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0.

It starts like this.

Charles doesn’t show up for their lunch date. This is not exactly an uncommon occurrence, admittedly, but it’s still October and the term has barely started, and it wouldn’t do to encourage his anti-social tendencies this early on. By now Raven has drunk absolutely all the frappuccinos she can take, and is halfway through her fifth re-read of The Bell Jar and thus needing a break like nobody’s business. Determined to kill two birds with one stone, she gets a tuna melt, two muffins, a packet of crisps, and a marble brownie to go, and heads down to Radcliffe Library.

The day is glorious, full of sunshine and the smell of lingering summer, and odds are that the vast majority of students are taking full advantage of the weather – Raven would wager half her monthly allowance that there is barely space to sit in the park right now. It’s where she would be, if Angel didn’t have a tutoring session with Sean, a gangly second year who is failing his psych course abysmally, and who had come begging Angel on his actual knees for help. What that means is that the library is exactly as Charles prefers it – empty and free of distractions. If left to his own devices, he would spend hours there, in his own little space, politely but firmly defending his spot from any encroachment.

Really, it’s Raven’s duty to drag him outside for some air, especially if she dangles the lure of tea under his nose – food she can smuggle inside. Drink? Not so much.

She is so sure of what she’s going to find when she makes her way to the far corner of the library, that it’s an actual shock to push the door of the study room open and find it not only full of three other strangers, but also the sound of two of said strangers bickering loudly. Meanwhile Charles and a lean, pale man with long black hair absentmindedly caught behind his ears, flip through three-inch-thick books and steal pens and highlighters off each other like they’ve been doing it for years.

Raven feels like she has just walked into a twilight zone. She barely suppresses the urge to stomp over to Charles and demand that he tell her about that time she found him blue in the face, convinced that if he thought about it hard enough, he could make his mother move them back to England.

(That had been the first time they had met, after his mother remarried and dragged an eight-year-old Charles to her new husband’s estate in Westchester. After meeting Raven, Charles had grudgingly admitted to her that their move was apparently not the fate worse than death that Charles had expected.

It’s also Raven’s first happy memory, which perhaps says enough about both of their lives growing up.)

Presently, one half of the bickering pair throws his arms in the air and stalks past Raven, blowing out of the door without a second glance. It closes with a louder than appropriate bang, making Raven wince. The other half of the pair slumps back in his chair, looking annoyed as he drags his fingers through his bird’s nest of hair.

“He’s got a hell of a temper on him,” he says absently. His tone isn’t entirely decided what emotion it wants to settle on, struggling between apology and affection and exasperated pride. Something about it is enough to tell Raven just what close friends those two probably are.

To her further surprise, Charles doesn’t look up and snarl at the guy under cover of asking him if he minds; her brother simply ignores everything that is going on around him. The messy-haired guy doesn’t seem to care. He picks up two paperclips and an elastic band from the jumble of stationery in front of him, and starts to construct something entirely too ambitious for its building blocks.

Raven is just about to announce herself by huffing loudly and dumping the food in the middle of Charles’ notes, when her brother starts sniffing the air speculatively, looking up a moment later.

“Raven!” he exclaims happily. “Hi! Come meet—uh…”

“Tony Stark,” Tony Stark introduces himself expansively. “Most definitely a pleasure to meet you.”

He doesn’t offer Raven his hand, but he does look her up and down with the kind of leer that makes her arch a quelling eyebrow (one of the very, very few things she picked up from her stepmother). It makes something in Stark’s face crack open, transforming his expression into a much more genuine grin. Raven wonders if it was some kind of test.

“Hi,” she drawls, deciding she doesn’t really care that much. She turns towards the other stranger, curious despite herself.

“Loki,” Charles’ study buddy says quietly, catching her look. “Loki Odinson.” He smiles faintly, a wary hesitance in his eyes – like he’s bracing himself.

Raven drops the food in front of Charles, and shakes Loki's hand with a cheerful "Hello," and an easy smile. She thinks Loki looks relieved, and wonders with a spike of sympathy how many people have been taken aback by his name, have automatically assumed they know everything about him because of who his family is. Well, she and Charles know all about that, don't they? And so does Stark.

Meanwhile, Charles is inhaling the tuna melt, distractedly jotting notes in his pad with his right hand as he holds the food hovering over the book with his left. Raven notes the way the other two's eyes sharpen on it, and she doesn't miss Tony's tongue furtively licking the corner of his mouth. When Charles dishes out muffins and brownie and crisps for them to share, the look of gratitude on their faces is almost pathetic.

So, the next day, when she goes to ferret Charles out of the damned library again, she brings a whole bag of food. She is gratified to see her hunch hasn’t misled her; the three of them have taken over the same study room, now full of papers and notes and squiggly drawings that Tony keeps scrawling all over the white board, muttering distractedly to himself while Charles and Loki read and occasionally supply answers to equally absent-minded questions.

Her appearance causes a sudden outpouring of worship that makes her grin with perhaps more smugness than strictly necessary. If she plays her cards right, she will very soon have her own devoted minions.

Unsurprisingly, her poking and prodding at them leads to an impromptu picnic by the canal, accompanied by a lecture on thermodynamics and magnetism that goes way over her head but makes them endearingly happy, so Raven doesn’t have it in her to complain. The afternoon folds into evening, and since it’s right there, they decide to move the discussion to The Eagle & Child.

It’s… not so much a long evening as a late night. A late night filled with consuming something like three dozen pints of various brews, which eventually leads to propping themselves up on tables and walls and trying to one-up each other with stories of shitty parenthood that made growing up into a small circle of hell.

A late night that ends with the four of them staggering into Charles' and Raven's tiny flat, on the top floor of a shoddy red brick house at the far end of Banbury Road, and passing out on the first soft surface they came across. A late night that is followed by a late morning, and groans about bastard sunlight, and further bonding over horrendous hangovers, and vast breakfasts and endless cups of tea and coffee at the Oxford Café.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

---

This is what happens next.

Tony and Loki sleep together. Tony and Charles sleep together. Charles and Loki sleep together. Raven despairs of the mess they’re making - except that there is no mess. There’s no fallout, no screaming fights, no hurt feelings and broken hearts. No crying all night and denouncing the world and going around with a face like their dog just died. It’s puzzling, and Raven can’t help but try to unpick it so it makes any kind of sense – until she remembers her brother is a whore and Tony isn’t too fussed about where he sticks his dick and Loki just plain likes sex, doesn’t matter when and how and with whom and how many people there are in the bed. It doesn't help that half of the people they have met so far in Oxford think they're stuck up billionaire kids with more money than sense, and the other half, the people who actually come from million-bucks trust funds and upper-class upbringing, think they're a bunch of nerds who live in the library and are emphatically not worth their time.

Angel says it’s stress relief.

Angel says, “Don’t worry, it’ll sort itself out.”

Angel says, "They're big boys, honey, they know what they're doing," and then has to take it back when she realises what she said, and they both laugh hysterically for five minutes straight.

In the end, Raven shrugs and decides to take it as it comes.

Of course, then Tony Stark meets Steve Rogers; the new European History PhD student means Charles is ruining Raven’s life and challenging her sanity and severely testing her willpower to not commit premeditated murder; and the rowing team starts practising full-out – and oh, here’s that mess Raven has been expecting all along.

Thank god for Angel, really, the only voice of sanity left in the world.

Stupid, stupid boys.

---

1.

Tony’s too focused to do anything but hum distractedly when someone drops down on the grass next to him.

The someone grunts in response; Tony smells Earl Grey and the dusty scent of books and a hint of strawberry. He doesn’t feel the need to look up to confirm it’s Charles. He’s too focused on his calculations, anyway. Yeah.

“Shit,” he groans quietly when the University rowing team practising in the canal get near enough to see the flash of muscle when their captain pulls on the oars, too-tight t-shirt bunching as he leans forward again with a scowl of concentration on his face.

“Good lord,” Charles supplies faintly. Tony feels the knee-jerk reflex to demand to know who Charles is looking at, which is frankly ridiculous. He has absolutely no claim whatsoever on Steve Rogers. Everyone can (and would want to) look at that, have you seen him? The low hill they’re sitting on, conveniently overlooking the Oxford canal, is scattered with perverts like them mooning over the oblivious rowing team.

“Isn’t he dreamy?” Charles says, following it up with a besotted sigh. Tony snorts without looking away from the sight.

“For a certain value of dream, sure,” he says,careful to make sure all the intended innuendo comes across.

“His hair is so thick and wavy.”

Tony opens his mouth to agree, then hesitates. “Wait, who are you talking about?”

“Why, Erik, of course,” Charles says, confused.

Tony rolls his eyes. “Of course,” he mutters. There’s a pause, during which their eyes follow the boat as it floats away in the distance. Once it’s far away enough that Tony can’t see Rogers anymore, Charles turns his head, distraction giving way to his usual laser focus.

“Wait, who were you talking about?”

Tony is suddenly intensely interested in the numbers dancing on the screen of his tablet. “Uh. All of them?”

Charles doesn’t look away; from the corner of his eye, Tony can see the way Charles is staring at the side of his face.

“Ugh, fine,” he groans. “I was talking about Rogers.”

“Steve Rogers?”

“Is there any other Rogers out there?” Tony says peevishly, and immediately regrets it when Charles arches both his eyebrows at him and starts to grin.

“Didn’t think he was your type,” Charles teases.

Tony didn’t, either. Rogers is all straight-laced and serious and every time he and Tony run into each other, he projects this disdain for the fast and loose life Tony tends to favour – when away from his work, of course, but that isn't something most people would know about.

Still. Tony somehow can’t help himself, which is strange. Strange to be so obsessed with Steve Rogers on a team that includes Clint Barton, James Rhodes, Bucky Barnes, and ‘Wolverine’ Logan among other fine specimens of manhood. Any of the aforementioned seem like they would be more fun in bed than Rogers. Hell, Lehnsherr would probably be more fun in bed than Rogers, he’s got this scowl that Tony has to admit makes his stomach tighten excitedly. He can kind of get Charles’ obsession.

Not like Tony would poach on a friend’s crush. That’s not the way he operates (he has too few of those to jeopardise).

He mutters something even he can’t make out in answer to Charles’ question, and doesn’t punch him when he laughs.

“You could always ask your friend for pointers,” Charles suggests, trying to be helpful in his Charles way.

"You mean Rhodey?” Oh god, he’d mock him even worse. “I’m not trying to—I don’t need pointers. I’m not doing anything about it. Likelihood is, we ever go on a date, Rogers is gonna open his mouth and I’m gonna fall asleep from boredom. Bet you he’s one of those people who are fine to look at but death to talk to.”

Charles hums under his breath. Tony does not like the sound of it.

“You know, Loki says he’s really smart. He’d have to be, to wrangle that many egos on that team. Have you ever seen Loki take directions from anyone else?”

Shit. Tony knew it was a bad idea to tell Charles about this.

“Look, just—just leave it, will you? He’s eye candy, that’s all.”

“Mhm,” Charles says. Tony thinks it’s really very unfair how much meaning Charles can pack in a simple sound.

“Hey, pervs,” Raven says cheerfully, dropping into a graceful cross-legged position on Tony’s other side. “Who’re we ogling?”

“I beg your pardon? We’re purveyors of beauty, thanks so much,” Charles says, faux-outraged.

“He’s drooling over Lehnsherr, as usual,” Tony supplies, grinning at the unsurprised look Raven sends him.

“And Tony’s watching Steve Rogers like he’s something he wants to eat,” Charles says, nettled.

“Oh, really,” Raven says, way too gleefully.

Tony feels a stripe of heat climbing up his neck. He scowls at his tablet, jabbing furiously at the screen.

“He’s hot, okay?” he snarls. He has no idea why he’s letting himself get so wound up. It’s not like he wants to date Rogers, or wake up next to him, or look into those sleepy blue eyes smiling up at him—

What the motherfucking hell is wrong with him??

“Oh, for sure. He’s fucking delicious, bro, I get it. Those shoulders.”

“Right? Exactly,” Tony agrees, glaring at Charles, who lifts his hands in surrender.

“I’m not disputing that. If you like that sort of thing.”

Raven breaks down into peals of laughter at the miffed, unimpressed note in Charles’ voice, and Tony can’t help but follow suit.

“Yeah, yeah, we all know about your epic boner for Lehnsherr.” He can’t resist the dig; it’s worth it for the glare Charles gives him.

“You’re hardly the best person to cast stones, Stark,” Charles starts, but then the rowing team’s training boat comes into view again and all of them get distracted.

“Fuck,” Raven says, impressed. “There’s so much gorgeous in that boat, I have no idea how it stays afloat.”

Tony has to agree. Clint Barton’s arms alone are worth a sigh or two.

“That Bucky Barnes, Jesus. Wouldn’t mind trying him out.”

“I thought you and Angel—“

“Well, yeah. Doesn’t mean I’m blind. Anyway, I hear he wouldn’t be averse to sharing. Fuck, he’s hot.”

Tony hums in agreement. He can’t argue with that; Barnes is one of the sexiest men Tony has ever seen. He resolves to fuck him. It’ll take his mind off Rogers, at least.

“He’s Steve Rogers’ best friend, you know.”

…Or not. “How do you know that?” he demands.

Raven shrugs. “Loki said something the other day. It kind of stuck.”

“Fuck.” Tony throws the tablet on the grass in disgust. He can feel Raven giving him a Look.

“What’s got you so cranky, anyway?” she asks, knocking his knee with hers.

Tony scowls balefully at the grass next to his crossed legs. To be honest, he has no idea. His skin just feels tight for some reason, like it might split apart and leave him naked and exposed.

“I need a party,” he decides. “I’m gonna throw a party tomorrow; be there at eight.”

“At your rooms? You sure that’s wise?” Raven says, a mixture of derisive and concerned.

“Sure,” Tony says, waving an unconcerned hand. “I’ll just invite everybody, it’ll be fine. Tell all your friends. I’ll get Rhodey to invite the rowing team, how about that?”

“And they’re just going to come?”

Charles sounds way too doubtful for Tony’s liking. Tony grins, and knows it’s slightly unhinged, and doesn’t care.

“It’s a Tony Stark party, baby. Everybody comes.”

---

So Tony sleeps with Bucky Barnes. Possibly with Clint Barton, too. It gets a bit hazy somewhere in the middle; it is a proper Tony Stark party, which means booze and illicit drugs and Tony getting drunk and a bit high and making out with everything in sight. He keeps teasing an equally drunk Barnes until the guy snaps and pushes him into an empty room, and then down onto his knees, where Tony spends some time enthusiastically making out with his cock instead. At one point he has a hazy memory of the door opening and a pair of frankly stunning arms coming into view, along with a pair of snake hips that Tony can’t help visualising between his legs.

“Hey, sorry,” Barton says, though Tony notices that he isn’t in a hurry to look away. He pulls off Barnes’ cock to voice a proposition that sounds hazy even to him. It gets Barton shaking his head, but he doesn’t leave.

Tony has no recollection of him getting naked, but that’s probably the drink and drugs talking. He does remember that Barnes did get very naked, and what Barnes’ cock feels like inside him, which is an excellent memory and he’s grateful for it, plans to cherish that because fuck, but Barnes has a gorgeous cock and the rest of him isn’t bad, either. That’s gotta be good for a few months of sleeping aid.

What he isn’t grateful for is the memory of Steve Rogers’ face when the three of them stumbled back out of whose-ever room they’d just defiled. That memory has no business being clear as fucking anything.

(There’s also a hazy memory of an argument going on in the background, something like “what the fuck was I supposed to do, Coulson, come on, they could’ve really fucked each other up, someone had to make sure shit didn’t get too far… oh, yeah, ‘cause being the voice of reason works so well for you—” but he has no idea what that’s about and chalks it down to hallucinations brought on by intoxication and fantastic sex.)

He also is not grateful at fucking all for the morning after. Not only does he want to die, if it’ll stop his head and stomach from trying to turn his body inside-out, but he’s also given notice to be out of the Merton rooms by the end of the term by an incandescently enraged Warden.

Well, shit.

It’s hardly fair. This isn’t the first time he’s thrown one of his parties – though, come to think of it, somehow it’s always been at someone else’s place, or away from the College rooms. There may have been a lesson in that, but he’s too tired and hungover to think of it now. Letting his feet take point, he meanders towards High Street, away from the gardens and canal, for once not in the mood for greenery. He gets a Starbucks before deciding that, fuck it, he’s not in the mood to be alone, either. He drifts down Turl Street and follows it to Broad Street, then stands outside Balliol College and rings Loki’s phone until he picks up, sounding madder than a stepped-on bear.

“Look, I’m heading down to Charles’ and Raven’s house, you coming?”

Silence.

“I brought coffee.”

Crickets. Tony checks the connection still holds, then pulls out the ace in his sleeve.

“They’re making Salty Caramel Mochas again.”

