Tony had been in love with Steve for four years, since the sixth grade science fair when he’d designed a robot and it’d blown up by accident. All his cool friends had laughed at him, but Steve—tiny, shy, fly-under-everyone’s-radar Steve—had come up to him and told him that Tony’s robot was the absolute neatest thing he’d ever seen and asked if Tony would show it to him again someday when he got it to work. Tony had worked harder than he had in all his life to fix it, make it better and better and better, always making excuses about why he couldn’t show it to Steve yet—it wasn’t perfect yet, just one more tweak—when really he just didn’t have the nerve. Weeks passed, then months, then years; Tony never found the “right moment”, or, if he was more honest with himself than he liked to be, the courage.
Then stupid Mr. Coulson made them partners for an English assignment.
Tony was used to being Mr. Cool, by that point. He was pretty popular, with the AP crowd for being smart and the party crowd for being rich and impulsive, and was more than comfortable talking to people he liked. Still, he felt his palms start to sweat and his neck start to go red and he found himself unable to get out of his seat. Mr. Coulson kept rattling off partners and eventually Steve gathered his things to come sit with Tony, since Tony wasn’t moving to sit with him. Great, now he looked like a stubborn jerk or something.
“Hi.” Steve cleared his throat. Tony managed to drag his gaze up from his paper, make eye contact for a second before looking away. It was like looking at the sun, impossible to hold for too long. “I’m Steve. Your partner?”
“Yeah,” Tony managed.
“Uh. Yeah.” Steve put his stuff down, took the seat next Tony tentatively. “Sorry, I guess.”
“For what?” Tony frowned, because what did Steve have to be sorry for? Tony was the one acting like a socially incompetent moron.
“I dunno.” Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “That you didn’t get one of your friends? You seem disappointed.”
“No!” Tony blurted a little too loudly. Heads turned, and he lowered his voice, “I mean, no, I’m not, uh, disappointed. By you. At you. This is gr—fine, you’re fine, I don’t, um, mind. Do you mind?”
Steve smiled a little. “No.”
They didn’t say anything more for a minute, Steve just smiled that little smile and Tony tried very, very hard not to do something stupid, like kiss him. In the end, he tried so hard not to do anything stupid that he wound up saying something stupid instead.
“I fixed the robot,” he blurted.
Steve’s smile faltered a little. “I figured.”
“You, uh. What?”
“You got a scholarship last year.” Steve’s ears went a little red. “Not that I—the whole school heard, I just. Yeah. You got an MIT scholarship, I figured you probably fixed the robot.”
“Yeah.” Steve’s smile looked a little…sad, almost, and that wasn’t okay at all.
“Nothing,” Steve answered too quickly.
“Something’s wrong, your smile’s not doing the sunshine thing,” Tony said, then immediately regretted it. Steve blinked twice, then laughed.
“Your face is just really bright,” Tony muttered.
“When I smile?”
All the time, Tony thought. “Sure.”
“I guess…” Steve shrugged, smile unfortunately dimming again. “I guess I just thought you were gonna show me, that’s all.”
Tony would’ve banged his head against the table, if that wouldn’t have only scared Steve off worse. Instead, he lied for the millionth time, “It’s not perfect yet.”
Steve’s brows furrowed a little. “It was good enough for MIT. I’m sure it’s great, Tony.”
“Yeah, but it’s not…” Not good enough for you. “It just needs a couple more fixes. The AI is practically primitive, it can only do dumb stuff like make smoothies and beep at me if it thinks I’m not eating enough, or—you’re staring, why are you staring?”
“You have a robot that can make you smoothies,” Steve said flatly.
“And ‘think’ enough to tell when you’re not eating?”
“Well, it’s just like it’s monitoring my ‘battery’ really, it’s not all that special—”
“What exactly are you waiting for it to accomplish, world peace?”
“You’re impressed?” Tony couldn’t help brightening. Steve wouldn’t be impressed if he saw the real thing, it was just a dumb little mechanical arm and the smoothies were mostly motor oil, but still.
“I was impressed by what you could do in sixth grade, what makes you think I wouldn’t be impressed now?” Steve’s knee was jumping, almost like he was nervous or something. “Is it, um, fine around other people?”
“It plays favorites, I guess. But it’s fine.” Tony shrugged, not really understanding the question.
“Then do you think I could maybe…” Steve’s ears were going red again, and he was fiddling with his pencil now.
“Could I see it?” Steve blurted out in a rush.
Tony’s brain blanked for a minute.
“If you don’t want me to it’s fine,” Steve backtracked, though his disappointment was clear as anything on his face, “Sorry, I just—you said you’d show me, but that was a long time ago obviously and I—it was dumb, forget it, we should probably focus on the assignme—”
“Wanna come over after school and hang out in my basement?” Oh, god. Tony resisted the urge to put his face in his hands and scream. Why was this so hard? He’d been on like fifty dates, he’d made out with seniors, okay, he was way too cool to be this awkward and way too smart to be this dumb. “My workshop is in my basement, I’m not trying to like, seduce you or anything, I just have robots down there and that’s not a metaphor for anything I have literal robots please say something so I can stop talking—”
“I’d like to see your literal robots, Tony,” Steve answered kindly, finally putting him out of his misery. “Though I wouldn’t be opposed to you seducing me in your basement, either.”
Tony’s brain froze again. He got the feeling it was going to be a recurring problem.