Tony Stark was in the middle of a board meeting when Natasha called, because believe it or not, Tony didn't actually leave everything to Pepper. It wasn't the Avenger emergency line, but a normal call. That didn't mean it wasn't important, but it meant he could ignore it and check his voice mail later. Just because he was being responsible didn't mean that he wanted to drag out this meeting any longer than he had to by taking a call.
She called again.
He sighed, motioning to Pepper that he'd be back in a moment. When she glared at him, he waved it off. "Ms. Rushman," he said quietly.
The glare turned to a worried nod, which Tony also waved off. Stepping out of the room, he answered the call. "If it's important, make it quick. I'm in a board meeting."
"There's been a problem."
"Always straight to the point, Natalie," Tony said sarcastically as he watched her roll her eyes at him on the small screen.
"AIM has reorganized."
Tony went completely still, fighting down the rage that nearly overwhelmed him. "Killian?" he asked curtly, forcing his fingers to relax out of a fist.
"Still dead," Natasha confirmed.
"Well, there's that at least." It wasn't much considering how AIM had hurt Pepper and Happy and stolen one of his armors, but at least the bigger monster was still dead.
"A few of the other scientists have regrouped, and they're calling their new leader the 'Scientist Supreme'," Natasha said. "Cap and I were sent to confirm it."
"And how's taking a walking flag for stealth missions working for you?" Tony asked, leaning against the wall nonchalantly despite the panicking urge to grab one of his new armors and stay in it. "And 'Scientist Supreme'? Isn't that a bit egotistical? Even I wouldn't be caught dead with a name like that."
Natasha ignored him. "Just get back soon. There's been a complication with one of the weapons they were using."
"Roger that," Tony said with a sigh. So much for being responsible today. He cut the call and went back into the meeting, sliding back into his seat just as the budget was brought up. Except now he couldn't concentrate. All he could think about was AIM. He kept sneaking glances at Pepper, just to make sure she was okay.
When the meeting ended, everyone filed out but Pepper. She stood awkwardly, because they still haven't figured out what they were to each other now. The wounds were still too fresh. "Mr. Stark-"
Tony flinched at the name, at the reminder that he'd still failed even when he was trying so hard to make it work. "Don't..."
Pepper closed her eyes and took a deep breath. His name still came out a little pained, but it was an improvement. "Tony, what did SHIELD want?"
Tony looked away. Their working relationship was strained as it was without this added on top of it. "AIM is back."
"AIM!" Pepper nearly shouted. "Is Aldrich-"
"Someone new." He didn't say Killian was dead, but Pepper looked down at her hands anyway. She would know. She was the one who had killed him, and Tony would take that burden from her if he could. "I can't..." she said, taking another deep breath. "I can't deal with this right now. Not from you."
"Okay," Tony said. He reached out to touch her, but halted midway. "Then I'll-"
"I've got to go," Pepper said, cutting him off as she gathered her papers. "I'm sorry. Have Natasha give me an update, but I can't... I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too," Tony whispered to her retreating back.
Tony sank down into the chair, pressing the heel of his hand against his eyes. He wanted a drink badly, ever since he and Pepper called it off a week ago. But things were so busy that there hadn't been time for getting Break-Up Drunk. And now, he had to go back and look at whatever weapon Natasha insisted was his problem. "I don't even do weapons anymore," Tony told the empty room. At least he could pour himself a drink when he got back to the tower. Natasha never said he needed to stay sober for this project.
* * *
The project needed scotch. Lots and lots of scotch. No, delete that. This called for something stronger. He was stealing Natasha's vodka she and Bruce kept brewing in an attempt to get Steve drunk, because this was not something Tony was prepared to deal with.
"Why is there a cat in my living room?" Tony asked. The cat was in his chair, getting cat fur everywhere.
"I told you there was a problem," Natasha said as she perched on the arm of the chair and stroked the cat's head. It started to purr loudly.
"This is not a problem," Tony said furiously. "This is leaving. Now. Before there's more fur over my things."
Natasha was unimpressed with his tantrum. "The cat is Steve."
Tony blinked. Then he blinked again. Then he went straight to the bar and poured the strongest drink within reach and knocked it back like a shot. He was not near drunk enough to deal with this. He poured another. "He's a cat?"
"He's the cat," Natasha replied.
Which meant Tony couldn't actually kick the thing out, no matter how much fur it got on his favorite chair. Tony looked the cat over, the indignity of the situation rising further. Steve was huge. He was a white and orange-spotted massive monster of a cat. Jesus, Steve had to weigh at least twenty-five pounds. Tony was sure if their positions had been reversed, he would have been a small black kitten that every superstitious asshole in New York would kick, because the universe hated Tony that much. But no, it loved Steve. Steve looked like he could still take on Hitler, but with claws rather than a punch to the face.
Tony sat down heavily on Clint's side of the couch, because it was the furthest away from the chair with furry animals. "Okay, so that happened. No wait. What happened?"
Natasha started to scratch the cat's chin, and Tony could hear the damned thing purring from this distance. Seriously, purring that loud would give the front lines a run for its money. Tony was pretty sure he could hear it from the other room. "Is Cap this loud in the bedroom too?" he asked.
Natasha ignored him. "AIM was testing something called an Infinite Improbability Drive. I'm not sure what it was-"
"Hold up. Infinite Improbability Drive?" Tony asked incredulously. "As in Heart of Gold, sperm whales and unfortunate potted petunias Infinite Improbability Drive? Seriously?"
Natasha obviously didn't get that reference. "You've heard of it? Can you remake it?"
"I..." Tony said, thinking over the implications of this. "Okay, they get nerd points for actually doing something awesome this time. Though taking ideas from Douglas Adams probably isn't actually useful." All the same, Tony was just a little gleeful to get his hands on the device. "I don't think I could reverse the polarity of it without seeing the one they made," Tony said, finally answering her question.
She got that reference, though she just rolled her eyes. "Then he's stuck as a cat until we find their blueprints. Some idiot shot at Steve just as they turned the machine on. It... turned into a redwood tree."
Tony shook his head sadly. "That's why it pays to have proper shielding." It was a hilariously brilliant idea until the machine itself wasn't there anymore to change things back because of its own programming. AIM really needed to work on their tech's fatal flaws.
He'd barely blinked, and suddenly Natasha was holding up an annoyed and sleepy-looking Steve from under his front legs, his back legs dangling in the air. The cat had startlingly blue eyes, and his orange-tipped ears flicked as he yowled his displeasure.
Tony scooted back on the couch, pressing himself as far away from the cat as possible. "Why are you bringing it closer?" he asked.
"Him. And Rogers left provisions for what would happen if he was incapacitated. He made you team leader," Natasha replied. "That makes this your problem."
Tony was so stunned that he automatically took the cat as she thrust him forward. "He what? Why would he..?" Tony sputtered, looking down at the cat. It stared back at him with a bored expression, flicking its ears again. Damn, he was heavy. Tony looked back at Natasha. "He doesn't trust my plans further than he can throw me, and that's in the suit, much less handling a simple mission with the team. Why would he make me the leader?" Tony asked, honestly baffled. "He always hates my plans. You've heard him."
Natasha's eyes softened for a brief moment and the cat's ears laid flat against his head as he hissed softly. Then Natasha shrugged. "That's what his instructions said."
"Huh." Looking down at the hissing creature he still held at arms' length, he wondered what the hell Steve had been thinking. The cat looked pissed, and Tony wasn't sure letting go would be a good idea. "He doesn't have fleas, does he? Wait, does he know how to use the litter box or-"
"Your problem, Stark," was all Natasha said.
Carefully, he put the cat on the ground as far away as he could. It turned its tail in the air and stalked off, curling up in a patch of sunlight. Tony was just petty enough to consider ordering JARVIS to darken the windows. "How much of Cap is in there?" he asked, eying the demon in distaste.
"He's more intelligent than the average house cat, but beyond that, we don't know," Natasha said. "We tried Morse code to talk to him, but he doesn't seem to be able to follow it."
"So we're stuck with a Kitty-Cap until you guys get the blueprints?" The cat raised its head, looking at the edge of the couch with what could only be called a calculating expression. "You claw my furniture and I will declaw you," Tony muttered.
"That sums it up. Clint and I will be searching," Natasha said. "Thor's looking for a more magical cure."
"And The Cat Who Saw Red, White, and Blue is my problem, I know." That earned him the ghost of a smile from Natasha. "You know, I don't know anything about pets, right? I've never..."
"You'll be fine," Natasha replied. "You have the internet. The internet's not for porn, it's for cat memes."
Well, she had a point there.
* * *
He had JARVIS order everything the internet said a cat would need from the local pet shop, then scanned for fleas, ticks, and anything else a cat might infect him with. At least the scans came out clean. And Steve appeared to know what a litter box was, even if he glared at it distastefully. The collar, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.
That was when Tony realized Steve had six claws in each paw.
"Jesus Christ, you would be a fucking Hemingway cat," Tony said as he held a towel to the scratch marks on his arm. What were Steve's claws made out of, vibranium? "Look, the law says you need a collar and you're a cat from Brooklyn now, Cap. I get fined by the city enough as it is."
The damned cat just laid his ears back flat and hissed from under the couch.
"Look, Kit-Kap, you're a cat. Cats wear collars. I'm not tying a bell to your neck or anything," Tony pleaded. But there was no response other than another hiss from a pair of glowing eyes.
"Fine, yes. Stay under there for all I care," Tony said, sitting on the floor and leaning against the couch with a sigh. He felt pathetic, and he hated feeling pathetic. This was the last thing he needed after breaking-up with Pepper. "JARVIS, what am I doing wrong?" he asked plaintively.
"I believe it might be best to let Captain Rogers calm down before you try again, Sir," the AI replied.
"Clint was in the circus, wasn't he?" Tony lifted the towel to look at the scratches. They were a vicious shade of red, but the bleeding was slowing.
"Agent Barton is looking-"
"For the blueprints, I know," Tony said, really wishing he could get another drink. But if he had too much more, he'd be in no shape to pilot the armor if his teammates needed back-up, and he wasn't desperate enough to risk that, not when they were already down Captain America.
"I just... I don't know anything about pets, JARVIS! Even the dog I made when I was a kid was a crappy robotic knock-off." His dad's exact words, and Tony hated himself a little for repeating them. Tony looked down at the collar he'd dropped on the floor. It was blue with little stars, which must have been JARVIS's idea of a joke. If Tony had been in a better mood, he'd have approved.
Tony reached out for it with his good hand, sighing lightly. "Tell me when our furry leader decides to stop clawing everything. I'm going to..." Tony hesitated. In normal circumstances, he'd call Pepper. He closed his eyes, taking a shuddering breath. He could do this without asking her for help or asking (begging) her to give it one more try. He could. "I'll be trying something down in the workshop."
"Very well, Sir."
Tony glanced at the couch before heading down. His workshop was home. A place he could find his footing, so long as he didn't think about all of the times Pepper had come down to get him to sign something or curled up against him as he showed her a new schematic. Thankfully, the memories weren't as strong here as they would have been if his house in Malibu had still been intact.
Putting the collar on the table, Tony regarded it carefully before starting to program the fabricators.
"Sir," JARVIS said fifteen minutes later. "Captain Rogers is coming out from under the couch. Would you like to try again with the collar? If so, I would suggest having a treat in hand for a distraction."
"You saw how he turned his patriotic pink nose up at the cat food, J," Tony said, putting the newly made name plate in the water to cool it off. "I had to cajole a cat from the Depression era into not wasting food before he even went near it."
"Very well, Sir. I'll stock up on more plasters and antiseptic."
"Your faith in me is overwhelming," Tony said as he reattached the name plate to the collar and headed upstairs.
"I do try to be supportive of your endeavors to the fullest of my abilities, Sir," JARVIS said with the right level of sarcasm to make Tony wonder if he'd given JARVIS too much personality.
"Take two," Tony said as the elevator opened. He strode out into the main living area, expecting to find an unruly cat to deal with. He wasn't quite expecting the 'I just broke a potted plant and please don't hit me for it' look the cat was giving him though. Steve's ears were low to his head, but he didn't hiss and his tail was curled around him pathetically as he tried to duck his head behind it.
Tony immediately looked around to see if there was any destruction, potted plants or otherwise. "Okay, did you just find out cats can't live off of apple pies and freedom? Or did you break something? Tell me you didn't break something."
At the sound of Tony's voice, the cat ducked his head lower. "Jesus, it's just a collar. Looking pathetic won't get you out of wearing it."
Steve's tail whipped about angrily, but it soon returned to its earlier position so he could hide his cute little nose in shame. Tony approached the cat cautiously. His arm had stopped bleeding, but it still smarted like a bitch, and he was in no mood to get a matching set on the other side. He kneeled down, eying Steve's polydactyl claws with trepidation. "This is for your own good, okay? If someone attacks the Tower and you somehow make it down to the street, we need to be able to find you again."
The cat just pushed himself further into the ground, looking miserable. Tony sighed, holding the collar up for Steve to see. "I put your shield on the back of it, even. You like your shield, right?" He turned the name plate over so that Steve could see the small star circled by red and blue on the back.
Steve lifted his head a little, leaning forward to sniff at the metal. If the little bastard hadn't nearly clawed his arm off an hour ago, Tony would have thought it was cute. "So can I put it on you this time without getting mauled?" Tony asked.
Steve just went back to pressing himself into the floor.
Well, it was now or never. Tony braced himself, then reached out to slip the collar around Steve's neck. Steve's ears twitched, but he didn't lash out this time and Tony was able to fasten the collar and make sure it wasn't too tight before he got thwapped by an angry tail.
"See? Not so bad," Tony told the cat, who proceeded to look absolutely miserable as he gave a pathetic mew. "No, don't give me that look. You clawed me and - fine."
Sulking and miserable Cap was bad enough to deal with. His kitten counterpart's eyes were even worse. Ignoring the fact that Steve's paw could probably go all the way around his knee and dig in, Tony scooped up the fur ball of misery and went over to the couch. He sat down, leaving the cat in his lap. "You claw me again and I'm taking you to the pound," Tony muttered darkly.
Steve's ears flattened, reminding Tony a little of the Scottish fold that one of his girlfriends had owned. That had been one of the saddest cats Tony had ever seen.
