When Tony Stark is eight, he's playing behind the couch with his circuit board, two plastic dinosaurs, and a miniature erector set. He's just managed to get the tiny crane to lift the stegasaurus from the T-Rex's clutches when he hears a low laugh.
Looking up, Tony sees his dad's friend Obie.
"Whatcha doing, my boy?" Obie asks.
"Making a crane," Tony says, staring at him. "I think I need a better hoist rope, though." He'd used some twine he'd found in the kitchen, because his dad had shooed him from the workshop.
Obie walks around the couch and crouches down, inspecting the crane. "You should try something smoother. See how the ragged edges are getting caught? How about I bring you some high-tensile nylon cord?"
Tony is rapt. He'd noticed the problem, but his materials were limited. "Yeah! And I need a better latticed boom or Steggie will--"
Obie laughs. He's leaned closer, and Tony thinks for a moment that Obie sniffed him. Adults are so weird. Tony'd already had his bath tonight, jeez.
"I'll see what I can do," Obie says. "Maybe you should have a few dinosaurs to go with this whole building operation. How about a triceratops?"
Tony has a triceratops in his playchest, and he's actually more interested in the high tensile nylon. Before he can try wheedling for the advanced motorized erector set (it would be so cool), his mother appears. She looks at Tony, then at Obie. Her mouth gets pinched, the way it does when his dad has a whiskey at lunchtime. Tony isn't sure why--he's allowed to play behind the couch so long as he's careful and doesn't get motor oil on the carpet.
"Maria!" Obie says. His voice is kind of loud. He wraps an arm around Tony, cradling him against his side. Obie smells kind of like dad. Shop chemicals, whiskey, cologne, that other scent. "I was just talking to Tony about his dinosaurs."
His mom smiles at Obie, but it's a weird smile. Maybe she's sick. "I hope he hasn't been boring you with stories about them."
"Not at all. He's very creative."
Which is weird, because Tony isn't. Not like his friend Sandy. She has a whole life history for each dinosaur, with special names and family and everything. Tony doesn't really care, but Sandy is nice and she let him rewire the elevator in her Barbie house so it worked for real.
"He's also up past his bedtime. Come on, Tony. Your dad's guests will be arriving soon. Chop, chop."
Tony wants to argue, because usually mom lets him stay behind the couch so long as he's quiet. Her voice has the 'I mean it' undertone, though, so he just packs up Steggie and T-Rex. "Can I take my crane?" If the party gets going, Tony can sneak out of bed and work on it.
"Not tonight, sweetie." She wraps an arm around his shoulder, holding him next to her as they go around the couch.
Obie is smiling, and he calls, "Goodnight, Tony my boy!"
"'Night," Tony says, over his shoulder.
His mom tucks him into bed and reads him two extra chapters of their bedtime book. Tony listens to her voice and thinks about the crane's boompoint.
The next day, the family driver takes him on a four hour trek to The Miss Peters Academy for Talented Youth.
When they leave, Tony climbs up on the seat so he can look out the back window of the car. Howard is holding a glass of scotch and he's got a cigarette in his mouth. His dad waves cheerfully, looking happy, then goes back into the house.
His mom looks tired and kind of sick. She's standing on their gravel drive in her sock feet, and her hair is kind of scraggly. She stays there, waving, until the car goes around a turn in the road.
Tony isn't sure what to expect at the school. His parents hadn't said much before putting him in the car. They drive into the country for a long long time. There are cows, which is kind of worrying. Finally, the car stops at a huge wrought iron gate. A guard comes out and talks to the family driver. He looks carefully at Tony in the backseat, but he smiles. The driver gets out and shows the guard the car trunk, and then the gates swing open. Tony thinks that's pretty cool. He's seen other mechanized gates, but this one is as big as the gate at Fort Bragg when he visited with dad one time. No barbed wire on top of the fence, but Tony sees some sparkly-looking filament. Maybe it's electric.
Tony peers through the windows, but it's boring. Lots of green lawn, some playground sets, some sports fields. There's a bunch of buildings, but they're also boring. Old fashioned brick, white columns, discrete utility sheds to hold the air conditioning. Tony had been hoping for something modern.
A woman comes down the steps in front of the biggest building. She's wearing dark blue pants and some kind of warm-looking sweater.
