[personal profile] dragonofmemory
Part One

~

Tony came out of the workshop knowing he was at his limit before that damned cat would break in again for attention. He took a quick shower, because Steve was twice as likely to claw him when he was greasy and dirty. He ignored the fact that it had only been four days, and his life already revolved around a cat. Not even a female one that he could crack pussy jokes around, but their leader turned feline.

Sometimes, Tony hated his life.

Steve wasn't at the workshop door looking menacing, however. Nor was he in any of the usual bits of sun napping. Tony looked in a few places before heading to the kitchen. Maybe someone else was feeding him? If so, this stopped now, because the last thing they needed was a fat Cap. Seriously, a fat Captain America was a bad mental image reserved for comic conventions. Not that Tony would know anything about those.

Okay, maybe a little. But that was because Batman comics were awesome, not Cap. Certainly not because of Cap.

He caught a flash of orange American Tail disappearing into the kitchen. And how was this his life? There were so many other pieces of tail he'd rather be chasing. "Oh no you don't," Tony muttered, because Steve was not using those cute eyes to con more people into feeding him. Not when the damn cat woke Tony up with his staring every other morning. Usually when Tony didn't want to move too. He was going to catch whoever was feeding Steve red-handed, and prove to Natasha he could totally do sneaky, even if not as well as her.

Before he could barge in and demand Cap-feeding to cease, he heard a faint sniffle. Tony paused in the doorway, peering in to catch a glimpse of what was going on. Who would be...?

Pepper.

Tony pulled back immediately, leaning against the wall as he grasped at the arc reactor that wasn't there anymore. He panicked for a moment, connecting the lack of reactor to the sudden pain in his chest. But his heart was pounding, not slowing to a stop. And Pepper was crying. She was crying, and it wasn't because of the reactor, or Tony dying again, or other things that were outside of his control.

Tony closed his eyes. He wrapped his arms around himself, wanting nothing more than to go in there, apologize and beg to give them another chance. He wanted to, but he knew he couldn't. Pepper didn't want to cry in front of him, not even when they broke up. She said she wouldn't do that, not when Tony was too quick to blame himself. If he went in there right now, she'd pack it all away again, and she'd be more stressed, and...

He'd lost the right to hold her right now.

He heard the soft mew and pulled out his tablet. There were security cameras in the kitchen, and he had to... even if he couldn't touch her, he had to see her.

"A cat?" Pepper said, her voice wavering as Tony fiddled with his tablet. He pulled up the picture just as she pulled Steve into her lap. She had tear-trails down her face, and her hair was tied back, not a wisp out of place even when her eyes were red. He'd always admired how put together Pepper was. "When did Tony...? Oh. You're Captain Rogers."

She pet Steve as she continued to let the tears fall. Steve pushed up into her hand, mewing in distress. "I'm fine," Pepper said, wiping her eyes. "I just... I didn't think if I came back here I would..."

Tony saw her shoulders rise in a sob. He slid down the wall silently, curling in on himself and the tablet. "I miss him," Pepper said so softly that Tony almost didn't hear it. "And I love him. But I can't... He was starting to resent me. And it's not his fault. It never was. But his father was never there, and God, Obadiah was just as bad, looking back. He only gave Tony the time of day when he needed something. Why did none of us see that?"

He held back a protest by biting his tongue. Obadiah had them all fooled. That wasn't Pepper's fault. And he didn't resent her. He didn't...

"There's just too much... I used to see him every day," Pepper continued, hugging the cat tightly against her. "And maybe if we'd started back then, it might have worked. It works with Rhodey being gone, because he had time to get used to the relationship before Rhodey was shipped off. But then things changed, and Tony changed, and between the company and the Avengers I only see him once a week now, if that. He's been abandoned too many times for a long distance relationship to work."

It wasn't like that. It really wasn't. Tony could handle a long distance relationship. He could handle anything for Pepper. When they broke up, Tony had wanted to plead with her to let him work on it. He could try to be less clingy. He wouldn't make her feel guilty for not being there. He would come of the workshop more, and he'd stop snapping at her when things got rough. But he couldn't make her feel worse by telling him no again.

"And it's my fault," Pepper said, and all Tony wanted to do was hold her and tell her no, it wasn't. "I can't handle that. I can't let him resent me. He's all I have, and I can't..."

Pepper's breath hitched and Steve started to lick her chin, rubbing his furry head against her cheek. Damn it, Tony wasn't going to be jealous of a cat. "I can't give up the company either. If that was what he wanted, I'd give it back to him in a heartbeat. But he made me CEO. He trusted me, after everything else, he trusted me when he was dy..."

Pepper broke off as a few sobs escaped her. "He gave it to me, because he knew I wouldn't go back to weapons," she said eventually. Steve was purring again, so loud that Tony could hear it outside of his tablet and down the hallway.

