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It isn't the first time Tony's been slammed up against the lockers and he doubts it'll be the last. The curse of a child genius with more intelligence than social skills. His head rings with the impact but he takes a deep breath and lets it go. He's had enough practice. Beside him his daemon growls, long and low, but bows to his silent command and stays still. She's feisty and fiercely protective, but he knows from past experience that she's no match for Justin Hammer's vicious little snake.

"Still choosing brawn over brains, Hammer," he chokes out, straining for air against the arm pressed across his throat. Beside them, Fang hisses at Friday and she slinks back, still growling.

Hammer snarls and shoves Tony harder against the metal framework, eyes vicious and cold in ways that Tony thinks a teenager’s eyes probably shouldn't be.

"Still a smart little shit, Stark," Hammer grinds out. "Even now."

He pulls away slightly, arm drawing back, fingers curling into a fist. Tony knows the impact's coming, tries to relax so it'll hurt less, but then Hammer's fist is caught by someone else and Tony's eyes flicker open to see Steve Rogers standing in front of him. His daemon, a solid black panther, paces around them, anger oozing from every pore. He wasn’t expecting the save.

“Everything okay here, fellas?” Steve drawls, casual in the way only Steve Rogers can be, holding a fight at bay with his willpower and presence alone.

“Just fine, Rogers,” Hammer growls. “Don’t you have places to be?” He fights to free his fist from Steve’s grip, but it’s harder to dislodge the other teenager than he thought it would be. Tony holds still against the cold metal, not entirely sure how this is going to play out.

“Nowhere urgent,” Steve says peaceably, muscles barely flexing as he holds Hammer in place. “How about you back off?”

“How about you fuck off,” Hammer snaps back, as his snake darts for Steve’s panther, fangs sinking into his leg. Steve pales as his grip on Hammer weakens and Tony feels a stab of rage. It’s against the rules and their ethos to allow their daemons to fight, and Hammer knows that as well as the rest of them.

He lunges when Steve flinches back, shoving Hammer hard to the side and motioning Friday forward. She steps in front of Steve’s panther daemon without a second thought, but her ears are flat against her head and she’s snarling, restless and nervous. Hammer’s snake slinks backwards, away from the other two, and Tony reaches out a hesitant hand to steady Steve, pulling back before it connects, unsure if his help will be welcome. They don’t exactly move in the same circles. Steve plays every team sport ever invented and Tony avoids them all like the plague.

The bell rings and it’s the only thing that stops Hammer going in for another try, his attention flicking to the groups of kids starting to flood out of the surrounding classrooms. His snake slithers up his arm to settle around his neck and he steps away from the two of them, ice in his eyes.

“This isn’t over, Stark,” he says, dark and promising, and Tony only just manages not to shiver in premonition. He’ll pay for the interruption, he knows it.

“It never is,” Tony mutters under his breath, watching Hammer walk away, merging into the flow of students and disappearing. Friday twines herself around his leg, purring, and he glances at her, sparing a second to brush his fingers against her head. She settles, nudging his fingers in reassurance.

It takes him a minute to realise that not only is Steve still there, he’s also talking to him.

“Tony, right?” Steve says, offering Tony an honest to god handshake. “I’m Steve. Steve Rogers.”

Tony spares him an incredulous look. Does Steve really think there’s anyone on this campus who doesn’t know who he is?

“Tony Stark,” Tony confirms, shaking his hand with a sense of unreality. "I know who you are,” he adds, feeling that not mentioning it wouldn’t be fair. “You know, what with you being the school’s reigning king of athletics and all.”

Steve looks like he’s blushing. Tony isn’t quite sure how to take that.

The two of them have never interacted; they’re two years apart in age despite being in the same school year and Steve has his own extensive group of friends. Tony just... doesn’t have friends. Except for Pepper and Rhodey, but both of them are in college now and he rarely gets to see them anymore.

He misses them. School is boring no matter what, but it’s far worse without them there. He’s trying to skip the last two years so he can graduate and rejoin them, but the teachers are fighting him. He thinks he’ll win the battle before the end of the year, if only because it gets him out of their hair. He doesn't mean to be a problem but he finds himself in trouble more often than not.

“People always put more stock in that than they should,” Steve says, sighing as he brushes his hair away from his face. “Can I walk you to your next class?” he offers, and Tony thinks his day has been strange enough for now.

“That’s okay,” he shakes his head. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry. I’m sure you have better things to do than chaperone me around.”

He motions Friday to move, ignoring the way she’s regarding Steve’s black panther with curiosity, nudging her down the corridor. He hears a female voice yell, “Hey! Rogers!” and looks up to see Natasha Romanov approaching them, arm linked through the arm of the scruffy haired guy walking next to her. Tony recognises Bruce Banner from some of his advanced classes, the one other student whose intelligence can actually rival his own.

Natasha’s entrance is definitely Tony’s cue to leave. He may have a small crush on Steve Rogers, but he’s entirely (sensibly!) terrified of Natasha Romanov, who came to America from Russia when she was twelve and has been rumoured to be a trained killer, amongst other things, depending on which gossip you listen to. He doesn’t know how true the rumours are and he never intends to find out.

"Nice meeting you," Tony mutters in Steve's direction and then flees before Steve can stop him, Friday trailing behind him as he ducks around a corner and into an empty classroom.

He closes the door and slides down it, resting his back against the solid surface as his heart rate settles. Friday curls around him and he buries his fingers in her soft fur, taking a deep breath and wondering how his day turned into this.

-

Steve is staring down the corridor despite having already lost track of Tony when Natasha comes to a stop beside him, Bruce trailing behind her as he does more and more often. Steve is privately both amused and happy for Natasha. He's known her since she moved in next door to him when she was nearly thirteen, a skinny kid with haunted eyes and a past she's never really discussed.

"Problem, Rogers?" she asks, seeming cool and disinterested. He knows that if he says yes, her focus will sharpen until she's figured out the problem and a solution and someone's bleeding. She's useful that way.

"That Hammer kid," Steve says, frowning. "Went after Tony Stark in the corridor."

Natasha raises an eyebrow and waits. She's not overly invested in Tony Stark, although she knows who he is, and that's not enough to motivate her against Hammer. Kids can be cruel, she knows that.

"I stopped him and his daemon went after Boo," he adds, and that provokes the reaction he'd expected.

Daemons don't fight daemons unless it's life or death. A schoolboy fight is no place for daemon wars.

Natasha snarls something in Russian that Steve doesn't understand, her russet coloured fox growling by her feet, tail thrashing from side to side. Bruce reaches out to wrap his fingers around her wrist, brushing lightly against her pulse point. Fennick's growl turns into a purr and he vaults up to settle on the back of Bruce's white stag as Natasha leans into Bruce's touch, eyes flickering briefly closed.

"Someone needs to teach him a lesson," she says, and it's calmer than Steve had expected. He thinks that Bruce is doing her more good than anyone could've known and he's surprised their daemons haven't begun to blend together yet. He thinks it's just a matter of time.

"You sayin' that someone should be us?" Steve asks, quirking an eyebrow.

"Not sure it's our job to interfere," Bruce says objectively. "Shouldn't we just report him and let the school handle it?"

"Pretty sure people have tried that before," Steve points out.

Hammer is one of those kids whose parents have influence, mostly because of their wealth. Then again, few families are richer than the Starks and that seems to be doing Tony no good at all. Steve wonders why his parents don't insist on the school taking action, then belatedly wonders if they even know. Stark seems like the type to keep it to himself.

