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Of Whiskey and Whiskers Part 3

Part One Part Two

~

Tony groaned. Putting Natasha in charge of training schedules while Steve was incapacitated - in-cap-a-cat-ated? - was a terrible idea. She was a bitch when you didn't get things right. After that, there had been a bank robbery involving a couple of metahumans the Avengers were called in to fight. It was easy enough for him and Widow to take care of on their own, but damn, it added bruises to his bruises. This was on top of the massive hangover that didn't quite rival '93, but came close. It didn't help matters that both Rhodey and Bruce were still sleeping it off while Tony had been out and about getting things done.

In the end, Tony had trudged up to his room rather than his workshop, deciding to just go to bed early. It was a rare occasion, one that Pepper always delighted in because it meant...

Right. No Pepper.

Tony hesitated in the doorway of his room. No Pepper curled into a pillow, looking up from her tablet with a soft smile, saying it was her turn to be tired and achey, and she'd make it worth his while if he gave her a foot rub. No sex to work his mind down from the overdrive to match how tired his body was.

The bed looked empty without her. Lifeless. Dull. Sure, he could find someone else to slip between the sheets with, but that left a bad taste in his mouth. He'd done it before, forcing himself back to one-night stands after break-ups to prove to the press nothing could keep Tony Stark down, not even the bile in his throat that rose from feeling like he was cheating, since he still loved someone else. Just because he hated it didn't mean it had to stop him.

But he didn't want to do that this time. It would hurt Pepper, for one thing, and he'd given her enough reason to cry. He also didn't want to go back to that, sleeping around because it was expected of him. He wanted...

He wanted Pepper.

There was a soft meow and Tony looked down at his feet. Steve was staring up at him, pale eyes reflecting in the moonlight. He started to entwine himself around Tony's legs, purring loudly.

Tony closed his eyes for a moment, then knelt down, picking the massive feline up and holding him close. He could feel the vibrations of Steve's purring through his reactor-less chest. "So, hey, no empty bed tonight. You'll... you'll stay, right?"

He set Steve down on the bed, but the cat made no move to go back to the cat bed that was on the ground. Steve stayed where he was as Tony changed and brushed his teeth, his purring a constant reminder that he was still there. When he'd finished, Steve was lying down with his paws tucked under him by Tony's pillow, his eyes closed in contentment.

Tony slid under the covers, reaching out for Steve when he turned on his side. Steve's ears flicked, then he wiggled out of Tony's grasp. "No, huh?" Tony asked, holding back his disappointment.

But Steve arched back against his hand, nuzzling Tony's chin with his head instead of clawing, which was an improvement. Then he circled around four times before curling against Tony's chest.

Tony snorted. "I see how it is. Have to do everything yourself. And they call me a control freak." He felt better with the cat snuggled up to his side, and the purring was just soft enough to reassure and lull Tony into a dreamless sleep.

His last thought was a silent prayer to an existence he didn't believe in that Steve wouldn't remember just how pathetic Tony was being when he turned back.

* * *

Two weeks later, Tony regretted pulling the furball into his bed. Steve didn't use the cat bed anymore and was smart enough to get away when Tony started twitching from a nightmare. Usually, Tony slept better with the cat curled against him, and he didn't like to think about what would happen when Steve turned back.

This morning though, Tony was on the end of that stare again. He groaned, pushing his face further into the pillow. "JARVIS, time?" he asked. It came out muffled by the pillow, but JARVIS was good at translating.

"4:53 am, Sir."

"You don't get Fancy Feast until seven. It's the law," Tony said, hoping it wasn't another kitty nightmare. He had to be in the office this morning.

"It's a good thing I don't want Fancy Feast then."

Tony jumped, nearly falling out of the bed. The only reason he didn't was due to a pair of strong arms - human arms - grabbing him before he hit the floor and helping him back up. "What the-" Tony started to say, finally catching sight of the form of the other human in bed with him. "JARVIS, lights!"

Yup. It was Steve Rogers, looking both very human and very, very naked, lounging across Tony's bed like a cat who owned everything it laid on. Well, not completely naked. He was still wearing the collar which had magically morphed to fit his human neck, and... Yeah, that's a blue screen of death. Hard reboot required, and there was no one to press Tony's power button.

