For as long as Tony could remember, he’d always been a cat person.
Maybe it was because he saw a little of himself in the quirky furballs. Perhaps it was because of their cleverness, or because - much like his closest friends, Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy - they were still loving while being disinclined to take his or anyone else’s bullshit. Most likely, though, it was because their soft fur and happy purrs never failed to melt Tony’s stress away, and he’d never found himself unhappy while petting a cat.
In any case, Tony loved cats, but was self-aware enough to know adopting one wasn’t a good idea. Pets needed attention, and he was a workaholic who traveled and had a hard enough time taking care of himself, let alone another living, breathing creature. So he resigned himself to a cat-free life, and contented with a few wistful visits to animal shelters and cat sanctuaries.
Until one cold, autumn day, when he’d discovered his first cat café while on a coffee run.
To say he’d been delighted was an understatement. A place he could go, just to relax and be around his favorite things outside of inventing? Hell yes. Tony was hooked after his first visit, and was soon a frequent and habitual patron.
The first café had been a bit out of his way, though, so he’d had JARVIS compile a list of all the cat cafés in the area. To his pleasant surprise, there were four in New York, and after spending a week staking each one out, he’d quickly found a favorite.
The Winter Snuggler Cat Café had many advantages besides its sweet and quirky kitties, first and foremost being that it was only ten minutes from Stark Tower - i.e., a quick jaunt for Tony if he wanted to sneak away for a few minutes of peace. It also had excellent coffee, as well as the best cinnamon crumb cake Tony had ever tasted.
None of those, however, were the reason Tony chose to frequent that particular café. No, that honor belonged to the incredibly hot owner, Bucky Barnes, whose talents included making a mean latte, herding cats (literally), and giving Tony heart palpitations by winking.
Well, okay, that wasn’t entirely true - Tony really did go for the cats and their tension-removing kitty goodness. But Bucky was the reason Tony had gone from visiting twice a week to once every other day when he was in town.
But really, Tony thought, who could blame him? Honestly, Tony didn’t know how anyone could resist the man. Bucky was something else, with his disarming smile and sexy voice and smouldering blue eyes. Plus he was kind and charming and funny, with a wicked, sarcastic sense of humor that matched Tony’s quip for quip.
Yep, Bucky was the whole package - looks, wit, and charm - with the added bonus of also being a cat person.
Tony was maybe, possibly holding a torch for him.
And, for a while there, Tony had thought the feeling might even be mutual. Bucky flirted like he breathed, and wasn’t shy about checking Tony out, even when he knew Tony saw him looking. Tony had been this close to just asking him out when Bucky had made a passing reference to the girlfriend he’d had waiting for him at home, dashing Tony’s dreams and very firmly placing himself in the ‘unavailable’ column in Tony’s book.
Tony was many things, but a homewrecker wasn’t one of them. Besides, Bucky didn’t seem like a person who strayed, so Tony figured he’d just been reading things wrong. Bucky was friendly, and probably flirted with everyone. Tony could admire from afar, even if he did (somewhat jealously) think this Natasha person - whom Bucky fondly called ‘his old lady’ - was really lucky.
In any case, Tony was a hedonistic masochist, and even though he knew it would never come to anything, he still looked forward to seeing Bucky whenever he stopped by The Winter Snuggler.
So he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointment when he walked in and was greeted by one of Bucky’s coworkers instead of the man himself, even if said coworker didn’t share the sentiment.
“Tony, hey!” Sam said warmly from behind the counter, smiling brightly and raising his hand in greeting. Steve, the café’s giant but energetic orange tabby, was draped over his shoulders, and gave a happy meow upon seeing Tony as well.
The happy sound was enough to dissipate the letdown of Bucky’s absence, and made Tony’s face split in a grin.
“Hey, kitty-Cap,” Tony cooed, laughing when Steve jumped down to dash across the counter and butt against Tony’s hand.
Sam mock-scowled down at him. “Traitor,” he said, before looking back up at Tony and grinning. “I swear, these cats all like you more than me or Bucky. It’s almost like they forget that we’re the ones who feed them.”
Steve purred loudly, arching up when Tony started scratching his favorite spot behind his ears, then meowed again when Tony pulled a treat out of his pocket for him. As if summoned by magic, two more kitties - Thor and Loki - jumped up onto the counter, and began vying for Tony’s attention as well.
“They have good taste,” Tony said, straight-faced, while Sam shook his head. He pulled out two more treats for Thor and Loki, then cleared his throat, hoping he sounded casual when he asked, “Speaking of Bucky, where is he? I thought he usually worked this time of day.”
Sam waved his hand, then scooped up Thor, who’d looked ready to pounce onto Tony’s shoulder. “He texted me this morning and said he was going to come in a little later. Something about having to take Natasha to an appointment or something.” Sam cocked his head, his smile turning into a smirk. “He’s going to be annoyed that he missed you,” he added, eyes glinting mischievously.
Tony knew his crush on Bucky was pathetically obvious, but still wasn’t comfortable with Sam’s teasing.