"Hello, Tony, welcome."
Tony stares at her. "How did you know my name?"
"Your parents told me you were coming." She crouches down on her heels so she's eye level. Tony's had adults do that before, usually when they want to ask him about dad's secret inventions. She doesn't seem like that, though.
"Huh," Tony says.
"My name is Violet Anderson. You may call me Na Anderson." She offers a hand.
Tony shakes her hand warily. She doesn't look like an omega.
"I know this is all pretty confusing." Na Anderson is still crouched down.
Tony doesn't say anything. His dad has a lot of opinions about how Starks are supposed to behave. Starks never admit fear. Tony's still pretty confused, though, because Na Anderson really looks nothing like the omegas Tony's met. They'd all worn fancy clothes with weird hair and lots of makeup. Most of them seemed to be married to senators or research division heads. They'd all smelled not just bonded but Taken with a capital T. Still, Tony's nose is pretty good, so maybe if he can concentrate on her scent, he can figure this stuff out. Tony thinks Na Anderson smells a little like his dad's superficial scent after a day in the workshop at home. Coffee, chemicals, ink, old books. There's none of that sharp smell of alpha, though. Tony wonders if maybe Na Anderson just doesn't have a scent.
He edges closer, sniffing as sneakily as possible. She's still talking, but Tony is ignoring it. He doesn't care about boring stuff like educational opportunities or student to teacher ratio.
Tony is just a breath away from Na Anderson now, and he's frowning. There is a smell to her, he realizes. Nothing like dad's research assistant Todd, who smells kind of like clean floors. Nothing like Obie's nose-tingling lemony smell. Nothing like his dad, whose alpha smell is a lot like scotch. Not even like Senator Wilson, who is a nice lady, but who has kind of a high-note smell like his mom's expensive perfume.
Tony sniffs carefully, forgetting to be sneaky about it. Na Anderson smells earthy, like sunwarmed rock.
Na Anderson is watching him. "This is a special school," she says quietly.
Tony freezes. His dad has sent him here because he's not an alpha. He's heard dad talking about it at poker night. How some of them told dad he could try again, since Tony was just an omega. "Because I'm just an omega."
Na Anderson doesn't look away. "There are no 'just' omegas at this school, Na Stark."
Tony looks down at the driveway. It's the concrete kind, and he focuses on the gritty surface. It's clean, not like New York sidewalks. There's no black circles where gum got dropped and then attracted dirt. It's all plain soft gray.
"Did you use a sealant on this?" he asks, because sometimes adults will let him get away with changing the subject if he gives them a science-based question wrapped in a compliment. "It's really clean and there's no cracks."
Na Anderson touches the scratchy concrete, rubbing it gently, like she's considering the question seriously.
Tony mimics her. It's rougher than he expected, and he pulls his hand back. He sniffs his fingers experimentally. It dusty, but there's no petro-chemical smell. "Doesn't smell like paint," Tony offers.
"There isn't any paint smell," Na Anderson agrees, sniffing her own fingers. She takes a tiny paper envelope from her baggy sweater pocket. "Have you got a clean sampling pick?"
Tony blinks at her, shakes his head.
"Ah well." She pulls a pen from her back pocket and uses the end to scrape at the concrete. It doesn't work very well, but Na Anderson keeps at it.
Tony's a little confused about this whole weird situation with the school, getting dumped by his parents, the weird way Na Anderson is dressed, the way the driver just unpacked his stuff and took off. But he understands science and he understands sampling, and that pen is never going to get a good sample.
Tony crouches down next to her and offers the screwdriver he keeps in his pocket at all times. It has fifteen different heads that live in the base and it's a lot smaller than dad's giant ones. His mom's friend Eileen had given it to him for his birthday last year, and it has his initials carved into the red handle. AES. The adults had all found it pretty funny, for some reason. "Not gonna be true for all that long, Eileen. Should have waited to have it engraved," one of them joked. Tony hadn't really gotten it, because he's a Stark. He's stuck with that name forever.
Na Anderson takes the screwdriver, making a happy sound under her breath. Tony's made that sound himself, sometimes, when he figures out a problem and sees a solution. She's flipped out the base and pulled out one of the heads Tony never uses. It only takes her a second to get some samples of the concrete now.
