Steve had to admit that he had some reservations about how the New Century handled the social balance between alphas and omegas.
On one hand, objectively, Steve supposed that it was nice… kind of… that alphas as a minority, all-male subset of humanity now had equal rights, at least legally speaking. He'd always felt somewhat uncomfortable, even as an omega, over how alphas used to be tagged and registered, treated as though they were little more than human-shaped animals. There were always all those awful, tragic stories about the lengths that some families would go to in order to spare their alpha children from the system, after all. He'd known and fought alongside the occasional alpha in the War, and they hadn't been much different.
On the other hand, something deep within Steve still curled up wire-tight and tense when he shook Tony Stark's hand, and it was a goddamned struggle, even after everything he was now and had gone through, to hold his chin up and meet Tony's eyes.
"Hi," Tony grinned, careful - Steve noted - not to show his teeth, his grip was firm, but brief, and he didn't hold eye contact for more than a heartbeat. "Don't worry, I'm safe. Fury, you told him I was safe, yeah?"
"Like a fucking time bomb," Fury muttered from across the wide expanse of the glass round table that made up the centrepiece of the Triskelion briefing room. When Tony tensed, almost imperceptibly, Fury snorted. "He's had the briefing, Stark. Extensively. I was referring to Afghanistan."
"Hope you guys included all the gory bits," Tony was grinning again, handsome and charismatic, but there was a wary reservation in his stance now as he drew back and slouched into a chair, in a one-seat buffer between himself and the rest of the team, Steve noted. "Making civil rights history is kinda like making sausages. Isn't quite as fun to read about unless you know all about the filthy process."
The rest of the team, other than the alien known as Thor, who apparently was non-Natured, were omegas, including Fury, and Steve had sensed the instant tension the moment Tony had sauntered into the room, shoulders slightly hunched to make himself look smaller, his easy smile verging on ingratiating.
Steve knew reeducation when he saw it, even now, and whatever the Starks had unsuccessfully tried on their son to hide his Nature, it had damaged him, Steve thought - Tony kept his hands to himself, his smile was plastic and practiced, and there was a hunted caution in every line of his movements.
Again, it wasn't uncommon, tragic as it was to see, and Steve supposed - even as the omega side of him shook itself uneasily - that it was pretty sad to know that old practices and prejudices hadn't died out altogether. Steve forced himself to breathe out, and he sat down at the table, pointedly next to Tony, ignoring how Barton straightened up and Banner tilted his head slightly. Tony arched his eyebrows, surprised, then his expression went blank again when Fury glanced up at them.
"I don't think that's a common social sentiment," Steve ventured into the silence, a little awkwardly.
Tony frowned, as though he was rewinding his memory, then he grinned again, slightly less practiced, this time. "I have to admit, I was expecting Captain-Nineteen-Forties-America to freak out a little more."
"Stark," Fury warned, but Steve cut in quickly. "I think I've already worked all the 'freaking out' out of my system days ago, Mister Stark. I caused some major structural damage to one of the wings of the Triskelion when I woke up."
"'Tony', please," Tony corrected him, with a little quirk to his lips, almost friendly for a moment before he blinked owlishly and carefully looked away.
Tony twitched and squirmed restlessly throughout the meeting, staring almost fixedly at a point beyond Fury's ear, and the moment that Fury let up on his spiel about the 'Avengers' initiative and their purpose, he was shaking his head with narrowing eyes. "Won't work."
"And why's that?" Fury retorted evenly.
"A team full of omegas and an alpha?"
"And one alien," Fury pointed out, when Thor looked slightly confused.
"Tried that on the press junket yet?"
"They'll assume that you're the money. Or the tech," Fury shot back, like he'd been waiting for this, and Tony opened his mouth, closed it, and thinned his lips. Under the table, Steve could see his hands curling restlessly over his knees, drawn flush together with his feet pressed on the floor like he was just about to run.
"I don't want to have someone on the team who doesn't want to be here," Steve said quickly.
Fury took in a deep breath, but before he could say anything, Banner put up a tentative hand. "Um. In that case-"
"Shut up, Banner," Fury snapped, without looking around.
"It's not good for the team dynamic," Steve continued, as reasonably as he could. "Surely you can see that, Fury. You can't force someone to be on the team. Especially not something like this."
