It's a little too early for Steve's alarm but he wakes anyway, vaguely conscious of a noise somewhere in the room. Not his alarm, he thinks muzzily. It sounds like a cat. The Avengers don't have a cat. That can't be right.
Something meows next to his ear.
He opens one eye, then the other, to find a small gray kitten staring at him. In the pre-dawn light edging through the curtains, the kitten and the morning are almost exactly the same shade of gray. The kitten blinks watery blue eyes at him and meows again.
It is an awfully adorable kitten. Steve is torn between admiring it and wondering how it's gotten here in the first place. His door is shut; he's sure of that. He glances up to check. His door is locked. No one was depositing kittens in the night. It couldn't have gotten in.
"You're a puzzle, aren't you?" Steve asks, pushing himself up to sitting.
The kitten bats at his hand.
There's no way it should be here. Which means this is magic or technology -- Steve isn't quite clear yet on what the future is capable of -- which means also that there's a possibility this kitten isn't what it appears at all. It might be a trap laid by one of the Avengers' enemies.
He can't trust it. He has to call the team.
"Come on," he says. The kitten doesn't really want to be picked up, and he isn't very good at picking it up, and it pokes him with its claws a couple times, but eventually he has it secured and hopefully unharmed. "You, my friend, are going to meet the Avengers."
He opens the door, and he stares. There's another cat in the mansion hallway. This one's fully-grown, black all over, and it stares back at him, green-eyed and silently disdainful, the way that most cats are around him.
The Avengers definitely don't have two cats.
Steve is pretty sure he can't pick this one up without dropping the one he's got, and he doesn't want to hurt them. Okay. New plan. He'll take this one down to the briefing room, put it in there, come back up, get the black one, and... call the Avengers to assemble? He frowns. It sounds silly now that he's thinking about it. It's not even six a.m., and it's just... cats. He can't possibly put out an urgent call because there are cats. It sounds so ridiculous. But still, the cats aren't supposed to be there. He really ought to. Right.
On the way downstairs, there are two more cats. A Siamese is stalking the stairs and a very, very large and very, very fluffy brownish cat is sitting in the middle of the foyer. Steve thinks maybe it's a Maine Coon. He doesn't know much about cats.
There is definitely something wrong here.
He can't contain four cats by himself all at once; he'll have to send out an alert. But when he gets downstairs and heads toward the briefing room, he realizes he's not the only Avenger here. Iron Man -- who is up either very early or very, very late -- is standing there. He has his hands braced firmly on the table, leaning forward, and Reed Richards' face is glowing from a screen on one of the walls.
There are three more cats on the middle of the table, two orange kittens and one white one. One kitten paws at another's lashing tail and then rolls over, front limbs covering its face. It's adorable.
"I may have slightly miscalculated the coordinates," Reed is saying, on the screen. He has that wild-eyed look that Steve has come to associate with scientists functioning on far too little sleep.
"Look," Iron Man says, "if you're the one who's going to be accidentally opening portals to who-knows-where, you could at least come take the kittens off our hands. Come on. Just some of them."
One of the orange kittens stalks across the table and pokes at the light of the repulsor faintly visible against the table, outlining Iron Man's gauntleted hands. Iron Man scritches at the kitten with a curled hand; it's an absent motion, so lazy that he doesn't seem to notice he's doing it. Steve wonders if that's going to hurt the kitten, petting it with the gauntlet, but then the kitten purrs. It clearly doesn't mind.
"It's only a week," Reed says, pleading. "One week of kittens, and the dimensions will have aligned enough that I can open the portal again. Honestly, Iron Man, this is not the worst thing that's ever happened. We've got no room for kittens here. Black Bolt's supposed to visit this week, and of course he's bringing Lockjaw, and you don't want Lockjaw in a building full of cats, do you?"
Iron Man's hand curls almost protectively around the kitten. "I see what you mean. I guess we'll take care of them for the week."
"Thanks," Reed says. "I owe you one."
The screen goes dark, and Iron Man sighs, a long staticky hiss.
"Hi," Steve ventures, as Iron Man turns his glowing gaze toward him.
"Good morning," Iron Man says, and even his filtered voice sounds tired. "I see you found the cats too."
"How many are there?"
Iron Man shrugs. "Your guess is as good as mine. Want to find out?"
The kitten in Steve's arms meows loudly.
There are thirteen cats.
The Avengers, having assembled, finally decide this by about eight o'clock, after Thor flies up to the roof and brings down what surely has to be the last cat, a very annoyed whitish cat with dark gray on its ears, legs, and tail; this one's got to be part-Siamese. They've corralled them all together in the kitchen, morning coffee abandoned, as the Avengers gather round the breakfast table.
"Thirteen." Jan frowns. "That's ominous."
"That's just superstition," Hank says.
"I notice you're not petting the black cats, handsome," she retorts.
Thor watches, delighted, as the gray kitten Steve had found in his room pokes inquisitively at Mjolnir. "They are all excellent beasts," Thor intones.
"Yeah," Jan says, "you tell him, Thor."
"I don't know," Iron Man says. "There might be something to it. Have you taken a look at their paws? Every last one of these guys is polydactyl."
Steve squints across the table. None of the cats are sitting near him, actually, but the ones he can see -- yeah, now that Iron Man mentions it, they all do have extra toes. "Is that unusual?"
Iron Man shrugs. "It's not unheard of, but I would guess that the odds are against us having thirteen of them in the same room."
"Maybe that's how all cats look in... where did Reed say these were from?" Hank asks.
"He didn't say." Iron Man sighs again. "Another dimension. Anyway, they're ours for a week until Reed can send them back. And this is me saying I probably won't be around much this week. I'll see if Mr. Stark can get me something else to do."
"Why?" Steve tried to quell the sudden sadness curling in his chest; he always likes Iron Man's company. "Allergic, Shellhead?"
Iron Man shakes his head. "No, but... they seem to like me." This much is true; he has one cat rubbing up against his legs and one in his lap. He's petting the one in his lap very, very gingerly. "I don't want to take the risk that I could hurt them with the armor, especially if they get into things they shouldn't."
"Makes sense. We'll miss you, though," Steve says, because, well, he will.
"Aww, Winghead, you'll hardly know I'm gone," Iron Man says.
One of the orange kittens has hopped up from the floor to Jan's lap and up again, and now it regards them from the middle of the table. It lifts its head in an imperious manner and then meows plaintively.