The silence this time doesn’t even have time to settle before, “Shit,” Loki spits out. “Five minutes.”

Tony sips his own coffee and leans on the honey-coloured wall by the entrance, hunching in on himself and squinting behind his shades even though it’s overcast today. It feels like the temperature dropped twenty degrees since yesterday, and Tony’s glad for his college hoodie, even if he only put it on because it was the last clean thing in his room. That he’s going to have to pack up soon.

“Fuck,” he grunts quietly, taking another sip of coffee and warming his hands on the two cups.

Loki steps out of the entrance a few minutes later, looking like a model with his black hair pulled back by a once-white hairband, all but setting Tony on fire with his glare. He holds out an imperious hand, into which Tony pushes the other venti coffee. Loki downs a third of it in one go, then looks at Tony again.

“You look like shit,” he states, sounding marginally less homicidal.

“Feel like shit,” Tony confesses.

They fall into step in the direction of Banbury Road, each of them lost in his thoughts. Tony spares a moment to appreciate the silence – if not easy, then at least grudgingly amicable. The air is cool but fresh, and even though Tony’s hands are numb and his nose is starting to run by the time they reach the Xaviers’ house, his head feels clearer.

A bleary-eyed Raven opens the door, swathed in fluffy Oysho house clothes that Tony immediately covets. Charles is snuggled in a thick robe at one end of the sofa, several mugs of tea and books open face-down littering the coffee table in front of it. Raven heads straight back to the other end, curling up and shoving her feet under Charles’ thigh.

“You look like shit,” she observes, and Tony makes a face at her.

“Yeah, thanks. Already got that from the fashion police over here.”

Loki lifts an eyebrow at him before folding himself into the only other armchair, leaving Tony with a choice of sitting on the floor or elbowing a space for himself between the step-siblings.

“Are you okay?” Charles asks hoarsely, managing to rouse himself from what looks like at least as terrible a hangover as the one slowly murdering Tony.

Tony sniffs and folds his arms around himself, doesn’t care what he must be screamingly projecting to make Raven’s eyebrows go up.

“They’re kicking me out of the rooms,” he admits after a minute of uneasy silence.

“Shit,” Raven whispers, while Charles winces.

“Told you that party was a bad idea,” Loki says flatly, but he does shift enough that Tony can cram in next to him on the armchair. For as tall and broad as Loki looks, muscles built up by the rowing practice he is secretly devoted to, he can also tie himself into a pretzel and feel perfectly comfortable. Tony takes advantage of the wordless offer, throwing his legs over Loki’s to give both of them more space.

“How long did the Warden give you?” Raven asks.

“Till the end of term. I got another couple months, provided I’m a good little student and keep my head down.”

“You’re lucky they didn’t expel you,” Loki mutters, continuing his fine tradition of being a wanker.

“Don’t wanna lose the Stark money,” Tony says bitterly. Okay, so the party probably hadn’t been the best idea, but this still fucking sucks.

“I’d offer you to move in with us, but—“ Charles doesn’t finish, just waves his hand at the tiny room crammed full of books and furniture. There’s barely space for the sofa, table, and armchair as it is.

“Yeah,” Tony sighs. “I know. I wasn’t expecting you to.” He turns his head into Loki’s shoulder and closes his eyes. God, he’s so tired.

“We could get a house,” Loki says, so unexpected after nearly ten minutes of silence that it makes Tony startle and almost fall out of the armchair. Loki curls an arm around his legs, keeping him in place, a smirk on his mouth that Tony half wants to punch off.

“You mean the four of us?” Raven asks, looking thoughtful.

“I’m in,” Charles says, waving a hand at them without opening his eyes. “With an actual study,” he sighs dreamily.

“A bath,” Raven supplies, and Loki groans at the thought.

“A workshop,” Tony adds, perking up. “God, yes, please.”

There’s silence as they contemplate this perfection.

Tony breaks first. “You guys sure about this? I know I can be—well, mostly pretty damn awesome, but I get a bit—much, sometimes. Or so I’m told. Not that I believe them, of course. But still.”

The others don’t say anything. After a moment, Raven arches an eyebrow at Loki, who promptly smacks Tony on the back of his head.

“Hey,” Tony complains, scowling.

“I’m free on Wednesday, if you want to meet up to look at options,” Loki says, without bothering to acknowledge Tony’s completely legitimate grievance.

“Can do after twelve,” Raven agrees.

“I get off at two, I’ll come find you,” Charles says. Raven leans forward and steals his phone, likely setting up an alarm.

Tony can’t help the smile that takes over his face. It’s got a life of its own; there’s no hiding it.

“Yeah, cool,” he agrees. “We can meet at The Queen’s Lane?”

“Oh, I love their baked potatoes, yes, please,” Raven says, clapping her hands.

Here’s the thing about Tony Stark. He is without a doubt the best at being Tony fucking Stark. He’s good at people; good at parties; good at being charming and giving the world what it expects of him; good at not caring about the barbed, vicious comments, and at being a fucking asshole just to prove the bastards right.

Being Tony, not Tony Stark, is a bit more complicated. Mostly because, see, it’s not like everyone thinks it is. In real life, Tony is kind of a loner. A workaholic. A whole massive big tangled pile of daddy issues, which this most recent failure to be 'a credit to the Stark name' has not alleviated, and doesn’t he know it. People are hard. Being around people who expect Tony Stark when Tony can’t give it to them is hard. It’s not that Tony doesn’t like people; it’s more that people don’t like Tony. They probably have a point.

But here sit three of them who, without the slightest moment of doubt, have agreed to throw their lot in with his. It’s… weird, is what it is. It’s uncharted waters. It’s… something.

(It’s actually really nice. So Tony tries not to take it for granted, because 'nice' is not something that has a place in Tony’s life, not really. Not with what’s come so far, and not really something he deserves. He can’t be Tony Stark all the time.)

Still. Tony is a selfish fucker, and he’ll grab it with both hands, for as long as it lasts. He’ll just have to try to not let himself count on it too much.

---

2.

The Queen’s Lane café is… adequate for Loki’s preferences. It’s certainly not a place his father would ever deign to be seen in, which is a point in its favour in Loki’s mind. (His mother, on the other hand, would adore it. Deux points for the café.) It’s not exactly in the middle of the city centre, and tends to attract regulars, rather than a hip crowd – mothers with prams, grad students looking for a quiet place to unwind and read in peace.

Like he said. Adequate.

The tables are small, therefore the four of them are crowded in the corner, knees and elbows knocking while they pore over The Oxford Mail and Tony glares irritably at the dailyinfo.co.uk site on his tablet.

“Don’t want Abingdon Road, do we?” Raven muses, chewing on the end of a BIC. It’s disgusting; Loki longs for it to crack open and douse her mouth in red ink. Now that would be amusing, as well as richly deserved for abusing the pen like that.

“Not really, no,” Charles says distractedly. “That’s miles away from the Radcliffe.”

Tony grunts in response. Loki suspects that he hasn’t the faintest what’s being said; he would bet his monthly stipend that Tony would move to the Moon if it offered him adequate workshop space and no one to bother him while he constructs mad scientist experiments.

“What about staying on Banbury Road?” Raven suggests, tapping a long, blue-nailed finger at a listing.

“I do like Banbury Road,” Charles says, stealing the pen from between her teeth to circle the advert. “This one’s nice, closer to town, too.”

“And about three times more expensive than the house on Abingdon Road,” Loki points out.

(Not because it bothers him in the slightest – between the four of them, they could buy two houses each and barely feel the dent in their bank accounts. He just… likes the colour Raven’s face goes when he baits them. Loki can appreciate a fine display of homicidal rage.

Loki knows he isn't perfect. If his life was a movie, he's pretty sure he'd be cast as the villain.

Thor, of course, would be the hero, with all his big blond daft ...Thorness. For all that they come from different parents, Loki knows that both he and Thor are smart, much smarter than everyone around them. They had been so close, once; the breaking of that bond is an ache inside him sometimes, when he's feeling maudlin and insecure. If only Odin hadn't been so markedly partial to the son growing up in his own image; if only the two boys hadn't been introduced to rowing at the same time, or got so passionate about it so fast. If only they weren't as competitive as the day was long. If only Loki hadn't grown to be quiet and withdrawn, with his long black hair so different from his brother's sunkissed locks that made him everyone's favourite.

Ultimately, if only Loki could stop perpetually comparing himself to his brother/arch-nemesis/a lot more besides rolled in one. If only he was stronger and could break the cursed circle and never think of him again. But he isn't. So here he is, in Oxford (while Thor takes Cambridge by storm), by some flighty quirk of fortune finding himself with three people who not only tolerate him, but actually seem to like him. It's a stroke of luck he hadn't known to hope for.)

“Do you actually care?” Tony mutters without looking up. Drawn out of his musings and back to the conversation, Loki waves a hand, graciously conceding the point.

“Wait a second, I thought we were talking renting?” Raven says with a small fold between her eyebrows. Charles and Loki shrug, but it’s Tony who looks up.

“That’s probably not a great idea,” he says, wincing. “Between me and Charles, we present a serious hazard to the integrity of the building structure, and if Bruce starts coming over, we’re never gonna find a landlord who’ll let us work undisturbed. We’re just gonna end up having to move again.”

Loki makes a finger gun and shoots it at Tony, because that’s exactly the issue he foresees. For all that Tony likes to come across as oblivious and poorly socialised, he’s sometimes the shrewdest of them all.

Well—okay, out of the other three. Loki is well aware that he is light years ahead of the others in terms of getting exactly what he wants, how and when he wants it.

He does enjoy these little social experiments, though. The others resemble unusually likeable lab rats. Loki has, over a slighter stretch of time than he could have foreseen, become rather deeply fond of them.

“You guys moving in together or something?”

It’s a pleasant drawl, smooth and familiar. Loki tilts his chair, tipping his head back to look into Bucky Barnes’ ice blue eyes, lively and sharp as they take in the scene.

“Yo,” Barnes says, nodding down at him. He bumps the fist Tony offers him in greeting while still tapping away one-handed faster than most people manage with two. “How ya doing, Stark?”

Tony merely hums, then jerks and glares at Raven before turning his face to Barnes’. “What? Oh. Fine, I’m good, thanks for asking.” A moment later, his face splits into a filthy grin. “Can finally sit down without squirming, fucking hell.”

Barnes winks roguishly at him. Loki wants to throw up a little.

“Any time,” Barnes replies smugly, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. He rocks on his heels, looking disgustingly self-satisfied. It’s a good thing he’s so pretty, Loki finds himself thinking, and promptly scowls down at the table, neck heating.

“So? You fellas getting a place together or what?” Barnes asks again, nodding his chin at the spread out Houses To Let section of the paper.

“Yeah,” Tony says. There’s a hollow note in his voice that Loki finds himself disliking intensely. Tony looks away, back down at his tablet. “Found myself in the market for a new place recently.”

Barnes winces. “Shit. They kicked you out after the party, right? Barton mentioned something like that. Sucks, man.”

Tony nods, jabbing at the tablet much harder than necessary. “Yeah. Anyway. At least I managed to con these three into coming along for the ride.”

Barnes looks around the table, meeting Raven’s frank, head-to-toe ogle with another crooked grin. “That’s awesome, pal. Gonna be one hell of a fun house.”

“A crazy house, you mean,” Charles says dryly, but he’s smiling. Barnes sounded decidedly genuine. Maybe Loki won’t make a point of ruining his life just yet.

“Still think we should just buy one, though,” Tony says, distracted again by the shiny on his screen. “I mean, renting gets old after a while, and it’s the only way we’ll be able to do whatever the fuck we want with it.”

“Wreck the place, you mean? Why am I not surprised by your complete and utter lack of respect for personal property and boundaries?”

Loki feels his own face flatten out into its habitual mask when he's surprised, but doesn’t know if showing it is a good move as yet. Meanwhile, Tony’s head slowly lifts, and he gives the speaker an unreadable, complicated look.

“I don’t remember asking for your opinion, Rogers,” Tony says, voice very level. “Not that it has any bearing whatsoever on the discussion at hand, which doesn’t in fact involve you, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Loki turns around with careful, economic movements. Steve Rogers stands tall and imposing next to a cringing Barnes, his face like a thundercloud. Not even Thor looks this ominous when he’s in a mood. Loki has never seen his normally cheerful, easygoing Captain look anything close to this aggravated, or ...disappointed?

Rogers’ mouth twists into something that couldn’t be called a smile by even the most charitable person in the room.

“Yeah, because no opinion matters other than your own and your cronies'. What Tony Stark wants, Tony Stark gets, right?”

“Steve,” Barnes starts, a warning note in his voice, but Tony’s face has closed down tighter than the Tower of London.

“That’s exactly right, Rogers. What Tony Stark wants, Tony Stark gets. Like this one,” Tony says, jabbing a finger at the house Charles and Raven circled not five minutes ago. Charles’ mouth opens, but he hesitates before speaking. Raven and him share a wary look.

“Tony,” Raven starts, but when Tony slants her a look, her mouth snaps closed and she sighs, putting up her hands in capitulation.

“I’m buying that house. You can write me a cheque or you can pay me rent or just move in or whatever.” He bites into the chocolate muffin he'd been picking at before, chewing aggressively in Rogers' direction. Loki barely manages not to roll his eyes at all the posturing.

“Says here that house is for rent?” Barnes says, then shrinks back when Tony turns the crazy eyes on him.

“Do I look to you like a man who cares?”

Rogers’ lips tighten until they resemble nothing so much as a cat’s arsehole. “Right. Because throwing money at something always works for you.”

“As a matter of fact, it does. Don’t like it, take a hike. No one asked you here anyway.”

Rogers glares at Tony. Tony glares at Rogers. Loki privately muses that you could cut the UST with a knife, not that those two would admit to it if their lives depended on it.

It’s even more hilarious when Tony can’t stop watching Rogers as he stalks away in a hissy fit to end all hissy fits, with Bucky trailing helplessly behind him and throwing Tony thoughtful looks over his shoulder.

“What a fucking jerk-off,” Tony snarls, two spots of feverish colour high on his cheeks.

Raven has one palm on her face, shaking her head despairingly. She looks at Loki, making a gagging face. Loki can’t really disagree.

Charles, meanwhile, has appropriated the paper and is reading the listing a second, and then a third time.

“We may be able to make this work,” he says calmly. “Look, says here there’s an estate agent we can contact with our inquiries. Could be, we can convince her to broker the deal for us. That is, if we are all decided?”

Loki takes the paper out of Charles’ hand and casts his eye over the house in question. Detached, three floors, five bedrooms, a refurbished basement, living room, open plan kitchen, two bathrooms, a lovely garden out in the back, a garage they can use for storage, since none of them have bothered bringing a car to Oxford. The address is in an excellent spot, just off Banbury Road past St Giles’; by his calculations and the light in the photograph, most of the rooms ought to face south-east and south-west. There’s even a conservatory at the back, looking out into the garden.

“Yes,” he muses, reading through the details again. “I should like to see it first, naturally, but yes. I think this could be just the ticket.”

Add in the bonus of pissing Rogers off (no one gets to talk to them that way, Loki doesn't care who they think they are), and the chance of giving his father a coronary when he hears about this, and really, it could not be more perfect if Loki tried.

---

3.

It's Christmas, and they're moving house.

Well, technically it's the 23rd of December, but Christmas madness has gripped Oxford just like every year. The streets are awash with last-minute shoppers, you can't get a taxi come hell or high water, and even the Men with a Van are wearing felt reindeer horns on their heads. They've left it pretty late, but with the hassle over documentation, and the frantic studying for finals, this is the first chance they're getting to make the move.

Raven sighs. This is all because of Charles, of course. Charles, and his three hundred-odd books. Tony turned up with a suitcase nearly as big as him, a backpack, and three crates of workshop equipment. Loki… Actually, Raven didn't see him arrive. One moment the house was empty; the next, the living room was full of his presence, sprawled over the nice sofa the previous owners had seen fit to leave them (once Tony had waved his metaphorical dick around, along with their combined chequebooks.)

In fact, the whole house is lovingly furnished. The walls could use a lick of paint that is not Magnolia, but other than that it's a large, friendly house, plenty of space, an airy feel to the rooms. It's nowhere near the estate she and Charles grew up in, even less like the country manor that is the Odinsons' principal residence – but Raven feels at home here in a way that she has rarely experienced anywhere else. This is their space, bought and paid for. They can make a home here.

She is thrown out of her musings by the thump of a bookshelf hitting the corner and removal men swearing heartily. Christ, this whole house is going to turn into a library, isn't it. Hard not to, seeing as the only furniture they brought with them are bookcases in various shapes and sizes. They're probably going to have to go raid IKEA sometime soon – they could do with a bigger dining table, for one thing, and for another Raven wants some nice things for her bedroom. Cushions. Throws. A lovely chaise longue she's had her eye on for a while. Now that she has the space, and it's hers, she can feel the instinct to nest taking over.

