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Time works differently in the MIT lab. At least that’s what Tony uses as his excuse whenever Rhodey hounds him about things like “sleep” and “self-care” and “looking like a murder-zombie.” Whatever. Lack of sleep is the price of brilliance and Tony’s got a new physics formula to prove it. Or well-- the formula proves something else (something big and space-shaped and exciting) and Tony’s going to rub it in his best friend’s face once he’s up on a stage accepting his Nobel Prize.

No-bell prize?

Noble price.

Doesn’t matter. Forty-some hours without sleep might have been pushing it.

Tony glances at the clock. It’s 5:30 AM, which is too early for Dr. Banner to be in his office yet, which means it’s the perfect place for Tony to sneak in a nap before he shows his mentor what he’s found.

He leaves the lab and trudges down the hall to Bruce’s office. It’s locked which is rude. There are plenty of ways Tony could override the computer locking system but they all take brain energy he doesn’t have, so he shuffles down the hall to the first open door he finds.

He won’t sleep long. If Tony closes his eyes for twenty minutes he’ll feel so much better.

.
.
.
.

“... the third paragraph down on page twenty-seven.”

It takes Tony a second to realize he’s not dreaming. Real words are reaching his real ears and he needs to open his real eyes to make any sense out of them at all. When his eyes do slide open, he’s still not sure he’s not dreaming. This is exactly like the start of many of his early MIT Anxiety Nightmares.

He’s in a classroom. Bruce’s classroom. The class has started and yet Tony’s not entirely sure about the subject or why he’s here.

There’s something missing from this dream, though, and thankfully it’s not his pants.

“Okay,” Bruce says cheerfully. “You-- second row, new guy in the Tim the Beaver shirt. A projectile is fired horizontally in a vacuum. The projectile maintains its horizontal component of speed because…?”

And there it is. The question aimed in his direction. That’s what was missing. Unfortunately, Tony barely has time to realize he’s the one wearing the MIT mascot on his shirt before his thoughts catch up and he’s missed the first part of the question. It’s about projectiles though and if there’s one thing Tony knows it’s weapons.

“Ummm…” Tony pauses, trying to mentally replay the last 30 seconds to figure out exactly what question Bruce asked.

“It’s okay that you don’t know,” Bruce consoles kindly. “Mr. Barnes? Can you help him out?”

Bruce’s smile is like the sun. He is loving this and Tony hates him so much (and also he loves him a little for being such an absolute shit).

“The projectile maintains its horizontal component of speed because it isn’t being acted on by any horizontal forces,” the guy next to him replies, with absolutely no hesitation. It was a cake question. It was a triple-chocolate-cake-with-sprinkles question for a Stark and Tony drops his head to the desk with a thunk.

“That’s exactly right,” Bruce replies, sounding beyond amused.

The class goes on from there. Tony lifts his head up and watches as Bruce scrawls equations on the board because he’s gonna be damned if he misses another softball question thrown his way. Bruce doesn’t call on him again though. Either out of pity or to deny Tony the chance to redeem himself, he isn’t sure.

Finally, finally the class ends. Tony has no books with him, and somehow still manages to send a whole stack of things tumbling to the ground. His neighbor’s things. Christ on a cracker, Tony’s never leaving his apartment again.

He stoops to help with the mess, and that’s when he sees the book for the class. Mathematical Physics Fundamentals. Tony groans. Physics 101. Of course, this would be the book Bruce would choose.

The guy-- had Bruce called him Barny?-- joins him on the floor. He makes eye contact with Tony, and that’s when Tony gets his first good look at him.

Oh no. He’s gorgeous. Not like every day, straight out of a magazine ad for cologne gorgeous. No, he’s real and gorgeous. And he’s looking at Tony with a mix of amusement and pity and curiosity maybe. Not unbridled lust, which is what Tony would absolutely prefer.

“Sorry about that,” Tony apologizes. “This class-- I mean-- I’m not sure why I’m here--”

“Everyone feels like that at first,” the guy consoles. “I mean, we’re already a week and a half in. It was unfair of the professor to think you’d know the answer to a question we learned yesterday, off the top of your head.”

“Right? So unfair!” Tony agrees, because it a feels good to have this guy on his side. Even if the guy doesn’t know half the story.

“You looked a little lost in the other sections, too. I could help you catch up if you want? Tutor you, I mean. If you’d like the help.”

Tony pauses, shocked at the offer. It might have been the first time in his whole life a person had offered to tutor him in anything.

Three things become abundantly clear at that moment:

Tony needs coffee badly.
This guy really does not know who he’s talking to.
Tony wants to say yes.

So he does. (See point 1, lack of coffee.)

“That’d be great,” Tony says. “I’m sort of hopeless.”

Not a lie. He’s not specifying that he’s hopeless at physics. Just at life. This life thing is a lot harder than it looks.

“Can I have your number? I can text you after I get my work schedule. We could meet in the library or maybe the No-Doze cafe?”

“No-Doze,” Tony agrees quickly.

The place is a total dive and the coffee is the cheapest around. It’s also the place he’s least likely to be recognized anywhere near campus.

Since Tony had knocked off the guy’s notebook and pen, he opens it to a fresh page, writes Tony at the top and then his phone number below. The name isn’t recognizable like Anthony. Anthony Stark was in all the gossip papers over the summer. Tony… without the last name, is passably not Anthony Stark.

“Tony,” the guy reads. “It’s nice to meet you. People call me Bucky.”

“Is that what you want people to call you?” Tony asks, a little unsure because of the phrasing.

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “Sorry-- just-- not good at introducing myself, lately. I’m better at physics.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Tony says cheerfully.

Watching someone as hot as Bucky stumble his way through an introduction makes Tony feel a lot better about his chances. Tony moves to hand Bucky back the notebook and when Bucky reaches across himself to take it, that’s when Tony’s brain fills in a blank that his under-caffeinated brain had missed.

Bucky’s missing an arm.

Which is totally fine. Tony has zero opinions about the number of limbs a person needs for him to have an insta-crush on them. Unfortunately, his eyes linger for a second too long and Bucky’s expression changes a little.

“Nooooo,” Tony whispers. Out loud. Which was not at all a sound he meant to make.

“No?” Bucky asks.

“I was staring-- and I don’t want you to think I was staring because-- I’m a jerk? I’m not a jerk. Or well, I guess that depends on who you ask but I’m not that kind of jerk. I just-- hadn’t noticed? And then I noticed, and I haven’t had coffee yet and I looked for too long. Please still tutor me?”

Way to be a winner, Tony.

Thankfully, Tony’s verbal hot mess gets the look of unhappiness right off James’s face.

“I’ll text you later,” James confirms.

Tony nods and then gets the hell out of there before he can make any more of a disaster of the morning than he already has.

*

The nearest coffee is going to come from the shitty Keurig in the staff area near Bruce’s office and Tony helps himself to a mug of it before going to see his friend. Bruce laughs when Tony appears in his doorway.

“I wondered when you’d show up,” Bruce says, shaking his head. “Rough night?”

“No, actually. My night was great. Worked out that equation I was talking about the other day and came to find you, but you weren’t here at 5 am when all the best science happens,” Tony accuses.

“Weird,” Bruce says. “It’s almost like I was sleeping or something. At home. In my bed.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony groans. “Anyway, everything except what happened after class is kind of irrelevant now. I need a favor.”

“If you want an A in Physics 101 you’re going to have to earn it like everyone else,” Bruce jokes.

“Funny you should say that,” Tony says, biting at his bottom lip and looking at Bruce hopefully. “I kind of need to take your class.”

“The class you literally helped write the book for?” Bruce asks.

