam who bumps into Bucky, who slaps Steve upside the head before pointing Tony out in the crowd for him. Can’t help the way his breath catches at how Steve lights up when he sees him, beaming and waving and clearly completely failing to fully understand the fuck buddy system. Tony decides, for purely unbiased reasons, that it’s not his responsibility to explain it if Steve doesn’t get it.
And Steve definitely doesn’t. Doesn’t text like it, doesn’t act like it, and certainly doesn’t kiss like it. It’s all approximating far too close to what Tony actually wants, what he dreams about nearly every night now, but Tony thinks if that were all it was he could handle that. He could excuse it away and keep his shit together.
It’s the way Steve looks at him, that’s the thing. Tony knows what it feels like to be desired. He knows the way that look itches under his skin, familiar if slightly uncomfortable, a kind of power in knowing he has the upper hand. With Steve he doesn’t think he’s ever had the upper hand. He’s not so sure Steve has either. It’s the opposite of what he knows, unfamiliar but…comfortable, in it’s own way. Steve never seems to want anything more than what he’s getting. He doesn’t expect Tony to be brilliant on cue, doesn’t act surprised when Tony’s more prickly than charming. He just gives Tony that look, eyes bright and smile soft and body gravitating into Tony’s space like he doesn’t care what Tony does so long as Tony lets him be nearby while he does it.
Tony loves it. Which is, of course, precisely the problem.
It’s been three months and they haven’t even had sex. Maybe Tony’s not good enough to use for that. Maybe Steve’s waiting, or experimenting, or any number of things. He doesn’t want to know so he doesn’t ask. He thinks they might be headed there anyway, and that…he can’t do that. Maybe three months ago he could’ve. Definitely six months ago, when Steve was just his super attractive study buddy he had a little bit of a crush on. Now…
Now all Steve has to do is look at him these days and he feels like his heart’s been twisted up and wrung out.
He thinks Steve might know. He’s been trying to talk to Steve, get him alone for a serious conversation, but Steve’s quick to kiss him and tell him what he wants to hear and Tony’s a little too weak in the knees for Steve’s please’s.
He’s determined not to let it get to that this time.
Tony knows where Steve’s final class before lunch is so he skips out of his own a few minutes early with a “headache” and waits by the door to Mr. Coulson’s history class. He catches a glimpse through the window. Steve’s profile is lit up by the afternoon sun, eyes blue as the sky and hair all but a golden halo. Tony has to turn away so he doesn’t do anything rash, like leave The Talk for another day. Or burst in there and tell Steve he loves him.
This definitely needs to end.
Class finally lets out and Tony snags a surprised-looking Steve by the sleeve of his jacket, hauls him into the janitor’s closet two doors down.
“Well, hello to you too.” Steve smiles at him, arms already circling around Tony’s waist.
“We, uh.” Tony’s not sure how to say please stop holding me without sounding like an utter jackass. He’s pretty sure Steve will figure it out. “We should talk.”
“You sure? We’re all alone in here, I can think of better things to do than talk…”
Steve’s trying to be seductive. All Tony can think is I wish I could hold your hand.
It makes his next words easier to say than he thought they would be.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
Steve’s expression just—flickers out at that, shuts down in a way Tony wasn’t expecting. He knows they were having fun, knows Steve probably liked him to some extent, but still. They were fuck buddies. How much could he really have cared?
He releases Tony slowly, like it hurts.
“You…” Steve starts, then stops. Sucks in a breath. A muscle in his jaw jumps, like he has to bite down whatever he’d been going to say. “I know you’ve been trying to tell me something. I’m sorry I haven’t been listening.”
That was Steve all over, apologizing for not hearing something Tony hasn’t even had the guts say.
“Steve, it’s not—”
“Please don’t say it’s not me.” Steve smiles but it’s small, fragile. Tony hates it.
“It really isn’t,” he tries to insist because, god, it’s the truth. It is his fault. Isn’t it always? He fell in love with someone he hardly has any business standing next to, and sure Steve kissed him first but Tony’s the one who should’ve known from the start this was never going to work. He’s too selfish not to take Steve’s easy kindness to heart.
