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The Winter Tabby

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Tony hadn’t expected to see Steve that morning; he hadn’t really expected to see Steve that week, if he was being honest with himself. While it was true that the Avengers lived in Stark Tower – Avengers Tower, as the newspapers had started calling it – the close proximity didn’t mean much when it came to sharing each other’s company.

Iron Man and Captain America were friendly enough, yes, but Tony and Steve didn’t see each other much outside of Avengers missions or the occasional late night gym visit, and while Tony knew Steve Rogers in private, he didn’t exactly know him all that well. Tony was ok with that, for the most part, even though it did hurt to see Steve palling around with Natasha, Thor, Clint and Bruce like the five of them had grown up together. It was a tolerable sort of hurt – manageable, even; he knew that the others weren’t doing it on purpose, or out of some cruel need to torment him – or at least, he assumed that wasn’t their intention. It was hard to tell with people. He’d had a lot of so-called friends screw him over in the past, and while Rhodey and Pepper were his rocks, his best friends, he wasn’t always so sure about other people.

Steve was just keeping his distance after everything that had happened on the Hellicarrier, that was all; they had both said some things they shouldn’t have, and they both hadn’t really apologized for it yet. Still – it made Tony’s chest ache when he saw that part of Steve, that goofy, smiling, sweet Steve that seemed to be best friends with damn near everyone else in the Tower. He had promised himself and Pepper (mainly Pepper, and a little bit of Rhodey too) that he would do his best to be friends with his teammates, and he meant to do it no matter the cost – that was why he hadn’t just shut the car door and told Happy to drive off when he saw Steve coming towards him.

Steve’s hand was heavy on Tony’s shoulder. His face was sweaty and smeared with soot and there was a faint spatter of blood on the side of his nose. He looked ready to collapse. His too-tight white shirt was torn across the chest, giving the whole world a lovely view of his pink nipples. Tony had too bite his tongue to keep from mentioning the view. Sometimes life wasn’t fair; men as sexy as Steve shouldn’t be allowed to walk around looking like gods after they had had the ever-loving crap beaten out of them.

“Tony?” Steve wheezed.

“Jesus,” Tony said, giving his head a shake. He collected himself as he stepped away from the car door, burying away the amusement and wave of lust that had nearly bowled him over. Now was not the time – he had a schedule to stick to, and they couldn’t dawdle even if he wanted to. He and Pepper had a Board meeting waiting for them, and while he knew he was likely going to be late now that they had stopped, he knew he couldn’t brush Steve off and make a joke. There, hanging from one of Steve’s massive, beautiful, hands was a flowery purple cat carrier, the kind Tony normally saw in in the hands of elderly people and small children. Clearly something had happened; he had teased Steve a few times about rescuing kittens from trees, and all, but he hadn’t expected it to actually happen.

“What’s going on Cap?” Tony asked.

“I got into a fight,” Steve said, as if that explained everything. He held the cat carrier out, scratching at the back of his neck with his free hand. “I’m really sorry to do this – I know I’m butting in and I’m probably making you late for wherever it is your headed, but I need a really big favor.”

Tony cocked a manicured eyebrow. “What kind of a favor?” he drawled. He was tempted to leer, but he had a feeling that Pepper would know what he had done without ever having seen him, and he enjoyed not having an egg-sized lump on the back of his head.

“Can you take Bucky to get looked over by a doctor? I’d do it myself, but I’ve got to head out or I’m going to miss the shot I have at tracking down the bastards who hurt him,” Steve said.

Tony nodded quickly. He took the cat carrier and yelped, nearly dropping it. “Holy hell, Rogers! What the fuck breed of cat is this thing? It feels like you stuffed a bag of flour in here!” he grumbled. He peered through the metal bars at the mouth of the cat carrier. The cat hissed at him and pushed itself further into the back wall of the carrier, burying itself under a blood stained towel. The poor little guy looked like he had taken quite a beating – one that was decidedly worse than Steve’s. The sight alone made Tony want to run after the cat’s attacker too.

“Yeah, he’s a little heavy,” Steve said, smiling softly. “Thanks, Tony.” He squeezed Tony’s shoulder. “I’ll pay you back for whatever he needs.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tony said, waving a hand at Steve. “I’ll take care of everything. Is there anything I should know?”

“I think his leg’s broken, and he’s going to need more than a few stitches,” Steve said with a sigh.

“Yikes,” Tony whistled. “Someone’s going to be a cranky boy when he’s getting that dealt with.” He set the cat carrier down gently on the back seat beside Pepper, ignoring her confused frown. “How long do you think you’re going to be gone? Did you want me to drop him at your place after he’s patched up?”

“I wish it was that simple, but Natasha thinks we’ll be gone at least a month, and Clint seems to think we’ll be gone for at least three months. I’ll phone and check in when I find out more. I think we’re going to be keeping things pretty quiet.” He shook his head. “I’ll have to wait and see – it’s been so hectic, I didn’t even get the chance to get him any supplies. Can you get him some stuff? I’ll pay you back for everything, I promise.” He turned back towards the tower, and called out over his shoulder as he began to jog away. “Thanks again, Tony! I owe you one!”

“Yeah,” Tony muttered, watching Steve step through the front door. Well, he mused, this was one way to get Steve to like him. He stepped into the car, mindful of the cat carrier and settled in his seat, closing the door behind him slowly as to not spook the cat any more than necessary.

Pepper peered into the carrier cautiously. “Oh my god,” she said. “Poor kitty! What the hell was Captain Rogers doing this morning?”

“I have no idea,” Tony said. “Happy? Change of plans, buddy. Take us to the vet.” The moment the words left his mouth, he broke out in a cold sweat. If there was any other way to get Bucky patched up, he would have done it, but no one in the tower was trained to deal with an animal. Bruce could deal with people for the most part, but he couldn’t stitch up a surly cat.

“Got it,” Happy said. He glanced over his shoulder. “Is that ok with you, Ms. Potts?”

Pepper pulled her phone out of her pocket. “Absolutely,” she said, putting her hand on the cat carrier to steady it as they pulled out into traffic. “I’ll cancel the board meeting. I’d rather spend the time sitting with you in the waiting room – I don’t want you to have to do that alone.”

Tony smiled in relief. “Thanks,” he said.

Pepper smiled. “They’ll be able to handle anything that happened to the little guy. This’ll be easy. And it’s not like you haven’t had a cat before. We all know the drill,” she said.

“That’s true,” Tony said. He sighed. It had been years since his cat Peggs – a silky light brown Persian with a squishy face and fur that stuck to everything – had died. No one on the team had ever met her, of course. He had grown up with Peggs; she had been Jarvis’ cat – human Jarvis’ cat. Jarvis had found her in a box on the side of the road and had brought her home. Howard had sneered at the kitten but backed off for some reason; Tony had never figured out why, exactly, but he had heard Peggy Carter’s name mentioned a few times in their arguments and when he had asked his mother about it, she had told him that Anna, Jarvis’ wife, had wanted a cat to sit with her, and that had been that.