“Would you be this bothered if you’d found him beating up someone else?” Natasha asks, shrewd and piercing. Steve doesn’t want to lie to her, tries never to lie to Natasha because she always knows, but he doesn’t know how to answer.

“Probably,” Steve says, hedging his bets, grateful when he’s saved from Natasha’s stare by a familiar English-accented voice.

“Are you coming to class?” Peggy Carter asks, gliding to a stop beside them. In the last few minutes the corridors have mostly emptied out. “Because if you are, we need to go now otherwise we’re going to be late.”

“Yeah,” Steve sighs, rubbing his temples with one hand. He can’t make a decision on what to do next, but right now he doesn’t have to. They can figure it out after class. Maybe Peggy can help. Her parents were higher-ups in the government and she sometimes knows how to handle situations better than he does.

Bruce has advanced biochemistry while the rest have English and he parts ways with them, kissing Natasha's cheek as he does. Fennick hops off Silver's back but it's reluctant, and the fox gives Natasha a look that has her muttering at him in Russian and watching Bruce depart with unreadable eyes.

Most of Bruce's classes this term are advanced ones, after he'd stormed through the previous year, tying for top of their class with Tony. Steve only sees Tony in a handful of his classes, despite the other boy being two years younger, and makes a mental note to ask Bruce if the kid genius is in his instead when they all meet back up for lunch.

He's been quietly fascinated with Tony since last year, when he realised the reason his relationship with Peggy wasn't working out was his attraction to other men. She'd handled it the way she handles all bumps in the road; with stoic understanding and a healthy dash of sarcasm. He’s grateful for her and her continued friendship.

“What happened?” she asks now, as they walk together towards the classroom, her gaze probing as she studies his face.

“Hammer,” he says and watches a scowl deepen on her face. “Went after Stark.”

“Hammer's a little shit,” she says, dark and annoyed. “Someone needs to handle him, and Stark’s not going to do anything about it.”

“You don’t know that,” Natasha says, rejoining the conversation. “He might want to fight his own battles.”

“Tony Stark isn’t a fighter,” Peggy says with finality, as if she knows this to be true. “My parents know the Starks. Or, at least, they used to. Tony and I have spent a little time together. The kid is not a fighter. A genius, yes, but not a fighter.”

Steve wonders how it is that this is the first time he’s heard her mention it, and asks her, after a minute.

“It’s been a while,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “Maybe two years? Our parents started working on different projects and by all accounts Howard Stark went solo. He wasn’t much of a team player.”

She decides that now isn’t the time to mention that the last time she heard her parents talk about him, they referred to Howard Stark as a drunk, and an occasionally abusive one. Her mother used to talk about saving Maria like it was a cause she couldn’t walk away from, but it’s been months since either of them mentioned her at all.

They arrive at their classroom which puts an end to their conversation, taking their usual chairs and turning their attention towards Shakespeare.

-

Tony’s late to his advanced biochem class but the teacher merely waves him inside with a frown. The only seat left available is next to Bruce Banner, who he’d last seen twenty minutes ago, arm in arm with Natasha Romanov, and he curls into himself as he takes it, offering Banner an apologetic smile at invading his space. He pulls out the tablet he’d engineered over the summer and starts a recording of the lecture incase he zones out, opening the slides so he can annotate as he goes along.

Engineering is more his strength than biochemistry but that’s kind of what he likes about this class. It’s a challenge, when so few of his classes are. The downside to biochemistry is that they always want to partner students up for lab sessions. Tony usually works alone because no one wants to partner with the genius kid, but he tells himself that he’s long since stopped caring about that.

Then again, last year he didn’t have Bruce Banner in his class.

“Tony, right?” Bruce says, leaning across the bench as their teacher tells them to pick partners for today’s experiment. “Do you mind if we partner up?”

Tony blinks at him, chestnut-brown eyes confused, and waits for the ‘Kidding!’ that he expects is coming next. When it doesn’t, he flounders.

“You want to partner up with me?” he asks, hesitant.

Banner is friends with Steve, who’s already turned his day into the twilight zone, and Tony’s starting to wonder if they’ve all gotten together to prank him. But Bruce’s eyes are kind and honest and hold no judgement.

“If that’s okay with you,” Bruce confirms. “I mean, I can work alone if you don’t want to, but it’ll probably be more fun with two of us.”

“Uh—“ Tony stumbles, and mentally kicks himself. “Sure, I mean— yeah, that would be fine.” Smooth he thinks, rolling his eyes at himself. On the floor besides his desk, Friday plucks at his leg with her claws, making him wince. Bruce’s stag is stretched out under the desk and Friday regards her with no small amount of wary suspicion.

“Thanks,” Bruce says, his smile open and friendly. “I didn’t get to pick my classes when I arrived in the middle of last year. I’m glad I had options this year. You skipped a year?”

“Two years,” Tony says, reluctantly, knowing that he’s soon going to be on the receiving end of one of those ‘aw, look at the smart kid who thinks he can hang with us’ looks that he traditionally gets from his older peers. “If I’m lucky I’ll get to skip another two and get out of here this year.”

“You want to go to college at fourteen?” Bruce asks, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “You don’t think it’ll be weird to spend that much time with people so much older?”

“My friends...” Tony’s voice trails off for a moment, then come back stronger. Pepper and Rhodey will always be his friends. “My friends are already at college,” he says. “If I graduate, I can join them again. Besides, I'm almost fifteen.”

They’ll be a year ahead of him but Tony thinks that if he can get through the last two years of high school in the next few months, skipping from first to second year in college won’t be any more difficult. He’s already taking online courses.

“Don’t you want to just enjoy high school?” Bruce asks, and Tony stiffens. There’s nothing to enjoy about high school. He routinely gets pushed into lockers and punched by Hammer and he can’t wait for these days to be over. He’d been okay until Pepper and Rhodey graduated last year, protected by the older duo until they couldn’t be there to protect him anymore.

“Sorry,” Bruce murmurs, reaching out to touch Tony’s shoulder in apology. The touch only makes Tony stiffen further and Bruce backs off, hands held out in front of him, open and wary. “I’m sorry, I’m making a mess of this. Maybe we could start over?”

Tony forces himself to relax and offer a smile that he hopes isn’t as strained as it feels. It isn’t Bruce’s fault that he has all these hang-ups, or that a simple touch can send him spiralling into the darker parts of his mind. Howard’s touches are rarely gentle and Tony’s gotten used to avoiding touch all together as often as he can.

“No,” he says, shaking his head, clarifying quickly, “I mean, we don’t need to start over. It’s fine. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so jumpy.” He tries for a smile that he suspects isn’t as genuine as he really wants it to be. “Lab partners would be good.”

Bruce’s smile back is genuine and Tony feels almost as if this could work out. Bruce is as smart as he is, smarter when it comes to anything biological, so Tony knows he isn’t asking to partner just for the grades.

“Biochem isn’t exactly my speciality,” he says, a warning just in case he's wrong and Bruce is doing this for the grades. “I’m more the engineering sort.”

“Which is definitely not my speciality,” Bruce says wryly. “I do okay, but I’m better with the organics.”

Tony’s smile comes a little easier this time, as the teacher hands out worksheets and they bend to study theirs.

“I’m Bruce, by the way,” Bruce says, making a note next to one of the steps. “Bruce Banner. We had some classes together last year.”

“Tied for top of the class,” Tony agrees, and wonders what it is about this group of kids that they seem to think they go unnoticed. “I know who you are, Bruce,” he adds, shy where he doesn’t want to be. “I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t. You hang out with all the popular kids.”