"I didn't sleep with him when he was my boss," Pepper said as she pet Steve. The purring seemed to have a soothing effect on her. "I got where I was because I worked for it. I worked for him and the company. It's important to me. My career is important to me. And I couldn't throw that away when I was his PA. I can't throw that away now. Not when he trusts me this much. It means too much to me. And I can't handle him resenting me either. Is that wrong? Because I love him, but I can't... I can't quit my job to make him happy, no matter how horrible that makes me. No matter how much I want to. It wasn't working."

It wasn't Pepper's fault. None of that was Pepper's fault. She was one of the best people he'd ever met, and he should never have made her choose between him and her job. He knew how much it meant to her. And he supported that, he did, because Pepper was worth her weight in gold and she was the best thing to ever happen to Stark Industries. She deserved the position more than anyone, and he could never fault her for putting her career first. He respected that.

Tony would be dead at least three or four times over if not for her. She could handle everything he threw at her, from bad press, to new inventions, to Iron Man, to running his life, to dating him. It was Tony who couldn't handle it. Because she was right. He had been starting to resent the time he didn't see her, because she was too busy or he was saving the world. He hadn't wanted to, but he did. They just kept missing each other, and it was making both of them miserable. And Pepper was smart, so smart, and she broke it off because it was what they needed. But he loved her so much still...

"And the worst of it is now I know..." Pepper said, interrupting his thoughts. "I see Killian when I close my eyes. And I killed him. And I wake up screaming. Then I remember how I left Tony when he..."

Tony started at the feeling of a hand running through his hair, missing Pepper's words. He looked up to see Natasha crouched down beside him. She brushed the tears that managed to escape, kissing him on the forehead. Then she stood up and walked into the kitchen.

Thor took her place, sitting gracefully against the wall next to Tony as Natasha spoke in the next room. "You did what you had to. You saved Tony and your own life."

"Natasha," Pepper said, drying her eyes carefully to save what she could of her make up. "I didn't realize you were there."

Thor was a solid presence next to Tony, a warmth that spread comfort. Before he was aware of what he was doing, Tony's head dropped to Thor's shoulder. Thor smiled at him sadly.

"Are you seeing anyone about the nightmares?" Natasha asked.

"Yes," Pepper admitted. "And I know that, but it still feels..." Pepper closed her eyes, and Tony ached to touch her face. "Plus, I have kitty-therapy now. I highly recommend it."

It was hard to see on the security feed, but it looked like Natasha's lips quirked into a smile as Steve arched up into Pepper's hands. "Is that what this is? Why don't you have a cat of your own then?"

"I never needed one. I had..."

Natasha filled in when Pepper hesitated. "Tony is as bad as cat sometimes." She paused, wiping away the remainder of Pepper's tears. "Why don't we go out to eat?"

"You said the information on AIM was confidential," Pepper said, without a pause this time. She was already put back together. The only way you could tell she had been crying was her eyes.

"I know a few places that don't have bugs," Natasha said. "And you look like you could use an excuse to get out of the Tower."

Pepper nodded, a grateful look in her eyes. "Being here reminds me so much of... I love him, Natasha."

"Love isn't for people like you and me," Natasha said calmly. "It's a childish fantasy. We live in the real world, and we're better off without it."

Pepper put a distressed-looking Steve on the ground, who twined around her legs as she stood up and gathered her belongings. She flicked open a hand-mirror, wincing at what she saw, then looked up at Natasha. "I can't agree with you on that. I think I can have a job like this and be happy. I think you can too, someday, if you really want it. But love... it's not enough, sometimes. I wish it were."

Natasha shrugged. "Maybe," she said as she followed Pepper out the opposite side of the kitchen, only bending down to pet Steve once before she left.

Tony stared down at the image of the empty kitchen, picturing all too easily Pepper sitting on the chair as she cried. Then Steve jumped onto the chair she vacated, mewing sadly and looking all kinds of pathetic as he curled up.

Tony didn't know how long he watched the cat (who was big for a cat, but not enough to fill the spaces Pepper left), but eventually Thor's hand covered his, pushing the tablet down. "Come, my friend," Thor said with a surprising amount of compassion and empathy. "Our Shieldsister will take care of Lady Pepper. Let us retrieve our feline companion and drink to the new beginnings that will surely come to both of you."

"Cap still can't get drunk," Tony said, his voice sounding far away. He didn't even feel the pain in his back from sitting on the floor for this long. Still, even if Cap could get drunk as a cat, alcohol was probably not good for cats to drink. He was sure he remembered something about that in JARVIS's list of warnings.

"Aye," Thor agreed. "But Darcy suggested a Midgardian plant that would have the same effect on our good Captain."

"Catnip? Or would it be 'Capnip' in this case?" Tony thought about it. Catnip didn't actually make cats drunk. He didn't remember the science behind it exactly, but he was pretty sure it wasn't something the serum could cancel out of the blood stream if it affected the cat's sense of smell. "I... sure. Why not?"

