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I've Suffered Shipwrecks

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Most people, when they break up, sort through their record collections, possibly chuck each other’s clothes onto the sidewalk, engage in soul-destroying coffee dates where they try to sort through the emotional debris, and then leave each other the fuck alone.

Clint and Natasha were never very good at acting like normal people, though, which is why they run a cafe together.

“Six espressos for table eight,” Peggy says, coming up to the counter. “I think they’re playing some form of caffeine Russian Roulette.”

Clint momentarily thinks about how if Natasha was here she’d show them what Russian Roulette really entails, but all he does is smirk and remark: “I’m not cleaning up after them”. He turns toward the coffee machine that many long hours of practice have made his bitch.

Peggy laughs, picking up the tray of paninis that Steve just put out for her. She’s a good waitress; she’s much nicer and more patient with people than either Clint or Natasha have ever been, and rakes in the tips because customers are charmed by her British accent. She’s not a pushover – her sharp shutdowns of guys trying to hit on her are pretty impressive to watch – but she’s definitely less of a bitch about serving people than the rest of them.

They’re lucky to have her, actually; her and Steve, a part-time struggling artist who rules their kitchen with puppy eyes and earnest lectures on correct seasoning. Steve is sweet in ways that Clint had forgotten people could be until Peggy brought in her best friend to interview for their cook’s position, and he occasionally worries that prolonged exposure to himself and Nat is going to end up breaking Steve in some fundamental way, but so far he’s remained cheerful and far too nice and makes a mean cupcake.

No, most ex-couples don’t open a cafe together with no experience at either cooking or running a business, but as Clint puts the tiny espresso cups onto a tray for Peggy, he honestly isn’t sure why.

=

“I’m going to start a book club,” Natasha announces, “I need your apartment.”

It’s seven a.m. and Clint hasn’t had his coffee yet, but he’s pretty sure that even if he had that sentence wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“Um,” he manages, “you have an apartment. A nice one, actually. I helped Steve put together the furniture.”

Natasha rolls her eyes and puts a mug in front of him. She’s always been better at mornings than he is.

“Yeah, but there’s more space in yours. And it’s above the cafe, so catering would be much easier.”

Clint takes a gulp of coffee and decides to deal with the next problem: “do you even read books that other people are going to want to read? Because you gave a lifetime ban to that woman who was trying to read a Nicholas Sparks novel in here.”

Nat waves her hand dismissively. “That was at least half Peggy.”

“Semantics,” Clint tells her, and decides to deal with the rest of this when he’s woken up a bit more.

The windchimes over the door jingle – they’re kind of annoying, but Bruce sent them over from India so of course they were going to hang them – and Pepper Potts walks in, wearing eye-wateringly high heels and a smile far too perky for this time of the morning.

“Tony’s been up all night,” she says on an eyeroll, “so I’m going to need about five coffees and as many bagels as you can fit in a takeout bag.”

Pepper is Tony Stark’s personal assistant and is consequently basically responsible for keeping them open; Stark himself has never set foot in their cafe but he really likes their coffee and pretty much anything they bake so Pepper’s in all the time picking things up. She’s the only customer they allow to have a tab because god knows, Stark Industries is good for it.

Clint heads for the coffee machine, saying over his shoulder: “Pepper, Nat wants to hold a book club in my living room-”

Intends to hold a book club in your living room,” Natasha corrects in a murmur, attention turned to sorting out bagels for Tony Stark.

“-does that strike you as kind of invasive and unfair?” Clint finishes.

Pepper slides onto one of the stools they have at the counter while she waits, linking her fingers and resting her chin on them. “Will you take away my tab if I use the word ‘codependant’ to describe you two?”

Clint considers this, capping plastic lids onto two americanos before he moves to start steaming milk for lattes.

“You wouldn’t be the first,” he sighs. But hey, Nat had never liked his therapist anyway and Clint’s pretty sure that not going into business with her would’ve been worse for his life than whatever this is.

=

Natasha’s printed out flyers for her book club and left them next to the till; Clint gets the feeling she’s planning something that she’s leaving him out of, but he hasn’t worked out what it is yet. Either way, it had better not end with his apartment getting trashed; that’s happened enough over the years.

It’s a slow afternoon; Peggy’s perched at the counter filling in a crossword and humming along to the radio, and Clint’s just gotten out of yet another heated discussion with Steve over whether they’re going either a) vegan or b) organic (they’re doing neither; Nat has opinions about things that will draw in hipsters). There’s only a handful of customers, most of whom are immersed in newspapers or kindles or each other (there’s a couple in the corner feeding each other cupcakes in a way that’s kind of embarrassing for everyone involved; Clint is pretty tempted to kick them out for being obnoxiously in love, but if they all keep doing that this place is going to get a reputation). There’s also a guy in the corner booth with what appears to be about a hundred sheets of paper spread across the table tapping away intently at a netbook, lower lip caught between his teeth. They have a lot of people coming in here to write – it’s pretty quiet, pretty cheap and reasonably classy, not to mention the free wifi – but Clint doesn’t recognise him as one of their regulars.

“Who’s the guy by the window?” he asks Peggy quietly.

She taps her pencil against her lower lip for a moment, eyes on the crossword, before providing: “he’s had six cups of green tea and isn’t very good at blinking, so I’m guessing that he’s a writer. Probably of the pretentious persuasion.”

Clint smirks despite the fact she’s not looking at him, and lets her get back on with her crossword – at least she’s given up on sudoku; all of them were terrible at it and the customers started looking anxious instead of asking for refills – while he keeps an eye on a woman toying with one of the book club flyers. He’s still not sure he should be leaving Nat unattended in his apartment with wine, strangers, and an array of hardcover crime novels and/or New York Times bestsellers. He likes his apartment.

“What do you know about this book club?” he adds.

“Knowing what I know of Natasha, I assume the first book she suggests will be The Hunger Games and she’ll make everyone beat each other to death with a novel of their choice to be allowed to attend the second meeting,” Peggy muses.

This is not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

“As long as she knows she’s the one in charge of bleaching the blood out of the carpet,” Clint sighs, and goes to see if Steve wants another coffee.

=

Natasha flips the Fuck Off We’re Closed sign (which doesn’t actually say that anymore; Steve made them a new one and left it sadly and pointedly on the counter one morning) and Peggy cheers, dumping two bottles of spirits onto the table they’re gathered around.

Irresponsible Friday Cocktails – so named because they’re all due in early for brunch on Saturday morning – have been a tradition since they first started this place and it was just Clint and Nat and a microwave in here with a cheap bottle of vodka and the last vestiges of their resentful break-up. Now it’s Clint and Natasha, Steve and Peggy, Pepper (when Tony’s got someone else to babysit him for the night), Darcy (who works in the Starbucks around the corner and is apparently taking them down from the inside) and Phil (their oldest friend who has somehow stuck with them despite all the crazy).

It’s moments like this – with the lights down low and Darcy cheerfully mixing bastardised cosmopolitans while Phil and Peggy take forks to half a leftover cherry pie – that make Clint think that maybe his life isn’t a complete failure after all.

Pepper shows up just as Darcy’s started to abandon actual measures for just pouring booze into glasses; she’s holding a bottle of absinthe that she confiscated from Tony’s Friday Night Lingerie Model Shenanigans in one hand and a takeout pizza Tony actually gave her with the other.

“Absinthe is a terrible idea,” Clint says detachedly but without much conviction. “I’m pretty sure that time Nat broke six of my ribs we’d been drinking absinthe.”

“Seven,” Natasha corrects him idly.

Peggy is watching them with sleepy eyes and her chin propped on her hand, sipping one of Darcy’s increasingly-lethal cocktails. “I wish I’d known you two when you were dating.”

“No, you don’t,” Phil, Natasha and Clint say simultaneously.

“They had their good moments,” Phil says, “and then they had all the other moments, most of which involved broken glass and me providing bail money.”

“Don’t scare Steve off,” Natasha scolds him, smacking his arm, “he still likes us.”

Steve is sticking to water, like he always does during Irresponsible Friday Cocktails, but his expression is soft and just a little teasing.

“You do like us,” Clint assures him, reaching for a slice of Pepper’s pizza while Nat goes and rummages for sugar and spoons and candles and other things to make the absinthe more fun and even more of a bad idea. “I know you have no idea why, but...”

“Less feelings, more booze,” Darcy orders, tipping the last dregs of a carton of orange juice into a glass with a liberal splash of vodka. “And no broken bones because I’m on the opening shift tomorrow.”

Clint opens his mouth to tell Darcy that maybe she shouldn’t be getting really drunk if she’s got a six a.m. start, then realises that he does too, and closes it again.

“No broken bones,” Peggy echoes, holding up her glass, and Clint clinks his against it. There are worse life mottoes.

=

It’s mid-morning and Clint is valiantly pretending not to have a hangover while he and Peggy deal with all the people who didn’t stay up ‘til three a.m. with their friends drinking cheap alcohol and eating ice cream out of the cafe freezer – which is going to need adjusting on the inventory, dammit. Brunch is fun but also kind of hellish; while they luckily attract the sort of sleepy, cheerful, please-feed-us-pancakes sort of crowd rather than the loving-couples-and-irritating-children variety there are still too many people wanting things and talking and spilling coffee everywhere.

He takes a moment to resent the fact Natasha isn’t working today, and is in fact upstairs sleeping everything off in Clint’s bed.

“Never again,” Peggy mutters, sweeping past him with plates piled with waffles. She says this every week.

“At least you didn’t spend the night in one of the booths this time,” Clint replies, on his way to delivering another order to Steve, the only person who is vaguely serene about this whole brunch situation. Peggy laughs flatly behind him.

Bruce’s windchimes tinkle and Clint glances back to see the hassled-looking writer from the other day coming in, arms full of paper. He’s probably going to end up with someone else’s hash browns all over them, but that’s not Clint’s problem.

Peggy’s gotten distracted by a table full of mimosa-drinking Sex and the City types – Bruce made him and Nat marathon it, okay, which is possibly worse than if it’d been Nat’s choice – so Clint weaves his way between the crowded tables to take the guy’s order.

He’s staring in despair at the sheets of paper scattered all over his table – print-outs covered in multi-coloured pen – but looks up at Clint after a moment, and what he sees makes Clint grimace.

“Man, you look worse than I feel right now.”

The guy’s mouth twitches, like he can’t figure out whether to be annoyed or amused, but his hair is a mess and his eyes are bloodshot and he has the look of a guy who hasn’t slept for about three days (and Clint knows that look intimately because it used to stare back at him from the mirror on a regular basis).

“Do you greet all your customers like this?” he demands.

Clint shrugs. “Pretty much. Do you want a bucket of coffee?”

Something sags in the guy’s shoulders and he nods, kneading his eyes with slightly-shaking hands. “Yes. Desperately.”

Clint smirks. The feeling is definitely mutual.

=

Their cafe was originally a battered-looking store everyone had abandoned and someone had apparently once tried to set on fire, with sad graffiti-covered boards over the windows and peeling paintwork.

The realtor had, by this point, pretty much had enough of Clint and Natasha. It had been over a month of vague wandering around dismissing properties for the slightest of reasons, non-verbal communication that confused the poor man, and bitter below-the-belt snarking at each other because the break-up was still relatively fresh. Bruce accompanied them on three days of property viewings before he declared if he had to do it ever again he was going to wind up leaving one or both of them locked in the next store’s basement. Phil point-blank refused to come with them at all, preferring instead to google potential sites and email them lists to torment their realtor with.

They were all trudging over to the last property of the day; Natasha’s boots were giving her blisters though she was refusing to mention it, Clint had a pressure headache, and their realtor looked like he was going to cry. And then they saw it; the miserable, boarded-up building stuck between a used bookstore and a depressed-looking place that sold bathroom fittings.

Their realtor made plaintive noises behind them while Clint and Nat headed across the street to look at the place – “it’s on our books, but it’s probably structurally unsound” – although there wasn’t a whole lot to see outside.

“You got a key?” Clint asked the realtor, while Natasha made her dangerous thoughtful face.

“Well,” the guy shrugged, gesturing at the wreck of the store, “no.”

Clint sighed and took a step back while Nat shrugged her jacket off, handed it to him and then roundhouse kicked the door.

The realtor made a helpless goldfish face while Clint grinned and said: “I know right, I sometimes wonder how I got out of the break-up without a fractured skull.”

The inside of the store was dark and dusty and someone had definitely taken a molotov cocktail to the kitchen area, but somehow it was perfect. Somehow.

“This,” Natasha declared, her hands on her hips while blackened dust settled on her shoulders from the disturbed air.

“This,” Clint agreed, and startled them both by kissing her.

The realtor groaned, muttered something like the commission is not worth any of this, and left them to it.

They made out for a while in the cracks of dusty afternoon sunlight spilling into the store; there was something final about it and something sad about it and somehow it was pretty awesome anyway.

“No sex, right,” Nat said after a while, pulling away.

“Please,” Clint responded, slipping an arm around her waist and pulling her away from the debris, “we’d need about twelve tetanus shots. This place is a death trap.”

“Our death trap,” Nat agreed fondly, and let Clint lead her out into the afternoon.

=

“You could call him ‘Loki’,” Peggy suggests.

“Why?” Clint asks, sipping the chamomile tea Nat keeps insisting he’ll like.

“Because it’s quicker than calling him ‘that British writer guy who can’t say please’,” Peggy explains.

“Yeah, but Loki?”

“It’s his name,” Peggy says, rolling her eyes.

Clint attempts to process this. “Why?”

“Because his parents were hippies or arseholes I assume,” Peggy shrugs, walking over to collect a tray of Caesar salads from Steve.

The guy-who-is-apparently-called-Loki is on his seventh cup of green tea, by Clint’s count, and scribbling away intently in a notebook with his face about an inch from the paper, dark curls falling around his face. He spends multiple hours a week in here, tips well if not, like, awesomely, has never attempted to hit on Peggy and is literally drinking all their green tea, and Clint is starting to view him as kind of a fixture, albeit a weird one with pretty eyes.

“My book club’s tonight,” Natasha announces, appearing from the kitchen where she and Steve have been discussing the whole vegan issue again. “So you need to find a couch to sleep on.”

“Are you doing this because you want to get laid or because you want to murder someone somewhere outside of your apartment?” Clint asks her. “Because I seriously don’t think you want to discuss the literary merit of whatever Oprah’s been recommending.”

Natasha shrugs. “Maybe I want a new hobby.”

“You’re a martial artist, you crochet, and you can mix two hundred and seventeen different cocktails,” Clint tells her. “Which actually makes me wonder why we didn’t open a cocktail bar, now I’m thinking about it.”

“Tips would be better,” Peggy observes on the way past.

“Because I’d castrate the first guy to try and put his face in my cleavage,” Natasha points out.

Clint blinks. “Well, that’s a mental image.”

Across the cafe, Loki absently reaches for his teacup, only to find he’s already drained it. His look of distress is so pronounced it’s kind of hilarious; Clint turns to boil some fresh water for him.

“Can I come to your book club?” he asks.

“You can read?” Natasha feigns surprise.

He bumps her hip with his slightly harder than necessary as he grabs the green tea. “Is this that thing where we have to hang out with people who aren’t each other.”

“One of our therapists said it would be a good idea,” Natasha shrugs.

That probably says it all, really, so Clint carries the fresh pot of tea over to Loki, who doesn’t thank him but does give him the slightest of real smiles, one Clint kind of involuntarily returns.

=

Darcy and her girlfriend Jane live in a cluttered apartment full of whiteboards covered in spidery equations, scattered scientific journals, half-drunk mugs of coffee, and empty Pop Tart boxes. Jane’s a physicist and very sweet but utterly incapable of taking care of herself without someone reminding her when to sleep, eat, and step away from her laptop.

She lets Clint in with a vague smile, her dark hair a mess and with an afghan Clint is pretty sure he and Nat knitted that winter they were starting the cafe and trying not to kill everybody wrapped around her shoulders. It’s obvious she’s in what Darcy generally calls ‘equation hibernation mode’, where she’s there in body but her brain is somewhere else entirely.

“Hey,” Jane says, enveloping him in a hug that smells of espresso. “It’s good to see you, Clint.”

“You should come be a crazy scientist in the cafe sometime,” Clint tells her. “Steve cooks things with actual nutritional value and stuff.”

“Yeah, Jane will stick to Pop Tarts,” Darcy announces, coming to relieve Clint of the beer and pizza he’s brought as thanks for having their couch for the night. “Come on, it’s shitty romcom night.”

“Really?” Jane asks.

“Well, you’re too out of it for a decent shitty sci-fi night,” Darcy explains. “And it’s no fun watching Star Wars without you twitching indignantly anytime anyone does anything.”

This is how Clint finds himself two hours later watching 27 Dresses with a grinning Darcy and a half-asleep Jane, sipping his third beer and eating leftover Starbucks muffins that Darcy wasn’t contractually allowed to take from her workplace but did anyway.

“We need to get you laid, Clint,” Darcy announces while James Marsden and Katherine Heigl make out onscreen.

Jane makes a mumble of agreement.

“No,” Clint protests, “no, it’s Steve we’re trying to get laid. Remember?”

“We’re trying to work out if Steve has any form of sexual or romantic interest in anyone,” Darcy corrects.

“I’m doing the graphs,” Jane adds.

Sometimes Clint thinks that maybe all of them have too much time on their hands.

“Yeah,” Clint agrees, “but we’re not trying to get me laid. I do fine.”

“You have a creepily codependant relationship with your ex-girlfriend and periodically sleep with my hot co-workers,” Darcy corrects. “Which is cool and all and also awkward; you should really have called Peter back. He did this whole angsty pretentious photo series thing.”

Clint pretends to be really, really interested in the movie until Darcy huffs and mutters this isn’t over.

=

Sunday mornings are for hangovers so the cafe is declared a child-free zone so their clientele can read the newspapers in peace or, alternatively, lay their head on the table and wish for death while wrapping everything in bacon. Pepper’s already been in for coffee, pancakes, and a couple of Nat’s hangover cures that they can’t legally sell to people but which it’s probably fine to feed to Tony Stark.

