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The Feline Beat

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Steve shuddered as a cold burst of air tore through the alleyway and cuddled closer against Bucky’s rough fur. Bucky perked up at the closer contact then the gray tabby reached out a paw and pulled the smaller kitten underneath him and settled down over his yellow fur. “You gotta tell me when you’re cold, Steve. We don’t want you getting sick again.”

 

Steve snuffled lightly, a wheezy purr beginning to shake his body. “It’s not so bad.”

 

Still, Bucky grumbled, just like he always did whenever he thought he wasn’t providing well enough. “I knew we should have tried to find a box or dumpster to hunker down in.”

 

“It’s okay. This isn’t so bad.”

 

“Yeah, for you maybe.”

 

Steve’s purrs cut short and he lifted his head to bump the underside of Bucky’s chin, “Are you very cold?”

 

Bucky wrapped his tail tighter around his body then leaned down to run his tongue across Steve’s head, making his yellow striped fur stick out at all angles. “Nah, it was supposed to be a joke. Now go to sleep. Tomorrow morning we’ll find something to eat and hopefully a better place to sleep before the snow comes.”

 

“Okay.” Closing his eyes, Steve buried his pink nose into the white stripe of Bucky’s chest fur. It was softer than his back and soon enough Steve found himself drifting off to sleep.

 

 

Steve was startled awake by the sound of a horn blast, and jerked his head up to bump against Bucky’s chin, which jolted his friend awake. As Steve blinked his blue eyes to adjust to the light, the bigger cat yawned, feet stretching around Steve as he pushed himself onto his paws. Still curled up, Steve watched Bucky stretch his back. He always admired how quickly his friend woke up, how he stayed so healthy. Meanwhile, Steve felt like he could sleep for another whole day and though he wanted to join his friend, he just couldn’t yet.

 

His shame doubled when Bucky sat down next to him, gray tail lashing as he sniffed the air. “Come on. We’ve got to get out of here. I think I can hear some humans coming this way.” Sure enough, when Steve perked his ears up, he too could hear big feet shuffling closer.

 

But still, “I don’t know if I can.”

 

Bucky let out an aborted hiss. “Damn it. I knew you would get sick. Here, you’re pretty small still, I should be able to do this…”

 

Steve gasped as Bucky bit down on his scruff and his body seized up as he was lifted into the air. Bucky was just a few months older than him, but he had quickly grown big and strong while Steve had stayed the runt. Though born to different mothers, Bucky had quickly adopted him. Steve couldn’t remember what life was like before the gray tomcat, but he knew that he wouldn’t have survived on the streets without him. Like now, Bucky was only just big enough to keep Steve’s curled body from dragging on the pavement but he managed it all the same and carried Steve out of the alley and into a main street.

 

It was early morning so the street was nearly human free. There were also very few cars, which was always nice and much safer. Steve watched as Bucky maneuvered them around stinking puddles and broken glass, heading north up the street to one of their familiar haunts, the back of a human food place. A lot of human food places  only threw out molding food but this one had a human who liked cats and put out only slightly old bits of meat. It was also a tricky spot, because about four other, older cats, knew about the spot, but they sometimes got lucky.

 

This seemed to be one of those times and Bucky trotted them over to a door in the alley. There was a scrap of red meat , Bucky’s favorite, in the little plastic bowl by the concrete step leading up to the door. A second bowl beside it had clean water. With a pleased murmur through a mouthful of scruff, Bucky deposited Steve beside the bowls and then went straight for the meat.

 

Meanwhile, Steve was able to unfold and squirm onto shaky paws.  It was just a few tottering steps to the water bowl and Steve started to purr at the first cool burst of water that he lapped up. Usually they had to make due with puddles or water going into the street holes after it rained, and those always tasted oily and weird. But this water tasted good and felt nice on his tongue and throat.

 

A moment later, Bucky bumped his nose against his cheek. Steve turned to see his friend with a piece of meat in his mouth. Bucky dropped it at his feet then nodded down to it as he licked his paw. “Go on and eat up. We’ll both need the energy today if we’re going to find somewhere to sleep.”

 

Steve obeyed and the red meat tasted great. Snapping it up, Steve had finished in about two minutes and he straightened up with a happy, “Thanks, Bucky!”

 

Bucky squinted down at him, pleased. “No problem. It’s what I’m here for. Now, let’s—“ the gray tabby tensed, ears flicking up. A second later, Steve heard the rustling at the end of the alley. They had company.

 

When the grown, red-furred tomcat appeared, Steve knew they were in trouble. The cat was known as Red Skull because of the color of his fur and his tattered appearance.  But even with patches of fur and part of an ear missing, the cat was notoriously vicious and partially crazy. 

 

Seeing that Bucky was frozen, ears flat against his head, Steve nosed at his side. “Bucky, we should go. Come on, while we still can.”

 

But it was too late, Red Skull had already seen them. His golden eyes narrowed and he stalked toward them, fur on his neck bristling. “You two kittens are in my territory…” he hissed low, “And you just stole my food.”

 

Steve hunched down as Bucky hissed at his side. They were trapped between Red Skull and a rickety old ladder that lead up to one of the iron balconies of a human’s home. It was the only way out.

 

“Bucky, up the ladder!”

 

Bucky bolted, clawing his way up the steep steps. Steve was a half-step behind him, adrenaline finally firing up his smaller body. It was hard to breathe, yes, but it would be harder if Red Skull got ahold of him.

 

The red-skinned cat was snarling and coming up right after them, which Steve had expected. At the top of the ladder, Bucky made the short jump to the balcony then twisted around. Red Skull was halfway up the ladder and Steve was at the top but the few inches would be tough for such a small body.  Steve tried though, but his biggest leap just bridged the gap and his claws barely hooked onto the landing. Bucky moved to help him but Steve hissed, “No, the ladder! Knock it down, quick!”

 

Bucky’s ears fell flat but he changed direction and kicked at the ladder. One more kick and the ladder was going down with Red Skull on it. Steve’s tiny chest heaved as he watched the other cat fall to the ground below. He landed on his feet, enraged, but they were away from him now.  A breath later, Steve mewled as Bucky bit onto him again and heaved him all the way onto the balcony.

 

“You are such an idiot, Steve,” the gray tabby groused.

 

“No, my plan worked.”

 

“Yeah, and it almost got you killed. Plus, we’re stuck up here now.”

 

“Better than being torn apart by Red Skull.”

 

Bucky let out a snort and pulled Steve close and began licking him clean. “Right. Well keep telling yourself that and we’ll see how you feel five hours later when he’s still waiting down there to kill us.” Steve shivered and Bucky’s eyes narrowed. “You feeling okay?”

 

“Just really tired.”

 

“Well get some sleep. I’ll keep a watch out.”

 

In the end it just took two hours for Red Skull to finish what was left in the bowls and leave. Bucky had woken Steve up, tail lashing in concern when Steve could barely keep his eyes open.