Oooh, maybe Angel can borrow Alex's car and they can have a fieldtrip?

A banging starts deep inside the bowels of the house. It stops as suddenly as it began, only to resume a moment later to the accompaniment of AC/DC's Back in Black played so loud that Raven can make out every word, even if she didn't know the lyrics by heart. Thank god she called dibs on the third floor bedroom - which also happens to be the one with the gorgeous skylight in the beautifully carved sloping ceiling, under which she had dragged her amazingly comfortable double bed. Sometimes, knowing Tony Stark had its perks.

Loki doesn't seem bothered by the racket; he is now reclining full-length on top of the gold-and-bronze-paisley three-seater (long enough to accommodate even his height), deep into a dog-eared copy of The Prince. From the kitchen, the smell of tea wafts through the air as the removal guys maneuver the last of the bookcases along the far wall, opposite the tower of boxes from hers and Charles' apartment. Raven can't wait to dive in and start decorating. She hugs herself happily, doesn't bother to squash a happy little squeak as Charles hands the guys their cash and walks them out of the house.

"We're home."

---

It surprises Raven how naturally the whole process goes. What's theirs is theirs and what's left out unmonitored is everyone's. No one bothers anyone else, and once Raven throws a fit over smelly boys leaving their shit all over the house, even that tapers off. Their cupboards contain thirteen different types of tea, three types of coffee (at least five packs of each), and their mug cupboard makes Raven grin with delight every time she opens it and sees the eclectic mix within.

There is always milk in the fridge and sugar cookies in the cookie jar (Loki, despite his gangly looks, can put away two dozen at a time). There’s never any actual food, because while all of them love watching 24Kitchen, and might be a little bit obsessed with MasterChef and The Great British Bake-Off, none of them possess even a scrap of talent when it comes to preparing food, other than opening take-away boxes. Apparently, Tony once managed to burn water, which is legitimately one of the funniest things Raven has ever heard. At least a third of all fire alarms set off in the rooms at Merton were rumoured to be Tony’s fault. He just does not have the concentration necessary for cooking without also burning down the house.

Consequently, the third rule that goes up on the ‘survive(or) in this house’ list that appears on the fridge within the first week (after 1. Raven is not your maid, clean up after yourselves if you feel in any way attached to your testicles; and 2. Just because Loki says you can’t do it does not mean that you actually can;) is 3. The only cooking Tony is allowed to do involves dialling the phone.

(Rules four through six go something like this:

4. Household items are not appropriate equipment for physics projects. You owe Raven a new hair press.

5. Has Charles eaten today? Tick Yes/No.

6. Only go into Tony’s den of horror if you are: sober/have updated your will to benefit your housemates/bearing coffee/it’s ten in the morning and he hasn’t been to bed yet. (Provisions: have you got your safety equipment on? Do you actually have coffee? Godspeed.)

Given that the last rule was added after Tony nearly blew Charles’ head off, literally, it does make perfect sense. Raven tries to remind herself of this at least once a day.

(For a household three-quarters-made-up of lunatics, it’s surprisingly quiet and relaxing.))

There’s a reason the list is drawn up on a white board. On worse weeks, Raven can chart the state of her housemates’ sanity by the kinds of things to go up on that list.

(Examples 4 through to 8:

1. NO ONE touches the pint of Dublin Mudslide in the freezer on pain of pain – Raven
2. Anyone who grants my brother entrance into this house will hereby be considered a traitor to the state – Loki
3. Ditto Steve Rogers >:(
4. Please return any books you may have borrowed back in their proper place, in the condition in which you found them. —My apologies. However, I must point out that the wine circles merely lend Plato authenticity.
5. Duck. Live. Get me one – Tony THAT’S NOT A RULE, TONY. Also, what the bloody hell do you need a live duck for? OH, LIKE THE ONE ABOUT THE ICE CREAM IS A RULE?? It’s MY rule, thanks. –Sorry Raven.)

All in all, Raven walks into the house one mild February afternoon, takes in the subtle ambiance of Loki on a cleaning spree, and realises that she honestly can’t remember a time in her life when she has felt happier. It’s always been her and Charles against the world, but now they have something better than friends. They have allies who are just as broken as them – and just as worthy of being a part of their family.

Really, what more could any of them want?

---

And then, Charles comes home one day with a black eye above his blue-and-white College scarf.

“Honestly, it’s nothing,” he insists, an embarrassed flush high on his cheeks. “I wasn’t looking where I was going. I tripped, we fell, he elbowed me in the face while he tried to keep both of us upright. By accident,” he yelps when Loki’s eyes narrow and damn near flash lightning.

“Explain,” Raven grits out, arms crossed tightly over her chest.

Charles is making a hash out of it when Tony walks through the door. He freezes when the three of them turn to look at him.

“It wasn’t me,” he blurts, clearly on reflex, because then he pulls himself up and frowns. “Wait. What the hell’s going on?”

It’s clear exactly when he catches sight of Charles’ face, because he has whipped out his phone and yelled at Bruce to get over there before any of them can stop him.

“You okay?” he fusses, hovering in front of Charles and waving his hands into his face. “How many fingers am I holding up? What’s your mother’s maiden name?”

Charles levels him a mulish look.

“It’s not like you’d be able to verify my answers,” he points out peevishly.

Charles,” Raven growls.

Charles takes one look at her and deflates.

“Fine. Three, and Lancaster. Honestly, you lot, stop acting like I might break. It was an accident. If it helps, Erik feels really bad about it.”

“Lehnsherr?” Loki demands, though he sounds less exasperated, more amused this time.

Raven sighs. Tony smacks a hand over his face. “From the top, Charles.”

In Charles’ own words, what happened was not exactly a shock. He got lost in his thoughts, saw Lehnsherr, mooned over him like some lovesick puppy as per usual, tripped over his own feet, took Lehnsherr with him on the way down. Lehnsherr, trying to keep from cracking his skull on the floor, flailed ungracefully. Elbow, meet cheekbone.

“I did not—I wasn’t—“ Charles splutters indignantly, when Raven helpfully sums up his rambling for those unused to the way Charles' mind works.

Loki stops looking like he’s about to drop a nuke on someone and starts sniggering. Tony drops his shaking head in his hands.

“And?” Raven asks. Just because her brother is an idiot doesn’t mean that he’s not a clever, opportunistic idiot.

“And he invited me to dinner at All Bar One,” Charles finishes, starting to grin.

The entire household lets out a collective sigh of relief. Maybe, finally, at least one of their many, varied issues might get resolved.

…Or not, as it turns out, because while Charles does go to his ‘date’, they end up playing chess in Erik’s rooms at Keble College.

And no, that is not a euphemism. Apparently, when it comes to Erik Lehnsherr, Charles either seems incapable of employing his usual hopeless flirting, or Lehnsherr sees right through him and is playing the long game. Raven is as yet unsure which would be the better option. Still, Charles is getting out in the fresh air more, and he seems excited about something other than Genetics for the first time in… a while.

Which is more than can be said about Tony. Now, Raven is, despite her name, no mother hen. Stupid boys can do whatever they want with their lives. But, even when she doesn’t want to be, she’s worried. Ever since the train wreck at the Queen’s Lane, Tony has been crankier. Even more short-tempered. He blows up at the slightest thing and then looks like a kicked puppy while he muddles his way through apologising.

Frankly, something has to give, and soon.

---

4.

Isn’t it just the nature of the beast that the second you give up on something, the world falls over itself to wrap a bow around it and drop it in your lap?

---

Tony twists and turns, fighting the water trying to weigh down his limbs. What was he thinking?

Well. He wasn’t thinking at all, was he. He saw the mangy, soot-coloured ball of fur get propelled off the edge of the pavement by the teeming masses of cheering people, likely absolutely terrified of the noise and the huge crowd gathered for the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race. It slid down the concrete bank, claws trying and failing to find purchase; a second later, it fell off the side and into the Thames, and Tony hadn't stopped to think.

A good decision apparently, because the dog is sinking right alongside him, small, scrawny legs desperately kicking but unable to drag its body to the surface. Tony grabs for it, relieved when the pup doesn’t try to fight him, merely clings to him as the nearest steady surface. He kicks off, propelling them both up, towards the hazy light of the cloudy April morning. He surfaces spluttering, pushing the dog’s head above the water and incidentally into a reaching pair of arms.

“I got him, Tony,” Bruce says loudly. “Come on, grab Raven’s hand.”

Said hand is waved before his face, grasping at his freezing fingers as he scrabbles for purchase on the bank leading up to the barriers.

“Come on, Tony,” Raven yells, tugging him out and pushing him up towards a cleared half-moon of space, where Charles is frantically hopping from foot to foot, observed by a bemused crowd. As soon as Tony is within reach, Charles leans over the fence and grabs his arm, braces his elbow so that he and Raven can heave him over to the pavement.

“You are bloody insane, do you know that?” Charles growls. “Are you all right? Is the dog okay?”

Tony can’t do much more than nod, throat still raw from the effort. Bruce is more forthcoming, giving them all a status report as he checks on the pup. He pronounces it fine, which draws a resounding cheer from the people grinning in relief, clapping as they crane their necks to look at the half-drowned canine and sending Tony curious looks.

“All the same, I’d feel better if Hank checks him out,” Bruce says quietly.

“Me too,” Raven says, chucking the dog under its chin and stroking its wet ears. The dog is, apparently, smart enough to know when milking the attention is a good idea, because it butts its muzzle into Raven’s hand, woofing a greeting. Raven coos at it for as long as it takes Tony to get back to his feet, at which point it scrabbles its little legs at her arms until she passes it back to Tony. They are shepherded into Bruce's car, and back to Oxford they all head, driving straight to the vet clinic despite everyone trying to manage Tony and tell him what he should be doing. Tony is damned if he’s having it, never mind his chattering teeth and the now-soaked old blanket Bruce has magicked from the trunk. He dragged the damned animal out from the jaws of death; he has every right to tag along.

He hasn’t, of course, factored in the wait. It’s a busy vet practice, lots of worried pet owners packed nervously on the hard plastic chairs, clutching their beloved animals. Tony and the others join them, huddling against each other as their coats are heaped over Tony to keep him warm. He might be a stubborn bastard, but he knows his friends are the best – anyone else would have tried to bully him into going home by now.

Maybe thirty minutes into the wait, Bruce’s friend comes out to see them, takes one look at Tony, and digs up some wrinkled but clean scrubs from the back office. Tony gratefully changes into them, before drawing Raven’s down-filled coat back on.

The surprise is waiting for him when he comes back out. Bruce is barely managing to keep hold of the rescued dog, which is keening and frantically looking around. The second it spots Tony, it squirms and twists until Bruce lets go, whereupon it races over to nose at Tony's ankles, tail wagging so hard it’s hitting the sides of its body on each stroke. Once it has made sure it really is Tony, the puppy jumps up, placing its paws on Tony’s knees and whining in recognition.

Nothing in his life has ever been this glad to see him. Tony looks at that little muddy face and something cracks open in his chest; his eyes start to sting. He crouches down, stroking along the pup’s well-shaped, damp head.

“Hey, buddy,” he says softly. The dog squirms closer, trying to lick his mouth. Tony manages to hold it off, mindful of Bruce’s quick interjection -- they are definitely going to have to run the full gamut of tests on the pup to make sure it’s healthy. It still tries to crawl all over Tony, so he picks it up and settles in the chair Bruce vacated, wrapping the now-filthy towel around the little body again and taking a moment to inspect what they’ve ended up with.

The puppy is small, fits in Tony’s arms just right. It’s a touch thin, like it hasn’t had much to eat recently. Its paws are big and round, plate-like compared to the rest of its body. The Thames water has turned its fur dank and muddy, so it’s anyone’s guess what colour it will actually turn out to be. It turns enormous, liquid-brown eyes on Tony as he examines its ears. They’re full of so much adoration and unquestionable trust that Tony’s lungs seize all over again.

He knows there and then the mutt is coming home with them. He’d have fought to keep it even if he hadn’t seen the way Raven can’t stop looking at it, eyes soft and fond as the pup shuffles and turns in Tony’s arms, burying its muzzle into his side and going straight to sleep, or Charles’ hovering behind them, hands darting out to pet its head. Tony has no illusions about himself. He knows he gets attached too easily, much too fast to keep his heart intact. He knows he’s prone to disregarding common sense when it comes to his emotions. He falls, and leaves the facing of consequences for later, if at all. His life has too long been devoid of the warm weight of a living thing in his arms, trusting him, choosing him over others.

Yeah. Tony is going to cling to this as tightly as he can.

---

They wait for hours. Once Bruce has forced him to swallow half a sandwich, and an antibiotic to counter the effect of any Thames water that might have ended up in him, Tony dozes too, head thrown back and braced against the wall behind his chair. Hey, rescuing puppies in trouble is exhausting business, okay? He wakes up when someone drops in the chair next to him, driving its legs to scrape against the linoleum-covered floor. Loki levels him a pissed look, arms crossed tightly over his chest, back straight as a poplar.

“What were you thinking?” Loki hisses, eyes dragging over Tony from head to toe and back again, narrowing even more.

“I kind of wasn’t,” Tony mutters, still fuzzy from his nap. The dog is awake and sniffing curiously at Loki. Loki is dressed in grey corduroy pants and a heather sweater, hair hanging lank into his face. Tony’s tired brain kicks in at last.

“Hey, you’re back!” he blurts, ignoring the rolling of Loki’s eyes. “How’d it go?”

Loki’s lips thin and his face closes down. He looks away.

“Oh,” Tony says lamely, wincing. Crap. “Loki, I’m sorry.”

It takes a moment, but Loki breathes deeply in and out and shrugs, letting go of some of the tension in his frame and folding into himself.

“We were all distracted,” he admits grudgingly.

Tony strokes the dog when it paws sleepily at his leg, multitasking by frowning at Loki at the same time.

“Why? Is everyone all right? Did something happen?”

Loki looks at him like Tony has lost his damn mind.

“Yes,” he laughs. He sounds half-crazed. “Yes, some idiot jumped in the bloody Thames. After a sodding dog, apparently.”

Tony flushes furnace-hot all over. “No way,” he says, voice shaking. “No way anyone cared—“

“Idiot,” Loki repeats slowly, as if that way he’d make more sense. “Genius-level moron. Congratulations, Stark, you are the only person alive who can achieve that.”

“That’s unfair,” Tony grumbles, but the scoff coming from the corner, where Raven is curled up in a chair, makes him cut that out pretty fast.

“We can go in now,” Charles announces. He looks exhausted, but that’s not what gives Tony pause.

Possibly it’s the way he is clinging to Erik Lehnsherr’s hand for dear life. Might also be the way Lehnsherr is letting himself be clung onto. There is something peaceful in his eyes that Tony has never seen before in another person – not that he has spent all that long looking, but still.

“Yeah, let’s be having him,” Logan growls, appearing from the inner sanctum of the clinic. He must have arrived at the same time as Lehnsherr and Loki, while Tony dozed. He is dressed in a pair of wrinkled scrubs identical to the one Tony is shivering in. Tony shrinks back, trying to make himself smaller.

“How d’you know it’s a he?” Tony asks.

He makes a mental note to think twice before challenging ‘Wolverine’ Logan when the guy merely bares a canine at him. They’re unnaturally sharp, okay, it’s creepy.

“I smelled it on him,” Logan says, deadpan. He rolls his eyes when Tony goggles. “I got eyes, asshole, I know a dick when I see one.”

Tony is somehow left with the impression that Logan still isn’t talking about the dog. He’s probably fucked, but he kinda likes him.

“Not you,” Loki says when Tony tries to carry the dog in. He’s about to protest, but Raven appears out of thin air, taking the puppy from his arms. She gives Tony a warning look, before she turns to precede Charles and Lehnsherr through the double doors.

Loki leans over, dragging something misshapen and soft from under his chair. He thrusts it in Tony’s arms without a word. Tony looks down, catching the edge of a familiar navy sweatshirt (his favourite), his thickest pair of jeans, dry socks, Tony loves him, seriously.

“Swung by the house on the way over, Lehnsherr drove us. Go get dressed so we can all go home.”

Tony does as he’s told. He changes quickly into the warm clothes, stuffing the now even more wrinkled and covered in muddy dog hair scrubs into a laundry bag of mixed clothes at one end of the break room. The mutt has decided to behave this time, apparently – the practice is quiet around Tony, there isn’t even a whimper. Brave little fella. Tony himself might have screamed, if he’d found himself subjected to Logan’s tender mercies.

He has never had pets before, because Howard had some Strong Opinions on the subject, but he doesn’t think dogs are supposed to behave like that. There should be more complaining and wriggling and probably biting. The pup is an interesting specimen. Just a really very interesting specimen…

It is possible that Tony is more sleep-deprived than he thought. He’s been working long hours, barely leaving his workshop, steering clear of people. He knows he’s being ridiculous. That doesn’t mean he feels inclined to change that. People other than the people he lives with are…not safe. He would do better to avoid them altogether.