“Then what is it?” Steve implores. “I just, I care about you so much and I—”
“Don’t say that,” Tony says quietly.
“Say what? That I care about you?” Something flashes in Steve’s expression, there and gone. “You can’t seriously expect me to turn it off that fast.”
“Look, I know this was…good,” Tony forces out. “Fun and convenient and—”
“Convenient?” Steve’s expression flickers again, lingering this time and Tony catches it. Hurt.
“I said good,” Tony amends. “Fun.”
“And convenient,” Steve repeats.
“Well, yeah. What do you want me to say here, Steve? You’re the one who—” Doesn’t love me, Tony shoves deep down inside. “Started this whole thing. And now it’s run it’s course.”
“You think I started this because it was convenient?” Steve really seems stuck on that part.
“Not in a bad way. I don’t think less of you for it, or anything. Honestly. You’re amazing, you might be one of the best people I’ve ever met—”
Steve just looks bewildered now. “Then why are we breaking up?”
“I don’t know if I’d say breaking up, just…not doing this anymore,” Tony corrects. Breaking up is for couples, the ending of a beginning they never had.
“Because it’s not convenient anymore?” God, he really can’t let that go—
“I didn’t mean to say convenient, just that—” Tony starts but Steve talks over him.
“You’ve never been convenient,” Steve insists. “Not for a single second of this whole relationship. And I don’t just mean that you weren’t a convenient option, though you weren’t, I had to invite you over a hundred times and you never asked me anywhere and you used to somehow manage not to make eye contact with me in class for weeks at a time—”
“Well, that’s—” Tony’s not sure which part he wants to argue first, the use of the word ‘relationship’ or being called actively inconvenient but it doesn’t matter because Steve interrupts again.
“But that’s not even what I mean, I mean our entire relationship has been wildly inconvenient. You won’t let me tell anyone, which obviously sucks but I agreed to that—
“Let you? Sucks?” Tony gapes but Steve’s nowhere near done.
“—except I didn’t think it’d mean you’d start avoiding even looking like my friend. I mean, come on, you dodge me in the halls unless you want to sneak off and make out or apparently break up, you still barely make eye contact with me in public, you’d rather eat alone than let me introduce you to my friends even though I promised I wouldn’t give any hint that we were anything more than friends—”
“I said no for you!” Tony all but shouts, embarrassed now. Not just at all the ways Steve’s breaking down what a jerk he’s been but especially about the friends. He remembers entirely too clearly how Steve asked, insisting Tony could sit with them like it wasn’t everything Tony wanted, all while repeating over and over again how hard he’d work to make sure they never figured out what was going on. “I wasn’t going to make you let me sit with you when you were so clearly uncomfortable with it!”
“Make me? I practically begged you to sit with us!”
“You kept insisting they could never find out what was going on! You don’t think that might’ve made me think it’d be easier for you if I just didn’t sit there at all?”
“I didn’t say they couldn’t find out, I said they wouldn’t,” Steve insists. “Why would I care if they know?”
“Why would—” Tony stutters to a frustrating, bewildered halt. “What?”
“Why would I care?” Steve just insists again, throws his hands up. “You want to talk about inconvenient? It’s been inconvenient as hell lying to my best friends, trying to pretend I’m just in love with a guy that as far as they can tell barely knows I exist when really I’m in love with my ridiculously confusing top-secret boyfriend!” Frustration gives way to horrified realization as Steve seems to hear what he just said. “Shit, I didn’t mean—I wasn’t going to tell you that. Fuck. I’m sorry, Tony, I really didn’t mean to tell you that. I definitely didn’t mean to yell it. I didn’t mean to yell anything, or make it sound like I don’t enjoy being with you because of course I—”
“Please stop.” Tony holds up a hand. Tries to catch his breath. God, this is a small closet. Why the hell is it so hot in this small fucking closet?
Steve nods, misery evident in his eyes as he dips his head.