 

“We need to get you more food, maybe make the trip to Dr. Erskine.” Dr. Erskine was a veterinarian about a mile away. He had helped Steve before, and seemed to have a soft spot for the yellow kitten, but it was a long ways away and if Steve was already feeling as bad as he was... “Come on, we need to head out now.”

 

“…is Red Skull gone?”

 

“Yeah, buddy, he’s gone. Let’s go.” Bucky pressed hard on the collapsible metal ladder on the balcony, which dropped steps down most of the way down to the ground. It was always harder going down stairs, especially when the steps were right on top of each other, but they had time to be cautious now. Still, Bucky winced as he watched Steve make the final leap down to the ground. The yellow tabby landed on his feet, but collapsed from the impact. He was a shivering mess and mewled weakly when Bucky picked him up again.

 

“Sorry, Buck…” he wheezed. Unable to talk, Bucky just grunted. Steve hated to be the weak one all the time but he really couldn’t help it. His throat was always sore and itchy and there was nothing either of them could do to fix it. Bucky always said if he wasn’t so clever he would have died by now but Steve knew most of the effort put into his survival was Bucky’s.

 

They had just reached the mouth of the alley when a sense of danger pricked the back of Steve’s mind. The only other warning was a low snarl before they were blindsided by a blur of red fur. Red Skull had been waiting for them and slammed into Bucky with enough force to send the gray tabby rolling but he didn’t let go of Steve. Instead, Bucky scrambled to his paws and ran for the street. It was now mid-morning and traffic was thick. Bucky weaved through the squealing tires as best he could, Red Skull right on his tail and spitting mad. Then Red Skull jumped on Bucky’s flank, claws digging into his fur. The oncoming car couldn’t stop in time to avoid them.

 

But Bucky had enough strength to rip himself away seconds from impact and scrambled for the curb. In a last ditch effort he threw Steve forward, and Steve cried out as he hit the sidewalk, vision going dark as the car screeched to a stop.

 

He blinked his eyes open to see mass chaos. The cars had crashed into each other and with all the people around, Steve couldn’t see what had happened to Bucky or Red Skull. Please let Bucky be okay. Bucky was the only thing he had left. “Bucky!” he called out. “Bucky, are you okay?”

 

His cries didn’t reach Bucky but instead a human turned toward him. Eyes wide, Steve hunched into himself. He knew some humans like Dr. Erskine were nice, but Bucky had told him stories of others who actually liked to torture cats. This human, a male wearing a dark gray skin with a mostly white chest patch, stopped a foot from him and crouched down. Then he reached out a hand. Steve considered scratching it as it came closer—it was as big as he was and could easily kill him—but he was tired. And scared.

 

He shivered as he was picked up but the human just drew him to his chest, murmuring something low. Steve couldn’t understand him but he didn’t sound threatening.  Still, he was so overwhelmed and Steve could only curl into a ball as he lost consciousness.

 

~O~O~O~

 

It turned out the human who had picked him up that day had taken Steve away from the street. Steve had briefly woken up in a room that smelled at once too clean and also like blood and sick.

 

The next time he woke up he was in a different room, and a sandy-colored male cat was staring at him. Steve gasped and struggled to his feet. His entire body felt sore and sluggish and he couldn’t even remember how he got here. “W-Where am I? Who are you?”

 

The cat’s blue-gray eyes narrowed. “You’re in my territory and you should be telling me your name.”

 

“I’m Steve.” He tried to sit a little taller but he still barely came to the other’s chest. “Please, can you tell me where Bucky is? Is he okay?”

 

The cat shifted his weight then sighed. “Look, kid, I’m sorry but I don’t know who Bucky is. My human, Phil, brought you in here a few hours ago then left for work. You smell like our vet so clearly Phil’s taking care of you and wants me to do the same so I’m going to humor him for the time being. I’m Clint.”

 

Sniffing, Steve tried to be strong but everything was so strange. When he began to shake, Clint rumbled low and moved forward.  “Hey, hey, don’t worry. Phil’s a great human. He feeds me twice a day and it’s a lot better than being on the streets, trust me. You’ll do fine here.”

 

Steve couldn’t say whether or not Phil was a good human. He just wanted Bucky back.

 

~O~O~O~

 

As it turned out, wherever Phil’s home was, it wasn’t anywhere Bucky could reach, if Bucky was even able to reach him anymore. Steve tried not to think that negatively, especially when his life had improved so dramatically. As it turned out, Phil was a great human. The man would work a lot, but he always made sure to leave enough food for both Steve and Clint in the mornings and evenings—he even fed them his own human food if they pressed him hard enough.

 

At first, Steve hadn’t been entirely sure about him because he kept forcing a weird tasking liquid into his mouth. Steve had tried to reject the stuff at first but Phil had immobilized him with just one arm. Then Steve realized that the liquid was making his body feel better and he stopped fighting quite so much. Phil had seemed relieved and pleased and Steve found himself with a plate of whipped cream afterward that he even shared with Clint.

 

Clint wasn’t as nice as Bucky had been. Well, Bucky had never really been that nice to anyone except Steve, so maybe the two older cats were more similar than not. Clint liked knocking him over when he wasn’t expecting it, closed doors in his face, and ate more than his fair share of food. When Phil was home, he would also drape himself around the human’s shoulders, as if daring Steve to try and steal Phil away.

 

Clint really didn’t have anything to worry about, not that the older cat believed Steve when he told him so. While Steve respected Phil and liked him, he didn’t want the man to be his human.

 

Eventually, Clint seemed to figure this out on his own and relaxed a little. He showed Steve around his small outside territory, telling Steve that Phil had put up the wooden wall around the area as added protection to keep other things out. “Not that I couldn’t take them,” Clint said, ears flicking back defensively, “Some things get into our territory still and I’ve had to take them out before they reach the house.”

 

“Have you killed a lot of things?”

 

“Killed a possum once and I even drove a raccoon away.”

 

Steve didn’t know what a possum was, but he had seen one raccoon in the city before. It had been huge, quick, and mean, and the fact that Clint had stood up to it was awe-inspiring. Clint puffed out his chest a little. “Yeah, well, I had to. Raccoons are smart enough to use the same door we do to get out here.” He turned a critical eye to Steve. “I’d wait a few more years before I’d take one on if I were you though. And you probably shouldn’t come out here at night unless you want an owl to snatch you up. In fact, you’re so tiny a blue jay could probably take you out so just don’t come out here at all unless I’m with you, okay?” Steve’s ears fell and Clint laughed. “Don’t worry, it’ll just be until you get bigger.”

 

“I don’t think I’m going to get much bigger than this.”

 

“No, you’ve got big paws for a kitten. You’ll get bigger, trust me.”

 

~O~O~O~O~

 

Two years had passed and Steve did in fact get bigger. With the constant access to good food, clean water, and a warm bed, Steve found himself growing larger than Clint even, which had caused the older cat to grumble for at least…no, he still grumbled about it. He had also gotten better at hunting in their outside territory and he and Clint had figured out a way to work together at it to catch even more prey. Clint was better at climbing than any cat Steve had ever seen so he scrambled up into the branches of the tree where the birds and squirrels were. Sometimes, Clint could kill them up there but usually the animals tried to escape him by going down. Where Steve was waiting. They didn’t hunt too much because they were never really that hungry, but it didn’t hurt to practice just in case Phil stopped bringing in food one day. They had agreed with each other that since Phil was so big, it would take a lot to feed their human, so they couldn’t afford to let their hunting skills get rusty.