Peggy’s in charge of charring everyone’s breakfasts because she claims that being British enables her to get everything to just the right level of burned-but-just-about-edible, which means Steve ends up waiting tables with Clint or Natasha on Sundays. He’s stupidly and unfailingly polite and charming and ends up cleaning up better on tips than the rest of them put together, due to the fact he’s both beautiful and adorable. Clint imagines that through hangover-blurred eyes he looks something like salvation.

Clint is just preparing another jug of coffee to go around with refills when he hears Steve fumble with a stack of plates behind him. This is pretty much an unheard of event, since Steve is as steady-handed as they come; as he turns he can see Peggy has poked her head out of the kitchen.

The tallest guy Clint has ever seen is standing in front of the counter; he has what can only be described as a mane of golden hair tumbling around his shoulders, an attractive scruff of stubble, and a smile that could make a statue weak at the knees. Clint blinks a couple of times to clear the haze of god-like gorgeousness clogging up his vision and looks sideways to see that Steve’s eyes have practically fallen out of his head and his mouth is just slightly open, cheeks flushed.

Well, that answers a number of questions.

Looking back to the guy, Clint finally notices that he has an extremely small baby in a ridiculous hippy-like sling tied across his chest. The baby is fast asleep and in a star-patterned romper suit and the whole thing is stupid adorable.

“We don’t let kids in on Sundays,” he has to say, and Steve turns reproachful eyes on him.

The guy looks thoughtful. “She’s asleep,” he points out. “I could leave if she awakens.”

At some point Clint’s going to investigate whether all the random British guys showing up is a secret conspiracy to drive him crazy, but for now he looks from where Steve’s eyes have turned into hearts like the lovestruck people in all that anime Darcy makes him watch to say: “alright, but sit with your back to the windows, we don’t want everyone coming in here.”

The guy graces them with a broad, white-toothed smile that makes Steve’s knuckles tighten on the countertop before he goes to sit at a table in the corner with his tiny charge.

It’s really, really tragic, Clint reflects, that Steve is the kind of guy you can’t mock for this kind of thing. Instead, he makes a mental note to text Natasha about this in a minute, and goes to deliver coffee to the customers.

=

Loki has been sitting and writing in their cafe for hours and hours and Clint still has no idea if he’s writing some kind of conspiracy diary or is secretly a spy stalking Natasha from her complicated past in Russia or is actually writing a book. He feels at the very least they all deserve some kind of acknowledgement in whatever it actually is; he’s started ordering in twice the amount of green tea they usually have just to keep up with Loki’s demand.

It’s getting to the point where Clint can anticipate when Loki’s going to need a fresh pot of tea just from how fast he’s writing at any given moment, which he tells himself is nothing but him getting really really good at his job.

“So,” he says, leaning a hip against the side of the booth Loki’s staked out as his, “are you an actual writer or the sort of guy who has to write here because all the utilities have been cut off in his apartment?”

Loki rolls his eyes, but Clint is keeping the tray with his teapot on it just out of reach, holding it hostage until he gets a response.

“I’m an actual writer,” Loki tells him, and Clint is kind of starting to like the way everything he says comes out condescending. “I have published novels.”

“Anything I’d have heard of?” Clint asks.

Loki shrugs. “I’m surprisingly popular in Australia.”

“So, when I’m sticking stuff in my Amazon shopping basket, I’m looking for Loki...”

“Laufeyson.”

“Bless you.”

Loki gives him his favourite bitchface, which actually might beat Nat’s for sheer bitchiness.

“And that’s your actual name, not, like, a pen name?” Clint adds. Loki nods, still looking pissed. “Did your family hate you or something?”

Shutters slam down on Loki’s expression, sharp and sudden. “My family is complicated,” he grits out.

Momentarily, Clint thinks of wet dark roads and policemen dripping apologies. “Isn’t everyone’s,” he mutters, but he puts the pot of green tea on the table like a truce.

“You’re needling him,” Natasha observes when he gets back to the counter. She’s playing Angry Birds with vicious precision having already filled in all the gaps in Peggy’s crossword with ballpoint pen.

“You’re not actually running a book club,” Clint shoots back.

Natasha rolls her eyes. “First you needle. Then you bone. It’s your pattern.”

“I don’t have a pattern,” Clint protests, something unexpected and defensive leaping in his chest.

“I think sometimes you forget that there isn’t anything I don’t know about you,” Nat replies, a twist to her mouth, and she heads for the kitchen as Steve pokes his head out with piled plates.

Clint bites the inside of his mouth and looks away from her back to find Loki is watching them, expression entirely unreadable.

=

Steve is starting to look like he’d actually like to have one of those tequila shots Darcy and Peggy are lining up along the counter.

“His name is genuinely Thor,” Nat is explaining to Pepper and Phil, “and his biceps are about the width of my thigh. And his hair looks like he should be doing Herbal Essences commercials.”

“Also he has the world’s smallest baby,” Peggy adds over her shoulder. “Like, she’s tiny. And not Thor’s, so I have no idea how he acquired her, but she’s very cute.”

“Can we change the subject yet?” Steve asks. He’s pouting, actually pouting, arms folded across his chest.

Clint is slicing limes for this particular Friday’s stupid idea and watching Steve’s embarrassment with something like glee. It’s nice to have all this shifted onto someone else for a change. Not that anyone else is aware that Natasha is doing her equivalent of teasing him about their resident crazy author, but Clint is aware of it, and that’s enough.

“I think the whole thing is awesome,” Darcy decides loudly. “You should text me next time he’s in, I want to come ogle.”

There’s a dull flush spreading across Steve’s cheekbones that Clint’s never seen before.

“He let Steve hold the baby,” Peggy puts in. “It was adorable.”

Pru,” Steve corrects, scowling.

Pepper’s biting her lips together and looking much too delighted.

“So, you guys are starting a betting pool, right?” Darcy adds. “You know, how long will it be until Steve fucks the blonde sex god with the baby.”

Steve gets up and stomps into the kitchen where he starts rattling pans noisily and sounding generally pissed. Darcy makes a guilty face and gets up to go apologise.

“Yeah, but maybe not in front of Steve,” Natasha calls after her.

Phil’s looking doubtful. “Put me down for six months.”

“Gosh,” Peggy remarks, “that’s actually quite optimistic.”

Nat rummages around behind the counter and straightens up, holding the rock salt.

“This is a terrible idea,” Phil says without any effort to stop this all happening.

“Most of our ideas are,” Clint agrees, and holds his wrist out to Natasha.

=

A week later, Clint comes downstairs from his apartment and unlocks the cafe to find a) a new postcard from Bruce, finally, and b) Tony Stark asleep in one of the booths.

He thinks about it for a moment, and then goes to put some coffee on. “Does Pepper know you’re here?” After Tony responds to that with a groan, Clint changes it to: “do you know you’re here?”

While Tony attempts to peel his face from the tabletop Clint reads Bruce’s postcard. It doesn’t say anything helpful like when he’s coming back from fucking India, or if he and Natasha are, you know, him and Natasha, but he seems to still be alive and fairly cheerful and keeping his anger and various other personality disorders under control, so Clint is pleased for him anyway.

“Seriously,” he says, when Tony’s managed to get himself upright, “does Pepper know you’re here? Because if she doesn’t I am telling her right now so she doesn’t beat me to death with Louboutins.”

Tony makes a face, squinting at him. “She’ll beat you to death with the Choos, she likes the Louboutins too much.”

Clint sets the biggest coffee mug they have down in front of Tony and digs his cellphone out of his jeans to ring Pepper.

“I’m going to kill him,” she says, sounding annoying and frantic and relieved all at once. “Seriously. He is dead.”

“I’ll pass that along,” Clint promises, and hangs up as Steve arrives.

“Why is Tony Stark here?” he asks.

“He broke in last night while hammered,” Clint explains.

Why?” Steve asks.

They both look at Tony, who is slumped over his coffee like he’s considering just trying to drown himself in it. He’s wearing the remains of what looks like a really expensive tuxedo, and it has to be noted that however he got in, the cafe doesn’t have a scratch on it.

“I think I misplaced the strippers,” is all Tony has to say for himself, and he looks so forlorn that Clint goes upstairs and finds a pair of sunglasses for him.

Tony stays slumped and possibly comatose in his booth while their morning customers start trailing in. No one even looks twice at him, and Clint fleetingly wonders if Pepper’s just going to leave Tony here as punishment.

Thor and Pru turn up, Thor wearing his customary far-too-handsome grin, and Pru wearing something in pink that should be hideous and is in fact cute. Clint’s pretty indifferent when it comes to babies and he knows the smallness of them freaks Natasha out, but they’ve agreed in this one incidence Pru is okay and can be their honorary cafe mascot, at least until Bruce comes back and reclaims the title he never wanted in the first place.

Steve brings Thor his breakfast and blushes at him and is generally socially incompetent and lovely; Tony slides Clint’s sunglasses down the bridge of his nose.

“Do you have some kind of bet on for those two?” he asks when Steve’s gone back to the kitchen.

“Of course,” Clint replies.

“Put me down for a thousand bucks on them being married by this time next year, would you?” Tony puts his head back down on the table. “And tell Pepper I welcome her murder shoes.”

=

Clint is never, ever listening to anything that Darcy and Natasha and Pepper and Peggy think is a good idea ever again. He’s not exactly hungover – definitely not by the newly invented Tony Stark scale, anyway – but he’s feeling distinctly fragile. He woke up in Nat’s bed this morning with only a dim recollection of whatever last night entailed, and is consequently dressed in the random assortment of his clothes that are still in her apartment that Darcy poured him into before slapping him on the ass and sending him off for his shift.

Loki’s got his netbook for a change and the constant tapping is starting to set Clint’s teeth on edge. He’s clearing the table from a particularly obnoxious group that have just left; a draft from the door sends balled-up napkins falling all over the floor and he bends down to retrieve them.

There’s a choking sound from behind him.

When he straightens up and turns Loki is staring at him. “You’re wearing women’s underwear,” he says blankly.

“They’re only Nat’s,” Clint shrugs. “I’m out of clean underwear.”

Loki is continuing to stare at him like he’s grown an extra head, which is rich coming from a guy called Loki.

“It’s not a big deal,” Clint tells him. “I’m sure loads of exes who work together also wear each other’s underwear. Natasha’s always stealing mine.”

“...and how long have you been broken up?” Loki asks, chin propped on his hand. His expression is a mixture of amused and judgemental.

“Three years next month,” Clint replies. “Oh, that reminds me, we’re having the anniversary party here. Want to come?”

Loki looks absolutely horrified. “No.”

Clint shrugs. “Your loss.”

He takes the dirty plates through to the kitchen and dumps them in the dishwasher before collecting the sandwich and fries Steve’s just made for him and carrying them through to the cafe for his lunch break. There are loads of free tables, but after a moment’s thought he goes and sits opposite Loki.

Loki’s eyes get very wide. “What are you doing,” he hisses.

“Do you ever eat?” Clint asks; he’s too tired for tact, and it’s never worked with Loki in the past. “Like, you never eat here and you’ve got that skinny dying-of-consumption-in-an-attic-for-your-art look.”

Loki glowers at him. “I am not dying of consumption in an attic,” he snaps, “you obnoxious little man.”

Clint is actually shorter than him, so he just takes a massive bite of his sandwich instead of protesting, and reaches for Loki’s notes. Loki tugs them away.

“Why can’t I look at them?” Clint asks. “Is your book filthy? Sociopathic? Are you like Bret Easton Ellis?”

The look Loki gives him speaks volumes.

“What, Natasha is pretending to run a book club in my apartment, I can know about literature. Maybe you’re more like Palahniuk?”

“Your relationship with your ex is far from healthy,” Loki sniffs.

“You are in no position to pass judgement on ‘healthy’,” Clint shrugs, and shoves the plate of fries over. “Have one.”

“I don’t want one.”

“This is great,” Clint sighs, conversational. “We should do this more often.”

“This is harassment.”

“You’re the one who brought up the fact I’m wearing panties.”

Loki glares at him some more, but reaches for the fries. It feels weirdly like victory.

=

Chapter Text

It’s the mid-afternoon lull between lunch and people getting off work and requiring cake. There’s a couple of students in a ludicrous amount of scarves taking advantage of the free wifi while eking out lattes, and a mom with a sleeping toddler in a stroller looking like she’s relaxing for the first time in about a month, but the rest of the place is tidy and quiet. Nat is sipping a chai tea and reading My Sister’s Keeper with a studious expression that Clint doesn’t buy for a second.

“So what are you doing in my apartment with a bunch of strangers and a crate of wine for two hours a month?” Clint asks, because there’s only so many times he can clean the coffee machine out.

“Having a book club,” she replies in a bored tone, turning a page.

Clint props his chin on his hands. “Shouldn’t you all switch venues and take turns or something?”

“Did you eHow book clubs?” Natasha frowns, reaching for her tea.

Clint just looks at her until she marks her place with a sugar packet and looks back at him, holding his gaze without blinking. This game never works, which Peggy reminds them both as she comes out with a tray of freshly-frosted cupcakes from Steve. “I don’t know why you haven’t learned that by now.” She starts arranging the cupcakes on the cake stand they keep in the counter, tutting occasionally until Clint obediently blinks and looks away. Peggy rewards him by handing him a pink frosted cupcake, smirking just a little.

“What do you think of the book?” she asks Natasha, giving her one of the green frosted cupcakes.

Natasha shrugs. “Babies are weird.”

“I’m not sure that was Jodie Picoult’s message,” Peggy muses, before one of the students waves her over by clicking at her.

Clint and Natasha eat their cupcakes and watch. Whatever Peggy says is too low for them to catch, but the guy pales and starts nodding frantically and repeatedly.

Peggy swishes back over looking pleased. “Another double shot latte, please, Clint,” she says sweetly.

Sometimes Clint has no idea how they manage to have repeat customers.

=

“Tequila and bubble wrap,” Darcy suggests.

“Wasn’t that the theme you wanted for my birthday last year?” Jane asks, frowning.

“No themes,” Natasha cuts in firmly. “No costumes, no crepe paper, no mixtapes.”

“Worst. Prom. Ever,” Darcy mutters.

“I didn’t have a prom,” Clint tells her. He had a lot of life experiences growing up, but prom wasn’t one of them.

“I did,” Jane says, looking happily nostalgic. “I had the greatest dress. I looked kind of like a meringue and I didn’t eat for a week beforehand, but it was the greatest dress.”

“My date tried to feel me up in the parking lot,” Darcy says, in the same tone of delighted recollection. “I broke his nose and three of his fingers.”

Thor, who has been sitting quietly at the end of the table feeding Pru all this time, looks suddenly alarmed. He squeezes the baby a little too tightly and she gives an annoyed squawk.

“It’s not something you have to worry about for another seventeen years, Thor,” Clint points out. “And I’m pretty sure any future dates Pru has will be appropriately scared shitless by the fact you’re a million feet tall.”

Thor looks down doubtfully at his daughter, who is today dressed in a little fluffy suit with bear ears on top. It is, Clint has to admit, pretty adorable.

“When she’s big enough I’ll teach her how to dislocate a guy’s jaw without breaking a nail,” Nat offers.

“Thank you,” Thor says gratefully, still clutching Pru protectively to his gigantic chest.

They’re supposed to be making vague plans for their break-up anniversary party next month, but Clint knows Natasha just wants to order in as many crates of cheap alcohol as they can afford and he’s quite happy to allow Darcy and her iPod dock to handle any form of music they might want. The pages torn from the back of one of Jane’s copious notebooks are, currently, completely blank, and will probably stay that way.

“I bet Steve was homecoming king,” Darcy decides. “Like, someone we know should’ve gotten a tiara.”

“Steve was little and nerdy at school,” Peggy announces on her way past with a tray of cokes, since she’s the only person not on her lunch break. “His best mate got the crown. Steve didn’t get abs and a decent haircut until college.”

“Steve doesn’t have a decent haircut now,” Clint protests.

“There is nothing wrong with Steve’s hair,” Thor declares immediately, and then looks a little shifty when they all turn to look at him.

“Well,” Darcy cuts in smoothly, “we can’t listen to anyone who has Barbie as a style icon, can we?”

Clint looks back at the blank sheets of paper to find that one of them now has tiaras written in Darcy’s loopy scrawl at the top. He glances at Natasha and she shrugs minutely; a mutual decision not to try and fight it.

=

It’s not like they have a standing lunch date or anything like that, firstly because Loki’s appearances at the cafe are pretty erratic, secondly because Clint’s pretty sure Loki would try to punch him if he used the word ‘date’ even as a joke, and thirdly because Loki is ridiculous and kind of an asshole. But, more often than not, Clint finds himself eating his lunch at Loki’s table, in a space he always finds cleared amongst Loki’s notes.

“I have copies of your books coming from Australia,” he informs Loki on Tuesday afternoon, enjoying the way Loki’s whole body twitches and he then has to hit the backspace key several times.

“Secondhand?” Loki asks, voice a study in casual.

“I thought about it,” Clint says, “but then I realised that whatever I spend on them will basically come back to me because you drink a gallon of tea a day, so I actually paid for them. You’re welcome, and stuff.”

Loki’s staring at him, expression torn between thoughtful and horrified. “Are you going to read them?” he manages at last.

“Nah, my coffee table’s wobbly. It’s driving me mad. Turns out your second novel is just the right thickness to get it level again.”

Loki huffs in his favourite you’re an idiot way, switching his attention back to his laptop. Clint grins and takes a sip of his coffee, slumping against the wall of the booth.

“Are you coming to our party, Loki?” Natasha asks on the way past. Her tone is bored and neutral, which means that she’s actually interested in the answer; it’s a neat trick that it took Clint months to figure out.

“No,” Loki tells her, and she winks at Clint.

“It’s usually just alcohol and all our friends making out with each other,” Clint tells him. “It’s not like you have to bring a present.”

Loki rolls his eyes. “I still don’t understand why the two of you are having this party.”

“Haven’t you ever broken up with someone who you still want to be friends with?” Clint asks.

Loki seems to actually consider the question, mouth pursing in thought. “I haven’t,” he decides at last.

Clint nods. “Well, that makes sense. Your life is actually an Adele song, after all.”

The outrage that spreads across Loki’s face is kind of perfect. For a split second, Clint thinks he’s actually contemplating punching him. This isn’t a problem because Clint’s ducked more punches than Loki’s ever tried to throw, and anyway it’s kind of fun to get him that riled up, the glitter in his eyes.

