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Tony had been elbows deep in his latest project, couldn’t have told you if he’d been in the lab for hours or days, when something pulled him out of the engineering funk he’d fallen into. He blinked as he resurfaced into reality, staring around the room as he tried to figure out what it was that had distracted him.

He was just about to delve back into his work when he heard a soft, muffled, squeaking noise. Tony frowned, setting down his screwdriver and turning tentatively in a circle as he tried to source the sound.

“JARVIS?” he asked. “Do I need to run diagnostics on you or your siblings?”

“We’re all running at full capacity, Sir,” JARVIS assured him, before he was interrupted by another one of the soft noises.

“Okay, seriously,” Tony said. “What the fuck is that? I’m not imagining things, right? Haven’t finally ingested one too many questionable substances?” The sound came again, in rapid succession, and Tony spun to face it.

“Sir, the sound appears to be coming from the southwest corner,” JARVIS pointed out redundantly, and Tony rolled his eyes. “Yes, thank you, J,” he grumbled, hopping over some machinery and moving closer to the noise. “That’s very helpful.”

“I do my best, Sir.”

There were some empty cardboard boxes in that corner, left over from a delivery of supplies that Tony had unpacked and immediately gotten distracted with, shoving the empty boxes in the corner for Later Tony to deal with. But as he moved closer, he could hear a faint rustling, the sound of something moving around inside them.

“What the fuck?” he breathed.

“If I may, sir, perhaps we have rats,” JARVIS piped up helpfully.

“Rats??” Tony blanched, and DUM-E came whirring over until Tony waved him off. “Are you telling me that, on the hundred-somethingth floor of this very expensive, very pristine building, we have city rats?”

“It was just a thought, Sir.”

Tony made a face. He really fucking hated rats, and that was the last thing he ever wanted to deal with. For a minute he considered calling Steve in to help him, but he knew if he did his friend would never stop laughing at him. Besides, Tony was a grown ass man and a superhero to boot. He could totally handle this, even if it was rats.

Desperately hoping it was not, in fact, rats, Tony moved closer to the box that the rustling sound was coming from. Drawing in a deep breath and ready to jump back at a moment’s notice, he lifted the flap back and peered inside.

“Mrrp?”

Tony yelped (not screamed, he was an adult who did not scream) and jumped about five feet back before it occurred to him that rats didn’t usually make those kinds of sounds, and also, probably weren’t actually that big, even if they sometimes seemed that way to him.

Feeling a little more confident, he moved back over to the box, and lifted the lid again to find a pair of blue eyes looking up at him curiously. “Mrrp?” the cat said again, making a rumbly sort of purr sound at the sight of Tony.

“Um. Hi,” Tony said, blinking a little because... What? “What are you doing here?”

The cat made another one of its odd, squeaky meows in response to Tony’s question, tilting her head in a mirror of Tony’s own expression. Despite himself, Tony found himself grinning. He reached in, offering his fingers for the cat the sniff -

And then he actually screamed this time, as the cat started batting at the biggest spider he’d ever seen in his life.

When the spider had been taken care of, Tony moved to collect the cat again. He’d never owned a cat in his life, had never really been a cat person even growing up, but she seemed to like him, hopping easily out of the box with another squeaky little meow and winding herself around his leg.

Tony lured her over to his work space, picking her up to set her on the desk. The cat meowed happily, butting her head against his hand.

“How’d you get here, huh?” Tony asked, scratching at her neck and grinning when she all but collapsed against the table in happiness, rolling around onto her back for belly rubs. “Did you sneak in with the deliveries? You must be hungry, right?” He scooped her up in his arms, and the cat started purring. “Come on,” Tony told her, pausing so DUM-E and U could examine her. The cat batted at their arms. “Let’s see if we can find you some food.”

He headed for the elevator, overriding it to take him directly to the penthouse. Tony set her down on the floor while he moved to check if he had anything cat appropriate in his cupboard, and when he turned around with a triumphant ‘a-ha!’ at tracking down a tin of not expired salmon, she was sitting on the very expensive countertop, watching him with a tilted head and sleepy eyes.

“Hey, no,” Tony protested, although it was weak at best. “You’re not supposed to be up there. That’s where I... Okay, to be fair, I have literally never prepared food there. And have done far worse things on that countertop, actually, so, you know. You’re probably fine. Just don’t tell Pepper. And stop looking at me like that! You’re entirely too cute for your own good.”

The cat didn’t seem bothered by his declaration, watching with interest as he fished around for a can opener, and then hopping across to the other counter the second he broke the seal on the tin, batting at his hand - claws in, thankfully - as he tried to get it open.

“Okay, okay,” Tony said, laughing as he upended the entire tin on a plate so she wouldn’t cut herself on the sharp metal. The cat dug into the food with a single-mindedness that suggested she’d been scavenging for days, and Tony felt something tighten in his chest at the thought. “Aww,” he cooed, giving her a neck scratch. She didn’t stop eating but wriggled happily at his touch, the sound of her purrs filling the room as she lapped at the fish. “You were hungry, huh?”

While he waited for the cat to finish eating, he wandered over to the couch facing the windows, flopping on the cushions with a sigh. A couple minutes later, there was another “mrrp!” and then his new friend was hopping up on the couch beside him and immediately clambering onto his lap, purring loudly as she turned in circles and kneaded at his thighs.

“Hey there,” Tony laughed, going a little gooey as she curled herself up into an impossibly small ball, purring loudly as she drifted off. He scratched at her neck, and she rolled her head so he could get the good spot under her chin. “Aww yeah,” Tony said, glad that nobody was there to hear the absolutely goofy voice he’d settled into. “That feels good, huh? You like that?”

Tony wasn’t normally what you’d call an animal person. It wasn’t that he didn’t want pets -- quite the opposite, really. As a child, he’d wanted a dog desperately, something that had influenced DUM-E’s personality in a not-insignificant way. It was just that at some point while growing up, he’d come to accept that he had the kind of distracted irresponsibility that made pet ownership probably a bad idea for him. But something about this little squirt had his heart melting in an instant.

He felt all along her neck, but there was no evidence of a collar and he frowned. “Are you a homeless kitty?” he asked softly. “Have you been living on the streets?” He glanced at the window, where the wind was pounding rain against the glass, and shivered a little at the thought of having to be outside in that. “It’s okay,” he hummed, although the cat didn’t seemed phased in the slightest, now completely asleep and making soft little huffs that were almost snores. “I’m not sending you back out there to fend for yourself. We’ll find someone to take care of you. Yeah... You’re so pretty.”

Tony had a million and one things he could be doing, but the cat seemed so happy in his lap that he couldn’t bring himself to move her. He kept stroking at her neck, grinning down at her when she started purring in her sleep.

“JARVIS?” he said, softer than he might have normally, so he didn’t startle her. “Make me a list of local shelters. Ones that, you know… The non-kill ones.” He hummed regretfully down at the cat. “Contact them and see if they have any openings?” Regret twisted low and sour in his gut but he ignored it as he kept patting her. “Yeah, you’re so beautiful,” he hummed. “You’d be adopted in no time.”

The cat stayed where she was for the next couple hours while JARVIS connected calls to every rescue shelter in every borough in New York. And every place had the same thing to say: Sorry, we’re full right now, try again in a day or two. They were all very nice, and many of them offered suggestions for other resources he could use, but they were all very adamant that they were full to the brim, and couldn’t take anyone else in.

“Whelp.” Tony considered the cat in his lap, scratching her neck and melting a little at the soft noise she made in response. It was odd; rarely could he sit still this long without needing five other things to occupy his attention, but stroking the cat’s plush fur was oddly soothing, leaving him feeling calmer than he had all day, despite the frustration of hitting dead end after dead end in everything he was working on. “JARVIS, make some donations to all the places we called. The usual amounts.” He considered the cat, smiling a little when she rolled a little to tuck her head upside down. “Guess you’re staying here until we can find you a place to stay, huh? Don’t get too comfy though, it’s just going to be for a bit. Oh, but shit, we’re going to need supplies, aren’t we? JARVIS, order some... cat things while you’re at it. Dishes, food... I guess a litter box? Maybe some toys too, so she doesn’t get bored.”

“Of course sir,” JARVIS said dryly. “And what would you like her collar to say?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re not keeping her. Although…” Tony trailed off, peering at her speculatively. “I suppose I can't really keep calling you ‘the cat.’ Better me name you, then some old lady at the shelter deciding to call you Fluffy or Tigger or something, huh?” He considered the cat. “What do you think? What’s your name? Einstein? You've got the white hair."

She shifted, blinkering up at him from one blue-grey eye, and Tony grinned back at her. “No, you’re right,” he agreed. “That’s not feminine enough. You’re a badass lady. You deserve to be named after an equally badass lady scientist.” He thought about that for a minute. “Do you think Shuri would be amused, or offended if I named a cat after her? Don’t answer that, JARVIS!” he added quickly. “We’re going to err on the side of caution. Let’s call you Hedy instead, huh?” She started to purr, likely because of the voice he was using to talk to her, but Tony couldn’t help beaming anyway. “Yeah, you like that, huh? That’s a good name?”  

Hedy just purred louder. She showed no sign of getting up, happily settled on his lap, and Tony shrugged before swinging his legs up on the couch and flipping on the television.

“Guess we can stay here for a bit.”

***

Bucky yawned until his jaw cracked, leaning heavily against the elevator wall as he waited for it to reach his floor. Steve had bullied him into going for a run at some godawful early hour that morning, and his day hadn’t stopped since. It was late now, and all he wanted was a quiet night in with no conversation, some shitty tv, and cuddles from his cat.

“Honey, I’m home,” he hollered, grimacing as he let himself into the dark apartment. He knew there were protocols he could set up to have JARVIS turn the lights on when he arrived at the tower, but it always made him a little twitchy he came home to find things not quite how he had left them. He dumped his bag by the door and kicked off his boots and sweaty socks, padding down the hall in his bare feet and stripping off his jacket, sweater, and pants as he went. He frowned when he reached the kitchen and realized that there had been no answering ‘mrrp’ to his arrival. “Alpine?” he called.

There was still no answer, although the food in her dish had gone down, and Bucky pouted a little. She got like that sometimes, found a new favourite spot tucked away somewhere, and flat out refused to leave. “Fine,” he grumbled to himself, topping up the food dish. "Be like that. You’ll be back!” he called out, loud enough that she’d be able to hear him. “You’re always back.”

He was starving, but too tired to be bothered making food, so he grabbed a bag of pretzels from the cupboard and wandered back over into the living room, stripping out of the rest of his clothes until he was left in his boxer briefs.  