 

At the moment, though, Steve’s thoughts were far away from hunting. Phil was home and was on the couch with leftover Chinese food and the TV on. He had taken off his outer layer of fur and had removed the dark blue stripe on his chest. Clint had told Steve that the outer fur, which he called a jacket, shirt, and tie depending on the piece, was for protection against attack when Phil left their territory. He took it off and relaxed when he got home because that was when he was finally safe again.

 

Steve hated to think that Phil might be in danger while he and Clint were left at home, but there was very little than he could do. Right now, he was curled against Phil’s hip while Clint was, as usual, draped over Phil’s shoulders. Phil was scratching Steve’s back between bites of his food and Steve couldn’t help but purr. The couch used to seem so much bigger when he was smaller—now if he stretched, Steve could cover half of its length easily. He was usually more gracious than that, because Phil was still so much bigger and required some space and curling up beside the human gave the man access to more of his back, like now.

 

As he purred, Phil made a soft sound down to him. The only word Steve understood from that series of sounds was “Captain.” Phil called him “Captain,” just like he called Clint “Hawkeye.” Neither of them minded it—all that was really important was that they knew who Phil was talking to when he called. At the moment though, Phil had stopped petting him. Cracking an eye open, Steve saw that Phil wasn’t using his hand, it was just sitting on his thigh motionless. Leaning forward, Steve bumped his nose against the man’s arm but…nothing. Steve’s tail lashed and then he reached out his paws, grasping the man’s wrist and dragging it back onto his fur. It used to be that he couldn’t even move Phil’s fingers around but now he was strong enough to do basically whatever he wanted; not that he abused that power…unless it involved petting.

 

Still, Phil chuckled, a sound Clint had early on told him meant the human was amused, and started scratching him again so he couldn’t have minded that much. From Phil’s shoulders, Clint squinted in matching amusement and tilted his head up to nibble the man’s ear. This caused Phil to flinch and titter, scrunching up and swatting Clint weakly. Just a normal evening in their home.

 

It was out of the ordinary, then, when Phil suddenly tensed and pushed forward to the edge of his seat. Clint cried out in protest as he tumbled off the man’s shoulders. “What the hell?”

 

Steve had sprung to his feet when Phil had moved, looking around for the danger before he spotted what had made the man tense. “It’s something on the TV.”

 

Both cats followed their human’s eyes to see a picture of another male human on the screen, markings scrolling across the bottom of the screen and some in red slashed across the top. The picture then switched to a street and a house with its door open. Steve’s ears went back as he finally understood. A human’s home had been attacked. The picture of the human was probably either the human who had been attacked or who had done the attacking. Steve wondered if the house had been raided for food, or if the man had been killed, or if the man had any young or a mate who had been killed.

 

Then Phil’s phone rang on the wall in the kitchen. Phil sprang up to answer it and Steve wrapped his tail around himself, blue eyes turning to Clint as the other cat muttered, “There goes our evening.”

 

Clint rarely admitted it but their time with Phil was obviously the older cat’s favorite time of the day. Both of them knew that whenever Phil got a phone call, there was a 50% chance he would leave the house for hours.

 

“I think the call must be about the house invasion,” Steve said, ears flicking to stay trained on Phil as his eyes went back to the TV. A number of humans in matching jackets had surrounding the house. They weren’t doing anything bad to the house so they were probably part of the local clan and were trying to track down the person who had invaded the house. Clint had told him that was Phil’s job; to help other families when something bad happened to them. It’s why he occasionally came home smelling of a stranger’s blood.

 

“Yeah, well, whatever it is, he’s still leaving.” The two cats watched as Phil grabbed up his tie, jacket, wallet, and keys, ear still connected to the phone. He was talking quickly and urgently into it, and after another minute longer, he placed the phone back into its rest.

 

Then he was walking over to them and scratching them behind the ears. He said something low and regretful and Steve immediately knew that this was one of the times that Phil would be gone for a long time. Clint seemed to realize the same thing because he spun around and jumped off the couch, completely snubbing Phil. Steve tried to make up for it by gently butting his head against Phil’s hand. The man smiled and gave him once last pet before leaving the house.

 

Steve found Clint outside, the smaller cat huddled into himself, perched on the metal table Phil used for meals on warm days. It was hard to be graceful as big as he was, but Steve clambered up onto the nearest chair and then stepped up onto the table to stand beside Clint. “You know, you should try to say goodbye to him. If his work is as dangerous as you say it is, there could be a time when he doesn’t come back.”

 

Clint’s tail lashed out and his ears flattened as his lips curled into a growl. “Don’t say that! Phil is great at fighting! He never comes back hurt.”

 

“I know, but even good fighters get hurt sometimes…” Steve’s mind went straight to Bucky. He didn’t think about his friend too much anymore but the loss had never gone away. He had never forgotten—he had just realized that he needed to put the sharpest part of the grief behind him so that he could function in life.

 

Clint sighed, shifting his paws to tuck them further underneath his body to keep them warm. “Yeah, I know.” He probably knew just as well as Steve. Phil had pulled them both from the street. “It’s just…I don’t want anything to happen to him. He’s a good human. It’s just frustrating that he always leaves without taking us with him. We could help.”

 

Steve nodded, “We could. But since we don’t know where he’s going exactly, I doubt we could run out now and find him.” The bigger cat’s shoulders hunched some as a cold breeze passed through the yard. “Now let’s go back inside. It won’t do anything for Phil if we sit out here shivering.”

 

Clint grumbled but got to his feet only after a few prods from Steve and together they made their way back inside.

 

~O~O~O~O~O~

 

The sun had already risen in the sky when the front door rattled. Steve was sleeping on the couch and started awake at the sound. Clint was upstairs on Phil’s bed so it was understandable if he didn’t wake up as Phil stepped into the house. Jumping off the couch, Steve trotted over to the human, stopping a few feet away from the man when he noticed a carrier in his hands. His ears flicked back in confusion. Usually a carrier meant a trip to the vet, but that wasn’t their carrier. Phil hid their carrier in the garage. This one was a dark gray and more curiously, there was something moving inside it.

 

Phil looked exhausted, which was not surprising since humans slept when it was dark and he had been out all night.  The man had bags under his eyes, but he still smiled at Steve when he padded over. “Hey, Captain,” he said. The carrier in his hand shuddered.

 

“What do you have?” Steve asked. He knew Phil couldn’t understand everything he said—just like Steve couldn’t understand all of the humans’ language—but Phil seemed to get the gist.

 

He set the carrier down and let out a soft series of words. Steve took it to mean that this was a gentle situation. Then Phil popped open the carrier door and Steve peeked inside to see a cat.