“You know nothing about my life,” Loki says, flat and hard and final, his voice a fuck you.

Clint scrapes up a smirk anyway. “Case in point,” he shrugs, and lets Loki throw a balled-up napkin at him.

=

Clint comes in just before lunch to start his shift to find Peggy lingering in the kitchen doorway, apparently watching whatever’s happening inside with interest. Since Steve’s cheerful singing along to Broadway classics is old news and he’s actually competent enough to cook things without setting stuff on fire, Clint can’t imagine what’s going on.

Tony Stark has turned up again; his suit jacket and shirt are hanging off the door to the walk-in freezer, while he’s wearing his tie around his head like he’s going for a Rambo sort of look; it’s possible he is. He’s also elbow-deep in bubbles.

“We own an actual dishwasher,” Clint points out, adding: “does Pepper know you’re here?”

Yes, mom,” Tony sighs, like he isn’t a crazy person prone to pulling disappearing acts. “She’s putting out fires.”

“Literal or metaphorical ones?” Peggy asks.

Tony shrugs. “What’s a party without both?”

The windchimes tinkle and Peggy turns to greet their latest customers; Clint watches as Steve expertly flips pancakes and Tony continues to wash their cups, getting liberal amounts of soap all over his t-shirt.

“Is he bothering you, Steve?” he feels compelled to check.

Steve looks over his shoulder to grin at him. “Nothing I can’t handle,” he assures Clint.

“You could handle me,” Tony says. “That was an invitation, though now I hear it aloud it’s kind of a cheap one.”

“Peggy will kick your ass if you lay a finger on Steve,” Clint warns.

“How about you?” Tony asks.

“I’ll be standing back and taking the photos for US Weekly,” Clint shrugs. “Either of you want coffee?”

“Always,” Tony grins.

Clint texts Natasha when he gets back out into the cafe. Now we have psycho billionaires who let themselves in and wash our dishes for us.

Maybe we should make a sign, Natasha responds. And a moment later: Loki is out of his mind, are you aware of this?

Clint takes three orders and starts getting coffee ready, shooting off a quick: ?

Reading his first book, Natasha explains.

It takes Clint a moment to realise what’s happened. STOP LETTING YOURSELF INTO MY APARTMENT AND STEALING MY AMAZON PACKAGES BEFORE I GET THEM.

Bruce says he’s crazy too, Natasha texts back, ignoring him again.

Are you reading Loki’s book over Skype to Bruce? You are, aren’t you?

Natasha doesn’t reply, and Clint groans between his teeth as he takes a tray of espressos over to a group of exhausted-looking students.

“Cheer up,” Peggy orders, “you’ve got another seven hours of this.”

There’s the sound of a plate smashing in the kitchen. Clint pinches the bridge of his nose, and Peggy just laughs at him.

=

Irresponsible Friday Cocktails have kind of been pushed aside this week. Darcy has brought Starbucks cookies she ‘rescued’ before they could end up in the end-of-day dumpster and Peggy’s mixing mojitos by decimating the mint plants Steve’s been growing on the windowsill while Steve makes tragic faces and doesn’t say anything.

Pepper and Phil, however, are both on their phones, occasionally scribbling messages to each other on a pad of post-its that Clint is pretty sure they brought with them.

“What does Phil do for a living again?” Peggy asks, frowning.

Natasha shrugs. “I think you need security clearance to know.”

“But you’ve known each other for years!” Steve points out.

“It’s something to do with the government,” Clint tells him, waving a hand. “He wears a suit and gets pissed with people a lot and they pay him for it.”

“No,” Pepper’s voice cuts into their conversation, “I’d like six crates of champagne, I’d like them on the Thursday, and I’d like a discount.” Her tone brooks no argument. It’s terrifying and sexy in equal measure.

“Six crates of champagne?” Darcy echoes, and Natasha and Clint shrug. “Awesome.”

Phil – and later, Pepper – has always organised their parties for them, since Natasha and Clint have always been pretty terrible at getting stuff to happen in a reasonable and timely fashion.

While Phil gets scarily monosyllabic on the phone to a caterer’s – apparently they don’t have to provide their own food, which is cool – Darcy tells them about a trip she’s going on with Jane next week to some kind of physics symposium in Florida.

“She’s presenting a paper on... something, so I’m there to make sure she wears real person clothes and also to use the hotel pool,” Darcy explains while Peggy tops up her mimosa.

“Aren’t you going to go to any of the talks?” Steve asks.

Darcy grins. “The university’s paying for all this so I’m going to lay around the hotel all day eating out the mini bar, and then Jane will come back in the evenings and I’ll eat out-” Clint shoots a warning glance at Steve, and Darcy swiftly changes her sentence into “– the hotel buffet.”

Natasha hides her grin behind her hands.

Peggy has apparently been eavesdropping on Phil and Pepper’s calls, because as she leans forwards to grab another cookie she says: “are you guys seriously having an ice sculpture?”

“Oh dear lord,” Nat mutters, getting up and going to wrestle Phil’s phone from his hand.

Later, she climbs into Clint’s bed, smelling of rum and toothpaste. It’s dark but he can tell by feel that she’s stolen a pair of his pyjamas.

“I’d have called you a cab,” he says groggily, twisting in the sheets.

“I’m on the early shift anyway,” Natasha replies, curling herself around him with the ease of practice. “Don’t steal the covers.”

“You’re the one who steals the covers,” Clint corrects her.

Natasha tuts, soft in the dark. “Don’t make me have to choke you with my thighs, Barton.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” he responds dryly, and shifts before she can make good on her threat.

=

Natasha’s dealing with someone who tried to run out on their bill – Clint glances up occasionally but the arm she’s got around the guy’s throat is still only a threat rather than anything he’ll have to step in for – and Peggy’s distributing dishes, so Clint stays where he is and keeps reading. Loki’s book is actually crazy but if you can cope with the overuse of adjectives and the fact it’s frequently pretty unclear what’s actually going on, who’s actually speaking or if anyone’s actually speaking then it’s gripping and intense stuff. Nat still has the second book in the series; apparently she hasn’t finished it yet and isn’t going to give it back until she has, which says a lot.

Clint doesn’t look up until a shadow blocks his light; Loki’s turned up at some point and is glaring pointedly at him. He folds over the edge of his page and slides off his stool.

“Green tea, right?”

Loki is still staring at the book. “Are you trying to wind me up?”

Clint shrugs. “I was at least going to read far enough in to do a good job of mocking your characters to your face. Also no. Everyone reads when we don’t have massive lines of customers.”

He fills up the teapot while he waits for Loki to stop looking quite so psychotically paranoid; for one thing, Peggy’s already got that on her list of personality disorders Loki probably has that mean you should stop poking him to see if he’ll explode, Clinton.

“Anyway, you’re hardly ever in on Saturdays,” Clint points out.

Loki gives an awkward, one-shoulder shrug. “My brother was driving me bloody mad,” he explains.

“You have a brother?” Clint asks, pouncing on the information, while Loki looks like he’s instantly regretting opening his mouth. “You’ve never mentioned him, that’s awesome.”

“It’s not,” Loki mutters, looking longingly at the teapot.

“What does he look like?” Clint continues. “Is he a better-looking version of you?”

Loki looks like he’s been slapped, and Clint wonders if he’s finally pushed too hard. “I’m sorry I’m not good-looking enough for your establishment,” he snips out in the sharpest of tones.

Clint can’t work out if he’s hurt Loki’s feelings or if Loki’s feelings are just permanently hurt all the time anyway, a raw nerve with a kicked puppy expression.

“I didn’t say that,” he shrugs, keeping his voice light, “but you do really work the not-sleeping not-eating crazed artist look. You could carry groceries in those bags under your eyes.”

He doesn’t really think about leaning forward and brushing his thumb over one of them until Loki flinches away, expression startled.

“Can I have my tea yet?” he demands, though he doesn’t sound nearly as annoyed as he probably intends to.

Clint pushes the tray with the teapot and cup on it towards him, and isn’t thinking about a split-second touch of skin at all.

=

Peggy’s apartment is very tidy and very compact and looks kind of like she took the Ikea catalogue suggestions on how to make the most of your space seriously. It has actual design in it, rather than I just chucked some furniture and a lamp in here.

“Your place is nice,” Clint observes, sticking his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Is that why I’ve never been here before?”

Peggy rolls her eyes and continues the (very brief) tour. “This is the kitchen, please don’t burn it down, and if you eat my Pop Tarts I’ll call in sick without warning. And then we’re back to the living room; the sofa’s a futon so you should be pretty comfy.”

“Well,” Clint says, “you’re already beating out Darcy and Jane with the futon thing.”

Nat’s holding her book club tonight – Clint’s considering bugging his apartment for the next one just to find out what she’s actually doing – and Darcy and Jane are on their holiday, so Clint was forced to go find different people to put him up for the night, since Nat won’t let him stay in her apartment for whatever reason.

“Good to know,” Peggy smirks, kicking off her work shoes and then going to line them up in the hall.

“I never knew you were so tidy,” Clint can’t help remarking.

“Military,” Peggy shrugs. “It never really leaves you.” Clint stares at her until she sighs and says: “I forgot to mention it, didn’t I. Well, it’s a fairly short story that I’m not going to tell you tonight, so you should get us some beer from the fridge and I’ll find something on my Tivo.”

Clint obeys her but gets sidetracked by the photos stuck onto her fridge door with magnets; a lot of them involve Steve with a variety of ill-thought-out haircuts, and another dark-haired guy. He’s overheard Peggy and Steve talking about mutual friends of theirs that the rest of them haven’t met, but he has no way of working out which one this is.

He walks back into the living room and hands Peggy her beer. She sighs. “That’s Bucky, he isn’t my boyfriend anymore, he’s in Afghanistan now, sit down and watch this Modern Family marathon I recorded.”

Clint holds his hands up in surrender. “Yes, sir.”

Peggy nudges his knee with hers. “You and Nat aren’t the only one with complicated relationships with your ex.”

“So I’m learning,” Clint murmurs, and takes a gulp of beer.

=

Roundabout questioning has established that Thor got his daughter as a result of a cousin naming him guardian of Pru if anything happened and then dying in a car accident. The whole thing sounds like a made-for-TV movie; not that Clint’s ever mentioned it to Thor, who is all smiles and charm but also kind of looks like he could rip your arm off and beat you to death with it if you ever pissed him off.

It’s actually impossible not to like Thor; he’s earnest and sweet and always sincerely interested in things to a degree that would probably be unnerving if he didn’t give off such a puppyish air. He’s also really, really gorgeous in a jockish way Clint wasn’t previously aware appealed to him. Still, even though Steve determinedly won’t talk about it and blushes a lot if any of them try, it’s painfully clear that none of them get to hit on Thor until Steve’s at least tried and failed. Of course, at this rate, it’s going to take approximately three years for Steve to even work his way up to actual flirting, but for the moment it’s kind of nice just watching them flail about like kindergarteners.

Peggy is spending her break cuddling Pru and sipping a cup of tea, making faces down at the still extremely little girl. She’s in a lacy romper suit with a matching hat; at some point Clint is going to bring up the fact that the baby is better dressed than everyone else in this cafe at barely five months old.

Nat’s keeping a careful distance but looking thoughtful.

“You should get her fairy wings,” she remarks, and Clint hides his laughter behind his hands as Thor’s entire face lights up.

The three of them are bickering over sizes and etsy and whether Pru could somehow accidentally hurt herself on them when Clint goes to get the latest load of dishes from the kitchen. He’s not really surprised to see Tony’s turned up again, today in diesel-soaked jeans and a faded Led Zep shirt. Pepper says they’re doing this whole rehabilitation thing that involves not-actual-rehab, since Tony went all Amy Winehouse about it, so if they don’t mind him hanging around then at least it keeps him out of trouble. And he paid for the industrial toaster that he tried to dismantle, so it could be worse.

Tony sketches a salute from where he’s perched on top of the dishwasher making Steve laugh, and Clint nods back, grabbing the mid-morning brunch plates from the counter.

“Tony’s back,” he tells Peggy and Nat once he’s served everyone.

“That’s because he’s imprinted on Steve,” Nat shrugs, eyes on her phone screen where she seems to be looking at tiny things made of gauzy fabric. Clint makes a mental note to mock her a lot this afternoon. “He’s going to try and move in sooner or later.”

“Tony?” Thor asks in what he probably thinks is a casual tone.

“Tony Stark,” Peggy explains, rocking a squirming Pru. “You know, the pretty one who’s always on Time magazine looking like he needs a haircut.”

Thor is doing his murder face, and Clint thinks ah.

=

“Is there a reason you seem to basically live here now?” Clint asks Loki. “Because at this rate there is going to be no green tea left in the city.”

“My brother is being particularly bad-tempered and tiresome,” Loki replies, not looking up from his notebook, tapping his pen against his lower lip. “I have no desire to be in a house that contains him at the moment.”

Despite Clint’s best attempts to worm out more details about Loki’s mysterious brother he has yet to get anything; possibly Loki’s just being his usual pretentiously mysterious self, or possibly he’s still paying Clint back for the is he a better-looking version of you thing. Either way, he’s got zip. But it’s nearly lunchtime and there’s a space amongst Loki’s notes that’s just big enough for a plate and a mug, so there’s still time to work on it.

The windchimes jingle and Clint doesn’t bother turning – Peggy’s around, she can deal with it – until a man’s voice says: “oh, hey, you hung them up.”

Clint doesn’t know exactly when he and Nat met Bruce; it was a few years ago and they both fell for him in a way that didn’t ruin their relationship but didn’t do anything for it either. Bruce is a scientist – a good one, from the little of the scientific community that Clint knows – and a sweet, slightly socially awkward guy; at least until you make him angry. They all suffered through the anger management courses and the therapy and the medication that didn’t really seem to work; Bruce was terrified of what he could end up doing while lost in a rage haze, and in the end when he saw a course in India that was meant to help with self-realisation or something he took a sabbatical at the university where he worked and left.

Only then he didn’t come back.

Bruce is standing in the doorway of the cafe looking shy and happy; he’s tan, and thinner than Clint remembers him being, and his hair is a mess of curls and he still can’t dress worth a damn, and Clint thinks he actually leaps a table in order to get to him and pull him into the world’s most frantic, relieved hug. Bruce squeezes him back just as tightly, burying his face in Clint’s shoulder, and Clint is babbling things like you are such a fucker and don’t leave for that long ever again okay. He refuses to actually cry, but his eyes might be thinking about it.

When they finally pull apart Bruce keeps his hands on Clint’s shoulders, studying his face carefully.

“Seriously, I’m letting Nat use her ninja killing skills on you if you even think of leaving again,” Clint insists, adding: “why are you here?”

Bruce smiles one of his worn, gorgeous smiles and says: “like I’d miss your anniversary party.”

Clint shakes his head, laughing, and Bruce’s hands drop from his shoulders. “Nat’s going to be so glad to see you,” he tells him. “And then she’s going to punch you in the face, just so you’re warned.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Bruce agrees in the second before he’s ambushed by a delighted Peggy.

Finally remembering that they have customers who might want stuff, Clint sweeps his gaze over the rest of the cafe. Everyone looks pretty contented, though they are all staring bemusedly at the reunion, all except-

Loki’s gone.

=

“You’re dressing up,” Natasha orders.

It’s easy for her to say; she has an array of sexy formalwear for reasons Clint has never managed to quite figure out so turning up in something slinky but classy wasn’t exactly difficult. She’s taking curling tongs to her hair right now, drinking white wine straight from the bottle. They started drinking midway through the afternoon, so tonight should go with a bang.

Bruce is slumped on Clint’s bed playing a game on his iPhone and wearing the black eye Natasha gave him surprisingly well. At least he knows that sudden shocks of violence are how Nat expresses affection; Clint’s kind of bored of having that awkward conversation with people.

Clint sighs and hunts around in his closet for the bag containing his one and only suit; he doesn’t wear them so he doesn’t feel the need to own loads. A good one is enough.

“I thought you were going to marry Nat in that suit,” Bruce observes quietly, beckoning for Natasha to hand over the wine.

“So did I,” Clint replies, casually offhand.

“No, you didn’t,” Nat corrects. “You thought if we ever got married it’d be in a Vegas wedding chapel with enough alcohol inside us to kill normal people. Mostly ‘cause you were too chickenshit to propose.”

“That’s ‘cause you were the one who wanted to do the proposing,” Clint protests. “You planned a whole speech and everything.”

“The really disturbing part of all this,” Bruce cuts in conversationally, “is that I know you two never actually discussed any of that.”

Clint shrugs. Being in love with Nat was a whole thing, a whole other life, one where he called her Tasha and she called him things in Russian that could have been darling or idiot or potato for all he fucking knew. She said that she thought love was for children, back in the early days when they were mostly having energetic sex with occasional breaks to – sadly literally – lick their wounds, and so Tasha never told him that she loved him. Not once, not ever. But after a couple of years she didn’t have to for him to know, and that’s one of those things that they’ll both have to live with.

Nat’s not Tasha anymore and never will be again, but it doesn’t matter like Clint used to think it would.

There’s a crash from the cafe downstairs; Bruce facepalms. “I swear you two just collected crazy people while I was gone.”

“Had to do something to pass the time,” Natasha shrugs, slipping her feet into her heels.

“What she said,” Clint agrees, and flaps his tie at her until she rolls her eyes and comes over to help.

=

There’s no ice sculpture, thankfully, but there is a fuckload of champagne, which Tony assures them is actually a unit of measurement in situations like these. Steve, Phil and Peggy have shifted all the tables and the cafe is crowded with the friends that they’ve somehow managed to hang onto all this time.

Nat smacks Clint’s ass before giving him a boost so he can stand on the counter, while everyone shouts speech! Pepper at least had the forethought to relieve him of his champagne glass before he started clambering all over the furniture, so when he gestures vaguely at everyone no one gets showered with alcohol.

“When I first met Natasha she was calling herself Natalie and doing something so classified and illegal I still don’t know what it was. It was Budapest, I was travelling with a circus, she took a gun to my head and I think I tried to strangle her. I woke up in the morning to find she’d stolen my underwear but left the number of her burner phone on my right forearm.

