It feels like he’s floating. It's warm and he feels safe. A light. He sees a light. Oh, fuck, did he die!? Tony tries to move, fingers and toes. His arms. Suddenly, he sits up. And he's nowhere he recognizes. A boat in the distance, he sees his mom. Holding...holding...what is she holding?
Tony wakes up in a white room that smells like bleach and antiseptic. The incessant noise of the heart monitor telling him he is once again in the hospital.
“Jesus Christ on a cracker.” The last thing he remembered was slipping on something in the kitchen. With his luck, he probably split his skull.
The door shifts and a doctor comes in. “Ah, it's good to see you're awake, Mr. Stark.”
“What’s up, doc? How long have I been out?”
“Only a few hours. Your teammates are in the waiting room. Would you like me to get them?”
“If I was a lesser man I'd tell you to let them stew for bringing me in for bump like this.” Tony pointed to his head. “We fight super villains on a weekly basis and they think me hitting my head is enough to bring me here. No offense, doc.”
“None taken, I've been informed of your apparent dislike for hospitals. I'll let them know you're awake.”
“Tell them if they don't have food for me then don't bother coming in!”
The doctor simply chuckled as he left Tony alone again. Tony liked him, didn't give off that ‘holier-than-thou’ vibe like most doctors did. He wondered if he would consider working for him instead of SHIELD.
Steve was the first to enter, but paused as if he was physically stopped an invisible wall as soon as he entered the room. He stared at the genius with a strange look, but schooled his expression as Natasha pushed past him to attend to Tony. Soon his room was flooded with people of varying shades of concern.
“Tony, are you okay? The doctor said it was just a mild concussion, but-.”
“I'm alright, Cap. I've been through worse, you know this. You all know this. Now, why the hell did me slipping in the kitchen equate to going to the hospital?”
Steve folded his arms and trained a disapproving look on Tony. “A head injury is no laughing matter. You know 90% of household accidents happen in the kitchen? Just be thankful you’re not being held overnight.”
“Don't be so hard on him, Tony,” Bruce chuckled. He ran his hand through Tony’s hair in a show of unexpected, but not unwelcomed, affection. “It’s better safe than sorry. Anyways, the doctor said that you’re free to go as soon as he comes back with the paperwork.”
“Fine,” Tony grumbled. “We better stop for cheeseburgers or else I’m telling FRIDAY to lock all of you out of your rooms for the night.”
There was a Five Guys on the way to the Tower that they stopped at and Tony convinced them that Five Guys was not the kind of burger that travelled well so there they were, in their civvies waiting their turn to order burgers. Most of the other patrons were respectful, but who could blame the few with their phones out. It wasn’t everyday the Avengers happened to be together in public not fighting a villain or saving the world.
Tony took point in the line with Thor at his back, his large hands resting on his shoulders to keep him steady. Not that he needed it, but the Asgardian tended to be handsy after one of their team had been hospitalized. Steve was discussing something with the rest of them, but Tony didn’t pay any mind. What he did notice was the group of men that kept glancing at them. It wouldn’t be unusual if they had snapped a few pictures and been done with it, but they kept glancing and whispering and glancing and whispering. It was putting Tony on edge.
“Hey Hammertime, you wouldn’t happen to know what those bozos are whispering about would you?”
“You speak of the group adjacent to us. I have noticed their peculiar behavior as well. Alas, I can not hear clearly what they are saying, but they speak of you.”
Tony snorted. “Of course. Well, as long as they look and don’t touch I guess we’re fine.”
“Do not worry, Friend Tony. Even without your armour, you are mighty.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” Tony smiled up at Thor. He patted one of the hands on his shoulders. “But thanks anyways.”
“Welcome to Five Guys Burgers and Fries, how can I help you?”
“Thank you,” Tony read the small print on the peppy teen’s name tag. “Jennifer. Can I call you Jenny?” Tony winked.
She blushed and tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “Sure. What can I get for you?”
Tony’s friendly smile turned into a smirk. “Well.”
Their order included sixteen bacon cheese burgers all the way, a cheeseburger with jalapenos and BBQ sauce, four grilled cheeses with tomatoes, a hotdog with mayo, a mountain of fries and seven milkshakes of assorted flavors. All of it coming to a little over three hundred dollars after tax and the tip Tony gave. God bless his wallet or else feeding them all would be impossible.
Their order would take some time, but they had free peanuts so no one complained. As they waited for their dinner Tony made a note that the group he and Thor noticed earlier had not left yet. They were obviously done with their food, but they stuck around. Once in awhile he’d catch one of them staring and they’d turn away. It was getting on his nerves and the rest of them could notice.
“You alright, Stark?” Bucky quirked an eyebrow.
“Yeah, just wished they’d hurry and snap a picture or whatever they want. I hate it when people stare.”