Tony watches her. Na Anderson takes scrapings from three different places, and she puts each scraping into its own little envelope.
"We can get more if the deviations are too far," she tells him.
When she hands the screwdriver back, Tony discovers she's put the phillips head back on, like it was before. He tucks it carefully into his jeans pocket. "Thank you."
"No, thank you." Na Anderson gives the concrete a last longing look. "I guess we'd better do that tour. But we can end it in the lab, check these out."
"OK," Tony says.
When Na Anderson takes his hand, Tony lets her.
The tour takes a long time. It's a big school. There are seven main buildings and a bunch of auxiliary structures. The Lower School dorm is where Tony gets to live. Na Anderson is his floor mother, she says, which Tony thinks is kind of funny. She's the least mom-like person he's ever met.
Tony gets his own room, but he has to share a bathroom with everyone else. His room is already decorated, but Tony expected that. All his dad's houses are decorated. This one has warm red walls and big windows, lots of oak furniture, and a rug in abstract patterns of red, black, and gold.
Na Anderson shows him the two sets of bookshelves. Only one shelf has books. Tony is drawn to them. Introduction to the Principles of Mathematics--ooh. Tony skips Reading and Composition Vol 1 and 2. Borrrrrrring. There's a book called Everyday Experiments: a User-Friendly Guide to the Practical Sciences that looks kind of cool, even if it does have an orange cover. Maybe this school isn't going to completely suck.
The next book is weird, though. Our Omega Bodies. Tony wrinkles his nose. It's not a thin picture book, like the really embarassing book his mom had given him after he'd asked a couple of perfectly reasonable questions. Her book had weird fluffy pink clouds on the cover and talked about how love makes people want to have babies and how beautiful it is when that happens. Tony knows it's all bullshit, because his dad's friend Reeve has two omegas and they've never had a single kid. Reeve just likes to show up at parties in a tux with an omega on each arm.
Na Anderson is still watching him. Tony puts Our Omega Bodies back on the shelf. It's heavy, heavier than Introduction to the Principle of Mathematics, even, and it doesn't look like a kids book.
Tony grabs A Primer of the Visual Arts and starts flipping through it. "Art's pretty stupid."
Na Anderson doesn't take the bait, which is just unfair. Adults love to yell at him, and he's being purposefully obnoxious. Maybe he should try again.
"We believe in evidence based medicine here," she says.
Tony blinks. What?
"Part of our charter is to provide you with the scientific information you need to make decisions about your own body and your life."
That sounds a lot like what his dad calls liberal bullshit. Tony grabs the math book and clutches it to his chest. He shouldn't reply, but he's never been good at keeping his mouth shut. "I bet the alphas here don't have an Our Alpha Bodies book."
Na Anderson just takes the omega textbook and sits down on the floor. "There are no alphas here."
"What?" Tony is staring.
"Research indicates that mixed-sex type classrooms are poor learning environments for omegas."
"Oh my god," Tony hisses, "this is another one of those you poor little omegas can't possibly handle the hard hard math. Don't worry your widdle head about--"
Na Anderson just talks over him, voice still calm. "Numerous studies indicate that in a mixed type environment, teacher attention and classroom resources are unfairly applied. Omegas are called on sixty percent less often than their beta or alpha counterparts. Their homework is often graded too leniently, too harshly, or not at all. When working on group projects, omegas often do more than their share of the work and yet receive less credit for it. Despite showing leadership or academic skills, teachers frequently pass over talented omega students in favor of alpha students during after school programs."
Tony is just staring at her. The math book feels heavy and clumsy in his hands. He's thinking about the Math-a-Thon at his old school. His team had six kids, and he'd done most of the problem sets. When they'd gotten their scores back, the alpha, Sarah, had gotten fifty extra credit points for leading their team. The other kids had gotten twenty to thirty extra credit points, and the teacher had put lots of interesting commentary on the math problems on their answer sheets. Tony had been given twenty five points for participation. The teacher had put a smiley face on his answer sheet, and she'd made some comments about how helpful it had been to the team that he'd taken their notes and re-written their proofs so they were easier to read in his neat printing. She'd hoped that he'd enjoyed participating, and she'd suggested that he might want to join the upcoming debate camp. The debate coach was looking for a charming omega who could bring out the competive streak in his debators.