"You..." he managed, touching his own neck when the words failed him. He swallowed, shifting slightly. He found himself very glad of the covers.

Steve looked baffled for a moment, his hand coming up to his neck questioningly. Then he scowled furiously when his fingers brushed up against the collar. "I'd forgotten about that. I got used to it," he said as he snapped the offending piece of leather easily, tossing it to the side with a glare reserved for evil dictators and puppy kickers.

Now Steve was completely naked.

Tony's eyes wandered briefly. Hello. Now that was a nice piece of American Tail, ladies and gentlemen. Tony quickly looked away, a growing sense of unease filling him. "You're-"

"Human again?" Steve supplied.

"Naked," Tony said, trying to put some distance between them. Jesus, when did Steve get so close? He hadn't been that close as a cat, had he? "You're in my bed and you're naked."

"I've been naked in your bed for the past two weeks," Steve said dryly.

"You were a cat! Cats have fur. Fur totally counts," Tony said, reaching the end of the bed. He was grateful that he'd stumbled into bed last night half asleep because that meant he still had pants on. Pants are good. Especially when naked teammates suddenly appear in his bed. "That's why those fur-less cats are creepy," he added, in case Steve didn't get his point.

"You're babbling," Steve replied.

"You're naked," Tony repeated, because it bore mentioning again.

"You said that already." Steve, for his part, looked far too amused. "Usually you're more coherent than this."

"Usually I don't have naked Avengers in my bed before 5 am," Tony said, his voice sharper than he'd intended. It wasn't exactly like Steve uninvited, but right now he wasn't quite welcome. Fine, if Steve was claiming the bed, Tony was going down to the workshop to find some dignity, since Steve obviously had none.

There was a hand around his wrist as he tried to sit up and leave, stopping him from going too far. "Let go," he snapped.

"You're not cheating," Steve said gently.

"Of course I'm not! I've got no one to cheat on!" He and Pepper had broken up. He knew that. He did. That didn't stop this from feeling wrong, or stop the bile rising in the back of his throat.

Steve sighed, pulling the blankets up to cover himself. "Better?" he asked.

"Modesty is sometimes a good thing," Tony grumbled, looking at one of the room's dark corners.

Steve snorted. "Modesty is a myth soldiers lose in basic," he replied. "And I was given to believe you weren't much of a stickler for it either."

"Not usually," Tony said, still not looking up.

"You're not cheating, Tony," Steve said soothingly. "Nothing happened here."

Tony swallowed hard, letting the words sink in. Nothing happened. It wasn't like it would be bad if it did either, since he and Pepper weren't together anymore. If he wanted to have Captain America wearing nothing but a collar in his bed, then that was perfectly okay.

Then again, maybe he should just move on from that mental image. "Since when do you call me Tony?" he asked instead of replying.

"It seemed a bit stupid to keep calling you 'Stark'. Sometime between that first nightmare of yours and mine, I guess."

"Wait," Tony said, replaying that sentence. Steve was implying he'd been thinking of him as Tony for a while now. "You were a cat. An intelligent cat, but not a Steve-cat. Natasha said-"

"Natasha might have stretched the truth a little," Steve said with a grin that spoke of innocence and the American way, not a dirty, lying little cheat. He tapped at the side of his head. "I was all there. I talked to Natasha and JARVIS with Morse code."

"JARVIS!" Tony felt a little betrayed, though that certainly explained how Steve kept getting out and into places he shouldn't be. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You never asked, Sir," JARVIS replied. "And Agent Romanov and Captain Rogers requested I not mention the matter unless you brought it up specifically."

"So what was the point?" Tony asked sharply. "To what? Humiliate me? See me at my worst while acting like a dumb animal?"

"Tony, no," Steve said, keeping a firm grasp around Tony's wrist as Tony tried to pull away again. "That wasn't it at all. Natasha said it'd be good for me to see you when I couldn't start yelling back and make the fighting worse. So I thought..."

"You thought this was a good idea?" Tony spat, pulling at his captive wrist and waving wildly with his free hand.

"I thought that maybe I could see past this front you throw up around you like a defensive wall," Steve finished. "When I saw what you thought of me..."