Thor helped him up, keeping a friendly arm around Tony as they walked into the kitchen for cat collection. Turns out there was plenty of catnip in the bags JARVIS had ordered, and he and Thor gave a few of the toys a liberal dousing.

Watching Steve rolling on the floor with a stoned expression was worth it. "JARVIS, take pictures of LolCap. I'll think of a clever caption for it later."

"Ah, you speak of the cheeseburger site my dearest Jane is fond of," Thor said with an easy grin. He refilled Tony's glass. "She has explained to me this concept. I'm sure the Captain would make a fine meme."

"To cat memes!" Tony toasted as Steve tried to pounce on a catnip mouse, only to fall over and rub against it.

Thor's throaty laugh answered him. "Aye, to cat memes!"

* * *

"Go away," Tony slurred, pulling the pillow over his head. It didn't stop the unnerving feeling of being watched. "No," Tony said flatly. Steve was still staring. He knew the cat was.

"It's five am. I left food for you last night. You are not being played with or fed until seven at the earliest." Tony was not, by habit, a man who slept late. But his alarm wasn't due for another two hours and, damn it, he wasn't giving in to a cat.

He groaned, knowing he wasn't going to be able to sleep as long as he had Steve glaring at him. Usually the damned cat let him sleep longer though. He'd wait until Tony was already mostly awake too, though Tony wondered about the ability to sense when he was waxing depressive. This though, this was new and it was getting out of hand.

"You were the one who thought I needed more sleep!" he said into the mattress.

"Fuck you," he said in a last ditch attempt. He got pinpricks on his arm from Steve's claws for the effort.

"No," he said again, as firmly as he could manage. Maybe if he didn't give into the staring, Steve would go bother someone else.

Was it working? He could still feel the staring, but he could maybe hold out another five minutes before he could no longer handle those eyes. He was going to break, but damned if he wasn't going to-

Tony yelped at the sudden weight on his back. Steve had pounced on him. He pushed the pillow away to glare at Steve. "What's your problem?"

Steve meowed anxiously, his claws alternating between digging in and releasing the blanket as his tail flicked back and forth in an angry motion. This wasn't just Steve being annoying. Something was wrong. "JARVIS? Tell me what happened."

"It would appear that the super-serum has given Captain Rogers an excess amount of energy and he sleeps less than normal cats, Sir."

"That doesn't explain why he's waking me up now," Tony pointed out.

JARVIS was silent for a moment, probably compiling the data to speculate on. He needed an upgrade, if he was taking this long. "Cats prefer the heat to cold. And Captain Rogers himself tends to avoid cooler temperatures." Tony hadn't noticed the room was a little chilly, but Steve's cat bed was near a window. JARVIS continued. "It appears he was sleeping normally until he became agitated and woke, jumping on the bed. Captain Rogers is currently shivering, Sir."

Tony blinked. It really wasn't that cold. "You're saying a cat has PTSD and had a nightmare?"

"That seems like the most likely scenario," JARVIS replied.

Steve mewed again, a small, frightened sound, as he kneaded the blanket and pushed his head against Tony's chest. Tony automatically started to pet him. He could feel the minute trembling under Steve's fur.

Steve had been there for three of Tony's nightmares now (even if he technically caused the first), so Tony probably owed him. "Come here," Tony sighed, picking the cat up and cradling Steve against his chest.

"It's okay," Tony said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. It was still hard to think about a cat with PTSD, but he didn't think Steve would appreciate that in any form. And the cat was trembling and looking distressed, absently tugging at Tony's sympathies. "Hey, it's okay. We'll get you warm, brat-Cap."

He lay back, keeping Steve against his chest as he pulled up the blanket to cover both of them. Steve's ears were flat against his head, but he didn't bite or scratch when Tony started petting him in long strokes down his back. He was still kneading, but there was a throw pillow within reach and Steve didn't protest the quick operation to protect Tony's chest from acquiring any new holes. Steve was a heavy weight on his chest, but Tony figured he'd be alright so long as he didn't fall asleep again.

It was a full hour before Steve started to purr. It wasn't the usual freight train at full speed either, but a soft, tentative sound. Tony was getting a little hot under the cat and covers, but it could be worse. He glanced at the clock and noted the numbers with a sigh. His alarm would be going off in half an hour. He'd wanted to get an early start in the office today, mostly to avoid a painful encounter with Pepper, but also because he needed to go over quality checks with R&D.

Then he felt a cold nose press against his neck. "JARVIS, send Matheson a quick note. Tell her I might have to postpone the meeting. Give Pep a heads up too," he said softly, stroking Steve's cheek. "If she asks, say it's non-lethal and non-threatening Avengers business and tell her I'm really not lying."

"I'll let her know, Sir."