"At Miss Price's Academy," Na Anderson says, "we only take omega students. You're not here to help alphas or betas, Tony. You're here to learn for yourself."
Na Anderson looks so serious. Her short hair is kind of fluffy and wind-mussed, and she isn't wearing any makeup. She reminds him of one of dad's scientists, stuck in a basement lab somewhere working on a project and forgetting what day it is.
"Did you go here?" Tony asks. Suddenly he really wants to know.
"No," she says. "I didn't attend a school."
"Everybody goes to school," Tony scoffs. "If you skip, you get in big trouble." He's had that drilled into him many times.
She smiles, but she looks kind of sad. "I was from a conservative family, Tony."
"My dad's a conversative," Tony says. "I went to school."
Na Anderson looks like she wants to say something about his dad. Tony leans closer, interested. All she says is, "Hmm." Tony's disappointed.
She gives him the rest of the tour then, showing him the particle accelator they're building in one of the science classes. Tony isn't all that interested in the fine arts building, with its grand pianos and painting studios, its mirrored dance room and its theater in the round. Na Anderson hauls him up the last flight of steps, though, and insists on showing him the drawing studio. There are drafting tables lined up in neat rows, which Tony thinks is pretty boring, really, but then he sees the schematic up on the chalkboard. Its the interior view of an engine.
"You need to improve your drawing skills if you're going to register your patents or expect other people to build according to your specifications."
Tony is still staring, rapt, at the engine parts on that chalkboard. Someone had drawn it freehand, in chalk, and Tony wants to see the engine from another view--from the top down, or the bottom up, zoom in and out, maybe.
Na Anderson just lets him look for a while, lets him get close to the board. Doesn't even protest when he runs his finger just above the fuel line.
"OK," he says at last. "I guess I can learn to draw."
School isn't so bad here. Tony gets to learn as much math and physics as wants, and Na Anderson turns out to be in charge of the engineering department. Tony's old school hadn't even had a specific engineering department.
There are classes Tony likes (physics, shop, math) and classes Tony finds boring (reading, social studies, history) and classes that Tony doesn't like to think too much about (omega studies, deportment, personal development).
The kids in his dorm house are OK, mostly. Tony finds out that Melody, who has the room next to his, is some kind of sports prodigy. She runs track and plays basketball and loves karate movies. Tony ends up helping her out in the gym sometimes, when she wants to try out some of the karate moves she's seen on TV. He spends a lot of time with bruises in weird places, but it's fun.
His other best friend is Alex, who lives at the end of the hall. Alex's parents are in banking, but Alex doesn't like to talk about them. He builds interesting things in shop, and he's better at drafting than Tony. For some crazy reason, Alex really likes drains and what he calls civil engineering. Na Anderson gets them some books on city planning and water treatment plants.
Tony and Alex build an ant colony for the state science fair. Their colony has three streams, a tiny sunken limestone treatment pond, running water in the ant houses, and a very complicated artificial overhead watering system that mimics temperate weather patterns. They hadn't been able to figure out how to make it snow without putting the ants into hybernation, but Na Anderson says that's OK, because clearly the ants are living in California.
Tony's made the ants a fully integrated food delivery system that distributes their sugar-water and vitamins in random areas at various times. The ants have to send out their scouts and workers to collect the food. Tony's run their colony's ant lifespans against the controls supplied by the company that breeds the ants, and he's determined that his food delivery system seems to increase their lifespan and activity levels.
Their project has to be carried to the exhibition hall in a truck the school gets just for that purpose. The facility staff move the colony into the building using a palette lifter and some complicated rope nets Na Anderson designed.
Tony's pretty excited by the fair, and he wanders around all the different exhibits. The upper grades seem big on fruit fly breeding and growing bean plants under different lighting. Nobody's got anything as cool as their ant colony, he's pretty sure, although there are different teams who built go-carts from the ground up. That's kind of neat, but Tony's not allowed to machine parts himself yet, because of the whole live flame thing.
When he gets back to their ant colony, Na Anderson is gone, and their social studies teacher, Sa Hamilton is there. He smiles at Tony, but he looks like he has a headache. Alex isn't there, either, which is kind of disappointing. Tony wants to tell him about the vendor booth he saw, Price Manufacturing. They build Alex's favorite kind of PVC pipe, and they're giving out free samples.