“Like two ships in the night,” Tony said to deflect, before bending down and stroking Peggy, who’d been standing at his feet, politely waiting for him to start paying attention to her. While he was bent down, Clint jumped up onto his back. “Ow ow ow, what are you - Clint, buddy, we’ve been over this. Why must you hurt me with your love?” Tony sighed, while Clint purred and then nipped at his ear.
Sam put Thor down, then walked around the counter so he could help pry Clint off. “You menace, where did you even come from? And where’s your - did you chew the bell off your collar again? Oh, you better not have eaten it…”
Tony gave Clint a quick stroke before Sam walked away with him, still scolding. Then he wiped the cat slobber off his ear, gave each of the assembled kitties one last pet, and walked further into the café.
He ran into more happy kitties on the way to his destination, and greeted each one accordingly. A treat for Fury, who wouldn’t eat it while Tony was watching him, but two for Fitz, who would take one back to Simmons. Exactly three pets to Maria’s head, but no more, and a belly rub for Volstagg, whom everyone was pretty sure was actually part dog. Coulson got a thorough chin rub, while T’Challa got his head scratched, and Peter was content to give Tony a little love bite. Tony spent a little extra time with Bruce - who darted out of his hiding place and practically hurled himself at Tony’s legs - running his fingers through the cat’s massive fluff, which made him look three times his actual size, and had earned him the nickname ‘The Incredible Hulk’.
Once he was finished with Bruce, Tony set him down, and walked over to the little enclosed space Bucky and Sam had dubbed ‘the playpen’. The café’s newest additions - two kittens named Wanda and Pietro - were playing in it, batting a little jingling ball back and forth.
“Hey, kiddos,” Tony said lightly, crouching down and holding his hand out. Pietro immediately bounced over to give Tony’s hand a sniff, but Wanda hunched down and watched Tony warily. They’d only been here two weeks, and while Pietro was finally starting to warm up to Tony, Wanda still acted skittish around him - something Tony had been working to fix.
“How are you today, pretty girl?” Tony asked her, while Pietro, the little brat, starting chewing on Tony’s thumb. “Is your brother wearing you out?”
Pietro gave one of his high-pitched, squeaky meows - almost as if he knew Tony had been talking about him - then flopped over onto his back and batted at Tony’s hand, clearly in a mood to play. Tony grinned and gave the abandoned jingling ball a roll. Pietro shot up and darted after it, pouncing on it and rolling it even further away.
Tony chuckled, then pulled the special kitten treats he’d bought just for today out of his pocket, and set one down in front of Wanda. Wanda stood up and sniffed at it cautiously, then looked back up at Tony.
“Just for you, cupcake,” Tony assured her in a gentle voice. “But only if you eat it before your brother does.”
As if sensing Tony talking about him again, Pietro came rambling back over, his own greedy eyes on the treat, which was apparently all the encouragement Wanda needed to start scarfing it down. Feeling triumphant, Tony gave Pietro his own treat so he wouldn’t bother Wanda, then smiled in delight when Wanda edged a little closer and meowed at him.
“Aw, it’s okay, buttercup. I have plenty more. But not too many, okay?”
After giving them each another treat, Tony picked up one of their feathery toys and dangled it in front of Pietro. To Tony’s surprise and pleasure, Wanda joined in on their little game, too, and even let Tony get a few good pets in once she was too worn out to keep playing.
Grinning in victory now that both kittens were asleep, Tony stood up and stretched. He’d been so distracted by Sam’s presence and eager to visit the kittens, he’d forgotten to order anything, and needed his caffeine fix. In general, the café had a policy about playing with the cats without buying something or paying the fee first, but since Tony was such a regular and a big tipper to boot, Sam and Bucky didn’t bother enforcing it with him. Most of the time, Tony didn’t even need to order anything; Bucky knew him so well, he usually had Tony’s favorite order ready for him within a few minutes of Tony walking in, and without Tony even needing to ask.
Now that his thoughts were on food, Tony turned back towards the counter to see if Sam was busy, and felt his stomach swoop a little when he saw Bucky standing by the counter as well, though he looked much grumpier than usual.
“- she’s a demon in cat form,” Bucky was telling Sam as Tony approached, pointing towards the cat carrier at his feet. “As soon as the shot was done, she bit poor Dr. Cho, and shredded my good leather jacket this morning when she saw me pulling out the cat carrier.”
Sam laughed. “Hey, you’re the one who took her in,” he said, grinning and shaking his head. “I warned you, that first day you let her into your apartment and fed her and then found her stealing all of your goldfish out of their tank. ‘She’s feral,’ I said. ‘She’s been a mean stray out on the streets too long to-’ Tony, no!”
Bucky whirled around while Tony froze at Sam’s exclamation, his fingers already through the bars at the front of the cat carrier.
“What?” Tony asked, while the dark, doe-eyed cat with the prettiest green eyes he’d ever seen rubbed against his fingers from inside the cat carrier.
Bucky and Sam both goggled at him in shock. “Is she… purring?” Bucky asked, dumbfounded.
Tony shrugged, and angled his fingers to scratch under the cat’s chin. “Yeah, sounds like it,” he said, before turning back to the cat and cooing, “What’s up, sweetheart? You want out of this stuffy carrier, huh?”