Tony scratched Steve under his chin, wishing it were this easy with his human form. Steve was acting like he needed Tony, which was a pretty steep step up from disapproval and yelling. And Steve hadn't gone to any of the other Avengers. For some reason, he was pretty damn insistent on Tony catering to his every whim. Maybe it was just revenge for Tony being such an ass all the time, but Steve never asked Tony for anything as a human. No favors, no new equipment, no help with tech or modern references that Tony occasionally threw out. Steve made it pretty clear how useless Tony was to him.

Too bad it was only temporary. With luck, Steve wouldn't remember a thing once Tony got his hands on AIM's blueprints. Then it would be back to normal, and they wouldn't have to deal with the awkward 'Your cat-self liked me, but hey, I know your human self doesn't so don't try on my account, Cap' talk.

Tony's arms tightened around Steve. He didn't want to go back to the way things were.

* * *

By Friday, Tony left the Tower in a huff. Steve was attention-demanding, which wouldn't be bad in and of itself, except the damned cat kept cutting him off. Again, probably not a bad thing over all, but Tony wanted more than one drink before Steve refused to let him have another one.

Contrary to popular belief, Tony was not actually an alcoholic. He was in control of how much he drank (yes, really. That wasn't just denial talking!) and he actually didn't get drunk near as much as he used to. But he'd watched Pepper nearly break down again today, and he wanted to get completely smashed. Besides which, the demented cat stole the last of the powdered donuts! There was betrayal and thievery that Tony could handle, but that went too far.

It was rush hour, and there was a decent bar right down the street, so Tony didn't bother calling his new driver. It wasn't the same without Happy anyway. He could walk for fifteen minutes though. No matter what Steve said, he wasn't that spoiled of a billionaire.

Usually, Tony wasn't bothered when he went out. Sure, a few people would ask for an autograph, act a little star-struck, and Tony would be on his way. Since Iron Man became a thing, he's occasionally even been stopped and thanked, which is something Tony was never quite sure how to deal with. A few times people yelled at him for making weapons, to which he usually just flipped them off and drank harder.

Mugging was new. Things like 'celebrity lawyers' and 'body guards,' not to mention a goddamned suit of armor usually made the smart ones think twice. Which is why when he suddenly found himself cornered by a group of street thugs, Tony knew he really had to be scraping the bottom of the barrel that had already been scraped at least twice before.

Tony sighed, pushing his sunglasses up to his hair as he tapped at his phone in a bored manner. Technically, there were too many of them for him to take on without the suit. Also technically, the suit would take about a minute to get here and all he had to do was press a button to call it. Then this would be laughable. Still, he was a good guy now. He was supposed to have patience and give idiots a second chance, as per one of his and Cap's pretty lengthy arguments.

"This is a really stupid thing to do," Tony said reasonably. "Back off now, and I won't press charges."

"Look who's not so super without his armor!" one of the thugs said, a brainless-looking guy with muscles that paled in comparison to Steve or Thor.

Fuck that. Tony called the suit. "Yeah, that's not going to work out for you."

One of the other thugs who made Steve look like a fashionista (seriously, baggy pants? How can they be 'gansta' and run from the cops in those? They'd trip over their own pants. Hell, he was doubting if he'd need the suit, when he could just let the pants do his work for him) decided that talk was overrated. He grunted manfully and threw a punch at Tony's face.

Tony dodged out of the way. Maybe he wasn't a super spy, super soldier, god, or Hulk, but he could handle an old-fashioned street brawl for a minute and fifteen seconds.

He didn't get the chance to, however, because a white and orange furball dropped onto the thug's head, clawing and hissing at his face. "Um," Tony said intelligently as the man started screaming. "Okay, so I didn't see that one coming."

When one of the other thugs (Carrot Top, Tony dubbed him, due to the red hair and ridiculous amounts of bling he wore) rushed forward to help, Steve (because of course it was Steve) launched onto his new target, hissing and biting.

Tony threw a punch of his own to one guy's stomach that was getting too close to Steve, then slipped into the armor that was twenty seconds early. Just in time for the next thug (Named Greasy, because ugh, when was the last time this guy showered?) to pull out a gun and shoot him.

The bullet ricocheted off the armor and hit the guy in the leg. Tony rolled his eyes. They never learned.

After that, the fight (okay, fight was a laughable term) - the situation - mostly resolved itself. Steve jumped down, hissing as he stepped in front of the armor with his back arched and tail poofed up.

Tony looked at the remaining thug, who stared at him with wide brown eyes. "Seriously, I wouldn't mess with that," Tony said, pointing down at the cat.

The man turned tail and ran.

Tony sighed, looking down at the ones who had been knocked unconscious. Great. So much for getting a drink. "JARVIS, call the police and alert them of our position," he said, this time looking down at Steve. There was blood splattered on his fur, but he was now rubbing up against the boots of his armor like he were scent marking them as his. Possessive little bastard, the armor was Tony's.

Tony leaned down, picking the cat up. "When we get back, you're getting a bath, Heathcliff," he said.