"It's probably hungry," Hank says.
Steve really wishes he weren't in charge right now. Do they even have food that thirteen cats can eat? "We have to feed thirteen cats? And-- and-- clean up after them? And what if they get out? Is that safe?" He doesn't know anything about cats. From the way Jan and Hank are looking at him -- and Iron Man's expressionless stare -- he's pretty sure this is obvious. "You're sure Reed can't take them?"
"You were there when I was talking to Reed," Iron Man points out. "If they stayed with him they'd be meeting Lockjaw. Anything would be better than that."
"We'll feed you something," Jan says to the cat, pitching her voice high. "We'll feed you all, hungry kitties. Just wait a bit while we figure it out."
The kitten on the table meows again... and disappears.
Then the kitten reappears on the counter, just behind where Iron Man is sitting, next to Hank's abandoned half-full coffee mug.
Steve stares. He is still getting used to the future, true, but he is pretty sure that this is not something that cats in the future have learned how to do. Someone would have mentioned this.
"Everyone else saw that, right?" Hank asks, sounding more than a little wary.
The rest of the team nods; they all look as surprised as Steve feels. The kitten sticks its head in the coffee mug, takes a few experimental licks, makes a disgusted face, and then gamely sticks its head in the mug again.
Another cat -- the gray kitten -- teleports up next to it with a little audible puff of air.
"Well," Iron Man says, after no one else has said anything, "I guess that's something they actually have in common with Lockjaw. I should let Reed know. Maybe he can ask Black Bolt about it."
"Yeah," Steve says, stunned, watching a third cat magically appear on the counter. "You should do that."
"Iron Man?" Jan asks, her voice gone a bit sharp. "You're the one sitting over there. Are you going to stop the cats from drinking the coffee?"
Iron Man spreads his hands wide. The repulsors in his palms are dim. "Look," he says, "as far as I'm concerned, if the alien teleporting cats are big enough to be able to get to the coffee themselves, they deserve to have it."
"This explains so much about you." It's hard to tell with the mask, but Steve thinks Hank looks appalled. "Please don't have children."
Jan leans over and waves a hand at the cats. "Hsst. Shoo! Get down!"
The cats look up at her and two of them disappear back down to the floor, with a little puff of air.
There are thirteen teleporting cats. And they're hungry. Steve rubs the bridge of his nose and sighs.
The meeting breaks up when Iron Man disappears to contact Reed -- or so he says -- and a short while later a dizzying array of cat toys, cat food, litterboxes, more cat food, bizarre carpet-covered posts, and items Steve cannot even identify begin to appear at the mansion, in a slow procession of fluffy jingly things. Steve guesses Iron Man must also have been placing some internet orders.
"Reed and I have compared scans of the cats' movements," Iron Man says. "They don't seem to be teleporting off the mansion grounds. He theorizes that they have some sense of the portal location -- which was our basement -- and they aren't likely to stray. So don't worry you're going to lose them. You'll be great, Winghead."
"All right," Steve says, with more confidence than he feels, as he watches Iron Man walk out the front door and then fly off into the sky, boot jets glowing.
Ordinarily he'd go for a run, but he doesn't really want to leave a mansion full of teleporting cats, so he changes and heads down to the gym, where the Siamese he had seen on the stairs earlier is sitting on the weight bench. It glares -- can cats glare? -- and then meows.
Steve wonders how intelligent alien cats are.
"I was hoping to use that, actually," he mumbles. He feels ridiculous, but maybe the cat understands him.
It twitches its tail and remains seated exactly where it is. Cats. Geez. Steve wonders how he would know if the cat actually did understand him.
"Never mind," he says, and he heads to the speed bag. "You can keep that."
He feels like the cat won that round.
An hour later -- during which he's acquired three more equally-unimpressed cats as an audience, all of whom teleported through the closed door -- he decides he's had enough of that, hits the showers, dresses, and comes back upstairs to find that Tony has come home. Why shouldn't he? It's his home. Still, Steve is a bit surprised that he'd want to be here, what with all the cats, and it makes him feel more than a little guilty. He feels like having accidentally inflicted thirteen teleporting cats on the mansion is well outside the bounds of the usual landlord-tenant relationship; he doesn't want Tony to think that this home he has so generously given him is being poorly taken care of.
Tony's sitting at the kitchen table, with a pile of papers and a tablet in front of him. He's scrolling through the tablet with one hand, while his other hand is absentmindedly petting the black cat who's perched on the chair next to him, butting its head into his hand whenever he pauses.
Steve stops in the doorway and stares and is acutely aware -- in a way he almost never lets himself be -- of his ridiculous attraction to Tony Stark.
It's not illegal anymore. He looked this up on the internet, once, late at night, when he was sure that no one was around, the week after he'd met Tony and was very sure that the ice hadn't frozen these... desires... out of him. He'd missed a lot of history, a lot of brave people standing up for themselves, for each other. He'd read enough to understand that people could be open now. Parades. Marriage, in some places. Military service. They'd never asked him, when he'd enlisted. He doesn't know what he would have said. But now he can be... queer. Bisexual. The internet said that was the word now.
Still, just because he is, it doesn't mean Tony is, and it doesn't mean Tony would want him even if he were.
The other good thing -- he's trying to focus on the positive aspects, however slim his hope is -- is that it's not against the Avengers charter. He's sure of that. The charter doesn't mention anything like that. And besides, Hank and Jan are together; if Avengers can be together... well, Tony's like an honorary Avenger, isn't he? He's their benefactor. There's not actually a chain of command. He's sure Tony wouldn't take advantage of him. Not in any way he didn't want, anyway. But it's clearly not going to happen.
Tony's sitting there, his tie undone, jacket over a chair, the first button of his shirt unbuttoned, and Steve just wants to touch him. He wants to run his fingers over the hollow of Tony's throat and feel his pulse pound; he wants to kiss him hard and breathless. He wants to make him smile, make him laugh. Halfway out of the suit, Tony looks like someone he could touch.
But Tony doesn't really touch people. Not easily, not casually. He knows this about Tony. He can count on one hand the number of times Tony has touched him. Not that he's counting.
Tony apparently touches cats, though.
The black cat purrs under Tony's fingers, and the tiniest satisfied smile flits across Tony's mouth.