“That would be the one,” Tony confirms. “See-- the guy next to me thought I sounded lost-- and he offered to tutor me and he’s really hot--”

“Oh god,” Bruce says, looking absolutely delighted. “You do realize this class is 5 days a week? At 8 AM?”

No, Tony had not realized that. He’d tested out of all the usual core courses and their terrible, horrible schedules, back when he was 15.

“Don’t care,” Tony insists. “I’ll be there. You just have to ignore my presence, and also not use my last name. Call me Tony.”

“I already do that,” Bruce points out.

“In class,” Tony insists.

“I can do that, too. Though how you’re going to keep your mouth shut if I say something you disagree with in the slightest--”

“That’s another thing. I need you to teach me how to not do that.”

“How not to interrupt your professor and make them feel like an idiot? I don’t know, Tony. You’ve been doing it since you were 14. That’s not the kind of habit you break overnight,” Bruce says with a grin.

He’s enjoying this. Tony can see by the crinkles around his eyes.

“I guess you could just try not to say anything particularly wrong or stupid?” Tony proposes, even though he’s also smiling as he says it because Bruce is brilliant and he rarely says anything that’s not 50 Shades of Genius. “I’ll even do most of the grading for you,” Tony tempts.

“Why would you do that?” Bruce asks, clearly baffled by this turn of events. Tony hates grading. Even when he’s supposed to grade, he usually tries to pawn it off on someone else. Like Bruce, for instance.

“Because I need to see what legitimate wrong answers look like,” Tony explains. “Then I can use them while Bucky is tutoring me. Do I look like someone who has a lot of practice at playing mathematically challenged?”

Bruce’s mouth turns up in a smile. “Have you looked at yourself in a mirror yet this morning?”

No. Tony hasn’t. He looks down at what he’s wearing. It’s bad. Rhodey’s MIT Beaver shirt. A pair of sweatpants that have seen better days. He reaches up to pat at his hair, and just like he suspects, it’s sticking up in almost every direction.

Tony lets his forehead drop to the desk. “He really just wants to tutor me because I looked and sounded pathetic.”

“Like a kitten left out in the rain,” Bruce agrees.

He’s enjoying this way too much.

“I hate you,” Tony sulks, as he sits back up.

“No you don’t,” Bruce disagrees. “Both because we’re friends and because I’m going to let you sit in my classroom and pretend to take my class. If any other faculty notice, we’re going to say you’re observing my incredible teaching skills, because you, Tony Stark, think I’m the best professor in this building and you want to be just like me when you grow up.”

“Fine,” Tony agrees. “All that. Yes, I’ll say it.”

“You’re sure you want to do this?” Bruce asks. “You could tell him the truth, you know. Barnes seems like a good guy.”

“Not interested,” Tony says plainly. “Please-- just let me do this how I need to do it.”

Bruce shrugs. “Welcome to Physics 101,” he says, lifting his mug of coffee in a toast. “Let’s see what we can do to believably turn you into a struggling student.”

Tony smiles in relief and raises his own mug to clink against Bruce’s. “How hard can it be?

*

(Group Text)

Steve: We’re on the fourth floor off to the right if you’re looking for us.
Steve: It’s fine if you aren’t.
Steve: I just want you to know where we are if you need to find us.
Steve: (in the library.)
Bucky: figured.
Bucky: can’t meet up.
Bucky: gotta run over to work.
Clint: They called you in last minute AGAIN? That’s such bullshit.
Bucky: no. offered to tutor someone in physics. need to figure out what hours I work this week to set up a time.
Steve: That’s great, Buck!
Sam: JBB made a friend.
Sam: The world might be ending.
Sam: This calls for drinks.
Clint: Drinks!!!
Bucky: not a big deal. i felt sorry for the guy.
Clint: Is he hot?
Bucky: not relevant?
Sam: He’s hot.
Clint: Pic?
Sam: Physics 101, so he’s a freshman. Oh my god your hot guy is 18.
Bucky: didn’t say he was hot and he’s not 18. closer to my age than anyone else there. over 21 at the least.
Steve: It’s nice of you to offer to help
Steve: Even if it’s for sure because he’s hot.
Bucky: et tu, steve?
Steve: Me tu. Good luck with the tutoring.
Steve: of the hot guy.
Sam: JBB on a date. I never thought I’d see the day.
Clint: HAVE FUN WITH YOUR STUDY BUDDY (Kissy face emoji)
Bucky: Have fun with your hand.
Clint: Five times a day.
Clint: Minimum.

*

By dinner, Tony’s a bundle of over-caffeinated nerves. Bucky hasn’t texted yet. So either he figured out who Tony is somehow and he’s trying to figure out how to cancel, OR he figured out who Tony is and he’s selling the story to TMZ.

Either way, not cool.

“Whyyyy can’t I find anyone who likes me for me?” Tony complains.

“What do you think I’m hangin’ around here for?” Rhodey asks from the kitchen. “The wifi?”

“He does have fast wifi,” Natasha says, from where she’s made herself comfortable in Tony’s favorite chair.

“I like you for you, most of the time,” T’Challa adds, without looking up from his phone. “I also like the wifi.”

“None of you count,” Tony sulks.

“Then what’s this about?” Rhodey prods.

Rhodey prods at everything because he’s secretly an 80-year-old Italian grandmother parading around in a twenty-five-year-old’s body.

“There’s a guy--” Tony starts.

“Always,” T’Challa interjects. “But he must be a good one if he has you this flustered.”

“It’s not-- there’s not-- I’m not flustered,” Tony stumbles.

“Who do I need to cut?” Natasha asks seriously.

Tony is mostly sure she asks things like that to keep up her carefully maintained image of malice when in reality Natasha is only a little bit likely to pull a knife from her boot to make a point. Or maybe Bucky will end up with a horse head in his bed in the morning.

It is really hard to tell with her.

“No stabbing,” Tony insists. “Unless it’s me and it’s to put me out of my misery. I made a mistake. And then-- the guy-- did I mention he’s hot? Because he is really, astonishingly hot. But they guy mistook me for a Freshman and kiiiiind of offered to tutor me in physics.”

“Oh wow,” Rhodey says, in delight. “Please tell me you took him up on it.”

“It’s not funny,” Tony groans. “And for the record, I did take him up on it, because I’m a problem. I am my own worst enemy.”

“So tell him the truth,” T’Challa suggests calmly, as if that is the easiest thing in the world. And it probably is for someone like him. Someone who doesn’t overcomplicate every single moment of the day. Someone who is good and honest, because goodness and honesty come naturally to him.

“That’s even worse,” Tony says. “I’d rather be some hopeless nobody than me. All the bad stuff from June hasn’t died down yet.”

They, as a friend group, don’t talk about the Bad Stuff From June. Tony had said “I don’t want to talk about it,” and they love him enough to wait that out.

Tony hated even thinking about the summer and he wished more than anything that the whole mess would fade away completely and never return. For the indefinite future, a quick google search for Anthony Stark might as well be a list titled “101 Reasons Why Dating Me is a Bad Idea and Nothing But Trouble.”

“You do you, Tones,” Rhodey says gently, interrupting Tony’s thoughts. “And we’ll be here to keep you company, no matter what.”

T’Challa nods seriously. “You will never be a nobody. And what happened--”

“What allegedly happened,” Natasha chimes in.

“Allegedly happened,” T’Challa corrects. “It doesn’t define you. Anyone who knows you, knows that.”

“How can we help?” Nat asks. “In for a penny, in for a pound, right?”

“I need the book for the class,” Tony says. “If any of you still have it. Physics 101.”

“Isn’t that the book you helped write?” Rhodey asks.

“Yes, Mr. Obvious,” Tony replies. “I do have a copy already but it’s the proof copy and I think it’ll be kind of obvious if I walk in with the version I sharpie’d all over with corrections.”

“Oh, is this the one that made the original author cry?” Natasha asks, with interest.