Steve's ears lay flat against his head, and Tony could hear the claws scratching against his armor. "Oh, so you know that word, do you? Sorry, Cap, you're not getting out of it." Tony wondered if it would be wise to keep the suit on for the bath. Steve did not look pleased.

He started to (carefully) scratch Steve's chin, flipping the face plate up. "Alright," he said, addressing the now sizable crowd that the sound of gun shots had attracted. "Who wants to grab me a caramel macchiato while we're waiting for the cops? And not Starbucks. There's a real coffee shop down the street which is way better."

Once the police arrived fifteen minutes later, Tony sent the armor back. Normally, he'd just fly home, but he didn't want to carry Steve and risk hurting him. Sadly, this left him open to the reporters that had also had time to converge upon his location.

"Mr. Stark, was this a planned attack?"

"Mr. Stark, who's the new pet?"

"Mr. Stark, is a cat that vicious safe on the streets of New York?"

"Mr. Stark, how are you dealing with working with an ex-girlfriend?"

Damn, he wished his caramel macchiato was spiked with something. At the very least, Baileys. Still, the sweet taste fortified him. "Wave to the cameras, Liberty," Tony said, raising one of Steve's paws. "Looks like the cat's out of the bag, folks. Meet Stark Tower's current mascot. No, he's not usually this cranky, but watch it, he eats reporters for lunch. Mishap with the Fantastic Four and a parallel dimension with kung-fu cats, and we're looking after him while they get the portal open to send him back. And no, he's not allowed out, but I must have left the cat flap unlocked. Silly me."

He got laughs in all the right places, but Tony still felt tense. This wasn't how he'd pictured his evening going, and joy! Now he gets to deal with reporters. Steve leaned up, pressing his head against Tony's chin in a show of affection. Then he snapped at a reporter who tried to get too close. Tony almost forgave him for the donuts.

"Is it true Ms. Potts said-"

"And there's my ride. That's all, folks," Tony said, ducking quickly into the limo that his new driver opened for him.

Cameras went off as the door closed, Steve only stopping his hissing when Tony scratched behind his ears. He slumped in the seat, finishing his coffee and wallowing in general misery. So much for going out tonight. His phone rang, compounding the headache that was building. It was probably Pepper, and now he was never going to get that drink.

But to his surprise, it wasn't Pepper. It was Rhodey. Tony smiled wearily, setting the phone to video call. "Jellybean, what have you got for me?"

"The Avengers have a killer cat? Since when do the Avengers have a killer cat and why didn't you get me one?"

In retrospect, he should have expected that to make front page news within five minutes of it happening. Tony angled the phone down to show Steve, who sniffed at it curiously. "Rhodey, meet Captain America. He's temporarily been turned into a feline of mass destruction."

"Wait, that's Cap?" Rhodey asked, surprise clear as he peered at Steve who was now trying to lick himself clean of the blood drying on his fur. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. AIM sucks," Tony said, rubbing his temples.

Rhodey immediately grew grim. "I heard they were back. You holding up?"

"Sure. It's all fun and games with Captain Sourpuss," Tony said. He got an unimpressed glare from Steve.

"And you and Pepper?" Rhodey asked.

Tony looked down, not wanting to see the sympathy in Rhodey's eyes. "We're good. Still friends and coworkers. You know, the usual."

"Tony-"

"We're not getting back together again this time," Tony said flatly. "Not that I deserved having her in the first place."

"That's not true," Rhodey said, his voice gentle, but firm. "You both deserved each other, and I don't mean that in a flippant way. I make friends with only the best, you hear? And you're two of the best. You both deserve to be happy."

Tony didn't respond until Steve's head pushed at his arm. "And if we weren't happy?" Tony asked, feeling raw.

"Then you do what you have to to be happy again, even if it's as friends," Rhodey said. And Tony wished he were here, because Rhodey gave the best hugs and he really kind of wanted one right now. Instead, Tony pulled Steve into his lap, cuddling the cat close. Steve started to purr softly. "You'll get there someday," Rhodey continued.

"Maybe," Tony said, nowhere near convinced.

"You're the genius, man," Rhodey said. "You know these things take time. You and Pepper, you'll work some way or another."

Rhodey had participated in all of Tony's major break-ups, and he said the same thing every time. That didn't make it any easier to hear. It also didn't make him worry less, because all of his previous relationships had ended so badly there was nothing to salvage. He'd been cheated on, stolen from, used for his money, and in one particular case a restraining order was involved. In short, no one Rhodey had let him see again after the break. He didn't know what would happen with Pepper. He was a little scared it would always be like this.

"Speaking of friends," Rhodey said. "I'll be swinging by in a few days. I'll be binging someone with me too, and we can have a massive ice cream and alcohol party to drown your troubles in."

"Someone else?" Tony asked. This was the first time Rhodey brought someone. Usually it was always him and Rhodey.