"Walls are there for a reason," Tony bit out. "Did you ever think of that? Are you happy now that you've seen past them? Do I match up with how disappointing your mental image of me must-"

"That's not what I think!" Steve yelled. "You can't just assume that-" He cut himself off, taking a deep breath. For the first time, Tony looked up in interest. This was new. Captain Stick-up-his-ass was trying to control his temper. "I hate it when you say things like that about yourself," Steve said finally. "Especially when you imply I think that as well."

"What?" Tony was beginning to feel like this was the sort of conversation that needed whiskey. Lots of whiskey. It was way too early in the morning for this.

"When you put yourself down and assume that I think the worst of you," Steve clarified.

"Don't you?" God, that question sounded far too honest. Whiskey was definitely needed, but Steve wouldn't let go of his wrist.

"No," Steve said. "Not for a while. I haven't been very good at saying that though, that's become painfully obvious. And you don't make things easy."

Tony looked down again at that. There was a reason him and Steve never really got along. They were both terrible at stepping back and listening. "You weren't exactly a peach either."

"I'm beginning to see that," Steve said. Tony looked back up in surprise to see a sad smile on Steve's face. "I'm sorry for lying to you like that. You're right. I shouldn't have taken that choice of what you would let me see away from you. But I'm not sorry I saw what I did."

"What did you see then?" Tony bit his tongue to cut off half a dozen sneering responses he could have made to that. Steve was apparently trying. Tony wasn't about to let a ninety-year-old show him up.

"I saw someone who needed a friend who wasn't so quick to judge them," Steve replied. "Because when I couldn't talk back to escalate things, I saw what was behind your words. And most of the time, it wasn't what I thought."

"I don't need anyone to-"

"Maybe not," Steve interrupted before Tony could get worked up on a proper rant. "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have more friends, even if you don't need them. I'd like to try harder to become that."

Tony shook his head. "Why? You saw me at my lowest. At what point did that make you want to be friends?" The last thing he needed was pity from Captain America.

"When I saw that you wanted to protect me from getting hurt in your workshop," Steve replied. "When you stayed home to calm down a cat with nightmares. And you put up with me being lonely and having no one to talk to. When you kept me warm after the bath."

Tony was quiet as Steve went on, shivering as Steve's fingers ghosted up his bare arm. The scars had healed over, but Steve seemed to see them anyway. "You never once tried to hurt me after scratching you, not even when you were drunk."

"You were a cat," Tony said weakly. "You didn't know... Wait a minute, you did know what you were doing! You scratched me!"

Tony pulled his arm away, and this time Steve let him. It was Steve's turn to look away, flushed with shame. "I never meant to..." Steve said, running a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. That shouldn't have happened. Cats have a lot of instinct, and it took me a while not to react at everything. That doesn't excuse that I hurt you though. Some of those marks were really deep."

The guilt in Steve's eyes dried up any of Tony's residual anger. He thought back to how guilty Steve had looked when he'd tried to put the collar on, head and ears pointed low. "Instinct, huh?"

"That's no excuse, not when I-"

Tony waved the apology off, feeling tired. "Alright, Jesus. It really was just a scratch. You can't help it if it takes a while to adjust to a new body. You had to have gone through that after the serum, right?"

"Yeah," Steve admitted, looking down at his hands. "Broke a lot of things at first, when I didn't know how much pressure to use."

"See? Learning curve." And Cap-induced scratches did taper off as time went by, now that he thought of it. "No worries."

Steve looked up, his expression gentle and a little lost. "How does no one know how very kind you are?"

"Really, it's no biggie," Tony said, hoping to end this conversation and get Steve some clothes.

"It is, actually," Steve said. "Because regardless of the nightmares and heartbreak it gives you, you still put on the armor. And being faced with that bravery and kindness is humbling."

Captain America was humbled because of Tony Stark? There was a time when that would have been a victory. Now all it did was leave him with no anchor and no bearings. "Cap, that's-"

"Steve."

"What?"

"Call me Steve," he said quietly. Then added, "Please?"

"Steve..." The name felt right on his tongue, even if he didn't use it very often out loud. "You're the one who lives up to the legend. All I'm trying to do is make up for past mistakes." And to keep his promise to Yinsen. Tony was not talking about that however, not without at least half a bottle of the strongest alcohol he owned.