Tony had inherited Peggs when Jarvis and his parents had died in a car accident; Anna had died a few years before that of Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and there had been no one to take the cat except for him. Back then he hadn’t thought he would ever have a pet. His father had had house rules, and the first one on the list had been ‘no animals allowed’. Of course it hadn’t applied to Peggs – just to anything Tony tried to bring home.

Tony had fallen in love with Peggs the moment he had laid eyes on her; Jarvis had too, and so had Anna – and even Maria had had a soft-spot for her. Tony had spent every day after school playing with her in the kitchen while Jarvis cooked, getting her to chase him around the kitchen table while he dragged a chunk of string around behind him. He was pretty sure he had known that cat better than he had known half of the people he went to school with.

Inheriting Peggs that way had been hard. Peggs presence had lessened the sting of losing everyone he had loved in one blow, but it hadn’t changed the fact that he was now alone in the world – aside from Obie, no one had been around. Over the years things had smoothed out, but a part of him had waited, cringing internally, for that same, terrible, blow to come again as he and Peggs grew older and older. It had hurt to lose Peggs, even if it had been to old age and health issues – things he hadn’t been able to control. Peggs had been the sweetest cat he had ever known, and he after he had interred her ashes in the Stark Family Crypt, he had vowed never to get another cat; nothing could compare to her.

Tony eyed the cat carrier and its hissing occupant and wondered if he was getting himself into trouble.

 

 

Pepper sat beside Tony in the Playful Pet Vet Office’s intake room. The front desk staff had taken Bucky’s carrier into the back to deal with his injuries while they waited to free up space in one of the smaller examination rooms so Tony and Pepper could talk with the Vet.

This was Peggs’ old vet office.

Tony shifted nervously in his seat beside Pepper, taking the room in in pieces. The staff had change a lot of the décor, but that was to be expected. It had been years since he had been here. Peggs’ vet had died a few years back; the man’s daughter was running the place now. Tony trusted her judgement. They had talked whenever he and Peggs had been in for their routine checkups. The daughter, Melody, had been just getting into classes to become a vet back then, and she had been excited to see a cat as old and majestic as Peggs – and Tony had been more than happy to show her off. Peggs hadn’t minded; she had gotten extra scritches and pets for her trouble.

“It’s ok,” Pepper murmured.

“I know,” Tony said, hunching his shoulders. The last time he had been here, he had had to put Peggs down and it had been one of the worst days of his life. He hadn’t ever thought he would come back here again after that. He hoped to god he didn’t have to get this cat put down – Bucky, he reminded himself as he twisted the bottom of his coat in his fingers, this cat’s name was Bucky – because he wasn’t so sure he could handle telling Steve that Bucky had died, let alone see it happen.

“Everything’s taken care of. The NDA papers will be here by the end of the day,” Pepper said, her voice low. “I know you trust Melody, but I’d feel better if she signed one.”

“That’s fine with me,” Tony said, glanced around again, trying to prove just how fine everything was. The fine didn’t last long. He spotted Peggs’ picture, framed there on the ‘You will Be Missed’ wall, amidst all the other pets who had died, and smiled tiredly, dropping his gaze down to his knees. He had the same picture of Peggs at home on his desk; it was the best one he’d had of her. He still kicked himself for not having taken more pictures back when he had had the opportunity. Christ – this was a lot harder than he had thought it would be. So much for burying everything away for good. He ran his fingers through his hair and wondered idly if he could get away with running out of the front door at top speed.

“Tony?” Pepper murmured. “Are you alright?”

“I’m just thinking about new upgrades I need to get finished,” Tony lied. He cleared his throat. “So, uh, why do you think Steve named his cat Bucky?”

“I don’t know,” Pepper said. “People are strange. Maybe he just wanted to keep a little piece of his friend with him. That’s his friend’s name, isn’t it? Bucky?”

“That’s it alright,” Tony said. “James ‘Bucky’ Buchanan Barnes – Captain America’s best friend in the whole wide world.”

“I’m going to pretend I don’t know all about your Bucky Barnes and Captain America obsession,” Pepper said with a chuckle, flicking Tony in the shoulder.

“Good,” Tony said. “Because we’re never speaking about it in public again.” He grinned at Pepper when she rolled her eyes at him.

“Sure, Tony,” Pepper said. She reached into his pocket and pulled out his Stark Phone – complete with Captain America phone case. “I’m sure that’ll stop people from figuring it out.”

Tony stole his phone back. “Why do I keep your on my staff? You’re so mean!”

“I’m the meanie who bought you that phone case,” Pepper said with a snort.

Tony smirked. “Enabler,” he said.

“Mr. Stark?”

Tony felt like he had swallowed a bucketful of ice. He hated being in Doctor’s offices just as much as he hated being in vet’s offices; both were far too stressful to stay in for longer than five minutes at a time. He put on a brave face, smiled brightly, and stood up, deliberately waiting for Pepper to gather up here purse and jacket before he moved.

The vet assistant smiled back at Tony and gestured to an open examination room; there was a green bird drawn on the taupe door. “You can take a seat inside and the Doctor will be right in.”

“Alrighty,” Tony said, nodding jerkily to her. He lurked behind Pepper even though he should have gone into the room first; Pepper smiled at the vet assistant and took Tony’s hand as she walked inside.

The examination room was larger than it looked from the outside. There was a dark grey padded bench against the back wall positioned so that those seated would be able to sit beside the examination table. Tony sat down on the edge of it, getting as close to the door they had come in through as possible. Pepper ruffled Tony’s hair, and stepped around him so she could take a seat, all the while watching the door across from them, the one the vet and her assistants would use to come in and join them.

The vet assistant closed the door they had come in through to give them some privacy.

The door across from them remained firmly closed.

Tony let out a shaky breath. The examination room was decorated with posters that explained the different types of behavior to watch out for in cats – behavior that meant something was very, very wrong. A stainless steel examination table on wheels sat in the middle of the room, glinting under the fluorescent lighting. There was a counter and sink beside the table. Jars filled with cotton balls, bandages and dog and cat treats lined the wall. The room smelled of antiseptic spray and wet fur; they were both smells that seemed impossible to remove once they had sunk in.

“You know, when I said I didn’t want to go to that board meeting, I didn’t mean I wanted to do this instead,” Tony said, crossing his arms over his chest.

Agreed,” Pepper said. She set her purse and jacket down beside her on the bench. She clasped her hands over her knees and gnawed on her lower lip as she looked around, taking in the room at her own pace. She hadn’t been in a vet office as often as Tony, but she had done her fair share of time sitting in waiting rooms. This one didn’t seem to bother her much at all, although she didn’t exactly seem comfortable, per say. She rolled her shoulders and drummed her fingers on her leg.