“Now it’s years later and we run a cafe together and I still sometimes daydream about strangling her, but I’m glad you’re all here tonight even if none of us will remember this tomorrow because for some reason we’re letting Tony Stark mix the cocktails.”

Everyone claps him as he somehow manages to get off the counter without injuring himself, stumbling into...

“Hi, Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria,” Clint manages, as she grabs his arm to steady him. “I didn’t know you were here, that’s awesome.”

Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria rolls her eyes, but they don’t all call her that for nothing. “Happy Anniversary,” she says, before pushing him backwards into Nat’s arms.

“Hey, Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria,” Nat says brightly, dragging Clint away with her to where Bruce is slumped in a chair with Peggy and Darcy in his lap. Since Bruce only met Darcy a couple of hours ago, this is a sign of the fact he’s really too awesome to exist.

“That is not the story you told last year,” Darcy tells Clint.

“No,” he agrees, accepting another glass of champagne from Steve, who thinks he isn’t drinking tonight, but Clint’s been watching Tony and Pepper spiking his drinks for the last few hours so someone had better be around to scrape him off the floor later.

“So is it more true or less true than last year?” Jane asks.

“You tell me,” Clint replies.

“Didn’t last year’s have sharks in it?” Peggy frowns.

Natasha’s drunk enough for giggling, and she presses her face into Clint’s shoulder. “You’re no help,” he tells her.

“Last year’s did have sharks in it,” she agrees. “I don’t know if that makes it better or worse than this year’s story. I didn’t give you a burner phone number. I just accidentally put that cell in with my laundry.”

“Don’t ruin the mystery,” Clint tells her, downing half the glass in one swallow. “Otherwise how will I come up with something cool for next year?”

Nat rolls her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll manage.”

=

The next day is... unpleasant.

Clint wakes up in his own bed with Natasha on one side and Bruce on the other and no recollection of anything that went on after Tony’s third round of Winter Soldiers. Clint has no idea what he put in them, but judging from the soupy state of his brain it was probably liquid cocaine. Tony is not coming to any of their parties ever again.

“I think I’m dying,” he informs the ceiling.

“Suck it up,” Natasha replies croakily. “You didn’t even have any of those things Stark was calling a Hawkeye. Nothing should be that shade of purple.”

“I did drink a shitload of Black Widows though,” Clint protests. “The ones that were like eight types of vodka including one kind I think Tony brewed himself in a bathtub.”

Natasha groans softly and then shifts, making the mattress sway alarmingly.

“Oh God,” Clint says as a thought occurs to him, “oh God, what if Steve has alcohol poisoning? What if we killed Steve? Oh God.”

“I will kill you both if you don’t shut up,” comes Bruce’s voice, muffled by the pillow he’s apparently trying to suffocate himself in. “Peggy probably got Steve home.”

“The last I saw of her she was making out with Phil. Or maybe Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria. Or maybe both of them,” Natasha responds.

“No,” Clint says. “No, my brain cannot do that. No.”

“I mean it, I will kill you both and then blame Stark’s devil cocktails,” Bruce insists. “Go back to sleep or go away.”

The cafe is closed since no one was optimistic enough to think they could work today, but Clint can’t bear to think of what state the place must be in. He’s not brave enough to go downstairs until someone’s cleaned up the worst of the broken glass and the unconscious partygoers.

Natasha slowly gets herself upright and out of the bed – she was always terrible at lie-ins – while Clint drags more of the covers over his head.

“Do not steal my yoga pants,” he warns her.

“I can’t hear you over the sound of how comfy your yoga pants are going to be,” she responds flatly, and a couple of minutes later pads from the room.

She comes back very quickly. “Steve’s naked in your bathtub,” she informs him.

Clint can’t process that properly, but in any case he’s not going to be able to get out of bed to see. “Take a photo for later,” he responds, and drifts back into sleep.

=

It’s good having Bruce back; he’s mostly staying in Nat’s apartment (“on the couch” she tells Clint pointedly, which is annoying because Clint’s damn well invested in this now, actually) and at some point is going to have to talk someone into giving him and his genius brain a job, but for now he seems happy enough helping out in the cafe, flirting with their regulars and cooking the handful of dishes he learned to make in India.

Pru adores Bruce, because everyone loves Bruce; Thor brings her in looking like he hasn’t slept in about three days, rocking the grizzling baby in his arms. Within a minute of being handed over to Bruce, Pru calms down to hiccups and then falls happily asleep.

“I think you might be magical,” Thor tells Bruce earnestly, while Clint brings over a jug of coffee and a mug and leaves them both next to Thor.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Bruce responds, letting her wrap little fingers around one of his.

That’s the thing about Bruce; he might be an awkward scientist with a bitter twist to his smile, but everyone in the world loves him. It would be impossible not to.

It’s just as well they have Bruce and his awesome baby skills to distract them all, because Thor is currently acting like he’s never met Steve in his life, and it’s making Steve look like a wounded puppy. His sad face is actually horrible to look at; the first time Tony sees it he offers to build Steve his own art gallery if that would make it stop. Clint is pretty sure that Tony is a lot of the problem, but he’s not sure how to explain the situation to everybody in a way that isn’t going to lead to hurt feelings, possible relapses or confessions of emotions that nobody wants to talk about yet.

“Did I miss the memo about this place turning into a soap opera?” he asks Peggy, who is what passes for sane in this place.

“It came while you were moping about Loki,” she responds, and then skips off to take an order before Clint can chew her out for it.

Clint isn’t moping, okay, there’s nothing to mope about. Loki is totally within his rights to get a box of green tea from the supermarket or whatever and save a fortune in hanging out at their cafe, it’s totally okay for him to not come in for over a week. Clint doesn’t care, the guy’s obnoxious and clearly emotionally damaged as all fuck, he doesn’t miss him or anything, there was just a certain level of expectation that got raised or whatever, anyway, it doesn’t matter. At all.

“I wanted to meet your psycho boytoy,” Bruce complains during Irresponsible Friday Cocktails, while they all have a picnic based on food Darcy stole from her workplace. Clint’s not sure Darcy’s plan to take Starbucks down from the inside isn’t just a plan to get as much free shit at possible, but he’s not going to point this out.

“Loki’s nobody’s plaything,” Nat responds, “and he’s definitely not Clint’s.”

“I hate all of you,” Clint announces, and he isn’t sulking, nope, not even slightly.

=

The cafe is nice when there are no people in it, when it’s just Clint and the radio on low and the half-light as he cleans the floor and wipes down the tables. Some nights it’s more fun with the others, but it takes a lot longer and lacks the peace of Clint on his own in this place he’s helped to create.

When someone knocks on the door he assumes it’s Peggy forgetting her purse again or something, but it isn’t.

Loki looks more exhausted than ever, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his slacks. “Natasha says you miss me,” he says, flat.

“Natasha’s a fucking gossip,” Clint responds, but he steps back and waits until Loki realises it’s an invitation to come inside. “And how did she even find you?”

“She spammed the messageboards of my website,” Loki tells him. “I’ve had to give her a lifetime ban, of course.”

Clint bites down a smile, because that’s his girl all over.

“You need to take better care of yourself,” he says instead, gesturing to where he’s got a plate of half-eaten leftover cheesecake on the go. “Doesn’t your brother feed you?”

“He tries,” Loki responds, mouth halfway between a smile and a scowl, “he has a few other things on his mind.”

Clint walks over and perches on one of the counter stools, picking up a fork. “Come on,” he says, and gestures.

Loki rolls his eyes but comes and sits on the stool beside him, reluctantly picking up another fork. “This motherly attitude you have is unnerving,” he tells Clint.

“It’s cheesecake, Loki, not a goddamn proposal,” Clint replies, and glares at him until Loki obediently starts eating.

Steve makes a mean cheesecake, even if Clint says so himself, and he’s always secretly glad when there’s some left over. Loki, for all his whining, is clearly enjoying it too, though he glares whenever Clint tries an I told you so expression. It’s almost nice, if by nice you mean ‘kind of awkward but at least not actively hostile’, which is frankly how most things in Clint’s life have gone.

It’s still unexpected when Loki slides from his stool to stand between Clint’s thighs, the corner of his mouth flicking into a smirk at the way Clint’s eyes widen before he curves a hand under Clint’s jaw and kisses him.

Clint’s body gets with the programme before his brain does, hands falling to Loki’s hips to pull him closer, lips opening at the first swipe of his tongue. Loki tastes like cheesecake – of course – and his mouth is warm, inviting, teeth tugging teasingly at Clint’s lower lip. Clint moves a hand to tangle it in the back of Loki’s dark hair, bracketing Loki’s waist with his knees, sucking his tongue until he feels the way it makes Loki shudder. He has no idea if Loki was planning this or if it’s as much of an accident as it feels, and maybe if they’d just managed this weeks ago it would all have been a lot easier.

Loki’s mouth shines in the half-light when they pull apart to breathe, eyes glittering and dark, and his fingers are shaky against Clint’s skin when he whispers: “you want to fuck me, right?”

The words slice through Clint and his response is a handful of ragged kisses that he presses to the warm wet curve of Loki’s mouth, fingers clenched too tight in his hair. If Loki wants anything more coherent from him then he isn’t going to get it, but he thinks he probably gets the picture.

=

It’s just as well that Clint lives above the cafe because just getting Loki upstairs was sheer torture; they both nearly fell down the stairwell when Clint was exploring which parts of Loki’s jawline were most sensitive when scraped with teeth and wouldn’t that make for an awkward ER visit.

Loki is impatient, all warm shifting skin under his hands when Clint finally manages to wrestle him out of his sweater and button-down – seriously, the guy needs to invest in t-shirts – but he makes delicious little noises when Clint maps his skin with his mouth, stinging bites and swipes of his tongue that don’t so much soothe as tease. Clint’s as good as anyone at hurried, frantic fucking – he and Nat practically made an artform of swift but mutually beneficial orgasms in bathroom stalls – but if he’s got the time and the bed then he’s damn well going to be thorough, no matter how many times Loki digs insistent nails into his hips.

“Are you always this frustrating?” Loki demands when Clint’s placing a line of wet kisses down his stomach, stopping occasionally to blow over them just to make Loki shudder.

“I haven’t even started,” Clint responds, digging his thumb into one hipbone until Loki wriggles, spilling a gasp.

“No wonder Natasha broke up with you,” Loki snips, and Clint decides that his task for the night is to find out what it takes to make Loki stop bitching.

It’s not until he’s managed to strip them both naked and Loki is writhing against him in a way that’s both really, really hot and also clearly screaming get the fuck on with it, Barton, that Clint has a sudden moment’s worry that he no longer owns condoms and lube, what with the way most of his friends get laid more often than he does and help themselves to pretty much all his belongings.

When he turns back from his luckily successful hunt in his nightstand drawer, he finds Loki’s rolled onto his knees like he thinks that’s going to encourage Clint to hurry up. Clint likes to take his time, get his moment right, and anyway the more insistent Loki gets the slower Clint wants to take this. Possibly the amount of satisfaction he gets from winding Loki up isn’t healthy, but the curve of Loki’s spine and the swell of his ass deserve his full attention.

“Clint-” Loki begins, voice cracking, as Clint crawls over him and pushes him down into the sheets, pressing the lightest of kisses to the nape of his neck. “What-”

“Shut up,” Clint responds, mouth against Loki’s spine, “and maybe you’ll actually enjoy yourself at some point.”

“Is that a threat,” Loki says, breathless, and Clint doesn’t dignify that with the yes that is his answer.

He kisses his way down Loki’s back, hands braced on his hips to stop him squirming, listening to the way Loki’s breathing tightens the lower he gets. He’s quiet, though, and Clint allows himself the briefest smirk of satisfaction before nips an ass cheek, spreading Loki open with his thumbs.

Loki makes a strangled sound when Clint touches the tip of his tongue to his entrance, teasing him with tiny barely-there licks before he relents and presses his tongue inside him. Loki’s voice breaks on his name, startled and wanting, and Clint hums a little, licking deeper into him. He knows he’s good with his mouth – you don’t escape from sex with Natasha if you’re not – and the little helpless sounds Loki’s spilling into the sheets are delicious, gratifying. Loki’s thighs shake when Clint slides a finger in alongside his tongue, pressing deeper until Loki growls a mangled expletive, bucking against him. Clint likes him like this; likes taking him apart so that he can’t hide behind that blank and superior expression anymore.

For all his determination to take his time, Clint’s cock is aching, demanding attention, as he scissors two fingers into Loki so that he can lick between them, opening him torturously slowly. He grinds his hips into the sheets, searching for something like relief, humming into Loki again to make him shudder, push back into his fingers and tongue.

He knows he’s broken him when Loki starts mumbling please, raw-voiced, trying to clench around him and get more. Clint eases his fingers out, shifting back, allowing Loki to tumble into a shivering heap on the mattress. He slides the condom on and lubes it, dragging his fist slowly over his cock, aware of Loki watching him with sharp, hungry eyes.

“Do you-” he begins, picking up the tube, but Loki shakes his head.

“Do not drag this out any longer, Barton,” he says, but his voice is too desperate to be bitchy anymore.

Clint pushes him onto his back – Loki’s eyes widen momentarily but that’s not something Clint’s going to deal with right now – and kneels between his spread thighs, taking a couple of slow breaths before he presses his cock to Loki’s entrance. Loki catches his lower lip between his teeth as Clint begins to push inside, slow, slow, forcing himself to keep breathing and not just slam inside, not just fuck him hard and deep until Loki’s begging him to let him come. He buries his face in Loki’s throat, bracing shaky hands against the mattress, waiting for Loki’s body to adjust around him.

“Fuck me,” Loki hisses into his hair, hips shifting restlessly, trying to gain leverage that this angle can’t give him, and Clint feels the words deep in his stomach. He shifts, pressing Loki’s thighs into his chest as he changes angle, drawing out slowly so that he can shove back in, faster than Loki’s expecting, fast enough to make him shudder all over. Clint doesn’t give him time to get used to it, building up a frantic, determined rhythm that steals all the breath from his lungs, managing to find the angle that makes Loki let out desperate moans, nails clawing Clint’s back and hips, demanding, too breathless to voice what he needs aloud. Loki’s fingers dig into one of Clint’s ass cheeks, trying to pull him deeper, and Clint bites into his shoulder.

They’ll both be bruised tomorrow, bruised and sore, and Clint doesn’t give a shit, working a hand between their bodies to wrap it around Loki’s cock, jerking it mercilessly fast in time with his thrusts. Loki is hissing, swearing, inarticulate and needy, and it doesn’t take much to make him come, clenching so tight around Clint it’s hard to fuck him through his orgasm. Clint keeps moving though, fucking slowly into Loki’s suddenly-lax body, watching the shudders of aftershocks rippling under his skin, his flushed cheeks and bitten-red mouth.

He’s gorgeous is the last thought he has before he comes, his face pressing into Loki’s sweaty throat as he shivers through it, Loki’s fingers clenched in the back of his damp hair.

It takes a moment before he can pull out, tugging off the condom and chucking it blindly into his trashcan.

“Fucking hell,” he manages.

Loki scrapes together a smile. “Quite.”

Clint lies and stares at his ceiling until he gets his breath back and his heart isn’t pounding in his chest, and then he mumbles bathroom and rolls off the mattress, legs shaking and the air cold against his skin.

He’s splashing cold water against his face when he hears the front door slam. He turns it off and stands in the silence for a moment, bracing his hands against the sink.

“Son of a bitch.”

=

Chapter Text

It’s somewhere around two-thirty a.m. when Tony Stark turns up in yoga pants and holding pizza that Clint feels someone should possibly do some explaining.

“I came to join your pity party,” Tony says, handing Clint the stack of boxes. “The invitation didn’t specify a dress code, but I figured it was gonna be pretty casual. I’ve got a tux in the car though, you know, Pep likes me to turn up to places appropriately dressed.”

Clint steps back and allows Tony into his apartment, and then turns to glare at the sprawl of people lying about on his couch and floor.

“I sent one cryptic text to Nat,” he says. “Why are you all here?”

“I’m always here,” Phil points out, while Darcy makes grabby hands for the pizza beside him. Clint sighs and starts handing out boxes. Tony goes to sit on the floor next to Pepper, taking her coffee out of her hands and sipping it. “Remember that time you and Nat were having a go at regular-people dating?”

Nat’s smirk speaks of a hundred nights of abandoning each other in motel sheets, of missed phonecalls and bitten shoulders and screaming obscenities in the middle of the sidewalk.

“You do have a type,” Bruce agrees, because Bruce is a terrible person who Clint has never liked. “I mean, you must have noticed that you’re attracted to emotionally distant people with a handful of undiagnosed personality disorders.”

“Nat’s were diagnosed!” Clint protests.

“Eventually,” Phil mutters into his coffee.

Clint is not going to win this, he can just feel it.

“Tony’s the expert on one night stands,” Pepper points out; Tony’s grimace is almost too fast for Clint to catch, streaking across his mouth before he bites into a slice of pizza to hide it.

“I’m here because I love being around for all your emotional car-crashes,” Darcy cuts in cheerfully. “I’m thinking of making a scrapbook.”

“Fine,” Clint sighs, sinking to sit on his coffee table because there’s nowhere else to sit; Peggy’s even gone and gotten the step-stool out of his bathroom. “Of course. Why don’t we call Thor and see if he and Pru want to come over? At least then Steve might get laid tonight too.”

“Hey,” Peggy cuts in defensively, while Steve turns his sad, wide I’m trying to be supportive during your time of emotional crisis eyes on Clint.

Clint doesn’t want to apologise; it’s his pity party and he’ll be an asshole if he wants to.

“Have some pizza,” Bruce suggests serenely, passing Clint a box.

There aren’t a whole lot of options; Clint acquiesces with the last shreds of his dignity.

=

Pepper brought a flipchart and marker pens in a variety of colours. Clint is watching between his fingers while his friends make horrific suggestions.

“Why do you even have these things to hand?” he interrupts.

“Pep gives most of my business presentations when I’m indisposed,” Tony says. Pepper’s fingers tighten around the marker she’s holding, but it’s momentary and a second later it’s like it never happened.

“Exhibit A: hickey,” Peggy suggests. She’s gravitated to mostly sitting on top of Phil, but Clint isn’t asking because he kind of doesn’t want to know the answer. “That suggests a level of commitment.”