"Na Stark," Sa Hamilton says, beckoning Tony over.
"Where's Alex?" Tony asks. "Price Manufacturing has--"
But Sa Hamilton is just shaking his head and smiling. "Free samples of every pipe known to man, yes, I've heard. We're having lunch in the atrium, Tony. Everyone else is there already."
"I guess I could eat," Tony mutters. He's had food in places like this before with his parents, and it's never been much. They always seem to serve fake broiled chicken and brocoli spears and rice pilaf. It's a weird law. Like, the Second Law of Conventions, right after Howard Stark Will Have a Work Emergency That Means He Can't Make It so Mom Will Have To Give All Awards.
Tony scuffs his converse on the shiny linoleum all the way back to the elevators. When they get out, there's a couple of burly people in black suits who smell like they're wearing alpha-pheromone cologne by the bucket. Tony sees Sa Hamilton try not to sneeze, which is pretty funny. One of the guards looks Sa Hamilton up and down, up and down, and kind of leers at him, but Sa Hamilton narrows his eyes and gives him this look. Tony's seen Sa Hamilton do it to tenth graders caught smoking, and it's really funny to see it used on adult. The guy isn't smart enough to take the hint, and Tony waits gleefully for Sa Hamilton's punishment. It's going to be epic.
The school secretary, Cindy, shows up, looking appalled, and hustles Sa Hamilton away before he can do anything to the guard. So unfair.
Then they're ushered into a big conference room full of people, and Tony's nose gets so overwhelmed it sort of shuts down. There's a lot of alphas here, and they're all throwing off enough real pheromones to give even Tony a headache.
Sa Hamilton gets that line between his eyebrows again, the one he got before he made all the ninth graders do collective bargaining roleplays with the third graders. (The ninth graders had totally lost, and the school is still talking about it.)
A woman in a very sparkly dress bustles over, looking absolutely thrilled. "Sa Hamilton, it's an absolute delight to have you here today!"
She's going to go for a double-cheek kiss, Tony can tell. He slips between them and says, really loudly, "Excuse me, but could you show us where the bathroom is? I really have to pee."
Tony's never tried this stuff before, even after they covered it in class a couple times, but wow, it works great. The lady looks both appalled and embarrassed, but more importantly, her whole body angles backwards from Sa Hamilton like she's just been shot. Ha. Tony may have to pay more attention in Deportment after this.
Sa Hamilton squeezes Tony's shoulder and says, "You'll excuse our manners, Elaine, but it was an awfully long drive over. You know how it is."
Elaine obviously thinks Sa Hamilton is apologizing for Tony. Her face softens and her scent gets a little sharper. Jeez lady, Tony thinks, give it a rest. But she's pointing out the discrete sign on a far wall, and that's enough.
They escape together. The omega bathrooms here are ridiculous. There are fainting couches in a weird lobby, and a whole bank of mirrors, and have they actually supplied lipsticks and hair brushes?
Tony wanders over, checking it out, while Sa Hamilton sits down and rubs his temples. Yep, headache.
"No problem. It was fun. We tried it in class, but it's different to test a hypothesis under field conditions."
In the mirror, Tony can see Sa Hamilton smile. He still looks tired, but it's less pinched.
Tony takes a tub of lotion and sniffs it experimentally. Mostly water, a little oil, probably some kind of emulsifier. He wonders if it will work as a tiny petri dish, or if they've added too many preservatives for that. His heightened nose gets a whiff of Vitamin E. Too bad. He sets it back down.
"So how come that lady was going to touch you?" Tony asks. He figures they're private enough, and it's an omega bathroom after all, and he hasn't seen a single security camera in here.
"It's not that she was going to touch me," he says, but now he sounds tired again.
"She was totally going for the double cheek kiss so she could stick her nose against your scent glands," Tony says, scoffing. He pulls out the ridiculous cushy red bench seat at the wall of mirrors. Yeah, this will work. He hops up on it and then scrambles up on the counter.
Sa Hamilton doesn't even yell at him.
That bitch was definitely going for a gland-scent. "And she was gonna try to nip you, right?"