“I thought you liked the spotlight, Tony,” Clint stretched and casually looked over his shoulder at the group. “But can you blame them? We’re pretty intimidating. Maybe they want an autograph or something. Just leave them be.”
That seemed to placate Tony’s suspicions for now. Eventually they got their food, ate, and prepared to leave. All the while, the group kept watching the Avengers. As they left the restaurant full of food and ready to go home, Tony was suddenly yanked away from their group by his arm.
“Hey, hands off!” Tony growled at the man holding him.
Before any of his assailants could reply, Natasha had the one with his hand on Tony pinned to the ground. Clint and Bucky had they other two pinned. Thor and Steve stepped in front of Tony with stormy expressions.
“You boys wanna tell us why you grabbed Mr. Stark? Or am I gonna have to beat it outta you?” Steve growled menacingly.
“Hey now, we’re not meaning any harm,” chuckled the one under Bucky. “We just figured we’d introduce ourselves to ‘im. Swear on my ma.”
A stench unlike any other flooded Tony’s nose. Musky and thick to the point of making him dizzy. It honestly wanted to make him gag with how intense it was.
“Seeing as he’s not spoken for, we’d like to proposition him. S’not everyday you see someone of his caliber just walking willy nilly. He’s practically asking for it.” The man licked his lips as he stared at Tony.
Steve clenched his fist, resisting the urge to break this guy’s jaw. “Bruce, take Mr. Stark to the car and wait for us there. Thor, you go with them. I need to have a chat with these boys about respect.”
“Cap, I don’t need you to defend my honor. Let’s just slap a restraining order on these creeps and go. Come on, they’re not even worth it.”
“Tony, I think we should listen to Steve,” Bruce said with a hand on Tony’s shoulder.
“They are literally kissing the ground I walked on, what’s with this protect-Stark-at-all-costs-attitude!? We are in zero danger here!”
“Tony, just do as I say and leave this to-.”
A blur of movement and suddenly Steve is on the ground wrestling a doglike animal. It snapped and snarled at his face, it’s claws digging into his poorly protected stomach. All at once everyone was moving. Thor tackled the animal attacking Steve. The three men threw off the other Avengers, snarling and snapping their teeth.
“Bruce!” Steve shouted.
He nodded and tugged Tony away. As they made their way away from the brawl an animalistic roar tore through the night air. Tony turned his head to see Clint get thrown into a wall by some kind of creature. It wore the clothes of one of the men, but instead of a human face he saw a twisted canid snout full of sharp teeth and dripping saliva. Hands thick with fur and armed with razor black claws. Tony froze as glowing amber eyes locked with his. The creature lunged. A blur collided with it. Steve gripped it around the waist and commanded Bruce to get Tony out of there. In a show of unexpected strength, he threw Tony over his shoulder and raced to the cars.
“Bruce, no! Turn around, damn it! We gotta help them!” Tony kicked and struggled as he watched the creature slash at Steve.
Bruce rounded the corner, unlocking one of the cars and throwing Tony into the backseat. “Tony, stay here.”
“Like hell I am!”
“Tony, please,” Bruce begged as he began to change. His body expanded and turned green.
“Tinman stay in car,” Hulk huffed. The Hulk slammed the door in Tony’s face before he could protest and went thundering the way they came.
Tony growled. He did not appreciate being underestimated. He may not have his suit, but he wasn’t helpless. He scrambled to the trunk of the SUV and pried the tire iron from its compartment. He leaped out of the car and ran around the corner ready to bust some skulls.
Shreds of fabric surrounded the scene. Thor and Natasha had some kind of enormous ugly dog cornered. Even then it snapped and struggled to get past them. The Hulk gripped two others in his hands, rubbing their faces into the concrete. Barnes had the fourth in a headlock. Steve was helping an injured Clint to his feet, a gash on his side bleeding profusely.
“Clint!” He came rushing to his teammates.
“Tony!? I thought I told you to stay in the car!”
“Yeah, no. Stupid plan, Spangles,” Tony snarked as he heft Clint’s other side to support the archer. “Now quit wasting time with stupid ideas. We gotta get Legolas outta here.”
“Fine. SHIELD is almost here and the others can handle this. Help me with Clint.”
“What’s it look like I’m doing!? I don’t understand why you guys are holding back,” Tony growled. “Thor is more than enough for those things!”
“Their civilians, Tony. Not villains, at least not in the eyes of the law.”
“What are you talking about!? Civilians, are you blind!?” Tony shouted as they dragged Clint a safe distance away from the fight. “They turned into monsters and you’re pussyfooting around it!”
Steve winced, but didn’t answer Tony as SHIELD agents suddenly flooded around them. They took a barely conscious Clint to an ambulance and left Tony and Steve alone. Supposedly to collect the animals the rest of the Avengers were containing.