“Natasha adopted me,” he laughs, comfortable with his place in the world. “They can be a bit overwhelming when you’re not used to them, but they’re a good group.”

“I’m sure they are,” Tony says, his smile freezing slightly at the mention of Natasha’s name.

He likes Bruce and he feels comfortable with Bruce, but the others are a different matter. The only one of their crowd he really knows is Peggy Carter, whose parents used to work with his father until his father turned into a full-fledged asshole and they stopped coming over at all.

“You should join us for lunch,” Bruce says, the offer extended as casually as breathing, and Tony thinks he can’t imagine anything worse than trying to figure out his own place in the world surrounded by people who’ve already carved out theirs.

“Um,” he says, trying to buy time. “Sure, maybe. Sometime.”

It sounds noncommittal enough that Tony doesn’t have to worry about it actually happening, but friendly enough that he doesn’t think he’s being a jerk. He doesn’t really want to drive Banner away. This is the first time he’s had someone to partner with for a class in a while and he’s surprised by how much he’s looking forward to it.

“That’s the spirit,” Banner says, dark eyes saying I know you’re lying to me without actually saying it at all. “Maybe tomorrow if not today?”

Fresh off his encounter with Hammer and Steve in the corridor this morning, Tony intends to spend his lunch hour as hidden away as he can get, but he says, “Sure, maybe tomorrow,” as if it’s the truth, and then changes the subject to their experiment.

Despite starting later than other pairs, they finish a good fifteen minutes before everyone else, and the teacher comes over to grade their work, making pleased sounds and scratching notes in her book. Tony can’t abide by pen and paper when he can use technology instead, and he hates that some of their teachers still refuse to switch to digital, mostly because hacking their notes is impossible when they don’t keep them on a computer to begin with. It rarely does him any good to hack their notes, he already knows what they say about him: genius, but unable to play well with others. He is, after all, Howard Stark’s son.

Banner waits for him when the class ends and they walk out together. It’s... nice, Tony thinks. It reminds him of Rhodey and Pepper, who would often meet him and walk with him between classes.

They’re discussing an article they’d both read in Scientific American when they reach the cafeteria, engrossed in their conversation as they both join the lunch line. Tony is half-way through describing a theory, hands flying as he explains his thought process to Bruce, who bobs his head as he follows along, when Natasha pops up beside them and Tony’s voice breaks mid-sentence. He doesn’t mean to jump at her presence but he does anyway, shutting up abruptly and shrinking away from them both. Her attention is solely for Bruce, who smiles and slides an arm around her waist, turning back to Tony who’s no longer paying attention. He picks the first thing he sees and makes to move past them, when Bruce says,

“Hey, Nat, have you met Tony? We’re partners in biochem.”

Tony thinks, no, no, no, and forces a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. Beside him, Friday is pacing, restless now where she’d been content to wander beside Bruce’s stag before. Now the stag is nuzzling the fox that follows Natasha everywhere and Friday feels as out of place as Tony does.

“That’s nice,” Natasha says, her voice smoky and low, and Tony wants to run as far away as he can. From her, that’s nice somehow sounds like how delightful to have another target on which to practice, and Tony’s survived this long in life by knowing when to cut his losses and leave.

“Um, it was nice to meet you,” he says, shoving his tray at the checkout lady, a hint of wildness in his eyes. “Bruce, I’ll see you in class.”

The lady takes pity on him and rings it up double-speed, and he hands over enough cash to cover his meal and probably another, before he picks up his tray and flees. He deliberately chose food he could take with him, and he shoves the sandwich, chips and drink into his book bag before dumping the tray on the way out of the door. He and Friday have a favourite spot for lunch, way out behind the buildings where no one else ever goes, and he heads there now, careful to shake any shadows Hammer might’ve assigned him on the way. His last favourite lunch spot had been compromised at the beginning of the year when he didn’t pay enough attention and he doesn’t want to lose this one the same way.

-

“Well, he’s a little twitchy,” Natasha comments, watching Tony Stark all but run away from them.

Bruce sighs as he pays for his lunch, having added several items just for her, and then picks up his tray. Natasha stays by his side as he balances the tray on one hand, resting his other hand at the small of her back as he guides her away from the queue. He felt like he’d been making progress with Tony before his girlfriend arrived and terrified him into leaving. He adores Natasha, but to the casual observer, who doesn’t get to see her the way he does, she can seem scary.

“He’s nervous,” Bruce says, as they approach their usual lunch table. “I invited him to have lunch with us, but I think it’s going to be a work in progress.”

“To be fair,” Natasha says, as he deposits the tray on the table and slides into a chair, “He’s kind of the topic of today’s lunch time discussion, so it might not have been the best time.”

She settles down on his lap, which always makes eating that little bit more difficult, but he’s chosen foods to accommodate that and he wouldn’t push her away for the world. Natasha is hard to get to know, and harder still to form a connection with, but when it happens she goes all-in. He still remembers the silent surprise from the others the first day she dragged him over to the lunch table and threw herself into his lap as if she’d been doing it all her life, saying, “This is Bruce,” before proceeding to steal most of his fries.

When she’s settled comfortably, they’ve greeted the others, and they’re both eating, he remembers what she’d said and asks, “Why is Tony Stark the subject of today’s lunch?”

“The Justin Hammer situation,” Steve clarifies, swallowing a mouthful of mac and cheese. “That kid is a problem.”

“I assume you mean Hammer and not Stark,” Peggy says, poking at her chicken salad before taking a bite. Steve rolls his eyes and dumps half his fries onto her plate. He knows damn well she hates salad.

“Bruce is Stark’s new lab partner in biochem,” Natasha says, not waiting for Steve to agree with Peggy. She already knows he’s going to. “He invited him to lunch and everything.”

Bruce gives her an exasperated look that she proceeds to ignore.

"Obviously he chose not to come," she adds.

"Someone scared him off," Bruce agrees, but the glare he levels at his girlfriend lacks any punch at all.

“All I did was stop by and say hello,” Natasha protests, sitting up to meet his eyes. Beside them, Fennick is curled into Silver and the two of them eye their humans with an expression that says this is why we can’t have nice things. Natasha ignores them.

"I know," Bruce says, soft and placating, trailing his fingers down her side. She hmph's but relaxes back into his arms.

"So..." Steve says, in a way that Bruce suspects is meant to be casual but comes across as anything but. "Tony Stark's your new lab partner? What's he like?"

"Smart," Bruce says immediately. "Very smart. But lonely, I think. He says he wants to graduate this year. He has some friends who are already at college."

Peggy looks thoughtful as she picks at the fries, ignoring the remains of her salad.

"Pepper Potts and James Rhodes," she says finally, swiping a french fry through the ketchup on Steve's plate. "I'm just guessing, but they graduated last year so the timing's right and I remember Tony hanging out with them all the time."

When Steve thinks about it, he vaguely remembers the tall, slender redhead and the darker skinned guy who he'd occasionally seen accompany Tony around campus.

"He's fourteen," Steve says, sounding vaguely scandalised at the idea of a teenage Tony mixing with a college crowd. "Who wants to go to college at fourteen?"

"People who don't enjoy high school?" Bruce suggests mildly.

He kind of gets it. He'd been a loner at his previous school and, if he hadn't met Natasha a few days after arriving here, he suspects he'd have suffered the same fate at this one. It's a lonely existence and he can understand Tony's desire to get away from it all. The mistake, he thinks, is that Tony assumes the older crowd won't be as childish and cliquey as they are here.