 

The male cat was smaller with dark brown fur and he was staring at him with honey gold eyes but what was most startling was that the cat had a glowing blue something on his chest. It was probably part of his collar, which itself was red with gold fastenings. Steve sat down just outside the carrier. He knew how big he was and remembered how scary it felt when he was small. “Hello? What’s your name?”

 

The cat’s eyes narrowed and he shuffled around, away from Steve so he was facing the back of the carrier. Steve noted he had a musk he had never smelled before—oil mixed with a coppery scent that was almost like blood but more like metal. Whatever natural smell the other cat had, however, was predominantly overpowered by the smell of vet. The cat might have been traumatized by whatever the vet had done to him. He was probably frightened by the unknown location.

 

Steve tried again, placing one paw on the plastic threshold of the carrier. “My name is Steve. It’s alright. You’re safe now.” His tail twitched behind him as he tried to think of the right word. “This would be a much easier conversation if I knew your name, or if you can even hear or speak.”

 

“Go away.”

 

The voice had been muffled, but Steve was pleased to hear any response. The other cat’s voice was low, a growling undertone indicating that he was not happy. “Can I at least have your name?”

 

“Tony.”

 

“Okay, Tony. Well, you can stay in there for as long as you want. It looks like Phil is heading up to his bed, though, so I don’t think anyone’ going to bother you if you come out. If you want to rest on something a little bit softer, I’ll be on the couch. You’re free to join me if you want.”

 

With that, Steve moved back to the couch. He curled up on the far left side, just in case he would need to share. Resting his head down on his front paws, Steve closed his eyes. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to pressure Tony. Better to let him move around on his own schedule.

 

 

It seemed like only minutes before Steve felt a dip in the cushion and woke up to see Tony watching him suspiciously from the far cushion. Out of the carrier, Steve could see that Tony was sleek and compact, with shining dark brown fur rippling down his body. His tail was also surprisingly thick and fluffy given the length of the rest of his fur. And the glowing blue device was actually embedded into the other cat’s chest. It gave off a steady whir that reminded Steve of the laptop Phil pulled out some nights.

 

Steve had thought that Tony would have continued to give him the cold shoulder but it seemed as though the smaller cat was ready to talk. “My human’s name is Bruce. He calls me ‘Iron.’” Tony’s fluffy tail wrapped around his dark paws, “He’s a genius, almost as smart as me. Someone kidnapped him yesterday.”

 

Steve’s ears went back in concern. “That was your house on the TV last night?”

 

“Probably. There were cameras all over the place.”

 

“Cameras?”

 

Tony’s eyes narrowed, though Steve wasn’t sure if it was in amusement or irritation. “Oh, wow, you’re one of those cats. A camera. The machine that puts images onto screens? Hasn’t your human ever used a webcam?”

 

Steve tilted his head, “A what?”

 

“Great. My human was stolen and now I’m stuck with you. This, this is just great.” With a snort, Tony padded over to the remote control and pressed the red button at the top.

 

The TV flickered on and Steve watched Tony as the other cat carefully inspected the screen. A pair of male and female humans were sitting at a desk and talking to the screen…er, to the camera, and Tony was looking at them so intently. “What are you doing?”

 

“Watching the news. You said my house was on the TV, so I’m hoping they’re still talking about it. My human was pretty important, so there really should be something.”

 

“…You can understand them?”

 

“Mostly. The words at the bottom help too.”

 

Steve started, “You understand the markings too?”

 

“Uh, yeah, it’s not that hard. Once I figured out that the marks on my collar said ‘IRON,’ it only took a few weeks to match the rest of the humans’ sounds with each marking. There!” Tony cut himself off and waved a paw at the screen. “At the bottom, that says ‘Bruce Banner,’ that’s my human.” His golden eyes narrowed as he watched the words scroll as intently as if it was his next prey. “Damn. It’s just showing the time he went missing. They don’t know anything more than I do.”

 

“…That’s amazing.”

 

Steve’s breathy compliment dragged Tony’s attention away from the screen, gold eyes wide before he shifted his weight. “It’s nothing special. I just decided to do more with my life than eat, poop, and sleep. Besides, it’s not like its helping me now. Can’t even go after my human…”

 

Tony’s ears and tail had drooped as he had spoken and Steve couldn’t help but walk over and settle down beside him, offering some physical comfort. Sighing, Tony leaned into him, muttering under his breath, “And you’re big and warm…great.”

 

Ignoring the other’s mutters, Steve focused instead on trying to comfort him. “It’s alright,” he said. “My human Phil helps people. He brought you here so that must mean he’s helping find Bruce. Phil will track him down.”

 

Tony’s tail whipped in agitation. “Still. Bruce saved my life and I need to repay him the same favor.”

 

The glow from the thing in Tony’s chest was casting a strange blue light across the gray couch. Steve wanted to touch it, to see if it was warm like a laptop. But he resisted, because though Tony didn’t seem to mind him next to him, he certainly would take offense if Steve tried to get to his chest. But he still wanted to know more. “…Did Bruce put that thing in your chest?”

 

Tony nodded, the motion quick and aborted. “Yeah. It’s called an arc reactor. One day he was in his laboratory working. I was screwing around like always but I knocked a metal container of a cesium mixture into a sink. Turned out the sink still had water in it and the whole thing exploded in my face. Literally. I passed out and when I woke up I had the reactor in my chest but I was alive and Bruce was happy.”

 

“Well, I’m glad it’s there then.”

 

“You won’t be saying that once you get to know me better.”

 

Shrugging his shoulders, Steve closed his eyes. “I probably still will.”

 

~O~O~O~O~O~

 

The next few days, Phil was out of the house a lot. The only reason he came home was to wash, eat, and sleep. Luckily, he remembered to feed them. There had been one time, about two years ago, that Phil didn’t come home for about six days. Steve and Clint had figured out how to get to their dry food so they could have managed but still, it was nice when Phil did it for them (after that, Phil had only been gone for such a long time once or twice, but every time another human stopped by to feed them and clean their litter box).

 

This time, Steve didn’t mind if Phil was out because that meant he was looking for Bruce and the more he got to know Tony, the more Steve began to worry about his human. Tony was brash, loud, and curious but he was also incredibly smart, brave, and clearly loved his human dearly even if he didn’t say it in so many words. Clint also got along well enough with Tony once he found out that he was actually the larger of the two. It had been a while since Clint had someone he could tussle around with—Steve tried to play fight with him but he was just too big, heavy, and strong to make it in any way an equal fight—and Tony found himself the target of sneak attacks. The darker cat took it more as a declaration of war, though, and reciprocated with attacks of his own which usually involved props of some kind to try and trap Clint.

 

Steve also found himself admiring Tony in ways he had never found himself admiring anyone. Sure, Clint was a handsome cat, but Steve had grown up with him and he was more of an annoying older brother. But Tony was different. Tony was new and brilliant and sleek and Steve took any opportunity he could to touch the other cat.

 

Like right now, Tony was lying sprawled out in a patch of sun on the kitchen tile by the back door and Steve padded over to him. “Can I join you?” he asked.