He's not going to be jealous of a cat. That is... idiotic, he tells himself. It is so laughable that there aren't even words.
Tony pushes his hair out of his eyes, looks up, and smiles a brilliant, wide smile that makes Steve go a little weak in the knees. "Hey, Cap."
"You found the cats, huh?"
Tony nods, still grinning. "Iron Man told me, yeah. I decided I had to come see them for myself." The black cat hits Tony with its head. "Shh, hey," he murmurs, and watching Tony talk to a cat should not be as adorable as it is. "Still petting you, don't worry."
Okay, so Steve might be jealous of a cat.
The black cat meows, and, as Steve watches, another mostly-black cat, this one with brownish sides, teleports over and wraps itself around Tony's feet.
"They like you," Steve says, impressed.
Tony raises an eyebrow. "I have magic fingers," he says, his tone just this side of salacious, and Steve tries not to choke. Tony doesn't mean it. That's just the kind of thing he says. Then he holds out a hand. "Do you want to pet Black here?"
Steve smiles. "You're naming them?"
"Sure." Tony points. "This is Black, over there is Brown--" the Maine Coon is brown-- "and the guy over on the counter there is Red."
Red isn't red at all; Red is a sleek gray cat with a white blaze on his face and a white chest. Steve frowns.
"Orange and Yellow," Tony continues, briskly, "are those two orange kittens. Green's that big fluffy white monstrosity. Blue's the tortoiseshell, Violet's the little black kitten, Gray's that little kitten you brought downstairs--" at least that one is gray, Steve thinks--" "White's that white kitten. Gold's the Siamese, Silver's that whitish one with kind of washed-out Siamese coloring--"
"You named them all colors?" Steve asks, incredulous. "Most of those aren't even colors cats are."
Tony points to the mostly-black cat at his feet. "And the last one's None."
Steve stares. "That's... not even a color."
"Bad beer rots out your guts but vodka goes well," Tony says, cheerfully, like he's quoting something. "Get some now."
"Resistor and capacitor color coding," Tony clarifies, still cheerful. "You need more engineering in your soul, Cap. Also that is definitely not the worst mnemonic for the colors, so stop making that face."
He isn't making a face, is he? "You named them after electrical components," Steve says, still trying to wrap his mind around this.
"There are thirteen of them. You try naming a set of thirteen things on short notice."
"You have a point," Steve allows, and Tony smiles at him again.
"Probably should have named one Pixel. Maybe if there'd been another one."
"You know," Tony says, "the cat in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Wait. You don't know. Never mind. Don't read that. Ugh." He shakes his head. "Don't mind me, I'm exhausted. And you shouldn't read late Heinlein."
"Okay," says Steve, confused.
Tony pushes the tablet away and now None -- Steve admits that maybe the name is growing on him -- leaps up to Tony's lap with the air of a cat who thinks she's doing you a favor by allowing you to pet her. Tony's still grinning. "Look, now I've got two."
Steve looks at Tony's smile and longing twists in his gut.
He's got to say something. He's got to ask him. He can do this. He's been to war. This is just a date. The worst that could happen is that Tony will turn him down. He's probably not interested. He probably doesn't even like men.
"Say," he says, giving Tony his best smile and hoping Tony won't see the nerves underneath, "do you want to get coffee sometime?"
And Tony grins wider. "Sure, Cap," he says, easy as anything, like he didn't even have to consider it. "How did you know I needed my caffeine fix? Let me just go get my coat. The cats will be fine on their own for a bit."
As Tony carefully shifts None off his lap, gets up, and heads out to the closet in search of a scarf and coat, Steve realizes that he'd never considered this possibility. Tony doesn't think it's a date at all. He thinks it's just coffee.
What was Steve supposed to say? Was he supposed to say something different? Isn't it like asking a lady on a date? He has the impression from the internet that men go on dates now, that it isn't just furtive blowjobs in back rooms and alleys. Maybe that means Tony is so uninterested that the possibility would never occur to him. It's even worse than him just being straight.
Well, Steve thinks, this is going to be awkward.
The coffeeshop is noisy and crowded, and Steve, as always, stares up at the vast array of drinks on the board in frustrated awe at the future. He's figured out how to order a large cup of black coffee now, even if very few of those words actually end up in the order. It's one of the more annoying things about the future, but still, he's grateful that he doesn't have to drink Postum anymore, so he can put up with this. Everyone drinks coffee like they have no conception it could ever have been rationed. He thinks maybe Tony would die without it.
"What are you getting?" Tony asks, standing next to him. As Steve opens his mouth to reply, Tony laughs and shakes his head. "Never mind, Cap, I can guess. Boring black coffee. Have you ever tried any of the fancy drinks?"
"I wouldn't have a clue what to order," he says, and that's the truth. And what if he got something and didn't like it? Would he throw it away and just order something else? He thinks Tony would. He recoils at the waste of it, the frivolousness.
The corners of Tony's mouth lift, a tiny smile. "Aww, come on. Tell you what, I'll get you something new and if you don't like it, I'll swap with you. Or buy you something else. That way you can say you've at least tried it."
"All right," he says. Tony is very hard to resist. But if Tony drinks whatever it is at least it won't go to waste. He wonders if Tony's guessed this about him.
When they get up to the counter, Tony orders a black coffee and something Steve thinks sounds a lot more like some kind of dessert, but he'll go with it. He gets his wallet out, and is triumphant for a brief few seconds -- if Tony will let him buy him a coffee, then maybe this can be even a little bit like a date -- before Tony knocks his hand away.
"Let me get this one," Tony says as he hands over his card, in the exact same tone he uses when he's buying things for the team. That's what this is, Steve realizes: a favor from the Avengers' benefactor. Steve tries valiantly not to let it crush his spirits. "You don't even know if you'll like it; you definitely shouldn't have to buy it."
"I'll buy you one next time," Steve offers.
Tony shrugs the shrug of man to whom money is almost a meaningless object. Steve thinks maybe this is partly because Tony signs Steve's Avengers paychecks. The money was his to start with. "If you insist."
They wait in silence until a girl behind the counter calls Tony's name. Tony picks up his own black coffee and hands Steve something that looks like a chocolate milkshake. It even has whipped cream and chocolate syrup on top.
Steve eyes it dubiously. "This is coffee?"
Tony grins, hands him a plastic straw, and leads him to a pair of chairs in the corner. "Like I said, if you don't like it, we can trade."
