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Tony Stark is in 5th grade when Carson Sanders sits in the desk next to him and point-blank asks him who he likes. Tony looks at him for a second, shakes his head, and turns his attention back to the sketch of a swing set he's designing. God, if they were supposed to have fun at recess, they could at least not die on rotting equipment. He doesn't give any further thought to the interaction, because why should he? Being a genius has its perks, and apparently being constantly distracted by a crush was something people of higher intellect simply didn’t have to deal with.

Tony Stark is fifteen years old when he finds himself at the outskirts of a party, some type of cheep beer in hand, watching his classmates dance. Maybe he’s had too much to drink, he thinks, because the way Josh is leering at Susan can not be considered normal or acceptable, even if she smiles and dances with him like that. But there are other couples grinding and kissing and – oh, the way Malia watches Jenna has to be a step above puppy love, right? He files the information away and takes a swig of his drink, pushing past the thought that he’s never looked at someone like that. Oh well. It’s like that old saying, fake it ‘till you make it. And he's Tony Stark, goddammit, and he's going to fucking succeed.

Tony Stark is sixteen when he brings the first girl home from college, and she greets Howard and his mother like a pro, right before they sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. Her family wasn’t home, he reasoned, and staying at MIT for the holiday was stupid, especially when he could offer her a warm home and food. Honestly, he hadn’t expected her to say yes. She’d been in a few of his seminars and labs, and he admired her work from afar, occasionally stopping by to tell her when he thought something was impressive. Her smile in return was nice, and he made a mental note to try to make her happy more often. So when he’d asked if she wanted to come home with him for Thanksgiving, it was a pleasant surprise. In between bites of turkey, Maria quizzes her about college and her thoughts about the world (because what would a holiday be without politics?) but she seems to pass her rather thorough investigation. Howard asks about her projects, and Tony shifts in his seat, knowing that his father wouldn’t be impressed. When dinner is over, she helps with the plates, and Howard pulls Tony aside where no one could hear him, and tells him that he’d chosen a smart one. Still, she's pretty, and so she's worth keeping around. Tony looks him in the eye, nodding even as he secretly thinks that her brain alone should make her worthwhile.

“Your mother and I have a gala to attend tonight, as I’m sure you know, so you’ll have a bit of alone time with your girl.” He winks, and suddenly Tony feels very small under Howard’s knowing stare. “Have fun tonight.”

Tony watches as they grab their coats and the house empties out, leaving only him and the girl. “That’s the most he’s said to me since I got home,” he mutters, locking the door behind them.

“Sorry? I didn’t catch that” she says. He feels her arms wrap around his chest from behind, the room getting warmer as the blood rushes to his face. “Is everyone gone?” He nodds, and her hands move lower, settling on his hips. “Tell me if you want me to stop.”

He knows this was what Howard was getting at, knows this was why he winked as he said goodbye, and despite his thoughts telling him he really only thinks of her as a lab friend, albeit an attractive one, she was gunning for something more. And damn his feelings, but he really liked making her smile. “Let’s move someplace a little more comfortable.” No way was he doing anything on the hardwood floor, so he leads her upstairs, and ignores the way his hands shake when he grabs at the railing.

Tony Stark is at MIT three years later, but the whisper of autumn leaves outside the windows doesn’t even register to him. All he can see is lines of code, his fingers flying across the keys, and no one else in the library approaches him, even though his breath smells like booze and his headphones can be heard ten feet away. He is Tony Stark, after all, and they avoid him during the day like his touch will doom their projects. At night, however, it’s a bit harder, and that’s how he meets Rhodey. It’s a Tuesday evening, and he’s at some bar because he’s actually nineteen now and therefore an adult and there are girls pressing up against him, asking him when he’s planning on leaving and can they leave with him and one of them gets her mouth against his ear and whispers something very explicit and something in his stomach lurches and he smiles and politely excuses himself to the restroom. He’s pushing through the crowds of people on the dance floor and finally makes it to the bathroom door and damn, when did it get so hot in here? Maybe he’s had too much to drink (he definitely has, but he can convince himself otherwise) so he kneels next to the toilet, staring into the water and trying to shake off the nausea and the touches and the perfume and suddenly the door to his stall opens and he turns, too quickly. “Oh damn, my bad, it wasn’t locked,” the guy says, frozen in the awkward moment while realizing just who was on the floor. “I’ll just – “ Tony throws up on his feet.