"And you didn't have to do any of that by risking your own life," Steve said. "You could have given the suit to the army, or to Colonel Rhodes. You could have stayed a civilian. But you fight with us. You didn't have to, but you do."

"I do have to though," Tony protested. "I-"

"I know," Steve said with a smile. "I know what it's like when people tell you to sit a fight out when you could do other things to help. There are other choices there, but there's really only one for you."

Tony tried to think of other things he could have done after Afghanistan. He could have done what he told the press about corporate responsibility. He could have taken more interest in the company, rooted out Obadiah. Maybe that way Obie would have been in prison instead of dead. He could still have had Pepper that way. They could have worked together, rather than separately.

Except that didn't feel like enough. It was nowhere near enough to atone for what he'd done. What Steve was talking about was different. He made that choice because he was naturally that good. Tony had too much innocent blood on his hands to ever claim that.

Steve's fingers started to trace Tony's arm again in the silence, and Tony couldn't help the shiver that ran through him, sending goosebumps up his spine. Something was happening here, and Tony was not ready to face the implications of it. He stood up, reaching for the tablet he'd put on the bedside table before he'd gone to sleep last night. "Great. Well, good pep talk, top cat, but I have things to do and you have clothes to wear and-"

"You still love her," Steve said with a sad smile. "I know that. And there's still a lot we have to work out first."

Tony held still as Steve's fingers trailed up to his neck, along his beard and brushed against his cheek. Now that he thought about it, Steve - the cat Steve - had done a lot of licking and Eskimo kisses. If Steve had been aware, then he knew a lot more about what he was doing.

"Just think about it," Steve said, brushing back some of Tony's sleep tousled bangs with a fondness Tony wasn't used to seeing directed at him. "And talk to Ms. Potts. I think you need that."

"I can't..." Tony started, thinking of how he kept making her cry. How much seeing her still hurt.

"It's okay to miss her," Steve said. "She's your friend, after all. I bet she wants an excuse to talk to you too."

"You can barely talk to women who ask you the time on the street," Tony said, pulling away. He missed the warmth of Steve's hand against his cheek, but right now it still felt too close to betrayal. "Now you're the break-up guru?"

Steve laughed, leaning back against Tony's pillow. His bed was going to be empty again soon, Tony realized with a pang. He missed having a cat around more sharply than he would have guessed. "I'm no good with dames," Steve agreed. "Never have been. But Bucky sure was, and he went through a few break-ups. I was usually the one putting him back together."

That made sense, Tony supposed. He didn't know what to do with the look of sorrow on Steve's face though. Steve didn't really talk about the past, and the smile he had didn't reach his eyes. Tony didn't know what to do with it, but he knew he didn't like seeing it. "Steve..." he said, unable to think of what else to say.

"Talk to her," Steve said with that same smile.

Tony averted his eyes when Steve stood up. Part of him wanted to look and appreciate, but he still felt too guilty about it. Which was really fucked up, because he'd been allowed to look while he'd been with Pepper. He just hadn't wanted to have more than a passing glance, because Pepper had been all he needed. "Yeah," he agreed, to cover the inexplicable guilt he was feeling.

Steve paused for a moment in the doorway, sighing when Tony didn't look up. "See you later, Tony."

"Later," he said, listening for the door to close. When it did, he flopped down on the bed, tossing the tablet aside. The bed still smelled like Steve, and it was warm where he'd been lying. Tony didn't allow himself to curl into the warmth though, no matter how much he wanted to.

He spent the day in the office. Pepper was on the west coast, so he didn't have to worry about avoiding her. He attended two meetings, got some paperwork done, and bitched out R&D for the sub-par engine they were trying - and failing - to make faster.

He managed all of that before lunch. JARVIS was right. He'd gotten so far ahead that even with caring for a cat for the past couple weeks, Tony didn't have much to do. Most of that was on Pepper's shoulders now, and the budget couldn't keep up with Tony's inventing at this rate.

After lunch, he went to a no-kill animal shelter. He walked up to the bored-looking receptionist and smiled charmingly. The double-take he got when the guy realized who Tony was was comical. "You're Tony Stark! Wow, you're really-"

"Yup, that's me," Tony said, noting with some relief that the hero worship that filled the young man's eyes did not extend to tattoos of his face or copying his signature look this time. "What have you got for me?"