 

Without opening his eyes, Tony grunted and wiggled over about an inch. Making sure all of Tony’s paws and tail were out of the way, Steve lay down beside him. In the sunlight, he could barely make out the glow of the arc reactor, but Steve did see a few strands of fur on Tony’s head that were slightly out of place. Feeling bold, Steve leaned over the other cat, “Hold still, your fur’s a little messy.”

 

“It’s always messy, though this time it’s completely Clint’s fault, bastard jumped me in from the stairs,” Tony mumbled. Nevertheless, he held still as Steve began grooming him with his tongue.  Steve began to purr as he did; Tony really did have a great, unique scent. Tony squinted at the sound. “You really are a big softie, you know that?”

 

Steve paused just long enough to reply. “Never said I wasn’t.”

 

“I guess you didn’t. Still, what are you doing in this little apartment with Clint when you could be outside impressing all the ladies?”

 

Steve’s purrs receded as he thought the question over and he pulled his tongue away from Tony’s back long enough to give an honest answer. “I guess I don’t need to. I was born in the streets and it wasn’t that great. Besides, I doubt females would be lining up for anything I have to offer.”

 

“Are you kidding me?” Tony rolled over so that they were nose-to-nose, interrupting Steve’s grooming. “You’re not kidding, are you? I’m sure all the females you’ve met have been panting over you.”

 

“Well,” Steve’s ears flicked back and he looked away. “I haven’t been around a female since I was a kitten. I mean, one came into our yard once, but she saw Clint first and I left them alone after that.” And that afternoon had been the most awkward in his life, knowing his friend had been having sex just outside. Clint had made it seem so easy too, just ‘Oh, hello there,” one minute and ‘Get out of here, Steve’ the next. Neither of them had even been in heat.

 

Tony was staring at him now. “How old are you?”

 

“Four years, I think. I’ve seen four winters.” If you counted the one on the streets and the one right now.

 

“So you’ve had two years, at least, and have free access to the outside. Why don’t you have a whole army of kittens by now?”

 

“I’ve been busy. Why is this so important? Do you have an army of kittens already?”

 

“Probably. But really, you’re just so…” Tony looked up and down Steve’s body, “that. You’re just so that and you’ve never been with a female.”

 

“No, Tony. I’ve never really had an interest. Now can you roll over? You’ve already ruffled the patch I was working on.”

 

Tony huffed but rolled back over, “Okay, but we’re not finished with this conversation. We have got to get you laid, Steve. Seriously. It’s not healthy to be as old as you are without having ever sowed any seed.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Steve threw his paw over Tony’s back, keeping him pinned as he continued.

 

~O~O~O~O~

 

It had been two weeks since Bruce had been taken. Phil still was out more than he was home, and his absence was beginning to wear on Clint especially. The older cat spent most of his time on the man’s bed now, content to wait for his owner where Phil’s scent was strongest.

 

Meanwhile, Tony’s anxiety was also increasing as the days went on. Tension was building in his muscles and he had begun to exchange eating for pacing and muttering. The television was always on, and every five minutes at least, Tony would stop in front of it, flipping through the different programs to try to find any information he could.

 

Steve tried to comfort the dark-colored cat but it seemed as if the closer he got, the more Tony’s temper flared. The other cat clearly wanted to be left alone and so Steve had begun to keep mostly to the kitchen and the outside, trying to give Tony the space he needed in the family room.

 

This morning, Steve was stretched out on the bricks in the outside. The early spring sun had warmed them just enough to be comfortable, and, with little else to do, Steve was allowing himself to doze. Then his yellow ear perked up when he heard the sound of an engine nearby. They lived in a complex with many other houses like theirs, pressed up against each other, so hearing an engine wasn’t too out of the ordinary. When he heard a door shut, however, he sat up. That sound was close, as close as when Phil came home.

 

It was strange, because it was still very early in the day, but it would be good to see the human and so Steve picked himself up. Slipping into the kitchen through the small cat door, Steve padded into the family room and sat down by the front door. Tony had been pacing when he came in rather than staring at the television and so saw him coming. “What are you doing?”

 

“Phil’s home, I think. I heard a car pull up.”

 

Tony snorted, “You’re more like a dog than cat. Of course, you’re big enough to be one.”

 

Steve’s ears flicked back. “That’s uncalled for. It’s not a bad thing to show you care about your owner.” His ears swiveled back to the front door as he heard the doorknob rattle. “He must be tired though if he’s having that much trouble with the knob.”

 

Just as he finished talking, the rattling stopped and a dark chill clenched around Steve’s throat. Something wasn’t right. Even when tired, Phil didn’t just give up when coming inside the house. A second later, Steve snarled as a hooded human appeared in the window. Tony looked up at the sound, his own dark fur bristling at the sight of the human pressing against the glass with his hand, the stranger’s dark eyes flashing between the two of them before settling on Tony. Tail lashing, Steve whipped back to stand in front of the smaller cat. “Do you know him?” he asked, rumbling low.

 

“No. Shit!” Tony hissed out a curse as the man drew his arm back, a shine of metal the only warning before his hand came down and shattered the window.

 

“Run, Tony!”

 

Tony tore back to the kitchen, Steve hot on his tail as the human reached through the window to wrench the front door open. He watched as Tony skidded across the tile, going too fast to gain any traction, and darted to his side, ramming into him to force his body in the right direction. He got a fluffy tail smacking his face as thanks but at least Tony was scrambling out the cat door, into the safety of the outside. Then Steve followed him and realized he was wrong.

 

Another human male had gotten into their outside territory. And currently had Tony by the scruff, holding him a good five feet in the air. Tony was snarling and thrashing, claws out and sharp but the man was wearing long gloves and didn’t seem to be bothered.

 

Steve saw red and attacked. He might be wearing gloves on his hands, but he had jeans on his legs and Steve knew humans could feel claws through that. The man howled as he hooked his claws in but Steve only bit down in retaliation. He was large enough to get to the man’s knees without trying and he held nothing back in his attack. He had gutted birds and rats before so he knew he would at least be able to do some damage.

 

Then, from above, he heard Tony yowl, “Steve! Look out!” It was all the warning he got before a sharp force hit his side. It felt like he had been struck with a live wire and he could feel wet-hot pain as he tumbled to the ground. He wobbled onto his feet to find that the man who had come in through the front door had joined them, one hand clutching a long stick that was snapping with electricity at the end. His other hand was holding a fabric bag, about the size of a pillow case.

 

While Steve was still shaking off the shock, the man holding Tony dropped him into the bag. Tony tried to fight but there was little he could do and the last Steve saw was a flash of scared golden eyes. “Tony!”

 

“Steve!”

 

Realizing that he had heard his name from two directions, Steve snapped his head up to find Clint in the tree. Somehow he had snuck past them but how didn’t matter to Steve. “Clint, get Tony!”