"Sure, but—" Steve's voice trails off.

Steve isn't used to being anything other than popular at high school. As a child he'd been skinny and unhealthy, always full of cold, but the summer before high school he'd had a growth spurt, taken up sports, and turned himself into someone new. From what Natasha's said to Bruce, Steve's never had to deal with being anything other than beloved by teachers and students alike.

"We should adopt him," Peggy says, firm as though she's already decided. "Our last adoptee worked out okay," she adds, winking at Bruce who smiles back at her.

"I'm up for it," Bruce says, and Natasha shrugs to indicate her disinterest in the whole situation. She'll go along with it since it'll make Bruce happy.

"First you have to get him to stick around long enough to actually talk to him," Natasha points out, since it appears this subject is not going away. "And so far that’s not going so well."

"We all have art together this afternoon," Steve says, pretending not to hear the others groan. It's his favourite subject but no one else’s. "Maybe we can talk to him then."

"Maybe you should try," Natasha says, "Since you're the one who's so invested in us being friends with him."

Her expression is all innocence but her tone implies that friendship isn't all Steve's looking for. He blushes scarlet at the implication and opens his mouth to defend himself when Peggy cuts him off.

"That sounds like a good idea," she says, giving Natasha a hard look that says behave. "Steve, honestly—either you or Bruce will probably have the most luck."

"Or you," Steve points out, willing the flush that still stains his cheeks to fade. "You've known him longer than we have."

"Used to know him," Peggy corrects. "A little bit. We haven't had a proper conversation in years. Being thrown together by your parents and told to get along is not the same as willingly becoming friends with someone."

Steve supposes it's not, but he's nervous.

"It'll be fine, Steve," Bruce says reassuringly.

"That's easy for you to say," Steve retorts, unable to resist lashing out even though he doesn't want to.

"I had a conversation with him today already," Bruce points out, a beacon of calm in the face of Steve's agitation. "You'll do fine."

Steve takes a deep breath and then another, then another, and hopes that Bruce is right.

-

Steve settles into his spot in the art room with the distinct sensation of coming home. There's something about the smell of the paintings and the models in progress and the faint hint of charcoal that hangs in the air that relaxes all the tension from his muscles. Steve plays on all the sports teams and needs a sports scholarship to college if he wants to go — he knows his ma can't afford it otherwise, no matter how hard she'll try, and he knows he'll never be able to say to her, it's okay, let me handle it, it's fine, though he can make it easier for her in a multitude of other ways — but his favourite thing to do will always be this, just paper and charcoal and his own imagination translating into something real.

He stops himself from sinking into the bubble that pulls at him and instead looks around for Tony Stark. He's usually hopelessly unaware in this class, which all his friends know and tolerate with various degrees of amusement, and now it turns out he's missed that Natasha is directly beside him, with Bruce at his back and Tony tucked into a corner as far away from everyone as he can get. Steve frowns as he notices that the corner puts walls at Tony's back and side. The way he's angled means no one can sneak up on him, and Steve thinks he might want to punch a wall at the implications of why that might be.

Having clocked Tony's location he turns so he can work but still keep an eye on him. Tony doesn't seem to particularly enjoy the class, but then he gets involved in some sort of detailed drawing and his eyes light up. He's scribbling away and Steve's lost in watching him, the way his eyes brighten as he swoops in to work on another section. Steve's still watching when their teacher approaches Tony to check his progress, frowning in irritation and saying something sharp, Tony jerking back from his work like he's been scalded.

"Real life drawings, Mr Stark," she says coldly, placing an apple in front of him with a thump. Steve winces. "Not engineering diagrams. Not if you want to pass this class."

Tony shrinks into his seat and quietly picks up a different pencil, turning to a fresh page. He settles in to diligently drawing the apple on the desk in front of him, and it hurts Steve to see the difference between the Tony of a few minutes ago and now. He slides out of his seat and wanders over. They're encouraged to mingle in these lessons, theoretically to critique each other’s work, it's just that no one ever seems to mingle with Stark. Not even to pick on him, which Steve supposes should be a relief.

"Hi," Steve says, as he pauses besides Tony's easel. Tony looks up at him, startled and suspicious and it's the last thing Steve wants to see. "Can I see your engineering diagrams?" he asks, blurting it out before he thinks better of it, hoping it'll bring back that light in Tony's eyes and curious as to what an engineering diagram even looks like.

"You... want to look at my engineering diagrams?" Tony repeats blankly, looking so endearingly confused that Steve wants to gather him up in a hug.

"Only if you don't mind," Steve says, smiling at him shyly.

This is definitely harder than Bruce made it out to be. There's an analytical awareness to Tony's gaze that's downright spooky when it's focused solely on one person.

"Uh, okay," Tony says slowly. He reaches out to turn the other page back, but he pauses to look at Steve again as if checking that this isn't actually a prank. Steve comes to join him, standing casually next to where he sat on the stool, waiting for him to turn the page.

Tony does so, smoothing the page he'd been working on back into place, and pointing at the complicated looking diagram in the top left corner. He smiles brightly as he looks at it, and says, "This is the basis for a bot I'm making. I'm gonna call him DUM-E," he says, eyes full of fondness for a creation that doesn't even exist yet. "He'll help me in my lab one day. It won't just be him, but he'll be the first."

Steve admires the intricate lines, deftly constructed by a confidant hand. "It's beautiful," Steve says absently, his fingers reaching out to trace the patterns. Tony is watching him with wary fascination, unsure what to do with someone who admires his work instead of mocks it.

He laughs a nervous laugh, glancing over at the teacher, and reaches out to flip the page over again.

"Yes, well, not really appreciated in this art class," he says, picking up his pencil and determinedly tuning Steve out. "I'd better get back to the apple, you know," he gestures at the fruit on the table and then focuses on his drawing of it.

Compared to what Steve saw in his diagrams on the previous page, it's lifeless, lacking the spark of something that Tony wants to create.

"You should draw what you want to draw," he says, and Tony rolls his eyes.

"Easy for you to say, Rogers, you're acing this class. Some of us are not." It feels like a dismissal and it stings.

Across the room the teacher says, "Steve!" to summon him back to his own work and he slips away helplessly, very aware he doesn't want to leave at all. Tony Stark needs a protector, that much is clear, and Steve's fast realizing that he wants it to be him.

His own work receives praise but for the first time it doesn't seem to mean anything. Then their teacher moves on to Natasha and Bruce leans over into his space.

"You okay?" he asks, dark eyes concerned.

"Tony's under my skin," Steve admits, and it's an easy admission to make to Bruce, who never ruffles, even with Natasha whispering her darkest secrets in his ear.

"I noticed," Bruce says and even though he'd expected it, the absence of judgement is a relief. "He's under mine a little too, kind of. Like a little brother. I want to protect him."

Steve is relieved that someone gets it, even if his own feelings might not exactly be brotherly.

"We need to get him to trust us," Steve says, and it's a weight on his shoulders he can't shift. "And that's nearly impossible. If he'd spend some time with us, he'd see that everyone's not so bad."

"How about after school?" Bruce suggests. "I've got advanced math with him after this. You could meet us when it finishes and we can all go to the diner."

All would include Natasha and probably Clint, which might mean Tony never coming near them again. But they’re part of the group too and Steve won't hide them away. He loves all his friends, even the scary and annoying ones.

