He hated magic. Of course, he knew that some of it was the fear of the scientist, the engineer, who was faced with something he couldn't explain, but by now he had run into magic so often that he could attest to the fact that it wasn't only that. He understood some of it, had found ways to work around it, but he didn't like it any better for it. He knew magic followed its own rules and that those rules were chaotic and unreliable, and while a sort of science in itself, it was the opposite of the things he loved about the science he worked with.
That was why he hated running into magic so much.
And every time something like this happened, he was reminded of why he hated it so much.
Victor von Doom watched silently as Iron Man fought in the hold of the strands of blood red power that had wrapped around his armor like chains. “It is beyond me, why Stark keeps a useless lackey like you. The power you wield is his, but perhaps he's too cowardly to seize it for himself.”
Yeah, Tony thought. Right. It's not like we've been over that before. He still remembered being trapped in Camelot with no-one around to help him get back home but Doom, after all the trouble that the man had caused him back then. “These accusations are getting so old, I don't even see the point in being offended, Doom.”
And the Avengers were just about to swoop in and free him anyway. He could see Wanda weave her own strands of power; could see Cap raise his shield. There was no need to argue with the despot.
“You feel at home in the role of a servant?” Doom asked, throwing up a shield of magical power around himself without even looking away from Tony. “Perhaps you'd make a good pet.”
That was just such an awfully camp and weird threat that sounded like it came right out of a bad and old-fashioned pulp novel. Worse even. It sounded like misplaced innuendo. He rolled his eyes inside the armor, because this was getting silly. He was sure that Reed Richards and his family team had smashed down Doom one too many times recently, because the man used to make better threats.
“Sorry,” he said and finally Wanda had managed to get a hit in and the bonds that were holding him were loosening, dissolving. “Not ready to be anyone's servant or pet today.”
His arm was free and he sent a repulsor blast in Doom's direction. Finally, Doom toppled over and the magical chains released him and he landed, catching himself on one knee. Suddenly, Cap was at his side. “Are you alright, Shellhead?”
“Just annoyed. Stupid magic. I hate it so much.”
Doom laughed and Tony had no idea what the man, usually a sore loser, had to laugh about. “You would make a good pet.” A last blast of energy was sent his way and he fell flat on his back, protected in his heavy red and gold armor, but suddenly feeling a little light-headed.
When he looked up, Dr. Doom was gone and Tony hadn't even had time to get in the last word.
Tony still absolutely hated magic.
* * *
The woman had impressed him.
Pepper had poked him in the ribs when he'd actually made it to the Stark Solutions office that week and told him: “Go out more. You really should see people. You're working yourself into the ground.”
And she had a point. He was feeling a bit lonely, but allowing people close was harder than ever.
Tony Stark had a lot on his plate at all times. And Iron Man was so busy it just added another layer of complication. Seeing Natasha recently had brought up memories. Perhaps it would be easier to look among the people who knew him like that: the people who knew he was leading more than one life. There was one face that sprang to mind at the thought. You should call Steve ghosted through his mind, unbidden and uncomfortable. Steve was his best friend and Tony had known for years that he needed to be thankful to have that much, because Steve would never look at him in the way that he craved.
He fell asleep, remembering how Steve had pushed his shield in front of Iron Man when Doom had finally dropped him, protective and as always worried for his safety.
* * *
“Hey, boss,” Pepper chirped, but her voice sounded oddly far away. “I wanted to make sure that despite fighting supervillains across the globe, you still remember the speech you promised to give today.”
“I remember,” he said and calculated how much time he would have to get from the presentation to the charity gala and if he should call back Miss Fujikawa now or later. Would she even still want to see him? His head felt fuzzy for a moment, as he sat up. “I'll be there.”
“If nothing comes up,” Pepper concluded. Her voice still sounded strangely muffled.
“Of course,” he amended. At least his little team of friends who weren't superheroes understood that part of his life and how it had a way of making things complicated. “If something comes up you'll be the first to know.” It was an easy promise to make these days. She was monitoring all his feeds.
Pepper chuckled and made a parting shot. Tony pulled down his phone to look at it. He felt like something was wrong with it, but there was nothing there. It was like something had been obstructing him from hearing her right. He reached up to his ear...
...and it wasn't there.
It was so silly, because he could hear, could hear even the sound of his own frantic footsteps as he jumped out of bed and ran to the first mirror in sight.