"Oh, come on," Tony said, starting to pet the cat with long strokes. "You're a cat. Life's not that bad. You can sleep and eat as much as you like. Free vacation."
Steve mewed again, a sound that would make even the happiest clown sad. Hesitantly, Tony scratched behind Steve's ears. Cats liked that, didn't they?
Steve didn't scratch him this time. After a moment, he pushed up into Tony's hand and the genius switched to scratching under Steve's chin. Tony was slightly startled when a soft purr started. It wasn't as loud as when Natasha had been petting him, but Tony would take what he could get. "So you'll barely give me the time of day as a human, but you'll let the shady businessman pet you as a cat. I see how it is."
Steve hissed, and Tony immediately grabbed his front paws. "No claws," he said firmly, watching as the pathetic expression returned. He put Steve's paws on his chest, and the cat stood, leaning up to lick Tony's goatee with a rough tongue. "Watch it, Cap. You'll give me ideas. Ideas that generally require you to actually like me, which we both know isn't true."
He settled into the couch, petting Steve until he could put a motorboat to shame with the noise of his purring. It was surprisingly soothing to Tony as well. Steve would have been a much better dog, Tony thought. There'd be less claws that way. Privately though, Tony was glad the Infinite Improbability Drive had given him a cat for a teammate. Tony wasn't all together sure he could handle a non-mechanical dog. The noise would be-
"Ow!" Tony grabbed Steve's paws where they'd been kneading his chest. "I'm pretty sure I saw a claw clipper in the bag JARVIS ordered," he said threateningly.
But Steve merely rubbed his head against Tony's cheek. He should go back down to the workshop and work on upgrades for the repulsors. But this was the first time Steve was willing to spend time with him. The cat could have gotten up by now, but since Tony was the only human around to give him affection, he was apparently making due.
"Well, this is a low even for me," Tony said softly. "The one time I get Captain America's approval, it's because I'm the only one in the room to - Hey!"
Tony pulled back his hand, sucking lightly on the finger Steve had bitten. "Right," he said flatly, resuming his petting carefully. "Next time I know better to assume."
He didn't know which hurt more - the bite, the scratches, or the fact that even as a cat, Steve only barely tolerated him. Tony still didn't go down to the workshop though, because with Pepper... with Rhodey on a mission and Bruce somewhere in South Africa, he was pathetic enough to take what physical affection he could get.
* * *
There was a pressure on his chest and he couldn't breathe. The arc reactor wasn't working, and he couldn't...
Tony woke up screaming, violently pushing the weight off his chest as he fumbled with his shirt. But as he pulled it up, there was no blue light bathing the room. "JARVIS," he choked out. "Pep-"
"You took the arc reactor out last New Year's, Sir, and you are in New York, not Afghanistan. Ms. Potts no longer stays at the Tower. Your heart is fine."
Pepper wasn't here anymore. His heart was not fine.
Still, it was enough to pull Tony out of the nightmare's grip. His heart proved how fine it was by beating loudly as he shook, but he could barely make out the sound of hissing over the noise.
So that had been the weight on his chest. Kit-Kap.
Tony sat on the couch, shaking and trying to catch his breath. Eventually, the hissing was replaced by plaintive meows. Steve was a moody cat. Tony thought the internet search JARVIS pulled up said it was female cats who got mood swings.
"Sorry," he said finally when he had the breath to speak. His voice trembled. "That was... I... Christ."
Tony nearly jumped half a foot as Steve pushed against his arm. Steve didn't hiss this time, but continued to rub against Tony's unscratched arm, purring. Tony reached a shaky hand to pet Steve, who crawled into his lap again. When had he fallen asleep? Tony didn't even remember feeling tired, and now his neck was stiff.
"You - You're quick to forgive as a cat," Tony said, his voice only slightly hysterical. "Do cats hold grudges? I'm pretty sure some cats do."
Steve just purred louder.
His hands didn't stop trembling, even as he pressed the heel of them into his eyes. He needed a drink. Or Pepper. He wanted Pepper more.
Tony picked Steve up and set him to the side, making his way to the bar. His hands only shook a little as he poured a glass of straight whiskey without ice, and he threw it back like a shot. The whiskey burned his throat as it went down, the fiery pain nothing like the water that had burned his lungs. "Yup. That was what I needed," Tony said, this time getting some ice. He brought the bottle back with him, flopping down on the couch. He'd needed this for the past couple of days.
Steve looked at him with those eery, unblinking cat eyes that glowed faintly in the dark. He meowed.
"What? No stern disapproval from Captain Americat?" Tony asked. "No rousing lecture on the evils of drinking to a poor, lost soul?"
Steve just looked at him with an extremely unimpressed expression that only cats could ever fully master. His back arched as Tony pet him after downing his drink.
"Yeah, meowing probably wouldn't be as stirring, but here I thought everything I did rated the Cap Frown of Disapproval," Tony said.
Steve's ears lay flat against his head as Tony poured more whiskey. "There we go. I'm always ready to be a disappointment. I've had so much practice at it."
It didn't take long for the whiskey to replace the adrenaline flowing through his blood, not when it'd been more than a few hours since his last meal. He smiled as the alcohol quickly made its way to his head, slowing all the nightmares and other thoughts down.
He raised his glass to Steve, whose ears were still flat. "To being an eternal fuck-up and disappointment. What's the use in trying when I'll never get it right in the first place?" He drank his toast, smiling faintly as the nightmares failed to grasp his increasingly slippery thoughts. Being sober for Pepper had been so over rated.
He managed to finish about half the bottle before a furry impediment started to block his way. "Sorry, Kapka, but cats can't have alcohol. I'll get you some 'nip later. Did you get that reference? One day, Steven Rogers woke up to find himself transformed into a monstrous feline!" Tony said, trying to remember what years Kafka had been writing. Then he decided it wasn't worth drunkenly chasing after.
"You're a bit precious when you get a reference," Tony confided. Then he leaned back. "Is that a thing I say? Precious? Hm, only if there's rings involved. Forget I said that."
He reached for the bottle again, but pulled back uncertainly when he heard hissing. Tony was a pretty happy drunk though, and the cat wasn't in a suit of armor that could hit back, so he pouted. "Caaaaaap. Come on. Don't be a spoilsport. Be a cool cat."
When he reached for it again, Steve nipped at his hands in a clear threat. "See if I get you the good kitty drugs."
Tony, however, was not going to be cut off by a cat. He just had to have a new plan of attack. If he stood up, he could get around Steve (or simply get a new bottle). That was a good plan.
But as he started to stand, a twenty-five-pound furry missile hit him right in the chest. Balance is apparently a thing only sober people have, because Tony was knocked back on the couch with a small 'oof.'
He glared at the cat who landed on his feet, still standing on Tony's chest. That was what had started the nightmare in the first place. The cat glared back. Finally, Tony's eyes watered and he blinked. There was too much intelligence in those blue eyes. Tony must be drunker than he realized to be imagining that.
Then Steve started purring loud enough to wake the whole Tower. He butted his head against Tony's chin gently, kneading his chest without his claws going too deep this time. "What? Did I miss Cap-cuddle time? You're cutting me off because you want attention?"
Steve didn't reply. He just kept affectionately nuzzling, determined to get his way. Stubborn bastard.
"I can pet you and drink at the same time," Tony grumbled, but it was admittedly a lot of coordination to pet Steve, so he didn't know if he could back that claim up. And now that he was lying down again, he didn't particularly want to go anywhere.
For the second time, Tony fell asleep petting a purring Steve Rogers.
* * *
His second awakening was just as unpleasant as the first, but this time it was a hangover, not nightmares, that plagued him. His mouth felt like something had crawled in and died there, and his head pounded furiously. Still, it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, and he probably had Steve to thank for that.
There was a quiet hissing next to his ear. Speak of the devil.
"He's waking up on his own," he heard an amused Natasha say. "You don't have to warn me off."
Tony didn't open his eyes, but he moaned as cool fingers ran through his hair. "Any reason for Cap's literal hissy fit?" Tony croaked when Steve hissed again.
"He's been hissing at anyone who comes too close to you," Natasha replied. Tony cracked open his eyes to see her smiling wryly at him. She was holding a cup of water and a couple of pain killers.
Forget what he always said about Thor, Natasha was his new favorite.
He swallowed the pills dry and downed the glass. Theirs was an interesting relationship. After the battle of New York, he trusted Natasha Romanov with his back, but not his secrets. In return, she learned his secrets anyway, but kept the ones Tony didn't want others to know to herself, so long as he gave her the occasional password or authorization card for a shady organization SHIELD couldn't hack. She was the Black Widow, so she'd have gotten in regardless, but she did admit to him that it saved a lot of time and stress.
So when she asked "Pepper or nightmares?" Tony knew there was no point in denying when she could still smell the alcohol on him, and that this was something she no longer passed on to Nick Fury.
"Nightmares," he muttered, pressing the heel of his hand into his eyes in an attempt to stop the pounding. It was a futile effort, but he tried anyway. But just because he'd admit it didn't mean he'd talk about them. Time to change the subject. "Why is he hissing when someone gets too close?"
Natasha raised an eyebrow, but she let the deflection pass. "Usually he just bars everyone from entering the room if you've passed out on the couch."
Tony looked up sharply, regretting the motion immediately. "He does that?" he asked when his head was under control again.
"He thinks you don't sleep enough," Natasha said simply.
And yeah. Point. He'd gotten better though, especially with Pepper there to-
Tony closed his eyes. Pepper wasn't there anymore, and he'd taken at least two, maybe three steps back since then. Steve quietly mewed as Natasha carded her hand through Tony's hair again. "Is Bruce-?" he asked.
"Still in South Africa."
"Looking for a magical cure."
"Clint?" he asked, already knowing the answer.
"With me, doing recon." Natasha's smile was just a little on the sadistic side. "Still your problem, Stark."
He groaned as Steve crawled onto his lap, demanding attention. He'd never have pegged The Captain of All Things Patriotic and Cute to be an attention whore of a cat. That was usually Tony's job.
Natasha took pity on him, taking his arm that had been Steve's clawing post. "You put anything on this?" she asked, lightly tracing the red marks on his arm. In his lap, Steve's ears went flat against his head as he ducked down.
Tony tried to think back, but he couldn't remember so he waved it off. "It's just a few scratches. I've had worse from being thrown out windows."
Natasha hmm'ed, but let it go. Then she stood gracefully to leave, looking back over her shoulder as she got to the door. "Don't forget to change the litter box," she said.
Tony lifted his head and whacked it against the back of the couch. And that shit hurts when the painkillers were still kicking in, no matter how soft the couch was.
Once the pounding in his head receded, Tony got up to feed the fuzz butt. Then he brushed his teeth and changed, heading down to the workshop to create a robot that would change the litter box.
He was five minutes into the design when a mew interrupted his concentration. He looked down to see Steve sitting at his feet and staring up at him. "How did Cap-cat get down here?" he asked.
"I am under orders to let Captain Rogers and the other Avengers in when not in lock down, Sir," JARVIS replied.
"Yeah, but not without a code." Tony bent down and picked the cat up, reminded once again that Steve was too damn big for his own good. "You need to cut back on the kitty treats, Garfield. Also, no small furry animals in the workshop. Hear that, J? I don't need to explain to Natasha any of the numerous ways our furry leader could have himself killed down here."
JARVIS opened the door for him and he set the cat outside. "Stay," he told Steve. The cat looked about as impressed with him as he would be with the village idiot, but Steve stayed put when the door closed.
Five minutes later, there was another meow at his feet. Tony jumped. "What the actual fuck? JARVIS, did-"
"I did not open the door for Captain Rogers," JARVIS responded.
Tony glared at the door, then at the inexplicable cat that was staring up at him smugly. This time, Tony picked up the cat and took him to the living room. He returned to the workshop and put the lab in lock down.
He'd just finished the blueprints when a furry head rubbed against his leg. "JARVIS! How the hell is he getting in here?"
"I believe he came through the door, Sir."
"And why was the door open?" Tony demanded. "I put the workshop on lock down."
"He has authorization-"
"He does not have authorization," Tony cut in, pulling up JARVIS's code. Nothing looked amiss, but Natasha's access codes had been used to open the door twice. "JARVIS, where is the Black Widow?"
"Agent Romanov and Agent Barton have just left for the next stake out."
So she could have opened the door for him. She had the emergency codes that she kept stealing from Pepper, which would open under lock down. But she was gone now, which meant Tony could do as he pleased.
This time, Tony locked Steve in the bathroom. Steve was not happy with this arrangement, and you could hear his yowls from half a floor down. But Tony was the only one in the Tower today, and he'd left the furball with a litter box, food, and water, so he could deal.
Tony put a sign on the door in case someone did come back early that said "Bad cat, no biscuit," and went back down to the workshop.
He was nearly finished with the robot when he heard a loud crashing sound from the air ducts. Tony looked up to see the grating fall to the floor and Steve jumping out, gracefully landing on his feet. "What is this, The Cat Came Back?" Tony muttered darkly.
"I suggest trying not to find more creative ways to get rid of Captain Rogers, Sir."
Which told Tony all he wanted to know about the state of the bathroom door. "You're paying for that," was all Tony said.
Steve's ears twitched, which was the only sign of the cat's displeasure. It was the ears that gave Tony the idea. "Hey, JARVIS, turn on playlist 3, full volume."
"Sir, that might not be wise. It could permanently damage a cat's more sensitive hearing."
"Fine. Then as loud as you can make it without doing lasting damage to our furry friend," Tony replied, grinning as the sweet, dulcet tones of heavy metal started pouring from the speakers all over the room. Steve immediately started hissing, his fur standing up on end as his tail puffed up. "You don't like it, you can leave," Tony said smugly, turning back to his robot.
At least, that was the plan. It worked up until he had a set of claws digging into his leg. "Christ, JARVIS, stop the music!"
The music stopped. The cat hissed and spat, but stopped clawing at Tony's leg. Which was good, because while Tony didn't like hurting small animals, he'd been about to kick Steve across the room.
"JARVIS, give me a list of surfaces cats don't like to walk on," Tony snapped.
"This is a workshop. A dangerous workshop. He pushes over the wrong thing and this whole room could explode, taking me and him with it. Hell, he wouldn't even need to do that, not if he knocks over a soldering iron and gets burned if it accidentally turns on. He is a clear and present danger. I don't know what game this is, JARVIS, but we need to keep him out." Tony took a deep breath after his outburst, looking at the cat who stared back curiously.
