Of all the problems with owning cats, Phil thinks morosely as he watches the black little monster lounge in the sun, the number one issue Phil has is their claws. Tony, for example, absolutely refuses to let Phil get anywhere near him, no matter what, without taking a swipe. He’s under the window now, soaking in the warmth, which is somewhere Phil doesn’t especially need to venture, so it’s not really a problem. Sometimes, though, Tony finds a comfortable spot on the bed or in the doorway to the kitchen and those are places Phil actually needs to go. He always, always emerges from an encounter with Tony bleeding and vowing to ship him off to the pound. He won’t do it, of course, and the smug way Tony looks at him when he says it makes Phil think he knows the truth: Clint loves the cats far too much for Phil to ever do anything truly terrible to them.
On the other hand, though, for all that Tony absolutely hates Phil, he loves his kittens with the passion of a burning sun. Phil had been skeptical when Tony came moseying back into the house after a jaunt outside, clearly carrying a litter. Tony is uninterested on his good days and downright awful on his bad, so Phil just couldn’t see how him trying to raise kittens would end in anything but tears. Even Clint agreed that it was a bad idea, and after some convincing, he’d agreed that the kittens would need to be put up for adoption as soon as possible.
Tony, though, apparently had other plans. When the kittens came, he’d yowled like hell for over three hours, but the minute they were all out, he’d cleaned them and started them suckling immediately. He wouldn’t let anyone near them, either, not even to check them over. Phil wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but he assumed that Tony would lose interest sooner rather than later. He didn’t though. He fed them and cleaned them at all the right times and when they got a bit older, he even started to play with them.
After the twelve week period was up and the kittens were okay to be separated from their mother, Phil and Clint started to invite potential owners over to the apartment to look at the kittens. It wasn’t reasonable, they agreed, to keep all of them. One cat was fine, but keeping all three kittens plus Tony was pushing it a little. Tony, though, he wasn’t having any of that. Anyone who got even a little close to his kittens came on the receiving end of his claws of death. More than one person left the apartment bleeding and kitten-less. The most persistent of them had needed first aid attention. While Phil was bandaging the poor lady’s arm, he accidentally made eye-contact with Tony, who looked smug and satisfied, and that was when the decision was made to let Tony keep all of his kittens.
Of course, if Phil had known that Tony was going to go back to his fiendish ways after his kittens stopped nursing for good, he might have changed his mind. The oddest part about the whole thing is that none of the kittens are monsters at all, even now that they’re reaching the sixth month mark. Little Natasha, with her ginger tiger stripes, is a spitfire to be sure, but she’s an angel whenever they have company. Chocolate-furred Bruce is as sweet a cat as anyone could want, though terribly shy. And Thor, the golden long-haired, is the friendliest of the group and more like a dog than Phil thinks a kitten has any right to be, always ready for a round of fetch or lick a person’s face. They’re an odd bunch, the four of them, but Clint loves them and Phil loves Clint. And if, in the dark hours of the night, Phil thinks that he sort of enjoys having cats around, well, he’ll never tell.
“Are you sure we left the sitter everything they need?” Clint asks, settling into the passenger seat.
“Clint,” Phil says reasonably. “They’re cats. They don’t need anything but food and water. They’ve got all their toys and the neighbor promised to come by once a day to scoop out their litter. We’re only going to be gone for a five days. They’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Clint sighs. “They’re just so little, you know? They’re only babies and we’re leaving them all alone.”
He’s not joking, Phil can tell. He’s deadly serious.
“Look,” Phil says, reaching out and putting a hand on his lover’s arm. “Think of it this way: Tony loves those kittens more than catnip, and you know how much he loves catnip, and he’s more vicious than any housecat has the right to be. Do you honestly think he’s going to let anything happen to them?”
“Well, when you put it like that,” Clint says, tilting his head thoughtfully. “I guess you’ve got a point.”
“Okay, then,” Phil agrees. “Ready for our romantic week upstate?”