“Is Jarvis done?” he demands when he comes out and sees Loki, Charles and his boyfriend loitering in the otherwise-empty waiting room.

“Jarvis?” Charles says, looking at him strangely.

"Yeah, Just A Really Very—look, it’s a thing, I’m calling him Jarvis. Is he done? Can we go home now?”

“Just go with it,” Loki advises, seeing Lehnsherr open his mouth. “I think he’s done, I’ll go check.”

Tony kicks at the linoleum floor tiles while he waits, feeling strangely bereft, arms too cold and empty. Then there’s a scratching click of nails on a hard surface and Jarvis’ head rounds the corner, sees Tony, and proceeds to accelerate in one-point-three seconds, ploughing into Tony’s legs and bowling him right over. He tries to lick Tony’s face while Tony laughs breathlessly and attempts to stop him.

“You shouldn’t be able to knock me down, look at you, you’re tiny, what is this,” he mutters as he scratches Jarvis behind his now-clean ears. Jarvis’ natural colour, it emerges, is a shaggy grey-brown, kind of silvery, and his fur is coarse and thick, making for a good handful, reassuringly tough. His muzzle is a lighter grey than his coat, sporting small darker spots, like freckles. He is beautiful.

He is also thrilled with all the attention Tony is giving him, wriggling into Tony’s lap and pillowing his head on Tony’s shoulder. “You ready to go home, buddy? You wanna come home with us?”

Jarvis is clearly a stray, even if he doesn’t appear to have the strongest sense of self-preservation; there’s no knowing the grasp on human language he has, but all of a sudden he tries to climb on top of Tony’s chest, pushing him back flat on the floor and sitting down on his stomach as if he’s claiming him - as if he, too, plans to keep Tony.

“Woof,” he says – years later, Tony will swear he damn near says it, even if the others never go along with it.

“Okay,” Tony says, can’t seem to get rid of the grin splitting his face in two. “Okay, buddy. Get off me, then.”

Jarvis does so reluctantly, looking like he hates every minute of it. Tony joins in with the muffled laughter from the people around the room. Raven has her hands on her hips, chuckling outright, while Charles is hiding his mouth behind his free hand, just as clearly amused. Even Loki has cracked a smile – will wonders never cease. They have definitely acquired a new member of the household.

Tony gives himself just another minute to savour this, to let it register and sink in. He ruffles Jarvis’ fur, bringing their heads together while Jarvis pants happily and damn near grins at him.

“Come on,” Raven says at last, brisk and no-nonsense and so very soothing to Tony’s nerves. “Let’s go home.”

---

5.

"...Stubborn, and ridiculous, and downright stupid, which I know for a fact you are not, Steven Rogers."

Steve suppresses a frustrated sigh – barely. His jaw aches from being clenched as Bucky drags him down Banbury Road, one hand digging into his arm. What is it about Tony Stark that makes people lose all their good sense and become wilfully blind to his asshole-ish propensities? Even Bucky, who has been known to bristle at the very suggestion of money-fuelled arrogance, appears to have become a Tony Stark groupie. Steve doesn't get it. Stark is just another rich white boy who cares not a jot about the way people worse off than him get by; who is so used to his money solving the problems he causes; who wears clothes that cost more than Steve earns in six months with such reckless disregard, like he couldn't care less if he ruins them. Who thinks nothing of fucking people at parties and not bothering to call them afterwards. Not that Steve is a prude – he grew up in 20th Century Brooklyn, with Bucky Barnes - but it's the principle of the thing. He just hates to see such excess being used as justification for not caring about people. Tony Stark behaves as if nothing can touch him; as if everyday concerns like being a decent human being are beneath him.

He just rubs Steve the wrong way, and Steve can't understand what Bucky sees that he seems to be missing.

"Now, we are going to go in," Bucky goes on in a tone that Steve knows better than to argue with, "and we are going to see if Tony's okay, and you're gonna be nice, or so help me God, I'll make you regret it."

"Why?" Steve grits out, glaring at nothing. In his pocket, his hand fists around a mangled paperclip, nails catching over it for what comfort it can offer. "Why should I give a damn about attention-seeking childish assholes who cost us the race?"

Bucky stops and turns to look at him, head quirked to one side in his 'I am thinking and you're not gonna like what I come up with' expression.

"What is this about?" he asks after a long moment that has Steve squirming. "I mean, really? It isn't like you to hold a grudge so long and so well. That's usually me."

Steve scowls, looking away from Bucky's searching gaze.

"He's just such a dick to people," he bursts out when Bucky shows no inclination to move on. "He bosses Logan around, makes Raven Darkholme do his laundry, hasn't cleaned a single thing in his life, and he keeps poking poor Bruce Banner like it's a national sport. He calls Pepper Potts his PA, did you know that? He makes passes at everything that moves, he has no respect for people's boundaries - he made Peter Parker fetch him coffee for like a fortnight straight. What kinda conceited dick does that? You can't treat people like they're there for your personal entertainment!"

He stops, realising he's breathing heavily only when his throat starts to ache. He doesn't usually let people get to him like that, but Tony Stark is nothing more than a rich, gorgeous bully and it pisses Steve off that no one else seems to see it.

Bucky stares at him, mouth hanging open a little.

"No," he drawls, "don't stop there. Tell me what you really think."

Steve flushes hotly, glaring at his feet. He knows Bucky is biased; that for some reason, Bucky apparently wants to look past Tony Stark's attitude, and it upsets Steve that he doesn't know why.

Unless—

"Are you in love with him?" Steve demands, narrowing his eyes at Bucky. "Do you wanna date him? Is that why you're so concerned about what I think?"

Bucky's eyes bug out; he chokes a little on his next breath, looking incredibly amused at Steve's expense.

"Me? Date Stark? Yeah, no. A world of 'no'. Besides, I'm not his type."

Steve really does not appreciate the way Bucky's smirking at him – like Steve is missing something that's right under his nose. He feels stupid, and slow, and like the butt of a joke.

"Aw, Stevie," Bucky says, slinging an arm around his neck and tugging him in the direction of the Xavier-Darkholme-Odinson-Stark house. "Don't be like that. Just—give him a chance. He might surprise you."

Steve thinks it's singularly unfair, the way Bucky can make him fold with nothing more than a well-placed word and a puppy-eyed look.

"Fine," he growls, grudgingly falling into step with Bucky. "I'll play nice. God knows why I listen to you, but fine. Just this once. And then you'll leave me alone."

Bucky sighs, shaking his head. "All right, Steve. You got yourself a deal."

Mollified, Steve lets Bucky drag him the rest of the way down the pleasant, leafy street until they stop before a detached three-storey house. Where most of the other houses in the street are a shade of murky brick red, the foursome's house glows with a pearly grey light reflected by the beautifully chiselled stone walls. Of course this would be Tony Stark's house. The meaning of subtlety flies right over that man's head. Steve grits his teeth again and takes a deep breath as he follows Bucky down the pathway to the front door. He won't snap at Stark. He won't. He's got enough self-control to be the bigger man, damn it.

Bucky sends him one last look of warning before knocking. The door opens a minute or so later – and whatever Steve was expecting, he knows it wasn't this.

Loki Odinson stands framed in the doorway, dressed in a pair of pink lounging pants, a fluffy bunny sweatshirt, and bunny slippers whose ears flop when he comes to a stand-still. His long, smooth hair, usually framing his face and flowing over his shoulders, is pulled back in a ponytail. Steve has the horrified suspicion that what holds it is probably a pink scrunchie. The hipster terror of Trinity College looks about fourteen, and even sports the typical disgruntled teenager expression when he looks at them.

"Hey, man," Bucky says after a long moment of gaping just as hard as Steve, clapping him on the shoulder. "Is Tony in? We came to make sure he didn't drown or something."

Loki sends Steve what Steve has no choice but to call a skewering look of warning, and steps back.

"Living room," he says listlessly, before turning and walking away into the house.

Steve closes the door behind him once he comes in. There's decorative ladybirds stuck on the back of it. Steve legitimately starts wondering if he fell over and hit his head earlier in the week, and he's been hallucinating ever since.

Then he turns the corner into the living room, and there's nothing he can do but stop and stare. The room is big and bright, stuffed with sofas and coffee tables and bookcases, a thick, lush carpet under his feet and sunlight in his eyes from windows thrown open into the garden. That's not what has him stupefied, though, unable to move or speak.

No, that would be the figure sitting on the sofa.

Tony Stark is wearing a ratty pair of tracksuit pants and an AC/DC shirt that looks like it's on its last seams. He is barefoot, toes curled in towards the arch of his foot, small and curiously defenceless. He is frowning at a tablet held in his hands, and his arms are braced on the back and side of a dog sprawled all over him, as if it wants to lay claim on his entire length. The dog opens its eyes and stares at Steve and Bucky suspiciously. Its tail doesn't move.

"Wow," Bucky drawls, amusement thick in his voice. "I was gonna say that it's good to see you're still alive, but looking at you, I ain't so sure that's true."

Stark lifts his head, brow smoothing out. There are lines in it that send a strange pang through Steve. He doesn't remember noticing them before. And isn't Stark supposed to only be twenty-two or something? Those are marks that don't belong in that youthful face.

"Your bedside manner is appalling, Barnes," Stark says with a crooked grin. Steve would love to contradict him, but it's true – Bucky subscribes to the school of 'poke and annoy them until they get better'. Steve should know, he's been subjected to enough of it growing up. "Is that your way of saying I look like shit?"

"Pretty much," Bucky agrees, unfazed. "Who's the mutt? Seriously, you jumped off a bridge into the Thames. At least you could've done it for a pretty damsel in distress."

Stark rolls his eyes, but Steve notices his hand clench in the dog's fur. The dog turns its head and licks at Stark's fingers.

"This is Jarvis," Stark says, dropping his tablet on his chest and stretching until something under him pops. "J, say hello."

Jarvis does nothing of the sort, refusing to move an inch. His tail thumps twice, though, before he lays his head back against Stark's side. Stark winces, scratching behind his ears.

"He's a little shy of strangers," he says, something sweet in his voice. "He's had a bit of a fright. We figure we shouldn't make him talk to people if he doesn't want to."

Steve focuses on breathing evenly, in and out, as his entire perception of Tony Stark shifts and crackles at the picture before his eyes. His mom had always said that people who were kind to animals couldn't be really bad. (He hates it. Hates the dawning realisation that not only has he completely misread Stark, but he has also apparently been an unmitigated dick to him. Damn it!)

Meanwhile, Bucky, unaware of the goings-on in Steve's head (or maybe entirely too aware, as he has the annoying habit of being), inches closer and offers the dog a hand to sniff. Steve stands awkwardly in the middle of the room as Jarvis appears to find this acceptable and flicks a pink tongue at Bucky's fingers. When Bucky steps closer, though, the dog shies away, burrowing between Stark's side and the sofa. Stark's arm immediately goes around him, pulling him closer. Jarvis sticks his nose in Stark's armpit and goes limp, huffing contentedly.

"He's really imprinted on you," Bucky comments while Stark pats Jarvis' head.

"It's okay, sweetheart," Stark croons gently, scritching behind the dog's ears. "It's just Bucky. Bucky's a friend."

His eyes flicker to Steve as he says the last part, full of a strange, discomfiting mixture of defiance and vulnerability. This is all terrible. How could he have gotten Stark so wrong?

He offers Stark a small smile that feels weird on his mouth. Stark looks startled, shifting his eyes away. He coughs, and Steve is absurdly charmed to observe a light flush climb those olive cheeks.

He looks away hurriedly, too, confused and annoyed with himself. His eyes catch on Bucky's, narrow and too-knowing. Steve scowls, all the more when he hears Bucky's stifled huff of amusement.

"So whatcha doing anyway?" Bucky wants to know, flopping on the other end of the large sofa. Stark's feet immediately dig themselves under Bucky's thigh. Bucky grimaces – "Jesus, your feet are freezing," but doesn't push him away.

"Running a simulation on an energy signature," Stark answers off-handedly. His eyelids droop, sending long eyelashes to shadow his cheekbones. He rubs a hand over his face. He looks exhausted.

The next moment, Steve jumps when a female voice confirms his observation.

"He's barely slept," Raven grumbles, hands on her hips. "Hey, Steve," she says distractedly before pointing a finger at Stark's face without waiting for Steve's answer. "He's been too wired to eat. I almost wish someone would fuck him just to get his brain to switch off."

Stark splutters, red in the face. Steve wants the floor to open up and swallow him whole. (Not unlike some other things he's starting to think he wants.

...Damn it!)

Bucky opens his mouth, but Stark glares and raises a finger in warning. Bucky closes his mouth again on a grin.

Loki wanders in while Stark's grumbling at Raven and she stares him down. He takes in the tableau, rolls his eyes, and drops onto a sofa, snatching up the remote from a side table. He turns on the TV without comment.

As if it's a signal of some kind, Raven and Stark stop snipping at each other. Raven stalks out, only to reappear swaddled in a too-large hoodie proclaiming Mutants Rock!, slumping in the space between Bucky and Stark, who removes his feet only to dump them in Raven's lap and sneak them under the hem of the pooled navy fabric. He doesn't get horribly murdered for it, which, really, the mind boggles.

Charles Xavier walks into the room a moment later, carrying a large mug that smells like vanilla and spices. He looks around, sees Steve still standing, and looks to the ceiling as if soliciting divine assistance.

"You were all raised in a barn," he declares, smiling at Steve and waving at the squishy armchair to the side. "Here, sit. Or would you like something to drink first? Tea? Coffee? I'd say help yourself, except Tony's the only one who can work the damn espresso machine."

Tony grumbles something under his breath, pouting. Steve wishes it wasn't such a good look on him.

"How come you never make me coffee?" Tony whines. Charles raises his eyebrows.

"I was under the impression that my coffee was only one step up from buffalo piss – although you still haven't told me how you know this."

The corner of Tony's mouth twitches, and his eyes sparkle before his lids lower over them. Steve looks away, disturbed by the unmistakable beginnings of fondness taking root in his chest. It's neither appropriate nor welcome, he reminds himself sternly.

Except that then Tony glances up at him and away, too quickly for Steve to be able to gauge his mood.

"Charles is right," Tony says glibly. "Sit the hell down, Rogers. You're ruining the ambiance."

Steve freezes, ready to bristle – but the small smile lingers in the corner of Tony's mouth still, and his cheeks are definitely pinker than they were before.

Steve bites the inside of his cheek. The thing is-

"Coffee sounds really good," he says quietly, smiling at Charles, who blinks at him and then grins back widely, eyes tracking down and up again. Amusement flickers inside - Steve knows when he's being checked out, thanks.

"Let me show you where things are," Charles says, gesturing towards the hallway that leads away from the living room and to what Steve assumes is the kitchen.

Steve's stomach jumps, then tries to tie itself in knots. But he hasn't faced down bullies, and gotten into fights, and stood up for what he knew was right every damn day for years, to chicken out now. He sucks in a breath and turns to Tony.

"Would you like some coffee, too?" he asks politely, ignoring the way his entire body stews in the grips of an embarrassed flush.

Tony blinks at him, face slack with surprise. Steve shrugs. "I can't guarantee it'll be any more drinkable than buffalo piss, but it might surprise you."

'I might surprise you,' he doesn't say. 'Give me another chance, I swear I'll do better.' He has no idea why that's so important. He has disliked Tony Stark since the second he first laid eyes on him, a sleek, suave figure in the distance trailing so-called 'cool' people like a particularly obnoxious comet. But once he knows he has made a mistake, misjudged or mistreated a person, it eats up at him until he gets the chance to make it right. He might as well start now.

"I, uh. Okay?" Tony says, clearly still confused, but maybe a little pleased too. Of course, then he adds, "I probably shouldn't, I mean, perfect chance to poison me, right?" and Steve has to roll his eyes and consider maybe slamming his head into the nearest wall.

But again, that hint of surprised pleasure peeks through the words, and Steve can't find it in himself to disappoint him.

"If I haven't murdered you by now, it's a pretty good bet I can learn to live with you," he says dryly. Then he immediately closes his teeth on the inside of his cheek, fighting not to wince as three heads turn as if on a timer to look at him with raised eyebrows.

"So, coffee," he says decisively, turning on his heel and skedaddling after Charles like the fires of hell are behind him. Jesus Christ, could he be any more ridiculous? Ugh.

Charles is right; the coffee machine is space-age. Luckily, Steve once did a stint as a barista in a very hipster-y coffee shop for the summer holidays before coming to university, so he doesn't have that hard a time figuring it out. He actually finds it comforting, stacking the group, levelling it out, then filling up the water tank and pressing the button. He goes to put a tiny espresso cup under the nozzle, before Charles snorts and shakes his head.

"Pick any of the ones in the cupboard by your head," he says, waving a hand at the door in question. "Tony needs more than one swallow at a go."