Tony rolls his eyes. “I’m sure Bruce was exaggerating.”

“I read your comments, Tones,” Rhodey teases. “You said, and I’m pretty sure I’m quoting you here-- “This section might as well include a paragraph on diaper changing cause it treats the reader like a baby and it’s full of shit.”

Natasha laughs. “Please tell me you really wrote that in marker and handed it back in.”

“In my defense, I was 17,” Tony says. “And I wasn’t wrong.”

T’challa laughs hardest of all.

“I’ll go with you to the bookstore,” Natasha suggests, glancing down at her smartwatch. “I need to get in some steps today anyway.”

Tony seriously doubts that, but he does appreciate that his friends are as supportive as they are.

“You don’t think this is all going to blow up in my face?” Tony asks, a little hesitantly.

“Oh no, this is totally gonna blow up in your face,” Rhodey smiles, holding out the spoon of quickly cooling chili for Tony to taste. “But that’s what you’ve got us for. Alexa, add Ben and Jerry’s to the shopping list.”

“And vodka,” Natasha adds.

“And play Despacito,” T’Challa orders, with a grin.

“Ben and Jerry’s and Vodka have been added to the shopping list,” a polite, British man’s accented voice replies. “Despacito is not recognized.”

“That’s not Alexa,” Rhodey accuses. “Have you been messing with the Echo again?”

Tony shrugs. “Alexa wasn’t cutting it.”

And just like that, the subject is changed and his friends are off on some other tangent. Which is fine because for the first time in his life Tony has people he can be real with and who love him anyway. So if Bucky doesn’t text that’ll be okay. He should probably wait until he does to buy the book, or it’ll be a waste of a walk and more coffee money than Tony wants to think about.

*

Bucky: got my work schedule. you free tomorrow after class?
Tony from Physics:
Tony from Physics:
Tony from Physics: Yes, I am. We could walk to No-Doze together.
Tony from Physics: If you want.
Tony from Physics: Unless that’s awkward.
Bucky: it’s not awkward.
Bucky: see you tomorrow.
Tony from Physics: Awesome! Thanks!
Tony from Physics: I could really use the help.

*

“Ughhhhhhhh,” Tony groans into the quiet darkness of his bedroom, after twenty more minutes with no response.

Why does he even try?

*

Tony is not late to class the next day and he isn’t under-caffeinated. He’d gotten up at the ungodly hour of 6 AM, when Rhodey got up, and he’d shuffled himself out to the table where as promised, Rhodey slid a cup of hot coffee in front of him. Then Rhodey headed out the door for his morning run, and left Tony to sip his sweet caffeine in peace.

By the time Tony had taken his seat in Bruce’s class he felt like a real person, and that real person couldn’t stop looking at the door every 30 seconds.

When he arrives, Bucky looks much less awake and only makes it into his seat with seconds to spare. He and Tony can only exchange quick hellos and nothing more.

Class goes okay. Bruce mostly ignores Tony, and only tosses one question Tony’s way. Tony doesn’t get it completely wrong-- he wants to, but his brain refuses. What he does do is start in the wrong and let Bruce coach him through to the correct answer. It’s passable for a struggling student, and Bucky smiles at Tony encouragingly once Bruce has moved on to someone else.

That smile. Wow. When was the last time someone has smiled at Tony like that? It’s definitely been a while.

When it’s Bucky’s turn to answer a question, he’s far more competent than Tony had let on. Bucky understands the coursework, and Tony’s heart gives a little flutter at the sound of Bucky rattling off Ampere’s circuital law. Science gets him hot. He can’t help it.

When the bell rings and everyone’s packing up, Bucky turns in his seat.

“You still up for coffee and studying?”

Tony nods, probably a little too eagerly. “Yeah, absolutely. It’s a lot to catch up on.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he regrets saying them. He hasn’t come up with a good excuse for starting the class two weeks late. If Bucky asks for one it’s gonna be one more lie on a whole heap of lies. Thankfully, Bucky didn’t ask. He simply finishes zipping up his book bag and waits for Tony to do the same.

“You answered your question okay,” Bucky points out. “Better than yesterday at least?”

“I bought the book last night,” Tony says. Which-- upon second thought, also sounds a little suspicious maybe, even though that one is the truth? The thing is Tony usually never bothers with his class books. Most of them can be found on the internet if you know where to look, and it seems stupid to spend the money when it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Back when he was 15 and Howard was still fully supporting him, Tony’d bought everything on any class list, but now that he’s keeping an eye on his own finances, Tony is a lot more frugal.

Again, Bucky seems to overlook any oddness in Tony’s response and moves on with a smile.

“So you studied then?” Bucky asks. “Lookin’ to impress me?”

Tony laughs. “Would it?”

“Yeah,” Bucky admits. “But it’s not me you gotta impress. It’s Doctor Banner.”

“I think I’d rather impress you,” Tony says firmly. “How’d you end up in Physics 101?” he adds conversationally. “I think we’re the two oldest students in the room and this stuff’s not giving you any trouble.”

“Late to the party,” Bucky says. “I was in the army first.” He nods to his left side. “Lost my arm and had to take a long look at what I wanted to do with my life. My friend Steve’s a student at Boston Art and Design. So I applied to MIT. Kind of couldn’t believe when they let me in. Guess my essay was the right kind of pitiful.”

“I don’t think MIT lets people in on pity,” Tony says quietly.

“What about you?” Bucky asks, which Tony really should have expected.

“I’ve been around for a while,” Tony says. “But I managed to avoid Physics 101 until now.”

“Those core subjects will get you every time,” Bucky says, not questioning Tony’s words in the slightest. “So inquiring minds-- or well, really just one idiot friend of mine-- wants to know how old you are. He keeps teasing me for texting a Freshman.”

“I’m twenty-three,” Tony says. “You?”

“Twenty-five,” Bucky replies. “But I feel older. I guess I’ve just lived through a lot, you know? It can be hard to connect.”

There’s silence for half a minute and it’s just as well. Tony is stricken with a sick sort of feeling in the pit of his stomach, and it’s not because of Bucky’s arm. No, it’s that Bucky is being totally upfront and truthful and Tony is a dishonest bog troll.

“I didn’t mean to be such a downer,” Bucky says, totally mistaking Tony’s quiet for awkward silence.

“Oh, shit-- no!” Tony says adamantly. “I was just thinking. I do that. A lot. Think, I mean. Get lost in my head. Sometimes even when words are happening. It has nothing to do with your arm, I swear.”

Good Lord, no wonder he never gets more than a handful of dates when people don’t know his name and aren’t after his money. He is awful at this.

Bucky laughs when he notices the look of horror on Tony’s face.

“I do that, too,” Bucky says. “Go somewhere else when I’m thinking. When I was a kid, people always thought I was up to something.”

“Were you?” Tony asks.

Bucky gets a mischievous look in his eye. “Usually.”

“Then that’s something we have in common.”

It only takes the one thing to get them started and they chat easily all the way to the No-Doze Cafe. It’s comfortably crowded and they have to stand and skulk for a minute to get a table. Once they do, they finally get to the math and damn, Bucky is smart. Numbers come to him in a similar way as they come to Tony. Almost like you can see them in the air, swirling around, painting themselves on an invisible panel where equations float before your eyes. Tony yearns-- longs-- to be able to launch into math of his own.

Tony imagines it’s something like being a virtuoso violinist and watching a concert of all your favorite songs happening, but you have to watch from the audience and can’t be on the stage.

Tony has to stick to the script. He needs to keep his mouth shut. He can’t share his favorite shortcuts with one of the few people Tony has ever spoken with who might understand and appreciate them.

Basically, he’s a living row of three heart-eye emojis followed by a sobby face one, and it’s all his own fault.