Tony’s chest was moving rapidly. His mind was going over every detail, trying to figure out what in the hell happened. A wave of nausea made him stumble, but Steve kept him on his feet. He guided him into a car and gently took his chin in hand to make Tony look at him.
“Tony. Hey, you’re okay. We’re okay. I’ll-.” Steve took a deep inhale. If Tony wasn’t having a panic attack, he’d have notice Steve’s eyes dilate. Black consuming blue. He took another deep breath, holding his head away from Tony. “Tony, I promise I’ll explain everything when we get back to the Tower. Okay? Right now, I want you to breathe, okay?”
Tony nodded and tried to reel in his frantic breathing. Steve took Tony’s hand and pressed it to his chest.
“With me. In...and out.”
Tony was still shaking by the time they got to the tower. He curled deeper into the couch in between Natasha and Bruce. Bucky offered him a mug of coffee. When he didn’t take it, Bucky sighed and placed it on the coffee table. Wanda, Sam, and Vision joined them. SHIELD had called them when they were alerted by Steve about the creatures. The entire team was gathered except for Clint who was taken to SHIELD’s medical center.
“So,” Sam started in a slow even voice. “Why the hell was I called to round up a pack of giant hyenas in the middle of Manhattan?”
Steve looked at Tony then to the rest of the team. “I think before we explain, we need to start by being honest with each other.”
Steve stood up and walked to the middle of the living room. He was joined by Bucky. All at once they started to strip out of their clothes.
“Whoa, whoa! Guys, what the hell!?” Sam exclaimed, holding his hand out and looking away.
“Shut up, Wilson. Just watch,” Natasha hissed.
“Hey, if you wanna look, be my guest. I don’t ne-.”
Sam’s words died in his mouth. Slowly, the nude Avengers were replaced with pair of wolves. A black wolf was standing in Bucky’s place and Steve was replaced with another wolf, pure white and much larger than the black one. The room was silent as everyone took in what just had happened. The only ones who seemed unsurprised were Vision, Bruce, and Natasha. Wanda started saying something in Sokovian. Sam looked ready to bolt and Thor gripped his hammer tightly. Tony felt like he was about to vomit.
“This has to be a crazy dream,” he muttered. “Maybe I should’ve stayed at the hospital, I’m obviously not right in the head. I’ve got a goddamn zoo in my house.”
“Shh, Antoshka. You’re alright.” Natasha massaged his scalp trying to get him to relax.
The white wolf whined, approaching Tony with its tail tucked and head low. It rested its snout in his lap and licked his fingertips. Tony started to hyperventilate. It was too much. Too much. Too much.
The world was suddenly bigger. Sights and smells and sounds overwhelmed Tony.
Tony tried bolted over the couch, only to stumble backward. Tripping over his own legs. Legs. He had more than two legs. His ears pressed tightly against his skull. A new appendage whipped back and forth behind him.
“Tony?” Bruce murmured, trying to sound as nonthreatening as possible.
He looked at Bruce. He looked huge. Tony hissed and swiped at his hand. A whine and a wet nose nudging his behind made Tony whirl around. He clawed the nose. The wolf jerked back with a yelp. The black wolf growled.
“Back off, Bucky,” Bruce warned. “He's just overwhelmed, give him a second.”
“He's overwhelmed!? I don't suppose you and Natasha knew about this!”
“Lower your voice,” she hissed. Gently, she lifted Tony into her lap. She massaged and scratched until his fur lay flat and his shaking lessened. “Naturally I knew. SHIELD has detailed files on all their operatives. Very detailed.”
“And you Dr. Banner?” Wanda looked at him expectantly.
“I knew for medical purposes. When SHIELD first fell, Tony asked me to be the Avengers medical support. I’m not that kind of doctor, but you know how he is,” he chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.
“And Tony? He looked just as shocked as us, if not more. Why’s he a cat if he didn't know?”
“Let me bring Tony back and I'll explain. He needs to understand this more than anyone. The stress probably caused him to shift.”
Everyone turned their attention back to the now human Steve and Bucky as they dressed. Steve knelt down in front of Natasha and stared at Tony’s tiny form.
“Damn, Stevie. He's so small. You think that’s normal?”
“I don’t know. We're gonna have to be careful with him.” Steve pet Tony with his fingertips. “Hey, Tones. You're okay, we won't hurt you. Come on, I know you can understand.”
Tony looked up from where he'd buried his face in Natasha’s lap. He mewed and something just broke in the rest of the team's collective heart.
“As surprised as I am, Stark is undeniably adorable. But will he be alright?”
“He’ll be fine,” said Steve, not taking his eyes off of Tony. “See, you're fine. Do you recognize me, Tony?”
Somewhere in Tony’s mind he knew who that was. Yes, that was Steve. Steve equaled friend, safety.