That, at least, makes Clint smile. “Boy am I,” he says and winks. “I’ve been making plans for that hotel room for months now.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Phil says and starts the car.
When Tony’s people leave him, he thinks, finally, and takes the opportunity to sleep on Clint’s pillow and get as much loose fur as possible on Phil’s suits in the closet. He encourages his kittens to do the same, but he gets the feeling that none of them have as much fun at it as he does. Natasha, for one, has a disgusting loyalty to Phil and Bruce is always wary about making too much of a mess, not because he’s worried about the consequences, but more because he doesn’t like to see the people do more work than necessary to look after the all. Tony always shakes his head sadly when the little scamp says this, because seriously, where did he go wrong? Thor, at least, enjoys a good mess and that’s why he’s Tony’s favorite. Really, he is, no doubt.
So that’s what they do the first day, then they go on with their business. On the second day, Tony puts a paper clip, a pipe cleaner and his toy mouse into the shiny shoes Phil keeps by the door, then he takes a nap with his babies in the sunshine. On the third day, the litter box starts to smell like unclean cats live here and that Tony cannot have. He hisses and he yowls and he sinks his claws into Phil’s favorite chair, but none of it brings his people back. The kittens are starting to get worried, too.
“Did they leave us forever?” Thor asks sadly and Tony can tell the others are thinking it as well.
“Don’t be silly,” Tony tells them. “Of course they didn’t.” He’s not sure of that, though. He was abandoned, once, as a kitten and it had not been fun. He barely remembers it now. He’s been a housecat for years and years and with the exception of a few brief escapes outside, the most notable of which being the time he got mated by that stray, he’s always been inside. If the people don’t come back soon, though, Tony’s starting to think they may not have much choice but to venture out into the wilderness.
On the fourth day, around noon, just when the sun is the most perfect for lounging in, the door finally opens. Tony doesn’t jump up or get excited, because he doesn’t want to spoil his humans with too much attention and he doesn’t want to reward them for bad things like leaving for days and days. Instead, he stays very firmly where he is by the window and lets his children go meet the people at the door.
Tony’s first clue that something is terribly wrong is Natasha’s hissing. Natasha never hisses at their people, not even when they’re mating all over where she wants to lie on the arm of the couch. Then Bruce starts mewling and Thor starts growling and that, that’s when Tony gets his ass up and runs to see what the hell’s wrong. He thought everyone in town knew the price they’d pay for touching his kittens without his permission, but if some fool has gotten it into his head to hurt them, there will be blood.
The man in the hall is definitely not one of Tony’s people. He’s tall and dark-haired and in his hand is a cage. Tony’s kittens are nowhere in sight, but Tony can tell from the sounds coming from that cage that something very wrong is going on here. He can feel his claws coming out in preparation, but he hisses a warning.
“Let my kittens go,” he hisses, but the man just blinks.
Well, Tony warned him. He takes a flying leap, manages to sink his claws right into the man’s leg. The man yowls, and kicks out, trying to get Tony lose, but Tony’s got claws of steal and the determination to match. He holds on, tightens his grip, even as the man kicks and yanks at Tony’s fur with his free paw. His stupid human paws don’t have claws, though, so he can’t do that much damage.
Or, that’s what Tony thinks, anyway. He’s not sure how it happens, but the man manages to get his hand into his pocket and pull out something small and shiny, something that bites and burns whenever it touches Tony. He still clings to the man, unwilling to give up that easily, but it’s not long before he finds his claws slipping without his permission. His vision’s going, too, and before he knows it, the man has him in the cage, too.
The last thing Tony sees before his eyes close and won’t open again, is his babies, unhurt and safe for now, but scared out of their minds and the very wrong end of a kitten-napping.
When Tony wakes up, it’s to the sound of cars and the drip-dripping of water into a puddle. He feels uncomfortably damp and cold, too and the smell of the place makes him sure before he even opens his eyes that he’s not in the apartment. He opens his eyes with a gasp, looking around wildly for his kittens. He breathes a sigh of relief to find them all there, cuddled up next to him, slightly wet but otherwise unharmed.