The next thing he can remember is sitting on a bench outside, leaning on some guy without shoes. He jumps up, swaying a little, because he is still far too drunk, and stares at the dude in silence. “How much do you want?”

The other guy raises an eyebrow. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Tony shrugs, “You know, to keep this out of the papers. You’re going to sell the story, right? Actually, I should let you, it fits with everything else they print about me.”

He hears a soft chuckle, and looks up at the guy. “I don’t want money, dude.”

His heart sinks, because while he may not be after money, he wouldn’t have helped him out here with something in mind, and yeah, it’s a bit weird after he literally puked on his shoes, but there were a lot of people out there that got off on weird things so it was entirely plausible that-

A hand on his shoulder shakes him out of his thought process a little. “You good?”

Tony leans into the touch a little and reaches around to grab the man’s ass. “I will be soon”.

“Ok, you’re obviously drunk, so I’m going to make this very clear. I’m not looking for anything here, so you can quit groping me like a wasted teenager and tell me where you live so I can drop you off before you damage anyone else’s shoes.”

Tony wakes up in his own bed the next morning, and finds a glass of water and a phone number on the kitchen table. “If you’re not still drunk, I’ll be at the diner from 11-2 today. Stop by so I know you’re not dead. James Rhodes.” Tony thinks it over for a second, knocks back the water, and goes to find some clean pants. The least he can do is buy the guy some new shoes.

The diner is busy when he arrives, the cute little storefront bustling with college students taking a Wednesday lunch break. He walks to the bar and takes a seat on the stool, nods to the waitress behind the counter. She smiles and hurries over, only to bristle when he asks if Rhodes is working today. “James! You’ve got a customer!” Tony smiles at her, his press smile, and orders a cup of coffee, black. She smiles back, genuinely this time, mollified by the promise of a substantial tip and the bragging rights of a playboy Stark interaction.

Rhodes approaches, cocking one eyebrow as he sees Tony sip from his oversized coffee cup. “Honestly, I thought you wouldn’t make it. You looked like you wouldn’t see daylight until at least mid-afternoon.”

Tony pulls out his wallet, thumbing through bills before throwing a few on the table. “Look, I’m sorry about your shoes. This should cover them, and anything else I ruined.” Rhodes looks at the money with wide eyes, then pushes it back.

“Dude, I don’t care about the shoes. They were old. I just didn’t want to be responsible for your death. Make sure you’re okay and all that.” At that, Tony rolls his eyes, earning him a headache and a glass of water from Rhodes, who seems genuinely concerned about his well-being. They argue back and forth about the money, and eventually Rhodes takes forty dollars and Tony leaves the other hundred and sixty as a tip for the waitress. He hears her squeal as he walks out of the diner, and resolves to come back to get coffee more often.

Three weeks later, he considers Rhodey his closest friend.

They graduate, take pictures together, Rhodey’s mother holding the camera, and the picture is the only one on his desk when Tony moves into his office at Stark Industries, down the hall from Obie, who occupies the position of CEO.

He tinkers for the first couple of years, really. He builds JARVIS and Dummy and Butterfingers and throws new designs at Obie when he shows up asking for new weapons. He goes to press events and takes girls that Rhodey suggests, buying them shoes and dresses for the occasions and paying for dinner, grinning fiercely every time a reporter makes a suggestive comment about the two of them. He drops them off afterward, hands them a wad of cash, and thanks them. After a while, Rhodey runs out of college friends, and Obie is happy to step in. Tony doesn’t pay these girls, and soon enough, the papers are bursting with stories about his raging sex life. His playboy status is cemented.