Pepper nods and adds hickey to the spider diagram she’s drawing.

“Do I have a hickey?” Clint asks quietly. Nat nods, and pats his knee in a fashion that Clint isn’t stupid enough to think is sympathetic.

“Was the sex any good?” Pepper asks the room at large.

“Yes!” Clint says much too loudly.

Everyone turns to look at Natasha. It’s kind of horrific.

She rolls her eyes and looks put-upon before allowing: “yes, Clint is much better at sex than at making coffee.”

Tony’s expression turns thoughtful and maybe a little predatory. It’s not that Tony isn’t hot and he admittedly has so much charisma that it’s actually alarming, but he’s still a mistake Clint would really rather not make, especially if Tony’s trying to turn his life around.

“Queen of compliments,” Clint mumbles, sliding down in his seat. It’s nearly four a.m. and Darcy’s fallen asleep with her head in Steve’s lap, while Steve is dozing on Bruce’s shoulder. It would be sweet, if not for the fact they all invaded Clint’s house in the middle of the night to ask really awkward questions about sex with Loki and so he isn’t feeling exactly affectionate towards any of them right now.

“Was anyone drunk?” Tony asks. “Because that leads to all kinds of fun. Also, what kind of pity party doesn’t come with strippers?”

“Steve looks the best naked out of everyone in here,” Natasha provides.

She still has a photo of Steve naked and asleep in Clint’s bathtub, so Clint kind of can’t help but agree. Darcy has that picture as her iPhone background, but what Steve doesn’t know can’t hurt him.

“Well,” Tony says after everyone’s spent a while looking thoughtfully at Steve’s slumbering form, “that would be like forcing a very sad household pet to undress.”

Clint can’t figure out if he’s relieved or depressed that his friends can’t even focus on his problems for more than five minutes at a time, and then wonders if he’s ever going to be allowed to sleep tonight.

=

This month, Natasha’s book club is supposedly reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. She’s sitting at the counter sipping a green tea and frowning a little at the page, while Clint and Bruce deal with the actual customers. Clint kind of wishes they had fewer regulars who kind of know them by now, because the number of people still staring at his goddamn hickey – it’s been nearly a week so it’s kind of a hideous fading green now – and asking awkward questions is kind of ridiculous.

“I think it’s sweet,” Bruce tells him when Clint complains. “I like that people look out for you when I’m away and Phil is too busy doing whatever it is he does all day.”

“You should get a job with Phil,” Clint decides. “And then tell us what you do for a living.”

Bruce considers this, pushing his glasses up his nose with the back of his wrist. “What if I then have to have you killed for knowing?”

Clint shrugs. “If Nat hasn’t killed me by now then no one’s going to.”

Bruce rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. “I will remind you of that, you know.”

They have a calendar peeling its way off the kitchen wall with important things like birthdays and excuses for novelty menu items and Peggy’s Two Weeks In England That No One Is To Move, Okay Natasha, written in bright marker pen. It’s also half-covered in post-its demanding days off, swapped shifts and DON’T MAKE ME WORK THAT SATURDAY I WILL BE HUNGOVER. Clint runs a finger down the next couple of weeks to make sure that there’s nothing unexpected coming up and, oh, hey, Thanksgiving has snuck up on them again.

Natasha’s Russian and Clint doesn’t have a family to be emotionally blackmailed into visiting, so Thanksgiving for them generally involves eating Chinese takeout with Peggy while watching the Macy’s parade and playing a very complex drinking game it’s taken years for them to hammer out the rules out for. They’d include Steve in this, except that Steve gets invited to Thanksgiving dinner by anyone with a family, because Steve is the kind of guy who needs to have Thanksgiving done properly right down to the candied yams.

“Are we doing Thanksgiving cupcakes?” he asks Steve, who’s making pancakes and singing along with the rock n’roll on the radio.

“Natasha’s already put in a request for turkey ones,” Steve responds, sounding disapproving.

Clint rolls his eyes. “Just tell her we’re not on Cupcake Wars and make, like, cranberry ones or something. You can make cranberry cupcakes, right?”

Steve’s a much better person than the rest of them, so he just huffs almost silently instead of demanding get out of my kitchen. Clint obediently trails back into the cafe.

“So, like, Thanksgiving is a thing that is happening,” he tells Bruce.

“Natasha’s made a list of possible cupcake flavours to torment Steve with,” Bruce agrees.

“Nobody tells me anything around here anymore,” Clint mourns, and doesn’t look toward the booth where Loki really, really isn’t.

=

Thor is reading a book to Pru, who is mostly grabbing for the cardboard pages with her tiny fingers and probably not registering anything her dad’s saying at all. It’s kind of sweet watching Thor grapple with a book that only has about six lines in it; he keeps adding asides about how irresponsible the calf is for misplacing its mother in the first place, and Clint swears he hears the word hamburger at one point.

“Is that a lunch order?” he asks, putting a coke in front of Thor.

He gets one of Thor’s ridiculously handsome sheepish smiles in reply, and goes to tell Steve only to find that Steve is standing hidden in the kitchen doorway looking wistful. It’s actually the saddest thing Clint’s seen in a while; somehow when Steve crushes on people it’s all done with a lot more earnestness and innocence than when anyone else Clint knows does it, and Steve doesn’t deserve to look as miserable as this.

“You could... I don’t know, but you could do something,” he says, because he kind of has to, and his pep talks at least beat Nat’s (“put on your big girl panties and get the fuck on with it”).

Steve just takes the order paper from Clint and goes back into the kitchen, where today’s playlist is apparently Any Time Andrew Lloyd Webber Has Ever Written Anything Sad. If it hasn’t stopped by the time Natasha comes in this afternoon Clint is going to insist that they hold an intervention. Steve might have to provide the refreshments, but, still, it’s the thought that counts.

When he gets back into the cafe Peggy is back from sneaking the cigarettes she thinks they don’t know about, leaning on the counter watching Thor let Pru grab at his hair, both of them giggling.

“We should put a poster of them in the window as an advertising campaign,” she tells Clint. “They’re cuter than puppies.”

“Some kind of segue involving sad puppies so we can talk about Steve,” Clint replies flatly, getting himself some chai tea.

Peggy groans and covers her face with her hands. “Can we ask Tony to kidnap them both and lock them in a sushi bar or something? Because Tony looks like he has friendly non-murdery kidnappers on speed dial.”

The number of shady agencies Tony probably has on speed dial should possibly worry Clint, but then he doesn’t hang out with anyone who isn’t vaguely sociopathic apart from, you know, Steve.

It’s around this time Tony wanders out of the kitchen, yawning and wearing a pair of obnoxious expensive sunglasses. Thor’s scowl is, um, kind of lethal.

“How did he even get in?” Clint demands, as Tony drops into a chair and waves vaguely at them in a way Clint has learned means coffee, please. All the coffee. I know you think that at some point I’m going to fatally overdose on caffeine, but I’m not. “Does he live in our walk-in freezer now? Because I feel like that’s one of those things I should know about.”

Thor’s attention is back on his daughter again, but there’s something low and annoyed radiating off him, and Clint feels someone who is preferably not him is going to have to step in sooner or later.

=

When Clint comes in on Thursday afternoon he finds Peggy and Nat sneaking curious looks at a terrifying-looking woman sitting at one of their tables with a blackberry, iPhone, kindle and six thick paper manuscripts on the table in front of her. Her black hair is pulled back severely behind her head and she’s better dressed than anyone who comes in here except maybe Pru. She gives Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria some competition.

“We think she’s here to arrest one of us,” Peggy says in an undertone. “Either that or Steve’s in the witness protection programme.”

That would explain many things, Clint muses, and makes a mental note to ask Steve some awkward questions about that later.

Scary Possible Undercover Police Officer looks up from her blackberry and catches sight of Clint. Her eyes narrow just slightly and she stands up, sweeping all her stuff into a large black bag with an easy grace Clint has never seen on anybody before, and clicks over on expensive-looking stilettos.

“Clint Barton?” she asks.

Clint doesn’t miss the way Peggy and Nat both step back slightly, which means they think he’s about to get tased. Hell, Clint thinks he’s about to get tased.

“Yes?” he says carefully.

“Sif,” she provides, offering him a strong handshake. “I’m looking for Loki Laufeyson.”

“Um.” If this is going to turn out to be a homicide enquiry Clint is going to be seriously pissed. “I have to start my shift?”

“I can cover,” Peggy says sweetly, looking much more cheerful now she’s sure she’s not getting randomly deported or anything.

Nat pushes a cup of coffee into Clint’s hand and gestures at the table Sif just vacated. “Off you go.”

Clint sits down with Sif – who is also British, by the way, is this developing into a thing because someone really should’ve given him a heads-up – and tries a smile until she stares it off his face.

“You’re not going to pull out pictures of Loki hacked to pieces in a ditch, are you?” he asks. “Because we only had sex once and his appendages were in all the right places, I swear.”

Sif huffs out a long-suffering sigh, and says: “I’m his literary agent.”

“Oh.” Clint feels his shoulders sag in relief. “Well, that explains a lot about how Loki gets any of his books finished.”

Something that isn’t a smile but that also is kind of a smile flickers across Sif’s mouth. “I’ve been told he spends a lot of time in here,” she says, “and he’s late turning in his second draft. He’s avoiding my phonecalls and his brother is running interference.”

Clint shrugs. “Well, he doesn’t come in here anymore.”

Sif arches a perfectly-plucked eyebrow. “Because you had sex with him.” When Clint makes what he hopes is a facial expression with some kind of dignity in it, she sighs and says: “well, you seem like less of an arsehole than a lot of the other guys Loki has... been drawn to.”

Clint doesn’t ask. Clint doesn’t ask. Clint doesn’t ask.

“How have you stayed Loki’s agent without killing him?” he asks instead.

Sif gets an expression that Clint’s seen a thousand times on Pepper. “Meditation,” she explains. “Krav Maga. And vodka.”

Clint makes a decision. “You should come back on Friday,” he says.

Sif looks thoughtful, and doesn’t immediately refuse.

=

“No,” Bruce says.

“No,” Peggy says.

“No,” Natasha says.

“It’s tacky to hit on the agent of the writer you’re kind of banging,” Tony announces. “And that’s me saying that.”

“When did you even get here?” Clint asks, whirling around. Tony is wearing a suit and a tired expression and whatever he’s doing that isn’t rehab is starting to take its toll on him. “And I’m not ‘kind of banging’ Loki. There was just... sex. Once.”

“That’s not even the point,” Bruce interrupts. “The point is that Clint has a type, and it is for women who can kick his ass, and it never ends well.”

“Hey!” Clint protests.

Nat rolls her eyes. “Two words: Wanda Maximoff.”

Clint folds his arms defensively. “You never even met her!”

“I didn’t have to,” Nat fires back, “I’ve seen the scarring.”

“Haven’t we all,” Bruce murmurs to himself.

“Look,” Clint says, because he can feel this conversation getting away from him and sooner or later either Peggy or Tony are going to ask to see more of Clint than he’s willing to show them, “all I said was that she was hot and relatively sane for someone who has to run around trying to keep Loki in line. That was all.”

Everyone ignores him. “Who was Wanda Maximoff?” Peggy asks Natasha.

Nat is discreetly but hilariously jealous about Wanda, who was a train-wreck of a relationship that not only ended up with a really awkward public break-up and a broken wrist, but also with Clint sleeping with her twin brother for the next two months. He’s still email friends with Pietro, actually, for which he mentally awards himself many points for being adult and well-adjusted. And, okay, their dad had threatened to come after Clint with a shotgun, but, frankly, it wasn’t the first or last time Clint’s heard that.

Natasha mumbles something involving the words youthful indiscretion, but she’s probably just sulking because Wanda was crazier than Natasha can ever even aspire to be.

“So, women who can kick your ass and men with emotional problems,” Tony muses. “Those are some fun oddly specific categories.”

Oh, Clint knows.

“Do you ever do any actual work?” Peggy asks, chin propped on her hands.

Tony shrugs. “I went to a board meeting this morning that didn’t end with yelling, people putting cigars out on each other, or guys sneaking in vodka in water bottles.” When they all look at him he adds: “that was never me, okay, I don’t go in for hiding stuff. Obadiah on the other hand, wow, no open flames near that guy. Never accept Evian from him.”

Bruce is frowning. “How is Stark Industries still in business?”

Tony just grins his predatory smile. “Baby, you’ve met me, right?”

=

The phone starts ringing on Wednesday afternoon. Natasha is delivering stacks of waffles to a group of students who look like they’ve just rolled out of bed, while Steve is sitting in an empty booth lost in his sketchbook, an array of pencils spread across the table.

Proper people would probably have a professional-sounding greeting for their business, but Natasha and Clint have never managed to get anything beyond: “hey.”

“Loki is here!” Darcy hisses into his ear.

Clint has an array of emotions at those three words, several of which are kind of embarrassing, and he quickly turns his back just in case any of them have leaked onto his face.

“Shouldn’t you be working?” he asks.

“Dude, this is totally more important,” Darcy responds dismissively. “Loki is here! Drinking our green tea!”

It’s... good to know Loki isn’t dead in a ditch somewhere. Clint decides to stick with that thought because it’s the only one he can make sense of right now.

“Do you want to come over?” Darcy asks. “Like, he’s got his laptop and looks all distressed so he’s probably here for the rest of the day.”

“I... am not going to stalk him,” Clint decides. “Because I’m not actually that desperate and the sex was not actually that great.”

“The sex was awesome,” Darcy corrects him. “You were bruised everywhere for ages and also? Peter talks.”

Clint really needs to not sleep with Darcy’s colleagues. He’ll have to leave himself a memo.

“I’m not coming over to see Loki drinking Starbucks tea,” Clint tells her firmly. “Just text me a photo and go back to... whatever it is you do all day.”

“We’re building a suspension bridge out of coffee stirrers and sugar packets,” Darcy informs him. “It’s epic. Are you sure you don’t want me to set Peter on Loki? I know he looks all weedy but he’s got a mean right hook.”

“No,” Clint says firmly. “And tell Peter to maybe get some therapy.”

“I could spit in his next cup of tea?” Darcy offers.

Clint is tempted, but also not as emotionally immature as everyone apparently seems to think he is. “No,” he says. “Just leave him alone. He doesn’t know you know who he is.”

“Boo,” Darcy complains, and hangs up on him.

For a moment, Clint just stands and breathes and thinks. And then he gets out his phone and texts Sif to tell her where Loki will be for the rest of the afternoon, because he’s not that good a person.

=

Periodically, Clint worries about Steve. Despite the fact Steve is an adult with his own apartment and a steady job and a decent credit rating there’s kind of a lot of stuff to worry about when it comes to him; Peggy, Clint, Nat and Pepper divided it all into categories so nobody would go mad. Originally, Clint picked the Steve is a lonely orphan with no family slip out of the hat, but Peggy made him swap because that was kind of a bit too close to home. Instead, he gets to worry about Steve’s career for him.

Steve is a really good cook, and he does things with cupcakes that should probably be illegal, and if he wants a career in cookery then he could probably do a lot better than their slightly weird little cafe. But the thing is that Steve is an artist, a good one, and he’s probably giving up a lot of chances to burn bacon and flip pancakes and put up with them staggering around hungover on Saturdays.

In the lull between breakfast and brunch Clint goes to sit on top of their dishwasher and watch Steve getting the hollandaise ready for Eggs Benedict.

“Are you... happy here?” he asks, because he and Natasha totally watched a handful of youtube videos on being supportive management or something.

Steve looks confused. “I am,” he says, carefully, like he knows there are going to be follow-up questions and he won’t like them.

“Because, you know, we love you and you’re amazing, but... I mean, you’re an artist, Steve, not a cook.”

Something rueful twists Steve’s mouth. “Being an artist doesn’t pay the bills,” he points out.

“I’m sure Tony would give you an art grant if you drew him like one of your French girls,” Clint offers.

He gets a blank look in return. Steve’s not always that good at pop culture references, but Clint has no idea how Steve got away without being forcibly shown Titantic by Phil; nobody else did.

“Well,” he says, “looks like we’ll be reinstating Movie Night.”

Steve is the nicest, most easy-going guy Clint has ever met – which admittedly isn’t saying much since most of the people Clint knows are assholes, but really, Steve is basically a saint – but even he can’t keep a pained look off his face.

“You showed me Star Wars every other day for a month,” Steve reminds him.

Clint had actually forgotten that; when they first met Steve he was even worse at pop culture references than he is now, and communicating with him was therefore kind of difficult because he has the most heart-wrenching confused puppy face in the world. What was meant to be a well-thought-out plan to expose Steve to famous movies mostly degenerated into a lot of re-watching Star Wars and then a drunken night where they were all supposed to watch Lord of the Rings but which actually ended in them passing out and waking up hours later to find Steve crying at The Return of the King.

“Maybe we’ll do John Hughes movies this time,” Clint muses. “I think you’d like The Breakfast Club.”

Steve doesn’t look reassured, but then he is kind of surrounded by crazy people most of the time.

“Seriously,” Clint adds, because this conversation has kind of gotten away from him, “I’m not saying you’d be easily replaceable or anything, but... your art is important, and we haven’t forgotten that. I just kind of hope you haven’t.”

Steve’s expression slides into something touched, but before he can reply Nat sticks her head around the door and says: “get in here and make mimosas already” and Clint has to leave him to the radio and brunch foods and whatever it is Steve thinks about when he’s alone.

=

Pepper looks even more tired than Tony does these days, though her clothes, hair and make-up are perfect. It’s kind of weird; Clint isn’t sure he’s ever seen Pepper exhausted before, not like this, not like she might sit down and not want to get back up again.

“You look worse than when Stark’s being photographed falling out of clubs,” Natasha observes, while Clint goes to make six cups of coffee.

“At least then I’ve got a vague idea of what’s going on in his head,” Pepper sighs.

Clint frowns. “I thought you wanted Tony to...” he waves a hand, because he’s not exactly sure how many of Tony’s problems require actual treatment.

“In a controlled environment with a programme picked out by people who know what they’re doing, yes,” Pepper responds, and lets her expression tell them just how she feels about Tony trying to go this alone.

“He should get a therapist,” Natasha announces. “Clint and I did actually therapy.”