Steve plain refuses to give Charles the satisfaction of blushing. Just because Tony Stark was sprawling on the sofa like some decadent temptress in clothes just begging to be taken off, if only for the offence they gave to an eye with any kind of style sense at all, did not mean Steve had noticed it. At all.

...Damn it.

He chooses to focus on the mind-boggling variety of mugs in the cupboard instead. Almost all of them had some kind of slogan on the side - a moan about Monday mornings, rays of fucking sunshine heavy with irony, directions on when people were allowed to speak depending on the level of the mug's contents. There are a couple of cute ones - Winnie the Pooh, and a smiling frog in shorts holding a flower. There is even a giant white mug covered in grinning black bats. Steve tries, really tries not to grin at them like an idiot, but knows he's failing miserably when he catches the smirk on Charles' face out of the corner of his eyes.

In the end, he chooses the little ray of fucking sunshine proclaimer, on the basis that sure, he's messed up here, but that doesn't mean he still can't poke fun at Stark's moodiness.

Mug full, he collects it and the purple cup with white polka dots he chose for himself, and brings them into the living room. Stark still sprawls full-length on the sofa, hands buried in the fur at Jarvis' side. His head is angled towards the screen, but his eyes are closed; if his fingers weren't still moving to pet the dog, Steve would have thought him asleep.

He looks very young like that, even with the ridiculous facial hair he's trying to grow. Steve forces himself to stop staring like a mook and make some noise walking over. Stark's eyes fly open and fix on Steve's face, wide and dark and compelling before sliding down his body to alight on the mug in Steve's left hand. He smiles, this happy, artless thing that completely transforms his face.

Steve is so, so screwed.

"Here," he says quietly, nearly inaudible under the sound of machine gunfire coming from the sound system. Tony raises himself up on an elbow, reaching to take the mug from Steve's hand. Steve is very careful not to let their fingers touch, because hell, he feels like enough of an idiot already. Tony brings the mug to his face, closes his eyes as he smells the steam curling from the surface, and then takes a sip.

The noise he makes is like a punch in Steve's gut.

"Holy wow," Stark breathes, looking shocked. "How did you, I didn't even know that machine could make coffee like that. I am so keeping you."

Steve absolutely does not blush. No, sir. He is a twenty-six year old guy who grew up with Bucky 'Innuendo' Barnes as a best friend. He is too jaded for this shit.

From somewhere on Tony's other side, Raven chokes back a snort. Tony ignores it, though Steve is unsure whether that is because he's too invested in inhaling his coffee or just too used to his friends laughing at him.

Later, once they have finished watching RED and are walking home, Steve gets to practice some of that blank-faced calm himself when Bucky gleefully mocks him the whole way back.

---

6.

Leaving Angel to sleep sprawled on her front in Raven's bed is the hardest thing Raven has to do, most days. The smooth coffee-and-cream skin of her back is a temptation that Raven has difficulties resisting at the best of times. The nights are getting colder now, and Angel has taken to wearing a t-shirt and pyjama pants in bed; the warmth she radiates, the scent of her sleeping body, is something Raven wants to sink into and wrap around herself forever.

But Angel is also a horrible grump in the mornings before at least eight-thirty. Kissing the back of her neck where her hair tangles damply will likely as not earn Raven an elbow in the stomach so, much as the thought tempts, she knows she's better off stumbling downstairs and starting the coffee than indulging herself.

Early mornings are Raven's favourites. She doesn't know quite when the change happened; as a teenager, like most of her peers, Charles couldn't drag her out of bed before noon with a herd of oxen on steroids. Now, post-high school, one undergraduate degree, and halfway into her first master's, getting up at seven-ish in the morning, when the house is quiet and still around her, no stupid boys tangling in her feet and making a mess of their lives, is a rare joy. She pads down the stairs and into the living room, enjoying the softness of the plush carpet under her feet; she's just about to turn into the kitchen when the air is rent by a mighty snore that makes her nearly jump out of her skin.

Oh. Right.

She sneaks a glance over the top of the sofa, spying messy blond strands fanning out over a pillow, half-hidden by the blanket tossed over the sleeping figure. Damn, but Loki's brother is a looker. The blanket hardly manages to cover his vast chest and shoulders, not to mention that it leaves his toes peeking from under the bottom end.

'Adopted brother,' she reminds herself sternly. It helps with thinking about things she shouldn't be thinking about but is helpless to stop her mind from dwelling on. Yesterday had been...strange, even for them.

They hadn't expected guests – well, no one outside the usual. Steve was there, as he so often was these days – without Bucky, too, boy was growing up and everything, even if his excuses for hanging out are getting flimsier by the day. Raven wishes him and Tony would just bone already, and get all this angsting over with. It's not as if that development would come out of nowhere.

...Unlike this one. A knock on the door, Charles stepping back in the face of the giant, blond, Greek-statue-shaped man on the other side, who had proclaimed himself to be Thor and beamed enthusiastically while peering over Charles' shoulder and asking after his brother.

At which point the Norse Mythology element clicked for Raven – but not before Charles, dazed by the sight and the sheer force of his personality, had let him in.

The bellow of rage when Loki had seen him had been mighty indeed; even Steve had looked concerned. The two of them were ridiculous. It was like watching some Shakespearean tragicomedy unfold – all loud, angry proclamations and arm-throwing and counter-accusations. The result had invariably been Loki stamping out of the room and up the stairs, locking himself in his bedroom like a teenager in a sulk.

"It's all right, friends. Loki has always had a taste for the melodramatic," Thor had sighed – upon which he had found himself the recipient of three bristling looks. To his credit, he had raised his arms immediately. "My apologies. I would have most definitely called, if I thought he'd pick up the phone once he saw the caller ID."

He'd looked so sad and hangdog that none of them had had the heart to argue. When it turned out he had nowhere to sleep – well, that's when the couch had been press-ganged into service.

Man, Charles might be an idiot, too, but at least she doesn't want to bone him. Loki's life is seriously screwed up.

She steps into the kitchen, startling nearly out of her skin when the figure with its head pillowed on the kitchen table jerks upwards, eyes bloodshot and narrow in the pale face. Tony hunches forward again when he sees it's her, cuddling his coffee cup to his chest.

"Been awake long?" Raven asks as she heads for the counter to set up the coffee machine for a second round.

"Other thing," Tony mumbles, yawning.

"Oh, an all-nighter. What's so important that it keeps you up?" she asks, curious. Tony is a genius, but she's no slouch in the science department.

Except that, apparently, this time it wouldn't matter if she were, because Tony is avoiding her eyes and muttering to himself incoherently, in lieu of actually answering her question. Raven hears 'model' and 'Steve' in the middle of it, and the penny drops.

"Wow. Wow. Really, Tony? Should I start planning the wedding now, mister 'Steve Rogers is a traitor to the house of Stark'?"

Tony blushes to the tips of his ears, and she has her answer.

"Never thought I'd see the day," she muses, flicking the switch on the coffee with self-indulgent flair.

Tony attempts to skewer her with a glare, but since he learned it from her, and he can't pull it off half as well even when he isn't severely sleep-deprived, it's less threatening and more annoyingly cute.

"Grumpy cat," she says fondly, skipping over to press a kiss to his forehead. "I think he's good for you. He's a decent guy, doesn't give a rat's ass about money and privilege – which we know is actually true – and you've been happier since he started hanging out. Not to mention that I think he actually likes you."

"Oh, thanks so much," Tony complains, flipping her off. "Enough about me. What the hell are we gonna do about Loki?"

Raven lets him have the change of subject he's obviously desperate for. She looks out into the living room, where Thor has started to snore loud enough to reach her own bedroom. Good thing Angel is a sound sleeper.

"No idea. But he's stubborn enough to not come out of there for a week straight."

Tony grimaces in agreement. "D'you think it'll work on his brother?"

"What, drive him out? He didn't seem the type to me. Seemed pretty devoted to Loki, actually. Not that I'm one to judge," she adds quickly. Tony gives her the Eyebrow of Sarcasm, the fucker. She pushes at him in retaliation, hiding her warming face in her own coffee. "I'm just saying. I get that history has two sides and all, I just – I wonder it Loki isn't clinging to the past as a way to avoid facing what's between them."

"Wouldn't be the first," Tony mutters.

Raven grins at him and pats his head. "Look at you, all grown up," she coos, deftly avoiding the swipe of his hand.

"Asshole," he grumbles, ducking to the side. "Anyway, back to our resident diva. I think we should throw a party."

Raven frowns. "How, exactly, would a party help?"

Tony shrugs. "A party's a party. Lotsa noise, bunch of people, someone's bound to tempt him out. Even if Thor is still here. And besides, we haven't had a housewarming party yet. Your last exam's on Friday, so how about Friday night?"

"Don't you have a paper to present on Monday?"

"Meh," says Tony dismissively. "I can talk about my project in my sleep. Gonna put together a quick model over the weekend, it's gonna be fine. So. Party?"

Raven, by now, knows not to argue. Besides, Tony hasn't been to a party since he got kicked out of the Merton dorms. He deserves a break, and it's good to see him finally getting over it.

"Yay, party," she says, mustering up all the enthusiasm she's capable of at seven-thirty in the morning.

A second later, both of them jump at least a foot in the air as a great big bellow erupts from the living room. It is swiftly followed by a painful-sounding thump and a groan. Jarvis trots into the kitchen, tongue lolling happily and looking like butter wouldn't melt on his whiskers.

"Oh, yeah," Raven says dryly. "He's your dog, all right."

"Who's a good boy," Tony croons, leaning down to scratch his ears while Jarvis wriggles in ecstasy and tries to bathe his face.

Thor wanders to the kitchen doorway a minute later, weakly wiping at his mouth and face – which solves the mystery of what exactly happened. His hair is sticking out in a halo around his head, and there is thick stubble lining his chin. He still looks entirely too gorgeous to be real; his washboard abs alone are a damn work of art.

"Good morning," he says, smiling a happy, sleepy smile. Jesus. Adopted sibling or not, Loki would be an idiot to miss his chance at tapping that.

"Morning," Raven says cheerfully. She's a good hostess, so she makes sure to choose the least chipped mug to pour Thor coffee in.

"You are truly a queen worthy of worship," Thor tells her earnestly when she hands it over, cradling it between his enormous palms. Raven doesn't bother not preening, since he is, of course, correct.

They sip coffee in companionable silence as the long, golden rays of the rising sun drench the room. Once Thor has downed his first cup of caffeinated goodness, he is apparently awake enough to nose around their kitchen until he has procured the ingredients for making crepes. In minutes, he has whipped up the batter and is pouring a ladle-full into the heated pan. The smell of melted butter and bubbling crepes is nothing short of divine. Fuck Loki and his drama. They are so keeping Thor around.

She and Tony are happily munching on layers of golden heaven swimming in maple syrup, when a strangled growl of rage and irritation makes them look up. Loki stands dithering in the door, face twisted in a snarl made all the more ridiculous by how he keeps eyeing the head-sized stack of crepes in the middle of the table.

"Good morning, brother," Thor says delightedly, dropping the spatula and pulling out a chair at the table. "Come. Sit. I made your favourite breakfast. Let me serve you."

Tony chokes on his mouthful, and even Raven has tears in her eyes from the effort not to follow suit. Loki's face is absolutely priceless; yet Thor wears the same hapless, open expression, like he hasn't just dive-bombed the most unsubtle innuendo into the conversation. Raven thinks she's beginning to see it for the mask it is. Where Loki hides behind aloof haughtiness, Thor apparently prefers the cover of a harmless buffoon, perfectly concealing the fact that he likely knows exactly what he's doing. The two of them are not as dissimilar as Loki insists, she thinks with a grin, biting her lip when Thor sends her a lighting-fast wink.

Even more tellingly, Loki actually sits down in the proffered chair, fingers curling around the mug Thor places before him. It's the smiling black bats one. Oh, yeah, definitely a wolf in sheep's clothing. Raven thinks she'll come to like Thor very much indeed, not despite but because of the murderous look Loki shoots him when Thor grins. Anyone who can uncover this much emotion in the guy deserves all their support.

Charles and Angel putter in not long after, blindly heading for the tea and coffee, respectively. Raven watches Angel frown at the contents of her mug, a perplexed, adorable wrinkle between her eyebrows.

"Doesn't taste right," she mumbles, taking another sip. Tony lets out a distracted grunt of agreement – and then, curiously, freezes, eyes darting to the sides.

"Tastes the same as always to me," Raven says; then concedes, "which is to say, the usual poisonous sludge Tony produces."

Angel's frown melts away at her words. She rubs at her eyes, smile still a little hazy, not quite at that laser-focused edge she usually directs at the world.

"That's it," she says, sleep still lingering in her voice, turning it warm and honeyed, with that sly rasp underneath that makes Raven want to do wicked, unspeakably debauched things to her. "Tony made it. I've been spoiled by Steve's occult mastery of that coffee machine."

Raven starts laughing – loud and rude and unstoppable. It makes Angel snigger into her cup, and even Loki cracks a sharp, knowing smirk. Tony has gone bright red again; it's absolutely hilarious, and means he's definitely noticed the difference and agrees with Angel's assessment. Clever boy, Steve. He's got Tony's number, all right; the way to that man's heart most definitely meanders through the land of excellent, heart-punching coffee.

"Tony thinks we should have a house party," Raven announces. The others perk up at that. Sure, Loki has deigned to rejoin the land of 'acting like the damn grown-up he's supposed to be', but that doesn't mean that Tony's obvious ulterior motive isn't still valid. It's far from the distraction that Tony clearly longs for, but he looks determined to make the most of it. Even Charles looks more awake, so Raven hurriedly takes advantage of their attention and allocates alcohol and snacks procurement while it lasts. By the time they've decided on what wine and harder booze to get, Tony's cheek is flat to the tabletop, and little snores puff out of the corner of his mouth. Charles and Thor quickly load the dishwasher, and then Loki curls his fingers around his brother's wrist and drags him away. Upstairs, the door to his room closes with pointed finality.

"Best keep that thought until tonight, baby," Angel purrs slyly, sending Raven a loaded, filthy smile. It's a few moments before Raven can parse through her tone, and wonder what her face must look like for Angel to be smirking quite like that.

And then the rest of Angel's meaning sinks in, and she watches the clock in horror as it ticks perilously close to 'you're LATE, you idiot!'.

Not, however, late enough that, as she rushes around getting dressed and piling her books and notes into a bag, she can't take the second necessary to push a single pink paperclip into Tony's unruly curls, keeping them back from his eyes.

---

7.

Bucky does not, customarily, let himself get lost in his thoughts – which is why he jumps about a foot in the air when strong arms grab his shoulders and someone jumps up onto his back, whooping like an idiot.

"Barton," Bucky snarls, trying to catch the back of his head so he can flip him over and throw him into the fountain.

"You're losing your touch, Barnes," Barton says, cackling when Bucky spins in a circle trying to dislodge him.

"Привет," Natasha says. She's got her hands tucked into her jacket pockets, and she's grinning, the traitor. "Как дела?"

"Привет," Bucky grumbles, pausing in his revenge for a second to kiss her cheeks. God, she smells good. Seeing her always brings back the good memories from his research year in Moscow's Lomonosov University, all black tea and traces of violets and woodfire smoke. "I'd say I'm good, except I currently have a moron trying to climb me like a deranged monkey."

"No trying involved," Barton says smugly, ignoring the insult. Bucky rolls his eyes and contemplates slamming Barton against the nearest tree – except they're in the Botanical gardens, and he doesn't want to be banned for life. He likes it here.

"Get off me, Barton, or I'll tell your boyfriend about that time you tried to get into the party at St. Hilda's dressed like an anime schoolgirl."

Pouting, Clint climbs down from his back and sulkily crosses his arms in front of his chest.

"Now that's just low, man," he complains. "I don't go around telling Rogers about your embarrassing attempts to bed everything that moves."

"One, Rogers isn't my boyfriend. Two, it's called flirting, something you know plenty about yourself. And besides, I might be doing you a favour, you never know. Coulson is a dark horse, I've always thought."

"Less thinking about my man, thanks," Clint throws back, baring his teeth at him.

Bucky rolls his eyes. Natasha, because she can sometimes be a kind, considerate soul when she feels like taking a break from the magnificent vicious harpy she is the rest of the time, tucks her arm through his and nudges him to walking towards the canal.

"So," she says slyly. "About Rogers."

Bucky is surrounded by gossips too invested in other people's lives. There is no escape.

"Heard him and Stark have decided to bury the hatchet," she muses.

"Yeah, in each other's a-" is as far as Clint gets, before Natasha's elbow drives all the air out of his lungs. God, Bucky adores her. Too bad she'd never date a schmuck like him.

She turns back to face him, giving him an innocent look shot through with sharp, pointy expectation while Clint gasps theatrically on her other side. Bucky caves, and tells them about the ridiculous wooing thing Steve's been doing. Honestly, Bucky is embarrassed to know him.