Fury glowered at him, his brow beetling impressively. "We're going to have an alpha on the team because I say so," he stated flatly, "And it's going to be Tony-fucking-Stark because he's got the Iron Man suit and he's getting out of control - fuck you, Stark, let me finish. Alphas are a minority and it's a damned shame what gets done to them in places like the Bible belt. They need some good publicity for a change to get some legislation past Congress and this is going to be it. Questions?"
"Why do you care?" Tony shot back, though he looked slightly shamefaced even as he said it. When Fury only stared at him, Tony sighed. "All right, fine. I get it. But I'm not a good poster boy choice for the perfect little alpha. There's that little problem of my love affair with alcohol. Oh! And I'm assuming that you were referring to that Zanzibar matter, earlier, when you mentioned being 'out of control'."
"Everyone likes a good story," Fury shrugged, though his glower didn't let up. "And we already have a couple of poster boys in the team. It's good to have some balance. Are you in?"
Tony spread his palms - to anyone but Steve, sitting right next to him, he would have looked relaxed, but Steve could still see the hard set of his jaw. "Sure. I guess I like to be in the front seat when things implode in your face, and this looks like it's going to be spectacular. Aren't you guys part of the U.N.? How did you slide this past your bosses?"
"Welcome to the team," Steve offered tentatively, when Fury ignored Tony's question, and he didn't quite know it, even as Fury glowered at them both as though he was personally suspecting some sort of conspiracy, but this was the most agreeable that Tony was about to be for a long time.
It took four missions, a costly makeover of Fifth Avenue, shattered windows, overturned cars and fires and all - thankfully with no casualties - and one semi-public argument, with Steve staring down the Iron Man suit and snarling at Tony in the middle of the Triskelion, before Tony finally started to listen to instructions. A little.
At the start, Steve had just put it down to instinct. The alphas he had fought alongside with in the War had been fractious too, sometimes. Taking orders from an omega went against their natures, after all; civil wars had been fought over the dynamic, more than a hundred years ago, until the Thirteenth Amendment had hammered down the beginnings of the modern social dynamic. He'd always had to gain their trust first, and their respect, before he could get their attention as a leader. Steve didn't resent that - he knew that they couldn't help how they were born, and Tony would be little different, wouldn't he?
Still, history and Steve's experience were of little comfort when Tony blithely disregarded orders, disrupted battle plans and often blitzed into the field with no evident regard for his own safety. It was dangerous, it was reckless, and when Steve had finally lost his temper, one day after Tony's antics had landed Clint with fractured ribs and Fifth Avenue with several million dollars' worth of structural damage, it hadn't been pretty.
And then he had been surprised when Tony had just stood there, helmet tucked under an arm, wide-eyed, and took it, in the middle of the Triskelion, with the team around them, standing quietly, not even a quip or a smartassed reply off the sleeve. His eyes had darkened, cheeks flushed as though holding in his temper, but Tony had been silent, and at the end of it all, when Steve had run out of breath, he had nodded, muttered something that had sounded like an apology, and had walked away.
Fury had been something close to speechless, which apparently was a minor miracle in its own right, and then later Steve wasn't entirely sure about the way Fury tended to occasionally stare at him, like he was calculating some new and intractable equation. The Director of SHIELD was explosively eccentric at the best of times.
During the next mission, Tony performed perfectly, obeying field commands to the letter, until even Barton had made a joke about how it was possibly just Tony's pet AI, JARVIS, flying the suit. After the mission, when SHIELD was cleaning up the smoking crater in Central Park that the Doombots had made, Steve jogged up to where Tony was standing under a tree, inspecting the damage done to one of his gauntlets where a Doombot and a streetlight had gotten lucky.
"Nothing serious," Tony noted, when Steve approached him. "Maybe a hundred thousand bucks or so in repair work, give or take, and it'll be brand new." At Steve's horrified expression, Tony laughed - playful, almost genuine. "That's counting what my time is worth, Captain."
"Really?" Steve tried to calculate how much time Tony actually did spend with the Avengers, for training, briefings, missions - and was appalled. "Gosh, Tony, I had no idea. I'll speak to F-"
"Don't bother, he knows." Tony interrupted wryly. "And as much as I hate to admit it, he's right. Weirdly enough, this has been good press for Stark Industries. I think our stock price reached a new record this weekend."