 

Clint’s eyes narrowed and then he was leaping from the tree at the arm holding the bag. As his claws sunk into fabric and flesh, the man holding Tony shouted and released the bag. It fell to the ground with a hard thump and Steve tried to get to Tony but the men were screaming at each other and then Clint was being thrown into him and they both hit the ground. By the time they got up, the men were climbing over the wooden wall encircling their territory, Tony in hand. Growling, Steve got onto his feet and forced himself into a run. The second man cleared the fence just as Steve leapt at it. His front paws hooked over the top and it was only a matter of digging his back claws into the wood to throw himself over the wall.

 

He had never been outside their territory in all his time there, but his attention was on the men as they threw Tony into the back of a van. He had to get in there before they drove away.

 

Then he noticed a blur of sandy-colored fur as Clint jumped from the tree branches to the outside of the wooden wall. Clint took in the situation with one look and darted toward the front of the car, jumping into the front seat and startling a shout out of the human in there. The one who had put Tony in the back immediately stopped what he was doing and went to aid his friend, giving Steve the few seconds he needed to leap into the back.

 

Tony had been shoved into a metal carrier. The arc reactor in his chest was the only thing lighting the back of the car, revealing it to be full of boxes and bags, and Steve climbed over a duffel bag to get to the carrier door, ears pinned back to his head as he panted. “Tony. Tony, how do I open this?”

 

From the other side of the bars, Tony swallowed, neck craning to look at the mechanics. “You need to push down on the top piece while pulling up on the bottom.” His dark paw reached between the bars to press down on the top switch, “Try getting the bottom one.”

 

Steve had just gotten his paw on the bottom switch when Tony’s ears flicked back, gold eyes going wide. “Shit, one of them’s coming. Get out of here!”

Hissing, Steve turned his attention backwards and, sure enough, footsteps were returning to the back of the car. He wasn’t going to run, leave Tony behind, so as Tony spat out a curse, he ducked behind the carrier. He tucked himself in as tight as he could but he knew how large he was. What if the man saw? That shock-stick had really packed a wallop and Steve was in no rush to experience it again.

 

But no, the door opened then closed with a definitive click and within the minute the car’s engine roared then settled into a rumble and the car was moving. Steve waited a moment then slunk back to the front of the carrier. Tony was glaring at him, though Steve could smell the pheromones of his lingering terror. “Why the hell didn’t you run?”

 

“I couldn’t leave you.”

 

“You should of. It won’t do either of us any good with you stuck in here with me.”

 

“Whatever’s happening, we’re going to do this together, Tony. It’s okay.” Tail wrapping around his legs, Steve leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the metal bars. Tony thumped his head against the other side.

 

There was a moment of silence where they both just listened to the car’s rumbling lurches before Tony muttered low, “Sorry for getting you into this mess…”

 

“This isn’t your fault.”

 

“It is though. They clearly targeted me. Whatever’s going on, I’m pretty sure it has something to do with Bruce.”

 

Steve blinked, lifting his head and breaking contact with Tony to ask, “How do you know?”

 

“This is pretty much the same thing that happened the night Bruce was taken. They had that electric prod and knocked Bruce unconscious. I don’t think there are the exact same guys but…shit. Sorry. I didn’t , you got hit with the prod too, are you hurt?”

 

Steve looked down. His left flank had two small charred points of fur where the prod had hit. It was still a little painful and the muscles around the area kept twitching, but…he’d live. “I’m okay.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Seeing that Tony was trembling, Steve leaned forward again, pressing his muzzle against the bars and flicking his tongue out far enough to reach the fur on Tony’s cheek. Tony flinched then leaned into it, an aborted purr rippling through his body as he closed his eyes.

 

“I’m going to get you out of here, Steve,” he rasped. “I promise.”

 

“We’ll both get out of here, you’ll see.” Steve curled around the front of the carrier, pressing as close as he could to the bars as Tony did the same from the inside. If he closed his eyes, Steve could pretend that he couldn’t feel the cold bars between them and that they were still safe and sound in Phil’s house. He could only be thankful that Clint hadn’t gotten caught up in this mess along with them.

 

“After we survive this, can we have sex?”

 

Steve started from his light doze, fur bristling in surprise as he shifted his feet, tucking them under his belly. “I, uh, I don’t know if that’s possible for two males, Tony.”

 

Tony sounded smug as he shifted himself, poking his nose through the bars to nudge at Steve’s shoulder. “I’m sure we could figure something out.”

 

“…Why the sudden interest?” His voice wasn’t cracking, really.

 

“Just trying to give myself enough incentive to put up a real good fight when we finally reach wherever it is they’re taking us.”

 

“Oh, Tony.” Turning his head, Steve bumped their noses together.

 

“So is that a yes?”

 

“I’m not opposed to the idea of taking things slow.”

 

“Good. Great. Okay then, we have a plan.” With one last nuzzle, Tony broke away to lay his head on his paws. The back of the van went dark as his lay over his arc reactor. “Might as well save our strength for when we need it then.”

 

Nodding, Steve settled down himself. There really was very little more they could do at the moment. And Tony was right. Who knew what was coming? Best to get rest while they could.

 

~O~O~O~O~

 

Steve woke to the sound of car doors opening and closing. Hearing steps coming around to the back of the van, he scrambled behind the carrier and over a box further back, nestling behind one that looked big enough. From there he watched as the two men opened the door to the back, revealing a large expanse of grass, trees, and a wooden house. One of the men grabbed Tony’s carrier and hauled a hissing and spitting cat out of the car. The other grabbed a duffel bag and then they turned their back and started walking toward the house. Steve took this as his cue to move and he darted out of the car. He had no idea where they were but he quickly identified a large bush with flowers to hide behind.

 

He waited until they had closed the door to the house behind them until he slunk out and for the first time took a good look around. He had never seen so much green in his entire life. It was a little unnerving, in all honesty, and he could easily tell there were more than just possums and raccoons in the trees beyond the house.

 

So he stuck close to the house, padding around the walls, looking for an open window or at least somewhere he could see. Turning another corner, he found a clear glass door. It was closed, but he could see inside.

 

Hunching down to make himself look as small as possible, Steve peeked into the room inside. It looked as if he was looking into a kitchen, but the room beyond was what caught his attention. A man was sitting at a desk, metal bits and pieces scattered across its surface. He was staring up at one the two men from the car on the other side of the desk, talking quickly as the other man shook Tony’s carrier.

 

The dark-haired man sitting down had to be Bruce. Maybe they were threatening Tony to make Bruce do what they want. But there was something about what was on the desk that was important. One of the pieces of metal had the same blue-glow as the arc reactor in Tony’s chest. Steve’s ears went back. Maybe they wanted Bruce to make another one for them. What if they tried to take it from Tony?

 

Ears falling back, Steve pressed a paw against the glass door. The glass was thick, he probably wouldn’t be able to break it. He needed a way in, then. None of the doors were open, though, so he would have to get them to open the door for him.