“What’s up?” Tony drawled. He tried to focus on Pepper instead of the room.

“The board wasn’t happy about the rescheduling, but they didn’t seem too upset once they found out where we were going,” Pepper said.

“You told them we were going to the vet?” Tony asked. He hadn’t expected that. He and Pepper both didn’t like having Board members knowing too much about their private lives. Business was business after all – it and real life didn’t exactly mix.

“I told them you were going to the vet because Captain America needed a personal favor,” Pepper said, with a knowing smirk.

Ah,” Tony said, leaning back against the padded bench. “That’ll do it. No one can say no to Cap – and even those bastards like to pretend they feel patriotic sometimes.”

“That’s what I was counting on,” Pepper said.

Someone knocked on the door on the other side of the room.

Tony tensed.

The door opened and Melody, a tall woman with curly brown hair and olive-toned skin, walked in, carrying Bucky. The poor little bastard was limp, hanging awkwardly from her arms while wrapped in a blanket – not because she wasn’t holding him the right way, but because he was so goddamned big. It looked like Melody had brought in a dog by accident.

Had someone figured out how to give super serum to pets? Was that what had happened? Had Hydra experimented on animals – had Steve liberated the cat from one of their facilities? Were they even sure this was a cat and not a miniature lion? Hydra scientists loved experimentation, after all; it wouldn’t have surprised him to find out they had tried to breed some kind of super-cat just for shits and giggles.

Tony jumped up to help as Melody struggled to close the door. She smiled at him as she shifted the cat’s weight half into Tony’s arms and closed the door with her foot. Together, they carried the limp cat over to the examination table, and set him down.

Pepper stood slowly, moving over to stand beside the examination table, watching the cat with a keen eye. “That’s one big cat,” she said with a whistle.

Tony ran his hand over Bucky’s back and grinned. Bucky was a medium-haired chocolate tabby with black stripes that circled his legs and splashed their way across the rest of his body. He had long black whiskers, and white patches of fur on his feet, belly, and muzzle. The fur on his face was longer and fluffier than the rest of him, and it stuck out in tufts. His tail looked like it had been replaced by a raggedy duster with all the feathers missing off the right-hand side; it had clearly been a part of the attack somehow. Bucky’s nose was pink, and there was a bloody scratch across it. The cat’s blue eyes were ringed with dark circles of fur, as though someone had drawn on him with a marker, and while he was drugged up, he seemed very aware of what was going on around him. The cat was filthy, even though the vet techs had very obviously cleaned him up already; his fur was matted with dirt and blood in places. The fur on his belly had been shaved off, and while the fur that covered it looked like it had been white, his belly was a delightful shade of pale pink. Tony’s eyes settled on the stump that was the cat’s left front leg. He frowned. “Is that new?” he asked. “Did he come in like that?”

Melody frowned. She stroked Bucky as she checked patches of fur that hadn’t been shaved, looking for scratches that might have been missed. When she was satisfied, she looked up and locked eyes with Tony, her gaze steady and her expression calm. “This lovely boy’s leg has been missing for quite some time now, by the looks of it. The wound is healed over, and while there is some pretty heavy scar tissue, it’s not anything that should cause him any trouble. There were a lot of scratches all over him and what looked like a stab wound, but don’t worry. We stitched it up and he’s going to be just fine.”

“I was wondering why you shaved the poor bastard,” Tony said dryly. “What did his belly do, aside from being adorable?” He wanted to reach out and give that lovely belly a poke, but knew better than to reach in and pet a cat without permission; he liked his fingers attached to his hand.

Melody laughed. “He does have a cute belly, doesn’t he?” she cooed. “Unfortunately for him, the fur there was too tangled and matted with blood and debris – we were afraid he’d been hurt so we shaved him as a precaution.” She picked up Bucky’s right front paw and held it out, gently feeling each of his footpads and toes before checking his claws. “He’s been fighting,” she said, sighing as she looked down at the cat’s bloody claws, “He’ll need a wash once he’s healed up a bit – we took care of the worst of it, so don’t worry about trying to scrub him down right away. He was quite the handful.”

“I’ll bet,” Tony said. He ogled the cat’s front paw. “He’s a polydactyl cat. Huh. Didn’t think I’d get to see one. He’s got little people hands, Pepper – that’s so freaky.”

“I take it you haven’t seen him before now?” Melody said with a laugh.

“Bucky belongs to a friend of mine,” Tony said, shrugging. “He asked me to take Buck-aroo in and get him checked out. I don’t know what happened – or where my friend got that hideous cat carrier.”

“I think the real question is how your friend managed to squish this guy inside it,” Melody said with a snort, shaking her head. “That cat really wedged himself in there. We almost couldn’t get him out.”

Tony stroked the top of Bucky’s head, mindful of the stitches and scrape marks. The cat rolled its head to the side and stared mournfully up at Tony, as though blaming him for everything bad that had happened to him.

“We’re going to have to put a cast on his back left leg in a few minutes,” Melody said, stroking a hand down Bucky’s back. “One of the techs is setting everything up, so I thought I’d bring him in here to you and let you know how he was doing so you wouldn’t worry. He’s heavily sedated, as you can tell, so it’s not going to bother him much.”

“I’m betting he bit somebody,” Pepper said with a knowing smile. She peered down at the cat from beside Tony, and but didn’t touch the cat. “Poor kitty. Whoever did this should get a one way trip to hell.”

“If you find out, make sure you call it in,” Melody said. “Because of your NDA I can’t, but I highly recommend that you do. The bastard that did this needs to be caught.”

“Don’t worry. We’re already on the hunt,” Tony said. He moved his hand slowly, stroking Bucky’s soft ears one at a time. “Believe me – none of us want some abusive asshole walking the streets.”

Melody smiled grimly. “Good.”

“Can we take him home with us once he’s done with his cast?” Pepper asked, leaning against the table.

“Yes, he should be able to go home tonight. He’s going to get some antibiotics – a precaution,” Melody said, noticing Tony’s concern, “and he’ll need to take painkillers for his leg for a few days. The stitches will need to come out in a week or so. I’ll make sure you have an appointment made in advance and we’ll call the day before to remind you.” Melody turned, locking eyes with Tony. “Do you know how to pill a cat Mr. Stark?”

Tony grimaced. He did indeed have that particular skill; he had given Peggs medication for her high blood pressure every day for the last two years of her life. Happy, Pepper and Rhodey all knew how to give pills too; they had been kind enough to babysit when he had been forced to take long business trips. “I’ve done it a lot more than I would have liked,” he admitted. “My old cat needed them every day.”

The vet’s eyes widened. “Oh – yes. Peggs, right?”

“Yep,” Tony said, his throat suddenly dry. “Peggs. She was a good cat.”