"Yup. Unlike me, you have pretty piss-poor judgement with friends most of the time," Rhodey said with a smirk. "Besides me, of course. But this one, he's not bad."

Rhodey turned the phone, and Tony felt his eyes widen. "Bruce!"

"Hey, Tony," Bruce said with a quiet smile. "And uh, Steve. How much does he understand?"

Tony looked down at the cat, who was back to ignoring the phone and bathing himself. Steve hadn't moved out of Tony's lap, but by this point, Tony was far too used to being Steve's throne of choice. "He's a highly intelligent cat, but not much of Steve up there," Tony said, lightly tapping at Steve's skull. It got him a nip of teeth, but not hard enough to break the skin so Tony didn't mind it so much. "I thought you were traveling around Africa in search of some rare plant."

"I can always come back and search for the cure later," Bruce replied. He looked way more relaxed than he did in the city, even if Rhodey throwing an arm around his shoulder made him tense briefly.

"Don't argue, Tony. It'll be good for you," Rhodey said with a smirk.

Tony tried anyway. "You don't have to-"

"I want to," Bruce interrupted. "Can't guarantee I won't fall asleep on you again if you start a long story though."

Tony smiled back, absently petting Steve. The cat stopped licking himself, arching into Tony's hand. "Okay," he said, as Steve started purring again, louder this time.

"I've known you for a long time, Tony, but I never took you for a cat person," Rhodey said, a thoughtful glint in his eye.

Tony's hand stilled. "I'm not," he muttered. It wasn't his fault Natasha forced this to be his problem. She was probably making up that bit about Steve appointing him as de facto leader just so she didn't have to deal with the cat herself.

Steve, as usual, was having none of it. He pushed at Tony's hand, clawing his lap when Tony didn't immediately start up again. Tony swore.

"I never thought Steve would be that shameless," Bruce said, sounding amused. "He seems to like you."

"Too bad it doesn't coincide with his human form's feelings," Tony said bitterly.

Bruce sighed, and Rhodey raised an eyebrow. "I thought you were trying to get along with Cap now," Rhodey said. Steve's ears flicked up in interest at that. Maybe he was just responding to the name.

"Trying and failing," Tony said, resuming his petting of the little bastard.

"For the record, Steve was trying too when I left," Bruce said with a kind expression. "But your tries never quite matched up."

"And then BOOM!" Tony said, waving his free hand around in a vaguely explode-y gesture.

"Maybe you need to try a different approach," Bruce suggested.

"I've tried," Tony said. "I've tried suggestions from you, from Pepper, from Rhodey, hell, even from Natasha and Thor." Clint had been a bastard about the whole thing, and Tony learned not to take his advice. "Maybe it's just not meant to work." It stung to admit that, because he really did want to be friends with Steve. It'd never worked with Dad either. Figures when he desperately tries to make things work, it always falls apart on him.

Steve stopped purring, mewing sadly as if he knew what they were saying. But if that were the case, he wouldn't be crawling up Tony's chest to nuzzle affectionately at his chin. He ran his fingers through Steve's fur, ignoring the sticky bits of drying blood.

"And since when does Tony Stark give up?" Rhodey asked. "Cause it seems to me that even if Cap is just a cat right now, he does like you."

"I know when I'm beat," Tony said, holding Steve a little closer despite his words.

"Just hang in there, man," Rhodey said. "You'll both get there eventually. And we'll be flying in in a few days, so be ready for the hangover of your life."

"One that will rival '93?" Tony asked with a hint of a smile.

Rhodey groaned, and Bruce raised an eyebrow. "Do I want to know?" Bruce asked.

"You'll find out," Rhodey promised, patting Bruce on the arm. Bruce didn't look entirely comfortable with Rhodey, but Tony couldn't help but be a little happy (and just a smidgen jealous) that his friends were getting on well.

"See you in a few days," Tony said, ending the call. He slid the phone into his pocket. Then he looked down at the cat cradled in his arms.

Steve licked his chin, rough tongue rubbing against his beard. "You say that now, but you won't like me when you see what's waiting for you back home," Tony warned, leaning back against the seat.

Maybe he should get a cat instead of trying to please Captain America. They were easier to please, and he would miss the cuddling.

* * *

Tony was never getting a cat. Ever. And if he ever considered it, he'd remember the new scratches running down his arm. He should have left the suit on.

"It's a bath," Tony said in exasperation as he glared under the dresser at a pair of glowing eyes. "You need one, because that tongue of yours doesn't clean blood. Come on, Cap. Work with me here."

He got a hiss for his troubles. "Yeah, yeah, I don't like baths either. They're not the cat's meow. Being repeatedly shoved into a barrel of dirty water while holding a car battery hasn't endeared me to them either. But I still take care of basic hygiene, and you don't hear me complaining."

Not that it hadn't taken him a while to get to the point where he could take a shower without a flashback, and he still wouldn't step foot in a proper bath, but he could deal with it. So could Steve.