“Fuck,” he breathes, pulling himself together and managing to stand. He’s not injured, but he is apparently in a dark alleyway and the smell of strange cats means his current condition might not last. “Are you all okay?” he asks, pulling each of his kittens to him in turn and checking them over for injury.
“We’re fine,” Natasha tells him, but she sounds scared. “The man left us here.”
“We’re lost,” Bruce tells him, not even trying to disguise his fear. “The man took us in his car and we drove for a very long time.”
“Indeed,” Thor says, just as upset as his brother and sister. “We may never get home.”
“It’s okay,” Tony tells them, licking each of their noses quickly. “We’ll be okay. I’ve been on the street before. We’ll be fine. We’ve just got to find our way back, is all.”
Easier said than done, of course, because despite his words, it’s been a long, long time since Tony’s spent any real time on the street. He has no real idea of where they are, either, or how he’s going to find his way back home. He’s certainly not going to tell the kittens that, though. He’ll be strong for them, no matter how hopeless the situation seems.
He’s barely done saying the words, though, when he hears something that makes him think the situation is only going to get worse before it gets better. It’s a growling from the other end of the alley, and Tony can smell the cat making the sound coming closer.
“Get behind me,” he orders the kittens. Thor and Bruce scamper to comply, but Natasha stands her ground.
“I can help,” she insists, but Tony shakes his head. He shoves her behind him with her brothers, takes a few steps forward and gets into fighting position.
“Stay back there,” he tells them, just as the other cat comes into range. It’s a large one, a gray long-haired with a chunk missing out of his left ear. He looks mean, too.
“You’re in my territory,” it yowls.
Tony, knowing it would make them easy targets to back down, yowls back. There’s only one way to deal with street cats like this and that’s to fight. Tony on his own might be able to outrun him, but there’s no way his kittens could. The only option is to put up the strongest fight he can and hope for the best.
The cat, when he pounces, is brutal and swift. He gets his claws in Tony’s neck right away, goes for his face with his teeth. Tony claws back, squirms first to the left, then to the right, trying to dislodge his attacker. He fights back with all he’s got, but he can tell it’s a losing battle. He can hear the frightened whimpers of his kittens behind him, but they’re not trying to help and that’s all for the best. He’s about to hiss for the to run, to let him distract this cat while they get away, when something comes down hard on top of the pair of them, him and his fighter.
There’s a scuffle, then, one that Tony’s not directly involved in, apart from being pinned under it. All he can tell is that one minute he’s pressed into the ground and the next he’s able to squirm away, out of the line of fire. Once he’s back a few paces, herding his kittens further away from the fight, he can see clearly that someone’s come to his rescue. It’s a ginger cat, lighter than Natasha and with no tiger stripes at all. He’s a fighter, too, and he takes Tony’s attacker apart, scratching and biting and generally reducing the other cat to Fancy Feast. In less than two minutes, the cat is backing down, withdrawing from the fight and getting gone.
“Wow,” Tony breathes, looking at the panting ginger. He’s a handsome cat, too, one of the best Tony’s ever seen. His white boots are a little silly, but he’s got a fine face and nice, long whiskers. He also looks barely injured, despite the fact that he just took that alley cat on. “That was pretty impressive. Thanks.”
Now that the fight is really over, Tony busies himself with making sure his kittens aren’t hurt at all. Apart from needing a good bath, they’re all in fine condition, which makes Tony purr with happiness. They wouldn’t have come through that fight all intact if the ginger hadn’t interfered, and as much as Tony hates not being able to handle something on his own, his kittens’ safety comes first.
“I was pleased to help,” the ginger says, taking a few tentative steps forward. “I’m Steve.”
Tony introduces himself between licks of Thor’s head. When he’s satisfied that everyone is a little less filthy, he nudges his babies forward, makes them introduce themselves. Steve looks charmed by them, which makes Tony preen. His kittens are beautiful, thank you, and they deserve that recognition.