Except that it's working, damn it.

"Wow," Natasha says, when he tells them about the Jane Austen movie marathon Charles and Loki had inflicted on the others last week. "That's dedication."

"Hey, nothing wrong with Jane Austen," Clint says defensively.

"Just because Phil is obsessed with Colonel Brandon-"

Bucky lets them bicker, enjoying the chance to simply be. The air is crisp and clear, bringing a gorgeous flush to everyone's cheeks. Small puffs of condensation float out of Natasha's mouth, joining the clouds Clint expels when he squawks. The gardens aren't deserted, but the crowds they'll draw over the summer haven't started to descend yet – they're having a very cool May, the morning air is still tinged with frost. Bucky loves walking here. It smells of green things and wet earth, soothing and recharging. For all that he's a city boy through and through, he has always loved passing time in parks.

There's something about the moment, the setting, the ambiance, that encourages introspection, and he marvels at the twists his life took to get him here. Oxford, the center of European Academia. For a poor, skinny guy from Brooklyn who always had his nose in a book of some kind, it might as well be a fantasy world. He still can't believe some days that him and Steve were lucky enough to both merit that rowing scholarship. Steve would have made it anyway, Bucky has always known he was bright as well as talented. But him – the fates have been good to the little boy with the big dreams, always running after a best friend who lacked all sense of self-preservation.

He supposes asking for more, wishing for someone to share it all with, now that Steve is hell-bent on snagging himself a Tony Stark, is just being greedy. He'd do best to settle for what he has and be grateful for it.

"Earth to James," Natasha calls softly, tugging on his arm a little. "You were miles away. You okay?"

"Cause you sure look mighty glum for the company," Clint adds. Bucky sometimes forgets that Clint is way smarter and more perceptive than most people give him credit for.

"You don't fancy Tony yourself, do you?" Natasha asks with her typical knife-to-the-heart-of-the-issue bluntness.

Bucky chokes on his own spit. "Oh, god, no," he croaks. "Why is everyone saying that? Don't get me wrong, he's a fantastic lay, but once was more than enough for me. We'd drive each other insane within the week."

"Hm," Natasha mutters, unconvinced.

Clint, because he's an asshole, pretends to muse on that, before saying, "Nah, I think he's got his eye on someone else, actually."

Bucky glares daggers at him when Natasha looks between them, intrigued.

"Change of subject," Bucky growls, feeling his face heat. "Right now." Man, he hates blushing so much. It's a sure indicator that something matters to him, and that's just showing weakness – and inviting the chance that it will be taken from him.

Clint laughs, but obligingly launches into a story of Logan, Hank, Janet van Dyne, and a cat that puked purple.

Bucky laughs along, and tries not to relish too much Natasha's hold on his arm, unselfconscious and warming places inside him that have remained cold for too long, and thinks longingly of getting trashed on Friday at the party. He's going to need the alcohol for coping with being deserted by Steve in favour of Tony. He sure as hell wouldn't have called that one – though, now that it's happening, he can definitely see it going the distance, despite the bickering, and yelling, and sulking that will undoubtedly be involved in the process. Steve is stubborn and possessive, yet surprisingly flexible on most things; and Tony, once he gets used to the idea that someone could want him that much, warts and all (there's a reason Bucky knows he and Tony are too similar to make a go of it), will be the most generous, dedicated boyfriend he could be, despite his ADD. Neither of them would stray, or cheat, or let the other get away with any bullshit - and that, let's be honest, is the definition of a successful relationship.

Yeah. Bucky can see this lasting a good while, past graduation and leveling up to grown-up status, past new jobs and new houses and new responsibilities. It's good. Tony can sure use more permanence in his life, and nothing says immovable object like Steve Rogers when he's got his heart set on something. As for Steve, well, keeping his interest will not be hard when you're a genius inventor.

"So then she says, 'I don't know, but my beetroot organic fabric dye's gone missing.' – are you humming Sammy Davis Junior?" Clint says, turning to Bucky and eyeing him suspiciously.

"I don't know, am I?" Bucky says innocently, trying not to smirk too broadly. "You're the one who'd know."

Clint grumbles under his breath, rolling his eyes. Honestly, it's like everyone doesn't know about his boyfriend's love of jazz and big band classics. It's actually kind of cute, how supportive Clint is of Coulson's interests – not that Bucky's ever gonna tell him that.

"Troll," Natasha tells him under her breath, sending him a sly grin that makes his stomach leap.

"Don't tell anyone," he murmurs.

"Right, 'cause it's such a secret. You lack Steve's deadpan delivery, though."

"He may have the delivery, but I'm better at the game," he says, tipping her a wink.

It earns him a raised eyebrow and a twitch of her gorgeous plush lips. Bucky tries not to stare as she purrs, "How about you put your money where your mouth is, Barnes? There's a weekly Thursday night poker game we hold. Coulson's hosting this week. You can talk Rat Pack while I clean you out."

"In your dreams, darling," Bucky drawls, ginning as he neatly sidesteps the heel aimed at his shin. "But, hell, you're on."

---

8.

"You should know better than to play poker with Natasha," Steve tells his best pal as they make their way to the Genius Four's household. He should probably look less amused by the whole thing, but for all of Bucky's grumbling, the kid can't hide his thrilled glow worth a damn. Steve's happy for him, real happy. He's been waiting years for Bucky to find his match. Natasha Romanova will definitely give him a run for his money, and Bucky never could resist a challenge.

"Need her to teach me that thing with her wrist and thumb," Bucky enthuses, nearly bouncing. Steve hides his smile, giving Bucky the illusion that he doesn't know exactly how this will end – with Bucky on his back under Natasha, pleased as pie to be there.

Distracted Bucky may be; oblivious – never. He sends Steve a glare out of the corner of his eye.

"You needn't look so smug, you know," he mutters. "I got plenty to say about your mating dance with Stark."

Steve sighs. He is never gonna live down those first few months, is he. Not that he minds so much – it just proves that this isn't just another easy, boredom-induced conquest for Tony.

Well. He says 'conquest'. There hasn't been any 'conquering' as yet – but Steve definitely has something to say about that. At length.

Tonight.

Bucky outright laughs at him. Steve's face warms as he realises he might've said that last part out loud.

"Now, remember, Steve: no glove, no love," Bucky says cheerfully.

"I hate you so much," Steve whines.

Bucky scoffs. "Lies and slander. You love me."

"Bloody Christ."

"Mmm. Seven minutes in heaven, huh. Hope you're good for longer than that, for Stark's sake."

Steve speeds up his steps and tries to ignore the hammering of his heart and the scalding flush on his face. "Not talking to you anymore, you're horrible," he complains, even though he knows that'll only encourage him. "I'm getting a new best friend. Sam's much nicer to me, you know."

"Uh huh," Bucky says, amused. "Sam Wilson didn't have to listen to you bitch and moan about Tony Stark for weeks, though. Doubt he'd be such a paragon of virtue if he had."

Steve sighs loudly. Bucky smirks, knowing full well Steve's got nothing to say to that.

"So, tonight, huh?" he says, shelving the innuendo for the time being.

Steve shrugs. "It's up to him. I want to. But I'm not gonna make any demands he can't meet."

Bucky knocks his shoulder into his, grinning. "Pal, I can tell you right now that he's not gonna put you off. Maybe then you two can stop eye-fucking all the time. ...Or it'll get worse. Wow, that's a disturbing thought."

Steve sighs again, shaking his head. It is a problem, though. When Tony is in the room, it's all Steve can do to stop staring, and tracing Tony's mouth with his eyes, and tracking the way his shoulders and arms move when he's talking with his usual animation. Maybe if Steve knew Tony was his; if they had an understanding of some sort, maybe then Steve would stop feeling so on edge all the time. Maybe, if he knew that he can walk over and push his hand through Tony's unruly hair, tug gently to bring his face up for a kiss, maybe then this...thing inside his chest would calm the hell down. Steve has never felt this way before; like he wanted to take and keep, like looking and wanting is not enough anymore.

He hasn't had many relationships. There have been some, and he's getting better at this flirting business (slowly. But it's progress.) He's certainly no blushing virgin (well. Okay. The blushing thing does not look to be going away anytime soon, especially not around Tony); he knows how to handle himself in the bedroom, despite Bucky's less than kind allusions. He just... It's rare that he finds someone who makes him want these things. His sex drive isn't overly active most of the time. He has always found fucking for the sake of an orgasm...unsatisfactory. Sleeping around leaves him empty and on edge; but now - well. Let's just say his sex drive has gone into a bit of an overdrive.

So. He is going to ask. Tony could, of course, say no. Steve will just have to live with that. At least he'll have tried.

These musings, while unhelpful, distract him enough that the two of them are suddenly closing in on the genius household. They can hear it a way off – yawling guitars that accompany Tony's preferred type of music, which doesn't have to be rock but it does have to be loud and something you can bang your head to.

"Christ," Bucky says. "I'll have to work on the DJ. You can't dance to that."

"And we all know how much you rely on dancing to put on the moves," Steve teases.

Bucky narrows his eyes at him, but his lips twitch playfully. "Well, it does help," he drawls. Steve finds it frankly adorable that Bucky is nervous about this. It's fantastic. It'll do him good to have to work for it, for once.

The front door opens when they push at it, clearly left unlatched. The house isn't full, but there are a lot of people milling about already, looking relaxed and holding bottles of some incredibly fancy microbrew, each of which Steve suspects costs around a case of Heineken on the market. He sighs. This is exactly the kind of thing that would have gotten his hackles up once upon a time, the way these four just casually flaunted their wealth, like they couldn't care less one way or the other about the fact that they threw away enough cash on the regular to cover another student's annual living costs. He has since come to realise that this is just the way they were brought up. At least, they spent their inheritance on things that one could hold on to, rather than drugs and cars and other ways to have a good time. Seeing them buy a house, once Steve had stopped to actually think about it, had shaken him – or rather, his conviction that he knew everything there was to know about them, and didn't care to dig deeper. Prior to that, he had dismissed them as a band of rich kids hanging out together because they were too snobbish to mingle with the masses. Since then... well, Steve had bothered to look deeper, under the flashy surface, seen the looks and the sneers and the ass kissing that surrounded their little tight-knit group, and called himself ten kinds of idiot for failing to figure it out before. He'd been every inch as bad as he'd accused Tony of being. Once they had let him in, the shiny veneer had cracked into a thousand facets, to show him the lost, lonely kids hiding underneath.

"Hello, Steve, Bucky. Lovely to see you. Want a beer?"

"Hi, Charles," the two of them chorus. Steve's eyes are unconsciously drawn down to Charles' blue shirt, the same vibrant shade as his eyes, which seem enormous behind his dark lashes. Looking up, Steve has to hide a smile at the way Erik watches the man from across the room, looking like something hit him on the back of the head. Christ, those two have it bad.

"We'll get our own beer, right, Buck?" Steve says with a quick smile, taking Bucky's arm and propelling him towards the kitchen.

"Sure?" Bucky says, falling into step with him despite the hissed, "The hell, Steve?" that follows.

Steve tips his head in the direction of the far corner. Bucky snorts when he sees it, stepping out of Steve's hold but following along happily enough.

"It's like this house is getting pumped full of hormones," he observes.

Steve has no compunction about snickering at him when Bucky stops in his tracks the next moment, at the sight of Natasha Romanova leaning casually against the counter and chatting with Clint and his boyfriend, Phil Coulson, who are leaning on each other with the casual ease of people grown comfortable with being physically close.

This. This is the kind of relationship Steve hopes, dreams about. Not some grand romance. Just... someone who wants, likes to be close to him, and doesn't mind if Steve knows it. And enjoys Steve's company, and likes to touch Steve as much as Steve likes to be touched. That kind of person, Steve could spend a lifetime with, basking in contentment and spending his days trying to say without words how much they mean to him.

But he's getting distracted, and definitely ahead of himself.

"Hey, fellas," he says, smiling. Then he steps on Bucky's foot.

"Hi," Bucky gasps, covering it with a cough. "How's it going?"

"We were told there was beer," Steve says, on the heels of the chorus of 'Hello'-s from the little group.

"Right in there," Clint says, pointing a thumb at the enormous fridge taking up most of one wall of the kitchen. Steve fetches them both a drink, tossing a bottle at Bucky to give him something to do with his hands while he unceremoniously ditches him for... reasons.

"I'm gonna go mingle," he says, turning to walk into the living room and flat out refusing to blush at the filthy laughter and pointed comments that follow his exit. Bastards.

Tony, predictably, is nowhere to be found. Logan salutes Steve with his beer and a grunt from an IKEA chair in front of the TV, tuned to some kind of documentary on Wall Street. Raven waves from the other side of the room, heading into the kitchen from where Angel is deep in conversation with Charles, Erik, and a couple of younger students, one with bright ginger hair and one so blonde her hair is almost white, stunning with her dark skin and black olive eyes. Loki is nowhere to be seen, though his brother is commanding the attention of a bunch of undergrads over in the sun room, telling some grand tale of adventure that has them starry-eyed and rapt on his every word.

Steve passes unobtrusively through all the rooms on the lower floor of the house, keeping his eyes open. Still no Tony. The upstairs seems, at this stage in the proceedings, silent and deserted, too.

There is one room, a place where Steve has never been, but about which he has heard in some detail, that he hasn't checked yet. He hesitates, loathe to intrude. Maybe Tony wanted some peace and quiet. Maybe he doesn't want to be disturbed. Maybe Steve should shelve his plans for a more opportune time.

Or maybe, he should stop being such a damn coward and chase him down. Maybe, Tony made himself easily discoverable while giving them both privacy. Maybe Steve is ruining his plans by dithering. Steve doesn't like the idea of ruining Tony's plans. So he finds the stairs at the back of the house, listening to the easy laughter coming from the kitchen as he goes, Bucky's distinctive staccato amusement making him smile. The steps are solid and welcoming under his feet, leading him down down down into the cool bowels of the house. It's quieter here, the noise muffled, making him feel like he's entering a secret passage, another world. He wonders, slightly hysterically, if that makes Tony the princess inside the tower, and whether that means Steve is the prince - or the dragon, and then has to stop and take a few deep breaths to calm his racing heart. He's taking this way too seriously.

But then again, what is the point if this doesn't make his stomach flutter and his chest seize? Surely, this is a good indication. It means this matters, and it's important enough to do it right.

The workshop, when Steve takes the turn to bring him out into the open space, is and isn't what he expected. It's bright, lit by several industrial-looking spotlights pointed at different angles from opposite corners of the room, and tidier than what he might have assumed would be Tony's default state of being. It is very close to what Steve had imagined when he had wistfully thought of Tony's private space: covered in projects in every stage of completion possible, from just nuts and bolts screwed together to more sophisticated designs that have started resembling what they might one day become. Steve still has trouble determining most of their functions, but that doesn't stop him thinking that they are all rather beautiful, almost like sculptures made of metal and plastic, delicate cables holding everything together.

And, of course, in the middle of all that stands Tony, his back to Steve, strong muscles moving under his t-shirt as he twists and manipulates what, to Steve's untrained eye, look like several dozen boxes of paperclips of varying sizes held together by coloured elastic bands. Steve blinks, amused and inexplicably charmed. Well, isn't that just Tony all over? The Tony Steve had come to know more recently, more intimately. The Tony who is impulsive, whimsical, driven by a vision inside his head that most no one can really understand. The Tony who can make a sculpture of paperclips and elastic bands function like some sophisticated precision-motion robot, if needs be, or if he feels like it.

The Tony who has somehow discovered how Steve feels about stationery, how utterly obsessed he is with sticky notes and marker pens and, yes, paperclips. How comforted he feels to be surrounded by them at his small desk in his dorm room, like he is exactly where he wants to be at that moment in time. Probably a strange predilection for an artist, but he can't help how he feels – in this as in certain other things.

Steve swallows down the last of his uncertainty. It won't help his cause, and besides, he is certain about Tony, and how he feels about him. It's disrespectful to both Tony and himself to behave otherwise.

"Hi," he says.

Tony spins around, goggles obscuring his eyes and making the hair at the sides of his head stick out.

'Not. Adorable,' Steve admonishes himself, though it's a lost cause.

Tony's answering grin is enormous. "Hello!" he says, clearly excited to see Steve. It brushes away the last lingering cobwebs of hesitation. "I've been waiting for you to get here. Come see what I made you."

Steve's throat suddenly feels so tight that he's having trouble breathing, let alone speaking.

"For—for me?"

"Right, dummy, 's what I said."

Tony is grinning, with a slight edge of manic that Steve is getting distressingly familiar with. Finally tearing his eyes from Tony's face, Steve blinks in confusion at the neon pink paperclip that is tangled in a curl a little above Tony's right eyebrow, apparently nothing more than a demented accessory.