Tony can’t possibly have fucked up as badly as he thinks he has. Right? That has to be impossible. There has to be some law of averages nonsense that keeps a person from royally screwing themselves over as seriously as he thinks he just has. Or maybe he’s the wild card fucking his life up so badly everyone else does great in comparison.
“I’m gonna need you to tell me what you think happened here,” Tony says slowly. “And I don’t mean ‘here’ as in the closet I mean ‘here’ as in…play by play of the past three months. Honestly, if you want to go back to when we first met, I’m okay with that. Pretend I’m your diary: new kid Tony Stark just got assigned to you in bio today and you’re writing it all down. Go.”
Steve stares at him. “What?”
“Please, Steve?” Tony’s a hair away from begging. Steve’s still looking at him like he’s got a screw loose but seems to hear the desperation in Tony’s voice.
“Well…first of all, you weren’t assigned to me. Mrs Simmons asked for a volunteer before you got there. I remember being the new kid, it isn’t fun. So I volunteered.”
“Great,” Tony croaks. He’s had Steve wrong from literally minute one.
“And uh, I don’t know.” Steve fidgets. “I guess you seemed…anxious. Defensive. You were so quiet and closed off until Mrs Simmons called on you, then you rattled off all those answers like—I mean, you’re brilliant. You know that. But you also finally looked confident until fucking Rumlow had to go and make fun of you for it, and then I saw you just shut down so I—” Steve clears his throat. “Well, you know the next part. You know all of this, why am I—”
“Not all of it,” Tony says. Steve looks at him strangely for a moment, holds his gaze until something seems to click.
“Tony, are you saying—”
“What happened next?” Tony interrupts. It’s too much, he thinks. Too many missing pieces. He needs to know exactly how many times and in how many ways he ruined a beautiful thing.
Steve’s still watching him with that strange look in his eyes. It’s almost like pity, though of course because this is Steve it lands closer to compassion.
“I liked you, that happened next,” Steve says, more confident this time. Like he’s daring Tony to tell him not to say it. Tony stays quiet. “Pretty much immediately. First because you were smart, then because you were funny. Then because you had a soft side when you thought no one was paying attention. After that it sort of snowballed—kind, brave, thoughtful, and it sure didn’t hurt that you were handsome. So I kissed you.”
“You did,” Tony says almost on auto-pilot. “And…then?”
He’s trying to remember what happened next as neutrally as he can. He remembers the look in Steve’s eyes as their first kiss ended and already doubts himself. He’d been so sure in the moment. Of course Steve would ask to be fuck buddies. Of course Steve didn’t want anything more. Of course Steve couldn’t care about him for real, couldn’t want…
“And then I tried to ask if you wanted to go out sometime. I don’t remember where, the movies I think? I don’t know. I was nervous, I just...wanted to be with you.”
There it is. The truth, from Steve himself: Steve had wanted to be with him once. Wanted to take him out, to tell people, to hold his fucking hand and Tony had gone and ruined it like he ruins every good thing in his life—
“Hey,” Steve asks softly. “Tony, are you—?”
“I’m fine,” Tony says curtly. “Just…keep going.”
“Yeah, what did—I said something, what did you think I meant?”
“You asked if we could not tell anyone.” Steve looks perplexed for a moment until it breaks into urgency. “Is that what this is about? Tony, it’s okay if you still aren’t ready. I know I got upset but I just—you were breaking up with me and I was hurt, okay, but if this is just about you thinking we need to go public or break up I promise I can wait. For you, I…” Steve leans closer, doesn’t take him into his arms again but it’s a near thing. “I’d do anything. I meant what I said before.”
Tony stares. “Are you saying—do you still want to date me?”
“Still?” Steve laughs, confused and amused and hopeful all at once. “I never stopped. You’re the one breaking up with me, remember?”
Tony leans up and kisses him, peppering his words between slightly desperate kisses. “Nope. Don’t remember. Do you? I don’t. Forget the whole thing.”
“Deal,” Steve agrees, pulls him in close. They kiss longer this time. Tony has to pull away first.