Tony and Bucky are sitting at a table with books, notes, and coffee cups scattered around them. Bucky is pointing out something in the textbook, but Tony only has eyes for Bucky.

“That’s probably enough for today,” Bucky says after about half an hour of Tony trying desperately to hold in all his favorite math. “You’re eyes are starting to glaze over.”

Shit. Tony had lost track of his actual classwork back around Paganini’s Caprice No. 24.

“Sorry,” Tony apologizes somewhat delayed. “You’re great.” Realizing what he’s just said out loud he adds, “At math. Great at math. Thank you for taking the time to go through that with me.”

This Tony does say with sincerity. God, he’s the absolute worst. He’s wasting Bucky’s time. He’s never going to be able to explain this con. He really ought to end it now.

Tony’s phone chimes before any of that manages to escape from his mouth. He glances at the screen. It’s Peter, a kid (an actual kid-- he’s 15) who was an early admit to MIT just like Tony was nearly a decade ago. They meet up a couple times a week so Tony can make sure Peter’s experience is nothing like the lonely, trial-by-fire that 13-year-old Tony had endured before he met Rhodey in his third year.

“Sorry, I need to send a text really quickly,” Tony says. “It’s my friend,” he adds, so Bucky doesn’t somehow mistake this for some kind of boyfriend situation.

“You apologize a lot for someone who hasn’t done anything wrong,” Bucky teases.

It stuns Tony to hear out loud. If Bucky knew half of what Tony needs to be apologizing for, then he’d understand why Tony can’t seem to stop saying he’s sorry.

“It’s a habit,” Tony says. And that’s not a lie. He does apologize a lot. Natasha’s pointed it out before, too. Probably something that has to do with spending his whole life being made to feel sorry for existing. His mom hadn’t wanted kids. His dad had wanted a kid, just not one like him.

It’s better not to think about it.

“Well, don’t feel like you owe me any of your sorries,” Bucky says, putting away his book. “I won’t be insulted if you text your friend back. I’ve gotta run anyway. I’ll see you tomorrow in class?”

“8 am,” Tony agrees

There’s a pause then Bucky speaks again. “Hey-- feel free to say no. But do you think you might like to get coffee sometime?”

Tony looks down at the coffee on the table and then looks up and smirks. “You mean like the coffee we just drank? Right here? Five minutes ago.”

“Yes,” Bucky says. “Exactly like that coffee, but without the books. Unless you’re attached to the books, and then go ahead and bring them along. I can work with that.”

It’s nice to see Bucky not quite so cool in his attempt to ask Tony on a maybe date? Is that what he’s asking?

“Not that I’m ever one to turn down coffee,” Tony said, “but what are your thoughts on beer and pizza? There’s a dive bar near my apartment… best food around, my treat.”

Bucky looks surprised. Maybe Tony had interpreted the coffee request wrong. But then Bucky smiles, and he almost looks grateful.

“Yeah, I’d like that,” Bucky says. “M’off Sunday night if that works. You can’t pay though. I’m the one who asked.”

“That works,” Tony agrees. “I’ll text you the address?”

“It’s a date,” Bucky says, and then as soon as the words are out of his mouth he winces. “I mean-- that’s a saying. No pressure. If this is friends getting pizza. I--”

Tony can’t help but beam. It feels great to not be the only disaster in the room.

“I’m familiar with the expression,” Tony assures him. “No pressure.”

He leaves the coffee shop smiling.

He has a date.

*

“What’s this?” Peter asks.

They’re in Tony’s apartment on Friday afternoon, and they are supposed to be going over Peter’s Molecular Biology essay before they walk over to the rec center to indoor rock climb, but Peter is as observant as ever and he’s spotted Tony’s half-done Intro to Physics homework.

“And why is so much of it wrong?” Peter adds, looking up in alarm. “This is your handwriting, right?”

He looks so confused and horrified, Tony laughs out loud. After all, it is his homework and it is very very wrong.

“It’s a long story, Pete.”

“Did you have a stroke or something?” Peter asks. “Are you secretly terrible at physics? I could help you. Except… wait-- didn’t you write the book on--”

Peter’s eyes land on Tony’s book: Mathematical Physics Fundamentals, sitting next to the homework and they widen in surprise.

“Ughhhhh fiiiiine,” Tony sighs dramatically. “You get an explanation. I may have left someone under the impression that I was bad at physics so they’d tutor me. And now I’m kind of stuck. Because I like him. A lot. I am a cautionary tale for all things stupid, so learn--”

“Whaaaat?,” Peter interrupts in delight. “That kind of lie never works! This is going to be a disaster! You’ve gotta fess up!”

“How would you know?” Tony asks defensively.

“I’ve seen a lot of Hallmark movies, man.”

“You really want to admit that?” Tony says.

“Yeah, yeah. Aunt May likes the Christmas ones,” Peter waves him off. “And I am confident enough in myself--”

“Aunt May. Right,” Tony teases.

“This tutor guy must be really something if you’re willing to fail physics for him.”

“I’m not failing anything,” Tony says. “Bruce is teaching the class and he’s letting me sit in and pretend to be a student.”

“Bruce is in on this,” Peter says in wonder. “Like Dr. Banner Bruce? This is a Hallmark movie. I want to meet him!”

“You’ve already met Bruce,” Tony insists, knowing full well that Peter means Bucky.

“No,” Peter said. “The guy. The tutor.”

“You’re not meeting him,” Tony says. “It wouldn’t make sense that I’m tutoring you if I need a tutor.”

“You aren’t exactly tutoring me,” Peter objects. “You’re mentoring me, that’s different. And we could always tell him I’m the one who’s tutoring you in Bio.”

“Not a chance, kid,” Tony argues.

“So what’s he like?” Peter asks. “Is he.... an unemployed caterer? A sea captain with a heart of gold? Oh! Does he look like he could be Santa’s son? Every love interest in a Hallmark movie has a thing.”

“He doesn’t have a thing,” Tony disagrees.

Which makes Peter giggle like the fourth grader he practically is.

“I hate you,” Tony declares. “I’m trading you in for another mentee. Someone with a little less sass.”

Peter looks ready to protest when there’s a knock at the door. Tony eyes it with suspicion. Rhodey, Nat and T’Challa all have keys and they’re the only people who ever come by. There’s another knock, harder this time.

Tony stands, holds up a finger to tell Peter to hush, and looks out the keyhole.

“Please let it be Hallmark guy,” Peter whispers.

It is not.

“Great,” Tony mutters then opens the door. “Yes?”

“It’s recycling day,” M’Baku insists, stepping past Tony to enter the apartment like he owns the place.

M’Baku is T’Challa’s new roommate. They’d gone to boarding school together as kids, and now M’Baku is spending a semester at MIT as part of his doctorate work, and since he’d moved in across the hall, a couple weeks previous, he’d been on a one-man mission to save the planet from Tony and Rhodey’s poor recycling habits.

“Smart water?” M’Baku asks, pulling a plastic bottle out of the recycling bin with a reproachful glare. “Do you hate this planet, Tony?”

“Blame Rhodey,” Tony deflects. “That wasn’t me.”

“It was me,” Peter says somewhat meekly. “Hi. I’m Peter.”

M’Baku’s eyes turn to Peter and they stay there for longer than can be considered polite. Tony’s about to say something, but then M’Baku’s face softens.

Peter’s giant puppy-dog eyes have that effect on people.

“Reusable water bottles from now on,” M’Baku declares in a way that would be impossible to argue. “I have one for you. Wait here.”

“I didn’t know environmentalists could be so… intense,” Peter whispers, as M’Baku storms out of the apartment.

Tony nods. “To tell you the truth, I think he’s the first Environmental Sciences major I’ve ever met who I thought really might change the world. I wouldn’t want to be the Climate Change denier standing in his way..”