He hadn’t actually intended to crash on the couch; it was comfortable enough, but once he’d gotten used to it, his bed had quickly become his most prized possession. But one minute he was watching the opening credits of some movie Sam had once mentioned, and the next thing he knew he was waking up with a jolt to a frighteningly perky lady on television trying to sell him a ten-disc set of hit 1960s country music CDs. His hand was still buried in the pretzel bag, most of which he’d managed to spill onto his stomach. He blinked blearily at the tv for a moment, and seriously considered just rolling over and going back to sleep. But his bed was calling him and so, leaving the mess for the cleaning bots to deal with, he mustered the energy to stumble down the hall and collapse face first in his fresh, cool sheets.

Bucky was used to waking up with Alpine a warm little ball on his stomach or back or hip, depending on which way he was sleeping himself. This morning, however, there was no trace of her. It took him a second to realize what was missing, and he sat up in bed, frowning around the room.

“Alpine?” he called, making little noises under his tongue to try and call her to him. She was a vocal little cat, but there was no answering meow and his frown deepened, something cold settling low in his gut. “Alpine, honey? Where are you?” He wandered through the apartment, keeping an ear out for her little sounds, but not even his enhanced hearing could pick up anything. Wondering if she’d tucked herself into a little nook somewhere and fallen into a deep sleep, he pulled a bag of her favourite treats down from the cupboard and shook them hard, usually a sure fire way to wake her up and bring her running. But there was no sign of her at all, and Bucky felt a nauseating twist of panic go through him. “Alpine?” he called again, voice getting rougher as he started checking all her favourite hiding spots and, when that turned up nothing, every place that a cat could conceivably squish herself into, and a few places that she definitely couldn’t fit, just in case.

It was nearly two hours later that Steve walked into the apartment. “Buck?” he called out. “Are you here? We have that thing, we were supposed to meet in the lobby like fifteen minutes ago-” He cut himself off suddenly as he walked into the living room to find the entire room in disarray, things strewn everywhere, and Bucky sitting in the middle of it, looking about aimlessly. “Bucky?” Steve dropped to his knees beside him, probably thinking he’d had some kind of set back or breakdown. “Jesus, what is it? What happened?”

Bucky hadn’t showered since the day before, was still sleep mussed and clad in only his boxer briefs. He knew he looked ridiculous, and didn’t really care. “I can’t find Alpine,” he admitted hoarsely, feeling his nose prick and his eyes burn. He loved that damn cat; he’d found her huddled in an alley, just a tiny kitten that was small enough to fit in his hand. He’d been ‘recovered’ only in the loosest sense of the term, and barely thought of himself as human most days. But instead of being (rightfully) scared of him, she’d run straight for him, rubbing against his ankles and making desperate little mewing noises until he’d picked her up and she’d all but burrowed into his neck. He’d brought her home, because he may not have felt like a complete human yet, but he also wasn’t heartless. He hadn’t looked back since. She wasn’t officially a licensed therapy pet, but she may as well have been. She had the uncanny ability to sense his moods, to know when he needed extra love, and had helped draw him back into reality and remind him what it felt like to really care for another being.

The thought of losing her made him choke.

What ?” Steve looked as devastated as Bucky felt. Though they didn’t have quite the same connection, he loved her almost as much, and she had a soft spot for him in return. “Did you... Well, I guess you obviously did look everywhere. When did you see her last?”

“Yesterday morning,” Bucky told him, flopping back against the base of the couch. “She tried to steal my bacon at breakfast, and then she was asleep on her cat tree when I left.” Bucky chewed at the skin around his thumbnail. “It was so late when I got home, and I just figured she’d found herself a new spot to hole up in.” He stared up at Steve helplessly. “I shoulda looked for her then. Stevie, if she’s not in the apartment she could be absolutely anywhere by now.”  

“Hey.” Steve flopped down on the floor beside Bucky, patting him reassuringly on the knee. “You worry too much, pal. She’s a cat, and she’s got instincts, and besides, she loves you too damn much to stay away for long. She probably just snuck out, and is going off on a little adventure, but she’ll be back before you know it.”

Bucky didn’t look convinced, and Steve sighed.

“Why don’t we ask Tony for help? I bet he could come with some kind of algorithm, or send DUM-E on the hunt or something. We’d find her in no time.”

Bucky gave him a dirty look. “‘m not asking Stark for help. ’s bad enough he’s letting me live here for free, after everything I did. How’m I supposed to ask him for help finding my cat, too? I didn’t even tell him I own a cat. Probably violates my lease or something.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You don’t have a lease, and even if you did, he wouldn’t kick you out just for owning a cat, I promise. He likes you, Buck, I keep telling you that. You two just need to... Talk.”

Bucky leveled him with a dangerous glare, not bothering to tell him that he was pretty sure he would know if Tony liked him, if only because he spent ridiculous amounts of his time cataloguing Tony’s every smile, and laugh, and frown, and imagining him doing a lot more than liking him.

Steve held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, alright. Not the time for this discussion, I get it,” he told him, adding something under his breath about ‘stubborn assholes’ that Bucky elected to ignore. “Come on,” he nudged Bucky roughly. “Go shower and get dressed. We’re gonna go meet Sam and Clint for lunch, and I bet you she’ll be waiting at the door when we get back.”

She wasn’t though, there wasn’t any sign of her at all, and Bucky hadn’t realized how much hope he’d been holding out until he arrived back to an empty hallway. Steve continued trying to convince him (and probably himself) that Alpine was just off on an adventure, that plenty of people had outdoor cats that stayed safe, and that she’d be back soon. Bucky just nodded distractedly, not bothering to share the statistics he’d found on how “safe” outdoor cats really were. The second Steve was gone, he was throwing his jacket back on and trolling the streets, calling her name and peering down all the alleys in a ten-block radius of the tower. He knew by now that she could be almost anywhere, but he couldn’t help checking just in case.

He didn’t return home until well after dark, and he spent the rest of the night watching tv with the volume on low, just in case she started meowing at his door.

But Alpine hadn’t turned up by the next morning either, and not knowing what else to do, Bucky started trolling the internet, checking the local shelters and looking for social media posts about found cats. Alpine usually took awhile opening up to strangers, but he couldn’t help hoping that she’d get over that in favour of not being outside. He wanted his back more than anything, but even more than that he wanted her safe .

There was a forum he’d found when he first adopted Alpine, looking for advice since he’d never looked after anything smaller than Steve in his life. He mostly just lurked, because it was a bit of a hellscape on a good day, but he knew they had a lost and found section, and he figured it couldn’t hurt. There was the usual advice about leaving her litter box outside, people collecting donations for a shelter, a few people looking to borrow carriers or live traps, and somebody looking for help with the litter of kittens their unspayed, outdoor cat had “surprisingly” given birth too.

He was scrolling through when he saw a post with a bunch of comments, and flicked through them curiously. There was a familiar name there, someone who always had complaints to make about everything anyone said, and despite his stress, Bucky couldn’t help huffing out an irritated sigh as he skimmed through their comments, things like “you should be ashamed of yourself” and “outdoor cats have rights too” and “YOU’RE A CAT THIEF.”

“What the actual fuck,” Bucky muttered to himself, scrolling back up to read the original post. It was a newcomer, somebody calling themselves Expensive_Breed asking for advice for a cat they’d found. Apparently the cat had wandered in off the street, no collar, no owner, and there were no shelters with room at the moment. They weren’t planning to keep the cat, but didn’t want to send it back out on the street. They’d never owned so much as a goldfish before, and were looking for advice on how to look after it until they could find a place for it. A perfectly reasonable (and Bucky had to admit, really sweet) request.

But apparently Douchebag Supreme had decided that the cat that they knew nothing about was, in fact, an owned outdoor cat, and that by taking the cat in and not wanting to send it back out into the street, the OP was stealing it. And, of course, their little collection of followers had joined in, so that if there were any legitimately helpful comments, they were buried under a slew of vitriol. Bucky glowered at the screen, and felt something twinge when he saw the “um, okay, sorry” from the poster somewhere toward the bottom of the page. He supposed it could have been (and probably was) meant sarcastically, but still. He felt bad.

Bucky wasn’t really one for all the drama, and wasn’t really in the mood for fending off negative comments of his own, so he clicked on the posters name, opening up a private message.

Hey. I just wanted to say, I think you’re doing a really good thing, taking in that cat. I don’t blame you for not wanting to send her back out in the streets. Ignore all the fuckwits in the comments - they just like the attention.

He wasn’t actually expecting a response, but barely a minute later his laptop dinged, and the little DM window of the website flashed at him.

Thanks! I appreciate the vote of support, considering I have no sweet clue what I’m doing. Who knew the world of cat ownership could be so controversial?

Bucky huffed out a faint laugh at that. “You got no idea,” he muttered out loud before typing back. Anything’s controversial if you’ve got enough free time on your hands.

Ain’t that the truth , he got back in reply, and he couldn’t help grinning despite the stress of the past few days.

Listen , he offered. I’m not rolling in experience, but I’ve got a cat of my own. You got any questions, feel free to ask and I’ll help you the best I can.

Yeah? That would be great. Thank you.

And then:

Do you really think she might be owned? Gotta admit, those chucklefucks in the comments have me concerned now .

Bucky thought about it a minute. I mean, anything’s possible. Course they said the same thing to me when I found mine, and she was literally a scared kitten hiding in the garbage with her eyes barely open. Still... You said she just showed up in your house? How did she seem when you found her? Skittery at all? Nervous?

The DM box showed Expensive_Breed stopping and starting a few times before they finally replied with a No. The exact opposite, actually. She’s an absolute sweetheart. A bit rumpled, but she also turned up in my workspace, and was playing in some dusty old boxes, so that could be why. She was absolutely starving though?

For someone who wasn’t planning to keep the cat, they seemed to sound awfully hopeful that she didn’t have an owner, and Bucky couldn’t help grinning. Well, I’d keep an eye out for missing cat posters and then like. If you’ve got a community Facebook or whatever, you can check for posts there. If you really think there’s a chance she’s owned though, it’s common advice to just let them out, maybe with a note on their collar letting the owner know where she’s been the past few days. Most cats are pretty good at finding their way home.

I suppose that makes sense. Thanks for your help, uh... Werejaguar King of the Northern Realm?

Bucky huffed out a laugh, cheeks coloring despite being alone in his room. I maybe hadn’t slept in awhile when I came up with that one , he admitted. You can call me James.

James huh? Good name. My best friend is a James, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like. You can call me Eddie.

Nice to meet you, Eddie. If you need anymore help, just drop me a line. And let me know how it turns out!

***

Tony leaned back in his chair as James’ profile button switched to offline, and almost immediately Hedy hopped up into his lap, purring as she marched back and forth over his legs, rubbing against his chest with each pass. “Well, would you look at that,” he told her, patting her absently. “Apparently I’ve made two new friends this week.” He picked her up, holding her out a little so he could see her face. Hedy stared at him a moment before shifting her weight forward to bump her forehead against his, making Tony laugh. “What do you think?” he asked, wry grin crossing his face. “Should we let you out again? See if you’ve got a home to find your way back to?”