"Perhaps he wishes to spend time with you while the others are missing as well," JARVIS said in a reasonable tone that never quite worked on Tony.
Tony ran a hand through his hair. "And this is why I've never gotten a pet. I have work to-"
"With all due respect, Sir, you are ahead on eleven projects, both for Stark Industries and SHIELD, and you've completely finished nine others four weeks ahead of schedule. Ms. Potts doesn't even have paperwork for you to do."
Okay. So he'd been hiding in his workshop rather than dealing with the fact that he and Pepper had broken up. It wasn't the end of the world. Well, the thing with Pepper felt like it was the end of his world, if he were going to be melodramatic and teenager-y about it, but overworking himself wasn't the worst thing he'd done.
Steve meowed, rubbing against his legs shamelessly. Like he hadn't just been clawing it. Tony closed his eyes, feeling tired. "Alright, whatever. Just give me an hour to finish this, because it's for my own sanity. Then I'll come out of the workshop and play with His Royal Hairiness. Can you keep him busy until then?"
"That can be arranged, Sir," JARVIS replied. The AI sounded happy for once, and was probably far gentler than he should have been. Tony didn't need gentle. He just wanted to be left alone.
But as long as Captain Cat Burglar was his problem, he doubted he'd get his wish. Tony leaned down, picking Steve up again. He went to the living room (because, Jesus, he doesn't need to replace another bathroom door) and set up a toy mouse and a few other toys at JARVIS's direction. When Steve crouched down in preparation of pouncing on a feather that dangled invitingly from a crude robotic arm, Tony slipped out of the room to finish his litter box changer.
He didn't give it personality (because that would be kind of cruel, when its job was to clean up cat crap. Also, he only had an hour. Mostly, he only had an hour), but it did have a rudimentary AI to enable it to perform its pooping scooping requirements. Making it took a little over an hour, but it was working. He set it down near the litter box to let it do its duty (ha), then went off in search of the attention-starved cat.
A cat who was ignoring all the whirling things and sleeping on the couch. Tony glared, wondering if he could go back down to the workshop while Steve cat-napped. But the last thing Tony wanted to do was go out and buy crappy commercial batteries just to make the damn toys run again. With a sigh, Tony flicked them off, mentally tallying how much time it would take to modify each toy to a SI level of clean energy.
It was, predictably, enough to wake Steve up. To buy himself more time, Tony made sure the cat still had food and water as he rummaged through the kitchen for himself. A can of ravioli and some hot chocolate later, Tony settled down for dinner.
Except it was too empty in the kitchen. With everything gone, the room was too lonely. Usually there would at least be Pepper to...
Tony stared into his mug of hot chocolate, debating if it was worth spiking or if he could get more work done after showering the resident cat with attention. Steve looked up from polishing off his meal as if he had a sixth sense for Tony-angst. Either that, or good timing.
"So, this is depressing," he said, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath to try to control the hurt of Pepper-less-ness. "Let's go to the living room. The living room sounds good. We can... JARVIS, what can we do in the living room?"
"You can watch a movie, Sir," JARVIS replied.
"Yeah, that'll work." Tony picked up his plate and mug, snagging some grapes on the way. "I can do cat playing things after dinner. Is that good enough for you, Captain Cat?"
Steve's tail flicked back and forth, neither disagreeing nor agreeing. Intelligent cat or not, Tony really needed to stop expecting him to answer.
Tony walked into the living room and flopped on the couch, putting his food on the coffee table and ignoring the patches of fur that littered the fabric. "Okay, JARVIS. Let's go all out. Maybe movies about other felines will keep him occupied. Cue up every cat movie known to man." Tony paused, then added, "Except Milo and Otis. Stark Industries doesn't support animal cruelty."
"Your choices are impeccable, Sir," JARVIS said dryly, cuing up Gay Purr-ee.
"Look, grandpaw, this one even had Judy Garland. Someone you know," Tony called out.
Steve came out of the kitchen, hopping up on the couch next to Tony. Then he started to clean himself meticulously. "Find somewhere else if you need to lick your balls," Tony said. "Because that's just showing off. Also, no hair balls. I see hairballs, and you are going to the pound." Tony wondered if Steve was that thorough with his boots. Not licking them, obviously, though there was a mental image.
It took Tony's brain five seconds to reboot after that. Hello, boot kink. Maybe he and Pepper should try-
Tony clamped down on that thought, staring blankly at the screen. He wasn't even paying attention, not until Cap crawled into his lap and head-butted his hand in a clear command to pet him. "Someone's bossy. Captain America, the secret cuddler," Tony joked, but his voice sounded weak and it broke part-way through. Steve just went half-lidded, purring contentedly as Tony scratched him under the chin.
Gay Purr-ee turned into Aristocats, which turned into Oliver & Company, and Tony drifted off a little, taking note that the movie had changed, but not seeing what. When he felt a pair of feminine hands in his hair, he smiled brightly. "Pepper! Is it time for bed?" he slurred, opening his eyes when the hand paused.
It was Natasha standing there. Of course. Tony forced the smile to remain, though it became more brittle.
"Sorry," she said, looking like she genuinely meant it. "But it is time for little Starks to go to bed. This time you won't have a hang over to distract you from the crick in your neck if you sleep here."
Tony waved her off. "Nah, I've got some things to do in the workshop, so I'll just..." His eyes diverted to the screen for a moment, but that was enough. "Hey! Homeward Bound! Now Sassy was a cat with style."
"Bed, Tony," Natasha said firmly.
Tony tried to stand up to ramble off and find his coffee, but a weight in his lap kept him down. "Cat," he said intelligently.
Steve was sleeping soundly in Tony's lap, tail flicking every so often. Natasha picked him up and got an annoyed meow for her troubles. When Tony stood up to make his escape to the coffee machine, however, she handed the twenty-five-pound lump of fur back. Tony accepted him on autopilot. As Steve started to purr again in his arms, Tony could feel it against his chest.
"Go to bed, Tony," Natasha said, gently pushing him to the elevator.
"But I have to-"
"JARVIS, take Mr. Stark up to the penthouse," she said as he got in the elevator.
"Of course, Agent Romanov. It will be my pleasure."
"Wait a-" The door closed on him before he could protest, and the elevator started to rise steadily. "JARVIS, take me-"
"I believe you were the one who said cats should not be allowed in the workshop, Sir," JARVIS replied, almost too cheerfully. Tony was starting to suspect a conspiracy.
He got off on his floor, fully intending to drop the cat off and go find coffee. Except Steve started licking his neck sleepily, rough tongue soothing after a cold nose. It derailed his thoughts enough that he walked to his and Pepper's bedroom.
His bedroom. God, that was why this was a bad idea.
He sat down on the bed, wondering what he'd been thinking, getting such a big bed. It only reminded him of how empty the spaces were that Pepper had been intended to fill.
"It doesn't smell like her anymore," he said absently, putting Steve down so he could toe off his shoes. He'd been sleeping down in the workshop ever since the scent of her shampoo had left her pillow.
He looked at the bed, hating how pathetic it made him feel. He was Tony Stark. He'd handled rejection before. He'd handled Pepper's rejection before. This was not his first rodeo with heartbreak. Just because it hurt so damn much every time did not mean he should avoid his own bed. He lied down, pointedly not curling around the empty air of Pepper's side, and tried to sleep.
He woke up curled around her pillow.
Tony didn't open his eyes, cataloging all of the things he should have done differently. He should have gone out to Malibu more to help with the company. He shouldn't have been so clingy. He should have come out of the workshop more often. He should have-
Tony let out a small yelp as a cold nose poked at his ear. Scooting back across the bed (Thank God for the large bed, or he would have fallen off), he looked to see the cat staring up at him. He groaned at Steve, then flopped back onto his pillows, burying his head in it. "Go away, Whiskers," he said grumpily, not bothering to look at the time. He didn't want to get out of bed, not today.
He could feel the damned cat staring at him. It was unnerving enough that Tony couldn't go back to sleep. "-ll build a robot to feed you later," he muttered into his pillow.
The staring didn't let up, and he could feel Steve arching and rubbing against his back. Finally, Tony sighed. He sat up, rubbing his eyes and glaring at the clock. 5:13 am. Fan-fucking-tastic.
"Fine, let's get you some food. JARVIS, lights." Tony rolled out of bed, looking at the empty side out of habit. He looked down, then at the door. He walked out and Steve trotted after him, jumping off the bed with a graceful motion that reminded Tony of some of Captain America's jumps. He resolved to bring a cat bed in if Steve was going to insist on sleeping here. He didn't need cat fur on the sheets.
He cut himself on the can trying to get Steve's food open, glaring at it as he dumped the smelly mess on a plate. Then he changed the water and even set out some milk, because look at him, being all responsible at 5:30 in the morning.
While Steve was eating, he took a quick shower and put a band-aid on the cut. He glanced at the elevator. Pros of going down to the workshop: actually getting things done, avoiding the break-up. Cons: The Little Cat Burglar that Could.
He really didn't want to replace more of the Tower.
Tony sorted through the bag of cat toys, thinking of what would best tire Steve out. He came up with a laser pointer, rolling it between his fingers pensively. It had a fifty-fifty chance of working.
He pulled out his tablet while waiting on his fearless leader, ordering a dozen donuts. Because if he was going to be up this early, he wanted sugar and lots of it.
The resident mouse chaser eventually padded into the living room, but Tony was ready for him. Casually, he clicked on the laser pen. A little red dot landed on the ground a few inches from Steve's paws.
The change was immediate. Steve's ears flattened against his head and he scooted back as if the dot were a threat. When the dot didn't move, Steve's ears twitched. He flattened against the floor, tentatively raising a paw to tap at the dot.
Except Tony moved it away at the last second. Steve made a weird clicking noise in the back of his throat, trying to bat the dot that kept moving further away. He chased it around the room, then up the wall, landing with a very pissed-off thunk. "Technology, one. Stars and Spots, zero," Tony said, laughing as Steve's ears flattened again and his big, furry butt wiggled in the air as he prepared to pounce.
Tony had seen videos of cats chasing laser pointers before. Who hadn't? But he'd never realized how much fun the little game was. The fact that it was pissing Steve off that he couldn't seem to catch the little red dot had nothing to do with it. Nothing at all.
Okay, maybe it was that and making Steve try to scale the walls. That was pretty entertaining.
"Stark!" he heard as the elevator slid open. "What the hell is-"
"Little busy here, Robin Hood," Tony said, holding back a smirk as Steve fell to the floor with another thump. Clint stared in shock.
"Come on, don't be a sour puss," Tony taunted as Steve pretended to ignore the dot. "You know you want it. Super-serum soldier cat can't catch a little dot? I thought Captain America always gets his man."
"That's the Mounties, Tony," Clint said indignantly.
"Whatever. Cap's totally better than a bunch of Canadians." He wiggled the pen a little, making the dot dance across the floor tantalizingly.
"I was trying to sleep," Clint said, bringing them back to whatever point he'd stormed in to make.
"Catnap?" Tony quipped, inching the dot closer to Steve. "Just don't take a Cap-nap. Those take too long and you wake up with a stick up your- ha! You can't catch it, kitty-Cap!"
Tony cackled with delight as Steve raced across the floor, only half paying attention to Clint, who continued on. "I was trying to sleep, but every five seconds there would be-" Tony raised the pen to the wall, smirking as Steve leaped after it. The cat failed to get the dot, falling to the floor with a loud thud. "-this loud thud from the ceiling."
"Are you saying Cap is a fat cat?" Tony said, putting the dot on Steve's tail. Steve was not amused. "He's calling you fat," he told the cat, who was too busy batting at his own tail to listen.
"Sleep, Stark. Sleep is important!" Clint said.
"What are you, in kindergarten?" Tony asked as Steve hit the floor with another satisfying thump. "Super-cat is super active. It's not my fault he needs exercise."
"It is kind of hilarious," Clint admitted, flopping down on the seat next to him. "You okay?"
"Fine," Tony said curtly. "Why wouldn't I be?"
The look Clint gave him said not to push his luck. "I don't know. Our leader is a cat, the guys who tried to kill Pepper are back, and she's still broken-up with you?"
"Yup, and I'm just peachy," Tony said, flipping off the laser pen and standing. Steve growled, looking around frantically to see where the dot disappeared to. "And now I have work to do, so if you'll-"
"Happy's got new guards at SI," Clint said, kneeling down to try to pet Steve, who took a swipe at Clint's hand, claws extended. "Ow, hey. Cap, play nice."
"He's wound up, what do you expect?" Tony snapped. When Clint held his hands up in surrender, Tony looked away. "What about the new guards?" he muttered, not quite an apology, but admittance that he shouldn't have snapped.
"Nat and I hand-picked 'em," Clint replied. "And Happy approved of them too, after he put them through some tests. Pepper's as safe as she can be, and she promised not to go out without an escort until this is resolved."
Tony knelt on the floor as well, petting Steve from head to tail. The cat didn't look happy, but he allowed it. "Thanks," he said. Because he'd failed at protecting her last time. Hopefully SHIELD will do a better job, especially now when he couldn't be with her.
Clint nodded, but didn't push for more. "Oh, so he'll let you pet him, but not me?" he asked, changing the subject.
"He likes me better," Tony said, scratching under Steve's chin as the cat's tail beat against the carpet in an annoyed fashion. Tony stayed where he was, continuing the scratching. A few moments later Steve was purring softly.
"What do you know, so he does," Clint said. "Wouldn't have expected that, considering."
"Are you implying that the Captain and I don't get along?" Tony said in mock horror. "What is the world coming to?"
Clint snorted. "I'm just saying. Cap chasing laser pointers ain't the only noise that keeps me from sleeping. Your yelling matches are epic."
"I can't even tell what sets him off half the time," Tony admitted. "I'll say something, and he'll take offense, then he gets all 'Holier-than-thou' and-"
"And you don't respond any better," Clint summed up. Not that Tony would have finished his sentence that way, but it was true enough. Clint tried to pet Steve again, but Steve nipped at his fingers. He hastily pulled back. "You're an ass, sometimes," he continued.
Tony shrugged. "Believe it or not, I'm not always trying to be."