They sit, and Steve sticks the straw in and sips his drink. It tastes... a lot like a chocolate milkshake. With coffee. And bits of gritty little ground-up chocolate chips. "Very sweet," he manages to say, as Tony's penetrating blue-eyed gaze goes on a little too long. "Not really what I was expecting." He sets the drink on the table between them.
Tony deftly swaps the drinks around like a magician doing a trick and Steve takes a grateful sip of plain coffee. "Well, now you know," Tony says. "Java Chip Frappuccinos are maybe not your jam." He's drinking the milkshake thing now, and Steve tries not to watch Tony's lips purse around the straw. He has had a lot of extremely inappropriate thoughts about Tony's mouth anyway, and this definitely isn't helping lessen any of them. Tony swallows and -- oh, God -- licks whipped cream off his lips. "So, how's life in the Avengers?"
It's not a date. It's a team briefing. "Fine, fine," Steve says, and he's sure the sinking sensation in his chest is entirely his heart. "It's-- it's been great."
"Good." Tony smiles. "Glad to hear that."
He ends up filling Tony in about everything the Avengers have been doing lately, up to and including Iron Man's last report on the cats. Tony talks a little about SI, about the work he's been doing. Tony is always an engaging man to talk to, so wrapped up in enthusiasm about everything, especially when the conversation drifts to the upgrades he's planning on making for Iron Man's armor.
Steve's sorry that they're already done with their drinks, because this is when Tony is at his most irresistible: animated, bright-eyed, gesturing wildly as he talks like he has an idea that will change everything, like he can change the whole world with just his mind, and he can. Steve loves this about him. He wants to kiss him. He wants to reach out and capture Tony's hand with his own.
"So I think I can improve the repulsor efficiency by at least five percent," Tony says, grinning, as they get up and make their way to the door. "I know that might not sound like much, but trust me, the effect will be dramatic."
"I believe you," Steve says, and then they're on the street. Should he say something? Maybe if he says something more date-like, Tony will get the right idea? He swallows. "Listen, I just want to say that I had a really good time, and--"
Tony's phone beeps in his pocket; he slides it out and makes an aggrieved face at the screen. "Sorry, Steve, gotta fly." But then he pauses and his face softens; he gives Steve one of those heartbreakingly beautiful smiles. It's breaking Steve's heart, at least. "This was good. We should do this again sometime, yeah?"
If this were a date, he'd kiss him.
"Yeah," Steve echoes, but before he can say anything else, Tony's gone and he's alone on the sidewalk.
This wasn't a date.
He's not going to be able to stop thinking about Tony's mouth.
In the evening Steve comes home to find Tony sitting on one of the couches, surrounded by a good two-thirds of the feline population, tablet discarded on the coffee table in front of him. Orange and Yellow are curled up in his lap, None is twining around his legs again, Black is on one side of him, Silver is on the other, and Red and Brown are sitting along the top of the couch next to his head. Tony's eyes are half-shut and he's smiling faintly; if he were one of the cats himself, he'd be purring.
Silver bats at him, annoyed, claws out, when he stops scritching behind her ears to focus on Black instead.
"Hey!" Tony says to the cat. "You stop that." But he's still grinning, and he starts scritching the cat again. "There's plenty of me to go around. Don't get greedy."
Tony is very good with his hands. Steve knows this, of course. He's been around him a few times while he was working on Iron Man's armor; Tony is very dextrous. Despite the money, despite the fame, he's a man who clearly loves building things with his own two hands. And he's petting cats with the same single-minded devotion with which he does everything, his fingers sliding through fur. He's shameless, not at all self-conscious. He might be hesitant to touch people, but he's definitely going to pet the cats for all he's worth, focusing all his attention on it. His smile is rapt and he's clearly enjoying the hell out of this.
He has lovely fingers, Steve thinks, hypnotized, watching Tony's thumb rub across the ecstatic Silver.
Steve is really, really jealous of a bunch of cats.
It's not fair.
Black stands up, stretches, and then teleports off the couch to land near Steve's feet. Awkwardly, Steve bends down, and he imitates what he's seen Tony do -- he reaches out to scratch behind the cat's ears. Black hisses and crouches low, avoiding Steve's hand, and then teleports back to the couch.
Steve stands back up. "I guess I don't have the knack."
Tony blinks and looks at him like he's only just realized Steve is there. "You want my feline secrets, Cap?"
"Sure." He wants any and all of Tony's secrets. That's probably not good.
Tony gestures to the other end of the couch, and Steve sits, so they're sitting with Black between them. Black still looks a little suspicious, but stays. Tony looks at him for a long few seconds. "You're a dog person, aren't you?"
"Never had any pets."
"Me neither," Tony says. "My dad wouldn't--" He stops talking, suddenly. Steve wonders if hanging around here with the cats is making up for something. "Anyway. But you like dogs?"
Steve shrugs. "I understand how to pet dogs, if that's what you mean."
"That's because dogs are easy," Tony says. "They come up to you, they wag at you, you pet them however you want, and it's all good. Cats, though -- cats are entirely different."
Tony is stroking two fingers along Silver's back; Silver is happily kneading Tony's thigh. "Me and cats, see, we understand each other. You don't pet cats on your terms. You pet them on their terms."
"You go slow," Tony says, and his voice is slow too, lazy, easy. "Slow. Subtle. You give 'em a chance to get to know you first. Here, put your hand out."
And then Tony's reaching out, and he's holding Steve's hand for just an instant. Steve shivers, his pent-up desire shaking out of him, bit by bit. But then Tony lets go, and now Black's sniffing at his hand, still a little arch and disdainful, but maybe interested. Right. The cat.
"Like that?" Steve asks. His voice is hoarse.
Tony's smile is soft, encouraging. "Just like that," he says, low, still soft. "Just-- yeah, just stay like that. Don't rush it. See, he's warming up to you. Be patient."
So Steve holds his hand still, and then Black decides that Steve has passed whatever test that was, and now he's rubbing his face against Steve's fingers.
"Now what? He likes me?"
"Well," Tony says, "scientifically, that means the cat thinks you're his, now. He's marking you with his scent. Kind of using you as a message board for the rest of the cat herd. Congratulations."
Steve wrinkles his nose. "Really?"
"Alien cats could be different. If you want," Tony offers, "we can pretend that it just means he likes you."