Hedy didn’t seem bothered either way, butting her head against his again and then rubbing her cheek along his chin, leaving behind a streak of short white hair that made Tony wrinkle his nose.

“You make a fair point,” he told her. “I suppose we can give it a little longer in case someone tracks us down first, right?”

But by the next day, despite Hedy growing on him exponentially more by the second, Tony couldn’t shake the guilty feeling that maybe she did belong to someone after all. She was so sweet and affectionate that it was hard to believe that she’d just been wandering the streets and fending for herself. And if that was the case, her original owners probably loved her just as much as he did, were maybe frantic wondering where she was.

So Tony compromised. “Okay,” he told Hedy, snuggling her in his arms at the door to the workshop. “I’m not gonna send you back out in the streets. But presumably you got in here somehow, right? So, conceivably, you could find your way home by just... Going backwards.”

Hedy mrrped in agreement, and Tony sighed, kissing the top of her head.

“Right, so. You have free rein of the building,” he told her, setting her down and holding the door open. “Head home, give your family my love. You tell them you were a delight and on your best behavior.”

She blinked up at him, and with another little meow, she trotted off down the hall.

“And if they’re not home, you come right back, understand?” Tony called after her. Tony sighed and slipped back into the workshop, flopping down on the couch in the corner. “JARVIS,” he called out. “Make another anonymous donation to the shelters.”

***

Bucky was slumped in front of the tv, watching some cringe-worthy sitcom. Steve had tried to get him to come out to the movies with he and Sam, but Bucky was very much not feeling it, preferring to wallow in the solitude of his apartment instead.

He was dozing a bit, and so it took a minute for the soft, familiar mews to filter through his brain, but when they did he sat bolt upright.

“Alpine?” he called softly, and the sound came again, a little louder than before.

Bucky launched himself over the back of the couch, nearly smashing into his front door he was in such a rush to get it open. He was half afraid he might have dreamt it, but when he opened the door, there was Alpine. She trotted inside, rubbing herself against his ankles, and making happy little chirping noises over their reunion.

“Hey,” Bucky breathed, bending down to pick her up and melting when she started purring loudly. “Hey, honey. Where’ve you been, huh? You scared me half to death.” He held her close, tucking her under his chin, and closed the door firmly behind them before moving back into the apartment proper. Alpine just kept purring, rubbing her head along his chin and cheeks. “Well, you don’t seem too worse for the wear,” he had to admit. “You don’t look like you’ve been fending for yourself at all. In fact, I think you’ve put in a few pounds, and... have you been brushed??” He held her out at arm’s length, lifting her up above his head. He checked her over for any sign of injury, but if anything she looked even better than she had a couple days ago. Alpine reached out with her paws, batting at his face, and Bucky laughed, drawing her in close again. “Yeah, okay, come on,” he told her, moving back to the couch. “Let’s get our cuddles in before Uncle Steve gets back and hogs you all to himself, huh?” He scratched at her neck and then paused, frowning. “Why are you wearing a collar?”

 

RBB 2019 1

Growing more confused by the minute, he looked it over. He didn’t keep one on her normally, since she was strictly indoors, and he had never expected her to run away, but he had to admit that the bright red looked sharp against her snowy white fur, and she didn’t seem to mind it at all - if anything, she preened a little as he rubbed under the leather. He couldn’t help grinning.

“You like that, huh? Feels good? Oh yeah,” he teased as she rolled her head to get his fingers just where she wanted them. “Yeah, you like that don't you? Does that feel - ouch!” Bucky pulled back quickly as something sharp sliced through the tip of his middle finger. “What the fuck?” he asked, sticking his finger in his mouth as a bright red spot of blood appeared at the tip. It stung like a motherfucker, which had to mean a paper cut. Moving his fingers more carefully this time, he felt the small square of paper, folded up and tucked carefully behind her collar. He pulled it free, unfolding it with a frown, and Alpine hopped off his lap, heading for her food dish in the kitchen.

‘Hi!’ the note read in a messy scrawl. ‘If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been missing your cat for a few days. Sorry about that! She wandered into my place, and I didn't think she had anywhere to go, so I let her stay with me. She’s been fed and brushed and kept me entertained. If, by chance, this isn’t your cat, I’d appreciate it if you put the note back and let her get on her way - maybe after a couple chin scratches. If she doesn't have a home, I’m hoping she’ll make her way back to me. She really is a perfect cat.’

The note was signed with a simple -T, and Bucky leaned back against the couch. “Huh.” He read it again, but it still wasn't a lot of information. “Did you make a friend?” he called down the hall, hearing a faint mew in response. He felt a little weird, thinking about a stranger looking after his cat, but mostly he felt relieved to know she’d been warm and full and sheltered, and not wandering the streets of New York scared and confused like he’d been imagining. “Well. Thanks T,” he said, setting the note down before going up to open a bag of Alpine's favourite treats.

***

Everything was normal for the next couple weeks. Alpine was just as friendly as ever, and apparently not at all traumatized from her time away, and Bucky didn’t even really think of the note again - although he did leave the collar on. And then, after a coffee date with Nat, he came home to find his cat once again missing.

“Shit,” he breathed, after another thorough search of his apartment - this one not quite as messy as before. He scratched at the back of his head. “Not again.”

***

Tony had spent the past three days in the lab, upgrading everyone’s suits after the disaster that had been their last fight. Steve had finally had to come down to the lab, Bucky trailing after him, to physically lift Tony out of his workshop and carry him into the hall. Tony had put up a token protest, but JARVIS was a traitor who locked down the workshop at Steve’s request, and well, he was tired.

He couldn’t help noticing that Bucky seemed even more forlorn than usual (though just as gorgeous as ever), and was a step away from asking if he was alright - which was probably a very good sign right there that he needed to get some sleep because, oh right, Barnes understandably didn’t even like him, and certainly didn’t need or want Tony prying into his personal business.

Tony was headed into his bedroom for a few hours of sleep when a faint noise caught his attention. He froze, glancing around the room. “Hello?”

There was silence, and, shaking his head, Tony took a few steps toward the bedroom before he heard the sound again. This entire scene was giving him deja vu, and with his heart fluttering for a minute, he took a step toward the kitchen area. He could hear rustling in one of the cupboards as he stepped closer, and crouching down on the floor he opened the door up.

“Mrrp!” A familiar white face popped out of a box of cereal that Tony didn’t even realize he’d owned, and Tony felt his entire face light up.

“Hedy!” He beamed as she jumped out of the cupboard to wind herself around his ankles. “Hey pretty thing. Did you miss me? Huh? You decided to come back?” He scooped her up into his arms, letting her rub her face against his cheek. The collar he’d given her was still on, but the note was missing. “Guess you don’t have a home after all, huh?” he asked. “Well, that’s okay, you stay with me for as long as you want.” He straightened up again, Hedy still burrowed in his arms, and made his way toward the bedroom. “I still have all your stuff,” he told her. “Just in case you came back.” He yawned suddenly, his jaw cracking with the force of it, and nearly choked on a laugh when Hedy stuck her paw in his mouth. “Okay, okay,” he said. “I need some sleep. You wanna come with me?”

She showed no sign of moving, snuggling happily into his arms, so Tony shrugged and carried her with him into the bedroom. He flopped onto the bed, holding her carefully so she wouldn’t get squashed, and when he let her go Hedy shifted to curl up on his stomach, purring happily. She put off a surprising amount of body heat, and Tony hummed happily as it seeped through his t-shirt and into his stomach. He fell asleep scratching idly at her ears.

***

It was some ungodly hour - Bucky hadn’t been able to get to sleep - and he was dicking around on the internet when he heard a vaguely familiar ding. He had about 57 tabs open, and it took him a minute to trace it to the messaging app on the cat forum’s website (he’d had it open looking for clues as to how the fuck his cat kept escaping from his apartment). He clicked on the notification and couldn’t help smiling when he saw Eddie’s name.

Hey, quick question. Is it normal for a cat to start running around my house in the middle of the night screaming at the top of her lungs?

Bucky burst out laughing at that, voice echoing around the empty apartment. Discovered that fun trick, did you? I dunno. Never seems normal to me, when my cat does it, but I’m assured it is.

Follow up to that - how do I get her to stop?

Bucky laughed again. If you figure that out, please let me know. Mine always seems to do it when I’ve got something to get up for the next day - usually an early flight .

Great. Can’t wait to have that happen.

Bucky grinned a little stupidly at his computer before realizing that he was picturing Tony’s dry smile as he read Eddie’s reply - something he’d never seen firsthand, but had witnessed directed at Steve many, many times before. Shaking his head to disperse the image, because projecting his ridiculous crush onto Eddie was not a good plan, he typed out his reply.

It’s not so bad. If she’s affectionate at all, it’s more than worth it. Try playing with her at bedtime. They tend to be more active at dusk and dawn, and if you get her worn out enough, she may be chiller during the night.

That... makes a lot of sense. I gotta run, but thanks for the good advice, oh Wise and Sage Cat Guru.

Anytime! Bucky typed quickly, but Eddie signed off before any reply came, and Bucky wasn’t sure if he had seen it or not.

**

Alpine was back the next afternoon, and Bucky was sure he was grinning like an idiot when he, Sam, and Steve walked into his apartment to find her sitting on the kitchen counter, looking at him expectantly.

“Hey sweetheart,” he hummed, scooping her up in his arms and burying his face in her soft fur. He heard Steve huff out a snort behind him and expertly shifted her weight to his metal hand so he could flip him off over his shoulder.

“Man, the relationship you have with that cat is not healthy,” Sam drawled, already settling himself on Bucky’s couch, feet up on the coffee table. Bucky moved past him, kicking his legs down as he went and ignoring Sam’s yelp of protest.

“Eat my entire ass,” he told him cheerily, settling on the far side of the couch with Alpine on his chest, her low, rumbling purr growing in volume as he scratched at her chin and neck. “Aw yeah,” he cooed, voice going up a couple octaves as he talked to her. “That feels good, huh? Did you have a fun adventure?” He grinned as she rubbed against his face. “Yeah, Daddy missed you,” he added, smirking into her fur at the vaguely disgusted look on Sam’s face. Steve just rolled his eyes at the two of them.

“You still don’t know where she’s been going?”

“I don’t even know how she gets out of the apartment,” Bucky grumbled. Even though she seemed better than fine, he didn’t like her newfound disappearing act. He couldn’t help worrying something would happen to her, or that she wouldn’t come back at all.

Steve shrugged. “Maybe she went back to visit her rescuer from last time,” he offered.