"Uh, are you looking to adopt a dog or-"

"At the moment, I'm volunteering."

"You're just going to walk in and volunteer?" Wow, this was a bright one. The confusion was plain as day on his face and Tony checked to make sure he'd been speaking simple English and not Italian.

"Got it in one, kid," Tony said, rocking back on his heels. "Do with me what you will. Preferably with cats. Dogs are negotiable."

Despite saying that, Tony ended up walking a dog anyway after signing a “I will not sue the pet shelter if I am scratched/bitten by any of the animals here” form. It was not a pleasurable experience. The excitable collie kept tugging Tony along on the leash to sniff at bushes, then stopped completely when Tony tried to pull him back to the shelter. And the dog kept trying to lick him, which was all kinds of gross and disgusting, getting slobber everywhere.

Tony decided then and there that he was never getting a dog. Why he had ever wanted one as a kid was a mystery.

There was an older lady named Laura at the counter when he got back. Tony didn't complain about the dog, but she must have seen something in his face, because she took Lassie and showed him to the cats.

Here, Tony discovered all the joys of cleaning up after cats that he'd avoided with Steve. He made a mental note to send the shelter one of his robots, but again, he didn't complain. The lady in charge was patient, and she walked him through many of the steps to care for a cat. "You know," she said after an hour. "You could have just asked about what it's like adopting."

The fact that it was what most people would have done was left unsaid. Tony shrugged. "I'm a hands-on kind of guy."

Finally, they let Tony in with a couple of the cats and a few mouse toys. After dangling a mouse on a string in front of four cats for twenty minutes, he had pretty much fallen in love.

There was a small tabby with sweet eyes and an elegant tail that was queenly enough to be named Elizabeth; a Persian with long, dark brown fur and a nicked ear with one-eye that had to be the friendliest cat Tony had ever seen; a shy, white kitten that hadn't quite mastered the art of balance yet; and a Scottish fold that Tony nearly melted over. None of them were as intelligent as Steve was (bastard. Highly intelligent cat, his ass), but they managed to capture his heart regardless.

He petted and flattered them all, using the brush he'd been supplied with to pamper them further. He did get the evil eye from Laura for pulling out the laser pointer he'd brought with him, but she wasn't about to kick Tony Stark out. Not when he was currently sitting cross-legged on the floor playing with cats and feeling blissfully content with his lot in life for a few precious seconds.

It took him a while to notice a fifth pair of feline eyes staring at him from under the couch. He peered under it, making out a medium-sized black cat. "Hey, sweetheart. Want to come out from under there?" he called gently. When he tried to reach out, the cat hissed and swiped at him with its claws.

"Shadow comes from a rough home. She doesn't often come out for strangers," Laura said, handing him a catnip mouse.

Tony tried to lure her out, but she just flattened herself against the ground. "Rough?" he asked, his mind already supplying a few answers he didn't like.

"Lots of people are still superstitious about black cats. They can be hard to find families for sometimes. We try to take them when we can, since black cats get put down the most at other shelters."

He heard what she didn't say, fighting to keep a calm expression on his face as he coaxed the cat out. It made him a little sick and a lot angry, but he knew enough about abuse, even before he'd befriended Bruce. He couldn't get Shadow to come out, but he resolved to come back until he convinced the abused animal he wasn't a threat. Tony knew a bit of what it was like being unwanted, after all.

In the end, he wanted to take them all home with him. He knew how well that would go over, however. He should call Pepper and see how many...

Well, calling Pepper would be out of the question, wouldn't it?

"Can I come back?" he asked, not certain how that level of vulnerability had slipped into his voice. He cleared his throat, and scratched under Elizabeth's chin nonchalantly.

Laura, the old biddy, was not fooled, but she didn't mention anything about it. Tony took that as a good sign of someone not mentioning this to the press. "Leave the laser pen at home next time Those things are dangerous when the kids play with them," she said. It wasn't a no, even if she was technophobic.

Tony had no intention of leaving that baby behind, but he figured she would look the other way when the cats were all wound up when they saw the check he'd dropped in the donation box.