Pepper’s smile finally flickers to something real. “Couple’s therapy?”

“Even we’re not that sadistic,” Clint says. “Although my therapist did spend most of the time telling me to break up with Nat because she was responsible for about a third of the things he was supposedly treating me for.”

“I didn’t kill your family,” Natasha says neutrally, putting bagels into a bag.

There are an assortment of ways Clint could reply to that, but he settles for shrugging and saying: “you did push me through a closed window once.”

“It says a lot that you haven’t burned this place down,” Pepper tells them. “Maybe I should get you a gold star chart like Tony has for days when he hasn’t exploded his workshop.”

“Your job is the most fun,” Clint remarks.

Pepper’s smile is a little twisted at the edges. “It has its moments.”

=

This year, Steve has gone with Darcy and Jane for thanksgiving, Bruce is visiting his aunt and uncle (who did some masterful but we haven’t seen you for years and also you moved to India emotional manipulation) and Tony is apparently doing something that isn’t going to be self-destructive because Pepper’s supervising, which means it’s just Clint, Nat and Peggy hanging around the cafe. They’ve opened up for a few hours mostly to give people who aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving somewhere to go, or people who are celebrating Thanksgiving somewhere that isn’t filled with crazy people trying to cook a turkey that hasn’t defrosted properly.

Thanksgiving usually involves a lot of vodka cranberries, since they’re the most palatable drinks you can make out of thanksgiving flavours (Tony offered to design them something, but Clint has learned his lesson about Stark-invented cocktails, and they’d kind of like their customers not to die of alcohol poisoning until they’re at least a mile away from the premises). Clint’s maybe a little tipsy, but it’s not like he can get fired, and his hands remain steady for a really long time after the rest of him’s gone offline so nobody’s going to get scalded or anything.

My mom has made pie for everybody, Phil informs him via text. And I mean everybody. I don’t even know how I’m going to fit all these boxes in my car.

This is why I’m going to marry your mom, Clint replies.

Over my dead body, Phil says.

Dude, your mom loves me, you can’t fight fate, Clint tells him. Did she make me pumpkin pecan again?

Peggy delivers him another vodka cranberry and then goes to deal with a college student in the corner who apparently couldn’t afford flights home and is now basically sitting here and crying. He’s almost definitely underage, but Nat has been discreetly plying him with alcohol anyway, because that’s what Nat calls sympathy.

She did, Phil allows. But that doesn’t mean I won’t eat it on the drive back.

I will tell your mom you ate my pie, Clint says, and then she won’t knit you a mom sweater for Christmas.

My mom can’t knit, you’re the one who makes the Christmas mom sweaters, Phil replies.

This is sadly true, although not something Clint publicises. Knitting keeps your fingers nimble and provides you with warm shit to wear in the winter when your heating gets cut off again, but for some reason people mostly laugh when they find out it’s one of Clint’s hobbies.

Well, you’re not getting a mom sweater this year unless my pie makes it back intact, Clint assures him.

“Just so you know,” Nat says, “Loki is pretending he’s not hanging around opposite working out whether or not to come in. Because, well, that’s still a thing.”

“It is not still a thing,” Clint protests, but downs the vodka cranberry anyway. It’s mostly vodka by this point, because Natasha is his girl for a reason, and he manfully manages not to choke.

“It’s still a thing,” Nat says flatly.

A couple of their regulars are in today and they’re nodding, because apparently everyone hates Clint now.

“You can’t have sex with him in your apartment,” Peggy says quickly, looking up from where she’s got an arm around the hysterical student whose name Clint can’t remember, “we’ve got pie and gin up there and I’m coming in to get it whether you’re shagging on the kitchen sideboard or not.”

“His cupboards are in the wrong place for that,” Nat shrugs, and goes to get some green tea.

Clint mostly feels outnumbered.

=

Loki has his netbook and his hair is still stupid and he looks ridiculously tired and Clint still wants to bite a lot of him.

“I guess you found out Starbucks is shut on Thanksgiving,” Clint shrugs, trying not to sound as bitchy as he wants to because he is not a child and he is totally not as pissed off about the being-used-for-sex thing as everyone seems to think he is.

Loki blinks. “Are you stalking me?” he asks.

“Yes,” Clint deadpans, “because I have literally nothing better to do than wander coffee shops looking for you.”

“Well, you never seem to get much work done around here,” Loki sniffs, and Clint is suddenly aware that Peggy is filming this entire thing on her camera phone for everyone else’s benefit and there is nothing he can do about it.

“I’ll get your green tea,” he grits out.

Nat is sitting at the counter reading The Girl Who Played With Fire and pretending not to watch. The teapot, a clean cup and a vodka cranberry are sitting on a tray beside her.

“I make terrible life choices,” Clint tells her.

“I’m aware of that,” Nat agrees, turning a page.

Loki narrows his eyes at the vodka cranberry. “All orders come with one of these free today,” Clint explains. “Happy Thanksgiving and shit.”

“And how many of them have you had?” Loki asks suspiciously.

“Many,” Clint responds. “Lots. Probably not enough. Shouldn’t you be at home with your probably weird British family? I know you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and they called you Loki and all, but still, family.”

“I forgot how obnoxious you can be,” Loki responds. He looks angry, but probably not in a way that’s going to end in physical violence.

“Yeah, ‘cause I’m the more obnoxious one here.”

Loki huffs. “I’m trying to write.”

“Not particularly hard,” Clint points out. “Or Sif wouldn’t be going all Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego on you every few days.”

Loki does not look particularly pleased at this news. “You know Sif now?”

“Still not stalking you,” Clint tells him. “And yeah, I do. Are all literary agents that crazy hot or are you just lucky?”

This doesn’t seem to improve Loki’s mood any. “I’m still trying to write,” he snaps.

Clint rolls his eyes and goes back to the counter.

“This is so hilariously awful I cannot even,” Peggy says delightedly. “I’m texting Steve. Jane’s family are trying to adopt him.”

It’s possible Peggy’s had even more vodka than Clint has by this point. It’s impossible to tell with Nat because Nat is Russian, and so has lead them all to believe that vodka is what they use instead of water over there.

“Has Steve even learned to text back yet?” Clint asks.

Peggy shrugs. “Possibly we shouldn’t have persuaded him that he’d be good at using an iPhone.”

“If you guys want to have hatesex on a table I can start kicking people out,” Natasha says detachedly, still reading her book. “I mean, we don’t have to leave, but it might affect our yelp.com rating.”

“You don’t care about our yelp.com rating,” Clint reminds her, and reaches for the cranberry juice.

He manages to act like nothing’s super weird until Loki needs a tea top-up; Clint drops into the booth and helps himself to Loki’s untouched drink.

“I didn’t put roofies in this, for the record,” he says, sipping it.

“That’s a relief,” Loki responds drily. He looks thoughtful, and then says: “I can’t tell if you’re angry with me or not.”

“That’s because I’m a great actor,” Clint tells him.

“It’s because you’re drunk,” Loki replies.

Clint snorts. “This isn’t drunk. This is miles from drunk.”

Loki quirks an eyebrow that may or may be judgemental. “I shall remember that.”

Clint sighs, sipping some more vodka cranberry. “Conversations with you need fucking flashcards.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Loki responds, snippy enough to make Clint smile.

“You don’t have to avoid here like a loser,” he tells him. “Like, I’m capable of talking to people I’ve had sex with. Loads of them would be on my Christmas card list if I was a person who did Christmas cards.”

Loki rolls his eyes. “I’m aware of this, although I’m not quite ready for you to start wearing my underwear.”

Clint shrugs. “You have no idea what you’re missing.”

A group of people trail in and he’s forced to go and help take orders; he thinks he hears Loki sigh behind him, but he doesn’t look back just in case.

=

Three days after Thanksgiving, Clint wakes up at three a.m. for no logical reason. He lies and stares at the ceiling and then he hears something – kind of like rattling, kind of like screeching – from downstairs.

No one has ever bothered to break into the cafe before and Clint is quietly confident in the fact he could fuck anyone up who tried, so he just pulls on a sweater and his shoes before going downstairs. The cafe is still locked, which can only mean one thing.

“I thought we were getting better at not doing this,” he says as he walks inside, disabling the alarm system. He still has no idea how Tony gets inside without breaking anything or setting off the alarm, but he also knows better than to ask; he won’t get a straight answer.

Tony responds with a bemused sort-of groan; Clint decides not to put the lights on and instead walks over to join him, sitting down on the opposite side of the table.

“I don’t mind, ‘cause you don’t puke anywhere and frankly students posting pictures of you looking wrecked on twitter is kind of like advertising, but I was kind of under the impression you weren’t doing this anymore.”

Clint can’t see Tony properly in the half-light leaking through the blinds from the street outside, but his suit looks a mess and he can barely sit upright, which says everything Clint needs to know.

“Is this at least a Thanksgiving-related relapse?” Clint continues when Tony doesn’t give him anything; it’s weird when Tony is silent. “Because that’s allowed. I mean, I have no one to spend Thanksgiving with either. At least, no one I’m related to. Phil’s mom makes me pie.”

“What kind?” Tony asks.

“Pumpkin pecan,” Clint replies.

“Do you think Phil would rent me his mom?” Tony says. “In a totally legit, non-skeevy way, I mean, Pepper could chaperone and stuff. It would all be very dignified and like Downton but without, like, dead ambassadors and world wars breaking out. Well, without the first part, anyway.”

“Phil will not lend you his mom,” Clint tells him. “But she’ll probably send you pie if you ask nicely.”

“My mom never made pie,” Tony says in a neutral sort of tone, chin propped on his hand.

“I have no idea if mine did,” Clint replies, in the still quiet of the night. Even if Tony remembers this tomorrow, he won’t bring it up.

After a while, Tony says: “you won’t tell Pepper, will you?”

“She’ll know anyway,” Clint replies. “She always does.”

“That’s my girl,” Tony agrees, sounding rueful and proud and bitter all at once.

Clint stands up. “Well, I have a couch upstairs which I think you’ll enjoy a lot more than this booth, so, can you walk?”

“I don’t know if I have legs right now,” Tony admits.

Clint smiles, just slightly. “Come on, Stark, we’ll make better mistakes tomorrow.”

“Amen to that,” Tony murmurs, and lets Clint haul him to his feet.

=

The only noticeable difference to Tony’s life after this is that Pepper starts tailing him; she’s happy to sit in the cafe and make terrifying-sounding phonecalls while Tony hangs out in the kitchen washing dishes and bugging Steve and not being allowed to touch anything that he could make explode. At one point Clint walks into the kitchen to find Steve and Tony sitting side by side on the dishwasher reading Loki’s first novel, which is not okay on a number of levels, only one of which is that nobody’s getting any work done.

“We’re putting in research for your boytoy,” Tony explains.

“I have no idea what’s going on this book,” Steve admits, “but I respect your life choices, Clint.”

“Oh my God,” Clint mutters, and turns to leave.

“I bought copies for everybody!” Tony calls after him.

“Nat is really not running a book club!” Clint responds.

Today, Pepper has managed to distract Tony by shoving a tablet at him, so he’s sitting tapping away frantically at things and drinking his body weight in coffee. It is keeping him still and relatively quiet, though, which is kind of a novelty. It’s not really surprising that Steve’s taken the opportunity to sketch him during his lunch break.

Steve sketches everyone, whether he’s got them as sitting models or not; he’s got books full of their regulars or of Jane asleep on Darcy’s shoulder or of Clint and Natasha bickering while they get the cafe tidied up. He gets very protective of his work, but Clint’s known him long enough to be able to persuade him to hand over his sketchbook from time to time. Clint keeps half an eye on Steve’s progress while he serves their late lunch crowd; Tony captured in spare lines, the frown between his eyebrows, the way his mouth twists when he’s concentrating, eyelashes dark and thick as he squints at something he doesn’t like.

The only person who isn’t enjoying this afternoon is Thor, who is watching this whole thing with an expression bordering on the genuinely distressed. From time to time Steve casts anxious-puppy looks over to where Thor is rocking a sleeping Pru and demolishing a stack of pancakes, but every time he does Thor isn’t looking at him, and it’s all so horribly high school that Clint has given up watching. Peggy keeps making faces at him, but Clint is not going to bang their heads together in the middle of the post lunchtime rush. He is not.

He’s been betting without Nat, of course, who comes sweeping over looking determined and vaguely annoyed, and whips the sketchbook out of Steve’s hands.

“Hey,” Tony says mildly, “I’m being turned into a piece of art here. That’s probably worth millions.”

Steve is luckily shocked enough to not make a grab for the sketchbook until it’s too late and Clint has stepped in between him and Nat.

“Thor,” Natasha says, “I feel that you’ve maybe missed something vital about Steve’s artwork.”

She puts the book on the table in front of Thor.

“No,” Steve chokes hoarsely, pushing at Clint. “No, you can’t-”

Thor turns away from the picture of Tony and rapidly learns what Clint has long-suspected; that the majority of the sketches in this notebook are of Thor. Some of them have both Thor and Pru in them, some of them are Thor laughing or concentrating on his coffee or reading the newspaper or leaning against the counter to pay his bill. There are dozens of them tumbling across the pages, and Steve makes a small, broken noise.

The ball’s in Thor’s court now, of course, and Clint can only hope that Thor isn’t going to be an asshole because he’s never seen Steve embarrassed and heartbroken but he suspects it would be absolutely horrible.

Thor finally looks away from the sketchbook with a stunned and slightly lost expression on his face; Peggy steps in from somewhere and relieves him of Pru.

“Thor,” Steve begins, voice cracking, and Clint gets out of the way, going over to where Tony is watching everything with too much interest. He thinks about it for a moment, and then puts his hand over Tony’s mouth. Just in case.

“I’m not... I’m not a creepy stalker,” Steve is saying earnestly, “I’m really not, I promise, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t-”

“Steve,” Thor says, and Steve’s tall but Thor’s even taller, and Clint is willing to bet that there isn’t anyone in the cafe whose knees don’t go a little weak when he speaks, “Steve, I am going to kiss you now, is that alright?”

Steve’s response is mostly to gape, and Clint can feel Tony struggling not to say anything. What the hell, some people deserve their romance movie moments, and Clint is definitely not grinning in an indulgent way, nope.

“That’s, um, I mean, that’s-” Thor mercifully cuts off Steve’s babbling sooner rather than later, leaning in to press a firm kiss to his mouth. He pulls back a moment later; there’s a blush spreading across Steve’s cheeks but he’s apparently gotten with the programme because he curls a hand in the back of Thor’s hair and pulls him into another kiss, one that’s a lot longer and, considering that it’s Steve, surprisingly dirty.

After a moment, Peggy puts a hand across Pru’s eyes.

=

“What’s Steve like when he’s getting laid?” Clint asks Peggy. Irresponsible Friday Cocktails have migrated upstairs into his apartment since Pepper’s babysitting Tony, Steve is... significantly not here and Darcy’s apparently surviving this week on Red Bull and bubblegum and so needs to be propped against things.

“You won’t find out for a while,” Peggy responds. “Steve is very much about handholding and taking his time and stuff, and Thor is clearly going to have American Idol style auditions for his babysitters before he’ll trust Pru with them.”

“We could just leave Steve unattended in the cafe one night and then shove Thor in his direction,” Natasha murmurs. “That works really well.”

“Be nice to me,” Clint warns her, “or I won’t let you hold your next not-actually-a-book-club in my apartment.”

“What are you doing in here?” Darcy asks. “Are you, like, looking for copies of your sex tape or something?”

“Flash drive in the shoebox under my bed marked Not For Public Consumption,” Clint shrugs. “Come on, we’re more advanced than actual tapes.”

“Jesus,” Bruce murmurs. He’s lying with his head in Nat’s lap and while Nat doesn’t look completely relaxed about this she isn’t pulling away either.

“It was... educational,” Phil pipes up. “And instructional. I had nightmares for weeks.”

“You’ve seen it?” Peggy chokes.

“All movies deserve a premiere,” Nat shrugs.

That actually seems to have killed the conversation, at least until Darcy sleepily muses: “you should email that shit to Loki.”

Nightmares,” Phil repeats, insistent. “I’m pretty sure at least three of the things they did were illegal.”

“How come I haven’t seen this?” Bruce asks, sounding vaguely hurt. “I thought I’d seen all of your weird stuff.”

“Shouldn’t we all see it?” Peggy suggests, stirring an olive in her dirty martini.

Clint tries to picture how that employee meeting would go; it definitely ends with Steve crying and possibly also joining a monastery.

“The file’s encrypted,” Natasha says. “Just in case any of you were getting ideas.”

Bruce huffs out a sigh that may or may not be serious, and Peggy rolls her eyes. Clint makes a mental note to move the flash drive, just in case.

“So,” Darcy says, “odds of Steve and Thor making a sex tape?”

Now that is a mental image, and one Clint can’t shake immediately. Really, though, damn.

“Depressingly low,” Natasha decides. “Which is annoying because it has the potential to go viral if it ever got leaked.”

“It sometimes amazes me that none of you are in prison yet,” Phil remarks. “Just, you know, throwing that out there.”

“You’d never let us go to prison,” Clint tells him.

“You and your Terrifying Co-worker Maria would totally talk us out of any trouble we were in,” Darcy agrees.

Phil sighs. “Well, I’ll bring you the special prison cookies my mom will undoubtedly bake.”

“Your mom is the greatest,” Clint assures him, and reaches for more olives.

=

Clint is trying – admittedly not very hard – to fill in the remaining clues of Peggy’s crossword and not watch Steve and Thor saying goodbye to each other, which currently involves a lot of murmuring and sparkly smiles and the kind of body language that implies they should really have gotten naked about two months ago.

“I need to get laid,” Peggy sighs, pulling the crossword out of Clint’s hands and pointedly looking away.

“I’m pretty sure Thor is, you know, unique,” Clint responds.

“Bucky refuses to believe he’s actually real,” Peggy says, “no matter what I tell him when he calls home to check on us. I can’t wait ‘til he gets back to find that this isn’t a wind-up.”

Clint swallows a laugh and watches Natasha trample all over the cute by pointedly waving a stack of orders until Steve reluctantly presses a kiss to the corner of Thor’s mouth and goes back to the kitchen. Peggy makes an annoyed noise.

“You can’t watch romcoms with her either,” Clint remarks sadly.