What he saw there froze all his thoughts.
He still had his ears... They just no longer were where they belonged. On top of his head, sticking out of his black unruly, not yet brushed hair, were two big cat ears covered in black fur and he could watch how they flattened back against it as his mood changed, like those of a cat that was ready to hiss at something. And wasn’t that exactly how he was feeling?
Rage made his blood boil when he realized what must have happened.
“Doom!” he spat, remembering parting shots about lackeys and pets. “That bastard!”
Since when had the stupid tyrant discovered he had a sense of humor?
Then he realized.
The man had no sense of humor.
He knew just as well as Tony that this was going to make it hard for him to go out in public. Because the moment someone took a picture of him Doom would know... Doom would know, who he was...
God damn it!
“Bastard!” he spat. Which was when he noticed the long black tail swishing behind him in agitation.
He groaned and let his face fall forward against his folded arms put up against the mirror.
God! He hated magic!
* * *
“Tony,” Steve's warm voice said. “Wanda isn't here.”
“Of course she isn't,” he said, because that was just his luck.
“Something the matter?” It always made his heart flutter a bit when Steve sounded worried for him. It was stupid, but he couldn't help it.
His tail swished and he barely kept in the annoyed sigh that worked its way up his throat when he noticed the movement. Instead he stared up at the ceiling and rolled his eyes at himself. “I'm fine,” he said and realized it sounded insincere. “Just... A lot on my mind that is all.”
“Are you sure?” Steve asked. “You sound stressed.”
“I usually am.”
He could barely hear a low huff from the other side of the connection and felt his ears flatten against his head again. That was going to be damn annoying, if his damn ears were going to give away every single emotional response. Not that he could let anyone see him like this. Apart from the fact that the media would have a field day and announce his predicament to the world – and Dr. Doom himself – he had no intention of giving his friends a chance to laugh at him either. The indignity of it all was grating. Clint would have a field day if he ever found out about it.
“Look, Tony,” Steve said softly. “I don't know when Wanda and the rest of them will be back in. Jan will be around, if you need anything else. I was just about to head out and go back to my apartment. But I thought...”
Steve hesitated and Steve never hesitated. Tony's ears were still very much flattened.
“Do you think we could meet up?”
His throat went dry.
“Meet... up?” He usually jumped at the chance.
“Yeah, there's something I wanted to talk to you about. Something important.”
“No,” Steve reassured him. “Nothing like that. More personal. You're probably busy though...”
Tony sighed. When it came to Steve he did not have defenses. He just could not say no to Steve. “I was busy,” he admitted. “But something came up.”
“Oh, good!” Steve sounded both relieved and happy. “So you're free?”
“Yeah,” Tony said slowly and pressed a hand to his eyes. He knew he should just say he had something else to do. He was usually so good at making excuses. So, so good.
“I really need to see you, Tony.”
And that was it. He was doomed.
God, he hated magic. So much.
* * *
It would have been, if Steve hadn't made it so explicitly clear that he wanted to talk to Tony and not Iron Man.
They met a few blocks away from Steve's apartment and Tony did his best to blend in. He knew this was a bad idea. He'd left about five voice messages for Strange and knew that there was no telling when he would hear back from the sorcerer. He sighed heavily as he made his way across the street, the hood of his sweater pulled down over his eyes. He was wearing pants that were a little baggier than usual, because he had tried to find a way to hide the stupid tail and it had taken him a lot longer than it normally would to find something appropriate to wear, so he was running late, too.
He felt like a joke.
Things like these didn't happen to people.
They didn't happen to superheroes.
God, damn it, they didn't happen to Tony Stark. Being pulled into another dimension? Getting eaten by a sea monster? Swallowed by a galactic furnace? Traveling back through time? All of that he could take.
But this... No, this was just... magic. He fumed.
“Tony?” he nearly managed to stomp right past Steve, who even in his civilian clothes was unmistakable. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Tony muttered, all angry thoughts flying right out of his head.
“A hoodie?” Steve asked amused. “You look like you're here to break into someone's Brooklyn apartment. Not mine I hope.”
“What? It's cold,” Tony nearly snapped and caught himself the last second, before falling into a rant about the injustice of magical warfare.
“Press after you?”
“Not scared of the media. Just cold,” he muttered and then tried to smile. “You wanted to see me. Here I am. Can we talk somewhere... private?”