Rhodey sends him letters from his air force training and Tony writes back, complaining about mundane life, and Rhodey convinces him to take over the company. Really, it’s a long time coming, but Obie eases him into it, makes him take on smaller duties, gives him a short list of assistants to look over.

Tony Stark is twenty-four and Virginia Potts is the only one who doesn’t perch on the corner of his desk when she comes in for the interview. He hires her on the spot. Once she signs her paperwork and he hands it to Obie, he smirks. “Redheads your type now?” Tony freezes.

“She’s got an impeccable resume.”

Obie eyes him. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

Tony leaves the room before he has to respond.

They work as a team, he and Pepper, and soon enough, he’s ready to take over Stark Industries, let Obie take the sidelines, and become the head of the world’s leading weapons manufacturer. He still goes to events, of course, still plays up the playboy personality. He flirts until he feels sick, then swipes another drink to schmooze a rich couple into buying stock. Pepper never mentions how his hands shake after the parties, how she found him sick in the bathroom after a night where he only had three drinks. He brings women home at night and she comes in the next day to find him sleeping on the couch, still in his suit, partners nowhere to be found.

Tony knows Pepper can track patterns, so he makes an effort. Pulls a woman out of the crowd at the next gala, her green dress sparkling against her deep brown curls. He talks to her, learns her name. bonds over their shared experience at MIT. They sit at the bar for hours, and at the end of a very invigorating conversation about the intersection of mechanics and the global housing crisis, she whispers in his ear and he invites her home, certain that this time will be different. She’s clearly gorgeous, her brain is phenomenal, and anyone would be lucky to have her.

Pepper sends the green dress out for dry cleaning, and it’s ready by the time Tony escorts the woman out the next morning. He smiles, kisses her on both cheeks, and Pepper hands her the bag, keeping Tony’s not-quite-press smile in her peripheral vision. The second the woman is in her car, Tony looks older, more tired, more lost, and she watches him clamber down the stairs into his workshop. She doesn’t see him the rest of the week.

Tony Stark is twenty-six when he flies to Afghanistan and doesn’t come back. Rhodey and Pepper don’t stop searching.

They find him, of course, thanks to the giant explosion in the middle of the desert, but they barely get one word of concern out before he locks himself in his workshop. He shuts down the weapons division, pours funding into the bioengineering division, and goes to expensive clubs and brings home so many partners that Pepper loses count. She sees more of the suit jackets and skimpy dresses that she carries back from the dry cleaners than she does of her boss, of her friend. She sees him in the tabloids instead, giving hickeys in easy-to-see places, drunkenly standing on bars, wearing sunglasses that hide his eyes. In the morning, she ushers out whatever new person spent the night, and Tony is nowhere to be seen. The news reads reports of terrorist organizations being destroyed.

She’s locking up the mansion one night when she spots Tony slumped on the couch, swirling the remnants of his glass. He looks up, almost surprised to see her there. “Hey, Pep.” An empty bottle of whiskey is balanced before him on the edge of the table.

She sits next to him, taking the glass out of his hands and placing it on the table before taking his hands into her own. “Tony, you’ve got to stop running yourself into the ground.” Tony looks up at her briefly, his eyes flickering back toward the glass. “Do you even like bringing all these people home? It’s been weeks.”

“Fake it till you make it, right?” he slurs, and rests his head on her shoulder. She lets him stay there for a while, and when he falls asleep, she lays him gently across the arm of the couch and covers him with a blanket.

Tony wakes up the next morning with an ache from the arc reactor and a pounding headache. JARVIS informs him that Pepper cancelled all of his appearances for the next month, and Tony can’t deny the wave of relief that sweeps through his body when he thinks of all the people he won’t have to invite back to his bed. He’s ready to go back to his workshop days, fixing the suit without trying to forget the taste of lipstick and perfume that seems to have permanently stuck on his tongue. Obie ruins that, but what else is new?