"It was a big company, if I recall," Steve had only the vaguest of memories of exactly what the Starks did and were - he'd been too focused on getting enlisted, then. And afterwards, things had just become too busy, after a fashion.
Tony's expression froze slightly, then he exhaled. "Not anymore." At Steve's blink, Tony offered one of his plastic smiles. "You'd be surprised how many people won't trust non-weaponised tech that was designed by an alpha, Captain Rogers. Not even a phone. And since I don't make weapons anymore… eh. It's been a big change."
"I would." At Tony's blink, Steve elaborated, "A phone's a phone. If it works, who cares who made it?"
"People who think that alphas are little more than sex-crazed nymphos on a biological timer," Tony drawled, though he seemed visibly cheered up. "Well. I can't think of a better endorsement than Captain America. If you want a phone, it's on the house."
"Sure. Thanks." Steve paused, and added, "I don't think alphas are all that. I've served with alphas during the War. They're just like any other soldier."
Somehow, that was the wrong thing to say - Tony's expression went blank. "Yeah. We can be good soldiers, can't we?"
"Good men, too," Steve added hastily, but it was too late - Tony was jamming his helmet back onto his head, his movements jerky and sharp. "Tony-"
"'Good' when we listen to orders," Tony snapped, through the modulated tones of the Iron Man helmet, and shot up into the sky before Steve could protest further.
Peering up at the fast-disappearing speck, Steve rubbed a palm over his face. "Rats."
"We're going to have to work on your vocabulary," Barton called from the edges of the containment area, having clearly been eavesdropping.
"Oh shut up, Barton."
Tony didn't show up for the next mission, or the next, and guilt festered slowly within Steve until he couldn't take it any more. Besides, Fury could really work a passive-aggressive attitude when he wanted to, and somehow, the Director had decided that this was wholly Steve's fault.
"I didn't mean to upset him," Steve told him, for the fourth time or so over the last month, once they were alone in Fury's office after the debrief. "Honest."
"I know you didn't, Captain," Fury growled, glaring at the sheaf of reports in his gloved hands with his one good eye. "Fact remains, what you said probably triggered his issues, of which he has a fuck ton, and the press is starting to notice. The Iron Man suit is pretty goddamned conspicuous."
"What issues?" Steve asked, genuinely curious, and an hour and a somewhat insane cab ride after, found himself outside a small glass building, about four storeys high, on the outskirts of Manhattan, sandwiched between a McDonalds and another drab grey office building. The entrance was unassuming, as was the Stark Industries logo emblazoned on the glass; the building looked old, and the paintwork was just starting to peel.
Inside the sleek, minimalistic reception was a wary-looking receptionist behind a glass and silver counter, who looked openly skeptical when Steve had tentatively introduced himself as one of Tony's friends. She still phoned up, though, and after fifteen minutes of slowly circling the reception area and looking at the few incomprehensibly modern artworks on display, the lifts pinged open, and a pretty, redheaded woman in a sleek gray suit and pencil skirt stalked out, a clipboard clutched to her chest like a shield. She swept a glance over him, flatly neutral, as though assessing him and finding him wanting.
"That's me. Uh-"
"I'm Pepper, Tony's secretary. Tony's busy right now. Did you want to leave a message?"
"I…" Steve hesitated. It was obvious that Pepper was more than Tony's secretary - Tony had mentioned her before, in passing, often with amusement or affection, more like a close friend than an employee.
More than that, Pepper was bristling with bottled anger - protective anger, Steve realized, with slow amazement. Maybe Tony had told her what had happened - no, he definitely had. Part of Steve was relieved to know that Tony had some sort of support system, however work related. Another part of him wondered exactly what Pepper was to Tony, and shrivelled a little inside, unhappily.
"I wanted to apologize," Steve decided to say, as meekly as he could. "I said some things that he took the wrong way. I didn't mean any harm."
Pepper stared at him for another long moment, then her expression seemed to soften a fraction. "No. I suppose that you didn't. Follow me, Captain."
"Yes, ma'am." Steve stepped over to Pepper's side, and she walked them into the lifts. "Nice office. Do you guys rent all the floors?"