"Nat and I know that. Thor is more amused by you than offended. And Bruce is crazy, but he actually likes your pestering," Clint said with a grin. "Cap just needs to understand that you aren't being mean."
"Yeah, and if telling him that worked the first five times, I'm sure he'll listen on the sixth." Tony looked down at the cat, who rubbed his cheek against Tony's hand. Despite the claws, Steve was a lot easier to deal with like this. Tony kind of wished it was always this easy to please him. Too bad he couldn't get Steve's approval unless he was the cat-feeder.
Clint held out his hand, letting Steve sniff him. When Steve didn't bite, Clint carefully pet the cat's head. Steve's claws sank into the carpet, but he didn't take a swipe at Clint again. "So," Clint said, a mischievous glint in his eyes that Tony knew was nothing but trouble. "You got an extra laser pen? We could - Ow!"
Tony stifled a laugh as Clint sucked on his finger, glaring down at Steve. Tony wasn't an expert on cat expressions, but he could have sworn Steve looked smug. Tony finally understood the phrase 'the cat that got the cream.'
* * *
Tony came out of the workshop knowing he was at his limit before that damned cat would break in again for attention. He took a quick shower, because Steve was twice as likely to claw him when he was greasy and dirty. He ignored the fact that it had only been four days, and his life already revolved around a cat. Not even a female one that he could crack pussy jokes around, but their leader turned feline.
Sometimes, Tony hated his life.
Steve wasn't at the workshop door looking menacing, however. Nor was he in any of the usual bits of sun napping. Tony looked in a few places before heading to the kitchen. Maybe someone else was feeding him? If so, this stopped now, because the last thing they needed was a fat Cap. Seriously, a fat Captain America was a bad mental image reserved for comic conventions. Not that Tony would know anything about those.
Okay, maybe a little. But that was because Batman comics were awesome, not Cap. Certainly not because of Cap.
He caught a flash of orange American Tail disappearing into the kitchen. And how was this his life? There were so many other pieces of tail he'd rather be chasing. "Oh no you don't," Tony muttered, because Steve was not using those cute eyes to con more people into feeding him. Not when the damn cat woke Tony up with his staring every other morning. Usually when Tony didn't want to move too. He was going to catch whoever was feeding Steve red-handed, and prove to Natasha he could totally do sneaky, even if not as well as her.
Before he could barge in and demand Cap-feeding to cease, he heard a faint sniffle. Tony paused in the doorway, peering in to catch a glimpse of what was going on. Who would be...?
Tony pulled back immediately, leaning against the wall as he grasped at the arc reactor that wasn't there anymore. He panicked for a moment, connecting the lack of reactor to the sudden pain in his chest. But his heart was pounding, not slowing to a stop. And Pepper was crying. She was crying, and it wasn't because of the reactor, or Tony dying again, or other things that were outside of his control.
Tony closed his eyes. He wrapped his arms around himself, wanting nothing more than to go in there, apologize and beg to give them another chance. He wanted to, but he knew he couldn't. Pepper didn't want to cry in front of him, not even when they broke up. She said she wouldn't do that, not when Tony was too quick to blame himself. If he went in there right now, she'd pack it all away again, and she'd be more stressed, and...
He'd lost the right to hold her right now.
He heard the soft mew and pulled out his tablet. There were security cameras in the kitchen, and he had to... even if he couldn't touch her, he had to see her.
"A cat?" Pepper said, her voice wavering as Tony fiddled with his tablet. He pulled up the picture just as she pulled Steve into her lap. She had tear-trails down her face, and her hair was tied back, not a wisp out of place even when her eyes were red. He'd always admired how put together Pepper was. "When did Tony...? Oh. You're Captain Rogers."
She pet Steve as she continued to let the tears fall. Steve pushed up into her hand, mewing in distress. "I'm fine," Pepper said, wiping her eyes. "I just... I didn't think if I came back here I would..."
Tony saw her shoulders rise in a sob. He slid down the wall silently, curling in on himself and the tablet. "I miss him," Pepper said so softly that Tony almost didn't hear it. "And I love him. But I can't... He was starting to resent me. And it's not his fault. It never was. But his father was never there, and God, Obadiah was just as bad, looking back. He only gave Tony the time of day when he needed something. Why did none of us see that?"
He held back a protest by biting his tongue. Obadiah had them all fooled. That wasn't Pepper's fault. And he didn't resent her. He didn't...
"There's just too much... I used to see him every day," Pepper continued, hugging the cat tightly against her. "And maybe if we'd started back then, it might have worked. It works with Rhodey being gone, because he had time to get used to the relationship before Rhodey was shipped off. But then things changed, and Tony changed, and between the company and the Avengers I only see him once a week now, if that. He's been abandoned too many times for a long distance relationship to work."
It wasn't like that. It really wasn't. Tony could handle a long distance relationship. He could handle anything for Pepper. When they broke up, Tony had wanted to plead with her to let him work on it. He could try to be less clingy. He wouldn't make her feel guilty for not being there. He would come of the workshop more, and he'd stop snapping at her when things got rough. But he couldn't make her feel worse by telling him no again.
"And it's my fault," Pepper said, and all Tony wanted to do was hold her and tell her no, it wasn't. "I can't handle that. I can't let him resent me. He's all I have, and I can't..."
Pepper's breath hitched and Steve started to lick her chin, rubbing his furry head against her cheek. Damn it, Tony wasn't going to be jealous of a cat. "I can't give up the company either. If that was what he wanted, I'd give it back to him in a heartbeat. But he made me CEO. He trusted me, after everything else, he trusted me when he was dy..."
Pepper broke off as a few sobs escaped her. "He gave it to me, because he knew I wouldn't go back to weapons," she said eventually. Steve was purring again, so loud that Tony could hear it outside of his tablet and down the hallway.
"I didn't sleep with him when he was my boss," Pepper said as she pet Steve. The purring seemed to have a soothing effect on her. "I got where I was because I worked for it. I worked for him and the company. It's important to me. My career is important to me. And I couldn't throw that away when I was his PA. I can't throw that away now. Not when he trusts me this much. It means too much to me. And I can't handle him resenting me either. Is that wrong? Because I love him, but I can't... I can't quit my job to make him happy, no matter how horrible that makes me. No matter how much I want to. It wasn't working."
It wasn't Pepper's fault. None of that was Pepper's fault. She was one of the best people he'd ever met, and he should never have made her choose between him and her job. He knew how much it meant to her. And he supported that, he did, because Pepper was worth her weight in gold and she was the best thing to ever happen to Stark Industries. She deserved the position more than anyone, and he could never fault her for putting her career first. He respected that.
Tony would be dead at least three or four times over if not for her. She could handle everything he threw at her, from bad press, to new inventions, to Iron Man, to running his life, to dating him. It was Tony who couldn't handle it. Because she was right. He had been starting to resent the time he didn't see her, because she was too busy or he was saving the world. He hadn't wanted to, but he did. They just kept missing each other, and it was making both of them miserable. And Pepper was smart, so smart, and she broke it off because it was what they needed. But he loved her so much still...
"And the worst of it is now I know..." Pepper said, interrupting his thoughts. "I see Killian when I close my eyes. And I killed him. And I wake up screaming. Then I remember how I left Tony when he..."
Tony started at the feeling of a hand running through his hair, missing Pepper's words. He looked up to see Natasha crouched down beside him. She brushed the tears that managed to escape, kissing him on the forehead. Then she stood up and walked into the kitchen.
Thor took her place, sitting gracefully against the wall next to Tony as Natasha spoke in the next room. "You did what you had to. You saved Tony and your own life."
"Natasha," Pepper said, drying her eyes carefully to save what she could of her make up. "I didn't realize you were there."
Thor was a solid presence next to Tony, a warmth that spread comfort. Before he was aware of what he was doing, Tony's head dropped to Thor's shoulder. Thor smiled at him sadly.
"Are you seeing anyone about the nightmares?" Natasha asked.
"Yes," Pepper admitted. "And I know that, but it still feels..." Pepper closed her eyes, and Tony ached to touch her face. "Plus, I have kitty-therapy now. I highly recommend it."
It was hard to see on the security feed, but it looked like Natasha's lips quirked into a smile as Steve arched up into Pepper's hands. "Is that what this is? Why don't you have a cat of your own then?"
"I never needed one. I had..."
Natasha filled in when Pepper hesitated. "Tony is as bad as cat sometimes." She paused, wiping away the remainder of Pepper's tears. "Why don't we go out to eat?"
"You said the information on AIM was confidential," Pepper said, without a pause this time. She was already put back together. The only way you could tell she had been crying was her eyes.
"I know a few places that don't have bugs," Natasha said. "And you look like you could use an excuse to get out of the Tower."
Pepper nodded, a grateful look in her eyes. "Being here reminds me so much of... I love him, Natasha."
"Love isn't for people like you and me," Natasha said calmly. "It's a childish fantasy. We live in the real world, and we're better off without it."
Pepper put a distressed-looking Steve on the ground, who twined around her legs as she stood up and gathered her belongings. She flicked open a hand-mirror, wincing at what she saw, then looked up at Natasha. "I can't agree with you on that. I think I can have a job like this and be happy. I think you can too, someday, if you really want it. But love... it's not enough, sometimes. I wish it were."
Natasha shrugged. "Maybe," she said as she followed Pepper out the opposite side of the kitchen, only bending down to pet Steve once before she left.
Tony stared down at the image of the empty kitchen, picturing all too easily Pepper sitting on the chair as she cried. Then Steve jumped onto the chair she vacated, mewing sadly and looking all kinds of pathetic as he curled up.
Tony didn't know how long he watched the cat (who was big for a cat, but not enough to fill the spaces Pepper left), but eventually Thor's hand covered his, pushing the tablet down. "Come, my friend," Thor said with a surprising amount of compassion and empathy. "Our Shieldsister will take care of Lady Pepper. Let us retrieve our feline companion and drink to the new beginnings that will surely come to both of you."
"Cap still can't get drunk," Tony said, his voice sounding far away. He didn't even feel the pain in his back from sitting on the floor for this long. Still, even if Cap could get drunk as a cat, alcohol was probably not good for cats to drink. He was sure he remembered something about that in JARVIS's list of warnings.
"Aye," Thor agreed. "But Darcy suggested a Midgardian plant that would have the same effect on our good Captain."
"Catnip? Or would it be 'Capnip' in this case?" Tony thought about it. Catnip didn't actually make cats drunk. He didn't remember the science behind it exactly, but he was pretty sure it wasn't something the serum could cancel out of the blood stream if it affected the cat's sense of smell. "I... sure. Why not?"
Thor helped him up, keeping a friendly arm around Tony as they walked into the kitchen for cat collection. Turns out there was plenty of catnip in the bags JARVIS had ordered, and he and Thor gave a few of the toys a liberal dousing.
Watching Steve rolling on the floor with a stoned expression was worth it. "JARVIS, take pictures of LolCap. I'll think of a clever caption for it later."
"Ah, you speak of the cheeseburger site my dearest Jane is fond of," Thor said with an easy grin. He refilled Tony's glass. "She has explained to me this concept. I'm sure the Captain would make a fine meme."
"To cat memes!" Tony toasted as Steve tried to pounce on a catnip mouse, only to fall over and rub against it.
Thor's throaty laugh answered him. "Aye, to cat memes!"
* * *
"Go away," Tony slurred, pulling the pillow over his head. It didn't stop the unnerving feeling of being watched. "No," Tony said flatly. Steve was still staring. He knew the cat was.
"It's five am. I left food for you last night. You are not being played with or fed until seven at the earliest." Tony was not, by habit, a man who slept late. But his alarm wasn't due for another two hours and, damn it, he wasn't giving in to a cat.
He groaned, knowing he wasn't going to be able to sleep as long as he had Steve glaring at him. Usually the damned cat let him sleep longer though. He'd wait until Tony was already mostly awake too, though Tony wondered about the ability to sense when he was waxing depressive. This though, this was new and it was getting out of hand.
"You were the one who thought I needed more sleep!" he said into the mattress.
"Fuck you," he said in a last ditch attempt. He got pinpricks on his arm from Steve's claws for the effort.
"No," he said again, as firmly as he could manage. Maybe if he didn't give into the staring, Steve would go bother someone else.
Was it working? He could still feel the staring, but he could maybe hold out another five minutes before he could no longer handle those eyes. He was going to break, but damned if he wasn't going to-
Tony yelped at the sudden weight on his back. Steve had pounced on him. He pushed the pillow away to glare at Steve. "What's your problem?"
Steve meowed anxiously, his claws alternating between digging in and releasing the blanket as his tail flicked back and forth in an angry motion. This wasn't just Steve being annoying. Something was wrong. "JARVIS? Tell me what happened."
"It would appear that the super-serum has given Captain Rogers an excess amount of energy and he sleeps less than normal cats, Sir."
"That doesn't explain why he's waking me up now," Tony pointed out.
JARVIS was silent for a moment, probably compiling the data to speculate on. He needed an upgrade, if he was taking this long. "Cats prefer the heat to cold. And Captain Rogers himself tends to avoid cooler temperatures." Tony hadn't noticed the room was a little chilly, but Steve's cat bed was near a window. JARVIS continued. "It appears he was sleeping normally until he became agitated and woke, jumping on the bed. Captain Rogers is currently shivering, Sir."
Tony blinked. It really wasn't that cold. "You're saying a cat has PTSD and had a nightmare?"
"That seems like the most likely scenario," JARVIS replied.
Steve mewed again, a small, frightened sound, as he kneaded the blanket and pushed his head against Tony's chest. Tony automatically started to pet him. He could feel the minute trembling under Steve's fur.
Steve had been there for three of Tony's nightmares now (even if he technically caused the first), so Tony probably owed him. "Come here," Tony sighed, picking the cat up and cradling Steve against his chest.
"It's okay," Tony said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. It was still hard to think about a cat with PTSD, but he didn't think Steve would appreciate that in any form. And the cat was trembling and looking distressed, absently tugging at Tony's sympathies. "Hey, it's okay. We'll get you warm, brat-Cap."