Tony went home after that. Usually after spending time with Steve as a cat, he didn't miss Pepper as much. Now though, he just wanted to see her. Talk to her about how many he was allowed to bring home, hear the exasperation in her voice. He looked at the clock, biting his lip. It would be four in California right now.

He ordered pizza, hearing Steve's voice in his ear as he went down to the workshop. 'Talk to her.'

He dialed Pepper's number without ever putting down the phone. Not a video call, because he wasn't ready for that yet, but he needed...

"Hello?"

He needed to hear her voice.

"Tony? Is something wrong?"

Tony let out the breath he'd been holding, closing his eyes. "Hiya, Pep," he said, his voice only quivering a little.

"What happened?" she demanded, fear slipping past the sharp tone.

"Nothing's wrong, honest," Tony hastened to reassure her. He gripped his free hand in a fist, wondering why it felt so empty. It took him a moment to realize he wasn't petting Steve while he was on the phone. When did he get so used to that?

"Then why are you...?"

"I missed you," he said softly, because that was less pathetic than saying he needed to hear her voice.

This time it was Pepper who sounded broken. "Tony, please don't. I can't-"

"No, not like..." Tony ran his fingers though his hair to give his hand something to do that wasn't tapping on his now whole chest or twitching to pet a cat. "We're still broken-up, I know. But we're friends, right? You're allowed to miss friends." He was half-pleading by the end, because he wasn't sure he could handle her hanging up and finding out Steve was wrong.

She didn't hang up. He heard her take a deep breath. "Yes. Yeah, you can miss friends. We're... we are friends."

The relief that swept through Tony was so great that his knees felt like they were going to give out. He sat down in his rolling chair, letting it hit the desk with a small thump. "Good. That's good," he said, trying to think of what to say to keep her on the line. "Um..."

"Usually this is where you ask how my day was," Pepper said. It was faint, but he could hear the amusement in her tone.

"Oh," Tony said intelligently. He'd never been particularly good at small talk when he wasn't on camera or at a party. He'd tried never to slip into that role once the two of them got serious. "Yeah. How was your day?"

"It was good," Pepper said. "I've allocated more funds for your projects. Just let me know if you come up with anything ground breaking."

"Does a robotic cat-poop scooper count as ground-breaking?" he asked absently.

That startled a laugh out of her - weak and hesitant, but a laugh, and Tony drank it up. "I don't think so, Tony," she said, sounding more like her old self than Tony had heard in weeks. "Is that what you've been up to, cat toys?"

"That was weeks ago. I volunteered at an animal shelter today," he replied.

"You what?"

"R&D is still struggling to keep up with me, so I just... went," Tony explained, feeling a little defensive that Pepper clearly seemed so baffled. He was allowed to do good things. It wasn't even his first time doing volunteer work without the press.

"So you went to an animal shelter," she said, as if that were hard to take in.

"What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing's wrong with it," Pepper said soothingly. "I just thought that with Captain Rogers being a cat that you'd-"

"He turned back," Tony interrupted flatly. He'd turned back, and now he would... maybe not go back to hating Tony, since there was apparently something new between them, but back to not needing Tony around. Tony had liked being needed.

"Oh." A quiet settled over them as Pepper put things into place. "Tony, no."

"It's only five of them, Pep-"

"Five! Tony-"

"We'd still outnumber them! More Avengers than cats. It'll work."

"Tony," she said firmly. He really kind of missed how she would boss him about. "You're not adopting five cats. And you should talk about even getting one with the other Avengers if you're going to give it free-reign of the Tower, and don't tell me you'll keep it confined to the penthouse, Tony. I know you."

Tony deflated a little. Irrationally, he'd been hoping she'd say yes. "You can always work out a time to go back and see them," Pepper said. He had the feeling she was already working something into his schedule at least once a week, even though that wasn't her job anymore.

"Yeah," he said, grasping at the empty silence. He didn't know what to say next. What he grabbed onto was the wrong thing, he knew that, but it slipped out anyway. "I love you."

All at once, the conversation disappeared as the tension returned. "Tony..."

He hated himself in that moment. Pepper had been sounding happy, and now she was back to broken, and he hated that it was him that did that. Tony always screwed things up, and now was no exception. "I'm sorry. I didn't.... I'm not trying to..."