“Well,” he says after the last of the kids has been introduced to Steve, “I guess we’ll be going now. Thanks for help or whatever.” He starts to lead the way out of the alley, confident his kittens will follow.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Steve says, tagging along, “What are you all doing out here on the streets. I mean,” here he looks down shyly, like he’s just realizing it might be a sore subject, “you’re obviously housecats.”
“Got it in one,” Tony tells him without looking at him. He comes to the street and looks both ways, trying to figure out which will lead him home. “We’re lost, as it happens.”
Left, he decides and starts off that way, only looking back to make sure his three are still walking with him. “Stay close,” he tells them and they all nod.
“Where do you live?” Steve asks, scrambling to catch up. “Maybe I can help.”
“Hmm,” Tony says like he’s considering it, still not looking at him. “Let me think about it. Um, nope.”
“Papa,” Bruce pipes up reproachfully. “Let him help.”
Tony sighs and stops walking and motioning them all in to stand around him. “All right,” he says. “Everyone gather up. We’re going to take a vote. Who here thinks I’ve got this and totally don’t need help from any street tom?”
No one raises their paw and Tony scowls at them. “No loyalty, these days. None at all,” he says to himself. “Okay, then, who wants this ginger to butt into our business and give us a hand?”
Three tiny paws go up into the air and Tony sighs, finally looking at Steve again. “Okay,” he says. “You win. You can help us.”
He thinks for a minute that Steve’s going to be offended, which had kind of been the point of the whole thing, but Steve only looks vaguely amused, his whiskers twitching just the slightest.
“How nice of you to offer,” Steve tells them and Tony can hear laughter in his voice. “Mind telling me where it is we’re trying to get to?”
“The Upper East Side,” Tony tells him at once, ridiculously proud of his address. “East 92nd street.”
Steve considers this. “Okay,” he says after a moment. “I don’t get up that way often, but I know where it is. Just follow me.”
“Right,” Tony says. “Whatever. Kittens, march!”
As it turns out, they were abandoned in quite the wrong side of Harlem, so the trip home isn’t an easy one or a quick one. In fact, not only is it a long trip, but it’s also a very dangerous one. On top the threat that other cats protecting territory pose, there’s also cars, cyclists, and waves of big-footed pedestrians. By mid-afternoon, just as Tony’s becoming quite sure that he wouldn’t have been able to make it this far on his own, the kittens start whining about being hungry.
Truth be told, Tony’s pretty hungry, too. He can’t remember the last time he went this long without at least getting dry food. And catnip, oh what he’d do for some catnip right now! More important than any of that, though, is making sure his kittens get fed.
“Do you know where we can get something for them to eat?” he asks Steve worriedly.
“We’re almost to the park,” Steve tells him. “We can catch something there.”
“Uh huh,” Tony says slowly. “Uh, and let’s assume that I’ve never caught anything quicker than a squeaky mouse. Is that going to be a problem during this little activity?”
Steve just laughs at him fondly. “I’ve got it,” he tells him.
He does have it, too, as Tony finds out. Once they’re in the park, Tony finds a nice, quiet spot among the trees and keeps the kids quiet there while Steve goes out to hunt. Not half an hour later, he comes back dragging two mice and a squirrel.
“A feast!” Thor says eagerly, diving in as soon as the food is presented to him. Natasha, too, starts eating at once, but Bruce holds back, shy as ever. Tony’s about to nudge him forward, urge him to eat, when Steve steps in.
“It’s okay, buddy,” he says, crouching down to be at eye level with the kitten. “You can eat. I got these mice just for you and your siblings. You don’t have to be shy about it.”
“Thanks,” Bruce says, quietly, and he totters up to the pile of mice.
It touches Tony, just a little bit. These kittens don’t belong to Steve, they’re not his, but he’s caring for them, bringing them food and encouraging them to eat it. He’d make a good father to them, Tony thinks.