He lay back, keeping Steve against his chest as he pulled up the blanket to cover both of them. Steve's ears were flat against his head, but he didn't bite or scratch when Tony started petting him in long strokes down his back. He was still kneading, but there was a throw pillow within reach and Steve didn't protest the quick operation to protect Tony's chest from acquiring any new holes. Steve was a heavy weight on his chest, but Tony figured he'd be alright so long as he didn't fall asleep again.
It was a full hour before Steve started to purr. It wasn't the usual freight train at full speed either, but a soft, tentative sound. Tony was getting a little hot under the cat and covers, but it could be worse. He glanced at the clock and noted the numbers with a sigh. His alarm would be going off in half an hour. He'd wanted to get an early start in the office today, mostly to avoid a painful encounter with Pepper, but also because he needed to go over quality checks with R&D.
Then he felt a cold nose press against his neck. "JARVIS, send Matheson a quick note. Tell her I might have to postpone the meeting. Give Pep a heads up too," he said softly, stroking Steve's cheek. "If she asks, say it's non-lethal and non-threatening Avengers business and tell her I'm really not lying."
"I'll let her know, Sir."
Tony scratched Steve under his chin, wishing it were this easy with his human form. Steve was acting like he needed Tony, which was a pretty steep step up from disapproval and yelling. And Steve hadn't gone to any of the other Avengers. For some reason, he was pretty damn insistent on Tony catering to his every whim. Maybe it was just revenge for Tony being such an ass all the time, but Steve never asked Tony for anything as a human. No favors, no new equipment, no help with tech or modern references that Tony occasionally threw out. Steve made it pretty clear how useless Tony was to him.
Too bad it was only temporary. With luck, Steve wouldn't remember a thing once Tony got his hands on AIM's blueprints. Then it would be back to normal, and they wouldn't have to deal with the awkward 'Your cat-self liked me, but hey, I know your human self doesn't so don't try on my account, Cap' talk.
Tony's arms tightened around Steve. He didn't want to go back to the way things were.
* * *
By Friday, Tony left the Tower in a huff. Steve was attention-demanding, which wouldn't be bad in and of itself, except the damned cat kept cutting him off. Again, probably not a bad thing over all, but Tony wanted more than one drink before Steve refused to let him have another one.
Contrary to popular belief, Tony was not actually an alcoholic. He was in control of how much he drank (yes, really. That wasn't just denial talking!) and he actually didn't get drunk near as much as he used to. But he'd watched Pepper nearly break down again today, and he wanted to get completely smashed. Besides which, the demented cat stole the last of the powdered donuts! There was betrayal and thievery that Tony could handle, but that went too far.
It was rush hour, and there was a decent bar right down the street, so Tony didn't bother calling his new driver. It wasn't the same without Happy anyway. He could walk for fifteen minutes though. No matter what Steve said, he wasn't that spoiled of a billionaire.
Usually, Tony wasn't bothered when he went out. Sure, a few people would ask for an autograph, act a little star-struck, and Tony would be on his way. Since Iron Man became a thing, he's occasionally even been stopped and thanked, which is something Tony was never quite sure how to deal with. A few times people yelled at him for making weapons, to which he usually just flipped them off and drank harder.
Mugging was new. Things like 'celebrity lawyers' and 'body guards,' not to mention a goddamned suit of armor usually made the smart ones think twice. Which is why when he suddenly found himself cornered by a group of street thugs, Tony knew he really had to be scraping the bottom of the barrel that had already been scraped at least twice before.
Tony sighed, pushing his sunglasses up to his hair as he tapped at his phone in a bored manner. Technically, there were too many of them for him to take on without the suit. Also technically, the suit would take about a minute to get here and all he had to do was press a button to call it. Then this would be laughable. Still, he was a good guy now. He was supposed to have patience and give idiots a second chance, as per one of his and Cap's pretty lengthy arguments.
"This is a really stupid thing to do," Tony said reasonably. "Back off now, and I won't press charges."
"Look who's not so super without his armor!" one of the thugs said, a brainless-looking guy with muscles that paled in comparison to Steve or Thor.
Fuck that. Tony called the suit. "Yeah, that's not going to work out for you."
One of the other thugs who made Steve look like a fashionista (seriously, baggy pants? How can they be 'gansta' and run from the cops in those? They'd trip over their own pants. Hell, he was doubting if he'd need the suit, when he could just let the pants do his work for him) decided that talk was overrated. He grunted manfully and threw a punch at Tony's face.
Tony dodged out of the way. Maybe he wasn't a super spy, super soldier, god, or Hulk, but he could handle an old-fashioned street brawl for a minute and fifteen seconds.
He didn't get the chance to, however, because a white and orange furball dropped onto the thug's head, clawing and hissing at his face. "Um," Tony said intelligently as the man started screaming. "Okay, so I didn't see that one coming."
When one of the other thugs (Carrot Top, Tony dubbed him, due to the red hair and ridiculous amounts of bling he wore) rushed forward to help, Steve (because of course it was Steve) launched onto his new target, hissing and biting.
Tony threw a punch of his own to one guy's stomach that was getting too close to Steve, then slipped into the armor that was twenty seconds early. Just in time for the next thug (Named Greasy, because ugh, when was the last time this guy showered?) to pull out a gun and shoot him.
The bullet ricocheted off the armor and hit the guy in the leg. Tony rolled his eyes. They never learned.
After that, the fight (okay, fight was a laughable term) - the situation - mostly resolved itself. Steve jumped down, hissing as he stepped in front of the armor with his back arched and tail poofed up.
Tony looked at the remaining thug, who stared at him with wide brown eyes. "Seriously, I wouldn't mess with that," Tony said, pointing down at the cat.
The man turned tail and ran.
Tony sighed, looking down at the ones who had been knocked unconscious. Great. So much for getting a drink. "JARVIS, call the police and alert them of our position," he said, this time looking down at Steve. There was blood splattered on his fur, but he was now rubbing up against the boots of his armor like he were scent marking them as his. Possessive little bastard, the armor was Tony's.
Tony leaned down, picking the cat up. "When we get back, you're getting a bath, Heathcliff," he said.
Steve's ears lay flat against his head, and Tony could hear the claws scratching against his armor. "Oh, so you know that word, do you? Sorry, Cap, you're not getting out of it." Tony wondered if it would be wise to keep the suit on for the bath. Steve did not look pleased.
He started to (carefully) scratch Steve's chin, flipping the face plate up. "Alright," he said, addressing the now sizable crowd that the sound of gun shots had attracted. "Who wants to grab me a caramel macchiato while we're waiting for the cops? And not Starbucks. There's a real coffee shop down the street which is way better."
Once the police arrived fifteen minutes later, Tony sent the armor back. Normally, he'd just fly home, but he didn't want to carry Steve and risk hurting him. Sadly, this left him open to the reporters that had also had time to converge upon his location.
"Mr. Stark, was this a planned attack?"
"Mr. Stark, who's the new pet?"
"Mr. Stark, is a cat that vicious safe on the streets of New York?"
"Mr. Stark, how are you dealing with working with an ex-girlfriend?"
Damn, he wished his caramel macchiato was spiked with something. At the very least, Baileys. Still, the sweet taste fortified him. "Wave to the cameras, Liberty," Tony said, raising one of Steve's paws. "Looks like the cat's out of the bag, folks. Meet Stark Tower's current mascot. No, he's not usually this cranky, but watch it, he eats reporters for lunch. Mishap with the Fantastic Four and a parallel dimension with kung-fu cats, and we're looking after him while they get the portal open to send him back. And no, he's not allowed out, but I must have left the cat flap unlocked. Silly me."
He got laughs in all the right places, but Tony still felt tense. This wasn't how he'd pictured his evening going, and joy! Now he gets to deal with reporters. Steve leaned up, pressing his head against Tony's chin in a show of affection. Then he snapped at a reporter who tried to get too close. Tony almost forgave him for the donuts.
"Is it true Ms. Potts said-"
"And there's my ride. That's all, folks," Tony said, ducking quickly into the limo that his new driver opened for him.
Cameras went off as the door closed, Steve only stopping his hissing when Tony scratched behind his ears. He slumped in the seat, finishing his coffee and wallowing in general misery. So much for going out tonight. His phone rang, compounding the headache that was building. It was probably Pepper, and now he was never going to get that drink.
But to his surprise, it wasn't Pepper. It was Rhodey. Tony smiled wearily, setting the phone to video call. "Jellybean, what have you got for me?"
"The Avengers have a killer cat? Since when do the Avengers have a killer cat and why didn't you get me one?"
In retrospect, he should have expected that to make front page news within five minutes of it happening. Tony angled the phone down to show Steve, who sniffed at it curiously. "Rhodey, meet Captain America. He's temporarily been turned into a feline of mass destruction."
"Wait, that's Cap?" Rhodey asked, surprise clear as he peered at Steve who was now trying to lick himself clean of the blood drying on his fur. "Seriously?"
"Seriously. AIM sucks," Tony said, rubbing his temples.
Rhodey immediately grew grim. "I heard they were back. You holding up?"
"Sure. It's all fun and games with Captain Sourpuss," Tony said. He got an unimpressed glare from Steve.
"And you and Pepper?" Rhodey asked.
Tony looked down, not wanting to see the sympathy in Rhodey's eyes. "We're good. Still friends and coworkers. You know, the usual."
"We're not getting back together again this time," Tony said flatly. "Not that I deserved having her in the first place."
"That's not true," Rhodey said, his voice gentle, but firm. "You both deserved each other, and I don't mean that in a flippant way. I make friends with only the best, you hear? And you're two of the best. You both deserve to be happy."
Tony didn't respond until Steve's head pushed at his arm. "And if we weren't happy?" Tony asked, feeling raw.
"Then you do what you have to to be happy again, even if it's as friends," Rhodey said. And Tony wished he were here, because Rhodey gave the best hugs and he really kind of wanted one right now. Instead, Tony pulled Steve into his lap, cuddling the cat close. Steve started to purr softly. "You'll get there someday," Rhodey continued.
"Maybe," Tony said, nowhere near convinced.
"You're the genius, man," Rhodey said. "You know these things take time. You and Pepper, you'll work some way or another."
Rhodey had participated in all of Tony's major break-ups, and he said the same thing every time. That didn't make it any easier to hear. It also didn't make him worry less, because all of his previous relationships had ended so badly there was nothing to salvage. He'd been cheated on, stolen from, used for his money, and in one particular case a restraining order was involved. In short, no one Rhodey had let him see again after the break. He didn't know what would happen with Pepper. He was a little scared it would always be like this.
"Speaking of friends," Rhodey said. "I'll be swinging by in a few days. I'll be binging someone with me too, and we can have a massive ice cream and alcohol party to drown your troubles in."
"Someone else?" Tony asked. This was the first time Rhodey brought someone. Usually it was always him and Rhodey.
"Yup. Unlike me, you have pretty piss-poor judgement with friends most of the time," Rhodey said with a smirk. "Besides me, of course. But this one, he's not bad."
Rhodey turned the phone, and Tony felt his eyes widen. "Bruce!"
"Hey, Tony," Bruce said with a quiet smile. "And uh, Steve. How much does he understand?"
Tony looked down at the cat, who was back to ignoring the phone and bathing himself. Steve hadn't moved out of Tony's lap, but by this point, Tony was far too used to being Steve's throne of choice. "He's a highly intelligent cat, but not much of Steve up there," Tony said, lightly tapping at Steve's skull. It got him a nip of teeth, but not hard enough to break the skin so Tony didn't mind it so much. "I thought you were traveling around Africa in search of some rare plant."
"I can always come back and search for the cure later," Bruce replied. He looked way more relaxed than he did in the city, even if Rhodey throwing an arm around his shoulder made him tense briefly.
"Don't argue, Tony. It'll be good for you," Rhodey said with a smirk.
Tony tried anyway. "You don't have to-"
"I want to," Bruce interrupted. "Can't guarantee I won't fall asleep on you again if you start a long story though."
Tony smiled back, absently petting Steve. The cat stopped licking himself, arching into Tony's hand. "Okay," he said, as Steve started purring again, louder this time.
"I've known you for a long time, Tony, but I never took you for a cat person," Rhodey said, a thoughtful glint in his eye.
Tony's hand stilled. "I'm not," he muttered. It wasn't his fault Natasha forced this to be his problem. She was probably making up that bit about Steve appointing him as de facto leader just so she didn't have to deal with the cat herself.
Steve, as usual, was having none of it. He pushed at Tony's hand, clawing his lap when Tony didn't immediately start up again. Tony swore.
"I never thought Steve would be that shameless," Bruce said, sounding amused. "He seems to like you."
"Too bad it doesn't coincide with his human form's feelings," Tony said bitterly.
Bruce sighed, and Rhodey raised an eyebrow. "I thought you were trying to get along with Cap now," Rhodey said. Steve's ears flicked up in interest at that. Maybe he was just responding to the name.
"Trying and failing," Tony said, resuming his petting of the little bastard.
"For the record, Steve was trying too when I left," Bruce said with a kind expression. "But your tries never quite matched up."
"And then BOOM!" Tony said, waving his free hand around in a vaguely explode-y gesture.
"Maybe you need to try a different approach," Bruce suggested.
"I've tried," Tony said. "I've tried suggestions from you, from Pepper, from Rhodey, hell, even from Natasha and Thor." Clint had been a bastard about the whole thing, and Tony learned not to take his advice. "Maybe it's just not meant to work." It stung to admit that, because he really did want to be friends with Steve. It'd never worked with Dad either. Figures when he desperately tries to make things work, it always falls apart on him.
Steve stopped purring, mewing sadly as if he knew what they were saying. But if that were the case, he wouldn't be crawling up Tony's chest to nuzzle affectionately at his chin. He ran his fingers through Steve's fur, ignoring the sticky bits of drying blood.
"And since when does Tony Stark give up?" Rhodey asked. "Cause it seems to me that even if Cap is just a cat right now, he does like you."
"I know when I'm beat," Tony said, holding Steve a little closer despite his words.
"Just hang in there, man," Rhodey said. "You'll both get there eventually. And we'll be flying in in a few days, so be ready for the hangover of your life."
"One that will rival '93?" Tony asked with a hint of a smile.
Rhodey groaned, and Bruce raised an eyebrow. "Do I want to know?" Bruce asked.
"You'll find out," Rhodey promised, patting Bruce on the arm. Bruce didn't look entirely comfortable with Rhodey, but Tony couldn't help but be a little happy (and just a smidgen jealous) that his friends were getting on well.