Bucky considered this, feeling around under her new collar for a note. There was nothing there, but it seemed like she’d found shelter somewhere; despite the rain of the past few days her coat wasn’t even damp, as soft and plush as ever.

So two days later, when she started meowing at the front door, Bucky made a split-second decision. He still didn’t like the idea of her going out, but it seemed like she was determined to do that no matter what he thought about it. And, if the same person had been looking out for her both times, he figured they at least deserved to know what happened to her when she wasn’t around. So he’d scribbled out a hasty note, tucking it up under her collar before picking her up and making eye contact with her.

“I’m trusting you here, Alpine. You better be careful, and stay away from the streets and cars,” he told her, before setting her down and opening the door. Alpine trotted off down the hall, not in any frantic rush, at least. “And no going off with any stray alley cats!” Bucky called after her, not even caring how ridiculous that was.

**

Tony frowned down at the note that he’d found on Hedy’s collar, trying to decipher the tone. ‘She does have a home,’ the note read. ‘Dunno if she made her way back to you or not, but that’s where she’s been in between. Thanks.’

“Are they... are they mad at me?” Tony asked Hedy, who blinked and purred at him, completely unhelpful. Tony couldn’t help feeling a little put out. It wasn’t his fault their cat kept running away. “Rude,” he grumbled before scooping Hedy up in his arms and melting a little when she nestled into him. “Come along, sweet cheeks. I’ve got a new food flavour for you to try.”

As hoped, Hedy loved the new food, digging into it like she hadn’t been fed in days. Tony narrowed his eyes at her, but tried not to judge her other owner too harshly; he’d seen her do the same thing when she’d eaten only half an hour earlier.

It was a little embarrassing, but Tony watched her eat every bite, and couldn’t help wondering if this was what having kids felt like. He still wasn’t entirely sure what to do with her, but he loved her with his whole heart anyway, and could spend hours watching her do absolutely nothing. He wondered if there were joint custody agreements for pets.

**

Bucky surveyed Alpine critically. It had been a couple weeks of her disappearing at random, sometimes for a couple hours and sometimes for a couple of days. Her most recent disappearing act had been yesterday, but she was waiting for him when he came home, curled up in her favourite spot on the couch. And there was no subtle way to put this, but she looked... big.

“Hey Stevie? Does Alpine look like she’s put on some weight to you?”

“Don’t fatshame her, Buck,” Steve told him absently from where he was bent over his sketchbook before looking up with a smirk. Bucky rolled his eyes and Steve stuck his tongue out at him before glancing over at her. “I mean, she might have put on a pound or two,” he hedged, although he was frowning now too as he looked at her. He tilted his head to the side, “Maybe it’s the angle?”

Shaking his head at his dumbass best friend, Bucky moved to scoop Alpine off the couch. To her credit, she wasn’t perturbed in the slightest, snuggling into his neck instantly. “Yup,” Bucky grumbled. “She’s definitely put on some weight.” He dumped her in Steve’s lap, ignoring his startled noise of protest, before grabbing a scrap of paper to start a new note.

**

“Stop feeding my cat so much,” Tony read out loud. “She likes to pretend she’s starving, but she does just fine. She really just needs a cup of food twice a day. You’re making her fat.”

Tony huffed at the note.

“Well that just seems rude,” he protested, looking up at Hedy to get her opinion and then wincing as he really took in her appearance. From this angle she did look a little chubby. He sighed. “I guess we could play a little more, huh? Get some exercise in?”

RBB 2019 2

**

Hey James! Quick question. Any advice on cat enrichment activities? We, uh... Maybe need to lose a couple pounds over here. The cat, not me! I happen to have a very healthy body image.

Bucky snorted out a laugh, glancing ruefully at Alpine, snuggled up in his lap. We’re in the same boat here. Housecats. You could always try dressing up as a mouse and getting her to chase you.

Two nights later, Bucky was watching a movie and missing his cat when his phone dinged at him.

You, uh... You were actually kidding about the dressing up like a mouse part, weren’t you?

Bucky laughed until he cried.

**

This time Hedy had hung around for a full 36 hours before Tony came back from a Stark Industries Emergency to find her gone again. He couldn’t help pouting a little as he wandered around the penthouse calling her name, just in case. His evening at SI had been an absolute clusterfuck, and he’d found himself looking forward to some kitty snuggles. But Hedy seemed to have her own agenda, and since he still wasn’t sure how she was even getting in and out of the penthouse, there wasn’t much he could do about it.

At the very least, he had (mostly) stopped worrying about her every time she disappeared. She looked well loved and well fed every time she returned, and her weight had evened out again, and although they sounded pretty gruff, he still exchanged notes with her other owner from time to time. And since in the months that they’d been sharing joint custody she’d never had so much as a drop of rain on her - not even in the near hurricane they’d had a couple weeks back - he had to assume that she had a safe route to wherever her destination was.

Still. Tony had been looking forward to seeing her, and couldn’t help being disappointed and feeling oddly lonely that she was gone. He considered texting Steve, seeing if he wanted to grab some food, or play a round of chess, or something, but then remembered that he’d mentioned watching a movie with Bucky and while he’d invited Tony to come along, he knew it was more of a courtesy than anything and didn’t want to intrude on their time together. He knew he’d hate it if he was hanging out with Rhodey, only to have some other friend of Rhodey’s that he hated show up and crash on them.

He dicked around for a bit, too wired to really focus on any one thing. He considered going down to the lab, but he was trying to be responsible and knew if he did that he wouldn’t get out of there for hours. He should try to sleep, but was still too wound up to do that either.

Flopping on his bed, he pulled out his phone. I’m bored. Tell me a funny cat story.

Briefly it occurred to him that it was a Friday night and normal people were probably doing things. Hell, maybe James was on a date right now, or maybe he had a significant other, and they were spending the night together doing X-rated type things, and Tony was just barreling in to disrupt them.

Before he could worry about it too much though, he got a return message from the man in question.

Well, the other night I woke up to Alpine screaming at the top of her lungs. I couldn’t figure out where she was at first, and then realized she was sitting on top of my bedroom door, just staring at me. And while my brain was still going ‘what the fuck’ she launched herself off the door and fully across the room to land on my chest.

Tony snorted into the empty space of his bedroom. I probably shouldn’t be laughing as hard as I am at that.

Well, the claws in my neck when I nearly rolled us off the bed weren’t so great, but yeah. It was pretty funny.

Tony didn’t know this guy at all, and there was no reason for him to be hearing a low voice telling him this, and to be picturing a warm smile and blue eyes twinkling at him. He shook his head, typing out a response to James.

It was payback for the mouse costume.

**

Bucky yelped when Steve whacked him hard on the side of the head with a throw pillow. “What the fuck, Rogers?”

“What the fuck yourself,” Steve retorted, pouting at him. “We’re supposed to be watching a movie together, and you’ve spent the past half hour laughing at your phone.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Aww,” he cooed mockingly. “Poor Stevie. Am I not paying you enough attention?”

Steve glared back at him. “I want to know who the fuck you’re texting and what’s so funny. Did you finally download Grindr or something?” He made a grab for Bucky’s phone, but Bucky kicked him in the thigh, sending him sprawling to the far side of the couch. “Jesus,” Steve whined, rubbing at the foot-sized bruise that he was sure was developing under his jeans. Bucky ignored him, beaming back at his phone, and Steve rolled his eyes. “If you finally started texting Tony you can tell me, you know,” he pouted, turning back to the tv.

Bucky glared at him, but his cheeks were flushed. “It’s not Tony,” he mumbled. “Tony wouldn’t text me anyway.”

And normally this would be Steve’s cue to start arguing that no, Tony had definitely forgiven him for his parents and he likes you Buck, I swear, but something about the blush creeping down Bucky’s neck stopped him. This was a very interesting development indeed.

**

“Hey, Tony?”

Tony hummed distractedly, throwing the cushions off the couch again. He and Steve were supposed to be grabbing lunch, but he’d somehow misplaced his phone in the five minutes since Steve had arrived, distracted by his latest message from James.

“What’s this?”

Tony looked up to find Steve holding... oh. The book he’d ordered on cat care.

“Um.”

Steve tilted his head at him, lips twitching. “Are you getting a cat?”

“What? No!” Tony said, grateful that Hedy was apparently living her double life today. “Do I look like a pet person to you?”

Steve didn’t actually answer, just gave him that vaguely amused Look that usually ended with Tony defensive rambling and giving himself away and nope. Not happening today.

“It’s just a book, Steve. Relax about it!”

“Okay, okay!” Steve set the book down, holding his hands up in supplication and still smirking. “Just seems weird you’d get a book on taking care of cats if you’re not planning to, you know... take care of a cat.”

Tony rolled his eyes, busying himself with looking for his phone again so Steve wouldn’t notice the slight flush that had crossed his cheeks. “It’s not mine,” he said. “I’m holding it for a friend.”

And really Stark? He was better than that. That was the weakest of all weak excuses. But to his surprise, Steve didn’t call him on it. There was a long moment of silence before Tony risked a glance at Steve again only to find him watching him in turn. There was a speculative look on his face, the one that he usually got when he started teasing Tony for the crush on Barnes that he absolutely didn’t have, and usually devolved to the two of them arguing about whether - hypothetically - Barnes could ever have feelings for a man who had tried to kill him, and usually ended with Steve threatening to smother either Tony or himself when Tony refused to believe that Bucky more than tolerated him at best.

Tony had no idea what Barnes had to do with a book about cats, but prepared himself just in case. But Steve just eyed him a moment longer before breaking out into a big, stupid grin, like he couldn’t stop himself from smiling if he tried. “Huh,” he said.

“What?” Tony asked, and when Steve didn’t answer, digging through the end table instead, he found himself getting more indignant. “ What ?” he demanded again, because Steve had obviously come to some dumbass conclusion that he thought meant he had one over on Tony.

“Nothing, Tony,” Steve told him, catching his eye again, and while he was still grinning like a shithead, there was something pleased about his smile too. “Found your phone,” he added, tossing it at him while Tony was still trying to decipher that look.

**

Bucky returned from a run (he hated running, but Steve had suckered him into it) to find a message waiting on his phone.

I thought the tipping things off counters was an internet joke?????

All Bucky had wanted was a hot shower but he found himself flopping on the couch instead, chuckling to himself over Eddie’s message.

Yeah, no, that’s definitely a thing , he replied. Nothing is safe.

She broke the face on my favorite watch today :(((((

Bucky couldn’t help laughing at that, even if he felt a bit bad for Eddie. I feel that. I lost three mugs that way before I finally stopped leaving them on the counter.

I started experimenting. Eddie told him. Literally anything. She pushed off a file that I’m pretty sure weighs more than her?