Pepper put her hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Peggs was a sweetheart,” she murmured. She turned, misty-eyed, to Melody. “We know what we’re doing, don’t worry. I’m assuming it’s just some pills every few hours, right?”

“That’s right,” Melody said, clearing her throat. She patted Bucky’s furry head; he growled lowly at her but didn’t move. “We’ll sedate him again before we send him home. It’ll make the trip back easier on you three. Did you want us to use the same cat carrier he came in with?”

“No, I think I’ll get Mr. Barnes here an upgraded one – one that won’t squash him. I’ll make sure it’s here before we take him home.” Tony pulled out his phone. He was going to need a lot more than just a new cat carrier if he was going to be babysitting a cat, but thankfully, he knew exactly where to get everything; this wasn’t the first time he had gone shopping for a cat. Some of what he needed was easy to find. He had Pegg’s old scratching post in the basement of the tower, having moved it there from Malibu a good year before the Malibu house had been destroyed, and it would work perfectly for Bucky. It wasn’t all that tall, and while it was a teensy bit shredded in places, it had a nifty little cat-house at the top and a bunch of landing pads at different heights scattered around the tree in a circle; Bucky could pick where he wanted to sit and climb it leisurely when he was feeling better. Tony was glad he had kept the scratching post; he hadn’t been able to bring himself to throw it out, and since Peggs hadn’t really used it much, it would be virtually scent-free. Tony stroked Bucky’s ears with his thumb as he typed out a list of things he would need to buy, noticing idly that Bucky was leaning into his touch. “Don’t worry buddy. You’re going to be ok. I’m going to take good care of you.”

 

 

By the time Melody was ready to release Bucky into the world again, everything that Tony had ordered in had been shipped and assembled in his penthouse. Happy had been busy while Tony and Pepper were trapped waiting in in the vet’s office, and what Tony hadn’t been able to get his hands on, Happy and Jarvis had found for him.

The penthouse was stocked with everything they might conceivably need. Peggs’ old scratching post had been brought up and set beside the TV. There were containers of gourmet wet cat food stashed in the cupboards, and bags of gourmet cat kibble waiting beside the sink, all of it fresh off the production line. A box of cat toys and treats had been stashed in the living room beside the couch, within easy reach of the scratching post. There were three different types of brushes waiting to be used on Bucky’s fur once he was healed up, five different kinds of kitty beds waiting to be tested out and last, but not least, there was a litterbox, filled with the fanciest litter money could buy. Bucky was going to be pooping in style.

Bucky had the best of the best; nothing was cheap, or made with crappy parts. Steve was probably going to shit a brick if he ever saw the price tags, but that was ok. Tony had a plan, and he knew that Jarvis and Pepper would back him up if worse came to worse; there had been a lot of things to buy, and considering it would all have to last for years, in his eyes it was worth the extra money.

Happy brought Bucky’s new cat carrier into the vet office, holding it out in front of him as if he was carrying a miniature throne. He set it down with a flourish so Tony could look it over and backed up, watching the door and the other visitors to the vet office with suspicion, as though he expected to be attacked at any minute.

The cat carrier was made of black plastic, the kind that wouldn’t absorb odors and wouldn’t scuff unless something powerful took a swing at it. It was longer than most cat carriers and wide enough for a cat more than twice Bucky’s size and weight. The interior was padded with a soft, removable blanket, and there were holes in the sides so the wayward traveler could see out and get a whiff of the air without getting himself hurt or stuck on anything. It wasn’t perfect – nothing really was, considering he could have designed something far, far, better – but it was good enough for the time being.

“Is that what you were looking for, boss?” Happy asked, shifting nervously in place.

“It’ll have to do, Hap,” Tony said. He carried the carrier over to the vet tech who had been patiently waiting for its arrival; she took it from him and handed him a bag of medication in return. He opened up the bag and peeked at the contents. There wasn’t much inside aside from a slip of paper with instructions for cat-pilling on it and Bucky’s pain pills, but the bag still felt heavy in Tony’s hands. He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb. Pepper was down the street getting them dinner, and he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here before he got a migraine. He turned to the woman running the front desk and leaned forwards, flashing her his best smile – the one he used to dazzle the paparazzis – hoping to speed things up. “What do I owe you guys?” he asked.

The woman looked up from the orange bowling-ball-of-a-cat that was snoring into her stomach and wheeled herself closer to the computer; the cat didn’t even twitch in its sleep. “Let’s take a look,” she said. She pursed her lips as she located the total at the end of the bill. “This is quite the list,” she said. “It looks like we ran a battery of tests on Bucky, all of which are being done in-house – the results are still pending on some of it. We should get all of that back within the week.”

“Right,” Tony said. He should have just asked them to send the data to him so he could run the tests himself, he thought with a grimace, but it was a little too late now considering they’d already done the work.

“Dr. Melody felt it was best to run a urine and blood panel to make sure there wasn’t anything funky going on with Bucky in the background that we couldn’t see. The x-rays and CT-scan results will be in around the same time as the panel results. Those are pretty pricey, but necessary for diagnostics. With the emergency medical care – stitches, cleaning, painkillers, and antibiotics, etc – it comes out to fifteen thousand, nine hundred and seventy six dollars.” She smiled sympathetically before speaking again, her voice far too chipper for Tony’s liking. “Would you like to pay that now? I can set up a pay-as-you go plan if you’d like.”

Tony pulled out his credit card and handed it over. “I’ll pay for it all now,” he said. He glanced over at a little boy who was sobbing into his golden retriever’s fur; the dog looked like it was ready to keel over even though it was only a few years old, and the boy’s father looked like he was sweating through every last article of clothing he owned while trying to figure out what to do.

“I take it not everyone can afford treatment?” Tony asked with a grimace.

The woman sighed. “It’s unfortunate, but there aren’t a lot of medical plans for pets that people can get,” she said.

“I guess I’m one of the lucky ones, huh,” Tony said, looking over his shoulder at the intake room. There were at least ten people milling about, waiting their turn, and most of them looked tired and upset. “Tell you what,” he drawled. “Add up what they all owe and bill it to me.”

The woman dropped Tony’s card, her eyes wide. “What?”

Seriously. Put it all on my card – my treat,” Tony said, flashing a toothy grin. “Believe me. I’m good for it.”

The woman picked Tony’s credit card up with shaking hands and then squinted at it. As she read the name on it, her lips moved but no sound coming out. She looked up at Tony, her mouth hanging open. “You’re… you’re him,” she croaked.

Tony reached into his pocket where Pepper had stashed the extra NDA forms she had had couriered in and handed one over to the woman at the desk. “Sign at the bottom. I’d appreciate it if you kept this between us.”

The woman signed the NDA hurriedly, not even reading it, and handed it back as though absolutely sure it would burst into flames if she didn’t move fast enough. “You’re a good man, Mr. Stark,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper.