"Yeah, okay," Steve agrees. "I'm going to try and get out early so I can meet you when the bell rings." In other words: to leave less time for Tony to get away. Steve kind of hates that he feels the need to be strategic about this, but he knows it’s warranted.

"Might be a good idea," Bruce agrees. "If Tony thinks Natasha's coming to meet me, he won't want to stick around for long."

"Hey!" Natasha says, looking genuinely hurt as she joins their conversation. "That's not fair, I've never done anything bad to him."

"I know," Bruce soothes, getting up to walk over and slide his arms around her shoulders. "But he’s nervous of you, for whatever reason.” He smoothes her hair away from her face and leans down to kiss her cheek. "We'll figure it out," he adds, as she rests her head against his stomach.

Touch has always been the key to his relationship with Natasha. They say a lot with words, but when it comes to real communication they say more with touch. It's always been what keeps her within his reach, and it's the same thing that keeps him grounded.

"You'd better," she says, but it comes out as more of a purr than a threat as he gently massages her scalp with his fingertips and her eyes flutter closed.

Not before she catches Tony Stark, watching her and Bruce as if he's seen something wondrous. Despite their knack for PDA all over the school grounds — she’s the first to admit that she’s fully corrupted him over the course of their relationship — she kind of hates it when people outside of her circle see her like this, open and defenceless, but it’s the price she pays for the comfort and, this time at least, she hopes it helps Tony to see she's nothing to be feared.

Her reputation comes in handy when it comes to keeping the standard range of bullies at bay, but she hates when it harms a connection she actually wants to make. Bruce isn't going to let this go, is already attached to Stark, and so she has to make Stark like her if she wants Bruce to be happy.

Which she does.

It's such a precious thing, this connection with someone who always understands her. Who can reach out and touch her and make her believe that it'll be okay. She'd known the minute she met Bruce Banner that she needed to keep him in her life. So she'd adopted him, dragged him to lunch, and jumped in without a safety net. He'd caught her, which, as it turns out, he's particularly good at doing.

She adores him.

The lesson is nearly over which means her snuggling time is too, and she reluctantly lifts her head, pleased when her reward is a gentle kiss.

"Get a room," Clint rolls his eyes at them as he passes, his hawk daemon balanced on his shoulder. "Honestly, you two. The honeymoon should be over by now."

"Get a life!" Natasha retorts, aware that it's weak but unable to fully care while Bruce's arms are still around her.

Bruce laughs quietly and she feels the vibration of it as he does. "I hate that you go to super smart classes now," she grumbles, only half-sincere. "I miss you. Class is boring when you’re not there."

"I miss you too," he says, brushing his knuckles against her cheek, soft as a feather. The casual gestures of affection are what Natasha misses most when they're apart.

He helps her stand up and tidy away her workspace, before quickly doing the same to his own. She slings her bag over her shoulder as she joins him in heading for the door. Steve has gone ahead of them and Natasha absently wonders if he's gone after Tony, but— no, Tony is behind them, only just gathering his belongings, trying to stay unnoticed.

"Kid genius at two o'clock," Natasha murmurs, so quietly Bruce barely hears her. He glances sideways and then back to acknowledge her.

"We have our next class together. I might wait and walk with him," Bruce says.

They stop just outside the doors to wait and Natasha curls into him for a hug. He's always warm and she's always cold and hugging him is one of her favourite things. She pulls away reluctantly.

"I'll see you after class?" she asks, glancing behind them for signs of Tony. "Or would you rather I took a rain check on this one?” It's a quiet offer and it hurts part of her to ask.

Bruce immediately shakes his head and reaches out to cup her face in his hands.

"I always want you there, Natasha, you know that," he says, and it's quiet and serious and she knows that it's true. "I meant it, we'll figure it out. He just needs to get to know you."

A second later Tony appears in the doorway, looking startled when he sees them lurking in the corridor, shifting away from them automatically, his ocelot moving in front of him with a faint growl. Natasha separates herself from Bruce and smiles at Tony, trying to look as non-threatening as possible.

Bruce's smile is more natural as he says, "You have advanced math in B15 next, right? I have the same one, I figured we could walk over together. I wanted to hear the rest of that theory you were telling me at lunch."

Tony looks... bewildered. Like he can't quite figure out what this day is turning out to be.

"Uh—" he says, eyes darting between the two of them. Natasha feels sorry for him, he's clearly overwhelmed.

"Come on," Bruce says to Tony, ignoring his confusion. "If we don’t hurry we'll be late."

He leans in to kiss Natasha, light and quick, and she smiles at him, eyes soft.

"I'll see you later," she murmurs quietly, and steals another kiss before she darts away.

Bruce and Tony start walking towards their classroom and Tony tries to find a tactful way to phrase what he wants to ask. Because: your girlfriend actually doesn't seem too bad, but has she really killed people? Are you sure she doesn't want to kill me? just seems so blunt. And the Natasha he'd just seen with Bruce seemed so different from the few other times he'd been forced to interact with her.

Bruce prompts him gently about the theory and Tony slowly picks up where they were interrupted earlier, explaining the rest. It takes a minute but he gets back into it, hands starting to gesture as he describes the experiments being done and what he thinks he'd do differently. Bruce has thoughts about Tony’s thoughts and they're still mid-flow when they arrive at their next class. They slip in as the teacher is about to close the door and Bruce nudges Tony towards two seats next to each other near the back of the room. They sit down and pull out textbooks and calculators, their conversation on hold again.

Bruce likes advanced math, likes the elegance of the formulas and the puzzles that are there to be solved. He suspects that Tony probably finds it easy, his brain seems naturally suited to calculations.

They're working on a complex set of calculus problems and it keeps the entire class quiet. The thing Bruce likes most about his advanced classes is that they're smaller and everyone's there to work, so there are fewer interruptions than there are in his others.

He finishes the third problem of the set with five minutes to go and decides not to start the last one, he doesn't have time, he’ll do that one at home. A glance around shows his classmates either finishing the problem he's just completed, or the one before it. Only Tony, when he looks at him, is finishing up the last one. His hair is wild from running his fingers through it repeatedly and he rubs at his eyes as he sets down his pencil.

Bruce catches movement through the door window, a flash of blonde hair that moves in and out of sight so quickly he could've imagined it. He knows he didn't, Steve's there to meet them. He feels as if he should prep Tony in some way, doesn't want to blindside him or make him feel trapped.

"Hey, Tony," Bruce says quietly, waiting for the younger boy to look up at him. Beside him, his daemon has gone still. Silver raises her head and breathes out reassuringly, nudging Tony's ocelot briefly with her nose.

Tony settles, but barely. "Yeah?"

"Steve's waiting for us outside," Bruce says, inclining his head toward the door. "He really wants us all to go and get something to eat after school. We usually do," Bruce adds, so Tony knows this is an invite to join an existing gathering, not something awkwardly created just for him. "So he's probably going to ask you when we get out of here, I just wanted you to know. It would be good if you came."

Tony doesn't seem to know what to say. It's been a while since he's been able to hang out with people other than Jarvis, and his father keeps Jarvis busy so Tony spends a lot of time alone. He's just not really sure he trusts this group of people — why take an interest in him now? they've been going to school together for years — even though Bruce has been really nice to him. He could talk more to Bruce about science, he supposes, if he decides to go.

The bell picks then to ring and Tony packs his things slowly, letting most of the other kids filter out before him. Bruce waits patiently until he's ready and then leads the way to the door. Steve is out there waiting, just as Bruce said, and Tony tries to smile at him, hopes it doesn't come off as a grimace. Friday winds around his feet, comfortingly familiar.