M’Baku stalks back in, sits a reusable water bottle in front of Peter emblazoned with the words WAKANDA FOREVER in neon green, then returns to his task of sorting through the trash and recycling and ranting. Tony and Peter promise to do better next time, and M’Baku goes back to his task. Ten minutes later, they’re preparing to leave when he joins them at the table.

“Whose homework is this?” he asks, staring down at the paper sitting on the edge. “It’s all wrong.”

“That would be mine,” Tony admits. “It’s a long story.”

“One I don’t need to hear,” M’Baku says, holding up a hand. “Get yourself a tutor, Stark. This is a disgrace.”

Peter and Tony burst into random laughter for the rest of the night.

*

As the pizza date gets closer, Tony thinks more and more about the truth. He and Bucky text off and on all day Saturday and Sunday and the thought of how spectacularly this lie is going to blow up in his face haunts Tony’s every waking moment.

Peter isn’t wrong. It would be impossible to maintain a lie like this long-term and the longer Tony wastes Bucky’s time the more angry Bucky will be when the truth inevitably comes out.

Life isn’t a Hallmark movie. Lies aren’t cute; they’re gross.

So it isn’t that Tony intends to continue on through the semester deceiving Bucky, so much as he needs to figure out the right way to break out the truth. By Sunday at 7, Tony’s come up with a plan, that mostly involves ripping the lie off like a band-aid. It makes a lot of sense right until Tony lays eyes on Bucky, waiting on the sidewalk in front of Plank’s Pizza.

Bucky has shown up to their date-not-date looking gorgeous. In class every day, Bucky dresses in workout pants and comfortable looking t-shirts. In the week Tony’s known him, this is the first time Tony has seen him in jeans. And damn does he make jeans look good.

It isn’t just the jeans, though. Bucky has on a dark gray shirt, that emphasizes the flecks of gray in his eyes, and he’s clearly put in some effort for the evening. Bucky clearly wants this to be a date and Tony does, too.

Tonight doesn’t feel like the right time for the truth.

The truth is an ugly thing and is better reserved for Monday morning. Mondays are already the worst.

“You look nice,” Bucky says, giving Tony that same small smile that melts Tony’s insides every time he sees it.

Tony has been so distracted by Bucky’s good looks he has completely forgotten he’d made an effort as well. Or at least as much of an effort as was appropriate for Sunday night pizza which mostly involved himself flopping dramatically on Rhodey’s bed over and over, asking for help to look normal. Ordinary. Anything but Anthony Stark.

Rhodey and Nat had taken pity on him and sent Tony out the door looking date-ready in dark, nicely-fitted jeans and a soft blue sweater. Judging by Bucky’s smile, they did him up right.

“You look nice, too,” Tony says, a little later than he should have. “Sorry-- thinking again.”

“Can hardly blame you for it when you’ve already warned me a dozen times you get stuck in your own head, can I? I like that you’re honest.”

Oh God, no. Bucky likes honesty. Tony really is so fucked beyond all reason. He very nearly bails right there on the spot. His anxiety must show on his face.

“Is tonight a bad night for this?” Bucky asks, sounding gently concerned.

“No,” Tony says quickly. “It’s a good night, actually. I’m just a piping hot mess.”

“Think pizza might fix that?” Bucky ventures.

“And a beer, yeah,” Tony agrees.

“Then let’s get pizza and a beer in you. You can’t be the nervous one, cause I already called dibs on nerves back at my apartment,” Bucky explains. “Not that you could hear-- but Stevie and Clint heard all day. Sam, too, and he got so sick of it he went to his sister’s.”

“That bad, huh?” Tony asks, smiling at Bucky’s story.

“Shirts aren’t really made for the one-armed,” Bucky confesses, which seems a bit like a non-sequitur until Tony puts together what he’s saying: He’d spent the day worrying about how he’d look tonight. “And I can’t always get’em pinned back how I want them. Not the kind of stuff you need goin’ on when you’re looking to impress someone and you’re already convinced you’re gonna make an idiot out of yourself.”

“And you were looking to impress me?” Tony asks, pleased.

“Well, I’m sure a shit not looking to impress Dr. Banner,” Bucky replies.

Finally Tony feels the tightness in his chest give way. “I think I’m glad about that,” he says. “For what it’s worth, I’m not just saying you look nice to say it. You’re really hot. All the time. But especially tonight.”

The look Bucky gives him makes the honesty worth the awkwardness.

“I’ll give you the dibs on nerves since you called them,” Tony adds. “But I wasn’t doing too hot myself getting ready, even with two arms. I laid on Rhodey’s bed for a while, until he got sick of me and put me in this sweater. Everything I own is either…” Tony isn’t sure about the whole truth, but a little truth is probably getting necessary at this point. “It’s all either too much or not enough. Story of my life, probably.”

There. Truth-ish.

“Better the story of your life than the name of your sex tape, right?” Bucky ventures.

Tony laughs. “That sounds right.”

The mood between them lightens. They’ve gotten through both their nerves and they walk inside together. The bar is dark. So dark it takes Tony’s eyes a couple seconds to adjust to the dim light that filters through the mismatched faux-Tiffany lamps overhead.

It’s the type of restaurant where you seat yourself, and they take one of the few unoccupied booths back near the kitchen. It feels different between them without the Physics book out on the table. Tony hadn’t realized just how much he’d been using it as a shield until it isn’t there.

“You want to split a pizza or get two small ones?” Tony asks, not bothering with a menu since he has the offerings here memorized..

“Split,” Bucky say, tapping his menu lightly on the table. “Now we’re gonna have to start with the most controversial conversation topic of them all: toppings.”

“Oh no,” Tony fake whispers. “You’re not going to want onions are you?”

“Pepperoni and banana peppers,” Bucky says. “But I’m always up for living dangerously. You got any favorites?”

“Bacon?” Tony suggests.

Bucky nods in approval. “That’s the sort of lunacy I can get behind.”

The waitress appears a few seconds later, and once the pizza and the beer are ordered conversation comes naturally. They talk about movies and books and classes and roommates, and after Bucky’s walked him home, Tony can’t really remember how they had managed to get from one subject to the other. He just knows that he’d enjoyed their conversation more than any date he’s ever been on and tomorrow morning will be Monday and Monday is a day that is meant for the truth.

But probably like next Monday, though.

*

Monday comes and goes without confession. Tony and Bucky sit next to each other in Physics, walk to the coffee shop talking the entire way, study together for as long as Bucky’s got until he needs to move along, and then they text off and on all day.

Every day is the same. Perfect.

The longer the lie stretches out behind him, the harder it is for Tony to come up with a logical way to introduce it. He knows he’s playing a dangerous game.

He might be a C list celebrity, but some people around campus do know him. Tony takes to wearing hats (bad hair days, he explains) and shapeless hoodies (it’s getting colder, he says) and sticking to places where he knows no one ever bothers him like the third floor of the library and the No-Doze cafe.

It all seems fine to Bucky. If he notices there is anything strange about Tony’s behaviour he never says. Quite possibly, Tony realizes, because Tony had been totally weird since the start.

The next thing Tony knows it’s Friday afternoon and he’s smiling down at his phone.

“Have you kissed him yet?” Peter asks, watching Tony closely.

“I’m not having this conversation with a teenager, Pete,” Tony says. “It’s not your business.”

“So that’s a no,” Peter says, with a victorious smile.

“What part of ‘not your business’ is confusing you?”

“The part where you act like kissing is only for old people. Kissing is rated G, so you’re just being evasive. M’pretty sure there was some kissing in Bambi.”

“I’m pretty sure there was not,” Tony retorts. “Have you ever seen Bambi?”