He couldn't wait to be out of sight again. He had the insane feeling that people could see his pant leg moving, because the tail was desperately trying to swish around with his irritable mood shifts.
Thankfully, Steve immediately took him by the elbow and pulled him along.
* * *
“So?” he asked, because he wanted to jump-start this conversation and then find the next best magic user or scientist more open to the concept than himself to help him out of this predicament.
“Are you still cold?” Steve asked and smiled. He set a glass of soda down in front of him and then watched him expectantly.
“I... Yes.” Not meeting Steve's eyes he reached for the glass. So he only half-saw Steve's jaw and brow set.
“Were you hurt? Yesterday?”
“What?” His ears suddenly twitched. His free hand shot up involuntarily to keep the hood from moving and as he did so he looked up. And Steve, of course, had caught the movement and was studying him with that calm gaze that meant he was on to something. Tony tried to smile, but he realized it came out more like a grimace. “You wanted to say something?”
“Tony? Come on? You're not hiding an injury are you? You don't usually wear baggy clothes.”
“I'm trying not to be seen,” he said lightly. “It helps if I dress differently, Mr. I'm-dating-a-SHIELD-agent-and-should-know-that.”
“Sharon and I aren't dating. Things never really seemed to work out.”
Steve didn't look angry, but Tony had the feeling he'd hit a nerve. A very childish part of him was glad, though, and he felt bad about that. “I'm sorry, Steve. That sucks.” Hopefully he sounded sincere. To keep himself from looking at Steve and to calm himself he took a sip of the soda.
It was sweet and sticky and he was glad that only a tiny pathetic part of him yearned for the taste of something stronger. Because if there had ever been a day for getting drunk, then it would be the day when he woke up with fucking cat ears.
Damn Doom and his stupid magic.
He set down the glass and tried to get rid of the remembered taste of good old Scotch on his tongue, to focus instead on the friend who had asked him here, when suddenly Steve's hand landed on the top of the hood. Just a soft touch but it set him on edge.
“What are you hiding this time, Shellhead?”
He reeled back, as if he'd been shot, trying to push Steve's hand away. It led to a comical moment, when Steve looked down at him, both surprised and determined, and he was feeling like a hissing cat bending out of the way – and then suddenly Steve was practically on him, trying to pull the hood off his head.
“Stop it,” he hissed for real now.
“It's never good when you hide stuff...”
“I should so not have come. Did you call me here to embarrass me?” They struggled and Tony nearly fell backwards over the armrest of the armchair. He knew it was a losing battle. He was no match for Steve and his super soldier strength.
“You always make me worry,” Steve muttered, suddenly equally heated and – god, they were so close, a tangle of limbs in a seat that wasn't made for two people. Steve's strong thighs trapped him in place and the heat in his own cheeks wasn't only from the prospect of Steve seeing the stupidly embarrassing cat ears.
“This is not...”
“What is it then?” Steve's cheeks were also turning a light pink, but his hand was still pulling on the hood, stubbornly refusing to concede the point.
Tony finally couldn't stand it anymore. He needed some distance between them. Lots and lots of distance. Steve was pressed up flush against him and he could feel every movement of the powerful body above him even through the layers of clothing. With one hand he pushed Steve up – and Steve went when he realized that Tony needed the space – and with the other he pulled the hood down himself and waited for the inevitable laughter.
Steve, leaning heavily over him, blinked. “What...? I... You... Cat ears?”
“And a tail,” Tony added, letting himself fall back, so he was hanging uncomfortably with his head down over the armrest so he could stare up at the ceiling in defeat.
“Is that why you were looking for Wanda?”
“Yes,” he admitted.
“And you're not hurt?”
“Only my pride on so many levels. Fucking magic, Steve. I don't even know how the bastard did it.”
Wide blue eyes came back in his field of vision as Steve leaned over, sliding their bodies back together a little too comfortably. “So you're really not hurt?”
“No, really not. Apart from this I feel fine, thanks. Could you let me up now?”
The man didn't move, but he seemed to consider it. Then he smiled. “You're ears are doing this... cat thing.”
He knew he was blushing harder and he could feel the way the ears were pressed to his head in defiance.
“It could be worse. It's just cat ears. Do you want me to relate to you the tale of being a werewolf for a while? Because that was not funny.”
“No, thanks! I hate this. I hate magic! And don't you dare tell anyone about this!”