"I know," Pepper said. He could hear her take a breath to steady her voice. It still came out soft and torn. "I love you too. I've missed you."

Tony closed his eyes against the stinging pain, and he could hear Pepper's breath hitching on a sob. It wasn't fair. Because love wasn't enough this time, no matter how much they wanted it to be. "Pepper..."

"We'll be okay," Pepper said. She was crying. He could hear it in her voice, but he didn't mention it. "Just... we need time."

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I shouldn't have called."

"No, I'm glad you did. I really... I am glad you called, Tony. It was a good thing," Pepper replied. It soothed some of the guilt, if not the sorrow. "I have to go now though."

He nodded, despite knowing she couldn't see him. "Yeah, I... Good-bye, Pep."

"Good-bye, Tony."

It felt final. Not 'see you later', but 'good-bye'. He knew that wasn't the last time he'd talk to her, but there was no returning back to the way things were. He stared down at his phone and the picture of Pepper as she hung up, blinking rapidly as she started to blur. This was it. They were really over.

He felt a soft tug on his shirt, and he looked over to see Dummy's claw. "Hey," he said, wiping his eyes. He leaned against Dummy's frame as he took a shuddering breath. "Looks like it's just us again."

Dummy made a few clicking noises and rolled closer. "We'll be okay," Tony said, repeating Pepper's words even if they didn't feel true. "We'll... we'll be okay."

* * *

An hour later, Tony wandered into the living room to find it empty. So was the kitchen and any of the usual patches of sunlight. It wasn't until Tony went to check the windows that he realized he was looking for a cat that wasn't there.

He stood in the middle of the room, at a loss for what to do. He couldn't go find Steve, could he? The cat thing aside, he and Steve still barely talked to each other. Not to mention what Steve had been alluding to earlier. He didn't know what else to do, however. Where did this put them?

"Hey, Tony. I was looking for..."

Speak of the devil. Steve came in with a book under his arm. He paused when he saw Tony's face, concern flickering over his eyes. "I came to find you," he said quietly. "Natasha and Clint found the last of AIM. They shouldn't be a problem anymore."

"Great," Tony said, feeling empty despite the victory.

"Are you alright?"

"Fine."

He wasn't believed. Steve's mouth set in a firm line. He put the book on the table, then walked over, pulling Tony into a one-armed hug. Tony froze, not sure where this sudden affection was coming from. Steve had never done this before. "Why don't we get something to eat?" he suggested.

"I ordered pizza," Tony said. He realized belatedly it was probably cold by now, waiting for him up in the pent house. "I'm fine."

"Pizza works too," Steve said, ignoring Tony's repeated words.

He shrugged Steve's arm off. "I'm fine. I don't need..."

"Are you?" Steve asked gently. "Because you look like you could use a friend, even if you don't 'need' one."

"Is that what you are?" Tony asked, not sure how he wanted this encounter to go. "'Cause I'm getting some mixed signals about what you want." Having Steve acting so friendly was just a little weird too.

Steve smiled ruefully. "I think friends is a good place to start," he said. "I'm not asking for anything more right now."

"And later?" Tony asked.

"We'll see where it takes us," Steve replied holding out his hand. "But right now I'd like to try to be your friend, if you don't mind."

Tony stared at the out-stretched hand, uncertain of what he wanted. Things were easier when Steve was a cat.

Steve sighed, then put his hand down. He smiled again, but now it was painful to look at. "I'll give Colonel Rhodes a call for you. I'm sure you can drag Bruce up for that pizza as well, so-"

"Wait."

Steve paused, waiting expectantly. Tony swallowed. He missed the cat, but the cat was Steve. Would hanging out with him now be any different? Steve was acting just as friendly as the cat had started to after he'd gotten used to Tony. Maybe this wasn't as unexpected as Tony had thought. It was just strange now that Steve was human and not a cat.

The answer was yes, it would be different. Now they'd both have to make concessions, though really, Tony had made a start on that already to avoid getting clawed. But there would be less cuddles and Tony didn't have a sure-fire way to calm Steve down now that scratching under his chin was out.