“Two grown up deer make a baby deer,” Peter says, stuffing several nacho-flavored combos in his mouth at once. “They must have kissed.”

“There are so many troubling things about that statement I don’t even know where to start,” Tony sighs. “One, what Bucky and I do or don’t do really is not your business. Two, you need to watch some Animal Planet if you think deer kiss while they get it on. Three, if Bambi did include deer-sex, you weren’t watching the Disney version, I promise you. And four, and probably most important, let’s never talk about this again. I’m traumatized. You have traumatized me.”

Peter’s grin is entirely unapologetic. “That’s still a no. What are you waiting for? The truth? Because you really should just tell him. Or kiss him. Or both.”

Tony bangs his head down (dramatically) (all right, over-dramatically) against the table. That’s why it takes him a few extra seconds to realize the loud banging that is still happening once he stops, is coming from the door.

Peter hops up from his chair and runs over, swinging the door open and greeting M’Baku with a smile.

“I already sorted the recycling for you,” Peter greets enthusiastically. “I did have a few questions thought. I made a pile. Well, I made a couple piles. Six. Six piles.”

M’Baku looks like he’s about to say something snarky, then realizing Peter is giving this his best he gives Peter an approving nod. “I’m glad someone around here is looking out for our future. No more bottled water?”

“I’ve been using the reusable one you gave me,” Peter says importantly.

Tony rolls his eyes. Peter is eventually going to have to get over all his people-pleasing or he’ll be setting himself up for a rough future. Tony knows from experience.

Still, he doesn’t interrupt their chat, because it gives him an out from the Bucky conversation. No, he and Bucky haven’t kissed yet, and anyway, two weeks is only just at the edge of where that might be a thing. Tony gave up the one-night-stands in his early twenties and that was a glad goodbye. So now he’s not really in a rush, but there’s also another reason he hasn’t pushed for it: it would feel wrong, while lying to Bucky. Wrong and spectacularly unfair.

Bucky’s thoughts on kissing… that’s a mystery.

They get along great when they spend their mornings together. There’s definitely a certain tension that hang in the air at the end of any time they’re alone, but it’s all so mixed up with the lies and the truth and the coffee, Tony really doesn’t want to think about it. He speaks up before he knows what he is saying.

“M’Baku? Have you ever seen Bambi?”

M’Baku has. And he has Opinions.

*

Tony and Bucky plan a staying-in style date for Saturday night, and thankfully Rhodey pitches in on the cleaning efforts so at least the living room and Tony’s room and the bathroom are clean enough for company. The kitchen is left a staging area for junk that has no where else to go, but that’s fine because the plan is to order dinner from SoupSoupSoup and that will come with bowls and spoons and napkins. As long as M’Baku never finds out about the styrofoam, Tony will be in the clear.

The only thing holding Tony back from excitement is that he has finally decided tonight has to be the night for the truth. Tony has put it off for as long as he can, but his lies and omissions are becoming unconscionable. He likes Bucky-- he really likes him. There’s no way a continued lie can be explained away as anything but intentional deceit at this point.

Which is why Tony is nothing but nerves all afternoon. Thankfully Bucky arrives on time, because in another ten minutes Tony would have worn a path into the carpet from all his pacing.

When he opens the door, Bucky’s face lights up like he’s the lucky one here. His smile only grows as he walks inside and takes in the space. Tony tries to imagine what the living room must look like through someone else’s eyes. The place is quirky, no doubt. Even clean, it’s a bit mad science, for sure. There are jars of bolts and nuts and gears scattered on shelves, and there’s a giant poster of Tesla on one wall and a life-size, signed, cardboard cut-out of Jason Wilkes on the other. (Jason Wilkes is an incredible scientist who’d worked with Howard and Aunt Peggy back in the day, and Rhody’d about shit a brick when he found out Tony knew him.)

The cut-out had been the first Christmas present Tony had ever given his BFF.

This apartment is them and Tony wonders if maybe it will reveal way too much before they’ve had dinner and Tony fesses up to his mistakes.

“You want the nickel tour?” Tony asks Bucky, with as much lightness as he can inject into the words.

“Do you take IOUs?” Bucky asks.

“I’m sure we can work something out,” Tony agrees. “This is the living room. That’s the kitchen,” he says, gesturing toward the fridge and the disaster that is the counters. “That’s the bathroom through there if you need it. That’s Rhodey’s room,” he points. “And this one is mine.”

The door is already open and he steps aside to let Bucky wander in.

Tony doesn’t spend all that much time in here, preferring the company of Rhodey and Nat and T’Challa who are usually in the living room, so it isn’t like it’s overly personalized, but he’s still happy with it. The dresser is covered in framed pictures of him with his friends. There’s a picture of the Jarvises, too. There had been a picture of Bruce and Tony together at a conference from the previous year, but Tony’d hidden it in a drawer to avoid any awkward questions until it’s the appointed time for the Inevitable Awkward Questions.

But of course (because everything Bucky does is exactly the right thing) the first thing Bucky notices is Dum-E.

The little, remote-control-car-sized robot, swings his arm in a wild circle of greeting as soon as they walk in the door, and the movement grabs Bucky’s attention. He moves over to the desk and leans down to get a better look.

“Who’s this little guy?” Bucky asks, sounding fascinated.

“You didn’t think I got into MIT on my looks alone, did you?” Tony asks. “Robotics has always been my thing. This is Dum-E. I’ve got bigger, better robots in the lab but Dum-E is… special. And needy. He doesn’t like to be anywhere else.”

There are a lot of words for what Dum-E is, and none of them will make sense outside of Tony’s head.

“What’s he do?” Bucky asks.

He waggles his finger and Dum-E moves his arm in jerky imitation.

“You’re looking at it,” Tony says. “On a good day, he might grab a pencil and try to wheel it over to me, but a broken clock is right twice a day, too. He’s not all that interested in performing on demand.”

“But you keep him,” Bucky says, knowingly.

“Not everything’s got to be useful, to be worth keeping around,” Tony says simply.

“That sounds like a story.”

“And not a very good one,” Tony agrees. “My dad has a different opinion about usefulness and productivity. I made Dum-E when I was 11 and he could do more back then, but dad wasn’t interested in my junk projects and when I kept trying to show him off, dad got irritated and knocked him off the desk. Dum-E was never really the same after that fall, but he does okay.”

“Your dad sounds like an asshole,” Bucky points out. “Sorry if that’s rude, but Dum-E is clearly doing a great job, living his best life. Who wouldn’t think he’s great?”

Bucky continues to wave his fingers in differing patterns and Dum-E lets out a soft, excited chirp and whirls around in a circle, before tipping himself over. Bucky rights him, carefully.

“Right?” Tony asks. “You can call my dad an asshole all you want. It’s probably weird, but I like hearing it.”

“I like weird,” Bucky says. “And I like Dum-E. Can’t say that enough.”

Tony is thoroughly charmed.

Dinner is comfortable and fun. They sit cross-legged on the floor in the living room, with their soup and rolls and banana pudding and watch a rerun of Jeopardy. Tony prepares himself to tone down his trivia prowess but it’s not necessary. Bucky knows so many of the answers Tony begins to wonder if he watched it through in the first run, but he doesn’t ask. He hates when people ask him that same question.

So instead he calls out the answers as they come into his head and they tie so many times there’s just no telling who is ahead by the end. Final jeopardy is laughably easy, and the results don’t matter anyway. They thoroughly kicked the asses of Jerry, Kim and Leona and that’s really all that matters.

Well, that and the fierce fluttering in Tony’s stomach that happens every time he turns to glance at Bucky’s face.

“I’ll go grab my laptop and then we can pick a movie,” Tony offers. “We’ve got Netflix and Hulu, then a bunch of harder to find stuff stored offline. Rhodey won’t let me keep them on the network because it’s stealing and I’m a menace. Nevermind that almost all of them are just rips of physical DVDs I own.”