Steve laughed and finally let him sit up, but he wasn't moving away from the armchair, settling comfortably on the opposite armrest. “Alright, tell me how this happened. I have a feeling I know, already.”
Tony sighed. “I have no time for this. I was supposed to give a presentation today. Can you imagine? If someone sees this the whole world will know who is under the mask, because when was the last time Tony Stark went up against a magic user the day before he got cat ears?”
“Doom will know,” Steve agreed and narrowed his eyes.
They sat in silence for a while, then Steve started to go through a list of people they could ask for help.
“I didn't want to leave my apartment,” Tony admitted, “before I heard from Strange or Wanda...”
“But you came? Why?”
He felt the heat rise back into his cheeks. “You asked.” Had he been claiming he was feeling cold? Obviously that had been a lie, because he was uncomfortably warm. Stupid sweater.
Steve blinked as if he was thinking this over. “Oh,” he said softly.
They had their arguments occasionally and Steve had reasons to be wary when Tony was keeping things from him. But they'd gone through some really bad times together, and through some of the best, too. Steve had become such a fixture in his life, that his greatest fear was still to lose that friendship one day. “What did you want?”
Steve was the one to lean back and stare at the ceiling suddenly. “I... wanted to see you. The thing with Sharon... ended and... I really wanted to see you.”
“Okay? Want to talk?”
Steve's eyes snapped to his and there was heat in the gaze now. Real heat, but not anger. “I should have asked you this years ago,” Steve said slowly. “Or I should have noticed a long time ago... I don't know. I really like being with you.”
“We're friends,” Tony said and he wasn't really catching up. This was the strangest conversation they'd had in a long time and his mind was still on his magical predicament.
But suddenly Steve reached out, hand on his chin and made Tony look him straight in the face. “I really like being with you, Tony. You gave me a home, and we've been friends and partners for so long, that I think I just haven't been looking.”
“Looking?” Tony asked. And that was when the pieces of the puzzle fell together. “I... I mean... You weren't hit by any magical mumbo jumbo, were you?”
“Is that your way of letting me off gently?”
Tony blushed. “I just can't believe that you are actually saying this. Is this for real? I've had a hell of a day and... I'm not sure that I'm awake. Perhaps I'm dreaming all this. I mean cat ears? Captain America awkwardly implying he likes me as more than a friend? Who could believe it?”
Steve smiled thinly. “Yeah, sounds a bit out there. Just like the rest of our lives.”
The few times he had dared to actually think what a moment like this would be like, he had not imagined it to be this awkward. “Can we start over? I think I missed the most important parts of this conversation.”
Steve leaned in and kissed him, softly and very chastely on the lips.
“I take that as a yes?” Tony quipped.
“Let's see that someone helps you with your little problem and then we can really talk, okay?”
“And Tony,” Steve said, patting him on the shoulder. “Do you really also have a tail?”
He really hated magic, today more than ever before. But, god, his heart still fluttered when Steve smiled at him like that.
Steve tried to get a hold of Strange or someone else. They even considered calling the X-Men, but Steve sheepishly commented: “Let's use the big guns when we really need them. I can hide you in here for a few days, if you want to protect your secret identity, Mr. Stark.”
“Very nice of you to offer, Cap.” He rolled his eyes. Or course, it was plain to see that he wasn't annoyed by the prospect of staying here with Steve. It was the magic, the sudden swishing of the cat tail, the sudden movement of his ears, the strange feeling that the universe and Victor von Doom in particular were laughing at him, that had him agitated. The rest of his mind still had a hard time trying to wrap around the idea that Steve had basically proposed they start dating – or something, because he hadn't used that many words, really. That was enough to have the giddy nervousness that had taken control of him amplified to a point where he was giving himself a heart attack. He felt like a tiger in a cage and wasn't sure whether he wanted out or not.
“Sit down, Tony,” Steve said for the third time. “Jan says she will tell us as soon as Wanda gets back in.” He indicated the spot beside him on the sofa.
Words of protest were already halfway out his mouth when he realized there really was no point and he let himself fall onto the sofa beside Steve. “Just nervous.”
“The way your fluffy tail has been moving, I kind of figured that out on my own.”
“Haha,” he said, defeated, and hid his face in his hands.