I’ve lost my keys more times than I can count. She keeps knocking them onto the floor and then chasing them under the fridge.

He and Eddie ended up comparing instances of things being broken and lost by their respective cats, and Bucky didn’t know if they were bragging or complaining, but he was loving every minute of it. By the time that Eddie had to go it was nearly an hour later, the sweat on Bucky’s skin had dried, and he was shivering a little — but he’d barely even noticed because he was too caught up in talking to the other man.

He maybe had a bit of a crush.

**

Bucky huffed, giving Alpine a dirty look which she happily ignored, purring away with her back turned to him. He knew if he texted Steve he’d just laugh at him, and Sam was firmly in the ‘dogs are best’ camp. Nobody understood his pain.

Hauling out his phone, he opened the messaging app again.

I got her a new bed. It was really expensive, extra soft, has some kind of special fabric that cats are supposed to love. She won’t get out of the damn cardboard box.

He huffed at her again, but Alpine continued happily ignoring him. A minute later, his phone was dinging at him.

It could be worse. Mine won’t get out of the damn bathroom sink. Every time I go to wash my hands there’s a cat sleeping in the bowl. I have to wash my hands in the kitchen sink, like some kind of animal.

Bucky grinned at his phone. To be fair, I’ve definitely fallen asleep in the bathtub before.

**

Tony had been elbow deep in a suit upgrade when Steve made his way into the lab, sketchbook in hand, grumbling good-naturedly about not having seen Tony all week. Tony had waved him off, distracted but knowing Steve would understand, and the two of them had fallen into comfortable silence, occasionally interrupted by Tony going off on a tech ramble, or Steve making a comment that he knew would fall on deaf ears.

He hadn’t seen Hedy in a couple of days, so the last thing he was expecting when he finally looked up from his work were a pair of bright eyes peering up at him. Tony choked.

“You okay?” Steve asked.

“Yup, yup, I’m good. Just burnt my thumb. I’m fine.” He chanced a glance over his shoulder, but fortunately Steve had returned to his sketching. He looked back at Hedy with wide eyes, waving her away before holding his finger up to his lips, but Hedy was a cat and instead climbed through the machinery, batting a screw off the table with a ping before climbing into his lap.

“Mrrp!” she meowed loudly. Tony’s eyes went wide.

“Tony? What’re you doing over there?”

“Uhh. Nothing!” he said quickly.

“Right,” Steve said dryly. “Because that’s not suspicious at all.”

He still sounded amused, fortunately, but Tony could hear him getting to his feet and making his way over. Panicking completely, he lifted his t-shirt and pulled it over Hedy’s body, concealing her from sight. Hedy meowed loudly and batted at his belly button.

“Do you hear meowing?” Steve asked.

“Nope,” Tony said quickly, just as Hedy meowed again, even louder this time. He winced at the table. “I hear nothing.” He looked up just in time for Steve for reach the table, giving him a beguiling smile. “Don’t tell me your hearing is finally catching up with your age, Steven.”

Steve rolled his eyes at him, and then stilled when he noticed the huge lump on Tony’s lap. “Uh. Tony?”

“What?” Tony asked, because he was all in now.

Which, of course, was when Hedy wormed her way out from under shirt, hopping up on the table and patting at Steve’s hand with her paw.

“Uhhh,” Tony said. “Where did that come from?”

Steve was staring at the cat with a strange expression on his face. “But that’s...” He turned to Tony again, probably staring at the flush that was crossing his cheeks. His eyes went wide. “Oh. Oh!

He looked like he’d come to some sort of revelation, and Tony couldn’t help rolling his eyes a little. “Okay, come on,” he protested. “It’s not that weird.”

“No,” Steve agreed. “No, it’s not at all. It’s really nice.”

“I’d appreciate it if you kept this to yourself for a bit. You know how the rest of the team can be.”

“Yeah, of course,” Steve told him happily. “You take as long as you need. Tell the rest of the team whenever you’re ready.”

“Uh... okay,” Tony said, because that did seem like an unnecessary reaction to Tony getting a cat. “Thanks, Winghead.”

“Anytime, Shellhead.” Steve gave Hedy a fond head scratch that had her purring loudly before he settled a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I’m really happy for you.”

Tony was still looking a little confused, which Steve didn’t quite follow, but after a minute he turned back to his work, casting one last, suspicious glance over his shoulder. Steve just beamed back at him, happily scratching at the cat’s ears. He’d been waiting for what felt like forever for Tony and Bucky to realize their feelings for each other. But with Tony apparently looking after that cat that Bucky cherished more than anything, it was pretty safe to say they’d gotten their heads out of their asses. Steve didn’t know what page they were on with each other, but Bucky barely trusted Steve with Alpine. If he was letting Tony have her, he had a pretty good idea.

And, if they didn’t want to make a big deal about it yet, if they wanted to keep these little moments to themselves, cherish the beginnings of their newfound relationship? He was more than happy to let them do that. Honestly, Tony being all shy over his burgeoning relationship was one of the sweetest things Steve had ever seen. And his two best friends finding happiness with each other? He’d give a lot to keep that happening.

(Didn’t mean he wasn’t going to tease them mercilessly in the process though.)

**

Tony wandered into the common area on a quest for coffee to find Steve and Bucky stretched out across the floor like a couple of ten-year-olds, looking over something between them. Bucky was sprawled out on his belly, resting on a pillow, and neither of them had noticed him, so Tony allowed himself a minute to let his eyes run down the muscled lines of Bucky’s back through his too-tight t-shirt, lingering over the swell of his ass in his very well-fitted jeans.

“Hey, Tony!”

Tony jumped a little at Steve’s voice, quickly averting his eyes before Bucky turned to look at him too.

“Uh, hey,” he said, glancing back over to find Steve watching him with a smirk that he didn’t even want to begin to decipher. “Uh. Coffee,” he added, tapping his mug like he needed to prove why he was there.

Steve just nodded. “Sam tracked down some of the old Captain America comics as a ‘surprise’ for me. You wanna join us?”

Tony poured himself a fresh mug of coffee, and very carefully did not inform them that he had most of the comic books himself, and that he’d been flipping through a few of the more Bucky-centric ones since the man had joined them in the tower. “No, thanks. Got some work to do.”

Steve made a disappointed noise. Bucky hadn’t looked up.

“Hey, Tony?” Steve asked as he made his way for the elevator.

“Yeah?”

“Didn’t you tell me once that Bucky was your favourite Howlie growing up?”

Tony choked on his sip of coffee, spluttering it all down the front of his t-shirt, and of course now Bucky did look up, his expression a cross somewhere between panic and curiosity.

“No,” he choked out when he could breathe again, his voice hoarse and rough. “No, I don’t think I did?”

“Really?” Steve’s grin was absolutely shit-eating, and Tony didn’t know what he was playing at. “I could have sworn that you-”

“Dum Dum,” Tony blurted out before Steve could say anything truly incriminating. “I mean, he probably influenced that, since he was the one I saw most growing up, but it was definitely Dum Dum. Why do you think I named my first robot after him?”

Narrowing his eyes at Steve’s mildly put out expression, he made a break for the elevator, slumping against the wall in relief when the doors were safely shut.

**

“What the fuck , Stevie?”

Steve yelped when, before he could react, there was a (thankfully flesh) hand smacking him on the back of the head. Hard .

“Why don’t you just take out a fucking billboard? ‘Dear Stark, Bucky has an embarrassingly large crush on you. Just thought you should know!’”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Buck... come on. I know.”

“I know you know. You’ve made that very clear. I just didn’t think you’d tell everyone else and announce it to the man in question.”

“I mean, I know .”

Bucky stared at him blankly. “Yeah, dipshit, you said that already. I had my brain scrambled, don’t mean I’m deaf. Know what?”

Steve just stared back at him a moment, but Bucky showed no signs of breaking and eventually he sighed, turning back to the comic without a pout. “Fine. Don’t tell me,” he grumbled.

Bucky was still staring at him, wondering what the fuck was happening when his phone buzzed in his pocket. Still scowling suspiciously at Steve, he dug it out of his pocket, and immediately felt his frown disappear when he saw Eddie’s name in the notification. Ignoring Steve’s nosy face, he opened the message.

My roommates are being really fucking weird.

Bucky blinked at his phone for a minute, trying to keep his face out of Steve’s line of sight because he was pretty sure he was grinning like a complete moron. It was the first time Eddie had ever messaged him for something non-cat related, and that made something warm and pleasant light up in Bucky’s stomach.

I know the feeling , he admitted, casting a glance at Steve who was craning his neck, not even trying to hide his attempts to look over Bucky’s shoulder. He shifted the phone out of his line of sight again. My best friend is nosier than my damn grandma.

See? I knew you’d understand! This is why Jameses are the best.

Bucky chewed the inside of his cheek raw so Steve wouldn’t see the grin that was threatening to split across his face. Anything I can do to help?

Nah. I already made my escape. Just needed to know I wasn’t the crazy one... I mean, I’m definitely the crazy one, but that in this particular instance, I wasn’t the crazy one.

He was rambling, and hadn’t even explained what his roommates had done, but Bucky didn’t hesitate in typing out his response. You’re definitely the sane one here.

Thank you! I happen to think you’re pretty sane yourself .

Bucky had no idea what this conversation even was, but he kind of loved it.

Okay, I’ve gotta run, but thanks for letting me complain. Talk later!

Bucky texted his goodbye and shoved his phone back in his pocket to find Steve watching him with the stupidest grin Bucky had ever seen.

“Was that Tony?” he sing-songed, fluttering his eyelashes ridiculously.

Bucky stared at him. “Jesus Christ, there’s something wrong with you,” he muttered.

**

As a general rule, Tony didn’t usually hang out with Steve when Bucky was with him too. No matter how much he was crushing on the other man, and no matter how much Steve insisted otherwise, he knew Bucky wasn’t exactly his biggest fan. It didn’t seem fair to encroach on his time with Steve.

But it was hard to resist when he walked into the common area to find Steve, and Bucky, and Sam, and Clint watching one of his all time favourite sci-fi movies, and Steve asked him to join them with one of those irresistible smiles. And truthfully, he hadn’t even noticed Bucky curled up in one of the recliners at first, and when he turned those pale eyes on Tony, he didn’t seem opposed at least. So Tony let himself flop down on the couch beside Steve. And well, it was nice to have company, and his seat gave him a really good chance to check out Bucky without being noticed, so when the first movie rolled into the second one, he stuck around.

Unfortunately the second movie was kind of a mess, and within five minutes his eyes were glazing over. He was considering ducking out anyway, when his phone vibrated against his thigh. Pulling it out, he beamed when he saw a waiting message from James.