"Maybe we could do that," Steve agrees.
Tony settles his hand back, gently, on the pile of sleepy kittens that is now spilling over from his lap to the couch, and Steve is definitely going to stop staring at Tony's hands now. He definitely needs to not be imagining Tony's hands on him. He pets Black. Black seems not to mind it.
"There you go," Tony says, and he's still smiling. "He likes you. See, you've got the hang of it."
He can do slow and subtle.
Maybe Tony's advice isn't just about cats.
He can keep trying. He can be patient. He can do this.
Figuring that "slow" means that he should wait at least until the next day, Steve seizes the opportunity the very next morning. It's almost noon by the time Steve is done with the team weapons inventory downstairs, and when he comes back up he sees Tony's working from home again -- papers, tablet, and laptop are strewn about the table in the library, and Green is stretched out on the laptop's keyboard.
Tony has his shirtsleeves unbuttoned and pushed up. He has nice arms. He has nice everything. Yep, Steve's definitely smitten.
He clears his throat and Tony looks up.
He takes a deep breath. He can do this. "I was wondering if you wanted to get lunch with me."
Tony smiles, and then looks over at his watch. "It's quarter to noon already?" He makes a face. "I've got a conference call at noon I can't get out of, sorry, but if you're hungry and want some company I can break for lunch now. We've probably got enough ham for sandwiches, unless someone fed it all to the cats."
That wasn't what I meant, he wants to say, but he can't make the words come out. He has fought in a war. He has fought terrifying supervillains. He can't ask Tony Stark out on a date.
"Sure," he says. "Sandwiches are always good."
He kind of wants to kick himself.
Maybe this is too subtle.
Still, he likes spending time with Tony. Even if it isn't a date. Maybe it's better this way. If Tony never knows, Tony will never reject him. He won't have to chance losing the best friendship he has in this century. Second best. He corrects himself, guiltily. He has to put Iron Man first, doesn't he? Iron Man's his teammate. And it's not that he doesn't like Iron Man, but, well, with Iron Man he wouldn't have to worry about this. It's not like Steve can ever date Iron Man.
He really wants to ask Tony out. This doesn't seem to be working.
In the kitchen, he pours himself a glass of milk while Tony goes for the coffeemaker, and then he busies himself finding the ham and cheddar in a sea of leftovers mostly marked "Hank" and "Thor."
"You want anything else on your sandwich?"
"The spicy mustard, please," Tony says, slurping coffee and watching as Steve sorts through the different bottles on the door. "Not the-- yeah, that one."
He can make Tony a sandwich. It's sort of like a date, only in his head. He feels like he's providing something, at least. He's doing something for Tony.
He slathers the mustard on the bread and looks up to find that Silver has teleported onto the counter, stuck her face in his milk glass, and is happily drinking away. Steve sighs.
"Get down," he says, trying to shoo the cat away, and Silver looks up and teleports away to the top of the cabinets. She walks back and forth, inches from the ceiling, and stares down at him disapprovingly as he finishes making the sandwiches. He pours himself a new glass of milk. Even he has his limits.
"You know," Tony says, "even if she couldn't teleport she'd probably manage to get up there anyway."
He sets Tony's plate down in front of him, and his own opposite.
"I know," Steve says. It doesn't really make him feel any better.
Tony eats half his sandwich in approximately three bites, with the kind of distracted air that suggests that food is something inconvenient he needs so that his brain can keep working. But then he swallows and smiles. "Hey, this is really good. Thank you."
Steve can feel his face start to heat up. It's painful. "I didn't really do anything except put it together."
"It's more than I would have managed for myself." Tony's still smiling. "So, thanks."
This is good, Steve tries to tell himself. Tony likes him. Even if Tony doesn't like him exactly the way he wants, it's still a good thing.
"Well, you're welcome," he says, awkwardly.
Should he say something else? Should he ask Tony out again? He opens his mouth--
And Blue teleports directly onto the table and makes a beeline for the other half of Tony's sandwich.
"No," Tony says, sternly, and then Blue jumps up and disappears in midair. Tony sighs. "I won't say it's not disconcerting when they do that, though," he adds, with a grin.
"Don't get too attached," Steve warns him. "They're only staying for the rest of the week."
He wonders, even as he says it, if they can adopt a cat, a regular Earth cat. The cats are clearly making Tony so happy. But their lives are unpredictable enough, and the mansion isn't always safe. Probably not, then.
Tony polishes off the other half of his sandwich and shamelessly licks his fingers.
Steve stares. Tony isn't doing this on purpose, he's sure, but, God, Tony's mouth and his fingers -- he can't deal with it. He shifts awkwardly under the table as heat pools low in his belly, and he hopes he doesn't have to stand up anytime soon.
Sighing, Tony checks his watch again. "Five minutes till the meeting. Gotta go. Thanks for the sandwich."
And then he's up and out of his chair and gone, leaving Steve alone and confused, and, embarrassingly, half-hard.
So, he thinks, that didn't work.
Steve stares at his untouched sandwich and pushes the plate away.
Blue teleports back onto the table and meows impatiently; Steve sighs and tears off a piece of ham from the sandwich for her.
At least he can win someone's heart through food.
Steve is nothing if not determined. He knows some people might call it stubbornness -- with a variety of other uncomplimentary words attached to that -- but he's a man on a mission. He is going to ask Tony out. Even if Tony says no. He is going to figure out how to do this so Tony will understand him. There has to be a way.
He thinks he has an opportunity the next afternoon. Tony is working from home once again, and when Steve walks past the open library door he is greeted with the now-familiar sight of Tony scribbling something technical-looking into a notebook, left-handed, while None is curled up next to his right hand.
"Tony?" he asks, and Tony looks up. Steve runs his hand through his hair. "I was wondering if--"
Steve's Avengers card beeps loudly, and Steve suppresses the impulse to swear at it. That's not what Captain America does.
"Avengers!" Hank's voice is tinny, through the little speaker. The screen flicks on, and Steve can see him, costumed, with Jan already at reduced Wasp-size by his ear. "We've run into Zemo downtown, and we could use some help here."
Thor's voice resounds through the card. "Verily!" he booms.
Steve taps the card and replies. "Cap here. On my way."