“You're tense,” Steve mumbled. An arm settled down on Tony's shoulders and he wondered how something this normal could suddenly feel this strange. Steve had put his arm around Tony's shoulders thousands of times before and, yes, sometimes the flutter of excitement Tony had felt at it hadn't been platonic either, but despite the familiarity this was suddenly new territory. This morning he had still considered seeing Rumiko Fujikawa again, because he'd been feeling lonely and she was one hell of a woman - and Steve had forever been out of his reach. He felt out of his depths here.
Steve suddenly stroked a hand through his hair and Tony turned into mush; a feeling of relaxation went through him and he folded in on himself, settled against Steve and let it happen.
“You're not purring are you?” Steve sounded quietly amused.
“Shut up, please,” he mumbled, hiding his face against Steve's chest because that was just easier than facing the reality of having someone scratching him behind the ears and it feeling so blissfully awesome and relaxing.
“Sorry,” Steve whispered. “Couldn't resist. Should I stop?”
“No.” It was good that Steve couldn't see his face, but yeah, he hadn't been able to quiet his nerves since he'd looked in the mirror that morning and the last thing he wanted now was to lose the gentle touch.
“Don't talk to me right now. This is embarrassing.”
“You do realize how many things we've already been through together? Cat ears are actually not all that embarrassing.” Steve chuckled and switched on the TV. “Let's just wait. Wanda will call. Stephen will call. Somebody will call. And then we'll work something out. Don't worry.”
He was bad at waiting around for other people to turn up and present the solutions. He was still thinking about jumping up and taking his own scans. He could just do that and then try to hide away from the idea that all of this wasn't real and the moment the magic vanished, Steve would come to his senses. But now that he was lying here, listening to the sound of the news reports, feeling Steve's warmth and the stroking of his fingers, it was getting easier to hold back the fear. He was getting sleepy. Tony held on to the notion that it was Steve's calm voice and his steady presence that calmed him and not the fact that someone was petting him.
At least nobody but Steve would ever know.
* * *
“Hi,” Steve whispered and smiled like Tony was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen.
The ears, Tony thought. He still thinks the stupid ears are adorable.
“Wanda?” Steve spoke calmly into his Avengers ID card. “Yeah,” he said. “Tony's been having some magical trouble. We think it's a leftover from the fight with Doom, but... the worst seems to be over.”
When Steve's eyes glided over him and he smiled, Tony started frantically to touch the place where the cats ears had been, felt for his ears – and his wonderfully normal human ears were there. He fell back against the sofa.
“We'll be there,” Steve said to Wanda.
He was still smiling at Tony as if he was the best thing in the world.
Perhaps not everything was due to magic then, after all.
He pinched his arm when Steve wasn't looking, just to make sure he was really awake.
* * *
“How do you like my present, Iron Man?” he asked.
“It's not really a present when I have to do clean-up for an hour afterwards.”
“Not today,” the man huffed.
“Oh, that. Surprisingly playful of you, Doom. Didn’t know you had it in you. Wore itself out though.” Wanda had different working theories about how they'd broken the spell, but Tony had in the end decided that he didn't care much about the details as long as Wanda was sure it was gone.
“Ah,” the man said. “You must be a loyal pet to your master then. Tony Stark must be proud. It would have been amusing to show you your place.” He laughed.
Understanding the gist of what Doom was implying, Tony blushed a bit inside the mask. Bastard. “You know how it is with cats, right? Willful creatures. Not really the kind of pet to be owned. Don't like to be petted by just anyone. If that was what you were going for...”
Steve, who had taken a seat beside him, looked at him sideways and he made a helpless shrugging motion just at the moment when he managed to throw Doom right out of his systems and felt the smug satisfaction it deserved.
“Are we finished?” Cap asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “You know I'm trying this thing with a man who is a bit of willful creature. Never know when I can get him to actually spend time or go out with me, or when he needs to work on one of his many projects.” He knocked a finger against the armors helmet.
“Yeah,” he said, without raising the mask. He got to his feet. “I know a thing or two about that. The person I'm dating is saving the free world every other day and running around with agents the rest of them and when he's actually home he's the stubbornest person I know.”
“Match made in heaven. Sounds lovely.”
They had made it to the hallway. “So far. It's kinda new.”
Steve leaned in for a quick kiss, when Tony opened the mask. “Be ready at seven,” he said when he moved away.
“That an order, Cap?”
“I don't think I need to make it one, Shellhead.”
Of course not. Tony had been planning what to wear all day.