"Hey," Steve says, and for just a second Tony swears he looks nervous. Tony has no idea why he would be, but he’s intimately acquainted with nervousness and he knows that's what he saw. Steve pushes on.

"I don't know if Bruce mentioned, but we usually go get food after school. Do you want to come with us?"

Simple, straight-forward, and Tony thinks he's going to say no thank you, until he opens his mouth and what comes out is, "Ye-- yes. Please," he stumbles a little. It's not often he gets to surprise himself.

He wants to kick himself for being so awkward but Steve's smile is as bright as the sun and Bruce looks pleased. Tony kind of likes that he was the cause of both.

"Awesome," Steve says, "We're meeting a couple of the others there."

Tony sucks in a breath and wishes he'd thought this through. He hadn't really considered how many of the others might be there. He likes Bruce and Steve, even if Steve confuses the hell out of him, and sure Natasha seemed okay for a moment before, but he's really not sure about being so outnumbered.

"You know Peggy, right?" Steve goes on as he gestures for them to start moving down the hallway. "She said she'd met you before. Something to do with your parents."

"Yeah, uh, they worked together. It was a while ago though. I'm surprised she remembers."

Tony has nothing but good memories of Peggy Carter, who would come over whenever her parents needed to meet with Howard. He'd been a reserved little boy, Howard's belief that children should be hidden and unheard already beaten into him, and Peggy had been quietly, britishly, polite. Smart and interesting but not pushy. She'd reminded him of Jarvis and he'd enjoyed spending time with her.

"And Natasha's going to be there," Bruce says, "But you've met her already."

His tone implies that he knows Tony's a little afraid of Natasha but not to worry, and Tony supposes that she does seem less of a threat when Bruce is there beside her.

Tony nods, slowly, and weighs up his options, which are more or less non-existent. He's already agreed to go so backing out now would be rude, and Jarvis has always insisted upon good manners.

("The one thing money can't buy, Master Tony," Jarvis always tells him. Tony believes him and his manners have always been excellent.)

When they step out of the building into the parking lot, Natasha and Peggy are waiting for them. Peggy waves while Natasha remains still, lounging against the door of Steve's jeep. Peggy's raven and Natasha's fox are playing in the sunshine and Bruce's stag and Steve's panther bound away to join them. Friday hangs back.

You can go and play if you want to, Tony thinks to her, I think it's okay.

Friday looks unconvinced but she slinks a pace or two away from him as Steve leads them over to the jeep. Natasha moves when Bruce is close enough for her to reach out to, smiles when he wraps an arm around her. Peggy waits for them to reach her and for Steve to start unlocking his car and then says, “It’s been a long time, Tony. How are you? I’m so glad you’re joining us.”

It’s an unexpected kindness that throws him back in time, and it takes a moment before his ingrained manners assert themselves.

“I’m fine,” he says. “Studying, working on some projects, the usual. It was kind of you to invite me, it’s nice to see you again.”

“It’s going to be a squeeze,” Steve warns Tony as he opens the door. “I mean, it always is, none of these lazy so-and-so’s have bothered to get their licence.”

“Not my fault they keep failing me,” Natasha shrugs carelessly, ignoring the look of outrage Steve sends her way. She’ll never concede that she might not be the safest driver.

Bruce rolls his eyes, both at Natasha and the statement and points out, “I have a licence, Steve, I just don’t have a car to go with it.”

“Besides,” says Peggy, who’s in the process of taking driver’s ed this year, “That’s why we have you, Stevie.” She smiles, a little too sweet, and Steve grumbles at her as he shoos them all into the car.

“Tony, you go up front with Steve,” Peggy says, nudging him towards the front seat. “I won’t subject you to these two snuggling on the backseat, at least not yet.”

“Although eventually everyone has to take a turn,” Steve warns, laughing at the indignant looks on Bruce and Natasha’s faces. “Except me, obviously.”

“Your turn will come,” Natasha promises, with a wicked glint in her eye that promises, when it does, she’ll make sure it’s worse than it needs to be.

“We’ll see,” he says. He doesn’t think his driving days will be endangered anytime soon.

They have a favourite after school diner, popular but not overly so, and Steve’s already looking forward to the chocolate milkshake that’s waiting for him there.

“Clint’s gonna meet us there,” Natasha says, tapping rapidly at the screen of her phone. “He’s got Thor with him.” She taps for another few minutes and says, “They’ll get us a booth.”

"Tell them to make sure it's one of the big ones," Steve says, slowing as they approach a set of lights. "We need the room."

"We always need the room," Peggy says, rolling her eyes. "There's always a lot of us, especially with these guys." She pets her raven gently, scratching the top of his head. The raven squawks and Natasha reaches out to stroke his wing.

Tony's fascinated with how comfortable they seem to be with each other's daemons. He knows his family is colder than most, but their daemons rarely ever play together the way he watched theirs play in the sun. He wonders if Friday wants that and if he's holding her back. When she nips his hand, looking irritated, Tony supposes that she might not. She's capable of speaking up when she wants something.

"Have you met Clint and Thor?" Peggy asks Tony to break the silence. Tony shakes his head. He's seen Clint around school before but he's never even heard of Thor.

"Thor goes to the other school," Steve says. "Next town over. His brother got expelled from this one and it was easier for his parents to move them together."

"Not easier for Thor," Bruce comments, and gets a round of agreement.

"His brother, Loki, is kind of a pain in the ass," Natasha offers Tony by way of an explanation. He doesn't quite know what to say but she doesn't seem to be waiting for a response. They've reached the diner and she leans forward to poke Steve's shoulder when she spots a free space.

"I've seen it," Steve says, swatting her away. "Stop it."

He pulls into the space and kills the engine, motioning for them all to get out of his jeep. Tony slides out of the front seat, Friday at his heels, and glances around. He's been to this diner before, he thinks, with Pepper and Rhodey. It feels like it was a long time ago. One of them owes the other a phone call at the very least, it's been a month since they left for college and he's only spoken to them once or twice.

"C'mon, kid," Natasha says, as she breezes past him with Bruce's hand held firmly in hers, pulling him along behind her. "Let's get some food."

She pulls open the door and walks in. Steve motions for him to follow with Peggy as a powerful voice booms, "Natasha! And Bruce! How wonderful to see you both looking so well!"

"That's Thor," Peggy says with a laugh as she pushes a reluctant Tony inside the diner. "He's never met his indoor voice, but he's a gentle giant. You'll like him, everyone does."

Tony's not so sure about that, but he gamely follows her to the booth that Natasha and Bruce have already sat down in. There's a shorter boy with muscular arms sat next to Natasha — Clint, Tony knows, their school's resident archery superstar — and another, taller boy, rippling with more muscle than even Steve carries, his hair longer and pulled back from his face. Tony supposes this is Thor, and sucks in a breath as Thor stands up to greet them. He's easily a foot and a half taller than Tony and the younger boy feels dwarfed, trapped by his height and bulk.

Thor seems to realise and gives Tony some breathing room as he hugs Peggy gently and then Steve, patting the latter on the back as he lets him go, before turning to Tony.

"I'm Thor," he says, offering his hand to Tony. "My friends reliably inform me that I can be a bit overwhelming at first so I won't hug you without asking.” His eyes are bright with an almost childish glee at the prospect of a new friend. "It's nice to meet you..?"

"Tony," Tony says, taking his hand shyly. "It's nice to meet you too. Sorry, sometimes I can be a bit jumpy."