He waits for Iron Man's familiar check-in. Nothing. Iron Man has sometimes been... erratic, but he's always explained afterwards that it was because Tony had needed him somewhere else. But Tony's right here. So where's Iron Man?
Tony's looking up at him with an odd cast of apprehension on his face.
"Nothing you need to worry about," he assures Tony. "The Avengers have it covered. Well, we will have it covered, as soon as Iron Man turns up. And never mind what I was saying -- it can wait."
Tony doesn't look any more relaxed. "All right," he says. "You should go."
"I was hoping to get a ride from Iron Man," Steve says. "He'd be faster than anything else I can take. But he's not answering."
Tony looks... ashamed? Worried? Something strange, anyway. "I sent him off today," he says. "Confidential work. I... didn't know he didn't have his Avengers card. You should go, suit up, and get there yourself. I'll call him. He might be a little late."
Steve grins, grateful Tony's here. "Oh, thanks," he says, as he runs out the door. "That would be great!"
He was lucky Tony was there, really, he thinks, as he changes into his uniform. Tony always knows how to find Iron Man.
By the time his bike gets him to the fight, Wasp, Giant-Man and Thor are flagging, but Thor gives him a triumphant grin as Steve lets his shield fly, ricocheting off a lamp-post to hit Zemo hard, sending him to the ground. It doesn't keep Zemo down long, though, and as Wasp swoops in with her usual energy blasts and Steve grabs his shield and heads forward into the fray, he realizes that the strategy he's reflexively fallen into is balanced for Iron Man's presence.
A bullet whizzes past Steve's left ear, too close, and he knows he was expecting Iron Man to be there, at his side, at his back, to cover him--
A familiar filtered voice crackles in his ears and Iron Man is on comms. Thank God. "Hey, Winghead," Iron Man drawls. "Sorry I'm late. You miss me?"
There's a red-gold blur in the skies, moving fast, at the edge of Steve's field of vision, and Steve smiles.
"I always miss you, Shellhead," he says. "You know that."
Iron Man laughs and lands at Steve's side, exactly where he should be, bringing his hands up as his repulsors begin to glow blue. They're a team.
"Come on!" Iron Man calls out. "Avengers! Let's do this!"
Giant-Man is twenty feet tall, Wasp is still firing energy blasts, Thor swings his hammer, and Steve blocks Zemo's next three shots without even trying, as Iron Man retaliates with repulsor rays; they work together perfectly.
At least something is going right.
Steve fully intends to ask Iron Man about why he didn't have his Avengers card on him, but it slips his mind at the post-fight debriefing (certainly not because he was trying to think of how he could ask Tony out, he tells himself). After he's made sure no one is injured and he's taken a shower, during which he remembers that he wanted to ask Iron Man about the card in the first place... well, when he's done he can't find Iron Man anywhere.
He does find Tony, though.
Tony is stretched out on the couch, deeply asleep. He's lying on his back, head propped up on one of the throw pillows, one arm dangling off the couch, fingertips brushing the floor. The coat and tie are gone, but he's wearing a slightly-dingy white button-down shirt -- are those oil stains? -- and the trousers from his suit. Steve hasn't heard him talk about any big deadlines at SI, but he has to wonder what Tony's been up to, because Tony looks absolutely exhausted, like nothing could wake him. The circles around his eyes are practically dark enough to be bruises. His hair is a mess, falling all over his forehead.
One of the orange kittens -- Orange, Steve thinks, or maybe Yellow -- is curled up on Tony's chest, also asleep. Tony's chest rises and falls as he breathes, but it's not disturbing the kitten, who is a tiny little ball of orange fur, eyes scrunched shut, clearly just as tired as Tony.
It's very cute.
Steve looks down at Tony with a swell of protectiveness gathering somewhere under his breastbone, something bright and affectionate, and before he can think about what he's doing he reaches out to push the hair back from Tony's forehead. He remembers just in time, with his fingers barely grazing Tony's face, that Tony doesn't like touching people. He can't touch Tony.
But Tony, it seems, doesn't mind touching people in his sleep, because before Steve can move his hand away Tony pushes his head up against Steve's fingers. His skin is warm, and he makes a pleased-sounding mumble. The faintest smile passes across Tony's lips. Steve hopes he's dreaming about something nice. He likes when Tony's happy.
I'm half in love with you already, he thinks. And I don't know what to do.
He reaches for the blanket folded over the end of the couch and spreads it over Tony's legs.
He can do that. It's not really enough.
The next day, Steve realizes that what he actually needs is help. Advice. He clearly can't manage to ask Tony out on his own. He hasn't really been on a lot of dates, and maybe the Avengers can help him. What else are friends for? He thinks about asking Thor, but he thinks Asgardian dates quite possibly involve slaying animals, and that's not the way to go here. He doesn't really want to ask Hank; he knows Hank and Jan are very happy together, but he suspects, having met them, that Jan did all the asking, because Hank keeps staring at her like he can't believe his life is this wonderful, when he thinks no one's looking. They're sweet. But that means Hank probably can't help.
Honestly, it's a shame Iron Man isn't around, because he'd really like to ask Iron Man. Iron Man is his best friend, and though Iron Man never talks about his own romantic life, he's sure Iron Man must know Tony very, very well, given the amount of time they must spend together. He could give him tips about Tony. Iron Man would probably be able to tell him just what sort of things he should say to Tony. Iron Man could probably even tell him for sure if Tony likes men, because, well, being a bodyguard, he must know if Tony has ever gone out with men, right? But Iron Man isn't here.
That leaves Jan, which is still good, because, well... Jan knows Tony; she knew him before she was an Avenger, even. And presumably Jan knows how to ask someone out. And he likes Jan. Everyone likes Jan. And she's nice; she won't laugh at him for not knowing, and he can't imagine she'd be unkind if he tells her he's queer. He's not planning to mention that, though. He's not planning to mention Tony specifically, either, but maybe he can steer the conversation so she might mention him. He can use subtlety. It's his new method. He's trying it, anyway.
It feels like he's drawing up a battle plan, considering strategy and tactics. A battle plan for his life. That comparison might put some people off, but thinking of it like that actually makes Steve feel better. Strategy is something he understands. Dating is not.
Jan is in the library, in one of the overstuffed chairs, paging through fashion magazines. Her shoes have been kicked off and she's curled up, barefoot, in the chair. She has a sketchbook balanced in her lap, the page covered in dashed-off hourglass shapes, the suggestions of models, with dresses in various stages of completion drawn over them. She's chewing thoughtfully on the end of a pencil. And one of the kittens -- Violet, Steve thinks -- is lying next to her on the chair, purring.