The cat meowed, somewhat pitifully, and then smooshed her face more firmly against Tony’s fingers.
Tony looked back up at the other two men, who still looked as though they’d seen a ghost. “Is it okay if I let her out and hold her?”
“Not if you want to keep your face,” Sam said, at the same time Bucky said, “If she’ll let you.”
Tony frowned. “Am I missing something?” he asked, opening the carrier and smiling when the cat immediately started rubbing up against him. He scooped her up and stood, noting that both men visibly tensed when he did so, even though the cat had started purring even louder.
Bucky coughed. “It’s just, well… she pretty much only likes me,” he said, while Sam stared on with something like awe. “And even then, it kinda depends on her mood. Most of the time she just tolerates me. You’re a mean old lady, aren’t you, girl?”
The cat gave him an unimpressed look, then arched up to butt her head against Tony’s chin.
“She seems plenty sweet to me,” Tony said, scritching behind the cat’s ears and grinning.
Sam shook his head. “That last time I tried to pick her up, she practically tore my hand off,” he said, mouth twitching. Then he turned to Bucky. “I’m telling you, man, he’s like the cat whisperer.”
Bucky chuckled, the sound doing funny, squirmy things to Tony’s stomach. “At least we found somebody she likes,” he said, eyes warm when they caught Tony’s. “I was startin’ to get worried - she’s so territorial, I can barely have people over, anymore. The last time someone tried to sleep over, she literally ran them out of my bed.”
Tony continued stroking through the cat’s super-soft, reddish-brown fur, and frowned. “Doesn’t she like Natasha?” he asked, confused. He could have sworn Bucky had said he lived with his girlfriend.
Bucky and Sam both gave him funny looks.
“Sorry?” Bucky asked, brow knitted in confusion.
“Your girlfriend, Natasha,” Tony said, while the cat’s tail swished back and forth. “Your ‘old lady’? I thought you lived together.”
Bucky and Sam looked at each other. Then Sam snorted and looked away, covering his mouth. Bucky scowled at him, then turned to Tony, cheeks pink.
“Natasha isn’t my girlfriend,” he said, after clearing my throat. “She’s my cat, which you’re holding.”
Tony blinked, then looked down at the cat in his arms, who was somehow purring louder. “Er… what?”
Bucky looked pained. “Natasha is a cat, Tony,” he said slowly, while Sam bent over, still muffling his laughter. “And, while I do love cats, I draw the line at dating one.”
Natasha the cat sneezed, somehow filling the sound with disdain, as though saying she was too good for Bucky anyway.
Tony looked down at her, then back up at Bucky, feeling his cheeks heat. “Oh,” he said dimly.
Bucky’s mouth turned up at the corners. “Wait, did you think… is that why you haven’t been flirting back as much, lately?” he asked, eyes sparkling. “You thought I was taken?”
Tony coughed, and looked down at Natasha, hoping to hide his expression. “Um, uh… maybe?” he said evasively, shifting uncomfortably.
Bucky’s grin widened. “Aw, doll. That’s adorable,” he drawled, and though his tone was teasing, his eyes had gone oddly soft.
Tony scowled at him. Then Natasha actually turned and hissed at Bucky, making him - and Sam - both jump.
“Seriously?” Bucky protested, taking a step back out of Natasha’s reach. Natasha swiped at him anyway, then climbed up to shove her face against Tony’s neck and began purring again.
Tony adjusted his hold, and started petting her again. “It’s not nice to make fun of people,” he said, straight-faced.
Bucky snorted, then leaned back against the counter. “Good point,” he agreed with a nod. “How about I make it up to you by taking you out to lunch sometime?”
While Tony tried not to choke on his own tongue, Natasha removed her face from Tony’s neck and looked over at Bucky in what Tony could swear was approval.
“Uh, sure,” Tony said, once he could find his words. “Um, yeah, I can… I can do that. Sometime. Tomorrow. Or not tomorrow, if that’s not good for you. I can do some other time, too, or -”
“I can do tomorrow,” Bucky said, smiling in what looked like relief. Natasha meowed at him, and allowed him to pet her head when he reached a cautious hand out to her.
“Tomorrow it is, then,” Tony said, feeling a little giddy as he tried to contain his grin. Then his stomach growled.
“For now, though, how about your usual with an extra slice of crumb cake thrown in,” Bucky suggested, one side of his mouth quirked up, while Natasha stared up at Tony as though he’d just insulted her ancestors.
“On the house,” Sam - whom Tony had almost forgotten - added. “When you exorcise the evil from Bucky’s murder-cat, you get free coffee.”
Natasha twisted around in Tony’s arms and hissed again.
“When you exorcise most of the evil from Bucky’s murder-cat, you get free coffee,” Sam amended, from much further away.
Tony chuckled, then turned Natasha around so that she was facing him. “You won’t kick me out of his bed, will you?” he asked her lowly, once Bucky had gone around the counter to help Sam.
Natasha blinked at him, her tail swishing back and forth. Then she butted up against his chin again.
Tony nodded seriously. “I’m holding you to that,” he told her, before looking up, catching Bucky’s eye, and smiling.