 

With this thought in mind, he trotted back to the front of the house. There wasn’t much to the front—a patch of dying grass, an overgrown concrete walkway. But off to the side was a smaller building, no bigger than the bathroom in Phil’s house but standing alone by itself. Beside it was a giant plastic barrel, a trash can, like the ones he remembered from the city streets. And it was overflowing with cans. Approaching the pile, a yeasty, rotten scent reached his nose and Steve sneezed. Phil’s “beer” had smelt similar, but while his owner only drank the liquid after particularly long days of work, these men seemed to drink it every day. By the dozens.

 

Nevertheless, it was exactly what he needed right now. Bracing himself, Steve bobbed a few times to make sure his calculations were correct then jumped at the can. He landed right where he wanted to, right on the edge, making sure to rock back as he landed. For the first time, he was happy he was bigger than Clint and Tony because his added weight toppled the can over. Beer cans rained down over his body as he scrambled to get away before he was smothered. Managing to get away from the pile with only a few extra bruises, Steve continued to run, circling the house.

 

The falling cans had been noisy. Even a human could have heard them. And yes, there was the sound of shouting and the front door opening and two people exiting. Steve had taken the long way around the house to avoid them and as he rounded the last corner to reach the front of the house again he saw that yes, the front door was open.

 

His lungs were burning, but he didn’t dare slow down and plowed into the front room, a blur of yellow fur. Tony’s owner started at the sight, flailing back and toppling his chair over but Steve darted straight to the couch, the only piece of furniture in the room that could properly hide him.

 

Once he was squeezed between the couch and the wall, he finally allowed himself to breathe, panting as he tried to collect himself and access the new situation. He was inside. That was a good first step.

 

This house smelt much worse than Phil’s, like piss and other refuse, reminding Steve more of the alleys of the city than anything else. Pulling his legs under his body, he ducked his head and peered out from beneath the couch’s frame. Bruce had sat himself back up, though it had to have been difficult since his legs were attached to the chair with thick, clear-white bands of some sort. There were no other human feet visible yet from under the couch, but Steve had no doubt that the other men would be back sooner rather than later. It didn’t help that his view was partially blocked by a strange metal shape on the underside of the couch, but seeing something was better than nothing.

 

“…Steve?”

 

The call was tentative, but it still helped to settle Steve’s pounding heart to hear Tony’s voice.

 

He dared to call out from where he was, “Yes, it’s me.”

 

“Steve! You’ve got to get out of here! If they find you—“

 

“We’ve been over this, I’m not leaving without you. Tony, I—”

 

Tony cut him off with a hiss and Steve froze as a second later, the men burst back into the room. They were agitated, but not outwardly angry, although the burlier of the two aggressively slammed his hands on the desk Bruce was at and started talking to him in harsh tones. In contrast, Bruce’s voice sounded fractured and timid, but Steve could hear the clank of metal as he assumedly got back to work.

 

The second man, meanwhile, was walking over to the couch. For a moment, a spike of fear shot down Steve’s spine and he feared that he had already been discovered. But no, humans had no sense of smell or hearing and the man only twisted and fell onto the couch with a dull thump. Steve’s ears fell back as the couch jolted against him, his bones and muscles protesting at the pressure. Flattening himself against the floor as much as possible, he breathed in a fresh lungful of air then closed his eyes, realizing that there was one flaw in his plan.

 

If the men were always guarding Bruce, he would have no opportunity to help.

 

But, they had to eat and sleep, right? There were only two of them—there would certainly be a chance for him to strike. His hopes were dashed not five minutes later when his ears caught the sound of another engine. Too soon, the front door opened and three more men stumbled inside carrying something heavy by their grunting and heaving.

 

Then they dropped it and Steve had a good view of the thing’s thick metal legs. He had no idea what it was besides big, metal, with lots of dials on it, but Bruce seemed to know what it was because he immediately turned to it. One of the new men, the one wearing shiny black shoes, began talking to Bruce and Steve’s chest clenched when he heard something being shook and Tony yowling. Bruce called out and was rewarded with a hit to the face. Steve could only wince—he didn’t know Bruce, but from what he had seen and from what Tony had said, the man did not deserve to be treated that way.

 

But there was little he could do. Now that there were five men, he would have to simply wait and see what happened.

 

 

Steve shifted his feet yet again, trying to keep his blood flowing as it should. He had been behind the couch for hours now, drifting between a light doze and wakefulness whenever someone moved.  Bruce was never left alone. The only change in the situation had been that they had finally let Tony out of the cage. Steve had been overjoyed to see that—it meant that Tony had some freedom in case he needed to run, but it was almost torturous watching Tony on the other side of the room, the other cat’s golden eyes constantly locked on one of the kidnappers. Tony had looked his way only once, which was good but hard because it meant he had remained undetected, but Tony was still in possible danger.

 

It had also been hard to watch Tony and Bruce get fed. He didn’t begrudge them for eating, but he had to curl into himself to keep his stomach from rumbling. If he had known that he was going to miss dinner then breakfast (because it had at least been a full night since they had come here), Steve would have filled himself up when he still had access to food. Releasing a quiet sigh, Steve tucked himself into a circle, tail covering his nose. He could always dart out and just start causing mayhem, but he was afraid that would only put Tony and Bruce at unnecessary risk.

 

 If he could hold out for just a little longer, surely the situation would change. He didn’t regret coming into the house—he would have never been able to forgive himself if he had done anything differently—but this rescue was not going well.

 

A few more hours passed before Steve heard the faint sound of an engine outside. He shook off his daze, watching as Tony’s ears swiveled back toward the sound. The sleek, dark cat did little else to show he had heard, however, besides sidle up closer to Bruce and lean against his leg.

 

Did this pack of kidnappers have more members? If they did, Steve might have to act now before the numbers were even further stacked against him. Or maybe added bodies would be able to add to the chaos? No, it would only be bad for him. For Tony and Bruce as well.

 

He needed to do something.

Steve struggled to his feet. He hadn’t eaten, slept, or moved for over a day and had been beaten up in the meantime. But that wasn’t going to stop him from doing what needed to be done. Steve reached the edge of the couch, mind whirring. There were currently two of the kidnappers in the room. One was at Bruce’s desk, watching him work. For all the time Steve had been awake, he had never seen Bruce stop working with his tools and metal bits, the only exception being to eat the two meals that had been brought to him and to go to the restroom three times. The other kidnapper, the black-shoed man was on the couch. Steve couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not, though by the relaxed state of his feet and the fact that he hadn’t shifted in a long while, he might be.

 

Steve could deal with two humans. He was no longer the little kitten anymore. And Tony would help him, he was sure of it.

 

Bracing himself, he had just stretched one paw beyond the couch when the front window broke and a small metal can was thrown into the room. The only warning Steve had that it might be dangerous was Bruce, who had scooped Tony into his arm and thrown his arms around the startled cat. Steve pulled himself back behind the couch when the room exploded with light.

 

A heartbeat later, the front door was broken down and humans were pouring inside, metal tools held in outstretched hands, shouting and forcing the kidnappers to the ground. Steve could hear similar shouting throughout the house, and his pounding heart hitched with relief when the light died down and he saw Phil enter the room, a smaller metal tool in his hands.

 

This was Phil’s group of men. They were safe now.