Sa Hamilton looks at his hands, and they're tightly clasped together. Knuckles white. Tony doesn't see any jewelry. Most married omegas have some kind of ring. Or a collar.
Finally, Sa Hamilton says, "You're too young to know about that kind of thing."
"We covered it in class," Tony says, disdainful but kind of puzzled too. Usually Sa Hamilton is smarter than this. Not Na Anderson smart, but pretty smart for a guy who spends his days talking about history and cultural mores across eras and geography, for godsakes.
"Sorry, I forgot." Sa Hamilton tips his head against the wall, throat bared. It's one of the classic submissive omega poses that Tony's seen in advertising. At home, it's in whiskey ads and cigarette ads and expensive ridiculous underwear ads. But he also sees it all the time in kids advertising--there's a kid playing on the floor with the gotta-have-it-now toy du jour, and there's some doting omega in the background, throat bared happily, and wearing some kind of outfit that would embarrass a kindergartner teacher for being too dull.
Tony isn't sure what's going on, but he has some ideas. He's used to the fancy level where waiters are circling with champagne flutes and tiny baby quiches. Mostly no one touched him at these things, but looking back, it was probably because he spent most of it hiding under the tables.
"We could leave," Tony offers. He's inspecting the hinge mechanism of the mirror cabinet.
"You and Alex are getting an award."
Tony bounces on his converse, but he's not as happy as maybe he could be. "Is my dad here?"
"Mr Stark was unable to attend due to urgent business. He sent a representative, though."
Of course he did, Tony thinks. As if dad would ever show up just to see his kid after months without him. "The representative's downstairs talking to the epoxy manufacturer," Tony says. He doesn't want Sa Hamilton to think he's a baby. It doesn't matter that dad's not here.
"You saw him."
"He didn't notice me," Tony says. He whips out his new screwdriver. Na Anderson had given it to him for his birthday, and it's got even more heads than his old one. She'd shown him how to add a tiny motor so he can now open things his small hands hadn't been able to manage before. "How about we rapell out the window and get cheeseburgers?"
"Very funny, Tony. I'll be fine in another minute. This is an important award, and you should be proud."
"Whatever. Nobody cares if I win an award." Tony figures there has to be an alcohol based cleaner in here somewhere, if he can just get the lock open without tripping the alarm....
"Honey, you can't know that." Sa Hamilton's heart doesn't seem to be in it, though. Probably because they're hiding in an omega bathroom to get away from a room full of creepy alphas who would poach a teacher at a kids function.
"Yeah, yeah, hand me that tube of lip gloss." Tony holds out his hand imperiously.
Sa Hamilton sighs but does it. "Don't blow up the bathroom, OK? I can live through some flirting, but I like this suit. If you trigger the automatic sprinklers, it won't survive."
Tony grins at him in the mirror. "Would I do that?"
Fifteen minutes later, Tony's finished putting the cabinet back together. It hangs just as neatly as it did before, and the lock looks perfect since he didn't so much as touch it. (Fingerprints, he needs to figure out a cure for fingerprints someday.)
Sa Hamilton is staring at the little container of what used to be lipgloss (it's color is apparently Come On, a kind of disturbing pearly white color that goes on mostly clear). "Tony, I just don't know."
Tony takes the second container of lipgloss (Bared, which is also mostly clear, but has some sorta skin-colored sparkles in it). He uses the lipgloss applicator to line each of his own nostrils, then inhales sharply. It really stings at first, but then it's blessed blessed nasal silence. Thank god.
Sa Hamilton takes his own lipgloss, scowls at the name on the tube, and doses his nostrils. He looks like it must sting on him, too. Tony's going to have to add some kind of numbing agent if he takes this public.
"Well?" Tony demands. "Does it work?"
Sa Hamilton is still frowning but the lines between his eyes are smoothing out. He shivers all over, then lets out a deep breath. "Yeah. It works. It really really works."
When they go back to the mass of people in fancy party wear, Sa Hamilton looks much more confident. He puts out a hand to stop the dreaded Eileen from doing another attempted cheek-kiss. She looks pissed, but he just uses the 'you're going to get in serious trouble if you keep this up' look. All he says is, "Eileen."
Eileen raises her chin. "Let me introduce you to the award presenter."
"Thank you, Eileen." They follow her and her sparkly dress through the crowd.