Tony chuckled. “I wouldn’t go that far.”

The front door opened with a cheerful chime behind Tony. Pepper sauntered towards him with two massive bags of take-out held daintily in her arms. She took one look at the woman manning the front desk and sighed wearily.

“You paid everyone’s bills, didn’t you,” she said.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Tony said. He turned away and whistled lowly, trying not to watch the way the golden retriever was trembling as it tried to stay upright. He wanted to turn around and order the vet to take the dog in right then and there, but he knew that if he decided to take charge, it likely wouldn’t go over very well. Not everyone liked accepting handouts if they knew where it was coming from; it was easier for people to get things for free without knowing who had footed the bill.

Pepper rolled her eyes. She set the bags of take-out down on the counter beside Tony’s elbow. “Oh, I’m not mad at you. I just kind of expected it to happen earlier in the day,” she said with a laugh. “Why do you think I brought you so many extra NDA’s? I know you too well, Tony.” She tweaked his ear and smiled at the woman manning the desk. “He does this every time he’s at the vet,” she said. “He thinks he’s being all secretive about it, but he’s really, really not.”

“I see,” the woman said. She beamed at Pepper. “Well, I’m sure everyone will appreciate it – even if they don’t know where the money is coming from.”

“I’m sure they will,” Pepper said.

The golden retriever trapped in the boy’s arms let out a wretched cough. Tony didn’t like the sound of it. He smiled at the woman manning the desk. “By the way – if you’ve got anyone on your billing list that needs permanent care – bill me for that too.”

“Are you sure?” the woman said, slowly, as though not quite sure what she was hearing

“I’m sure,” Tony said. “Tell her I’m sure, Pep.” He turned to Pepper, and smiled sweetly.

“He’s sure,” Pepper said with a laugh. “If you have anyone who you think need extra help, send the bills to us and we’ll pay for them too – we’re thinking of setting up a charity.”

“That would be wonderful,” the woman said. She held out Tony’s credit card and smiled brightly; this time the look was real, less plastic and forced. “Thank you. I hope your cat feels better soon.”

“Same here,” Tony said.

The vet tech opened the door beside the front desk and stepped out with Bucky’s carrier held in front of her. She handed the carrier over, and blew the hair out from in front of her face; she was covered in a light sheen of sweat. “Bucky’s still drugged up, but he should come out of it fully in a half hour or so. Just so you know, we put an Elizabethan collar on him because we don’t want him nibbling at his stitches. You’ll have to keep it on for a day or two just to be on the safe side,” she said.

“Aww,” Tony said, lifting the carrier up. He set it down on the counter beside Pepper’s take-out. “Poor Bucky has the wear the cone of shame.” He peered through the bars of the carrier’s gated door and found himself glared at by a very irritated looking cat.

“Did we need to sign anything else?” Pepper asked, picking up the take-out. She took the printed receipt from the receptionist and folded it up neatly, putting it in her purse.

“I think you’re good to go,” the vet tech said. “We’ll call you when we get the results from the urine test and the blood draws. If he starts acting funny – walking strangely, looking around like he’s confused, banging his head on something – bring him in right away.”

“Gotcha,” Tony said, giving the vet tech a thumbs up. He grunted and picked up the cat carrier. “Christ. Did Steve give me a cat or a frozen turkey?”

“It sure looked like a cat,” Happy said, holding open the front door.

“It sure did,” Tony said.

 

 

The trip home was pleasant and quiet; Bucky was docile in his carrier, and despite a few angry yowls when they hit a speed bump or a pothole on the ride home, he hadn’t made a single sound. Once parked under the tower, and free of the car, they took the elevator up to Tony’s penthouse.

Pepper took the take-out to the kitchen and set everything down with a yawn.

“Can I head out for the night, boss?” Happy asked, glancing down at his watch.

“Sure – go get some sleep,” Pepper said. “I’ve got to get up early to work on all the stuff I rescheduled. I might as well spend the night here so I can sleep in a little. We’ll call you if we need you.”

“Alright. Good night. Try not to get mauled in your sleep.” Happy waved goodbye and headed back for the elevator, disappearing inside.

Tony set the cat carrier down on the floor in the middle of the penthouse where the carpeting was the thickest. Here, if Bucky came flying out of the carrier like a furry madman, he would be safe from harm. There would be no slipping and falling on laminate flooring, no accidental crashes of any kind – unless the cat decided to run head first into one of the couches. “Here you go, sweetheart,” Tony said, opening up the cat carrier door. He took a step back so Bucky wouldn’t feel threatened, and waited.

Bucky sneezed and turned away from the carrier door, pressing his face against his hot pink cast.

“Well that was uneventful,” Tony grumbled. To be fair, Bucky not making a break for it wasn’t exactly unexpected. The cat was still partially hopped up on drugs, and the poor bastard had three good legs, and only one of his back legs was operational. It would have been terrifying if the cat had tried to make a break for it.

Tony resisted the urge to drop down onto his knees to peer into the carrier. He knew when to leave an uncomfortable cat alone. Peggs had nearly slashed his face when he had peered into her carrier the first time he had seen her after Jarvis’ death; she had taught him all the harsh lessons when it came to cat ownership, and while she had been prickly at the time, he hadn’t been able to blame her for her behavior – he had been just as prickly and angry as she had been.

Tony threw himself onto a chair at the kitchen table, watching Bucky’s carrier idly over his shoulder as Pepper loaded up plates with food and brought them over. “Do you think I should put some food out for him yet?” he asked, licking his lips. He and Pepper had had Happy bring them sandwiches for lunch, but that had been hours ago and he was ready to go face first into his plate.

“I think it might be better if some of the drugs work their way out of his system first,” Pepper said, eyeing the cat carrier. “We don’t want him choking on his own vomit.”

“Well that’s a lovely thought,” Tony said with a sigh. He glanced back at the carrier again, pursing his lips. He wondered what would have happened to Bucky if it hadn’t been Tony Stark standing in that vet office with a credit card that could have bought a few houses without any trouble. Someone with a normal bank account wouldn’t have been able to afford the kind of care the little guy had needed – that was pretty clear. He made a note in his head with Extremis to get Pepper to put pet insurance – affordable pet insurance with one hundred percent coverage – into the perks of working at SI. A charity wasn’t a bad idea either; he was going to have to start one up, and soon.

“Bucky’ll be alright,” Pepper said, handing Tony a fork. They were having Greek food for dinner tonight, one of Pepper’s favourites, and she had piled his plate high with roasted potatoes, Greek salad, and chunks of grilled chicken and lamb. She set a plate of pitas down on the table beside Tony and smacked his hand when he tried to steal two. “Eat your salad first,” she said.

“Meanie,” Tony said, stabbing a piece of feta-covered cucumber. He popped it into his mouth and ate it before she could glare at him again and then prodded an olive with his fork just so he could watch it roll around his plate.