"See you in a few days," Tony said, ending the call. He slid the phone into his pocket. Then he looked down at the cat cradled in his arms.
Steve licked his chin, rough tongue rubbing against his beard. "You say that now, but you won't like me when you see what's waiting for you back home," Tony warned, leaning back against the seat.
Maybe he should get a cat instead of trying to please Captain America. They were easier to please, and he would miss the cuddling.
* * *
Tony was never getting a cat. Ever. And if he ever considered it, he'd remember the new scratches running down his arm. He should have left the suit on.
"It's a bath," Tony said in exasperation as he glared under the dresser at a pair of glowing eyes. "You need one, because that tongue of yours doesn't clean blood. Come on, Cap. Work with me here."
He got a hiss for his troubles. "Yeah, yeah, I don't like baths either. They're not the cat's meow. Being repeatedly shoved into a barrel of dirty water while holding a car battery hasn't endeared me to them either. But I still take care of basic hygiene, and you don't hear me complaining."
Not that it hadn't taken him a while to get to the point where he could take a shower without a flashback, and he still wouldn't step foot in a proper bath, but he could deal with it. So could Steve.
Steve stopped hissing, but his ears were still flat against his head. He didn't look angry anymore. He looked like - "Your kitten eyes of cuteness will not work on me. Try again, young padiwan. Next time with less sulking."
Tony sighed, getting a catnip mouse that was lying on the floor and dangling it on the edge of the dresser. "Do not claw me again, you little furry bastard. Just come out here, Captain Claws."
Steve made a few half-hearted grabs for the mouse, finally coming out from under the dresser. Tony immediately grabbed him around his center, praying there would be no retaliation. Thankfully, Steve just mewed pathetically. "Sorry, Tom Cat, but you're getting a bath."
He pushed the bathroom door shut to keep his captive from escaping, and then walked over to the shower. He'd already laid out a plastic basin, since he hadn't actually put a bath on his floor and Steve was too big for the sink. Even that made him want to shiver, but he pushed thoughts of drowning aside.
Tony grabbed the detachable shower head and deposited Steve in the dry basin. The cat immediately sank as low as he could into it when Tony turned on the water and adjusted the heat. "Yeah, Scaredy Cap, I can still see you there. Your tail keeps flapping and giving you away. You suck at hide and seek."
Steve gave another pitiful mew and Tony sighed. "You're being a big kitten. Come on, Cap. You fought Nazi dogs and... wait, I thought it was Jewish mice and Nazi cats? Okay, so that metaphor doesn't work, but if you can survive that, you can take a little water. Sulking is not a good look on you."
Tony turned the shower pressure down once the temperature was right, petting Steve with his dry hand. "It's warm, alright? I won't let it get too cold. I promise."
He let the warm water start to soak through Steve's fur. "See, not so bad. You're not melting," Tony said continuing to pet Steve. The cat did not look happy, but at least he wasn't clawing.
Using the pet shampoo (thank God JARVIS had gotten it. Tony wouldn't have thought of it), Tony started to soap Steve up. Blood was a bitch to get out of fur, but he kept his hands gentle as he massaged the clots out. Steve was miserable, but he'd lost the 'I am the most wretched creature to walk the earth' sulk. Tony was quietly relieved, because he wasn't sure he could take much more of that.
After two rinse and repeats, the blood finally washed clean and Tony ran the shower head over Steve one last time. Finding two of the fluffiest towels he owned, Tony used the first to scoop a surprisingly unresisting Steve out of the basin to dry him off. Once Steve was only damp, not soaked, Tony wrapped him up in the second towel and carried him out to the common areas. Steve was shivering, but staying still.
"Now you're a Cap-burrito," Tony said as he sat on the couch with Steve still cradled in his arms. He lightly used the edge of the towel to keep wiping at Steve's face.
For his part, Steve was still shivering, but he closed his eyes. The shaking stopped after five minutes, and the soft purring started at ten. "Good boy. See, that wasn't so bad," Tony said as he stroked Steve's cheek. "All that fuss for nothing."
"All what fuss?" Clint said as he walked in, his quiver slung over his back.
Shifting Steve around, Tony held up his clawed arm. "Captain Sulks didn't want a bath."
Clint whistled softly, coming over to give Tony's arm a better look. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as the marks that were still healing on his other arm, but they still stung like a bitch. They were mean and red, but they weren't bloody. "Man, Cap's got claws," Clint said, his fingers ghosting over the scratches and making Tony wince. "Let me get something to-"
Tony waved it off. "It's not that bad, and you look like you're going somewhere. I'll get to it when Burrito-Cap is warm."
Clint hesitated, then nodded. "Make sure to clean the cuts," Clint said, looking down at the lumpy towel. "Cap is in there?"
Tony rolled his eyes at Clint's words, then lifted the towel. Steve was huddled underneath, his ears still against his head, and he was no longer purring. Steve's eyes remained closed, so Tony rubbed his head comfortingly.
"You sure you're not a crazy cat-person, Stark? Cause you're currently putting crazy cat-ladies to shame," Clint said.
Tony responded by give him the bird before wrapping Steve back up. "AIM hunting?" he asked.
Clint nodded, then sighed. "Not that we're having luck finding the blueprints. They might just have destroyed the only copy of it they had."
That was really not good. Tony swallowed. "What about Steve then?" he asked, and he could feel the cat perk up at his name. Blue eyes looked out at him from under the towel, but this time the staring didn't bother him.
Running a hand through his hair, Clint shook his head. "No idea. Thor said he might have some leads, but other than that, unless you and Bruce magic something up-"
"Excuse you. We do not 'magic'. We science. Science," Tony stressed.
Clint rolled his eyes. "Science then. Unless you guys can figure something out, Cap's stuck like this."
'Not good' was so inadequate to describe the situation that 'end of the world' seemed not long behind it. Steve had put Tony in charge. Which was fine for a crisis or two, but long term? Long term, he was Tony Stark. And that meant it was inevitable that he'd screw things up. Hell, the press alone would be the end of the Avengers if that came out. "We'll have to... Who would lead the Avengers then?"
Clint looked at him in surprise. "Cap put you in charge, didn't he?"
"Yeah, that was a bad idea from the start," Tony said. He got a small pinprick of Steve's claws at the statement, but it appeared extra fluffy towels were the undoing of the claws of mass destruction. Tony made a mental note to remember that. "Look, putting aside my inability to lead-"
"Tony, you were CEO for how long before you gave it to Pepper? If you can handle a board of directors, you can handle us," Clint interrupted. "Your plans are the only ones that can come close to Cap's too."
Tony glared, not appreciating the interruption. "That aside, the press would eat us alive. Plus, SHIELD only grudgingly put me on the team. I doubt they'd let that pass."
"They wouldn't have a choice," Clint said, his eyes going hard. "You mentioned the press - do you think having an alien as our leader would go over any better? Or a former Russian spy? I'm a scout, not a leader, plus also former spy. Unless you're saying the Hulk should lead us?" Sarcasm dripped from Clint's voice.
And okay, maybe that was a point. Steve really was the only person on the team that the public would accept, and it said something that Tony was the second best choice.
"I..." Tony said, looking away. He didn't want this. He never wanted this. He and Steve fought over many things, including following orders, but never about who gave them. Tony was reckless, sure, but ordering the team? It would be his fault if they got hurt. He honestly didn't know how Steve handled that pressure. "I had Obie, when I was CEO. Pepper will tell you how much I got done after."
"Don't give me that. You were passing more on to her to make sure she was ready for being CEO herself," Clint retorted. "And you have us. Look, this wouldn't have worked eight months ago, but now? You gonna be the guy to let us fall apart while Cap's gone?"
Steve was moving around in his towel burrito, crawling up Tony's chest. Suddenly Tony was looking into two blue eyes that didn't blink. Tony stared back, wondering what Steve was up to.
He can safely say he wasn't expecting Steve's cold nose to be pressed against his, accompanied by a loud purr.
"Did he just give you an Eskimo kiss?" Clint asked in disbelief.
Tony blinked. The cat stared back. Clint laughed hysterically. "Fuck off, Clint," Tony grumbled, though he only managed half of his usual annoyance, because yeah, that was actually pretty adorable. Tony was secure enough in his masculinity to admit cute things were occasionally a weakness of his.
"See?" Clint said as he wiped his eyes. "Even Kitty-Cap thinks you can do it. You don't want to disappoint him, right?"
"Why not?" Tony asked lightly. "Disappointment is what I'm best at."
All the amusement faded from Clint's eyes. "Not this time, Tony. We'll all keep that from happening. We won't let you fall."
"Yeah?" Tony asked, his voice asking for far more reassurance than he wanted to admit. Steve mewed softly, pushing up into Tony's hand to demand attention. His fur was still slightly damp, and Tony automatically brought the towel up again to keep Steve warm.
"Yeah," Clint said with a cocky grin. "Trust us if you can't trust yourself."
Tony let that sink in, feeling the vibrations of Steve's purring in his arms. Could he do this? He didn't know.
"Besides, it's not all bad news," Clint said. He reached down to pet Steve but got a light nip for his trouble. It warmed something in Tony that Steve didn't often let the others close, but Tony was always sought after. Most people wanted him for money or influence, not open affection.
Clint pulled back with a slight glare at Steve. "Anyway, we think this is the last of AIM, so Pepper should be safe. No signs of the psycho stalker either, so he's still dead as a doornail. And the AIM minion Natasha interrogated said there's a chance Steve might change back on his own when reality tries to reinforce itself. Apparently being a improbability isn't stable."
"Do we have a time frame?" Tony asked, because that meant the machine that did this also wasn't as lost as they thought, and Tony had a gleeful geeky moment of imagining himself playing with an Infinite Improbability Drive once it stopped being a redwood tree.
Clint winced. "It's random, according to intel. It could be five minutes from now, or it could be five years."
That was less awesome. Steve needed to stop being a cat a heck of a lot sooner. Still, it meant even if they couldn't find a way to get Steve back, there was hope that he wouldn't stay a cat forever.
"Well, I'm off to hunt the last of the evil nerds," Clint said, heading for the door. "See ya."
"Don't get killed. If I'm in charge now, I'm not doing the paperwork. It's a bitch," Tony said, because saying 'be careful' was too sappy.
Clint heard it anyway. "Yeah, yeah, I'll be careful." He left with a mock salute.
Steve was shivering again, but still purring. Tony re-wrapped his burrito, settling Steve against his chest. Steve wouldn't stay a cat forever, he reminded himself firmly. All this unrequited affection a cat could give would soon go back to disappointed frowns and angry glares. This wouldn't last.
Nothing good ever did for Tony, after all.
* * *
Tony groaned. Putting Natasha in charge of training schedules while Steve was incapacitated - in-cap-a-cat-ated? - was a terrible idea. She was a bitch when you didn't get things right. After that, there had been a bank robbery involving a couple of metahumans the Avengers were called in to fight. It was easy enough for him and Widow to take care of on their own, but damn, it added bruises to his bruises. This was on top of the massive hangover that didn't quite rival '93, but came close. It didn't help matters that both Rhodey and Bruce were still sleeping it off while Tony had been out and about getting things done.
In the end, Tony had trudged up to his room rather than his workshop, deciding to just go to bed early. It was a rare occasion, one that Pepper always delighted in because it meant...
Right. No Pepper.
Tony hesitated in the doorway of his room. No Pepper curled into a pillow, looking up from her tablet with a soft smile, saying it was her turn to be tired and achey, and she'd make it worth his while if he gave her a foot rub. No sex to work his mind down from the overdrive to match how tired his body was.
The bed looked empty without her. Lifeless. Dull. Sure, he could find someone else to slip between the sheets with, but that left a bad taste in his mouth. He'd done it before, forcing himself back to one-night stands after break-ups to prove to the press nothing could keep Tony Stark down, not even the bile in his throat that rose from feeling like he was cheating, since he still loved someone else. Just because he hated it didn't mean it had to stop him.
But he didn't want to do that this time. It would hurt Pepper, for one thing, and he'd given her enough reason to cry. He also didn't want to go back to that, sleeping around because it was expected of him. He wanted...
He wanted Pepper.
There was a soft meow and Tony looked down at his feet. Steve was staring up at him, pale eyes reflecting in the moonlight. He started to entwine himself around Tony's legs, purring loudly.
Tony closed his eyes for a moment, then knelt down, picking the massive feline up and holding him close. He could feel the vibrations of Steve's purring through his reactor-less chest. "So, hey, no empty bed tonight. You'll... you'll stay, right?"
He set Steve down on the bed, but the cat made no move to go back to the cat bed that was on the ground. Steve stayed where he was as Tony changed and brushed his teeth, his purring a constant reminder that he was still there. When he'd finished, Steve was lying down with his paws tucked under him by Tony's pillow, his eyes closed in contentment.
Tony slid under the covers, reaching out for Steve when he turned on his side. Steve's ears flicked, then he wiggled out of Tony's grasp. "No, huh?" Tony asked, holding back his disappointment.
But Steve arched back against his hand, nuzzling Tony's chin with his head instead of clawing, which was an improvement. Then he circled around four times before curling against Tony's chest.
Tony snorted. "I see how it is. Have to do everything yourself. And they call me a control freak." He felt better with the cat snuggled up to his side, and the purring was just soft enough to reassure and lull Tony into a dreamless sleep.
His last thought was a silent prayer to an existence he didn't believe in that Steve wouldn't remember just how pathetic Tony was being when he turned back.
* * *
Two weeks later, Tony regretted pulling the furball into his bed. Steve didn't use the cat bed anymore and was smart enough to get away when Tony started twitching from a nightmare. Usually, Tony slept better with the cat curled against him, and he didn't like to think about what would happen when Steve turned back.
This morning though, Tony was on the end of that stare again. He groaned, pushing his face further into the pillow. "JARVIS, time?" he asked. It came out muffled by the pillow, but JARVIS was good at translating.
"4:53 am, Sir."
"You don't get Fancy Feast until seven. It's the law," Tony said, hoping it wasn't another kitty nightmare. He had to be in the office this morning.
"It's a good thing I don't want Fancy Feast then."