“You said…?” It’s as far as he can get. This is a good thing. A beautiful, amazing thing he almost ripped apart out of pure insecurity. He’s not making any more assumptions.
“That I love you?” Steve smiles softly. “You don’t have to say it back.”
“I do though,” Tony says in a rush. “Love you. So much. Which is why I, um. Should probably tell you something.”
“Okay,” Steve says gamely and god, why has Tony been shooting himself in the foot for so long? He really needs to communicate more. Count this as step one in that direction, then.
“I didn’t know we were in a secret relationship,” he admits. Steve’s expression goes very puzzled.
“We kissed.” Steve blinks. “A lot.”
“We text all day. I send you heart emojis.”
“You do.” Tony pauses, admits carefully, “I like them.”
“Well, good.” Steve smiles, squeezes him closer. “You’re getting more. But I don’t get it, I asked you to meet my friends, to come to my games, to—”
“I know, you did all the right things. I’m not saying you didn’t. I just, um. Maybe thought we were doing something else, something you didn’t understand the rules to.”
“Rules?” Steve quirks his head like an honest to god labrador retriever. Tony’s really not doing much better on the communication front. He spits it out.
“I thought you wanted to be fuck buddies and I figured that was all I could get with you so I took it, then I figured you hadn’t done this before and just didn’t understand that fuck buddies weren’t supposed to send heart emojis or talk so much or kiss like you do but I also definitely wasn’t going to correct you if you didn’t know.”
Steve stares at him. For all the puzzled looks Steve’s given him during this conversation, he manages now to top them all.
“Okay, well, at the time—”
“We never had sex!” Steve blurts. He puts a hand over his face. “Not that that’s…the key, here, I just…how could we be that if we weren’t even doing that?”
Tony winces. “I never said it was logical.”
“You…” Steve huffs a laugh. It quickly goes hysterical. “God, Tony, you’re something else. I thought you were in the closet!”
“Yes! You had trouble even looking at me unless we were completely, unquestionably alone. What was I supposed to think?” Tony opens his mouth and Steve jumps in. “Definitely not that we were that kind of buddies.”
Tony looks at him curiously. “Can you not say fuck?”
“Of course I fucking can,” Steve says.
“No, fuck, like…” Tony eyes Steve another moment. They’re still very close. They’ve been kissing, and Steve’s said the L word a handful of times. Tony decides to go for it. “Like, ‘I love you and now that we’re both aware we’re not-secretly dating, I would really like to fuck you sometime’.”
Steve’s blush is as bright as it is instant. Still, Steve is Steve and he beams for entirely separate reasons.
“I mean…” Tony waves a hand at their surroundings. “Current situation aside, I am definitely not in the closet and, given the chance, would be more than happy to shout ‘I am dating Steve Rogers’ from the top of the nearest building if you need me to.”
“Maybe not from the top of a building,” Steve concedes. He leans in and they return to kissing. Tony briefly forgets about Steve’s inability to say certain words right up until the bell rings for the end of lunch.
“Fuck me,” Steve mutters at the sound. Tony squints at him thoughtfully, then grins. Steve’s poker face really is terrible. He clearly said it on purpose and it doesn’t help that he’s biting his lip all seductively now.
“Keep doing that and we’re skipping class,” Tony warns. Steve abruptly changes his tune, releasing Tony and quickly dropping the expression.
“Our first time is not happening in a closet,” he says firmly. He’s being serious, but something about the way he says it…
“You’ve got it planned out, don’t you?” Tony grins. Steve’s blush tells him he’s right. “You do!”
“You haven’t pictured it?” Steve challenges.
“Pictured, sure. Planned…” Tony teases, bumping Steve’s shoulder with his own.
Steve moves in to give him one last kiss. It lasts longer than Tony’s expecting. When Steve finally does back away again, it’s reluctant. He’s smiling though.
Tony’s already feeling happier than he has in months, if not years. He figures it really doesn’t get any better than this.
Then Steve takes his hand and links their fingers before opening the door.