Of course, then he remembers that Steve’s just being nice. He’s a nice guy, sweet, but he’s only doing this because it’s the right thing to do. He agreed to help them home, but he never bargained for a litter-full of kittens, and even if he did want kittens someday, there’s no way he’d pick Tony as his mate, not when Tony’s already got kittens by some other tom, not when Tony’s so abrasive and rough.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Steve asks and Tony would swear he sounds hopeful, but clearly that’s his imagination.
“If you insist,” Tony says snottily. “I suppose these rodents will do for now.”
Actually, the mice are delicious. Tony doesn’t tell Steve that, though. Wouldn’t want to come off as too eager, especially when he knows Steve’s not going to stick around, not once they get back home.
After the kittens eat, they’re all terribly sleepy and Tony sighs. He should have known this would happen. “They need a nap,” he tells Steve, who just nods agreeably. Tony kind of needs a nap, too, so he settles down with his kittens on some soft grass and with just the right amount of sun shining on them. Steve comes to lie with them, and the kittens snuggle into his warmth. Tony resists, though, for his own sanity. He just concentrates on the kittens, what’s good for them and ignores Steve as best he can.
They doze, Tony and Steve both keeping one eye open for anything that might come close, while the kittens sleep soundly. After an hour or so, the kittens are ready to go again, all full of energy from their nap. Even quiet little Bruce is zooming around, bouncing off of roots and tussling with Thor.
“Okay, okay,” Tony says, laughing as Thor pins his brother to the ground. “Let’s get moving again, huh?”
So they do. The rest of the journey is just as dangerous as the first part, but Tony is more ready for it this time. He knows now to watch out for the bicycles, to dart around the crowds of people and into the shadows. Together, he and Steve manage to herd the kittens through the rest of the park and back out onto the street again, where there’s even more danger waiting.
There’s a few incidents, of course. Natasha gets lost in a crowd once and Steve has to double back to grab her. At one point, too, Thor very nearly gets hit by a car, with only Tony’s quick reflexes dragging him out of the way in time. It takes Tony and Steve together to scare off the tourist who tries to pick up Bruce.
“We make a good team,” Steve says afterward, after they’ve ducked into an alleyway and away from the grabby hands of the people.
“Yeah,” Tony says stiffly. “Let’s keep moving.”
By the time they reach the right street, and are very nearly home, they’ve been through more dangers in one day than Tony’s been through in probably his whole life. The kittens, recognizing the area, run ahead, eager to get back to the apartment. Tony lets them but keeps an eye out, just in case. He follows along at a more sedate pace, Steve by his side.
“Thank you,” he manages to Steve, because he is grateful, really. He just also hates to think about what he can’t have, why a nice cat like Steve will never stick around.
“You’re welcome,” Steve says, whiskers twitching again. “I was glad to help. But… if you don’t mind me saying, you don’t really seem that happy to be home.”
“Of course I am,” Tony says dismissively. “I’m ecstatic. The sooner I’m home the sooner you leave and I’ll never have to see you again.”
“Oh,” Steve says softly, looking at the ground. “I see. Well, I guess you know your way from here, huh?”
“Yes,” Tony agrees because he totally does.
“Well, then,” Steve says and Tony’s sure he imagines how the tom’s voice wavers just a bit. “I guess I’ll get going then. Have a good life, Tony. Take care of those kittens of yours.”
“I will,” Tony tells him firmly, trying not to feel disappointed that Steve’s leaving. It’s for the best, really. The sooner Steve leaves, the less it will hurt. He’s going to leave eventually, so it might as well be now.
With that, Steve’s gone, hurrying down a side-street and out of Tony’s life. Tony sighs sadly and goes to catch up to his kittens.
The door to the apartment building isn’t that big of an obstacle, especially because Tony’s been able to open doors since he was a kitten. The kittens rush in ahead of him and then Tony enters the building, too. The door nearly clips his tail, but he evades just in time. The trip up the steps is a long one for the kittens, since they live on the fifth floor, but they all make it eventually.