Steve stopped hissing, but his ears were still flat against his head. He didn't look angry anymore. He looked like - "Your kitten eyes of cuteness will not work on me. Try again, young padiwan. Next time with less sulking."

Tony sighed, getting a catnip mouse that was lying on the floor and dangling it on the edge of the dresser. "Do not claw me again, you little furry bastard. Just come out here, Captain Claws."

Steve made a few half-hearted grabs for the mouse, finally coming out from under the dresser. Tony immediately grabbed him around his center, praying there would be no retaliation. Thankfully, Steve just mewed pathetically. "Sorry, Tom Cat, but you're getting a bath."

He pushed the bathroom door shut to keep his captive from escaping, and then walked over to the shower. He'd already laid out a plastic basin, since he hadn't actually put a bath on his floor and Steve was too big for the sink. Even that made him want to shiver, but he pushed thoughts of drowning aside.

Tony grabbed the detachable shower head and deposited Steve in the dry basin. The cat immediately sank as low as he could into it when Tony turned on the water and adjusted the heat. "Yeah, Scaredy Cap, I can still see you there. Your tail keeps flapping and giving you away. You suck at hide and seek."

Steve gave another pitiful mew and Tony sighed. "You're being a big kitten. Come on, Cap. You fought Nazi dogs and... wait, I thought it was Jewish mice and Nazi cats? Okay, so that metaphor doesn't work, but if you can survive that, you can take a little water. Sulking is not a good look on you."

Tony turned the shower pressure down once the temperature was right, petting Steve with his dry hand. "It's warm, alright? I won't let it get too cold. I promise."

He let the warm water start to soak through Steve's fur. "See, not so bad. You're not melting," Tony said continuing to pet Steve. The cat did not look happy, but at least he wasn't clawing.

Using the pet shampoo (thank God JARVIS had gotten it. Tony wouldn't have thought of it), Tony started to soap Steve up. Blood was a bitch to get out of fur, but he kept his hands gentle as he massaged the clots out. Steve was miserable, but he'd lost the 'I am the most wretched creature to walk the earth' sulk. Tony was quietly relieved, because he wasn't sure he could take much more of that.

After two rinse and repeats, the blood finally washed clean and Tony ran the shower head over Steve one last time. Finding two of the fluffiest towels he owned, Tony used the first to scoop a surprisingly unresisting Steve out of the basin to dry him off. Once Steve was only damp, not soaked, Tony wrapped him up in the second towel and carried him out to the common areas. Steve was shivering, but staying still.

"Now you're a Cap-burrito," Tony said as he sat on the couch with Steve still cradled in his arms. He lightly used the edge of the towel to keep wiping at Steve's face.

For his part, Steve was still shivering, but he closed his eyes. The shaking stopped after five minutes, and the soft purring started at ten. "Good boy. See, that wasn't so bad," Tony said as he stroked Steve's cheek. "All that fuss for nothing."

"All what fuss?" Clint said as he walked in, his quiver slung over his back.

Shifting Steve around, Tony held up his clawed arm. "Captain Sulks didn't want a bath."

Clint whistled softly, coming over to give Tony's arm a better look. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as the marks that were still healing on his other arm, but they still stung like a bitch. They were mean and red, but they weren't bloody. "Man, Cap's got claws," Clint said, his fingers ghosting over the scratches and making Tony wince. "Let me get something to-"

Tony waved it off. "It's not that bad, and you look like you're going somewhere. I'll get to it when Burrito-Cap is warm."

Clint hesitated, then nodded. "Make sure to clean the cuts," Clint said, looking down at the lumpy towel. "Cap is in there?"

Tony rolled his eyes at Clint's words, then lifted the towel. Steve was huddled underneath, his ears still against his head, and he was no longer purring. Steve's eyes remained closed, so Tony rubbed his head comfortingly.

"You sure you're not a crazy cat-person, Stark? Cause you're currently putting crazy cat-ladies to shame," Clint said.

Tony responded by give him the bird before wrapping Steve back up. "AIM hunting?" he asked.

Clint nodded, then sighed. "Not that we're having luck finding the blueprints. They might just have destroyed the only copy of it they had."

That was really not good. Tony swallowed. "What about Steve then?" he asked, and he could feel the cat perk up at his name. Blue eyes looked out at him from under the towel, but this time the staring didn't bother him.

Running a hand through his hair, Clint shook his head. "No idea. Thor said he might have some leads, but other than that, unless you and Bruce magic something up-"

"Excuse you. We do not 'magic'. We science. Science," Tony stressed.

Clint rolled his eyes. "Science then. Unless you guys can figure something out, Cap's stuck like this."

'Not good' was so inadequate to describe the situation that 'end of the world' seemed not long behind it. Steve had put Tony in charge. Which was fine for a crisis or two, but long term? Long term, he was Tony Stark. And that meant it was inevitable that he'd screw things up. Hell, the press alone would be the end of the Avengers if that came out. "We'll have to... Who would lead the Avengers then?"

