A lazy breeze drifted through the garage, following the bright midday sun and accompanying the shade that kept the inside cooler than the pavement outside. The air was starting to get those spicy scents of approaching fall, even though there was still little more than a week left before classes started. Move-in had been the day before, but the street was still over-parked with parents, relatives, and students bringing the last of their belongings to the rickety but modest off-campus houses. Those who were done arranging furniture and unpacking boxes were lounging on their front lawns or milling about the block to reunite with old friends. The smell of a distant barbeque mixed with the rising heat of late August.
Bruce Banner caught himself staring out the open garage door at some distant clouds, big and fluffy, promising for a nice summer day; but on the horizon lie darker, more ominous signs of a coming storm. Expression small and distracted, his fingers gently turned a slim screwdriver over and over in his hands.
Part of him toyed with the superstition that this sign of weather could be foreshadowing for the coming year, but the logical side of his brain quickly squashed that thought like a bug before it could grow into a nagging worry. He didn’t need any more of that on his plate.
“Banner? Bruce? Hello, screwdriver please?” Tony Stark impatiently waved his hand from under the shell of an old car. Bruce’s best friend since freshman year, a bit of an ass, but also the only other triple major that he had met and actually got along with to some extent, he and Tony lived and worked on most projects together. They shared majors in physics and engineering, and spent the majority of their time in garages or workshops constructing, patenting and selling what their professors called “inventions that visionaries couldn’t hope to structure themselves”.
They also often found themselves fixing people’s cars, as Tony was now, or appliances and electronics for fees. Neither of them had a real job, but with Tony’s wealthy inheritance, and their patents and repairs, they didn’t need it. They were just fine, the four roommates in their junky off-campus house. They found a way to make it their own no matter what.
Bruce quietly apologized and handed Tony the screwdriver, bending over to peek under the car at him. “How’s it coming?”
“Easy as it could be. Honestly, I’m amazed at how some people can mess their stuff up. This guy’s entire axle is broken off, and he still drove it here. Look at this, Banner, the wheels were almost doing a split! Can you pass me that?” Bruce handed him a small wrench. “Thanks. Anyways, I’m tempted to charge them extra for being stupid. Probably ran over a space divider in a parking lot.”
Laughing softly, Bruce stood upright, once again looking out at the street. “You know we don’t need that. Just fix it and we can get it out. We need to pull our cars up before the others get here.”
At that mention, Tony got quiet for a second, tensed. The soft clattering of the repairs continued, but he didn’t say anything.
Bruce let out a soft sigh and thought carefully before his next words. “Look, Tony… the rest of us don’t know what happened between you two, but his name was already on the lease and he’s coming back. No amount of sulking and throwing fits is going to change that, so can you… just try to power through? And if it’s really terrible, we can work something else out for next semester. We all care about you, but no one wants your attitude ruining our junior year.”
Tony’s voice was bitter when he responded, too quickly. “I don’t care. He’s coming back, but that doesn’t mean I have to like him, and that doesn’t mean that I have to pretend to like him. He knows what he’s coming back to, so don’t expect a sugar-coat.” He briefly wheeled out from under the car to look at Bruce directly. “And you’re right, you don’t know what happened, so don’t tell me to get over it.”
The response that took a few moments to form came out softly, an attempt at reason that was almost pleading. “Tony… just talk to him. You’ve had all summer to think things over. He’s your best friend.”
“No, you’re my best friend. Apparently, you always were, because it sure as hell wasn’t him.” He wheeled back for the blockade of the underside of the car.
“Tony,” Bruce squared his shoulders a little, letting out a quiet breath. Tony was a great guy, but he could be damn annoying. And petty and rude and arrogant as all hell, but the list only went on. Bruce wouldn’t stand for it this year. For his own sake, he couldn’t. “I’m going out. When he gets here, you talk to him. If you don’t, well… no, that’s not an option. Do it. Deep down you know you want to, so do it.” With a huff, he pinched the bridge of his nose. “This isn’t about you anymore; you’ve dragged us all into your shit and now I want it over before classes start. None of us need this negativity loitering around.” Finally grabbing his glasses case off of the table, the sound of his footsteps fell as he walked to the door at the back of the garage that would lead into the kitchen. “Talk to him.”
Tony’s voice followed after him, drifting out from under the car in a single syllable. “Nope.”
When Bruce ignored him and turned to step inside, he almost bumped into the broad chest of Steve Rogers. It was easy to replace his bewildered expression with a tired smirk. “Well speak of the devil. Here to see Tony?”