It wasn’t anything, just a dumb story about one of his roommates, but something in Tony delighted at the thought of James just texting him about his day. He sent James a story back about his own band of doofuses, and before long they’d devolved into sharing bad puns and internet memes. He’d lost complete track of the movie, but spending the afternoon messaging James (and checking out Bucky) seemed like a day well spent.

Beside him, Steve had also lost track of the movie, too busy delighting in how fucking adorable his two best friends were. He couldn’t stop watching the two of them, the little secret glances they’d cast toward each other. They were absolutely ridiculous, texting each other from opposite sides of the same room, and then trying to hide their smiles while they peeked over at each other after every text to see how it was received. They were stupid, and he loved them, and couldn’t be happier for the both of them.

**

I’ve been trapped on my couch for six hours. She won’t leave my lap and I don’t have the heart to move her. Send pizza.

Bucky had conked out after dinner, and couldn’t help snickering when he saw the hour-old message waiting for him when he woke up. Rolling over onto his back, he grinned to himself as he fired a message back. Sure thing pal. Just send me your address and order. Hot and ready pizza in 30 minutes or less, or it’s free.

He was still feeling sleepy and lazy, debating if he wanted to go back to sleep or get up to grab some food, which was absolutely the only reason that he kept the messaging app open, and the only reason that he noticed the three little dots disappear and reappear several times over before Eddie finally replied.

We could, you know. If you wanted to come over for pizza sometime. Or something.

Bucky blinked at his phone, wondering if Eddie was really asking what he thought he was, and before he could begin to even formulate a response, there were a few more messages coming in in quick succession.

Not tonight, I mean. It’s getting kind of late, and she finally left my lap and I’ve got some work to catch up on now. But sometime, maybe.

Or tomorrow. I’m free tomorrow, if that works for you. And if you wanted .

It just, you know. It seems weird that you’re never even met my cat after all the help you gave me with her, and I think she’d really like you and, you know. You should come over and pet my cat. If you want.

Even through the phone, Bucky could practically feel how nervous Tony was, and it made him feel warm all over to think about somebody feeling that way about him.

I’d like that , he admitted. That would be great, actually. And tomorrow works for me too. Around six?

It didn’t, actually, he had plans with Steve. But he saw that punk every day, he could blow him off for one night.

Great! That’s great. Uh... I’ve got some stuff happening earlier in the day, so I’m not sure exactly where in the city I’ll be by then. I’ll text with an address once I have a better idea, and we can figure out where to meet from there?

Bucky couldn’t help being a little glad that they were texting and not face-to-face; if Eddie could see the stupid grin that he couldn’t keep off his face, he’d probably change his mind completely.

Looking forward to it.

***

Tony could hear the arguing long before he made it to the kitchen, and he almost considered bypassing it entirely, but he really wanted some of the cake that he was pretty sure was still left in the fridge. He could hear Steve and Sam’s voices though, Steve’s especially loud and, to his surprise, Bucky arguing back with him. Not that he let Steve walk all over him or anything, he just usually resorted to rolling his eyes and making faces rather than wasting his time actually arguing with the most stubborn man alive.

“Oh my god, Stevie. You’re gettin’ way too hung up on this.”

“I’m just saying, this sounds like an invitation to murder. You met this person on the Internet!”

“I mean... lots of people meet on the internet,” Sam interjected, although he didn’t sound convinced either.

“And even if it was an invitation to murder,” Bucky added. “Which it’s not! But. Did you forget about the HYDRA assassin thing? I’m sure I can handle it.”

“Bucky, that’s not the point! He’s clearly got some kind of ulterior motives.”

As quietly as possible, Tony edged into the far end of the kitchen, just in time to see Steve give Bucky a pointed look.

“Besides. What about... you know.”

“No, I don’t know!” Bucky insisted. “You keep sayin’ that and I don’t have the first clue what you’re talking about!”

Clearly frustrated, Steve looked around the room and of course immediately spotted Tony quietly removing his cake from the fridge. “Tony!” he said looking like he’d just spotted his ally, which was clearly ridiculous.

“Oh no,” Tony told him. “I’m just here to get my cake and go. Don’t drag me into this.”

Sam snorted companionably at that, earning him a grin from Tony, but Steve ignored him entirely.

“Tony, please tell Bucky that ‘come over and pet my cat’ is definitely an invitation for at least sex and probably for murder.”

Tony nearly dropped his plate. “What?”

Sam was snickering and pretending not to be involved, and Bucky was flushed and not looking at any of them, so Steve sighed and rolled his eyes and turned to face Tony fully.

“Bucky temporarily lost his cat a couple weeks ago, and when he was getting advice on how to find her, he ended up meeting this guy on some cat forum. And they’ve been exchanging cat advice the past few weeks, only now - Eddie was it?” He turned to Bucky for confirmation, and was promptly ignored. “Eddie has invited him over to ‘pet his cat.’”

He managed to inflect a truly disturbing amount of innuendo into that, especially for Captain America, and if Tony had been any less distracted, he would have been making fun of him for it. As it was, he was staring wide eyed at Bucky, feeling a little light-headed.

“You... lost your cat?” he repeated weakly.

Bucky’s head shot up at that, eyes wide and almost as panicked looking as Tony felt. “Only for a couple days,” he said quickly. “Sorry, I should have told you about her sooner, probably. I just kind of found her, and took her in, and she’s really good, I promise, she’s quiet, and clean, and really sweet...”

It was probably the most words he’d spoken to Tony at once for as long as he’d known him.

Feeling sick to his stomach, Tony waved him off. “No, no, cat’s fine,” he told him, wondering if his voice sounded as weird out loud as it did to his own ears. “I told you when you moved in, it’s your place, you can do whatever you want with it. You can have a boa constrictor for all I mind. I just... Didn’t know you had one.” He forced a smile to his face, cursed Steve for knowing him so well when he gave him a funny look. “Anyway.” Cake untouched, he set the plate on the counter, backing toward the elevator. “You should probably listen to your buds there, Terminator. Meeting internet strangers can be a risky business.” He flashed a smile as the elevator doors opened for him just as he reached him, and bless his beautiful, brilliant AIs. “Guy sounds like a creep!” he added before the doors slid shut and he could safely fall back against the wall. “Fuck,” he muttered, running his hands through his hair. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He kicked the wall, which made him feel marginally better. He couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid. “Some genius you turned out to be,” he muttered to himself.

The doors opened on the penthouse, and he immediately moved for the bar, feeling like he could drink all the scotch right now. He wasn’t sure if he was glad, or wanted to cry when he found Hedy - or whatever Bucky had named his cat, he supposed - sitting on the counter.

“Hey, honey,” he mumbled at the sight of her. She sat up to put her paws on his chest, and he scooped her up, letting her climb up on his shoulder while he poured himself a drink. She balanced there when he moved over to the couch and slumped down on the seat, and then she shifted to curl up on his chest instead. Tony sighed, scratching over her ears and neck and setting her off purring. “Guess you’re not mine after all, huh?” he asked, pouting at her face. He head butted him and Tony felt his throat catch. “Well that explains how you stay so dry, anyway. At least I don’t have to worry about you getting hit by a car.” He kissed the top of her head. “I don’t want to tell you your business, but you should probably stick to your own home now. Your real dad is gonna be pissed when he finds out this is where you’ve been hanging out.” He sighed again, leaning back to blink up at the ceiling.

Hedy was mostly unhelpful, snuggling up and purring into his ear, but it made Tony feel a little bit better anyway.

“I’m an idiot,” he told her, grateful that she was the only one around to hear the way his voice cracked on the words. “I mean, pining over Bucky was bad enough, but at least I had no chance there. I mean, I tried to kill the man. That’s a pretty big deal breaker. But...” He trailed off, pressing his face into Hedy’s fur. “I really liked James,” he mumbled, barely able to admit it out loud, even to himself. “I just, I thought... Fuck, it’s like losing him twice.” He closed his eyes tight, letting Hedy’s purrs soothe him.

**

Bucky had managed to slip away from Sam and Steve, Sam because he was gonna punch his stupid face if he didn’t stop making pussy jokes, and Steve because he kept giving him increasingly suspicious and disappointed looks as the afternoon had worn on.

So he’d retreated to his apartment, absently noting that Alpine was on the prowl again as he ducked into his bedroom, rifling through his meager wardrobe for something to wear. He changed shirts a few times, settling on the red henley that Sam always teased him about, and then, trying and mostly failing to distract himself with the tv, he settled in to wait for Eddie’s text.

When the minutes crept past six o’clock, he wasn’t too worried. They’d said around six, and Eddie had mentioned that he had other things happening beforehand. But time kept sliding by, and by quarter to seven, he was starting to get twitchy.

Just checking you meant today tomorrow, and not another tomorrow.

He tried to make it a joke; Eddie had mentioned how easily he got distracted sometimes, and given his own past, Bucky wasn’t going to hold that against him.

There was no answer.

He let another hour slide by before he tried again, but there was no response to that text either, or the one he sent an hour after that. By ten, Alpine had returned and Bucky had given up entirely, stripping down to his boxers and crawling into bed — though he kept the phone close by his pillow, just in case Eddie texted.

**

Tony was the biggest asshole on the planet. He’d crashed on the couch and woken a few hours later to find Hedy gone and four missed texts from James - Bucky, he corrected himself firmly. That was a shitty thing to do, something he wouldn’t do to the worst person he knew, let alone someone he actually liked. It was just that he had no idea how to explain why he was cancelling.

He knew he couldn’t keep texting him, it wasn’t fair to either of them, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell him that Eddie was Tony, and didn’t know how else to explain why he wasn’t texting him anymore. So he just... stopped while he tried to figure out what to do.

And then, two weeks had passed, and he still hadn’t texted him back. He hadn’t even realized how much they had been in contact, but it seemed like a million times a day he’d think of a funny story, or a question, and he’d pull out his phone before he’d remember and feel nauseous all over again. He missed texting James - Bucky, whatever - and the easy friendship they’d developed. And worst of all were the texts that Bucky had continued sending him, more and more time passing between each one until they’d tapered off entirely after one last message.

I’ll leave you alone after this, but can you just tell me what I did wrong?

Tony didn’t answer that one either, and he felt like the worst person on the earth for it, but what was he supposed to say? Bucky hadn’t done one single thing wrong, this was all on Tony, but nobody ever believed that line. He knew it would just sound like platitudes. So he didn’t answer, and he didn’t answer, and then it just felt like it was too late.

He was the biggest asshole in the universe.

**

Tony had definitely been avoiding everyone, and he knew it. He felt like shit, both for losing James - Bucky - and for what he’d done to him in return. He couldn’t really bring himself to face anyone, and so he’d mostly confined himself to the lab, claiming a fuckup at SI and a multitude of projects to get through. He knew Steve was suspicious, and that he probably only had a couple more days before the man came down to physically drag him outside for some fresh air and sunshine, but for now, at least, he was leaving him alone.