Tony didn't know how to fix the current rift though. He met Steve's eyes briefly, before Tony looked down to his hand that was now at his side. Steve must have found his answer in those few seconds, even if Tony couldn't vocalize it, because Steve's arm returned around his shoulders as he guided them to the elevator. This time, Tony didn't shake him off. It was warm and comforting, not unlike the comfort of having a cat in his lap.

"Do you want me to call the others?" Steve asked.

"No, I'm fine," Tony said, hoping Steve would hear that he wanted to give this a try, whatever 'this' ended up being.

Steve seemed to, if the smile Tony received was anything to go by. "Sure you are," Steve said indulgently as they got into the elevator. "Why don't we eat pizza, have a few drinks, and-"

"If you cut me off after one glass again, Cap, I'll claw you this time," Tony interrupted.

Steve looked surprised, then it quickly morphed into embarrassment. "It was really only one? Sorry. You scared me that first time, and the others..." Steve was blushing slightly, which was far more entertaining than Tony would have guessed. "Cats are easily distracted. You'd start petting me, and I'd lose track of how much time had passed. I never knew if it was your first or your fifth."

"For the record, it was the first every time," Tony said, attempting to glare. It was hard though, when his mind kept returning to 'You scared me that first time...'

Steve laughed softly. "Yeah, I figured that out after listening to you rant at JARVIS, but I couldn't keep track very well. I promise, you can drink as much as you want tonight. Well, as much as you want without getting close to killing yourself."

Tony nodded, and he felt Steve squeeze his shoulder as the elevator dinged and the door opened. "So pizza, drinks, and a movie?" Steve asked.

"The pizza might need to be warmed up," Tony admitted, stepping away from Steve and heading to the kitchen. Sure enough, the pizza was waiting on the counter. "What movie?"

"I was thinking Casablanca," Steve said.

Tony snorted. "Really? You're going to be that old school?" Usually Steve picked movies from his time that no one had heard of on movie nights, in revenge for never knowing the movies everyone else watched. Everyone knew Casablanca though. It was the stereotypical grandpa pick.

"I like Casablanca, and I haven't seen it in a while," Steve said, opening the pizza box and dividing a few slices between two plates. "It's a good movie. You okay with it?"

If it were Pepper, she would have wanted something funny, like a romantic comedy. Steve wasn't Pepper. This was different. Part of him wanted Pepper curled against his side. Tony missed that.

But this was Steve. And being with Steve as a cat didn't erase that, but it made the loss a little less. "Only if we watch Young Frankenstein after," he said finally.

Steve put the pizza in the microwave with a thoughtful expression. "I've heard you guys talk about that one before. That's one of those Mel Brooks movies, isn't it? Like Robin Hood: Men in Tights?"

"Yup, same guy."

"I liked that one," Steve said. "It had references I understood."

"This one will probably be more of the same for you," Tony said, remembering how Steve had laughed hysterically when Cary Elwes slammed the deer on the table. None of them had understood why until Steve made them watch the Errol Flynn Robin Hood a few days later.

"Sure. We can watch it too," Steve said with a small smile.

"So we're... we're doing this?" Tony asked. He meant more than just the movies. He decided he wanted to try this, even if he was a little scared of it as well.

"I think so," Steve said. "It's the start of a beautiful friendship."

Tony groaned. "Is that why you wanted to watch Casablanca?"

Steve's smile turned a bit shy. "Maybe."

"Fine, fine. We'll watch the ridiculously sentimental movie," Tony said, grabbing his plate of pizza from Steve. They settled down on the couch, and Tony leaned in against Steve's shoulders. Maybe it wasn't quite the same as hugging a cat, but he found he could work with it.

Maybe, for both him and Steve and him and Pepper, this was the start of something new. The start of friendships might not be so bad after all.

~FINI~

Memory:  And there you have Kitty-Cap.  I even managed to post it before they kicked me out of the country to do a visa run.  There were a few other minor Protests worked in, but the two big ones were what mattered.  Hopefully you enjoyed it.

Have to quotes of the fic, one of which I'm sure I've used multiple times.  But really, Mark Twain is just that awesome.

"If a dog jumps in your lap, it is because he is fond of you; but if a cat does the same thing, it is because your lap is warmer."
-Alfred North Whitehead

"Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat."
-Mark Twain