"Hey there," Jan says, glancing up and smiling. "I haven't seen Iron Man since the fight yesterday, but if you're looking for Tony, he's--"
Why does Jan assume he's looking for Iron Man or Tony? Is he really only looking for one or the other of them? Is he that obvious?
Steve holds up a hand. "It was you I was looking for, actually. Not Avengers business," he says, quickly, in case she's thinking it might be that. "I just... need some advice. Personal advice."
Jan sets the sketchbook aside and her eyes gleam with interest. "Go on."
"It's about--" Steve swallows hard-- "it's about dating. I don't-- I need help asking someone out. I don't know how people go about it these days."
"Oh!" Jan's smile is wide and delighted. "That's wonderful, that you're thinking about dating someone. I don't think you really have to do anything other than ask her. Have you even seen yourself? You smile, and the girls will fall all over you. Don't be shy. Or maybe be shy. She might like that. The blush, that's adorable. Like that."
She says it like he's deploying some kind of weaponry, like he's calculating this and doing it on purpose, but talking about this at all is just making his face painfully hot.
Steve's face is still burning. "I tried that," he says. "The asking part. But I don't think I'm doing it right. We went out for coffee, but... what do you do when the other person doesn't know it's a date?"
Jan frowns thoughtfully. "Did you actually use the word 'date?' When you asked?"
"Uh," Steve says.
"There's your problem. You should start there." Jan's looking up at him, somehow fond and exasperated at the same time. "It's nothing to be scared of," she adds, and he wonders what his own face looks like. "The worst she can do is say no."
Steve bites his lip. "I don't even know if he likes--" he begins, and then he stops, horrified, because he's given that much away and what if he was wrong about thinking Jan would just accept this?
Jan's mouth opens, and for long moments she says nothing, but then she smiles, and Steve takes a shaky breath.
"You've never told anyone you like men, have you?"
Steve is still breathing fast, dizzily. "No."
"Congratulations," Jan says, and she reaches out and squeezes Steve's hand. "Welcome to the future."
"Thank you," he says, weakly. He can't even think anymore, and he sits down hard in the chair next to Jan.
"I'm sorry I assumed you were straight. It gets easier to tell people the more you do it," Jan says, encouragingly. "So I hear."
Steve tries to smile. "I-- I hope so. I was hoping to date... a man... anyway. I think he'd have to know, at least."
"Right. Your question." She purses her lips. "This does complicate matters. This isn't really my area of expertise, you understand, but I think in this situation you might want to find out from his friends -- do you know his friends? -- if he's gay or bisexual, if you don't want to ask him directly. And then if he is, then you ask him out on a date. Using the word 'date.'"
So much for his plan of not telling Jan anything. He scrubs his hand across his face and takes a deep breath.
"You know him," he says. "It's Tony."
And Jan's grinning at him, a tiny little pleased smile, but she doesn't look particularly surprised. He guesses he has been obvious. "Oh, Steve!"
"You're his friend," Steve says, somewhere between desperate and relieved, adrenaline pounding through his system like he's in a battle. "Do you know-- do you think I have a chance with him?"
She tilts her head and scrunches her nose in thought. "I've never known him to date a man, and he's never said anything about it to me," she says, and she holds up one finger even as Steve's disappointed heart is falling, crushed. "But he's had some... intense... friendships, when he was younger, and I absolutely wouldn't be surprised to hear that he's been with men. I've just never known him to do it, not for sure."
"Oh," Steve mumbles, dejected.
Jan reaches over and squeezes his hand again, and he looks up. "But he likes you," she says, insistently. "He likes you a lot. Anyone can see that. I think you should ask him out. He's a nice guy; you know he'd never... react badly... if you made a pass and he wasn't interested."
"I know," Steve says, and he realizes he did know that, at least. Tony wouldn't be cruel or hateful.
Jan pats his hand. "Your secret is safe with me for as long as you want it to be. Go on, Avenger. You can do it. Be brave."
Be brave. He can do that.
"Tony," he says. "I was thinking-- I was wondering if you wanted to get lunch with me."
As a date, his brain chants. As a date. Go on a date. Go out with me. Say it, Rogers.
He can't. He can't say it. He's looking at Tony, and Tony's smiling at him a little, his face open and earnest, and... he can't.
"Sure," Tony says. "Lunch sounds great."
It is, in fact, a great lunch. They go to the new panini place Tony had wanted to try, and they spend easily an hour there and they talk about the cats and Tony tells him about everything he's working on, and it really is fascinating hearing Tony talk about everything -- at one point he's sketching circuits on the paper napkins and drawing repulsor diagrams -- and Steve just loves all of it. He really, really likes Tony. He doesn't want to lose this.
But he wants more.
Steve refuses to let Tony pay again, but Tony adamantly refuses to let him pay, and in the end they split the check. It's definitely not a date.
Afterwards, they're standing on the sidewalk and Tony's looking over at him and grinning. "That was good," he says, and for a second it looks like he's about to say something else, but he doesn't, and Steve can't imagine what. "Anyway, the Long Island factory needs me. I should go. See you tonight, eh?"
"See you later," Steve says, and as Tony walks away Steve scuffs the concrete, wraps his coat around himself tighter, and sighs.
Next time. He'll ask next time. Tomorrow. He can do this.
They're watching television the next evening, just him and Tony and the usual random assortment of teleporting cats. They're on opposite ends of the couch, but it's a small couch. Steve could reach out and touch him if he wanted. He wants to.
Tony has a tablet in front of him and three cats within arm's reach, all three of whom he is lazily scratching in turn as he scrolls through what look like patent applications. He's not even looking at the television, which is flickering away to itself, the volume turned low.
Steve's looking at the television -- well, he's pretending he's looking at the television -- but he has no idea what they're actually watching, even though they've been watching this film for at least an hour and a half. His mind is consumed with whirling thoughts, all the possible scenarios branching forth from when he asks Tony to go out with him: Tony says yes, Tony kisses him, Tony says no, Tony kicks him off the team, maybe Zemo attacks them again and interrupts everything. Steve wonders if this is how Tony thinks about things all the time, how he discovers the future. Maybe that's why he always looks exhausted.