“I’m gonna say Rhodey has a point,” Bucky laughs. “But I’ve got a thing for criminal masterminds, so you’re in luck.”

Criminal masterminds. Tony’s brain flicks back to the summer. There was nothing masterful about it, but he did end up a criminal. He pictures the ride in the police car and his booking photo. That spins to his pathetic call to Rhodey for bail and Howard getting involved before Rhodey was able to get to California to help. That leads to Obadiah showing up, and a Stark Industries lawyer, and to a silent ride back to Malibu. In the end his father’s intervention hadn’t mattered-- the gossip blogs had picked the story up despite everyone’s best efforts.

And now Tony is officially a criminal in the court of public opinion, even if in the end, he’d gotten off with just a warning. All of that, and the drugs they found in his car weren’t even his. They really, really weren’t. He still didn’t know if they belonged to Sunshine or Ty, but one of them had fucked up royally and Tony’s reputation had paid the price. The news stations had made things up, had tracked down all the pictures from earlier in that night, when Tony was engaged in some not illegal but also not pleasant to explain behaviors.

It was a huge embarrassment personally, for his family, and for MIT.

Rhodey (and Nat and T’Challa) had believed him when he’d said the drugs weren’t his, but Howard and Maria had pushed for in-patient drug counseling and his research position at school had been threatened. It had only been Bruce’s intervention in the end, that had Tony back at MIT and not forcibly booked into a rehab.

Somehow this doesn’t feel like the “bad boy” origin story that Bucky’s going for.

“You get the laptop, I’ll clean up,” Bucky says, placing a hand on Tony’s knee.

Yeahhhh. He’d definitely spaced out there for way too long not to be awkward.

“I can clean up,” Tony offers. “You’re the guest.”

“I promise when you come over to see my place, I’ll put you right to work, Cinderella.”

“It’s a deal. Make sure you put any plastic in with the recycling? The guy across the hall is kind of a stickler.”

Which is putting it mildly but Tony’s got enough crazy going on his life to want to introduce Bucky to any extra.

“I can manage that,” Bucky assures him.

“We could watch in my room instead of out here, if you want,” Tony suggests. “I swear this isn’t some kind of come on. My bed is way more comfortable than the couch, is all, and my TV is almost as big. Ugh, this sounds like a really bad proposition and that’s not--”

“Let’s watch it in your room,” Bucky says, interrupting Tony’s spiral. “Wouldn’t have minded if it was a come on, but the clarification is nice. I thought maybe we could talk for a bit afterwards.”

Just for a second he’d totally forgotten that the Big Awful Conversation was happening and he could picture watching a movie on the bed, sitting next to Bucky, leaning against his side. But when Bucky mentions talking after, all Tony can do is nod.

That’s when he’ll do it. That’s when he’ll rip off the bandaid. Then he’ll just have to hope for the best.

He stands and walks into his bedroom, listening as Bucky shoves their trash into the plastic delivery bag. Tony’s laptop is already sitting out, so it doesn’t take him long to get the TV turned on, his laptop set up, and the pillows on his bed rearranged for maximum comfort.

Bucky appears at the door and Tony waves him in.

“I’m so sorry,” Bucky says apologetically. “Something came up. I hate to eat and run-- I’ve just got to go check on my friend Steve.”

“Oh shit,” Tony says, “I hope he’s okay. It’s not eating and running. It was eating and Jeopardy. Totally a valid date.”

“It was fun,” Bucky agrees. “I really am sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Tony says emphatically. “Go be a friend. We can do this again any time.”

Bucky smiles at him, and it’s a little sad. Tony’s not sure why, exactly, but it feels a bit like a goodbye. He hops off the bed and follows Bucky to the front door to see him out.

“See you Monday,” Bucky says.

“Bright and early,” Toyn agrees.

There’s no last minute confession. There’s no goodbye kiss. There’s just Bucky walking away and Tony shutting the door behind him.

Thank goodness Rhodey’d already bought the Ben and Jerry’s. Tony needs it.

*

Tony spends most of Sunday stressing. Bucky doesn’t text him and because Bucky doesn’t text, neither does Tony. He starts about a dozen different conversation. He types out things like:

Did I do something wrong?
Did you figure out who I am?
I think we should talk.
I miss
I think
I

Then he tosses his phone across the bed, flops into a pile, and lays there sullenly until Rhodey comes looking for him.

“You’re writing an awful lot of narrative for what’s going on in someone else’s head,” Rhodey says, as he takes a seat on Tony’s bed.

Tony rolls to his back and stares forlornly at the ceiling. “He wouldn’t have left like that and then not texted if things were hunky-dory.”

“There is exactly one way for you to know that today,” Rhodey says, picking up Tony’s phone from the bottom of the bed. “You text him and ask.”

Tony lets out a long, pathetic groan.

Rhodey laughs. “Or not. If you want to wait until you see him tomorrow, at least get out of bed. Get a shower. We can play chess.”

“You never want to play chess,” Tony mumbles.

“I didn’t say that I wanted to,” Rhodey points out. “Just that I will, if it will get you out of this room and it stops you from catastrophizing this relationship before it even starts.”

“There’s no relationship,” Tony says. “There’s him, me and a bunch of lies. I really screwed this up.”

“You don’t know that,” Rhodey reminds him.

Tony reaches out and tugs at Rhodey’s arm, using it to pull himself up into a sitting position. “I think I do,” Tony says.

“Wait and see,” Rhodey says simply. “It’s only one day.”

*

Tony gets to class a few minutes early, jittery with nerves. He’s played out progressively worse version of this morning a hundred times in his head:

- Bucky stomping into the room and yelling at him
- Journalists-- tipped off by Bucky-- waiting at the windows with cameras
- His dad taking Bruce’s place as the teacher so he can witness Tony’s dressing down

So it’s jolting to watch Bucky walk in, smile at him brightly, and take his seat, like nothing in the world is wrong.

“You feeling okay?” Bucky asks kindly.

It takes Tony a full five seconds of shock to make words happen. “Didn’t get much sleep last night,” he finally mumbles.

“If you’re too tired for coffee and studying, we can cancel for today,” Bucky says.

Tony blinks at him a few times. Coffee and studying. Could Bucky’s friend Steve really have been sick? Are things not blowing up in his face? Tony is floored by the realization that maybe everything really is not fucked up beyond all repair.

Maybe there is still time to fix this.

“Coffee would be good,” Tony croaks out.

Bucky gives him a smile and nudges him playfully. “My treat. You look like a stiff wind would knock you right over.”

Bruce walks in and class starts, uneventfully. Tony doesn’t hear a single word his professor friend is saying. Bucky doesn’t hate him. There are no reporters or confrontations or surprise visits from his father. Rhodey had been right-- Tony had written an entire reality for himself that was based on the worst case scenario, and none of it had panned out.

When class ends, the walk to the coffee shop is a cheerful one. Bucky seems content to do most of the talking, and though he doesn’t mention Steve or the reason why he bailed on Saturday night, he does talk about making plans with Tony for later in the week, so surely this isn’t an ending.

By the time they find a table at The No-Doze, Tony’s feeling more himself. He still needs to tell Bucky the truth, but in the face of all the awful things he’d imagined, that seems like the least of his problems now.

He’ll do it after they finish studying, since Bucky seems eager to get on with the school work because Bruce had warned them about a quiz tomorrow.

They each pull out their textbooks and Bucky moves right into the quiz prep assignment. It’s a little trickier than what they’ve worked on so far, so when Bucky makes an easy math mistake, Tony chalks it up to nothing. He rolls with it, and continues doing the math, using the wrong answer and progressing the way he’d need to if he didn’t realize it was wrong.