Tony Stark is twenty-eight when he announces that he’s Iron Man, behind the safety of his sunglasses. He ignores the panic when anyone asks about the suit’s power sources and dodges hands that stroke his arms, bodies that get too close when he goes to more press events. He tries to take a vacation, brings Pepper to Monaco to celebrate the changing of CEOs and is fully intending to watch the race when he spots a woman approaching him out of the corner of his eye (“Wednesday night, Conservation Gala, red dress, pink panties,” his mind helpfully supplies) and he practically runs out of his chair and into the race car.

He doesn’t die, and Pepper assigns him a new assistant, Natalie Rushman. She wears low cut shirts and tight skirts and his eyes don’t follow her out of the room when she leaves. He doesn’t have the energy to keep up appearances anymore with the palladium poisoning.

They’re in the car on the way back from the Stark Expo when she rolls the divider up between the back seat and the driver. Tony eyes her suspiciously, and jerks away when she places a hand on his knee. “What the fuck?”

“You’re not attracted to me.” Natalie says it as a fact, not a question, and the air in the car is suddenly stifling.

“No, of course I am, who wouldn’t be? But you’re my assistant, I can’t just –“

“That doesn’t stop most people.” She sits back in her seat, with pristine posture and her hands folded in her lap. “I thought I’d be more your type, you know. Redhead and all.”

The words flash through Tony’s head, echoing Obie all those years ago, and he digs his fingernails into his fist to ground himself. “Well, you were wrong.”

“No.” Natalie turns toward him, all sharp corners and smooth movements. “You don’t have a type.”

He laughs, shoving the comment away with a simple swipe of his hand. “Of course I don’t, you’ve seen the tabloids. Equal opportunity, free for all, anyone can ride this ride.” He chokes on the last words, digging a water bottle out from a cup holder.

“You don’t have a type because you’re not attracted to anybody.”

Tony laughs again, but it seems more forced. “Miss Rushman, why are we even having this conversation?”

“You didn’t deny it.”

“Stop trying to twist my words.”

“When you look at a woman, you look at her eyes first. You move down, breasts, waist, hips, then back to the eyes.” Natalie looks at him, pins him to the seat of the car with her stare. “You approach, run your hand up her arm, and talk for a maximum of twelve minutes before inviting her back to a room. You’ve got it down to a science, which would be expected of you, except that’s not what people do when they’re genuinely attracted to someone.”

“Who the fuck are you to tell me how I feel?” Natalie lunges with a syringe, sticks him in the neck and empties the contents.  For a second, he’s afraid that that’s the end, and he gets to die in a fucking car on his way home, but then he feels a rush of energy.

Natalie raps on the divider, and the car pulls over. She gracefully gets out, and looks back at Tony. “You need to work on your palladium replacement, but you also need to sort out your life. I’ll see you in the office.” She slams the door shut and walks off through the city, leaving Tony to unscramble that mindfuck of a revelation.

Tony sits back in his seat, gasping at her words. The divider rolls down, and Nick Fury stares back at him. “So, what’d she tell you? I’ll fill in the gaps.”

Tony is freshly unpoisoned and definitely not dead when he learns that Natalie’s real name is Natasha, and that she’s the best spy that SHIELD has. He avoids her as best as he can, but she is a spy, and one morning, she’s sitting in his chair when he walks into his office.

“I thought we could continue our earlier conversation.”

“Absolutely not, no.” Tony puts his laptop down on the desk and tries to push her out of the chair. She stays put.

“I’m a body language expert. I know when people are faking. You can fool the rest of the world but I can tell that it’s not real, so why are you so determined to have a terrible reputation?”

“Fuck off, Natalia.”

“It doesn’t mean you’re broken, or wrong.” Tony moves sharply toward the floor to ceiling windows, and pointedly avoids eye contact with her. She sighs heavily. “You’ll know where to find me.” It’s only after the door closes behind her that Tony sees the new purple sticky note on the top of his computer. It has one word on it.

“Asexual.”

Tony Stark is twenty-nine and he cries with the webpage open in his office, and he reads.