Tony jumped, nearly falling out of the bed. The only reason he didn't was due to a pair of strong arms - human arms - grabbing him before he hit the floor and helping him back up. "What the-" Tony started to say, finally catching sight of the form of the other human in bed with him. "JARVIS, lights!"
Yup. It was Steve Rogers, looking both very human and very, very naked, lounging across Tony's bed like a cat who owned everything it laid on. Well, not completely naked. He was still wearing the collar which had magically morphed to fit his human neck, and... Yeah, that's a blue screen of death. Hard reboot required, and there was no one to press Tony's power button.
"You..." he managed, touching his own neck when the words failed him. He swallowed, shifting slightly. He found himself very glad of the covers.
Steve looked baffled for a moment, his hand coming up to his neck questioningly. Then he scowled furiously when his fingers brushed up against the collar. "I'd forgotten about that. I got used to it," he said as he snapped the offending piece of leather easily, tossing it to the side with a glare reserved for evil dictators and puppy kickers.
Now Steve was completely naked.
Tony's eyes wandered briefly. Hello. Now that was a nice piece of American Tail, ladies and gentlemen. Tony quickly looked away, a growing sense of unease filling him. "You're-"
"Human again?" Steve supplied.
"Naked," Tony said, trying to put some distance between them. Jesus, when did Steve get so close? He hadn't been that close as a cat, had he? "You're in my bed and you're naked."
"I've been naked in your bed for the past two weeks," Steve said dryly.
"You were a cat! Cats have fur. Fur totally counts," Tony said, reaching the end of the bed. He was grateful that he'd stumbled into bed last night half asleep because that meant he still had pants on. Pants are good. Especially when naked teammates suddenly appear in his bed. "That's why those fur-less cats are creepy," he added, in case Steve didn't get his point.
"You're babbling," Steve replied.
"You're naked," Tony repeated, because it bore mentioning again.
"You said that already." Steve, for his part, looked far too amused. "Usually you're more coherent than this."
"Usually I don't have naked Avengers in my bed before 5 am," Tony said, his voice sharper than he'd intended. It wasn't exactly like Steve uninvited, but right now he wasn't quite welcome. Fine, if Steve was claiming the bed, Tony was going down to the workshop to find some dignity, since Steve obviously had none.
There was a hand around his wrist as he tried to sit up and leave, stopping him from going too far. "Let go," he snapped.
"You're not cheating," Steve said gently.
"Of course I'm not! I've got no one to cheat on!" He and Pepper had broken up. He knew that. He did. That didn't stop this from feeling wrong, or stop the bile rising in the back of his throat.
Steve sighed, pulling the blankets up to cover himself. "Better?" he asked.
"Modesty is sometimes a good thing," Tony grumbled, looking at one of the room's dark corners.
Steve snorted. "Modesty is a myth soldiers lose in basic," he replied. "And I was given to believe you weren't much of a stickler for it either."
"Not usually," Tony said, still not looking up.
"You're not cheating, Tony," Steve said soothingly. "Nothing happened here."
Tony swallowed hard, letting the words sink in. Nothing happened. It wasn't like it would be bad if it did either, since he and Pepper weren't together anymore. If he wanted to have Captain America wearing nothing but a collar in his bed, then that was perfectly okay.
Then again, maybe he should just move on from that mental image. "Since when do you call me Tony?" he asked instead of replying.
"It seemed a bit stupid to keep calling you 'Stark'. Sometime between that first nightmare of yours and mine, I guess."
"Wait," Tony said, replaying that sentence. Steve was implying he'd been thinking of him as Tony for a while now. "You were a cat. An intelligent cat, but not a Steve-cat. Natasha said-"
"Natasha might have stretched the truth a little," Steve said with a grin that spoke of innocence and the American way, not a dirty, lying little cheat. He tapped at the side of his head. "I was all there. I talked to Natasha and JARVIS with Morse code."
"JARVIS!" Tony felt a little betrayed, though that certainly explained how Steve kept getting out and into places he shouldn't be. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You never asked, Sir," JARVIS replied. "And Agent Romanov and Captain Rogers requested I not mention the matter unless you brought it up specifically."
"So what was the point?" Tony asked sharply. "To what? Humiliate me? See me at my worst while acting like a dumb animal?"
"Tony, no," Steve said, keeping a firm grasp around Tony's wrist as Tony tried to pull away again. "That wasn't it at all. Natasha said it'd be good for me to see you when I couldn't start yelling back and make the fighting worse. So I thought..."
"You thought this was a good idea?" Tony spat, pulling at his captive wrist and waving wildly with his free hand.
"I thought that maybe I could see past this front you throw up around you like a defensive wall," Steve finished. "When I saw what you thought of me..."
"Walls are there for a reason," Tony bit out. "Did you ever think of that? Are you happy now that you've seen past them? Do I match up with how disappointing your mental image of me must-"
"That's not what I think!" Steve yelled. "You can't just assume that-" He cut himself off, taking a deep breath. For the first time, Tony looked up in interest. This was new. Captain Stick-up-his-ass was trying to control his temper. "I hate it when you say things like that about yourself," Steve said finally. "Especially when you imply I think that as well."
"What?" Tony was beginning to feel like this was the sort of conversation that needed whiskey. Lots of whiskey. It was way too early in the morning for this.
"When you put yourself down and assume that I think the worst of you," Steve clarified.
"Don't you?" God, that question sounded far too honest. Whiskey was definitely needed, but Steve wouldn't let go of his wrist.
"No," Steve said. "Not for a while. I haven't been very good at saying that though, that's become painfully obvious. And you don't make things easy."
Tony looked down again at that. There was a reason him and Steve never really got along. They were both terrible at stepping back and listening. "You weren't exactly a peach either."
"I'm beginning to see that," Steve said. Tony looked back up in surprise to see a sad smile on Steve's face. "I'm sorry for lying to you like that. You're right. I shouldn't have taken that choice of what you would let me see away from you. But I'm not sorry I saw what I did."
"What did you see then?" Tony bit his tongue to cut off half a dozen sneering responses he could have made to that. Steve was apparently trying. Tony wasn't about to let a ninety-year-old show him up.
"I saw someone who needed a friend who wasn't so quick to judge them," Steve replied. "Because when I couldn't talk back to escalate things, I saw what was behind your words. And most of the time, it wasn't what I thought."
"I don't need anyone to-"
"Maybe not," Steve interrupted before Tony could get worked up on a proper rant. "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have more friends, even if you don't need them. I'd like to try harder to become that."
Tony shook his head. "Why? You saw me at my lowest. At what point did that make you want to be friends?" The last thing he needed was pity from Captain America.
"When I saw that you wanted to protect me from getting hurt in your workshop," Steve replied. "When you stayed home to calm down a cat with nightmares. And you put up with me being lonely and having no one to talk to. When you kept me warm after the bath."
Tony was quiet as Steve went on, shivering as Steve's fingers ghosted up his bare arm. The scars had healed over, but Steve seemed to see them anyway. "You never once tried to hurt me after scratching you, not even when you were drunk."
"You were a cat," Tony said weakly. "You didn't know... Wait a minute, you did know what you were doing! You scratched me!"
Tony pulled his arm away, and this time Steve let him. It was Steve's turn to look away, flushed with shame. "I never meant to..." Steve said, running a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. That shouldn't have happened. Cats have a lot of instinct, and it took me a while not to react at everything. That doesn't excuse that I hurt you though. Some of those marks were really deep."
The guilt in Steve's eyes dried up any of Tony's residual anger. He thought back to how guilty Steve had looked when he'd tried to put the collar on, head and ears pointed low. "Instinct, huh?"
"That's no excuse, not when I-"
Tony waved the apology off, feeling tired. "Alright, Jesus. It really was just a scratch. You can't help it if it takes a while to adjust to a new body. You had to have gone through that after the serum, right?"
"Yeah," Steve admitted, looking down at his hands. "Broke a lot of things at first, when I didn't know how much pressure to use."
"See? Learning curve." And Cap-induced scratches did taper off as time went by, now that he thought of it. "No worries."
Steve looked up, his expression gentle and a little lost. "How does no one know how very kind you are?"
"Really, it's no biggie," Tony said, hoping to end this conversation and get Steve some clothes.
"It is, actually," Steve said. "Because regardless of the nightmares and heartbreak it gives you, you still put on the armor. And being faced with that bravery and kindness is humbling."
Captain America was humbled because of Tony Stark? There was a time when that would have been a victory. Now all it did was leave him with no anchor and no bearings. "Cap, that's-"
"Call me Steve," he said quietly. Then added, "Please?"
"Steve..." The name felt right on his tongue, even if he didn't use it very often out loud. "You're the one who lives up to the legend. All I'm trying to do is make up for past mistakes." And to keep his promise to Yinsen. Tony was not talking about that however, not without at least half a bottle of the strongest alcohol he owned.
"And you didn't have to do any of that by risking your own life," Steve said. "You could have given the suit to the army, or to Colonel Rhodes. You could have stayed a civilian. But you fight with us. You didn't have to, but you do."
"I do have to though," Tony protested. "I-"
"I know," Steve said with a smile. "I know what it's like when people tell you to sit a fight out when you could do other things to help. There are other choices there, but there's really only one for you."
Tony tried to think of other things he could have done after Afghanistan. He could have done what he told the press about corporate responsibility. He could have taken more interest in the company, rooted out Obadiah. Maybe that way Obie would have been in prison instead of dead. He could still have had Pepper that way. They could have worked together, rather than separately.
Except that didn't feel like enough. It was nowhere near enough to atone for what he'd done. What Steve was talking about was different. He made that choice because he was naturally that good. Tony had too much innocent blood on his hands to ever claim that.
Steve's fingers started to trace Tony's arm again in the silence, and Tony couldn't help the shiver that ran through him, sending goosebumps up his spine. Something was happening here, and Tony was not ready to face the implications of it. He stood up, reaching for the tablet he'd put on the bedside table before he'd gone to sleep last night. "Great. Well, good pep talk, top cat, but I have things to do and you have clothes to wear and-"
"You still love her," Steve said with a sad smile. "I know that. And there's still a lot we have to work out first."
Tony held still as Steve's fingers trailed up to his neck, along his beard and brushed against his cheek. Now that he thought about it, Steve - the cat Steve - had done a lot of licking and Eskimo kisses. If Steve had been aware, then he knew a lot more about what he was doing.
"Just think about it," Steve said, brushing back some of Tony's sleep tousled bangs with a fondness Tony wasn't used to seeing directed at him. "And talk to Ms. Potts. I think you need that."
"I can't..." Tony started, thinking of how he kept making her cry. How much seeing her still hurt.
"It's okay to miss her," Steve said. "She's your friend, after all. I bet she wants an excuse to talk to you too."
"You can barely talk to women who ask you the time on the street," Tony said, pulling away. He missed the warmth of Steve's hand against his cheek, but right now it still felt too close to betrayal. "Now you're the break-up guru?"
Steve laughed, leaning back against Tony's pillow. His bed was going to be empty again soon, Tony realized with a pang. He missed having a cat around more sharply than he would have guessed. "I'm no good with dames," Steve agreed. "Never have been. But Bucky sure was, and he went through a few break-ups. I was usually the one putting him back together."
That made sense, Tony supposed. He didn't know what to do with the look of sorrow on Steve's face though. Steve didn't really talk about the past, and the smile he had didn't reach his eyes. Tony didn't know what to do with it, but he knew he didn't like seeing it. "Steve..." he said, unable to think of what else to say.
"Talk to her," Steve said with that same smile.
Tony averted his eyes when Steve stood up. Part of him wanted to look and appreciate, but he still felt too guilty about it. Which was really fucked up, because he'd been allowed to look while he'd been with Pepper. He just hadn't wanted to have more than a passing glance, because Pepper had been all he needed. "Yeah," he agreed, to cover the inexplicable guilt he was feeling.
Steve paused for a moment in the doorway, sighing when Tony didn't look up. "See you later, Tony."
"Later," he said, listening for the door to close. When it did, he flopped down on the bed, tossing the tablet aside. The bed still smelled like Steve, and it was warm where he'd been lying. Tony didn't allow himself to curl into the warmth though, no matter how much he wanted to.
He spent the day in the office. Pepper was on the west coast, so he didn't have to worry about avoiding her. He attended two meetings, got some paperwork done, and bitched out R&D for the sub-par engine they were trying - and failing - to make faster.
He managed all of that before lunch. JARVIS was right. He'd gotten so far ahead that even with caring for a cat for the past couple weeks, Tony didn't have much to do. Most of that was on Pepper's shoulders now, and the budget couldn't keep up with Tony's inventing at this rate.
After lunch, he went to a no-kill animal shelter. He walked up to the bored-looking receptionist and smiled charmingly. The double-take he got when the guy realized who Tony was was comical. "You're Tony Stark! Wow, you're really-"
"Yup, that's me," Tony said, noting with some relief that the hero worship that filled the young man's eyes did not extend to tattoos of his face or copying his signature look this time. "What have you got for me?"
"Uh, are you looking to adopt a dog or-"
"At the moment, I'm volunteering."
"You're just going to walk in and volunteer?" Wow, this was a bright one. The confusion was plain as day on his face and Tony checked to make sure he'd been speaking simple English and not Italian.
"Got it in one, kid," Tony said, rocking back on his heels. "Do with me what you will. Preferably with cats. Dogs are negotiable."
Despite saying that, Tony ended up walking a dog anyway after signing a “I will not sue the pet shelter if I am scratched/bitten by any of the animals here” form. It was not a pleasurable experience. The excitable collie kept tugging Tony along on the leash to sniff at bushes, then stopped completely when Tony tried to pull him back to the shelter. And the dog kept trying to lick him, which was all kinds of gross and disgusting, getting slobber everywhere.
Tony decided then and there that he was never getting a dog. Why he had ever wanted one as a kid was a mystery.
There was an older lady named Laura at the counter when he got back. Tony didn't complain about the dog, but she must have seen something in his face, because she took Lassie and showed him to the cats.
Here, Tony discovered all the joys of cleaning up after cats that he'd avoided with Steve. He made a mental note to send the shelter one of his robots, but again, he didn't complain. The lady in charge was patient, and she walked him through many of the steps to care for a cat. "You know," she said after an hour. "You could have just asked about what it's like adopting."
The fact that it was what most people would have done was left unsaid. Tony shrugged. "I'm a hands-on kind of guy."