"And this is Clint," Natasha says, introducing the other boy. "Clint, say hello to Tony."

"Hello to Tony," Clint parrots, rolling his eyes at Natasha. His smile turns a little more friendly as he adds, "Grab a seat, they're gonna be over to get our order pretty soon because they know Steve's always starving."

"I do a lot of sports!" Steve protests, although he hasn't technically had a practice today.

"Just sayin'," Clint shrugs, spotting the waitress heading over to them and motioning for Tony to look at his menu. "Don't want anyone feeling pressured, y'know?"

Tony spares a second to wonder if that's somehow a jab at him and his probably obvious insecurities, before the waitress arrives and he concludes that Clint was just telling the truth.

You really need to be a little less suspicious, Friday informs him archly from where she's curled on the back of the booth behind him. Also, get chicken. I'm hungry.

He picks a chicken burger and fries, adding a milkshake after Steve insists that he tries one. The others seem to have regular orders that they place, except Thor who studies the menu for far too long before deciding to get a cheeseburger. Steve's getting kind of antsy by the time Thor places his order and Clint snorts, kicking him under the table.

"You're not gonna die before you get fed, Steve," he says. "You had lunch, like, four hours ago!"

"Four hours ago," Steve agrees, "I'm a growing boy!"

"Your ability to pack away food is disturbing," Thor says, earning himself a betrayed look from Steve and a high five from Clint. Tony fights back a giggle. Watching them interact is more fun than he'd expected.

Their drinks are the first things to arrive and Tony takes a tentative sip of his chocolate milkshake, letting the thick, creamy liquid chill his tongue. It's as good as Steve said it would be and Tony takes another mouthful.

"See what I mean," Steve says, closing his eyes as he sucks on his straw in satisfaction. "These are the best milkshakes around here, no matter what anyone else says."

"This is Steve's favourite place on earth," Clint stage-whispers to Tony, as Steve flips him off from the other side of the table without opening his eyes. "In case you couldn't guess."

"Steve's favourite place on earth is the art room," Peggy disagrees, and Steve opens his eyes to smile at her warmly.

"Ding, ding, ding," he says, pointing at Peggy. "We have a winner. The art room is my favourite, but this is a close second."

"You really like art, huh?" Tony says, speaking up for the first time voluntarily and only entirely regretting how idiotic he sounds when all of their attention suddenly swings to him.

"I've always loved drawing," Steve says, smiling at Tony. "Everyone else hates taking art but it's my favourite part of the week."

"I don't hate taking art," Bruce hedges and Natasha elbows him in the ribs, muttering liar under her breath. His daemon growls a warning at her but it lacks heat, and Natasha's fox merely swipes back at her with his tail.

"Ow!" he says, angling away from her as he admits, "Okay, so I don't exactly enjoy having to draw things, but that doesn't mean I hate art itself!"

"I hate art itself," Natasha says promptly.

"Me too," Clint agrees.

Steve rolls his eyes at the pair of them.

"Steve's a really good artist," Peggy says, trying to break the standoff, and Thor nods in agreement. "You should get him to show you his work some time."

"Peggy," Steve protests, a flush creeping up his neck. "Tony might not want to look at my drawings, leave him alone."

"Actually," Tony says, finding his feet a little in the shifting rhythm of the group. "I'd love to see your drawings." Feeling a little cheeky he adds, "Are you blushing?"

"He is," Natasha smirks, as Steve says, "No!" and Tony laughs.

Their food arrives and Tony eyes Steve's plate with something akin to horror. It's full of food: pancakes, sausages, eggs, bacon, fries and hash browns piled high. There's maple syrup and a separate plate full of toast. Tony feels kind of nauseous just looking at it.

"Are you seriously going to eat all that?" he asks Steve in disbelief, turning to Natasha and Bruce without waiting for an answer. "Is he seriously going to eat all that?"

"He seriously is," Bruce says, nodding his head. "It's kind of fascinating to watch."

"How?" he asks Steve. "How do you not get sick?"

Steve just laughs at him and hands him a piece of toast, which he takes and bites into without thinking twice. He's swallowing before he realises what he's done, knows how comfortable he usually has to be with someone to take things from them without paying attention. He hates being handed things and he doesn't trust people.

Friday nips his shoulder to get his attention and he deconstructs part of his chicken burger to hand her a piece. He nibbles on his fries as the others eat, watching in awe as Steve demolishes the pile of food on his plate. Thor and Clint are talking to Peggy as they all eat their burgers, and Natasha's stealing food from Bruce's plate so that he steals hers back.

It's comfortable. It's nice. He wishes it could last.

If you're not going to eat that, Friday says in his head. Can I have it? She's eyeing up his burger and he shoos her away.

I know we agreed that what's mine is yours and all, Fri, but I don't think giving up my lunch was ever supposed to be a part of that deal.

He takes a deliberately large bite of his burger and then curses inwardly when he feels a wave of smug satisfaction from Friday. She's always whining that he doesn't eat enough or take care of himself, and he hates when she manages to trick him into doing just that. It doesn't happen often but it's still frustrating when it does.

Steve is happily crunching his way through the last of his toast when Thor says, "Dessert?", and Tony says, "You have to be kidding," as Steve's eyes light up.

"Dessert, Tony," Steve says absently, glancing over at the counter. "Apple pie. Real, home-baked apple pie. With ice-cream." He licks his lips at the thought of it and Tony's momentarily distracted.

He sees Natasha glance over, sharp gaze catching everything, but he does his best to ignore her. He's only been hanging out with them for an hour but he feels a strange sort of comfort with this group of people. As though he was always meant to know them and to trust them. He's not there yet or anything, he needs to know them far better than this for trust to even be a consideration, but it's more of a foundation than he's had with anyone else. It's the same feeling he had when he first met Pepper and Rhodey.

"Tomorrow we're going to watch Steve practice after school," Bruce says to Tony, quietly, as Steve swoons over the dessert menu. "Then probably hang out for a while. You're welcome to join us?"

"I don't get it," Tony says to him, keeping his voice down. He knows Natasha can hear every word but he also knows that she likely doesn't care. "Why are you suddenly so interested in hanging out with me?"

"Well, I didn't know you last year," Bruce says, reasonably. "This is the first year we've had classes together. Steve talked about you last year but it wasn't until the run up to the end, where we were neck and neck for everything, that I really started paying attention." He shrugs apologetically at Tony. "I'd only been here for a few months, and most of that was settling in and then studying for exams."

"And spending time with me," Natasha cuts in smoothly, pressing a kiss to his cheek.

"That also kept me busy," Bruce agrees, smiling at her.

"Steve's been wanting to invite you to hang out for a while," Peggy adds from across the table. Clint, Thor and Steve are deep in their own conversation and pay no attention. "He's just shy."

Tony gives her an incredulous look. Steve Rogers is not shy.

Peggy meets his eyes steadily, her smile demure, and waits for him to realise that what's on the surface isn't always all there is. It takes Tony a few minutes to accept that Steve gets nervous just like he does.

Peggy's lessons to him have always been quietly taught.

"So, tomorrow after school?" he asks, to change the subject.

"Baseball practice and then we'll find somewhere to hang out," Clint agrees. "There will be snacks."

"If they're talking about practice, bring a warm jacket," Steve advises, tuning back into their conversation now that his dessert is on its way. "It gets cold on the field if you're not running around."

"We have blankets stashed in the jeep," Natasha adds. "You should still bring a warm jacket, but the blankets help and there’s enough for all of us."