"We own the building," Pepper pulled a face, even as she pressed the button for the top floor. "Took years to pay off the loan."
"Tony's done pretty well for himself."
"The company's a fraction of what it used to be. Stark Industries collapsed once it got out that the late Howard Stark's young heir was an alpha." Pepper lifted a shoulder in an elegant shrug. "We lost grants, investors, share prices plummeted… and when Tony decided not to make weapons anymore, the company's never quite recovered. Tony's clawed it back up into a public listing, but I think nowadays we mostly break even. Tony's got these great ideas for clean energy that he doesn't have the money or connections to move forward."
"I wish I knew how to help," Steve said, without thinking about it, and then he flushed a little when Pepper eyed him thoughtfully. "I think it's awful that people are still so prejudiced."
"Yeah. It's the only reason why he endures SHIELD. SHIELD's our sole major client, and Fury doesn't give a damn what Tony is as long as he produces results." Pepper spoke briskly, like a business partner - she was definitely more than a secretary in the company. "So I'm all for you helping to get Tony out of his snit, before he finally pisses Fury off for good."
"All right," Steve nodded. He could do that - or try, at least. "I don't see why he might listen to me, though, if he won't even listen to you." When Pepper arched an eyebrow, Steve added, confidently, "I mean, aren't you his-"
Pepper cut in with a bark of unladylike laughter. "No! No. Definitely not. He's not bonded."
"Really?" Steve asked, surprised. Tony hadn't acted as though he was unbonded - he wasn't aggressive, nor did Steve ever observe him treating any of the other omegas on the team with anything more than wary, almost distant professionalism. Steve had originally put it down to a possessive omega mate, or something like that; he hadn't quite wanted to ask Fury. The Director's responses probably would be equal parts couched in disdain and invective.
"Here we are," Pepper announced, instead of replying, as the lift opened up to the top floor, and the scent hit Steve first, something musky, nearly earthy, rich and intense and almost too heavy; it made him lightheaded.
"What's that?" Steve asked, frowning, trying not to make it look like he was sniffing the air. "There's a scent," he added, when Pepper merely stared at him blankly.
She looked even more puzzled for a moment, then revelation seemed to dawn as she went wide-eyed. "You can… you can smell something?"
"It's strong," Steve glanced around; he felt warm now, as though the temperature had just cranked up - sweat prickled between his shoulder blades. "But it's not bad."
"How could you not know-" Pepper started, stopped, then bit down on her lower lip for a moment before grabbing his arm and yanking as hard as she could. Startled, Steve allowed her to pull him back into the lift, where she jammed her thumb against the ground floor button. "Shit," she muttered, as she eyed him. "Tony must have… Tony should have said."
And - belatedly - Steve understood, with a wave of knowing so broad that it nearly staggered him, and the first thing he managed to blurt out was, "He's unbonded and he's not on the Pill?"
Tony was in heat, if in the very early stages where it was probably little more than an irritation, and off chems, and Steve could smell him, while Pepper evidently could not. In their natural state, unaffected by the Pill, alphas released pheromones that attracted suitable mates, and Steve-
Steve was a suitable mate.
At least that explained the now-feverish feel of his skin, the way Steve felt like he was contracting down, like he was going to wind up and burst. His fists clenched, as he fought for a long, careful breath, fighting for calm. He was Captain America, for God's sake. He was hardly harmless in his own right, even if - even if anything… happened.
And besides, even if Tony did materialize, right here and now, hungry and intent, Steven wasn't so sure that he would back off. He swallowed hard, heart hammering, as he mentally shook himself. The pheromones were distracting. He needed air.
"He has a… heart problem," Pepper noted, evasively.
"The building's full of omegas."
Steve regretted the phrasing instantly - Pepper paled, then she turned a shade of furious red bright enough to rival her hair even as the lift doors pulled open. "If you think that Tony would ever… For fuck's sake, why did I ever invite you up? Get out."
"I wasn't implying that," Steve cut in quickly, and added in a rush, when Pepper bared her teeth, "I meant, Tony's not bonded, and at his age, um, it doesn't seem like he doesn't meet anyone, I was surprised. With. The way he is."
"The way he is?" Pepper echoed, suspiciously.