Clint looked at him in surprise. "Cap put you in charge, didn't he?"

"Yeah, that was a bad idea from the start," Tony said. He got a small pinprick of Steve's claws at the statement, but it appeared extra fluffy towels were the undoing of the claws of mass destruction. Tony made a mental note to remember that. "Look, putting aside my inability to lead-"

"Tony, you were CEO for how long before you gave it to Pepper? If you can handle a board of directors, you can handle us," Clint interrupted. "Your plans are the only ones that can come close to Cap's too."

Tony glared, not appreciating the interruption. "That aside, the press would eat us alive. Plus, SHIELD only grudgingly put me on the team. I doubt they'd let that pass."

"They wouldn't have a choice," Clint said, his eyes going hard. "You mentioned the press - do you think having an alien as our leader would go over any better? Or a former Russian spy? I'm a scout, not a leader, plus also former spy. Unless you're saying the Hulk should lead us?" Sarcasm dripped from Clint's voice.

And okay, maybe that was a point. Steve really was the only person on the team that the public would accept, and it said something that Tony was the second best choice.

"I..." Tony said, looking away. He didn't want this. He never wanted this. He and Steve fought over many things, including following orders, but never about who gave them. Tony was reckless, sure, but ordering the team? It would be his fault if they got hurt. He honestly didn't know how Steve handled that pressure. "I had Obie, when I was CEO. Pepper will tell you how much I got done after."

"Don't give me that. You were passing more on to her to make sure she was ready for being CEO herself," Clint retorted. "And you have us. Look, this wouldn't have worked eight months ago, but now? You gonna be the guy to let us fall apart while Cap's gone?"

Steve was moving around in his towel burrito, crawling up Tony's chest. Suddenly Tony was looking into two blue eyes that didn't blink. Tony stared back, wondering what Steve was up to.

He can safely say he wasn't expecting Steve's cold nose to be pressed against his, accompanied by a loud purr.

"Did he just give you an Eskimo kiss?" Clint asked in disbelief.

Tony blinked. The cat stared back. Clint laughed hysterically. "Fuck off, Clint," Tony grumbled, though he only managed half of his usual annoyance, because yeah, that was actually pretty adorable. Tony was secure enough in his masculinity to admit cute things were occasionally a weakness of his.

"See?" Clint said as he wiped his eyes. "Even Kitty-Cap thinks you can do it. You don't want to disappoint him, right?"

"Why not?" Tony asked lightly. "Disappointment is what I'm best at."

All the amusement faded from Clint's eyes. "Not this time, Tony. We'll all keep that from happening. We won't let you fall."

"Yeah?" Tony asked, his voice asking for far more reassurance than he wanted to admit. Steve mewed softly, pushing up into Tony's hand to demand attention. His fur was still slightly damp, and Tony automatically brought the towel up again to keep Steve warm.

"Yeah," Clint said with a cocky grin. "Trust us if you can't trust yourself."

Tony let that sink in, feeling the vibrations of Steve's purring in his arms. Could he do this? He didn't know.

"Besides, it's not all bad news," Clint said. He reached down to pet Steve but got a light nip for his trouble. It warmed something in Tony that Steve didn't often let the others close, but Tony was always sought after. Most people wanted him for money or influence, not open affection.

Clint pulled back with a slight glare at Steve. "Anyway, we think this is the last of AIM, so Pepper should be safe. No signs of the psycho stalker either, so he's still dead as a doornail. And the AIM minion Natasha interrogated said there's a chance Steve might change back on his own when reality tries to reinforce itself. Apparently being a probability isn't stable."

"Do we have a time frame?" Tony asked, because that meant the machine that did this also wasn't as lost as they thought, and Tony had a gleeful geeky moment of imagining himself playing with an Infinite Probability Drive once it stopped being a redwood tree.

Clint winced. "It's random, according to intel. It could be five minutes from now, or it could be five years."

That was less awesome. Steve needed to stop being a cat a heck of a lot sooner. Still, it meant even if they couldn't find a way to get Steve back, there was hope that he wouldn't stay a cat forever.

"Well, I'm off to hunt the last of the evil nerds," Clint said, heading for the door. "See ya."

"Don't get killed. If I'm in charge now, I'm not doing the paperwork. It's a bitch," Tony said, because saying 'be careful' was too sappy.

Clint heard it anyway. "Yeah, yeah, I'll be careful." He left with a mock salute.

Steve was shivering again, but still purring. Tony re-wrapped his burrito, settling Steve against his chest. Steve wouldn't stay a cat forever, he reminded himself firmly. All this unrequited affection a cat could give would soon go back to disappointed frowns and angry glares. This wouldn't last.

Nothing good ever did for Tony, after all.

~TBC~

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