Of course, once they’re in the hallway, their real problems begin. The man is there, the one who took them in the first place, and he looks pissed.
“You guys again?” he asks incredulously. He takes two long steps toward them. Tony growls warningly, hisses, tries everything he can try to scare the man off but nothing works. The man just keeps coming toward them, so Tony shoos his kittens back behind him and readies his claws.
Tony knows he’s outmatched even as he pounces, but he has to protect his kittens. They haven’t come this far just to get kitten-napped again. The man’s ready for him when he pounces, gets his hands wrapped around Tony’s throat, even as Tony’s claws sink into his arm.
This is it, Tony thinks as his air gets cut off, game over. He claws and he wriggles, but the man has him good and tight, is not letting go.
Just as he’s about to give up, two things happen in quick succession. The first is that the man screams and jerks as something solid and ginger attaches itself to his leg. Steve, Tony thinks dizzily, but knows it won’t do any good. They can’t beat the man. Except, then the second thing happens: Tony hears very clearly, “Drop the cat.”
Never in Tony’s life has he ever been so glad to hear Phil’s voice. Unfortunately, the man takes Phil at his word and drops Tony like he’s hot. Tony just barely manages to land on his feet, but he does it, and takes a look at the hallway around him. There, beside him, coming to his rescue, is Steve. A few feet away, his kittens are all huddled together, scared for their papa, and behind them, looking shocked and angry are Phil and Clint.
Somehow or other, and Tony never figures out how, Phil gets the man in a headlock while Clint gets on his phone and starts to talk to someone. It’s not like Phil, as far as Tony can tell, but it’s pretty sweet, either way.
“Huh,” he says, even though his throat hurts when he talks. “Guess that’s taken care of.” He trots over to his kittens and they swarm him at once, checking to make sure he’s okay.
Steve follows slowly, and Tony looks at him sideways.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, because he thought Steve had left.
“I thought about what you said,” Steve says, looking Tony right in the eye. “And I think I know why you said it. But, the thing is, I really like you, and I really like your kittens. I’d like to stay, if your people will let me.”
Tony looks at him, hardly daring to believe it. “I like you, too,” he says. He glances up at Clint, who’s still on his phone but is also looking at Steve like he’s the best thing in the world. “Thanks for saving us again. To be honest, I’m pretty sure our people are gonna let you stay forever, if you want.”
“Good,” Steve says happily. “That’s good.”
“Yeah,” Tony agrees. “It kinda is.”
“Uh, Phil?” Clint asks, hesitating in the doorway to their bedroom. “How do you feel about more kittens?”
Phil sighs and looks up at him from his book. He knows where this is going and he’s not happy about it. He’d agreed to take the stray in because he’d saved their cats, but another litter of kittens might be pushing it. Still, Clint looks so hopeful about the whole thing that Phil can’t bring himself to protest.
“Fine,” he says, resigned to it. It’s too late by this point, anyway. Nothing’s going to make Tony change his ways, not even being catnapped, but even if that’s a bad thing for Phil, it’s good for the kittens. “But if we get new neighbors, we’re definitely doing a background check before we let them catsit for us.”
“Fair enough,” Clint says, looking crazy happy already at the prospect of another litter of kittens. “But I’m not sure ‘aversion to cats to the point of psychosis and willing to catnap to get rid of them’ is on the list of things background checks tell you.”
“Well, then,” Phil says, considering this. “We’ll just have to take them with us everywhere we ever go.”
He’s joking, of course, because even if he maybe likes these cats a bit, there’s no way he’s taking Tony on a car ride. Steve would be amenable to it, and the kittens love everything, but Tony would just not stand for that and Phil knows it.
“Agreed,” Clint says at once. “Anything for a bunch of crazy cats, right?”
“You have no idea,” Phil tells him, thinking about the thumb tack he’d found in his shoe this morning. “You have no idea.”