If nothing else, he was actually getting a lot of work done.

It was the middle of the night, and he’d snuck out of the lab in search of a tool that he vaguely remembered leaving on the common floor after Rhodey had shown up unexpectedly a few weeks ago. They all had a tendency to keep odd hours, but usually by this time of night people had relegated themselves to their own spaces, even if they were still awake, and the entire floor was dark and quiet, so he thought he was safe.

That was, until he heard a low noise like someone was in pain. Tony may have been an asshole, but if one of his teammates was injured there was no way he was going to let that slide, so he followed the sound until he found Bucky, slumped forward on a couch, face buried in his hands and back a tense line.

Briefly Tony considered making a retreat and having JARVIS alert Steve, but found he couldn’t leave him like this. Taking a few, deliberate steps closer, so he wouldn’t startle the other man if he hadn’t heard him already, he paused a couple feet from the couch.

“Bucky?” he offered tentatively.

Evidently the other man hadn’t heard him arrive, because his head snapped up, and he stared at Tony a little wild-eyed before he placed him as a non-threat and relaxed minutely. His face was blotchy, eyes red rimmed, and Tony felt dread settle low in his gut.

“You alright?” he asked, even though he very obviously was not.

Bucky shrugged, letting his gaze shift away again. “‘m fine,” he mumbled. “Sorry if I woke you.”

Tony shook his head, even though Bucky wasn’t looking at him. “You didn’t,” he told him, not bothering to point out that he couldn’t have from here even if Tony had been asleep.

He told himself to just walk away. Bucky had said he was fine. He would ask for Tony’s help if that’s what he wanted. Probably. Maybe.

Instead, he found himself taking a few more steps until the arm of the couch hit his thighs. “Are you hurt?”

Bucky huffed out a soft noise that could have been laugh except for how raw it sounded. He rolled his head to face Tony again, watching him with dull eyes. “Nah,” he drawled. “Well. Just my heart.” His lips curled into a faint smile, a little self-deprecating, like he was aware of how melodramatic that sounded.

Tony felt a pit settle heavy in the bottom of his stomach, had a brief moment of thinking he might actually throw up. He needed to get the fuck out of here. Bucky’s voice was gruff and despondent; Tony was clearly the last person he wanted to talk to about this, if he wanted to talk about it at all.

Instead, he found himself returning Bucky’s twisted smile. “I know the feeling,” he told him, and even though this was 100% his own fault, he still felt the ache of heartbreak. “You want me to get Steve?”

Bucky snorted, and this time his smile was a little more genuine. “Can’t talk to that asshole about this,” he admitted. “He’s been weird as fuck lately.”

“Yeah, I noticed that too.” And Bucky wasn’t telling him to get lost, so Tony took a step around the couch, settling a couple cushions away from the other man. “You wanna talk about it?”

Bucky shrugged again, and maybe it was the dark and the late hour that made it easier to talk but he ran a hand through his hair, pushing it back out of his face. “It’s stupid, I just... I met this guy? Well, ‘met’ is kinda an understatement.” He chanced a quick glance at Tony. “I don’t know if you remember that guy I was supposed to meet a couple of weeks ago?”

Tony stared straight ahead. “The, uh. The cat guy? The one Sam and Steve were bugging you about?”

“Yeah. Should’ve listened to them, I guess. Never showed and I haven’t heard from him since.”

“Shit,” Tony said, closing his eyes against the obvious hurt and embarrassment in Bucky’s voice. He was such an asshole. “I’m sorry, Barnes. That really sucks.”

Bucky made a sound low in his throat and dug the heels of his hands in against his eyes. “The worst part?” he asked without looking back up, his voice thick and rough. “I really fuckin liked him, and I don’t think I even realized until he was gone.”

Tony made a sympathetic noise, not sure he was able to form words himself. He didn’t know if it was worse realizing that Bucky had genuinely cared for him, had fallen for him as hard as Tony had himself, or knowing that if he learned the truth he’d be absolutely (rightfully) furious with him, and probably never speak to him again. Part of what he’d liked so much about James was realizing that someone could like him without knowing him as Tony Stark. There’d been no second guessing his intentions, no wondering what he thought he already knew about Tony, or if he’d already watched his sex tape. He’d just been Eddie to him, the cat guy, and it had been surprisingly freeing. But there was no way Bucky would even want Eddie again if he found out he was actually Tony the whole time.

Which, really, was exactly why he should tell Bucky the truth, let him hate Tony and move on, but he still couldn’t bring himself to say the words. Instead he cleared his throat, patting Bucky’s knee comfortingly.

“Honestly, Barnes. You’re too good for him anyway. Sounds like this Eddie guy is a prick. He doesn’t deserve you.”

He knew his voice was bitter, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bucky lift his head, shooting him a strange look, but he let it go, shaking his head and leaning back against the couch.

“He’s not, but it’s probably for the best, anyway,” he mumbled. “I’m a fuckin’ wreck. I’m no good for anyone.”

Tony turned to him with wide eyes, because if anyone was the no good one here, it was him and not Bucky at all.

“Bucky, no,” he told him, hand squeezing harder around his knee, not even noticing that he’d failed to deflect with nicknames or his last name. “You’re great. Any guy - anybody - would be lucky to have you.” He stared at Bucky, willing him to understand, thinking how, in another life, he could have been that person, and even now would have given anything for the chance.

Bucky snorted, eyes closed, clearly thinking Tony was just being nice and not actually buying a word of it.

Which was probably a good thing, because a second later Tony realized how absolutely, embarrassingly love stricken the look he was giving Bucky was. A glimpse of that and he’d know everything anyway.

He cleared his throat, pulling his hand away.  “Or, you know. Maybe he lost his phone, or was abducted by aliens or something, and he’ll turn up,” he offered, getting a startled huff of laughter from Bucky in response. “Anyway, good luck Barnes. I really, really hope it works out for you.”

He said it with complete sincerity; it would never work out with himself, or Eddie, or whatever, but with the right person... Tony genuinely wished him happiness.

**

Bucky knew he was probably being ridiculous, mourning a relationship that had never even started with a person he had never even met, but he couldn’t really help it. He knew he should be annoyed or even angry with Eddie for disappearing without a trace - unless something bad had happened to him, which Bucky didn’t want to consider - but he couldn’t really find it in himself to be angry. More than anything he missed Eddie. He missed their conversations, how a couple of words could turn into hours of talking, the random, borderline nonsensical messages that seemed to be waiting for him whenever he woke up, or returned from a run or an evening out with Steve and Sam. He’d thought - well, hoped - that could maybe translate into a real-life relationship. It had been so nice talking to someone who only knew him as James, not the Winter Soldier, not even Bucky. Having no expectations had been wonderful, and maybe it was selfish, but he wanted more.

Maybe even worse was the fact that he didn’t have anyone to commiserate with. He’d mentioned it once, in passing to Steve, and the other man had gotten all huffy and pursed his lips, grumbling about how it was probably for the best, and he’d never trusted that other guy anyway, and adding something under his breath that sounded like ‘cheating.’ Bucky had no idea what he was talking about and didn’t care enough to try and find out - he’d let Sam tackle that one.

So he’d been moping and wallowing by himself for the past couple weeks, mostly sticking to his apartment and watching terrible movies on television, eating junk food that gave him a stomach ache and refusing to let Steve coax him outside for runs or training, because he didn’t enjoy that at the best of times, and certainly not when he was wallowing. Objectively he knew he was probably driving everyone crazy, and that it was about time to grow up and move on, but he wasn’t quite there.

But apparently, Steve was. Without even knocking, he burst into Bucky’s apartment at some ungodly hour of the morning (actually two in the afternoon, but who was counting), rolling his eyes at the lump of Bucky under a pile of blankets on the couch. Without a word, he moved to the windows and pulled back the curtains, letting in a stream of sunshine that had Bucky grunting and squinting before pulling a blanket over his eyes.

“What the fuck, Stevie?” he whined.

“What the fuck yourself,” Steve retorted, moving over to the couch and pulling the blanket back before sitting on Bucky’s legs so he couldn’t pull them up again.

“You’re the worst,” Bucky grumbled, punching him in the arm hard enough to bruise. “I shoulda left you in the damn alley I found you in.”

“Yeah, well. You didn’t, and now you gotta deal with me. So what’s going on with you, huh?’’

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bucky informed him.

“I’m talking about you and Tony.”

“Me and - what ?”

“You’ve both been moping around here all week. What happened?” Steve wasn’t joking now, all sad-eyed and serious. “Did you two break up or something?”

Bucky sat up so fast that he actually toppled Steve onto the floor. “ What??

“It’s a fair question!” Steve protested. “You’ve both been hiding away and avoiding everyone, and you’re both looking so damn sad... I thought something might have happened.”

Bucky blinked at him. “Stevie, I’m bummed about Eddie. I don’t know what’s up with Tony. I’ve barely even seen the man in weeks.”

“Eddie?” Steve repeated, making a face. “You’re sad about him? But what about Tony?”

“What about Tony?”

“You’re together! And I know he likes to talk but he’s got a big heart. If you’re seeing other people, it’s going to devastate him, whatever he says. He’s been crushing on you for ages. Did you at least talk to him about it?”

Bucky stared down at him, wide-eyed. “Stevie. I don’t know where these delusions are coming from but Tony and I are not together.”

Steve was frowning now. “You’re not?”

“No!”

“But Tony said... well, he didn’t actually say anything, but Alpine was there, and-”

“Alpine was where ?”

But Steve continued talking over him. “And he was all embarrassed about it, but I thought it was just... because... of your... Oh my god.” Steve looked up at Bucky, lips pressed tightly together, like he was trying not to laugh. “Bucky, when did you start talking to Eddie?”

“Right after Alpine went disappeared. The first time.”

“Uh huh. And did you at any point tell him she was missing?”

“No? He was looking for advice on his new cat.”

“The new cat that he’d just picked up as a stray, right?”

“Yeah...” Bucky stared at him suspiciously. “Where are you going with this?”

“Buck...” Steve snorted and cracked, laughing so hard that he could barely get the words out. “My two best friends are the biggest dumbasses in the world. I can’t believe I even know you. This is so embarrassing I don’t even want to tell Sam,” he added, like he wasn’t already composing the text message he’d send him the second he was out of Bucky’s eyesight.

Stevie .” Bucky shot his leg out, connecting with Steve’s solar plexus and laying him out on his back. “Quit the noise and tell me what the fuck you’re talking about.”

Still chortling, Steve sat up and rubbed at his chest. “Bucky,” he said, eyes sparkling. “Tony is Eddie.”

Bucky fell back against the couch like he’d been punched. “What the hell?”