“So,” Pepper said, starting in on her pile of Greek salad, “Did Steve say how long he was going to be gone?”

“He didn’t tell me fuck all,” Tony said. “He handed Bucky off like a bunch of library books he wanted returned and left. I got the feeling like he didn’t have a lot of time for big explanations though, so I guess I should cut him some slack.”

“He’s on a mission of some kind?” Pepper asked.

“Probably,” Tony said. He hated being left out of the loop, but there were some things he knew Steve had to do on his own. If he had to guess, he would say the mysterious mission had something to do with Bucky Barnes – the human Bucky Barnes – the Winter Soldier. He itched to dig up information on Hydra’s pet assassin, but knew that there likely wouldn’t be anything new to be had on SHIELD’s servers, not so soon after the last time he had poked around. Steve had been looking for Bucky for quite a while now, and when it came to Bucky Barnes, Steve would have walked barefoot over hot coals if it meant getting some new information. Steve hadn’t outright told Tony about any of the missions he had gone on to find Bucky, but Natasha had filled him in. There wasn’t much hope of Bucky appearing any time soon – not unless Bucky decided to show up on his own. Tony kind of felt bad for the guy. Living a life on the run wasn’t fun, and having to do it while off the grid and bring hunted by a determined super soldier would be rough.

“I’m assuming it’s not an Avengers thing,” Pepper said, picking up a pita. She tore it into pieces and dipped one in the humus on her plate.

“I’m pretty sure he would have said if it was,” Tony said. He nibbled at his food contemplatively, enjoying the taste while at the same time hoping his stomach would keep everything down. He was going to have a nice long shower once he was done, one that would wash away the smell of the vet’s office, and then he was going to bury himself in work so he didn’t have to think about anything for the next few hours.

“No Extremis tonight,” Pepper said, rapping Tony across the knuckles with her fork

“Huh?” Tony said, jerked from his thoughts. He smiled sheepishly at Pepper; when he had injected Extremis into his body, she had taken it upon herself to police his ‘Extremis Time’, as she had called it, when she was spending time at his place. It worried her that he could spend hours and hours awake now, working when he should have been resting. He had been annoyed at first, but after his first and only week-long Extremis binge, he had realized why she had been so intent on making him keep Extremis-free hours. He had woken up on the floor, having passed out, and there had been green apple smoothie caked in his hair; he had smelled like a mixture of body odor, motor oil and rotting food. It hadn’t been pretty, and he had had to take three showers to get rid of the sticky gunk. After that he had been more than happy to have her reminding him to shut Extremis out for a while; it was like having a happier, friendlier alarm and if it kept her happy it kept him happy too.

“Tony,” Pepper growled.

“I swear – I wasn’t using it this time. I was just thinking – you know. The old fashioned way,” Tony said.

“Alright,” Pepper said, pointing at him with her fork. “I believe you this time but I mean it. No Extremis! Pay full attention to the cat – no work tonight.”

Tony let out a huffed whine. “But I can build him a new leg,” he said, wiggling his fingers. “I can draw up blueprints and everything! He’ll love it.”

“And I’m sure he will, but what Bucky needs more of is someone to sit with him so he doesn’t go stir-crazy and try to eat the couch one corner at a time,” Pepper said.

“Fine,” Tony grumbled. “But I get to take a shower before cat-sitting duty.”

“That’s fine with me,” Pepper said, spearing a chunk of chicken. “You’re better hurry up and eat then. I’ve still got work to do, and I’d rather not waste any more of the night than necessary.”

“Why do you get to do work and I can’t?” Tony teased.

“I get to work because I have to work – you, on the other hand,” Pepper said, “You have to take care of Captain America’s baby.”

Tony sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, wrinkling his nose at the feeling. “Fair enough,” he said.

 

 

When Tony came back from his shower, he found Pepper sitting on the couch with her tablet balanced on her knee and the back half of Bucky wedged under the couch across from her. The cat couldn’t quite get his entire body under the couch because of the Elizabethan collar, but he had tried; he was watching Pepper suspiciously. The Elizabethan collar was funny on its own, but this was just priceless.

“Jarvis?” Are you getting pictures of this jerk?” Tony asked, biting his lower lip to keep from laughing.

“Pictures have been saved and are available on your private server, sir,” Jarvis said.

“When did he climb out of his carrier?” Tony asked. He crept closer to Bucky and saw that, to his surprise, the cat appeared to be outright glaring at him again. He wondered what he had done to deserve that.

Pepper didn’t look up from her work. “He crept out while I was in the kitchen getting my tablet out of my purse. Captain Rogers has one very stealthy cat,” she said.

“Stealthy to a point,” Tony said, nodding to the Elizabethan collar. He chuckled, his hands dropping to his hips. “Poor baby. Outwitted by the cone of shame.”

The cat continued to glare at Tony; he wiggled a little, trying to pull his head and the Elizabethan collar under the edge of the couch, but with his broken back leg and a missing front leg, it an impossible task. He let out a huffed hiss of annoyance.

“Do you want to pill him now?” Pepper asked, setting her tablet aside.

“I’m thinking yes. He’s moving around, so the sedatives have probably worn off. Hey, Jarvis,” Tony said, “How much time is there left on the alarm I set?”

“There is approximately five minutes and six seconds left,” Jarvis said. “I believe it would be acceptable to give Mr. Barnes his pills now.”

“Mr. Barnes?” Tony drawled, peering down at the cat. “That’s adorable, Jarvis.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jarvis said. “The pills are currently sitting on the kitchen counter beside the wet cat food. I suggest giving Mr. Barnes something to eat after his pill, as the medication causes nausea if taken on an empty stomach.”

Pepper stood up, smoothing down her skirt. She went to the kitchen and came back with the orange pill bottle that held all of Bucky’s medication. “Alright,” she said. “Where do you want to do this?”

Tony pursed his lips. “I guess the middle of the room is alright,” he said, eyeing the carpet. There was plenty of space here, even with the cat carrier still sitting out; Bucky would be safe from crashing into anything if he tried to scramble away from them, and they wouldn’t accidentally whack themselves on anything either. Tony dropped down to his knees slowly, making sure his eyes weren’t locked on the cat’s so he wouldn’t look threatening. “Ok, kitty, kitty,” he said. “I’m just going to ease you out of there, ok sweetheart?”

Bucky yowled at Tony’s touch and squirmed, trying to get out from under Tony’s hand. The fur on his back stood on end; what was left of the fur on his tail fluffed up.

“Oh honey-pie,” Tony murmured, slipping his hands under Bucky’s belly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Bucky’s one good back foot kicked pitifully at Tony’s hand, but his claws missed flesh. He wailed pathetically as he was slid out from under the couch, and desperately dug the claws on his front foot into the carpet in one final act of defiance.