One mistake isn’t going to fail either of them, even if Bucky repeats it tomorrow.

Then it happens again.

Bucky had been solid on the theories before, but these new applications are giving him a lot of trouble. Fumbling, because God how could Tony let Bucky do poorly in this class, after all the help he’d (unnecessarily) given him, Tony starts to push back a little. He poses his help as confusion. He works in circles to get Bucky to the correct answers and that only seems to push the formulas even further off track.

It’s distracting. It’s a disaster.

Tony takes a slow, deep breath, as Bucky ventures so far off the mark, he wouldn’t be able to find it with a telescope.

“See?” Bucky asks. “It’s easy. If you pull this number down, and multiply it by X, you’ll get the right answer ever time.”

It is not the right answer. It’s not the right method. It’s maddening.

“It’s not right,” Tony says quietly.

“It’s okay if you don’t understand it,” Bucky says encouragingly. His smile is kind, and there’s a fond crinkle to his eyes, and Tony breaks.

“No. Bucky, I’m telling you it’s not right. You’re applying these formulas all wrong. Look--”

Tony takes Bucky’s pencil away (because if Bucky keeps circling the incorrect variables Tony is going to have a nervous breakdown right here in the restaurant) and begins to make corrections.

Once he starts he can’t stop. It’s like stretching aching muscles after a 20 hour car ride. It’s scratching an itch he’s been ignoring for too long.

Tony dives further into the math, losing himself in the beautiful correctness of flawed numbers being ushered into order. He’s covered the entire paper in numbers and symbols and complicated graphs before he realizes his mistake. He turns his eyes to Bucky, and Bucky is staring at him in wonder.

“Something you wanna tell me?” Bucky asks carefully. “Because if I didn’t know better, I’d think you know more about physics than I do. Looking at that,” he adds, tapping the piece of paper that Tony’s scrawled all over, “a person might think you wrote the book.”

Tony feels his eyes go wide and his breath leave him. Oh shit, Bucky knows. The truth hits him like a punch to the stomach and he feels a deep, evolutionary, monkey-brained level of panic that sends his whole body into Flee Mode.

“I-- I--” Tony’s tongue momentarily forgets consonants. With his thoughts screaming that he’s gotta go, he grabs all his notes and his textbook and jams them into his backpack. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he says automatically.

Bucky watches him, first in surprise and then confusion. Like this isn’t the reaction he was expecting, at all.

“Tony, we’ve gotta talk about this--”

“I’m so sorry,” Tony says, cutting him off. He stands and walks away, forcing his legs to move in a steady one-two and not a dead run. Running can wait for outside, away from the crowd. Behind him he hears Bucky saying something to the waitress, and Tony does turn, just in time to see Bucky toss her his wallet.

“Tony, wait--”

Tony is only a step out of the door when Bucky catches up to him

“Stop,” Bucky says. “Please? Please let me talk to you.”

It’s the please that stops Tony from going any further. Bucky sounds overwhelmingly apologetic, like he is the one who’s done something wrong here. That’s not right. Tony can’t let him think that’s right.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says again.

Peter would be so disappointed; this would make for a terrible Hallmark script.

“I’m gonna ask you something,” Bucky says in a cautious voice. “And I want you to tell me the truth.”

Tony braces himself for the inevitable demand for honesty and then for the angry good riddance he knows is coming his way.

“Do you know Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes?” Bucky asks quietly.

That gives Tony pause. “The guy from the train?” he asks in confusion. “No?”

Tony wracks his brain for the details behind that very familiar name. Sergeant James Barnes is probably about their age. He’d been on a train in France a couple years ago when some domestic terrorists had tried to take it over. He’d been shot several times as he took them on alone, and his actions saved all the people aboard as well as the people in the station where they’d been headed. The bomb he’d managed to throw off the side of a bridge would have killed hundreds upon hundreds.

He was the hero of heroes.

Tony searches Bucky’s face in confusion and then it dawns on him what Bucky is saying.

“Oh shit,” Tony whispers. “Do I? Know him?”

“Sort of,” Bucky admits. “But maybe not as well as you think.”

Tony laughs. It’s a startled, choked sound, and then it turns into actual, full body laughter (that probably isn’t hysteria, except it totally is).

“I didn’t know how to tell you the truth,” Bucky says, his words turning to laughter as he attempts to explain. “I’ve spent two weeks feelin’ like crap that I hadn’t.”

The waitress peeks her head out of the door and holds something out to Bucky. It’s his wallet.

“Your meals are on the house, Sergeant Barnes. Thank you for your service.”

That only makes Bucky and Tony laugh harder. Bucky takes back his wallet and tries to thank her, though the words are broken and breathy. The waitress gives them a confused smile and steps back inside. Tony leans against him, warm with relief. When they finally catch their breath, they rest against the bricks, as the early afternoon sun shines down on them.

“How long have you known?” Tony asks, finally.

“Since the other night. I went to throw away our trash and I saw your Physics book under some recycling. Thought I was saving it from the trash when I realized it wasn’t the one you’d been using. I was curious so I opened it up. Saw your handwriting and the critiques.”

Damn it, M’Baku. This is why Tony doesn’t recycle.

“I never meant to lie exactly,” Tony says. “I panicked that morning in class. I was tired and over-caffeinated and I was just there to talk to Bruce about some work we’ve been doing. Then you were there and you were-- well, you were you. You’re the hottest guy who’s talked to me in ages and you just seemed so nice. After this summer… not a lot of people have been nice.”

It’s an awful admission to say out loud . Tony tries so hard to drown it all out-- to shake off how much all the vitriol aimed in his direction hurts him. But there it is. The truth. The real truth.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says emphatically. “I wasn’t mad when I left the other night. I was confused, and I knew if I stayed I’d want to kiss you, and that didn’t seem right with me not knowing who you were and you not knowing who I was. It would have been fake. And I want this to be real. Was it? Real for you? Any of it?”

“Well-- the tutoring is bullshit, but everything else was all me,” Tony says.

“That’s all I needed to hear,” Bucky returns, tugging Tony a little closer. “I’m sorry I lied.”

I lied,” Tony says. “Yours was more of a deliberate omission.”

“What is this? The Truth Olympics? You going for a gold in Misdirection?”

“I’m always harder on myself than I am on anybody else,” Tony admits, as if that isn’t obvious. “You really aren’t mad?”

“Only at the way the world is, if it’s made you feel this bad about who you are,” Bucky says.

“It isn’t true,” Tony says. “The drugs weren’t mine and those pictures from the party-- I know they looked bad but they were taken out of context. I wasn’t even drinking.”

“Why don’t you explain it over lunch,” Bucky suggests. “We could go to my apartment? I couldn’t invite you in before because Steve’s got all kinds of embarrassing newspaper clippings about me plastered up all over the place, but now it doesn’t matter. Now you know the truth.”

Tony nods. “I’d like that. We’ve got a lot to talk about and some serious studying to do if you’re going to pass the quiz tomorrow.”

Bucky laughs, as he begins to lead Tony down the street.

“Oh, about that?” he asks. “I was messing with you. Not to be a jerk,” he adds quickly. “I just wanted to see how long it would take you to crack from all the bad math.”

Tony looks at him and his mouth opens slightly in surprise. “That was your plan?”

“It was Steve’s idea,” Bucky says with a grin. “And he was right-- it didn’t take you long to snap.”

“Am I going to have to get along with Steve?” Tony teases. “Because I feel like I won’t. That was too mean. I’m gonna be having nightmares about the misuse of that Zeta for weeks. And don’t even get me started on your abuse of thermodynamics.”

“I think the two of you are gonna get along fine. He likes trouble.”

“And I’m trouble?” Tony asks.

“Absolutely,” Bucky agrees. “The very best kind.”