“Think about it,” Steve urged. “Alpine’s disappearing every couple of days... She’d have to be somewhere close. Fuck’s sake, you told him to send the cat out with a note and day later your cat showed up with a note . How didn’t you put this together?”

“Okay, maybe - maybe - Eddie is Alpine’s co-owner. How the fuck do you make the leap to Eddie being Tony? Tony doesn’t even like me.”

“Yeah, sure,” Steve said dryly. “Tony doesn’t like you about as much as you don’t like him.” He rolled his eyes when Bucky just stared at him. “We’ve been over this. He’s been sweet on you for ages. Real pining shit. It’s embarrassing - almost as embarrassing as the way you flush whenever he walks into the room, and alternate between saying the stupidest shit or nothing at all. Don’t ask me what either of you see in the other.”

“He couldn’t,” Bucky insisted. “I killed his parents.”

“Yeah, funny. He keeps saying the same things about you. ‘He barely tolerates me, Steve, and why would he? I almost killed him.’”

“I wouldn’t hold that against him!”

“Hmm... Almost like recognizing and accepting there are sometimes extraneous circumstances behind our actions. Like, say... Being tortured and brainwashed into becoming an assassin?” He sighed. “I’m not having the argument with you again. Believe me or not, Tony is Eddie. Think about it. You kept wondering how she was going outside without getting wet? Because she never went outside. She was wandering around the tower. Bucky. Tony’s middle name is Edward.

Bucky just stared at him. “Tony is Eddie?”

“Well, one way to find out. Alpine’s not here, is she? I bet you find Tony, you find your cat.”

**

Before he could talk himself out of it, Bucky was up and moving to elevator, toe tapping impatiently as he waited for it to descend to the lab level. Nerves twisted in his stomach, but more than that he couldn’t help feeling hopeful. It was a dangerous feeling, he knew, but knowing and stopping it were two very different things.

He wasn’t expecting the doors to open for him automatically and hesitated briefly before gathering up his courage and moving into the workshop. It only took him half a second to spot Tony, breath catching at the sight of him like it always did. The other man was turned away from him, flopped back in a spinny chair and apparently unaware of Bucky’s presence, captivated by some holographic model, hovering in the air above his desk. He was always beautiful, if you asked Bucky, but especially like this, mouth twisted up in a grin as the model seemed to behave exactly the way he intended.

Bucky was so captivated by his face that it took him a moment to notice the motion of Tony’s upper arms. He followed the movement to find him patting-

“Alpine??”

Tony startled and jumped at the sound, whirling in the chair to face Bucky with wide eyes. “How did you- Um. Hey. Hi. What’s up?” He shifted like he was trying to hide Alpine from view, face flushing in embarrassment, but trying to play it cool. Then he really looked at Bucky’s face. “Oh,” he said, and the sadness in his voice made Bucky ache. “You know, don’t you?”

Bucky stared at him as Alpine hopped off Tony’s lap, winding her way between Bucky’s ankles. He picked her up automatically. “It was you?” he asked, still incredulous because Steve telling him was one thing, he still hadn’t expected it to be true. “All this time, it was you?”

Apparently misunderstanding his tone, Tony winced and held up his hands beseechingly. “Okay, in my defense, I really didn’t know she had a home at first. And then... Well she just kept coming back, and I didn’t really know to stop her? She’d just show up. She’s a very smart cat.”

“Yeah, I know,” Bucky said, brushing his face against Alpine’s soft coat. He’d meant it as reassurance, but judging by the way Tony sank further into his seat, shoulders sagging slightly, and the way his hopeful smile was shifting into something more rehearsed, he hadn’t managed it. He knew he had to say something but couldn’t quite figure out the words, and the silence dragged on between.

“Anyway,” Tony said, jolting Bucky out of his thoughts. He wasn’t even looking at him now, eyes trained somewhere between Bucky’s right hip and the door, and he was angling his body back toward the workspace. “Sorry for inadvertently stealing your cat. I can text you, or have Jarvis update you if you wanna come get her the next time she shows up.”

He looked even more disappointed at that thought, and Bucky knew he should tell him not to be ridiculous, that Alpine clearly adored him, that he trusted Tony with her as much as he trusted anyone and that as long as Tony was comfortable with her being there, he was more than happy to alternate cat time.

“Stevie says you have a thing for me?” is what he blurted out instead.

Tony’s head shot up again, body going perfectly still. His expression was horrified, but there was something else to it that Bucky couldn’t quite put a name to. He opened his mouth a couple of times, like he was going to explain - or deny it - but couldn’t quite find the words. Bucky shook his head before he could start, barreling through.

“But then you stopped talking. You stopped messaging right around the time that I’m guessing you figured out it was me you were talkin to, so… I thought that can’t be true?” He phrased it as a question, and wanting to kick himself for it, but Tony’s horrified expression had grown.

“Oh god no,” Tony blurted out before Bucky could say another word. “That wasn’t it at all! I loved talking to James. You. Whatever. It was the highlight of my day, every day.” He stopped, chewing at his lower lip. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed it,” he added in a mumble.

Bucky forced himself to breathe, to ignore the way his stomach warmed with hope, and took a couple steps closer to Tony. “Then why’d you stop?” he asked, voice rough.

“Because it was me,” Tony told him, meeting his eyes for a long minute before looking away. “I couldn’t lie to you, Bucky. I couldn’t keep talking to you as Eddie, and not tell you who I really was. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell you the truth either. I know it’s the shittiest thing in the world, and no one deserves to be ghosted like that and I am so, so sorry for that. I just... I couldn’t face how disappointed you’d be when you found out it was me.”

“Disappointed?” Bucky choked out. “ Disappointed ?”

Tony cringed a little, like he was expecting to get yelled at, like he was expecting Bucky to tell him that disappointed didn’t even begin to cover it, but Bucky just shook his head.

“Tony, how could I possibly be disappointed?” He blew out a long breath, running his hands through his hair. “You’re the man who brought me into your home when I had nowhere else to go, even after... after all the pain I caused you. And don’t say it was just for Steve’s benefit because nobody likes Stevie that much.” He managed a tentative smile when that got a startled laugh out of Tony. “How could I possibly be disappointed? You forgave me for what I did to your parents. You’re kind, and selfless, and a genius to boot, and I’ve always been a science nerd. You check off all my boxes, and on top of all that you’ve got an ass that won’t quit. I’m not disappointed, I’m... I’m thrilled . I’ve got this man that I’ve admired and been in love with for ages, and I’ve got this internet stranger that I’ve definitely been crushing on more than a little, and now I’m finding out that they’re the same person .” Bucky shook his head again. “No better outcome than that.”

He stopped talking then, a little out of breath, and flushed as he realized how carried away he’d gotten. Tony was going to think he was absolutely insane. He’d... Oh god, had he told Tony he was in love with him?

But when he met Tony’s gaze, the other man was staring at him with a dazed, awed expression, eyes wide and shining and a huge smile across his face like he couldn’t believe someone could feel all those things about him.

“Did you say you loved me?” he asked, voice little more than a rough whisper.

Bucky shrugged, figuring he was all in now. “Yep,” he drawled, moving closer and closing the distance between them. Tony didn’t stop looking at him.

“I’m kinda in love with you too,” he admitted softly as Bucky reached the chair. Smiling at him tentatively, Bucky dropped easily to his knees in front of Tony, putting them on almost the same eye level. Tony sighed, leaning forward until their foreheads touched. “I thought you’d hate me,” he breathed, and Bucky could practically feel the words on his lips. He beamed.

“Never,” he declared.

And then, Alpine still pressed between them, he closed those last few millimeters and kissed Tony and it couldn’t have been more perfect.

EPILOGUE

Steve and Sam were sprawled across the couch together, Sam’s head in Steve’s lap while Steve’s fingers scratched over Sam’s scalp. The two of them were watching some dumb romcom, because that’s what had come on after the ball game had ended and they’d both been too lazy to ask Jarvis to change the channel.

The elevator dinged, causing them to look up as Tony and Bucky stepped through the doors, cat carrier in Bucky’s hand. He set it on the ground and opened the door and Alpine barreled out, pausing long enough to give them both a dirty look before darting off to the kitchen.

“Ta-da!” Tony proclaimed, holding up a framed certificate of some kind.

“What’re we looking at?” Steve asked.

“Hedy’s microchip certificate!”

“They give you a certificate for getting your cat microchipped now?” Sam asked incredulously.

“Nope!” Tony declared happily. “Had it made special. Alpine Hedy Barnes-Stark is officially microchipped. With special Stark upgrades, of course, to allow for GPS tracking.”

Bucky was snickering, but also looking at Tony like he was absolutely besotted. “Figured it was better to be safe, even if she did turn out to’ve never left the tower. Don’t want a repeat of this mess.”

“Well.” Tony turned to face him, a smile playing over his face. “It didn’t turn out all bad.” His tongue flicked out over his lip.

“Naw,” Bucky admitted, eyes locked on Tony’s. “Still. Think she’s got enough owners for now.”

“Oh, definitely,” Tony agreed, and it sounded far too heated for someone who was talking about cat ownership. “I’m not sharing you with anybody.”

They stared at each other long enough for Steve to start shifting uncomfortably, only blinking when Sam loudly coughed “get a room” under his breath.

“Oh, I intend to,” Bucky declared, grabbing a hand and pulling Tony back toward the elevator, Tony sending them a shit-eating grin and wave over his shoulder, giggling as they went.

“God they’re gross,” Sam grumbled when the elevator doors had shut safely behind them.

“Disgusting,” Steve agreed. “Disgusting and stupid.”

“Right?” Sam tilted his head back to look at him, laughing. “What a couple dumbasses. All this time pining for each other and it took a damn cat to get them together.”

“At least I don’t have to deal with that anymore. ‘Oh Steve!’” he cried in a high pitched voice that was apparently supposed to be Tony. “‘I love Bucky so much and keep giving him secret gifts that I think no one has noticed but I tried to kill him! He’ll never love me back!’”

“‘Duuuur, Steve?’” Sam continued in a low growl that had Steve snorting even while he felt like his should be vaguely offended on Bucky’s behalf. “‘Uhhhhh. I love Tony but I’m a baaad man. I did baaaad things while I was brainwashed and so I’m unworthy of love. Just gonna go sit in a gloomy room and think about death and the color black and the pattern of a tear falling down a cheek and-’”

Sam had to stop then, laughing too hard to continue talking, and he looked so damn pleased with himself that Steve couldn’t help laughing too.

“Aw shit,” Sam gasped when he had caught his breath again, a hand curled over his chest. “Course now that they’ve figured it out, they’re going to be a million times worse, aren’t they?”

“Yep,” Steve agreed, grinning wide and tangling his fingers with Sam’s just because he could. “They definitely are.”

The end.