Pepper sat down beside Tony, keeping out of range from Bucky’s good front leg. She read the directions on the pill bottle and opened it up, putting a single white pill in the centre of her palm.

“He only needs the one?” Tony asked, turning Bucky around so the cat’s hindquarters were tucked neatly between his knees. Bucky’s bright pink cast rested against his thigh, heavy and awkward. He felt awful moving the cat so easily; it seemed almost cruel to be doing this, but it was for Bucky’s own good. He didn’t want the poor guy suffering – cats were far too good at putting up with pain if left to their own devices.

“Just the one. That’s what the bottle says,” Pepper said. She scooted across the floor until her knees were almost touching Tony’s. Bucky sat trapped between them, a seething ball of fluffed-up rage.

“Ok,” Tony said. “I’m thinking he’s a biter, so we’d better do this fast.”

“Agreed,” Pepper said.

Tony unfastened the Elizabethan collar and set it aside. The moment it hit the ground, Bucky’s teeth sank into Tony’s hand.

“Mother fucker!” Tony hissed, moving his free hand along the side of Bucky’s jaw. He eased his hand out of the cat’s mouth and gave it a shake, wincing. Bucky flattened himself against the ground and let out a low growl as though he expected Tony to take a swing at him.

“Are you ok?” Pepper asked, her eyes wide with worry.

Tony checked his hand over. He couldn’t find a single puncture mark, although there were three different tooth imprints in his skin. “I’m fine,” he said. “I guess he was just giving me a warning nip.”

“I guess so,” Pepper said. She sighed and shook her head. “While I hate pressing our luck, I’m thinking we need to get this pill in him now, before he starts drawing blood.”

“Avoiding that would be a plus,” Tony grumbled in agreement. He smoothed the fur down on Bucky’s back with the palm of his hand. He hoped the touch was soothing; it was hard to tell with a strange cat – some of them loved being touched, and others hated it. “Ok Bucky – Buckeroo,” he said, giving the nape of Bucky’s furry neck a gentle scratch. “We’re not doing this because we’re assholes or because we want to torment you. We’re trying to give you a pain pill for your leg, ok, buddy? Honest, we’re not going to hurt you. We just don’t want to see you suffering.”

Pepper smiled softly. “That’s right. We want you comfortable – not in pain.”

Bucky tensed and then let out a huffed breath. He turned his head under Tony’s hand and looked up. His eyes were narrowed, his expression grumpy. He opened his mouth.

Pepper moved fast. She slipped the pill into Bucky’s mouth, but before she could close his mouth for him, she found him swallowing the pill of his own accord.

Tony and Pepper stared in confusion down at the cat.

“Did he just take that on his own?” Tony asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“It kind of looked like he did,” Pepper said. “But that can’t be right.”

“He did take it, didn’t he, Jarvis?” Tony felt along the sides of Bucky’s furry face, looking for signs of the pill, but couldn’t find anything more suspicious than a lump of moss tangled in the cat’s fur. Bucky gave him another warning nip, but didn’t try to get away from the manhandling.

“I believe the pill has been swallowed, sir,” Jarvis said. “My sensors are not picking it up anywhere in the room.”

“Huh,” Tony said, reaching for the Elizabethan collar. “I’ll be damned. I guess Captain America trained his cat pretty well.”

Bucky swatted the Elizabethan collar out of Tony’s hand.

“Or not,” Pepper said. She stood up and dusted her knees off and handed Tony the Elizabethan collar. Despite not having really touched Bucky, she was covered in cat hair. “Well, I’m going to head to bed and get some sleep,” she said.

Tony scowled. “So you’re leaving me alone?”

Pepper patted Tony’s head kindly. “Your words make me think you’re complaining, but I know in your heart you’re overjoyed.”

Tony snorted as he fastened the Elizabethan collar back around Bucky’s neck and stood up, mindful of Bucky’s tail and injured leg. “Yeah, yeah. Fine. Abandon me.” He stepped around Bucky, and gave Pepper a peck on the cheek. “Thanks for coming with me today,” he said, softly. He strode into the kitchen. “I don’t know if I could have done that without you being there.”

“You would be been fine,” Pepper said. She smiled tiredly down at Bucky. “Good night Mr. Barnes,” she said. “Don’t keep Tony up too late. He’s got to go to get up early so we can give you your next pain pill, and then he’s got lots and lots of work to catch up on.” She bent down and held her hand out. Bucky turned his face away from her. She stroked the top of his head. “You two behave yourselves.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said. “Good night, Pep.”

Pepper headed off down the hall to the guest room.

Tony set a silver cat food bowl out on the counter and picked up the first container of gourmet mushy food he found. It was some kind of fancy mixture of chicken, peas and rice – the least offensive of the flavors he had ordered in. Peggs had loved liver and chicken, and he hadn’t been able to bring himself to order any of it; he couldn’t stand the sight or smell of it now. He pulled the pulled the foil lid off of the can and scooped half of the food into the dish, unsure of whether to put more or not. He didn’t know if Bucky was up to eating that much, and he didn’t really want to find vomit on his carpet later in the night if the cat overate.

Bucky meowed plaintively. He dragged his leg across the floor with surprising ease and plopped himself down beside Tony’s foot.

“Here you go,” Tony said, setting the dish in front of Bucky. He watched as Bucky sniffed at the food. It wasn’t like he had cooked it himself, but it still made him anxious watching the cat decide whether he was going to eat or not. He had felt the same way whenever he had put new food down in front of Peggs; she had been a very picky eater.

Bucky started eating. He took one lick at the nearest lump and then practically shoved his face into the bowl, devouring everything he could. Tony was fairly sure the cat was holding his breath by the time the last of the mushy food was gone. Then, while licking the last of the remnants from his whiskers, Bucky froze. His gaze seemed locked on the food dish.

Tony frowned. Was Bucky still hungry? Was that it? He waited for Bucky to move and when he didn’t, picked up the bowl and filled it with another generous scoop of food. “Here you go, Mr. Barnes,” he said, setting the bowl down in front of Bucky. “Eat up.”

Bucky gave his head a shake and looked up at Tony. There was a tiredness to him now, something that hadn’t been there before. He ambled over to Tony’s foot and leaned against it with a soft sigh.

Tony knelt down and gave Bucky’s back a pat. “Ok,” he said. “You don’t need to eat anymore – I’ll just leave it there in case you get hungry later.” He ran his hand along Bucky’s back, moving slowly so he could feel his way down to the base of Bucky’s tail. There weren’t any stitches on Bucky’s back, but there were a few healed-over scabs; he didn’t like that he could feel Bucky’s spine so easily. He wondered how Bucky had ended up in such bad condition. This was Captain America’s cat, after all – Steve Roger’s cat. Steve wasn’t the kind of guy who forgot to feed animals; Steve was responsible, and kind, not a forgetful jackass.