Thor, Pru still tied in her ridiculous baby sling, comes over to pay his bill and say goodbye.

“I could babysit if you want the chance to take Steve out for dinner or... something,” Peggy offers, face all innocence but tone absolutely filthy. Thor, of course, either ignores the implications or doesn’t register them at all.

“I’m sure that my brother can be persuaded, thank you, Peggy,” Thor tells her, smiles at them both, and leaves.

“I hope his brother looks like him and is desperately single,” Peggy remarks, and something in Clint’s head goes click very, very loudly.

He knows two pretty strange British guys with weird names who both have brothers. It’s possible that this is all a coincidence, but, really, it won’t be.

“Back in a few,” he says, and heads upstairs.

It doesn’t take long to figure out how to sign up for Loki’s website message boards, and while Clint has no idea how to get Loki’s attention with them he knows that if Nat managed it then he damn well can.

LOKI WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK WHY DIDN’T YOU FUCKING MENTION THAT THOR IS YOUR FUCKING BROTHER as a new discussion topic is probably a good start though.

It takes ten minutes before he gets a: If you could refrain from using language like this on my website...

Clint rolls his eyes, slightly startled to realise that he’s actually angry. IF YOU HAD FUCKING GIVEN ME YOUR FUCKING NUMBER WE WOULDN’T HAVE THIS PROBLEM.

I’m going to have to ban you, you’re aware, Loki tells him. These boards are for my fans to communicate with me and with each other, not for you and your friends to harass me.

You don’t even have Facebook, you loser, Clint replies. Also GET THE HELL OVER HERE, I have yelling to do.

That’s marvellous incentive, Loki snips, but Clint knows he’ll come over anyway.

He doesn’t know if that’s reassuring or not.

=

Chapter Text

“You’re not shouting at me until I’ve had some coffee,” is the first thing Loki says when he walks in.

“You don’t drink coffee,” Clint points out.

“I haven’t slept in three days,” Loki responds. “So I’m going to need a lot of coffee if you want a decent argument.”

“I don’t want an argument,” Clint says. “I want to yell at you while you look appropriately penitent.”

“Well, that isn’t going to happen,” Loki points out, sliding onto one of their stools while Peggy makes him a latte.

Clint sighs, because he knows. It was a nice fantasy that lasted most of the time it took Loki to get over here, though.

“You are so fucking maladjusted,” he mutters, sitting on the stool next to Loki’s and gesturing to Peggy to make him a coffee too.

Loki turns to look at him and arches a bitchy eyebrow.

“Hey,” Clint protests, “my life is nothing but an open book. You’ve met my ex and pretty much all of my friends and I’m sure if I didn’t have dead parents you’d have somehow met them too. I know both your brother and your niece that you never mentioned and you didn’t tell me that or even hint at it. I mean, your brother is dating our cook, for God’s sake.”

Loki merely accepts his coffee from Peggy and looks like he’s on the point of rolling his eyes. “Are you done?” he asks.

“No,” Clint snaps, and only really succeeds in sounding sulky. “No, I am not done, because you are a ridiculous excuse for a person.”

Loki cocks his head to one side. “Well, yes,” he says slowly, “my brother is Thor.”

It explains a lot about Loki, really, because having Thor for your brother has got to sting and possibly drive you more than a little crazy. Clint thinks that he’d probably build up a defensive armour made of something nasty if his brother was capable of making anyone fall in love with him just by smiling.

“It’s annoying that I could learn more about you from your Wikipedia article than from you,” Clint can’t help pointing out.

“I edit my own Wikipedia article,” Loki sniffs.

“Of course you do,” Clint rolls his eyes. “But hypothetically a quick google search would teach me more about you than you have.”

Something annoyed passes across Loki’s face, and he puts down his coffee mug. “Why does it matter?” he demands. Clint tries to find an answer and when he doesn’t reply immediately, Loki sneers a little and adds: “it doesn’t, does it? Why do you care?

It’s not as simple as it could or maybe should be, and before Clint can put something together Loki slides off his stool and walks out.

“Well,” Peggy says, “that was smooth, darling.”

“Don’t,” Clint replies, and goes to hide in the kitchen.

=

“I brought Ben and Jerry’s because you are a high school girl having problems with her first crush,” Phil announces later that afternoon, hanging over a plastic bag full of tubs to Natasha.

“You also brought your terrifying co-worker Maria,” Clint observes.

“Hi, Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria,” Peggy calls across the cafe on her way to the coffee machine.

Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria gets herself comfortable at one of the tables. “Sometimes I just come here to eat brownies and laugh at your life,” she shrugs.

“Don’t say I don’t bring the best presents,” Phil says, and sits down opposite her.

Clint’s about to protest that all of this is grossly unfair when Darcy bursts through the door, sending the windchimes jangling fiercely. “Who saw the Thor-being-Loki’s-Brother thing coming?”

Clint tips his head to one side. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”

Darcy waves a hand. “I told them my aunt is dying again, like I was going to miss this twist.”

He could try telling people that his life doesn’t exist solely to entertain them, but he’s done that already and nobody listened then either.

“Well,” he says, “I’m still at work. So.”

“There are like three customers here who don’t know you,” Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria says, shifting over to make room for Darcy.

Clint turns to see if Nat will offer any support, but she’s reading Oryx and Crake and looking determinedly innocent, which means that she’s texted everyone they know. He wishes he could be like Steve, who is staying in the kitchen making stuff and refusing to talk about any of it, either because he doesn’t want to gossip about his boyfriend, or because he’s awesome and loves Clint. It’s sadly probably the former, but Clint can dream.

“Thor and Loki are related?” Tony demands, banging open the door with Pepper a step behind. “I brought booze.”

“Tony brought alcohol, Phil brought ice cream, Bruce brought Pretty In Pink,” Natasha observes from the counter. “Phil’s right, this is basically a high school sleepover.”

“Can we cast Loki as a bitchy cheerleader?” Tony asks cheerfully, sitting down on the other side of Darcy. “Oh, hi, Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria.”

“None of you are helping,” Clint informs them, going to get the bill for one of their actual proper customers.

“Hey,” Tony shrugs, “if you play your cards right, you could end up as Steve’s brother in law.”

The idea of all the different circumstances that would lead to that happening is, frankly, horrifying, and Clint finally breaks.

“Okay,” he says, and holds out a hand until Tony hands over the whiskey.

=

This morning, Pru is wearing a tiny dress decorated with what appear to be glittery fairies, and Thor looks just a little tired.

“Tough night with her?” Clint asks, going over to put another jug of filter coffee on.

“Not with her, no,” Thor says, softly significant, as he sits down and gets Pru comfortable on his lap.

“Has Loki slept yet?” Clint manages, eternally glad that Nat isn’t here to laugh at his pitiful attempt at casual.

“I might perhaps have dosed his tea with sleeping pills in the early hours of this morning,” Thor replies carefully, “but I am admitting to nothing, of course.”

“Of course,” Clint agrees, and concentrates on watching the coffee drip into the jug, while Thor murmurs softly to Pru behind him and Peggy hums to herself in the kitchen while she flips pancakes. Finally, he pours Thor a mug of fresh coffee, thinks fuck it, and pours himself one too.

“So,” he says, handing it over, “I have a really bad hangover and some kind of romantic feelings for your brother. In amongst the feelings about murdering him, of course.”

Thor studies him for a long moment, and then offers: “I think I would like pancakes for this conversation.”

“You and me both,” Clint sighs, and goes to see if Peggy can make that happen.

Somewhere after Clint handing over seven cups of minutely different coffee for one of the local businesses to a frazzled-looking secretary and Thor demolishing half a plate of pancakes, Clint decides to broach the subject again. He’s not exactly sure what he’s trying to broach, since last night was mostly spent watching unhelpful high school movies in a haze of sugar and alcohol, but Nat did point out that while this is still really entertaining at the moment, it will rapidly just get stupid.

“Does Loki date people?” Clint asks, sitting down and taking Pru into his lap, where she squirms for a moment before settling down to go back to sleep.

“I really don’t want to discuss what you and my brother have been doing,” Thor replies, getting a pinched look around his eyes.

“I’ll sum it up for you as: ‘not dating’,” Clint says. “But, you know, would he?”

Thor takes a long draught of coffee before he says: “you are aware that Loki doesn’t like people, aren’t you?”

“It’s come up... daily,” Clint agrees.

After a moment, Thor twists his mouth and says: “I think my only advice is: ‘on your own head be it’.”

It’s probably the best advice Clint’s gotten so far, and he’ll probably ignore it anyway.

Pru shifts in her sleep and Clint looks down at her. “So,” he says, abruptly switching the subject, “you’re trusting Loki to babysit?”

Thor’s smile is a little rueful. “I may have called Sif to babysit him at the same time.”

“Wise move,” Clint agrees, and reaches for his coffee.

=

What with one thing and another, Christmas has been creeping closer without Clint actually noticing until Peggy starts talking about flying home, Steve starts talking about decorations, Pepper starts talking about contingency plans, and Natasha abruptly realises that they haven’t gotten any shopping done.

Despite being broken up, they still give joint gifts because it’s easier and because they’re both pretty lazy when it comes to this sort of thing. Luckily, everyone lets them get away with it, probably because one present is better than nothing.

This is how they’ve found themselves in line outside Barnes and Noble before they’re even open, clutching venti takeaway cups from Starbucks – Darcy hooked them up for free so it doesn’t count as stabbing their own business in the back or anything – and being generally freezing cold.

“Next year, we’re online shopping in August,” Clint informs Natasha, stamping his feet to try and keep some feeling in them. “Or everyone’s getting soap or something.”

“Next year you can send everyone free copies of Loki’s back catalogue,” Natasha retorts unhelpfully, and Clint shoves her in response.

They actually have a list of who they have to buy shit for – made late last night over takeaway curry, while Bruce laughed at them both because he’s a dick who has a pile of perfectly-wrapped gifts in his closet – and have both decided that over the course of the next year they need to ditch most of the people they know because this is getting stupidly expensive; it’s just as well they don’t have actual families. It’s nearly like being organised, except that it’s a little under a week before Christmas and they’re going to have to fight against thousands of other New Yorkers who’ve also left gift shopping until now. Luckily, Clint and Nat are good with crowds, and have never been above elbowing someone in the face to get their hands on the last thing on the shelf. It’s not a proper shopping trip if there hasn’t been bloodshed, after all.

Clint is arguing hotly for his choice of pornographic bodice-ripper for Peggy while Nat waves her choice in his face when someone behind them says: “Natasha?”

Natasha whips around and an interesting expression flickers across her face; she looks caught, but covers it up with a smile.

“Jan,” she says, handing the book to Clint and stepping forward to exchange a hug with a slight, dark-haired woman bundled up in a dark yellow coat. “Hi!”

The unsettling part of all this is that Clint doesn’t know her. He wasn’t aware that Nat knew people that he didn’t; it’s a little weird.

“Clint,” Natasha says, and her eyes are still a little tight, “this is Janet. Janet, this is Clint.”

“Oh, you’re Clint,” Janet says brightly, holding out a hand to shake. “You have a lovely apartment.”

“Thanks,” Clint replies slowly, taking her hand.

“Sorry,” Janet adds, laughing, “that probably sounded weird. I’m in Natasha’s book club.”

“Right,” Clint nods, while Natasha discreetly clenches her fists. “Well, it’s good to meet you.”

Janet smiles at him, and then reaches into her hand as her phone goes off. “That’ll be my boyfriend; Hank can barely pick out a present for himself, let alone anyone else. I’ll see you after the holidays, Natasha.”

“See you,” Nat echoes, and then turns back to Clint with a grimace.

“You’re actually running a book club,” Clint manages.

Natasha shrugs. “You were the one who said I couldn’t possibly be running one,” she points out, “I just played along.”

This is yet another reason they broke up; Natasha’s mind is a steel trap and even everyday things become cases of bluffs, double-bluffs and red herrings. It keeps things exciting, but it’s also exhausting.

“Why are you holding a book club?” he asks, adding his choice of Peggy’s gift to the basket and slipping Nat’s back onto the shelf while she’s distracted.

“Why not?” Natasha shrugs, looking back down at her list. “What are we getting Steve?”

“Pop-up Karma Sutra?” Clint suggests, and trails after her laugh through the crowds of shoppers.

=

Their Christmas party is the day before Peggy returns to England, which is probably going to result in her missing her flight or at least being banned from it by airport security when she turns up still drunk, but that is at least Peggy’s problem and not Clint’s. Thor and Pru have already left for England, leaving behind a moping Steve who has apparently decided to use tinsel to compensate for his feelings.

“Should we have left Steve, Darcy and the eggnog to decorate?” Clint asks Natasha, looking around the cafe. He wishes he’d brought sunglasses; everything is very sparkly.

Steve made the eggnog this afternoon, and when he wasn’t looking Peggy and Darcy added three bottles of rum to it. Clint is not writing off the possibility that it is now lethal, though it tastes pretty good.

“We should definitely not have allowed them mistletoe,” Peggy observes. “Darcy has put the bloody stuff everywhere.”

Nat gives a one-shoulder shrug. “At least all our friends are hot?”

Clint looks around the room full of their friends and acquaintances – Sif is saying something to Steve that’s making him blush, Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria and Bruce are sampling the frankly terrifying mulled wine Peggy and Nat tried making, while Tony is trying to talk Pepper into dancing with him – and frowns slightly.

“Are we shallow?” he asks Natasha.

“Are you just learning this now?” She grins, sudden and brilliant and honest, before she walks over to rescue Steve from Sif.

“I invited Loki, BTW,” Peggy tells Clint, and then swishes away before Clint can say anything.

Clint takes a sip of the eye-wateringly strong eggnog and reflects that at least Loki probably won’t come.

Steve’s made a whole load of really good Christmas cupcakes, and Clint is eating his third and trying not to watch Jane and Darcy making out under the mistletoe to his left when a voice says: “you are absolutely covered in glitter, did you know?”

Clint looks down to learn that Steve’s idea of Christmas decorations involves a fuckload of edible glitter, and then smiles at Loki.

“Hey,” he says, “you’re about four cups of Steve and Darcy’s possibly murderous eggnog down. Get on that and you won’t even notice I’m glittery.”

“I’m not sure that’s a selling point,” Loki sniffs, but he goes to get himself something to drink anyway.

“It’s a peace offering,” Sif tells Clint, stumbling little on her heels, for the first time looking something other than completely composed. She has a smudge of Peggy’s lipstick on her jaw and her eyes are shining. “I don’t know if you’re completely fluent in Loki yet.”

“Is anyone fluent in Loki?” Clint can’t help asking.

Sif rolls her eyes. “Loki isn’t even fluent in Loki,” she responds, and then giggles as a – admirably sober – Tony Stark pulls her onto their makeshift dancefloor.

“Huh,” Clint says to no one under the cover of Last Christmas, “it’s a Christmas miracle.”

It’s probably not, but it’s pretty awesome anyway.

=

Peggy left about three a.m. in the vague hope she could mainline some espresso and make her eight a.m. flight in a vaguely respectable state, and after that they started losing people as the lateness of the hour and the realisation there’s hardly any time until Christmas started kicking in. Clint shoves his friends into cabs with the understanding they’re responsible for anything that happens in there, be it puking or public indecency charges.

Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria is asleep in one of their booths, but she looks pretty comfortable so Clint leaves her to it, writing his phone number shakily onto her arm so she can call him to let her out, and turns off the lights. The cafe is warm and smells like cinnamon and rum and frosting, and in the faint light of the streetlamps leaking through the blinds it all does look kind of glittery and magical and less like the Grinch threw up everywhere.

When he steps outside to lock up, he finds Loki is sitting on his doorstep, huddled into his coat and scarf.

“It’s fucking freezing,” Clint can’t help saying, and: “were you waiting for me?”

“I don’t know,” Loki admits. “I just... there’s no one at home, I have nowhere to be.”

Clint sits down next to him; the cold instantly seeps through his jeans. “You could have gone home with Thor and Pru.”

Loki shakes his head; his expression is unreadable in the mostly-dark, body language loose from the alcohol. “I can’t,” he says, and his voice breaks a little on the words. “I just... I just can’t.”

Clint leans back against his front door, sighing out a breath that’s visible in the icy air of the very early morning.

“I hope you have a good therapist,” he says at last.

“I’ve had several,” Loki tells him, tipping his head back, and then he laughs, the sound startled.

Clint follows his eyeline to find that either Darcy or Steve stuck a huge sprig of goddamn mistletoe onto his front door.

“Oh, fuck it,” he says, and leans in to kiss Loki.

Loki’s lips are cold but his mouth is warm when it opens against Clint’s. It’s relaxed, messy; both of them are drunk, that much doesn’t even need disclaiming, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling good as Clint bites down on Loki’s lower lip, sucks until Loki makes a broken noise into his mouth.

He pulls away and can’t help grinning. “You thought it was great that I was covered in edible glitter, right?”

“You’re a dick,” Loki says, something almost fond in it, as he swipes the back of his hand over his mouth.

Clint laughs until Loki kisses him again, and he might be losing the feeling in his ass from the cold doorstep but it’s kind of worth it anyway.

=

He doesn’t bother to turn any lights on as he and Loki stumble through his apartment, shedding clothes as they go. Streetlights filter through the blinds, which means they can see just well enough not to get concussion anywhere – which is good, because if sex hasn’t landed Clint in the hospital so far, he’s damned if he’s starting now – although not a whole lot more. Loki’s hands are freezing cold from sitting outside and he spends far too much time streaking them across Clint’s bared skin just to make him jump.

“You’re kind of a horrible person,” Clint tells him, catching Loki’s wrist before he can shove his icy fingers down the front of Clint’s jeans.

“Well, the role of not disappointing son was already taken,” Loki snips, and then looks a little startled, like that was more than he meant to say.

That eggnog is dangerous.

“I’m not talking about this during sex,” Loki adds swiftly, when Clint opens his mouth, and then adds: “or ever, actually.”

Clint isn’t sure that bottling up all his feelings is helping Loki any, but he’s not quite stupid enough to point that out right now, so he just nods and leans in to kiss Loki again, deep and messy and distracting, while he also unbuttons his pants. Clint is pretty awesome at multitasking, even if he does say so himself.