 

As the man from the couch was pulled to the ground, Steve watched as Phil walked over to him, voice slower and calmer than any of the people had used so far. What Phil didn’t seem to see, however, is the black-shoed man, whose arms had been forced to the ground, shift his hand under the couch and reach for the metal shape. Which now that Steve was paying attention, was actually the same tool in Phil’s hands.

 

Fur bristling, Steve squeezed forward underneath the couch and bit down hard on the man’s hand, hard enough to taste blood and muscle. The man howled and pulled his hand out and Steve with it. Phil made a noise in the back of his throat then called one of his men to him before he crouched down and pulled Steve into his arms.

 

Steve yowled—he could have taken the man down entirely—but Phil only hoisted him up to his shoulder and began petting his back. Steve settled at the gentle caress, watching over Phil’s shoulder as some of his men, well, a red-headed female, broke the bonds holding Bruce to his chair and helped him stand. Bruce was still clutching onto Tony, the other cat’s blue light shining against his purple shirt.

 

They were safe.

 

O~O~O~O~O

 

Phil rubbed his forehead as he moved to another pile of paperwork. The terrorist group, an underground operation known as the Ten Rings, had been particularly advanced and cunning. First off, they had been seeking top-of-the-line technology that Dr. Bruce Banner was only just developing. Apparently, Dr. Banner created the arc reactor for patients with weak or non-functioning hearts but this group wanted to use it in their weapons as a near-limitless power source. They had been lucky to have found the doctor when they did—before the Ten Rings had gotten functioning weaponry.

 

Of course the only reason they had found Dr. Banner and the safe house in the first place was Captain. Feeling said cat shifting on his lap, Phil smiled and scratched the golden tabby under the chin.

 

When Phil had returned home after another 12-hour workday he had been alarmed to find the window by the front door shattered and the door slightly open. Hawkeye had been sitting right on the welcome mat and had yowled when Phil had approached, but both Iron and Captain had been missing. Phil’s paranoia about his pets had been the saving-grace of the night because the GPS chip in Captain’s collar had been what had led them to the Ten Rings hideout.

 

And Captain had been safe. Ravenously hungry, thirsty, and tired, but relatively unharmed.  There was a patch of burnt fur on his side (the fact that someone had hit his cat with something like a cattle prod enraged  Phil), and the veterinarian had said that he was slightly tender as if bruised, but nothing was broken and he wasn’t sick. Not to mention, Captain had saved him from a bullet to the chest. Smiling softly, Phil put his pen down onto his desk then scooped Captain off his lap, cuddling him close. At nearly 20 pounds and almost as big as a Maine Coon, Captain was a handful, but he was a gentle giant. “You’re a good cat.”

 

Captain began to purr, the vibrations rattling Phil’s rib cage. Phil knew he should have brought the cat back to his townhouse already but he had needed to finish some things up in the office and wanted to keep Captain within sight for a little while longer. Luckily, there had been a can of tuna in the staff longue so the tabby seemed content enough to wait it out.

 

And after a few more hours’ work he was almost ready to go. The last thing was an interview with Dr. Banner himself. He had been cleared from a medical check a few hours ago, but had been giving multiple interview of his own, so Phil could only imagine how he was feeling. In fact, they would probably both need some coffee. Fortunately, as a senior SHIELD agent, he not only had his own office, but had his own coffee maker as well.  It was one of those fancy K-cup devices, but it worked well enough.

 

Placing Captain gently on the ground, Phil walked over to the coffee machine and got his own cup started. Captain wound around his legs for a bit then suddenly stopped, ears perking up as his head turned toward the door. A moment later there was a timid knock.

 

“Come in,” Phil called out, smiling a little when Dr. Banner poked his head into the room. “Hello, Dr. Banner, how are you holding up? Coffee?”

 

“Uh, hello, good, I guess, considering, and yes. S-Strong, if you have it, please. And do you mind…?” Stepping all the way into the room, Bruce revealed that he was holding a carrier with Iron inside. “I don’t want to leave him alone…”

 

“It’s perfectly find, Dr. Banner. In fact, go ahead and close the door behind you then let your cat out. He and Captain know each other.”

 

Bruce glanced down at Captain then nodded, hesitantly, stooping down to set the carrier down and open the door. Iron immediately shot out and jumped at Captain and Phil was scared he was attacking his cat until Iron knocked his forehead against Captain’s and then twisted around him. Chuckling at the sight, Phil turned back to Bruce, who was watching the exchange with a blank sort of look that had to have come from the trauma of the past few weeks.

 

“Dr. Banner, please, sit down. Here,” handing him a cup of coffee, Phil sat back down on his desk. “Now, Dr. Banner, I’m sure you’ve already described your past few weeks to excruciating detail, so I won’t ask you to repeat any of that. I requested you to come here because we need to discuss what your plans are for the future.”

 

“The future?”

 

“Dr. Banner, you are a brilliant man working on extraordinary discoveries and our sources tell us that Ten Rings was not the only group interested in your arc reactor technology.”

 

Bruce groaned and sunk back into his seat, running one hand down his face. “God, I shouldn’t have even said anything about it to anyone…”

 

“We find that things introduced to the scientific community very quickly spread and become twisted for other unintended uses. I have no doubt, however, that your research will do a great deal of good for those in need.”

 

“You’re right, and I know, it just…has had a very high personal cost.”

 

“We understand, and we’re going to try to mitigate future dangers as much as possible.” Opening the file on his desk about Dr. Banner, Phil nodded. “It says here that you live in a small apartment on the south side of the city and that you work at the university. That’s a long commute each day.”

 

Bruce shrugged self-depreciatingly, “A researcher at a university works long hours for not much pay. It was all I could afford. Plus, I have no idea what I would do with a big house.”

 

“SHIELD has a proposal for you that I think could benefit everyone, then.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“I currently live in a complex of condominiums, townhouses. It’s quiet, mostly working families, and just a five-minute’s drive from the university. SHIELD has just bought out the entire row, four houses worth of townhouses. I would like you to move next door. The unit is three bedrooms, two bath, washer and dryer, complete with a two car garage. One of my agents, Natasha Romanov will be moving in to the house on the other side of you. She’s one of the agents who was present for your rescue and is fully up-to-date on the specifics of your case. Either she or I will drive you to and from work until we decide that the situation has grown a little less serious. Your close proximity to us will also ensure some amount of security, especially since we will have the entire block of townhouses wired with the best surveillance system available.”

 

Bruce blinked then adjusted his glasses. “I-I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

 

Phil smiled. “Be my next-door neighbor. The rent’s free and you’ll have room for a home laboratory. Our cats get along.”

 

Bruce glanced down at Captain and Iron. Iron had flopped onto the floor, eyes shut and purring as Captain groomed his flank. Bruce laughed at the sight, a cracked, anemic noise but a laugh nonetheless. “SHIELD won’t harass me, will they?”

 

“Only if you keep your volume on high past midnight.”

 

Bruce laughed again, the sound stronger this time, and then nodded. “I can try it out for a bit.”