Tony can't quite believe that he's willingly going to watch a baseball practice. Friday gives him a look that threatens him with actual bodily harm if he says anything stupid in the next ten minutes, so instead he thinks about watching Steve play and about how he'll look in motion and bites his lip before those thoughts go somewhere they probably shouldn't. Both Peggy and Natasha look a lot more amused than he'd like them to when he lifts his gaze from Friday's and he suspects his crush on Steve isn't as much of a secret to these two as he'd like it to be. Pepper had been like that too, he thinks, always knowing things he didn't necessarily want her to know almost before he knew them himself. He thinks maybe it’s a girl thing.

Steve and Thor's desserts arrive and Steve hands a second fork to Tony, pushing his plate towards him.

"You have to try this," he begs. "Then you'll know what I mean when I say it's the best pie ever."

Tony thinks about shaking his head, pushing the plate away. But instead he takes it and claims a forkful of apple pie and vanilla ice-cream for his own. Steve's watching him with lights dancing in his bright blue eyes, happy just because Tony’s trying this stupid pie that he holds so dear. Tony thinks Steve really does love this diner a lot more he should.

The pie ends up being exceptionally good, which Tony tells Steve honestly when he's asked. Steve beams.

"Hey, Tony," he asks then, quietly, smile falling from his face as he toys with his own forkful. "Will you meet me before school tomorrow? I want to talk to you."

"Why?" Tony asks, eyeing him with suspicion.

"Because we've been going to school together now for years and we've never had a proper conversation on our own," Steve says without hesitation. "Because there's something about you that always catches my attention lately and I don't know what it is, but I'd kinda like to find out."

Tony knows what Steve means because it sounds like the way Steve catches his attention, no matter what he's doing. He thinks it's probably been happening to him a lot longer than it's been happening to Steve.

"I could get to school a bit earlier," Tony agrees, after a minute. "What time?"

"I can pick you up if it's easier?" Steve suggests, but Tony shakes his head. Howard likes him to be chauffeured to school because, well, actually Tony doesn't know why, but it's not something he cares enough about to start an argument.

"That's okay, I can get there," he says, not wanting to bring his family into the conversation. For whatever reason, unless they're particularly good at hiding it, none of them seem all that interested in his family's money. It's a rarity.

"Meet you in the parking lot at eight?" Steve suggests, and Tony nods, hesitant but happy.

Steve's smile returns, wide and bright, and he goes back to his apple pie, polishing it off after offering it to Tony twice more and being refused both times.

Tony leans back against the back of the booth, letting the sounds of their conversation wash over him as he pulls out his phone to text Pepper and Rhodey. He sends Guess what... I'm hanging out with the popular kids. Who'da thought it? to their group chat, followed by I think I'm in the twilight zone, but it's kinda nice, y'know? They’re nice. I miss you guys. Neither of them read it right away but he knows they're busy and they'll get to it later. Most of their conversations happen in the evening.

"We gotta think about making a move if Steve's gonna have time to drop us all off individually," Clint says, smiling lazily at Steve, who rolls his eyes and shakes his head.

"You can get a lift back with Thor, you miscreant," he says, shoving Clint with his foot. "But I'll drop everyone else off. Bruce, you're going to Nat's anyway right?"

Bruce nods and Tony's just piping up to say it's okay, he can get himself home, he doesn't need to put Steve to any trouble, when Steve turns to him and says, "You and Peggy live sort of close to each other. And Nat lives next door to me, so it's really not any trouble."

He eyes Clint with a grin as he adds, "This one lives on the other side of town and Thor's going that way to get home. That's why I'm not driving him and he damn well knows it."

"You love to hate me, Rogers," Clint sing-songs, stretching in his chair. Peggy ducks as he narrowly misses hitting her in the side of the head and Clint apologises with a wince.

"Definitely time to go," Natasha drawls, poking Clint with the toe of her shoe. "Or else Clint's gonna get us all in trouble."

"Again," Peggy smirks, eyeing the archer. "You know, for a guy who’s famous for his aim, Clint…"

"That's instinct, baby," Clint argues, miming shooting an arrow. "That skill was born in my bones."

"So's the level of bullshit you conjure up," Natasha rolls her eyes. "Let's move out, boys. I have a boyfriend to make out with and you're all in my way."

That gets everyone moving. No one wants to get in Natasha's way, no matter how much she likes them or they like her.

They collate their money together in the middle of the table and it's on the tip of Tony's tongue to offer to pay for it all, when Peggy catches his eye and gives a minute shake of her head. He drops more than enough money into the table to cover his meal and his share of the tip, and follows when she beckons him aside, wondering what she wants.

"These aren't those kinds of friends, Tony," Peggy says, gently but firmly. "They don't want your money, just your company. Bringing money into it will just make it awkward for everyone."

Tony has met people who want only his money and people who want both his money and him, but he's never met anyone who really has no interest in the first one.

"Trust me, Tony," Peggy says, and he thinks he might, possibly, trust her a little. "Or at least trust me for a week or two, and wait before you start throwing your money around."

A week or two is a laughable amount of time to assume they’ll still care about him, but Peggy seems to be implying that this isn't a temporary thing. He does now have plans before and after school tomorrow and he can’t remember the last time that happened, so maybe it will last for more than a few days. Her raven daemon lands on her shoulder and Tony looks at him for a long moment, thinking back to the drive over.

"You let Natasha touch him," he says then, still semi-scandalised at the idea. He doesn't want anyone touching Friday or thinking they can. “When we were in the car, she stroked his wing.”

"Sometimes my closest friends do," Peggy says, the calm to his storm. "But only the people I truly trust." She pauses to regard him seriously. "None of us would touch Friday, you know that, right? We’ve all been friends a long time, that’s why it’s sometimes different for us. And it didn’t happen all at once."

He doesn't look convinced and he knows it.

Peggy sighs.

"Look, it's different depending on who it is. Natasha can and does touch Silver," she indicates Bruce's stag, "But I wouldn't because Bruce and I aren't that close. I can touch Boo," she nods at Steve's panther, "Because we dated for a while and we got close. Not that close," she adds, before Tony gets any ideas. "But Boo trusts me. Natasha and I have been friends a long time, so sometimes she'll touch Poe, or I'll stroke Fennick. But it's rarer than you'd think." Tony’s mostly stuck on the idea of Peggy and Steve dating.

"And Steve and I broke up a long time ago, kiddo, so chin up and best foot forward," she adds as she catches the direction his mind has wandered, mischievous again in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Tony flushes and hates himself for it when it makes Peggy laugh. It's a kind laugh and she slings her arm around his shoulders as she does, squeezing him closer for a moment.

"This is going to be a whole lot of fun," she tells Tony, eyes dancing between him and Steve. He looks at her in confusion, wary of the delight on her face. "For us more than you to begin with," she admits, almost sympathetic as she ruffles his hair. "But I’m sure it'll be worth it in the end."

Tony's still not entirely sure what she means but he thinks he's not meant to be.

“Hey, Tony,” Steve calls from the jeep. “C’mon, I’m not leaving without you.”

Tony feels warmth sweep through him at the implication, even as his mind tries to tell him it’s because Steve wouldn’t leave anyone on the side of the road when they’re his responsibility. He shoves those thoughts down deep inside and lets himself believe it’s because Steve simply doesn’t want to.

He falls into step with Peggy but all his focus is on Steve, blond hair shining golden in the sunshine and eyes bluer than the sky.

Tony walks towards the future he’s starting to see open up before him, and it’s bright and warm and awash with possibilities.