Steve is opening his mouth to ask about it, before Tony steps aside and, with a flourish of his arm, indicates the tangle of stationery on the working table behind him.

It is, actually, exactly what it had looked like while Tony was working on it. A strange, quirky sculpture of twisted metal and rubber, almost like a little robot with a single claw-like arm over his sturdy body, framed by chains that would propel it forward and back if they were real.

It is, also, so very beautiful, in a way that defies the fact that it's made of nothing more than paperclips and hope.

"I could make a model that actually moves, you know," Tony rambles, rubbing the back and side of his neck and looking uncertain. "This is just a 3D design. Something to give you an idea of what it'd look like. But—I know how much you like your paperclips, for reasons I have yet to understand, and it really is an actual project for my course, but I thought, you know, the brief was to work with unusual materials, and maybe you might like to keep this one after I present it, before I start on the actual robot--"

Steve has heard quite enough, he thinks as he takes a determined step forward, and another, until he is close enough that he can reach for Tony, slide a hand over the back of his neck where Tony's curls tease the back of his fingers, and tug him forward to seal their mouths together.

In a way, this is the easiest thing he has ever done. Certainly the thing he has wanted more than anything he can remember. Tony makes a startled noise against his mouth, but the next second he melts into him, lips parting on a sigh that Steve feels in his knees and his spine, every place that is trying to liquify from the streak of sheer blind lust that goes through him. Tony's hands grip him, one on his shoulder and one high on his back, fingers sinking into his muscle like he wants to hold him in place, like Steve ever wants to be any place other than right here. Steve wraps his other arm around Tony's slighter frame, sweeping his hand from the nape of his neck to the small of his back, feeling muscle and sinews, the bumps of Tony's spine from forgetting to eat, and the swell of his delicious backside that Steve has done his damnedest yet failed to stop staring at.

Tony shudders in his arms, pressing closer. He tastes like a strange combination of coffee and beer and a hint of mint from when he must have washed his teeth before losing himself in his work – in making this gorgeous thing for Steve, from things Steve loves. His tongue is slick and curious against Steve's, exploring his mouth – a flick against the roof, a slide over his teeth, licking at Steve's upper lip in a way that makes Steve's embarrassing semi-hard-on fill all the way to digging against Tony's hip, making Steve whimper.

"Tony," he says breathlessly, his hand sliding down to cup one side of Tony's ass. Tony lets out a high-pitched whine and tries to climb Steve so suddenly, Steve almost staggers. He takes a step forward, hitching Tony's weight to push him to sit on top of the work table, on the other end from the little impressionistic bot, so that he can step between Tony's legs that fall open to invite him in.

"Oh, well now, this is much better," Tony purrs against the edge of Steve's jaw, placing an open kiss on the curve where it meets his neck. Steve's knees turn to mush; he has to brace his hands on top of the table to avoid squashing Tony flat against it. Tony's hand trails down to squeeze Steve's ass, a nice, tight, strong-fingered grip that makes Steve's breath leave him in a hitching moan.

"Took you long enough, Wonderboy," Tony mutters when Steve fails to summon any words at all. "A goddamn tease is what you are. First you hate me, now you want me – a guy could get whiplash."

"I was an idiot," Steve says, face flaming with the shame burning in his chest. "But, to be fair, you were an asshole then."

Tony shrugs, still feeling his way over Steve's ass and scrambling his senses in the process.

"Sweetheart, not to burst your bubble, but I'm always an asshole. It's an open secret. Everyone has an adverse reaction to me at first."

Steve's chest resonates with the self-deprecation he hears in Tony's voice. He leans in, kissing the edge of Tony's temple, and Tony leans into him so sweetly, a surrender that nearly makes Steve shake with knowing how close he came to never having this at all.

"Raven didn't. Charles and Loki most certainly did not."

Tony's face scrunches on one side. "Yeah, well. They had their own masks to maintain. They weren't interested in coddling mine. It's why we all get on so well."

Steve shakes his head, carding one hand through Tony's messy curls. "I'm sorry," he says, looking into those liquid chocolate eyes. "I'm sorry I was an asshole, too."

Tony curls up in his arms, resting his forehead on Steve's shoulder before he replies, "One of your more endearing qualities, trust me. Makes me remember you're human."

Steve frowns. "I've got plenty of faults," he argues.

"Oh, I know," Tony says, laughter threading through his voice. "But, and this is important, so listen up – none of those are dealbreakers. None that I've seen so far, anyway. Got any worse character traits you want to warn me about? Do you steal remote controls? Are you a covers hog? ...On second thought, don't tell me. I'm looking forward to finding out in my own time."

Steve tries not to choke, an image of Tony poking and kicking at him, attempting to liberate some blankets from under Steve's sprawled shape prancing vividly before his mind's eye. He darts in, pressing a quick kiss to the corner of Tony's mouth that makes him sigh and smile.

"I admit to nothing," he says loftily, letting his hands roam over Tony's hips, pressing into the silky-smooth skin under Tony's t-shirt like they have been dying to all along. "Look. I have a temper on me, I'm not gonna lie. Every now and again, I love to send the world to hell and spend the afternoon reading and sketching nonsense. Ask Bucky, he'll tell you I have 'a propensity to pick fights with people bigger than me', quote-unquote, and I have the overwhelming need to give stray animals a home. I can be a dick when I'm feeling anti-social. I will probably be unforgivably rude to you at least once a week, and then apologise and cling to you like a limpet."

He narrows his eyes and looks at the ceiling, trying to remember any other horrors he needs to warn Tony about; he gets startled from his thoughts by the snorting chuckles Tony tries to unsuccessfully muffle into his shoulder.

"Sold," Tony manages, looking up at Steve, his eyes shining with tears of mirth. "One anti-social asshole for me to take home, please and thank you, wrap him up. Steve, you're an idiot if you think you're scaring me off right now. I mean, have you met me? You're the one I'm worried will run screaming by the end of the month."

"Absolutely not happening," Steve states, affronted. "Tony, I wouldn't start this with you if I wasn't committed."

"Yeah, to a mental institution, maybe."

Steve lets go of one hip to press his fingers over Tony's expressive, gorgeously red mouth.

"I like you, Tony Stark," he says simply. "Insomnia and robots and motormouth tendencies and all."

"I like you too," Tony murmurs, eyes holding Steve's as they crinkle into a smile. The feel of those lips sliding against Steve's fingers is driving him insane with the need to feel them under his again. No sooner has Tony said, "Now kiss me again," that Steve is rushing to obey, moving his hand to replace it with his mouth. Tony lets him in, moaning greedily and sucking on Steve's tongue, teasing it with a scrape of teeth across the tip. Steve's vision goes pink, shredded with gold bursts; his hands close on Tony's ass and he tips them backwards, until Tony's body hits the bench and Steve leans down on top of him, pinning Tony in place with his body. Their groing lengths line up and rub together, hard enough to draw desperate groans from both of them.

"I want you so much," Tony whispers, breath coming out in rapid, catching pants. "I've wanted you for months. Please, Steve, please fuck me."

Steve's breath vacates his chest, leaving behind a heavy kind of pressure that doesn't seem to have an out.

"And what then?" he asks. He hardly recognises the sound of his own voice, rubble in his throat. "I warn you, Tony, this is not a one-off for me."

Tony's hands migrate to the back of Steve's head, holding onto his hair and framing his face.

"Then, I'd love to suck you off. And then, I would love to fuck you, and you can fuck me again. And then, I want to take you out to breakfast, and lunch by the canal, and then drag you back here for dinner and movies. And then I want to call you and text you and email you links to ridiculous cat videos and guilty dogs compilations and listen to you laugh. And then I want you to come over and curl with me in my bed, and spend the night, and get woken up by Jarvis who wants to be taken out for a walk. And then I'd love it if you took him out and brought me coffee in bed. And then I want you to come to my graduation ceremony, and let me come to yours. And then I would really like it if we moved to New York, but I'm open to suggestions, I mean, you'll probably want to stay in Europe with your degree, we can do that, I can build robots anywhere in the world, really; oh, and we're going to have to get a house that will have space for my workshop, a bigger-than-average basement is a must, trust me, it's what makes for a happy marriage, I know at least that much--"

"I think I get the picture," Steve says, helpless to stop his face from beaming forth all the emotions chasing their tails inside his body, happiness and relief and joy and hope and warmth...it's nearly too much to handle. He leans in and kisses Tony with all the growing love in his heart, all the gratitude for Tony letting him in, wanting to make a life together. Steve had never dared imagine that Tony could feel this way about him. Sure, he might have hoped for it, that Tony liked him enough to spend time with him for a little while at least, but this – it's beyond Steve's wildest dreams.

"Really?" he whispers against Tony's lips, feeling like he might wake up any second and terrified that this will all turn out to be a cruel hallucination.

"Really really," Tony says, smiling with one corner of his mouth. God, he's beautiful like this, mischievous and fond, looking at Steve like Steve has brought him the moon. "If that's something that you might want t--"

Steve can't even let him finish those words; he kisses him again, hard and deep, giving in to the unexpected urge to possess, to have and keep. Tony moans wildly beneath him, arms winding around Steve's back to keep him in place.

"Those fucking shoulders, Jesus Christ," Tony groans when Steve nudges lower, following the arch of Tony's neck with lips and teeth, sucking a string of marks into the skin that will be impossible to hide tomorrow. "Every time I watched you in that boat, I'd fantasise what it must be like to have them above me, to hold onto while you fucked me into the bed."

Steve groans and lurches at that, cock dragging against the hardness in Tony's pants. "Tony, if you don't stop I'm going to fuck you right on this worktable."

Tony looks at him like he's gone mad. "What the hell makes you think I'll say no to that?" he demands, eyes wide and hips flexing sinuously, a temptation Steve is not equipped to resist. "Do it, Rogers," Tony says, widening his legs so they hang off the table, heels curling around Steve's thighs. "Do it, I want you to."

"Do you have supplies down here?"

Steve might have gone mad, but there is absolutely no way he is stopping this, not when Tony is clearly on board right along with him. Tony grins like a shark, reaching into a nearby drawer and pulling out a bottle of aloe vera gel, which he promptly pushes into Steve's hand.

"I use it for burns. It'll do nicely," he says, voice all rumbly and so erotic that it makes Steve's cock twitch in his pants. "I assume you have a condom, boy scout?"

Steve grins just as wide, winking as he pulls a strip from the inside pocket of his jacket. He enjoys the way Tony's eyes go wide, and the way Tony's pink tongue swipes over his flushed lips.

"Optimistic, were we?" Tony murmurs, eyes going dark. Steve dips his head, looking at him through his lashes.

"Hopeful," he corrects quietly. Tony stares at him, hand coming up to trace fingers over the corner of his eye.

"This look should be illegal on you," he says darkly, catching Steve's bottom lip with his thumb. The temptation is too much; Steve sucks the digit into his mouth, curls and flicks his tongue over the tip of it until Tony's breathing has gone ragged and his body is tense as a string.

"I want that mouth on my cock so badly I can't breathe," Tony confesses, biting at his bottom lip on the tail end of that pronouncement.

Steve promptly shimmies down, bringing his face level with the promising bulge in Tony's pants. Feeling reckless and brave, he mouths over the top of it, breathing in the scent of cotton and sweat and something dark and musky that tastes of precome and desire on the roof of his mouth. Tony makes a high-pitched, strangled moan, trying to twist in Steve's grip, but Steve holds on and keeps his leisurely pace, dragging his lips over Tony's cock and balls.

"Oh god, please," Tony whines, chest arching off the flat surface. Steve looks up to see Tony's hands clenched on the edge of it above his head, arms and upper body flexing helplessly with every breath Steve exhales over Tony's erection. Steve cannot wait a second longer. He makes short work of the buttons and zip of the pants, tugging them over Tony's hips to release that gorgeous cock, thick and slick and flushed, pointing upwards as if preparing to be swallowed down. Steve doesn't make it wait.

The wail that comes out of Tony's mouth as Steve takes him in with one smooth slide is pornographic, tightening the coil of lust in Steve's gut.

"My—my god—shit," Tony babbles, teeth catching on his lips and eyes rolling into the back of his head when Steve hollows his cheeks and pulls off, until the head of Tony's cock rests between his parted lips to paint them with droplets of bitter liquid. "Steve, fuck, Steve--"

His name on Tony's lips is heaven, especially said with such fervour, such devotion. Steve thinks he could do anything, would let Tony do anything to him just to hear him say it like that again. He sinks his mouth down again, until Tony bumps against the back of his throat, and then he makes himself relax that, too, and take him in even further. Above him, Tony falls apart, begging and cursing, body thrashing in Steve's hold. He would love to take Tony apart like this, to just let him come in his mouth, down his throat, until he's dry and Steve is full of him, the taste and smell and sound of Tony's climax that he made happen. But Tony asked for something else, didn't he, and Steve is not that big a liar to say he isn't desperate for that, too.

He spills far too much of the gel into the palm of his left hand as Tony rushes to kick off his pants and underwear, coating three fingers so liberally that they're dripping on the floor before he can slide them inside Tony's body, pull those walls apart, make the muscles give and stretch. Tony is nearly sobbing now, trying to fuck himself down onto the penetration and up into Steve's mouth all at once.

"Please," he keeps saying, "please, Steve, I'll be good, I'll be so good for you, baby, please give me your cock," and Steve, Steve is slowly losing what was left of his mind.

"Hush," he says roughly when he pulls off, looking up to see Tony covered in sweat and flushed bright red. "I wanna stretch you properly."

"It'll be fine," Tony insists. "I can take you, I don't need much prep."

"You will for me," Steve says. He isn't trying to brag, or be a dick. He just—he isn't small. He's had people blanch at seeing him naked and aroused before. And he would stop this whole thing and walk away before he hurts Tony while Tony is open and vulnerable and offering himself like this.

Tony shudders, stretching his neck and lifting his head, trying to see. Steve bites back a wince and straightens, fingers still moving inside Tony, finding that spot that makes him jerk and writhe.

"Let me see," Tony demands, beckoning him closer with one hand. Steve goes, lets Tony undo his belt and open his buttons and lower his zip and push his pants down enough to free him.

Tony stares, his mouth falling open with no words coming out of it. Steve's cock is level with his face, no space to hide, and Steve twists his wrist and waits for the verdict, hopes he will be allowed to sheathe himself in this delightfully warm, tight body.

"Fuck me sideways," Tony breathes. "Fuck me—did I die? Did I die and wake up in heaven? Because it seems to be missing an angel. A very well-endowed male angel, at that."

"Tony," Steve whines, blushing stupidly. Tony is full-out leering now, something wicked in his eyes that has Steve's blood heating up just like that.

"What? I'm just saying, holy wow, Rogers, I did not know you were packing this much heat in your pants. Ohhhh, I can already feel that sliding inside me, pushing me open... This is going to be so good for me – and even better for you, honeypie."

"I don't doubt that. You see why I want you stretched out properly, yes?"

"Yeah. Oh, yeah. Give me another finger. Man, I'll be feeling this tomorrow—and if you stop now, Rogers, so help me god, I will kick your ass all the way up the stairs and into my bedroom," he growls when Steve's rhythm falters, uncertain.

Steve nods, wondering just how bad a job he's doing of hiding his relief. Tony moans high in his throat when Steve slips a fourth finger in, twisting to screw them deeper into Tony's body.

"I'm ready, I'm ready, come on, you can feel how loose I am, fuck, Steve, come on, give me your cock, you know I want it, god, I want it so bad."

Steve looks down, watching his fingers disappear past the pink, flushed rim of Tony's hole, and yeah, the resistance is nominal, definitely not the kind of tightness that would mean Tony would be in pain when Steve pushes in.

"Okay," he says, surprised to find his voice shaking a little, breathless like he has never heard himself before. "Okay, I'm just gonna..."

He pulls his fingers out, filing the catch of Tony's breath as they leave him at once for later consideration. Taking the condom out and rolling it on is an exercise in awkwardness with sticky fingers shaking with anticipation, but finally it's done, and Steve can take himself in hand, and press the head of his cock to Tony's ass. It flutters, just like Tony's eyelids, his chest when he sucks in an uneven breath.

"If you're having doubts," Steve starts, but then Tony raises his head and pins him to the spot with a gimlet, glittering gaze.

"Fuck into me, right now, Steve, or I swear to god we are going to be having words -Ah!"

So that's one way to shut Tony Stark up, then, Steve thinks dazedly as he fights for control, locks his muscles and forces himself to sink slowly into Tony's body, small thrusts forward and back while it opens up for him. Tony's breathing is shaky; there is a feverish flush high on his cheekbones, and he is biting his lower lip hard enough to draw blood, but his eyes are locked on Steve's, anchoring him in place; reassuring him that Tony isn't in pain, just a little overwhelmed.