Finally, they let Tony in with a couple of the cats and a few mouse toys. After dangling a mouse on a string in front of four cats for twenty minutes, he had pretty much fallen in love.
There was a small tabby with sweet eyes and an elegant tail that was queenly enough to be named Elizabeth; a Persian with long, dark brown fur and a nicked ear with one-eye that had to be the friendliest cat Tony had ever seen; a shy, white kitten that hadn't quite mastered the art of balance yet; and a Scottish fold that Tony nearly melted over. None of them were as intelligent as Steve was (bastard. Highly intelligent cat, his ass), but they managed to capture his heart regardless.
He petted and flattered them all, using the brush he'd been supplied with to pamper them further. He did get the evil eye from Laura for pulling out the laser pointer he'd brought with him, but she wasn't about to kick Tony Stark out. Not when he was currently sitting cross-legged on the floor playing with cats and feeling blissfully content with his lot in life for a few precious seconds.
It took him a while to notice a fifth pair of feline eyes staring at him from under the couch. He peered under it, making out a medium-sized black cat. "Hey, sweetheart. Want to come out from under there?" he called gently. When he tried to reach out, the cat hissed and swiped at him with its claws.
"Shadow comes from a rough home. She doesn't often come out for strangers," Laura said, handing him a catnip mouse.
Tony tried to lure her out, but she just flattened herself against the ground. "Rough?" he asked, his mind already supplying a few answers he didn't like.
"Lots of people are still superstitious about black cats. They can be hard to find families for sometimes. We try to take them when we can, since black cats get put down the most at other shelters."
He heard what she didn't say, fighting to keep a calm expression on his face as he coaxed the cat out. It made him a little sick and a lot angry, but he knew enough about abuse, even before he'd befriended Bruce. He couldn't get Shadow to come out, but he resolved to come back until he convinced the abused animal he wasn't a threat. Tony knew a bit of what it was like being unwanted, after all.
In the end, he wanted to take them all home with him. He knew how well that would go over, however. He should call Pepper and see how many...
Well, calling Pepper would be out of the question, wouldn't it?
"Can I come back?" he asked, not certain how that level of vulnerability had slipped into his voice. He cleared his throat, and scratched under Elizabeth's chin nonchalantly.
Laura, the old biddy, was not fooled, but she didn't mention anything about it. Tony took that as a good sign of someone not mentioning this to the press. "Leave the laser pen at home next time Those things are dangerous when the kids play with them," she said. It wasn't a no, even if she was technophobic.
Tony had no intention of leaving that baby behind, but he figured she would look the other way when the cats were all wound up when they saw the check he'd dropped in the donation box.
Tony went home after that. Usually after spending time with Steve as a cat, he didn't miss Pepper as much. Now though, he just wanted to see her. Talk to her about how many he was allowed to bring home, hear the exasperation in her voice. He looked at the clock, biting his lip. It would be four in California right now.
He ordered pizza, hearing Steve's voice in his ear as he went down to the workshop. 'Talk to her.'
He dialed Pepper's number without ever putting down the phone. Not a video call, because he wasn't ready for that yet, but he needed...
He needed to hear her voice.
"Tony? Is something wrong?"
Tony let out the breath he'd been holding, closing his eyes. "Hiya, Pep," he said, his voice only quivering a little.
"What happened?" she demanded, fear slipping past the sharp tone.
"Nothing's wrong, honest," Tony hastened to reassure her. He gripped his free hand in a fist, wondering why it felt so empty. It took him a moment to realize he wasn't petting Steve while he was on the phone. When did he get so used to that?
"Then why are you...?"
"I missed you," he said softly, because that was less pathetic than saying he needed to hear her voice.
This time it was Pepper who sounded broken. "Tony, please don't. I can't-"
"No, not like..." Tony ran his fingers though his hair to give his hand something to do that wasn't tapping on his now whole chest or twitching to pet a cat. "We're still broken-up, I know. But we're friends, right? You're allowed to miss friends." He was half-pleading by the end, because he wasn't sure he could handle her hanging up and finding out Steve was wrong.
She didn't hang up. He heard her take a deep breath. "Yes. Yeah, you can miss friends. We're... we are friends."
The relief that swept through Tony was so great that his knees felt like they were going to give out. He sat down in his rolling chair, letting it hit the desk with a small thump. "Good. That's good," he said, trying to think of what to say to keep her on the line. "Um..."
"Usually this is where you ask how my day was," Pepper said. It was faint, but he could hear the amusement in her tone.
"Oh," Tony said intelligently. He'd never been particularly good at small talk when he wasn't on camera or at a party. He'd tried never to slip into that role once the two of them got serious. "Yeah. How was your day?"
"It was good," Pepper said. "I've allocated more funds for your projects. Just let me know if you come up with anything ground breaking."
"Does a robotic cat-poop scooper count as ground-breaking?" he asked absently.
That startled a laugh out of her - weak and hesitant, but a laugh, and Tony drank it up. "I don't think so, Tony," she said, sounding more like her old self than Tony had heard in weeks. "Is that what you've been up to, cat toys?"
"That was weeks ago. I volunteered at an animal shelter today," he replied.
"R&D is still struggling to keep up with me, so I just... went," Tony explained, feeling a little defensive that Pepper clearly seemed so baffled. He was allowed to do good things. It wasn't even his first time doing volunteer work without the press.
"So you went to an animal shelter," she said, as if that were hard to take in.
"What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing's wrong with it," Pepper said soothingly. "I just thought that with Captain Rogers being a cat that you'd-"
"He turned back," Tony interrupted flatly. He'd turned back, and now he would... maybe not go back to hating Tony, since there was apparently something new between them, but back to not needing Tony around. Tony had liked being needed.
"Oh." A quiet settled over them as Pepper put things into place. "Tony, no."
"It's only five of them, Pep-"
"We'd still outnumber them! More Avengers than cats. It'll work."
"Tony," she said firmly. He really kind of missed how she would boss him about. "You're not adopting five cats. And you should talk about even getting one with the other Avengers if you're going to give it free-reign of the Tower, and don't tell me you'll keep it confined to the penthouse, Tony. I know you."
Tony deflated a little. Irrationally, he'd been hoping she'd say yes. "You can always work out a time to go back and see them," Pepper said. He had the feeling she was already working something into his schedule at least once a week, even though that wasn't her job anymore.
"Yeah," he said, grasping at the empty silence. He didn't know what to say next. What he grabbed onto was the wrong thing, he knew that, but it slipped out anyway. "I love you."
All at once, the conversation disappeared as the tension returned. "Tony..."
He hated himself in that moment. Pepper had been sounding happy, and now she was back to broken, and he hated that it was him that did that. Tony always screwed things up, and now was no exception. "I'm sorry. I didn't.... I'm not trying to..."
"I know," Pepper said. He could hear her take a breath to steady her voice. It still came out soft and torn. "I love you too. I've missed you."
Tony closed his eyes against the stinging pain, and he could hear Pepper's breath hitching on a sob. It wasn't fair. Because love wasn't enough this time, no matter how much they wanted it to be. "Pepper..."
"We'll be okay," Pepper said. She was crying. He could hear it in her voice, but he didn't mention it. "Just... we need time."
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I shouldn't have called."
"No, I'm glad you did. I really... I am glad you called, Tony. It was a good thing," Pepper replied. It soothed some of the guilt, if not the sorrow. "I have to go now though."
He nodded, despite knowing she couldn't see him. "Yeah, I... Good-bye, Pep."
It felt final. Not 'see you later', but 'good-bye'. He knew that wasn't the last time he'd talk to her, but there was no returning back to the way things were. He stared down at his phone and the picture of Pepper as she hung up, blinking rapidly as she started to blur. This was it. They were really over.
He felt a soft tug on his shirt, and he looked over to see Dummy's claw. "Hey," he said, wiping his eyes. He leaned against Dummy's frame as he took a shuddering breath. "Looks like it's just us again."
Dummy made a few clicking noises and rolled closer. "We'll be okay," Tony said, repeating Pepper's words even if they didn't feel true. "We'll... we'll be okay."
* * *
An hour later, Tony wandered into the living room to find it empty. So was the kitchen and any of the usual patches of sunlight. It wasn't until Tony went to check the windows that he realized he was looking for a cat that wasn't there.
He stood in the middle of the room, at a loss for what to do. He couldn't go find Steve, could he? The cat thing aside, he and Steve still barely talked to each other. Not to mention what Steve had been alluding to earlier. He didn't know what else to do, however. Where did this put them?
"Hey, Tony. I was looking for..."
Speak of the devil. Steve came in with a book under his arm. He paused when he saw Tony's face, concern flickering over his eyes. "I came to find you," he said quietly. "Natasha and Clint found the last of AIM. They shouldn't be a problem anymore."
"Great," Tony said, feeling empty despite the victory.
"Are you alright?"
He wasn't believed. Steve's mouth set in a firm line. He put the book on the table, then walked over, pulling Tony into a one-armed hug. Tony froze, not sure where this sudden affection was coming from. Steve had never done this before. "Why don't we get something to eat?" he suggested.
"I ordered pizza," Tony said. He realized belatedly it was probably cold by now, waiting for him up in the pent house. "I'm fine."
"Pizza works too," Steve said, ignoring Tony's repeated words.
He shrugged Steve's arm off. "I'm fine. I don't need..."
"Are you?" Steve asked gently. "Because you look like you could use a friend, even if you don't 'need' one."
"Is that what you are?" Tony asked, not sure how he wanted this encounter to go. "'Cause I'm getting some mixed signals about what you want." Having Steve acting so friendly was just a little weird too.
Steve smiled ruefully. "I think friends is a good place to start," he said. "I'm not asking for anything more right now."
"And later?" Tony asked.
"We'll see where it takes us," Steve replied holding out his hand. "But right now I'd like to try to be your friend, if you don't mind."
Tony stared at the out-stretched hand, uncertain of what he wanted. Things were easier when Steve was a cat.
Steve sighed, then put his hand down. He smiled again, but now it was painful to look at. "I'll give Colonel Rhodes a call for you. I'm sure you can drag Bruce up for that pizza as well, so-"
Steve paused, waiting expectantly. Tony swallowed. He missed the cat, but the cat was Steve. Would hanging out with him now be any different? Steve was acting just as friendly as the cat had started to after he'd gotten used to Tony. Maybe this wasn't as unexpected as Tony had thought. It was just strange now that Steve was human and not a cat.
The answer was yes, it would be different. Now they'd both have to make concessions, though really, Tony had made a start on that already to avoid getting clawed. But there would be less cuddles and Tony didn't have a sure-fire way to calm Steve down now that scratching under his chin was out.
Tony didn't know how to fix the current rift though. He met Steve's eyes briefly, before Tony looked down to his hand that was now at his side. Steve must have found his answer in those few seconds, even if Tony couldn't vocalize it, because Steve's arm returned around his shoulders as he guided them to the elevator. This time, Tony didn't shake him off. It was warm and comforting, not unlike the comfort of having a cat in his lap.
"Do you want me to call the others?" Steve asked.
"No, I'm fine," Tony said, hoping Steve would hear that he wanted to give this a try, whatever 'this' ended up being.
Steve seemed to, if the smile Tony received was anything to go by. "Sure you are," Steve said indulgently as they got into the elevator. "Why don't we eat pizza, have a few drinks, and-"
"If you cut me off after one glass again, Cap, I'll claw you this time," Tony interrupted.
Steve looked surprised, then it quickly morphed into embarrassment. "It was really only one? Sorry. You scared me that first time, and the others..." Steve was blushing slightly, which was far more entertaining than Tony would have guessed. "Cats are easily distracted. You'd start petting me, and I'd lose track of how much time had passed. I never knew if it was your first or your fifth."
"For the record, it was the first every time," Tony said, attempting to glare. It was hard though, when his mind kept returning to 'You scared me that first time...'
Steve laughed softly. "Yeah, I figured that out after listening to you rant at JARVIS, but I couldn't keep track very well. I promise, you can drink as much as you want tonight. Well, as much as you want without getting close to killing yourself."
Tony nodded, and he felt Steve squeeze his shoulder as the elevator dinged and the door opened. "So pizza, drinks, and a movie?" Steve asked.
"The pizza might need to be warmed up," Tony admitted, stepping away from Steve and heading to the kitchen. Sure enough, the pizza was waiting on the counter. "What movie?"
"I was thinking Casablanca," Steve said.
Tony snorted. "Really? You're going to be that old school?" Usually Steve picked movies from his time that no one had heard of on movie nights, in revenge for never knowing the movies everyone else watched. Everyone knew Casablanca though. It was the stereotypical grandpa pick.
"I like Casablanca, and I haven't seen it in a while," Steve said, opening the pizza box and dividing a few slices between two plates. "It's a good movie. You okay with it?"
If it were Pepper, she would have wanted something funny, like a romantic comedy. Steve wasn't Pepper. This was different. Part of him wanted Pepper curled against his side. Tony missed that.
But this was Steve. And being with Steve as a cat didn't erase that, but it made the loss a little less. "Only if we watch Young Frankenstein after," he said finally.
Steve put the pizza in the microwave with a thoughtful expression. "I've heard you guys talk about that one before. That's one of those Mel Brooks movies, isn't it? Like Robin Hood: Men in Tights?"
"Yup, same guy."
"I liked that one," Steve said. "It had references I understood."
"This one will probably be more of the same for you," Tony said, remembering how Steve had laughed hysterically when Cary Elwes slammed the deer on the table. None of them had understood why until Steve made them watch the Errol Flynn Robin Hood a few days later.
"Sure. We can watch it too," Steve said with a small smile.
"So we're... we're doing this?" Tony asked. He meant more than just the movies. He decided he wanted to try this, even if he was a little scared of it as well.
"I think so," Steve said. "It's the start of a beautiful friendship."
Tony groaned. "Is that why you wanted to watch Casablanca?"
Steve's smile turned a bit shy. "Maybe."
"Fine, fine. We'll watch the ridiculously sentimental movie," Tony said, grabbing his plate of pizza from Steve. They settled down on the couch, and Tony leaned in against Steve's shoulders. Maybe it wasn't quite the same as hugging a cat, but he found he could work with it.
Maybe, for both him and Steve and him and Pepper, this was the start of something new. The start of friendships might not be so bad after all.