Tony carefully padded to the edge of Natasha’s lap and pawed at the air. Steve obeyed and leaned his head near Tony. He sniffed him.
Good. Safe. Tony purred and groomed Steve’s forehead.
“That’s it, Tony. Come back to us.”
Tony’s heart began to slow as he calmed down. His mind sorting itself out, realizing where he was and who he was with. He turned to Bruce and mewed an apology. He smiled and gently pet Tony.
“Alright, Steve. As cute as this all is, I think it’s about time to hear that explanation.”
“Yeah, okay. He’s not completely back, but his mind is there. Should have expected this, you’re always going above and beyond. Aren’t you, Stark?”
Tony purred and did the cat equivalent of a wink.
The Avengers resettled themselves in the living room as Steve thought over how he was going to explain this.
“Firstly, I’d like to say that me and Bucky are not werewolves. None of us are cursed and this isn’t some kind of magic. It’s genetic, literally born this way.”
“So ya’ll can go all Zootopia on us. But Tony can too, now. Does that mean we can? Am I gonna wake up one day with a tail?”
“Not likely,” Bucky snorted. “People like us take up about twenty percent of the population globally. And even if you’re related to someone like us, it’s unlikely you’d inherit the same abilities. The genes that cause the change are recessive. Although, the gene could be dormant for generations before resurfacing. Even if two parents with the active gene had a kid, it’s only about a forty percent chance that that kid will be like them.”
“That does not explain Tony’s sudden change. Why did this gene become active now?”
“Most of us change when we’re teens. Me and Stevie had our first shifts around when puberty started. My being able to shift is one of the reasons Hydra experimented on me. They were fascinated by it. Did experiments on other captives trying to get them to change and found out that it could become active if a large amount of physical and mental stress was put on the subject. Like a fail safe for the body to make it more durable, ya know?”
Thor nodded in understanding. “Those creatures outside the restaurant. They were formidable indeed.”
“Hyenas,” Steve supplied. “Don’t see them very often, but they tend to group together. Shifters in general tend to make sub-communities based around their species.”
“Okay, so ya’ll can transform into animals because of your genetics, but this usually only happens during puberty or under a lot of stress. Stark’s always some kind of stressed and he’s been, for lack of a better term, normal up until now. Are you telling me that his slip in the kitchen caused this?”
“I’m with Wilson. I’ve been aware of shifters since becoming an agent with SHIELD and there’s nothing about a situation like this in their files.” Natasha narrowed her eyes. “And I’ve read all the files.”
Bruce, Bucky, and Steve looked at one another.
“There is one more way,” Bruce sad, becoming twitchy. “Retrograde is what it’s called in the shifter community.”
Steve rested his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. A seriousness coming over his face that wasn’t there before. “Tony is special. We mentioned how hard it is for a shifter to pass on their abilities to their offspring. That’s because over time our communities came together and the non-shifter population simply drowned us out of the gene pool. Shifting causes an enormous amount of stress on the body. My first shift was horribly painful, more so because of my frail body before Rebirth.
“But if a shifter were to have children with a Retrograde, there would be a one hundred percent chance of all the kids being shifters too. There’s not a lot of information on Retrograde shifters. Mostly stories and speculation. What we do know is that they are few and far between. And as much as it pains me to say this, now that Tony is a Retrograde, he’ll be a constant target for other shifters.”
“Of course we’re not completely lawless. If a Retrograde is spoken for, most shifters won’t bother unless they think they can beat their partner. Traditionally, it’s an all out brawl, but now it can be anything the Retrograde choses. Those punks from tonight had a point. Stark’s fair game until he’s claimed.”
Tony meowed, an annoyed look on his face. He did not appreciate being treated like an object. Although the thought of any of his teammates defending his honor made his chest flutter, he was more than capable of choosing for himself.
“This is a lot to take in,” Wanda sighed.
Vision rubbed her back. “Perhaps we should retire for the night.”
“Yeah. We all need some time. To process this. What about Tony? He’s not gonna stay like that I assume.”
“Nah, he’ll be back to his usual self by morning.” Bucky scooped him up. “He can stay with me and Stevie on our floor.”
“I don’t know, maybe he should stay with me.” Bruce reached to pry Tony from Bucky. “I’m heading to the labs and I’ll be awake for a while. I can watch him.”
“Or maybe,” Natasha swiped Tony back, “he can stay on his own floor and I’ll stay with him there.”
Natasha quirked an eyebrow and Tony gave all of them the most unimpressed look you’d ever seen on a cat. He meowed and rubbed his head against Natasha’s chin. Tony’s decision was clear. As they all departed, Steve and Bucky were left alone on the communal floor.
“You okay, Steve? I know you’ve got a soft spot for him.”
“Yeah, I’m okay, Buck. I’m okay.”