"He's, well, he's really, good looking," Steve mumbled, probably a shade of red now that was worse than Pepper's, judging from how his ears were burning, and when Pepper let out a startled laugh, Steve squirmed. "I'm not very good at this," he confessed.
"Could have fooled me," Pepper replied, amused now. "You should go. I'll tell Tony that you were here. Maybe in about three days or so you could come back. Talk to him again."
"Okay," Steve visibly shook himself, trying to clear the dulling fog from his mind. "Yeah. That's… that's a good idea."
"Goodbye, Captain," Pepper told him, firmly if gently, and gave his arm a shove. Dazed and feeling even more lost than he had been when he had woken up and realized that he was in an uncertain future, Steve nearly walked out of the building and into oncoming traffic.
To Steve's surprise, three days later, when he was sitting alone at the dining area of the Avengers quarters in the Triskelion, having a breakfast of cereal and reading the papers, Tony slunk in, looking hunted. The alpha was dressed as though he'd just come out of a business meeting, in a suit and a pressed blue shirt and yellow tie, gorgeously put-together and dapper, and he froze when he spotted Steve.
"Good morning," Steve offered, as mildly as he could, trying not to seem as though he had been openly staring.
Tony seemed as though he was seriously considering beating a quick retreat, then he muttered something that even enhanced hearing couldn't catch and marched over to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. Steve knew better than to press further, and he dropped his eyes back to the newspaper, instead.
Finally, when the coffee machine stopped gurgling, and he could hear Tony take a sip, Tony stated, with studied calm, "Did Fury tell you about Afghanistan?"
Steve let out a breath, then he nodded. "Yeah. I'm sorry."
"What for?" Tony asked, his breath hissed out from gritted teeth, and this time, Steve glanced up, as much as instinct tried to instruct him to curl and make himself smaller, faced with an alpha's temper.
"If I had known you then, I wouldn't have stopped looking for you." Not like how the US Government, or even SHIELD, had stopped. Objectively, Steve didn't blame them - Tony was one citizen, and an alpha, and Afghanistan with its warrens of caves was an inextricable mire at the best of times.
Tony bristled, fingers clawed at the cup, even as it took all of Steve's willpower to keep a steady gaze, then the alpha finally exhaled irritably and looked away. Shuddering, Steve only barely managed to swallow his instinctive relief. "Dad spent years looking for you," he said, conciliatory. "I want you to know that."
"Thanks," Steve managed, his heart clenching for a moment before he calmed himself down again. He knew he hadn't been forgotten: he'd seen the reports, after all, but it was nice to hear it outright from the only remaining link to his past. He hadn't asked Fury - or even Sharon - what had happened to Peggy, or the others. Steve hadn't felt quite up to that, yet.
"Pepper said that you tried to see me." Tony had drifted over when Steve was lost in thought, settling down at the opposite end of the table, as though keeping as much furniture between them as possible.
"Yeah. I wanted to apologize. It was an insensitive comment."
"You didn't know what happened to me at that point, not in detail. Most people don't. I kept it from the papers. SHIELD helped out."
"Did you kill them?" Steve asked, his tone edged, and when Tony blinked at him, added, "Those terrorists. The ones that tried to force you into a bonding." It hadn't been old reeducation practices after all - he should have known better to suspect that from Howard Stark. To Steve, there were few worse humanitarian crimes that he could think of; a forced bonding was like a rape of both the body and soul, and if it had taken - it would have been permanent, and it could have destroyed the lives of two people.
"Alphas would do anything for their mates. Strategically, it was a good collar and leash," Tony's lip twisted, then he glanced around, and exhaled loudly. "I guess I should tell you, since you're the team leader, and all. Whatever we were forced to take in that cave, it kinda worked. Not all the way, but I could feel something. Yinsen - that was the omega - Yinsen and I didn't fuck. We weren't compatible in the first place, the drug couldn't fix that. But when they hurt him… when he died…"
Tony shivered, and put down the cup. "I nearly broke, did Fury tell you that? If not for Yinsen, I would have broken. Whenever they hurt him… God, I don't know how to describe what that felt like. But he kept saying that he'd never forgive me if I gave in, so I didn't."