"You're doing good, so good, Steve, so good for me, come on, give it to me, fuck all the way in, make me yours," Tony murmurs roughly, a string of reassurances and sweet nothings that make the bloom of warmth in Steve's chest uncurl and spread, taking over his whole body. His thighs hit the block of wood that is the worktop; he looks down and sees Tony's ass pressed snug to his groin, tight around the base of his cock, and he shudders so violently that it jostles him inside Tony's body, dragging him half an inch out and then in again.

Tony moans so loudly that it makes Steve jump, and then he moves on the table, back and forth, just shifting along Steve's length. Steve locks his hands onto the edges of the worktop and squeezes down hard enough that the wood bites into his palms, praying for some, any kind of restraint when faced with Tony's beautiful, smooth, pale body arching into his, that look in Tony's eyes that dares him to give him what he wants.

He withdraws slowly, biting at the inside of his cheek at the incredible friction, and pushes back in just hard enough to make Tony jump and groan.

"Okay?" he asks, voice whittled away to a rasp from the effort of holding himself back.

"Mmm, more than," Tony drawls, circling his hips until Steve has to throw his head back and groan. He has never felt in more danger of coming too soon, than when faced with the temptation incarnate that is Tony Stark. "Come on, baby. Don't hold back on me now."

Steve takes him at his word, increasing his pace and watching as Tony loses more and more coherence, filling his hands with Tony's smooth, warm skin, sliding them up until he can strip Tony of his shirt and lean in, suck wet, stinging kisses onto Tony's chest. He looks down at the reddened circles with a savage kind of approval, snapping his hips even harder when Tony reaches up and curls a hand over the back of his neck, brings him in for a deep, messy kiss that steals both Steve's breath and his carefully reined control. The hell of it is, the harder Steve fucks him, the more Tony loves it, the less the sounds that fall out of his mouth resemble any kinds of words apart from 'yes'. Tony's cock is leaking hard, shiny in the bright light of the workshop, and Steve can't help it – he curls a hand around that gorgeous length, strokes over the silky skin, massaging the head with the base of his thumb. Tony thrashes, widening his legs, and there is absolutely no warning before come arches out of him, splattering Steve's chest and dripping down onto Tony's stomach. The tight squeeze around him is exquisite; there is no way Steve could handle that, even if it hadn't been so long since he'd last done this.

Tony moans like a porn star when Steve pushes inside him as far as he can get, losing himself in the feeling, the knowledge that Tony wants this, demands it, even. Steve slumps when he's done, breathing hard and prickling with sweat all over in the cool air. He leans down, kissing Tony slow and languid, feeling his cock softening still inside Tony's body.

"That was amazing," Tony drawls, sounding like a very well satisfied giant cat. He stretches his arms over his head, arches his back, and Steve can't help the gasp as his cock shifts and slips out, too sensitive yet loathe to lose contact with Tony. "I knew you'd be magnificent. And all mine." He lets out a smug little purr, sliding a proprietary palm over Steve's chest, down his side, petting him like a racehorse. Steve has to fight not to swoon, it feels so good. He wants to curl up in Tony's arms, skin to skin, to tuck his face in Tony's neck and kiss the hollow of his throat for as long as Tony lets him. He threads his hand through Tony's damp hair, sorting the soft dark strands into some semblance of order. His fingers catch on something plastic, and he pulls out the paperclip he'd noticed earlier, frowning in bemusement and holding it out for Tony to see. Tony's eyes focus comically on it, and he huffs a laugh, chest quaking.

"Oh, well. There goes that. The others have a bet going over how long it'll be before I remember that's in my hair and take it out," he clarifies when he sees Steve's confused look. "It's too bad, it was hilarious watching Charles cock his head further and further, as if that would make it fall out."

My friends are a bunch of idiots, Steve thinks wryly. Worse, I'm in love with the biggest goof of them all.

He looks at the paperclip in his hands, considering his options. He shrugs and helps Tony sit up, then carefully pushes it back between his curls, tweaking it to sit exactly like it had when Steve had first seen it.

"Wouldn't want to spoil your fun," he tells Tony's surprised face, and then smiles fondly when Tony cackles delightedly at him.

"I'll split the pot," Tony promises, winding his arms around Steve's waist. "At this point it includes a Starbucks gift card and half of Oysho's winter collection. I know how much you like fluffy hoodies."

"No, you like fluffy hoodies," Steve argues, but lets Tony kiss him laughingly and then push him away, before he turns his mind to cleaning them both up with his discarded t-shirt and getting rid of the condom. Tony promptly steals Steve's cotton sweater, but Steve can't bring himself to care.

"What now?" Steve wonders, leaning back against the recently defiled worktop and loosely linking his fingers together over his thighs.

Tony hums thoughtfully as he leans over to add another elastic band in place onto the dummy bot shape.

"Well, I'm starving, and I bet you are, too, Captain Piston-hips. Let's go crash my party."

Steve blinks, taken aback. He had, honestly, flat-out forgotten that there was a party going on upstairs, regardless of the thumping music. Tony watches him carefully, even if he gives every impression of being completely focused on his work.

"Unless of course – if you don't wanna tell anyone about this, this thing-" a subtle indication at the space between the two of them, "– then I'll just stay down here, and you can go grab us some snacks and bring them back down--"

Steve closes the distance between them, slow but sure. He takes Tony's wide-eyed face in his hands, and kisses him with all the love and longing in his heart.

"Tony, you are a ridiculous person, and I really, really like you. Please be my boyfriend?"

Tony's mouth opens and closes a few times, but Steve is glad to see that the careful look is gone from his eyes.

"Well, okay then," Tony says happily. "If you insist."

"I do."

"Okey-dokey. Um. Food?"

"Food," Steve nods. "And then bed."

"But I'm not tired yet," Tony protests haplessly – and completely earnestly. Steve sighs, and gives him a look. It's hilarious to watch Tony catch on, and switch gears, looking thrilled enough to light a city block. "Oh! Right! Right, yes, bed. I am very down with that plan. Yes, please."

This is what my life is going to be like, Steve muses a little while later, while manning the counter and passing plates of sandwiches around the hungry mob that had formed in the kitchen. Herding geniuses, and listening to them snark at each other, and being groped in public by an extremely unsubtle and slightly tipsy Tony. Honestly? It's very nearly the best fun he has had in his life.

---

9.

Pale morning light creeps past Raven's lashes, tempting her into wakefulness. She breathes deeply, smiling at the warm, sleepy smell of Angel's hair fanning around them, cocooning them in contentment. It's early yet, and normally she wouldn't even contemplate moving for hours yet – first day of summer break is something worth savouring to the last drop – but her bladder is screaming bloody murder at her, payback for all those beers the night before. She stretches carefully, pulling out of Angel's arms and sitting on the edge of their bed, toes searching for her fluffy giraffe slippers. Angel snuffles and rolls into the warm spot left behind. Raven smiles at the sight, because it's impossible not to, and pads out of the door as she tugs on her robe over her pyjamas. She twists her hair out of the way, pees for a long, blissful minute, and then brushes her teeth and splashes water on her face, rubbing her eyes all the way open.

Now that she's up, she feels too awake to go back to bed. She already relishes the thought of a nap in a few hours, but right now what she really wants is coffee, maybe a couple pieces of toast with ham and mayo. She potters down the stairs, joints still stiff from sleep and early morning chill, and tugs her robe tighter around herself. The door to the living room is open a crack, so she pushes it wider and walks in – and nearly swallows her tongue for a startled minute. On one couch, Natasha sprawls full-length, tangled red curls flopping across a burnt orange cushion – she colour-coordinates even in her sleep, that is so badass. She is covered by a flannel blanket, arm trailing off the sofa, her fingers disappearing into the hair of Bucky Barnes, who is curled up on the carpet next to the sofa and cuddling a pillow under his head. He doesn't seem too put out by the hard floor; and neither does Clint, who is passed out onto his back with his head resting on top of Bucky's side. They are sharing the massive blanket Loki normally uses to roll himself into a burrito, only his nose and eyes and the top of his head peeking out.

On the other couch, Phil Coulson opens one eye and squints at Raven. His face clears when he recognises her and works out where he is.

"Sorry," he whispers, wincing as he peels his face away from the sofa cushion. "Clint and Bucky got a bit hammered last night, we figured it would be safer to just crash here. Didn't think you'd mind."

Raven shakes her head at the question hidden in Phil's words, typically underhanded. Raven likes Phil a lot – he is level-headed and refreshingly straightforward, and a genuinely nice guy. And besides, they're her friends. They're welcome to her sofas any time they like.

"'Course it's fine. Want some coffee?" she whispers back, pointing towards the kitchen. Phil perks up endearingly, levering himself upright with a grunt and following her stiffly.

"Not as young as I used to be," he comments in a slightly more normal volume once the kitchen door is closed behind them. "If I'd spent the night on the floor, you'd be sending me home in an ambulance, but I'll bet you anything those two won't even notice it when they wake up."

"Are you calling yourself a dirty old man right now?" Raven asks, amused. She goes through the soothing motions of brewing coffee while Phil blushes and huffs a laugh.

"Suppose I am, at that. Hey, want some breakfast? Clint is always ravenous in the morning."

Raven scrunches her nose, eyeing the cupboards. Since Thor crashed at their house, they're full of sugary cereal and disgusting chemistry-infused snacks.

"Not sure there's anything in the fridge, to be honest. I think it got emptied out in favour of the booze."

The coffee machine splutters and spits, dishing out steaming cups of fragrant liquid. Phil takes the Little Bird of Winter mug Raven hands him with a heartfelt 'thank-you', and drinks it down black while Raven shakes some brown sugar into hers.

"There's a little family bakery at the end of the block," she offers – not entirely out of altruistic love for Clint, she has to admit. Their chocolate croissants are to die for. "They do loads of different pastries, if you don't mind a ten-minute walk there and back."

Phil blinks, a pleased smile spreading over his face.

"That'll do nicely, thanks, Raven. Any orders?"

Raven turns and tears out a sheet of paper from the magnetised pad stuck on their fridge, and scribbles down their usual purchases. She goes to fetch her wallet, but Phil waves her off, plucking the list from her hand.

"Call it our fare for letting us crash here. Please, let me."

Well, Raven isn't going to say no to free pastries any time soon. Phil gulps down some more of his coffee while she dispenses directions for how to get to the bakery, then snags his jacket without anyone stirring and closes the front door behind him with a soft click and a jingle of borrowed keys. Raven sighs, the thought of those delicious clouds of butter and chocolate soon to make their way into her mouth buoying her while she rummages in the pantry, digs out a couple of nets of oranges, and sets out to squeeze some fresh juice in anticipation.

The buzz of the juicer must have woken Natasha, because five minutes later she pokes her sleepy face into the room, trading a smile with Raven and making a beeline for the coffee maker.

"You should be sleeping. First day of freedom," she says, voice deep and husky with the remnants of sleep.

Raven shrugs. "Habit," she admits. "I think my internal clock has gone all wonky. I'll take a nap in a few hours when I flag."

Natasha hums, leaning her back on the counter just breathing in her coffee, eyes closed, savouring the start of the day.

"I love crashing here," she admits. "Tony always has the good shit."

"Don't think he could live without his five-daily hit, to be honest."

Natasha snorts, sliding her hand into her hair and ruffling it, pushing stray curls out of the way.

"Any plans for the day?" Raven asks.

Natasha hums non-committally, shrugging one shoulder. "It's Saturday. My last exam's on Tuesday, so I reckon I can take it easy for a day. It's only Ethics, anyway, I can do that shit in my sleep. Maybe I'll laze around in a cafe with a book. See what James wants to do."

Raven smiles under her breath, turning her head away so Natasha won't see. "James, huh," she says, then snickers when Natasha sticks out her tongue.

"What, you telling me you wouldn't?"

"Hell no, are you kidding? Those shoulders alone."

Natasha smirks like the cat who got the cream. "And he's fun, and has a brain he actually uses. What can I say, my standards are pretty low."

"Hey," Clint mutters as he shuffles through the door. Natasha peers past him, but Bucky is still snoring into his pillow, oblivious to the world. "On behalf of all the people you've ever slept with, ouch."

"Suck it up," Natasha advises, mock-glaring at him. Clint scrunches his nose at her, then tries to steal her coffee. He gets a rap on his knuckles for it; he pouts at her until Natasha rolls her eyes and turns to start the coffee machine for another round. He makes a gleeful, impish face at Raven, sticking his tongue out between his teeth. Raven smothers a laugh behind the buzz for more juice, and ignores the two of them tussling over the coffee.

"Where's Phil?" Clint asks, cradling his spoils to his chest while Natasha rolls her eyes at him.

"Out for breakfast. Shouldn't be long."

Clint makes interested sounds, eyes sparkling. Raven smiles, thinking of Phil's quiet devotion, the way he can't keep his eyes off his boyfriend when they're in the same room, the way Clint is so smitten himself that she knows without having to wonder, those two will go the distance.

The door to the kitchen opens, admitting the dishevelled, rumpled form of Steve, blond hair sticking out everywhere and a very obvious hickey sucked into the side of his throat, where his tight t-shirt does nothing to hide it. He flashes them all a sleepy, sated smile, and Raven abruptly finds herself biting her lip around a very filthy grin. Well. Finally.

"Good morning," Steve says brightly, blue eyes crinkling. Gosh, he really is astonishingly handsome; not to mention that the shoulders on him dwarf even Bucky's. "Mind if I take over the coffee maker for a few minutes?"

"He won't be up for hours yet," Raven cautions, because Tony, when he crashes, crashes hard and for extended periods of time.

Steve just smirks to himself, padding past and reaching over Natasha's shoulder to liberate two mugs from the cupboard. Raven can't help but notice that one of them is the 'Hot, Blow Me' mug. Wow. Could those two be any more obvious?

"Don't worry. I think I can convince him of the benefits of rising early."

"I'll just bet you can," Clint leers, waggling his eyebrows. All three of them roll their eyes in unison, but Raven can't stop herself from sniggering at the tell-tale flush at the top of Steve's cheekbones.

"Isn't anyone gonna wake the lazy bum in the lounge?" Steve asks after a few seconds of silence, juggling the mugs under the nozzles.

"Eh," Clint says, shrugging. "Phil will be back soon, bet Barnes can't sleep through the smell of breakfast."

"Breakfast?" Steve perks up, looking at Raven hopefully.

"I'll knock and leave some outside your door, how's that?" she says dryly, looking up from the juicer to grin at him.

"Perfect," Steve says, leaning in and pressing a kiss to her cheek. "Thank you, Raven," he sing-songs, then hip-checks the door open and pads through, a mug in each hand. "Wake up, you moocher, your hosts are already halfway through the morning," they hear him say cheerfully, chuckling at the dismayed groan he gets in response.

"Wow, that was blatant," Clint says, staring at Steve's back and looking impressed.

"Ugh, it was high time," Raven says, shaking her head. She pours juice into three tall glasses and passes them around, holding one towards the door when Bucky pushes his way into the kitchen, hair sticking out everywhere making him look young and adorable. He takes it with a grunt of thanks, downing it in three long gulps. "They've been dancing around this thing for months. The pining was getting piteous."

Bucky lowers the glass from his mouth, giving her a narrow-eyed, still drowsy look. 'They do the deed?" he mutters, voice scratchy.

"Apparently," Natasha says. Raven smiles at the way Bucky turns towards her, like a flower to the sun.

"Well, hot damn. Boy finally took the plunge. We should throw another party just for that."

Their staring contest is broken by the closing of the front door and the smell of baking preceding Phil into the kitchen. Clint doesn't even pretend to have a shred of decorum, dumping his coffee on the counter and winding his arms around Phil's shoulders, catching him in a grateful kiss. Phil passes Raven several bulging bags of pastries, and sinks his newly freed hand in Clint's hair, kissing him back without the least hesitation.

"Morning," he says, when Clint pulls back, handing him another paper bag. Clint digs it open, pulling out a pain au chocolat; he offers Phil the first bite, before demolishing it in three more chomps.

Raven spills a bunch of pastries onto three plates, heading out of the kitchen and up the stairs. She leaves one plate outside Tony's door as promised, then raps on the wood and makes a hasty getaway before the noises within can penetrate her carefully erected mental wall. She leaves two muffins outside of Charles' door, following the same MO as with Tony's, and then takes the stairs up to her room. Loki and Thor can fetch their own breakfast.

Angel is still dozing when Raven slips inside, curled up on her side with her arms under her pillow. A sleek dark shoulder peeks out from the covers, temptation incarnate. Raven leaves their pastries on her desk, then slips off her robe and lifts one end of the duvet, climbing in and fitting herself to Angel's back with a sigh of pleasure. Angel shifts, linking her fingers with Raven's under the covers and tugging her arm more tightly around her waist.

"Everything okay down there?" she murmurs. Her voice is husky, spun brown sugar and smoke, and soon enough, Raven is going to roll her over and kiss her, and then make sure her morning is very happy indeed.

For now, she sighs into Angel's warm neck, and smiles.

"Couldn't be better."