The film ends, and the credits begin to crawl up the screen.
Tony lifts his head.
Now or never, Steve thinks. He swallows hard. He's sweating.
"I was wondering what you would think about going out to dinner with me sometime," Steve says. His voice is too high. He can hear his pulse pounding in his ears. "There's this new French place that's supposed to be good and you-- you like French food, right?"
That's a date, right? He didn't say "date" but he said "with me." It ought to count. And dinner is romantic, and French food is romantic, Steve thinks, hopefully, his heart pounding fast and terrified.
Tony doesn't say anything at first. He just blinks a few times, like he isn't sure he heard Steve right at all. And then he licks his lips, nervously, and sighs. He's going to let him down. He's going to say no.
"Listen, Steve," Tony begins. His voice is a little hoarse with surprise, and his words are slow, considered, like he's thinking how he can answer this best. "I really enjoy spending time with you, and I'm cool with it, I'm definitely cool with it, I'm happy to join you for dinner, but I feel like I should give you a heads-up about the phrasing there, in case you're ever looking to eat meals with other guys sometime. In modern society other people might get, uh, the wrong impression about you."
Tony shifts uncomfortably in his seat, and Silver and None both glare at him as they teleport away.
He doesn't understand, Steve thinks. No, it's worse than that, he understands, but he doesn't think Steve would ever--
Steve swallows again. His mouth is bone-dry. It doesn't help. "What impression is that?"
Tony runs a hand through his hair. "I, uh, don't know what the scene was like in your day, so I don't mean to offend you, but." Tony looks away for a second, visibly steels himself, and looks back. "The way you asked, it made it sound like you... like men. Romantically. That you were asking me out on a date. Just so you know. That kind of wrong impression."
Steve's heart is pounding like he's in the middle of a battle. "What if I told you that was the right impression?"
Tony's eyes go wide, and his face pales. "Oh my God," he says, under his breath. "Oh God. I wasn't imagining things. Those were dates. You've been asking me out this entire week." His laugh is breathless, a little panicked. "Those were dates, right?"
"I was trying to ask you out, yes," Steve says, embarrassed. Can Tony just tell him yes or no and put him out of his misery?
But Tony's still wide-eyed, somehow overwhelmed, like this is just as hard for him to deal with. "You-- you really want to go out with me?" Like he can't believe Steve would. He's looking around wildly, like he thinks this is some kind of trick.
Steve summons up a smile. "Really."
Tony wants this, he thinks. Tony hasn't said yes yet, exactly, but he hasn't said no, and his surprise is the good kind of disbelief -- the kind where he already wanted it.
"Oh," Tony says. "Oh, wow. I-- I-- I don't know what to say."
He watches as Tony shuts his eyes, shakes his head, and he can tell that Tony's overthinking this. He can practically see him overthinking this.
"You're thinking too much, Tony," he says.
Tony rubs his temples with his fingertips. "There's... a lot of things to think about. You don't even know how many things there are to think about."
Is he worried that Steve is an Avenger when he's funding them? That might be it. But Steve can go off the payroll; he has his Army back pay. Is he worried about the public? They hardly have to tell anyone yet. "It's simple," Steve tells him. "Do you want this?"
Daring, he takes a deep breath. He holds out his hand.
"God, yes," Tony says, fiercely, and his hand slides into Steve's and holds on tight.
One of the cats meows. Steve ignores it.
"Good," Steve breathes. He's smiling so hard his face hurts.
Tony's hand squeezes his, almost painfully tight now, and Tony's eyes are wide again, like he can't believe what he's just agreed to. "I haven't gone on a real date in a while," Tony says, and he's practically babbling now. "I have-- I have... some medical issues you should be aware of. It's complicated-- you don't even know--"
"It doesn't matter," Steve says, because it doesn't. They'll be together. It will be good. He knows this in his bones. "It'll be all right. It'll be swell."
Tony smiles, and then all the tension goes out of him in one great rush. He looks back at Steve. He's dark-eyed now, languid, desirous. "Yeah," Tony says. "It will."
When Reed shows up at the end of the week to send the cats home, Steve is almost sorry to see them go -- almost, because yesterday Blue and Green had teleported into the refrigerator and eaten his leftover tuna salad. He's still a little annoyed about that.
The portal is in the basement -- the same place it had opened to originally, apparently -- and it crackles red with otherworldly energy. The final two cats -- Silver and None -- hop through with a quiet mew. Reed taps at a shiny control in his hand, and the portal collapses.
"And that's the last of them," Reed says. "Thanks for being so understanding, Captain."
"Any time," Steve replies. "I think Tony really liked them."
Tony looks up from the machines in the corner, where he's been monitoring the portal for the Avengers. "I did," he says, a little sheepishly.
"I as well," adds Thor.
Reed looks excited. "Good," he says, "because there's another universe where--"
"No," says Tony. "No more portals. I don't even want to know."
"Fine." Reed sighs. "I'll just be on my way."
"Us too." Jan snags Hank's hand, and she's dragging him to the door. "We have a brunch date, don't we, handsome?"
"Say hi to Black Bolt and Medusa for me," Hank calls over his shoulder, as he's heading up the stairs.
Thor and Reed leave too, and then it's him and Tony, alone. Alone. Steve grins. They've hardly had any time alone together -- just enough for him to establish that, yes, Tony is very, very good at kissing. He's still smiling, remembering it.
Tony bounces a little on his feet. "Do we have a brunch date?"
"Of course," Steve says. "I made reservations, remember?"
And he sweeps Tony in close and kisses him, kisses him until Tony is panting, breathless, boneless in his arms.
"You kiss me like that again," Tony says, "and we're not leaving the house. Possibly we're not even leaving this room. I'm just saying."
It's tempting -- it's very tempting -- but he is actually hungry, so he lets Tony go. "After brunch, then," he says.
Tony's face can only be described as a pout. But he's running his fingers through Steve's hair, to his shoulder, down his arm, gently stroking him, a lot like... well, a lot like Steve's seen him do with the cats, all this week.
"You miss petting the cats, don't you?"
"A bit," Tony admits, but then he grins, and the look is so knowing that Steve can't quite handle it. "I'm going to like petting you a lot better."
He can feel himself blushing. "We have a date first."
Tony smiles. "Yeah," he says, and his fingers interlock with Steve's. "We have a date."