In the background, Tony’s work had stopped again. Steve’s charming, all-American smile was in place, a gentle assurance to the tension in the room; and yet, that same smile didn’t reach his eyes, which danced with an awkward, uncharacteristic anxiety. “Uh – yeah. Is he in here?”
“As usual.” Bruce glanced back at Tony. “We didn’t see you pull up, are you-”
“I parked a block down, helped Bucky unload some stuff. He moved in with the Wakandan kids because… well, they’re all friends.” Steve’s smile remained tight, his glance darting uncertainly over to the car, and the legs belonging to their housemate that laid out from underneath it.
Bruce nodded as exhaustion creeped into his amicable expression. “Sounds good. How’s his arm by the way, Bucky’s?”
Steve still answered despite clearly being in a rush, wanting the small talk to be over. “It’s great. You guys really helped him out, thank you… He said he’d start to come get it checked for updates before PT really starts for us, though.”
“Of course, our pleasure. Um…” Bruce gazed back over the interior of the garage, then looked to Steve and said with finality, “Well, I guess I’ll leave you two alone. Call if you need anything, either of you.” He moved aside to let Steve pass, going into the house and closing the door behind him.
Stepping into the garage, Steve tried not to focus on anything for too long but still tried to distract himself, tried to avoid the impending conversation.
Little details brought back memories that warmed his heart and broke it at the same time; late nights playing cards on the fold-out table that never seemed to stop wobbling, coaxing Bruce and Tony to bed after realising that they’d been gone for about ten-too-many hours, clambering up the outside wall next to the garage door to shoot fireworks off the roof on Fourth of July… They all blossomed warm feelings of safety, family, of home… This was a place that they had established as their own, this was a family they all had chosen.
But the end of last semester had ruined that all. A few misplaced words, a few emotional, impulsive reactions, a confession uncalled for…
Yet, the memories that stung the most were the quiet minutes that he got in here, alone with Tony. He was always working when it was just the two of them, but sometimes Tony would stop and look up and they’d exchange just a split-second, breath-taking glance, and Steve would think that maybe – just maybe – there was something more in that moment. Even after it all went wrong, he couldn’t help but know when he thought back on the way Tony’s dark eyes would soften and he’d stop talking for once and Steve’s world would slow down; and when he would look away, it would always feel like waking up for the first time in a long while.
But now it was too quiet, because he was being deliberately ignored. The air was thick with unspoken rancour.
Yes, Steve had come to apologise, but only if Tony would too. He had learned too late that apologies only made a person feel better if they had something to apologise for; if not, then it left a couple new, gaping wounds called guilt and shame. Sum it all up to get a whopping load of regret.
Steve looked at a chair, considering sitting down and acting casual, like this was the start of any other year. It didn’t feel right, and instead, he stood as tall as his tired shoulders would allow, and said firmly but softly, “Tony, get out here.”
The following silence was stifling. For a moment, Steve actually believed that Tony wouldn’t listen again, and that he’d be left hanging, suspended in unwanted resentment for god only knows how much longer. But then, the trilling, crunchy sound of wheels on the cement garage floor cut the silence, giving him air, as Tony rolled out from under the car.
He stood and dusted off his jeans – a little tight, Steve reluctantly acknowledged – and rolled up the sleeves of his red and black flannel, unbuttoned over an ACDC t-shirt. For those about to rock, we salute you.
Steve almost snorted with the irony of it again, as his ROTC scholarship was the only thing that brought him to this university. Here, where he had found all he ever wanted, but was still reminded of the bitterness that life had; that by holding something just enough out of reach, it could force one to take a deep, harsh look at themselves and decide just how much they were willing to struggle for it. Under that standard, his own priorities had been shifted a few ground-breaking times in the last three years, but he had always seemed to find a way to power through.
It was the only thing he knew how to do. Just like right now, facing someone he couldn’t decide if he hated or missed more than ever. Someone he couldn’t decide if he was hurt by or hurt instead.
Tony’s eyes were a dark brown that could only be compared to dark chocolate, but they carried none of the softness that resided in Steve’s good memories. Right now, they carried an accusatory, condemning glare, like that of the expensive interior of a court room. Despite having the height and muscle advantage, Steve wanted to shrink under that stare.
It was only the knowledge that half of this was not his fault that kept him matching Tony’s cold demeanour.
“You must have missed the memo, but we have new house rules,” Tony feigned recollection, but his bitterly sarcastic tone displayed that this was probably one of many greetings he’d prepared. “Rule number five, I believe it is, says clearly: ‘No idiots allowed in the garage’. There’s a list on the fridge. That in mind, your room is in the same place as it was, so about-face, soldier.”