Bucky started shivering. He leaned closer to Tony’s leg, likely trying to leech warmth.

Tony sighed. “Jarvis, turn the heat up a little,” he said. He scooped Bucky up and carried him over to the couch, cradling the cat against him so the little guy’s leg wouldn’t smack anything. He sat down and set Bucky on his stomach.

Bucky did not look impressed, but the new location didn’t seem to have made him angry. The cat let out a huffed sigh and rested his chin on Tony’s chest, burying his nose in Tony’s shirt. Tony peered down at the cat, amused by Bucky’s apparent exhaustion. He hadn’t expected the cat to be friendly, but it wasn’t like the little guy had much of a choice at the moment – Bucky was kind of trapped with him, after all. Playing nice was probably a good strategy for a cat with a strange new human.

“Jarvis?” Tony murmured, carding his fingers through the fur on Bucky’s back. “Do me a favor. Pull up my designs for prosthetics and see if we can get something started – something small. I don’t want to make Mr. Barnes into robo-kitty or anything. Start with something basic. Wheels? A Pegleg? Something like that.”

“I have created a new folder on your private server for this project, sir. Do you wish to name it?” Jarvis asked.

“Call it pegleg for now,” Tony said. He laughed when Bucky looked up and seemed to scowl at him, as though he was offended by the name. “Don’t tell Pepper I’m working, alright, J? The last thing I need is her coming out here and yelling at me.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” Jarvis said.

“Turn the television on, will you? Pep told me no Extremis – I guess I should try and at least follow one of her orders,” Tony said. He shifted against the couch and looked around for the blanket he always had stashed down behind the back cushion. With a little wiggling and an arm wrapped around Bucky to keep him from slipping, he managed to get the blanket out and over them both. He kept the blanket from covering Bucky completely. There was nothing worse than breathing hot, stuffy, blanket air, and then Bucky’s tiny kitty nose would likely get all dried out; that wouldn’t be fun for him.

Bucky let out a soft sigh and buried his nose in Tony’s shirt again. His tail thumped against Tony’s leg once and then curled around his body, tucking itself neatly under his cast.

 

When midnight hit, Tony carried a dozing Bucky into his bedroom. He had planned on leaving the cat sleeping on the couch, but one look at Bucky’s leg had made it clear that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. The thought of the little guy crashing off the side of the couch in the middle of the night made him cringe. He hadn’t intended to bring a cat into his bedroom again, but there wasn’t a better place to keep Bucky. He set the cat down in the middle of his bed and went back out into the hallway to retrieve the litterbox Happy had set up; it would be better to leave it in the bathroom where Bucky could find it easily. He did not want to accidentally step in cat pee. Once in his lifetime had been more than enough.

Bucky lifted his head and stared lazily at Tony. The cat looked stoned out of his mind; he rolled slightly, curling into the plush comforter and let out a long yawn, his tail flopping beside him.

“Ok,” Tony said, clearing his throat. “Here are the ground rules for sleeping in my bedroom, buddy.”

Bucky closed his eyes and let out a loud snort.

“Rule number one – no drooling on my pillows,” Tony said as he carried the litterbox into the bathroom. He returned and picked Bucky up, carrying him into the bathroom as well.

Bucky stiffened in Tony’s hands when he caught sight of the bright lights and shower. He let out a panicked hiss and clawed at Tony’s arm. Startled, Tony nearly dropped him.

“Damn it,” Tony said, setting Bucky down in the centre of the litter box. “This is where you pee and poop. There will be no pooping or peeing elsewhere, understood?”

Bucky tipped over, sinking in the litter. He turned and glowered up at Tony.

“Don’t give me that look,” Tony said, his hands dropping to his hips. “Unless you know how to work a toilet, you’re going to have to do your business in the litter box like all the other kitties.” He gave Bucky a few minutes to sniff at the litter and then picked him up, returning the cat to his bed.

Bucky curled up in a ball again and returned to glaring at Tony with his nose tucked into the blankets.

“Rule number two,” Tony said, pulling open his dresser. He pulled out a ratty looking old t-shirt with a panda on it and set it down on the pillow beside the one he normally slept on. “You can sleep on the blankets, the sheets or the shirt. I don’t want any hair in my pillows. It’s hell picking it out of my beard in the morning.”

Bucky closed his eyes.

Tony scowled, and took in a sharp breath through his nose. “You’re not even listening to me, are you?”

Bucky let out a long, jaw-cracking, yawn.

“Fine. Be that way,” Tony muttered. He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it onto the floor; his pants followed, and so did his socks.

Bucky’s eyes snapped open at the sound of clothing hitting the floor. His eyes widened when he got a good look at Tony.

“What?” Tony grumbled. “Are you seeing this Jarvis? Captain America taught his cat to be disapproving. Mr. Barnes disapproves of my underwear. You know, I shouldn’t be surprised – Steve’s always seemed like an old fashioned guy. He probably doesn’t even know what bikini briefs are. I bet all of his underwear is horrible and in varying shades of off-white.” He shook his head sadly at the thought. A man built like Steve shouldn’t be wearing crappy underwear. Not that he should be thinking about Steve in his underwear.

“I will have to take your word for it, sir,” Jarvis said with a sigh. “Shall I add this as a note to Mr. Barnes file? Or would you prefer to leave this matter private?”

“Keep it private,” Tony said with a yawn. He rubbed at his eyes. God, he felt completely drained; he wanted nothing more than to curl up in a little ball and to sleep for a week. “If you have a problem with my undies, or my junk, you’ll have to learn how to speak and say it, Mr. Barnes. You can give me all the funny looks you want, pal, but until you can tell me in people words, I’m going to walk around my room in my underwear if I want to.”

“I’m sure he understands completely, sir,” Jarvis said.

“You’re right. I’m betting he’s had this conversation already,” Tony said. He sauntered over to his bed, clad in nothing but his ruby red bikini briefs. He pulled back the blankets, scratching idly at the arc reactor’s casing, grumbled about Bucky being in the middle of the bed still and tried to make himself comfortable in the space he could find. It had been a long day, and he was ready to crash – if only Bucky would move out of the way! “Bucky,” Tony whined, “ move your hairy ass !”

Bucky stood up unhurriedly, balanced precariously on the blankets. He turned, navigating his way around Tony’s body as though he was afraid to touch it even with the blankets in the way. He plopped himself down on the shirt by Tony’s head and curled up again, his nose disappearing into the neckline of the shirt.

“You can shut the lights off now Jarvis,” Tony mumbled. He rolled onto his side and stroked a line down Bucky’s nose, smiling softly. “Sleep tight, buddy.”

The lights dimmed and then shut off.

Bucky’s eyes glowed eerily in the dark; he let out a long, suffering, sigh and nudged Tony’s hand twice as though seeking to dislodge it before tilting his head towards the shirt and closing his eyes again with a snort.