He could point out that the only person Loki seems to be disappointing these days is himself, but he’s pretty sure Loki would punch him, and anyway, parents are a tricky area. Parents are complicated, and they take time to fix. The little voice in the back of his head that sounds mostly like Nat points out that he’s in way over his head here, and he listens to it for once; there’s nothing he can say or do right now that Loki would believe, and however Loki fucks up what they’re doing right now, at least he isn’t wandering the streets cold and drunk and alone.

“Come on,” he says when he finally has to draw breath, “bedroom. I’m too old for carpet burn.”

“Classy,” Loki muses, apparently mostly to himself, before he adds: “most people manage to have drunken sex without conversation.”

“Then you’re bang out of luck, sweetheart,” Clint warns him, “because being drunk just makes me talkative.”

Loki sighs. “I was afraid you were going to say something like that,” he admits, before adding: “if you call me sweetheart again I will-”

“You like it,” Clint cuts him off, graceless and grinning, dropping down onto his mattress and dragging at Loki until he obediently joins him, all long pale limbs and an interesting jumble of tension and alcohol-induced looseness. “Now stop bitching so we can make out some more.”

Loki huffs but kisses him anyway; Clint considers pulling out the it’s a Christmas miracle line again, but, well, his mouth is kind of busy.

=

“You’re squirming,” Loki complains as he drags Clint’s jeans down over his hips, the last vestiges of cold still clinging to his fingers.

“Are you going to spend the whole time bitching again?” Clint asks him. “Because you’d think sex would help you unwind like it does for normal people, but, no.”

Loki bites his hipbone in response.

“Are you just cranky because I’m not wearing panties today?” Clint frowns. “You liked the panties, right?”

Loki gives him a murderous glare, fingers tangled in the waistband of Clint’s underwear. “They were your ex-girlfriend’s,” he points out.

Clint waits until he’s finished tugging the shorts off before adding: “It’s okay, Loki, I’ll wear panties for you next time.”

Loki huffs in an annoyed sort of way and arches an eyebrow. “Are you done?” he asks.

“For now,” Clint replies, but his smirk cracks a little when Loki wraps a hand around the base of his cock and drags, slow and dirty. Loki’s expression is something like satisfaction before he leans in and teasingly breathes over the head of Clint’s cock, lips pursed and shadows tumbling across his face. Clint curls a hand into the sheets, fighting not to thrust upwards.

“I’m really drunk here,” he points out, “I might fall asleep if nothing happens soon.”

“You are absolutely insufferable,” Loki snips before he leans in and swipes his tongue up the length of Clint’s cock.

“I am,” Clint agrees cheerfully, while Loki explores his cock with lips and tongue and little sucking kisses that make his head spin from something other than the alcohol.

Clint threads his fingers through Loki’s hair, cupping his skull and stroking at the nape of his neck. Loki makes a softly purring sound as he slides his damp lips back up Clint’s cock and takes the head into his mouth. He swirls his tongue around the head, and without even thinking about it Clint’s fingers curl.

Loki backs up immediately. “You just pulled my hair.”

It’s pretty dark in here, but Clint can still see that Loki’s cock is hard against his belly, his cheeks just slightly flushed.

“And you liked it. Who’s the deviant now?”

He gets a twisting slide of Loki’s hand in response, one that leaves him shuddering against the sheets. “It’s almost like you don’t want me to blow you,” Loki muses.

“No, I do,” Clint replies. “I’m mostly impressed; I can’t blow anyone when I’m drunk, I think my mouth goes numb.”

“It’s a pity that doesn’t stop you talking,” Loki muses before leaning back down, and Clint waits until Loki’s mouth is too full to bitch before he tugs his hair again, just slightly. Loki makes the slightest of sounds, but he doesn’t sound entirely unwilling, his free hand gravitating to Clint’s hip.

“See?” Clint begins, and Loki responds by opening his mouth a little wider and leaning down, taking Clint deeper and deeper until his nose is pressed to Clint’s pubic hair and, well, fuck.

“God,” he groans, fighting not to arch upwards in case he chokes Loki, “fuck, okay, you win.”

Loki hums in the back of his throat; it’s hard to tell, but Clint’s pretty sure there’s an edge of smugness in it.

=

“No,” Clint says later, rolling over and sticking on the lamp beside his bed. “No, we just had a lot of drunken sex, you are not running out on me again.”

Loki is flushed, his hair is a mess and sooner or later he’s going to notice that his neck is covered in hickeys, and he looks kind of startled in the sudden burst of light.

“Also, I have no idea where my pants are right now, which means the same pretty much goes for you,” Clint adds, because it’s a valid point.

Loki eases himself back against the pillows, expression kind of apprehensive. “I dread to think what you’re suggesting.”

“I’ve got most of a pan of Nat and Peggy’s attempt at mulled wine in the kitchen, and a DVD of Serendipity,” Clint tells him.

“No,” Loki says.

“It’s Christmas!” Clint replies forcefully. “Therefore we should drink questionable alcohol and watch terrible mushy movies, and maybe make out some more.”

Loki looks doubtful but also less like he’s going to make a break for it; Clint leans over the side of the bed and scrabbles for a pair of pants or something. He’s pretty sure the pair he finds are Nat’s, but they’ll do for now, and he drags them over hips sore from bites and finger marks.

“Do you want popcorn?” he asks.

“Why not,” Loki sighs, looking resigned, and slides off the bed to at least look for his underwear.

Clint chucks a bag of popcorn into the microwave and turns the stove on underneath the mulled wine; it’s slightly better warm, though that’s not really saying much. Still, what the hell, right now his mouth mostly tastes like sex and Loki, so he’s willing to try something else.

He snags Serendipity off the couch on the way past, and returns to the bedroom to find Loki sprawled on the bed looking wonderfully debauched; Clint wants to reach for a camera for a moment, wants to be able to say I did that. He shakes off the emotion before Loki’s expression can turn questioning, handing him the popcorn before he sticks the DVD in the small TV Bruce brought in here at some point. He leaves the previews babbling away while he goes back to the kitchen to fetch two mugs and a pitcher of the warmed-through mulled wine; at least it smells good.

“This is vile,” Loki observes after taking a sip.

“Yep,” Clint agrees, getting under the covers beside him. “I’ve still got a shitload left, so drink up.”

Loki huffs but tries another mouthful before he grabs a handful of popcorn to compensate.

“I have no idea what we’re doing right now,” Loki says about fifteen minutes later. “I mean, this is-”

“Not everything is about punishing you, Loki,” Clint tells him quietly, leaning in to bite his earlobe and then press a kiss to the mark as he digs his hand into the popcorn.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Loki smile.

=

“Wake up,” Natasha orders, ripping the covers away from him and letting in a rush of cold air.

Clint doesn’t have to turn and look to tell that Loki’s gone; of course he’s gone, but at least he waited until Clint fell asleep this time.

“What have I ever done to you, Nat?” he complains into his pillow.

“That is not a list that you would enjoy,” Natasha points out. “Did you drink the rest of that mulled wine?”

“Most of it,” Clint admits. The blinds are open and the room is flooded with winter sunlight; he cracks open an eye, closes it again, and groans. It’s definitely a groan and not a whimper, no matter what Natasha may claim later.

Why?” Natasha asks, and when Clint risks another look she’s holding out a pair of sunglasses. He fumbles them onto his face and then attempts an upright position.

“It was there?” he suggests. “Jesus. Fuck. I think I want to die. And maybe puke up a cinnamon stick.”

Nat sighs in an unsympathetic fashion and chucks a sweater at his head. “We need to return the cafe into something other than the place all tinsel ever went to die. Man up.”

Clint struggles into the sweater, which is an unpleasant experience, and then remembers: “Is Phil’s Terrifying Co-Worker Maria still in there?”

“I just put her in a cab,” Natasha replies. “And yes, Peggy made her plane. I have no idea how.”

Clint nods, and attempts to stand up. He’s inwardly quite impressed when he manages it, but Natasha doesn’t look like she’s going to cover him in the gold stars he clearly deserves.

“Can’t you just kill me and get it over with?” he asks.

“Maybe if you’re really, really good,” Nat replies, something sardonic in her expression. “Come on, I think there’s a bottle of champagne, we can make mimosas for brunch.”

“That’s a terrible idea,” Clint points out, but follows her anyway.

=

Christmas happens, and it sucks kind of less than Clint expected it to, even if Loki point-blank refuses to come over; he and Nat spend most of the day watching Bruce and Steve meticulously cooking things and singing along to Sinatra, and most of the night sprawled on the couch eating roast potatoes. It’s quiet, but it’s awesome, and then before they even really register it it’s over.

The space after Christmas is made up of the weather trying to snow, tetchy sales-shopping customers coming into the cafe laden down with bags, and Loki bringing in a hardcopy of his third draft to check for inconsistencies.

“Have Scoone and Arcola banged yet?” Tony asks, tipping his chair back on two legs and tapping away on his tablet; who knows what Stark Industries gets up to in the post-Christmas lull.

“That’s not what it’s about,” Loki snips, but he’s got a smudge of yellow highlighter on his chin that he hasn’t noticed so no one is going to take him seriously right now.

“No,” Tony agrees, “it’s all about your literary vision and your adverbs and the way you’re using meta within the story to figure out if you’re ripping off Kafka or not, but I want Scoone and Arcola to bang.”

“Me too,” Bruce puts in from where he’s making espresso in Peggy’s absence.

Loki looks expectantly at Clint, who just shrugs. “Don’t ask me, they all bought their own copies. Oh, hey, maybe you should go visit Nat’s book club.”

Pepper chokes her laugh into her chamomile tea.

“I’d prefer not to,” Loki responds with dignity, looking back down at his manuscript.

“They’d eat him alive,” Tony points out, swiping his finger decisively over the tablet.

Loki doesn’t rise to the bait, possibly because he spends so much of his time bickering with Clint that there isn’t time for anyone else, but more likely because Sif wants this book done, and is not above hounding Loki with phonecalls and threats of castration to ensure this.

“Got your lunch, Clint,” Steve calls, emerging from the kitchen.

“Steve,” Tony says, tipping his chair even further back so he can see him; Pepper takes the tablet out of his lap without even looking, “Scoone and Arcola.”

“I’m kind of hoping they’ll get married in the latest book,” Steve replies, and looks confused when Loki lets out a groan between his teeth.

Clint takes his sandwich and mug of coffee over to Loki’s table, brushing aside a pile of handwritten notes and six different coloured markers.

“I’m working,” Loki tells him.

“I know,” Clint shrugs, and puts his feet up on the chair next to him.

Pepper’s now frowning at Tony’s tablet. “You realise you can’t actually do this, right?”

“Pep, I can do anything. And this is legal for once! You should be looking more excited.”

Her only response is a sigh before she starts sweeping her fingers across whatever Tony was doing, editing it to her own requirements.

Loki reaches absently for Clint’s coffee, and he pushes it slightly closer to his hand before picking up one of the sheets of paper covered in Loki’s cramped, spidery writing.

After a while, Tony observes: “I’m kind of disturbed by how cute this is.”

Clint flips him the bird without looking up, and Loki doesn’t even notice.

=

“You don’t have a New Year party?” Loki asks.

This isn’t a lunch date, though other people might call it one. Mostly, he and Loki are just walking through the slush that wishes it was snow, because Loki needs a break from writing and also from a very unhappy Pru, who has arrived back home and is apparently not nearly as gleeful about returning to New York – and by extension, Steve – as her father is.

“We’re still cleaning up glitter from the Christmas one,” Clint replies, shrugging. “And anyway, this is New York. No one needs to hold a party. Usually we just end up on the roof of Darcy and Jane’s building with as much cheap champagne as everyone can carry.”

“That seems to sum up most of your life,” Loki points out, but he’s smiling a little to soften it.

“Anyway,” Clint continues, ignoring him, “this year we’ve all got invites to Stark’s party, and that one’s got underwear models, so.”

It’s become apparent that Tony Stark can’t do anything without the presence of scantily-clad women, not even getting clean from whatever borderline-alcohol-abuse problem he’s got going on, and the weird part is probably that it isn’t even weird anymore. It’s just... Tony.

“I can see how underwear models would be more enjoyable than a rooftop in December,” Loki agrees.

“You’re coming, right?” Clint adds. “I mean, I can see hanging out with your brother and his baby daughter and possibly his boyfriend at home could be fun, but, well, underwear models.”

Something is stiff in Loki’s shoulders. “I don’t have an invitation.”

“Well, no, Tony said that way you’d have to be my plus one,” Clint explains.

Loki looks a cross between amused and angry. “Where do you find these people?” he asks.

“They find me,” Clint sighs. “I mean, God knows what kind of signals I’m chucking out there if you’re what showed up.”

“I think I should be far more concerned about what on earth makes you even remotely appealing,” Loki replies. “Even you don’t believe your life is actually happening most of the time. You thought your ex-girlfriend wasn’t running a book club in your apartment even when she was, everyone you know is weirdly overinvested in your life to a possibly pathological extent, and the man you actually like is always either in India or on the verge of sleeping with your ex-girlfriend.”

Clint is about to protest most of this – the book club thing is entirely Nat’s fault, okay – when he finishes processing the rest of what Loki’s said.

“Hang on,” he says, “you think I’m banging you because I can’t bang Bruce?”

“I put it far more eloquently than that,” Loki sniffs.

“Well, yes, you’re a writer,” Clint shrugs. “Not the point. Everyone likes Bruce; you’d like Bruce if you liked people.”

Loki is looking somewhat thoughtful. “I’m not entirely sure what to do with this information,” he admits.

“Come to Stark’s New Year party with me,” Clint replies. “There are underwear models and we can fuck in his bathrooms. It’ll be awesome.”

“You really know how to woo a man,” Loki says dryly, but it isn’t a no.

=

The first Irresponsible Friday Cocktails of the year take place a merciful amount of distance from Tony’s party; the fireworks were great and the bathrooms of the Stark Tower are deceptively classy, but the words never again are still being tossed around. Clint is inwardly pretty impressed that Tony is still alive now that he’s actually been to one of his parties. He’s not entirely sure that Peggy isn’t still hungover.

Sif comes to their cocktail nights on a regular basis; she seems to have bonded pretty fiercely with Peggy, which probably doesn’t bode well for anything, but Clint thinks he knows more than anyone except perhaps Thor just how necessary a break from dealing with Loki is. The final draft of the book is in now, anyway, which means Sif looks a little less homicidal than usual. Tonight, she’s brought bourbon – according to Pepper, Tony already dated the leftover alcohol from his party to the homeless, which is either sweet or kind of really stupid, depending on how you look at it – and everything has an edge of the new to it.

It’s possibly because Nat is having her first book club of the year next week (Clint is absolutely not allowed to join; he’s considered sulking, but it’s probably for the best, even if neither of them have therapists to judge them anymore), and also possibly because there’s a lack of distance between Nat and Bruce that wasn’t there before; it’s not definitive or even helpful, but something’s shifting, and Clint has no idea what to do with that. The part where Natasha doesn’t know what to do either is probably going to be problematic, but Phil will sort that out when they get down to it. Phil has sorted out pretty much all of their messes over the years, and this one at least contains a mostly-sane person who is capable of functioning like a human more often than Clint and Nat ever are.

“Shouldn’t you be climbing Thor like a tree?” Darcy asks Steve, who doesn’t actually flush at the question; it’s startling progress. “At least I have the excuse that my girlfriend loves her lab more than me and isn’t at home on our Friday night.”

“My boyfriend has a baby,” Steve points out; he’s still drinking water and has deftly managed to avoid Nat and Peggy’s attempts to add vodka to it. “My Friday nights are possibly less glamorous than yours.”

“Watching Jane watch the Weather Channel,” Darcy sighs dreamily. “Why d’you think I hang out with you losers?”

Pepper rolls her eyes. “Nice try,” she tells her, and reaches for more of the apple pie they’re all sharing.

“What about you?” Sif asks, fixing her sharp attention on Clint. He’s been quite happy sitting there laughing at other people’s love lives; the sudden switch of focus is not exactly welcome.

“Hey,” he says, “I already had sex with Loki once this week. If we do it twice the world will probably implode.”

“Or he’ll dedicate his book to you,” Nat points out.

If Clint didn’t love her so much he’d probably hate her.

“I’m going to suggest that to him,” Peggy decides, and ducks the napkin Clint throws at her.

=

Loki is talking to people on his website who apparently want to use the messageboards for what they were designed for and not as an easy way to harass him – which is a pity – and Clint is alternately calling his pretentious replies for what they are and making hazelnut lattes for a group of students who are clearly not looking forward to the new semester.

When he comes out of the kitchen with Steve’s latest stacks of waffles, he find that Thor, Tony, Pepper and a flipchart have arrived.

“I’m not going to like this, am I,” he says, and Nat smiles at him with far too many teeth.

Pepper pulls off the cover to reveal the first posterboard has already been covered in writing; Clint can see his name and Loki’s at the top, and he leans closer to work out what it says underneath.

Clause #3: Just call them lunch dates. THEY ARE LUNCH DATES. YOU EAT LUNCH TOGETHER. Call a spade a spade and admit that you like eating lunch together and bitching at each other.

A little further down is:

Clause #6: Loki, just invite Clint home with you. Your office might be in your bedroom (which is healthy and not at all crazy – T) but it’s a nice house and there’s no point in being mysterious anymore.

“What the fuck,” Clint says.

“This is preposterous,” Loki sputters.

“What he said,” Clint agrees.

“Well, you were doing such a shitty job of dating each other that we just figured we’d sort it out for you,” Natasha explains. “We drew up a contract that you can sign and everything.”

“We’re not dating!” Clint says loudly.

“That was the problem,” Thor nods, where he’s rocking a squirming Pru. “It will not be a problem now.”

“You are impossible,” Loki hisses at his brother, who just smiles and looks satisfied.

“What if we disagree with the contract?” Clint asks.

“We left you some clauses you can negotiate,” Pepper explains.

“Cuddling, for example,” Nat cuts in, a wry smirk twisting her lips. His girl, seriously.

“I don’t like cuddling,” Loki says swiftly.

“You don’t like anything,” Clint reminds him.

The smile he gets in return is soft, with an edge of sweetness at the corners. “Well,” Loki shrugs, “something like that, anyway.”

 

/end