“Glad to see you’re well, too,” Steve said with politeness despite the irritation bubbling in his chest, “and sorry to disappoint, but I’m not leaving just yet. We need to talk. Bruce won’t be gone for long.”
“If he’s stopping by the 7/11, then he will be.” Then he waved a hand dismissively. “Oh – wait, never mind, shift change.”
Steve blinked, momentarily confused by the blunder. “What’s 7/11 got to do with anything?”
“Only if you’ll talk instead.”
“I’m going to stop you right there, because I strongly dislike you, don’t want to have this conversation, and you need to leave.”
“I’m uncomfortable too, but we’re both still here. And I’m going to be in this house for a while longer, so you’d better get talking,” The petty banter came easier than Steve expected, and even though he was no less livid, he felt some of the tension that had been at the base of his neck all summer begin to melt away.
Tony let out an exasperated sigh through his nose in reply, crossing his arms. “What do you even want me to say? You started this whole mess, you wanted to leave and I thought you had a plan. You know exactly what you said, and I’m sorry if I would rather protect the friends that have never stabbed me in the back than the failed boyfriend who…”
Tony trailed off. He pursed his lips and looked down, obviously caught off-guard by even acknowledging what Steve almost was to him.
Steve’s cheeks burned red with a sense of embarrassment and for a moment, he let his gaze drop to the floor.
“We need to talk, but you need to plan what you’re going to say first. We don’t need an incident like last time. I regret everything that happened then and… and this time, I want to say everything right.” Steve spoke slowly before he looked back up at Tony, soft blue gaze hesitant.
Tony held his stare for a few painful, stunning moments, and Steve almost felt himself slip into those eyes that met his own. They were thoughtful, and something resembling doubt flickered behind them. But then Tony let out a short, decisive exhale, and the doubt was gone. “Finish moving in, we’ll talk another time. I need to fix this guy’s car before Thor gets here.”
“How can I be sure that you’ll follow through?” Steve’s voice came out as a cross between desperate and accusatory. He winced – that had probably been the wrong tone to use.
Sure enough, in response, Tony bristled, shifting his weight to the other leg, his hip jutting out in an intentionally sassy way. “And now we’re back to not trusting me. I’ll do it, not because I want to, but because you’ve got it fixed in your head that I’m not big enough of a guy to do it. You’re not better than me, and I’m going to talk to you just to prove that point. Now, rule number five, ‘No idiots allowed in the garage’. Time for you to go, Mr. Rogers.”
Steve took one last look around the space, the clutter and work that inevitably made it more home than anywhere else he had been. His attention inevitably returned to land on Tony, avoiding his eyes and instead observing his posture, the way his attitude seemed to emanate from every shift, every motion he made. So obvious, and yet able to hide so much beneath intelligence and expertly handled words. He didn’t know the next time he’d be able to look at him this surely, this confidently, as painful as it might be. He tried to take it all in.
With conclusiveness, he nodded and said, “Okay. Talk to you soon, then.”
Offering one last hint of a polite smile, Steve headed back inside. The heavy door to the garage that closed behind him as he stepped into the kitchen sounded as if it was packing all of the events of the garage away in that space.
What happens in the garage, stays in the garage, it seemed to say.
Steve didn’t know if he minded that or not.
On the other side of that same door, Tony let out a tense breath before rubbing his eyes. The pressure squeezing, suffocating his heart and chest wouldn’t leave. He blamed Steve Rogers – for showing his face here again, for all of the things he made him feel this summer, for all of the pain from last year… he blamed him for everything, and knew he wanted to.
But deep down, in a place Tony refused to acknowledge, he also knew that this wasn’t entirely Steve’s fault. Tucked right next to that feeling, like peas in a pod, Tony knew that he still harboured deep, unexplainable feelings for Steve. Feelings that he couldn’t understand, no matter how many degrees he had or how many classes he took, or how much money he had socked away to buy his way out of things.
But he begrudgingly admitted that he wouldn’t grow to understand them any time soon, so instead of standing and processing his thoughts, he returned to fixing the shitty Volvo parked in his garage, and hoped that Thor was feeling generous with the beer he undoubtably would bring upon his arrival. Tony wheeled himself back under the car and got to work, the familiar clinking and clanking of the metal something to focus on.
Yes, this year would be challenging, but yes, Tony would find a way out of it. He would find a way to avoid this or fix it, or delegate the task to someone else if it came down to it. He would get away from the conversation, the feelings, the recurring sense of absence that tainted the desire to embrace the belonging.... He had found a way around it before, and he could do it again.
I think I’d just cut the wire, he recalled with a smug smirk.