"It was a clean break, after that, when he was killed. The bond didn't take, and the drugs wore off by the time I was back. But I don't ever want to feel like that again. That's why I got upset, when you said alphas were good soldiers - I know, I know you didn't mean it the way I thought you did, but it just reminded me of… of everything."
"The thing is," Tony added, when Steve opened his mouth to try and say something again, anything, "Whatever it was that happened, it broke my instincts, or I thought it did. I still had my cycles, but they'd become bearable, thank fuck; I couldn't go on the Pill anymore with the… with the heart problem that I got after Afghanistan. It was like karma, I thought, sure, it was three months of an absolute fucking nightmare, but after that, it was as though I was free. My brain didn't need the drugs anymore, they'd always made me feel slow, anyway, and I didn't go crazy once a month."
"And then," Tony continued, his gaze narrowing again, "And then I met you."
Steve breathed out, in a rush. "Tony-"
"Pepper didn't need to tell me that you'd been around, you know," Tony cut in. "I could smell you the moment you walked onto the top floor, fuck, if I hadn't been tangled up in the Mark VI I… I don't know what I would have tried."
"I'm not exactly helpless, Tony."
"Really?" Tony challenged him, his lip curling, "Alphas are shunned for a reason. Good reasons. Especially when they're not on any chems. And you have… you have no idea what it's like, to get taken over by all those instincts, shunted away into the back of your brain while the rest of you turns into some sort of howling animal!"
Tony's voice was so thick with self-loathing that Steve stiffened. "You can't help what you're born with. I don't think that you're dangerous. You work with a lot of omegas, they've chosen to work for you. And you're fine with us - Clint and Natasha and the others. You're no animal."
"You don't think anything's dangerous," Tony tried to take refuge behind humour, though he was still tense. "Except maybe Nazis."
"Also," Steve decided to ignore that, tactfully, "I'm still sorry about what I said."
"Don't be, I get it, you didn't mean it."
"I'll still like your forgiveness," Steve forged on, and Tony blinked at him, puzzled.
"Because it'll mean a lot to me."
"Oh." Tony looked stunned for a moment before he controlled himself and pulled on one of his plastic grins. "Well. All right. You have it. And I guess it was nice knowing you, too."
"I came over to the Triskelion to resign from the Avengers," Tony admitted. "Just that I can't find Fury, and when I asked Maria where he was, she said that he was here. Damned liar."
Steve harbored the brief, sinking feeling that Fury, and by default, Maria, knew exactly what had happened in the Stark Industries building. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"You shouldn't be. I'm a danger to you, Cap. The other omegas on the team are null to me, but you-" Tony shuddered again. "There could be accidents. My cycles aren't always regular."
"Tony," Steve stated wryly, "Do you seriously think that you could physically overpower me? Without your suit?"
"Wow, way to aim below the belt," Tony's faked smile, however, faltered and vanished, replaced by wariness.
"You're a good team member, when you're paying attention," Steve chose his words carefully, cautious of a second unintended trigger. "And you're really easy on the eyes." He'd tried to sound suave, but the breathless catch to his voice probably turned it a shade desperate, instead. Steve was all too aware that he was probably blushing again, but Tony was staring at him in disbelief.
"I don't think that I just heard Captain America make a pass at me."
"Uh. You did. I've really liked you. For a while. I think." Very suave indeed, Steve Rogers.
Briefly, Steve wished he could sink through the ground, but it was true. From the moment Steve had first seen Tony, he'd been drawn to him, and he doubted that it was because of what Tony was. As deep as Tony's scars went, he still did wrap a big personality around a big heart. Steve had seen press reports about Tony's philanthropy despite his struggling company, seen the way he was so careful with the omegas around him, the way even the omega receptionist in the Stark Industries building was obviously loyal to him. And he was smart, and charming when he wanted to be, and for Tony to have survived Afghanistan and the fallout from that, he probably also had a streak of steel within him a mile wide.
"I'm fairly sure that I'm off my cycle," Tony added slowly. Steve nodded, deciding not to dig his grave any deeper if he could help it. He couldn't smell Tony from where he was - the heat cycle had already passed.
"To think that I didn't believe Pepper," Tony mused, then when Steve was wondering whether or not to excuse himself and save what was left of his dignity, if any, Tony grinned, a crooked little smile just a shade of lopsided that made Steve's heart catch in his chest. "Well then."
"I hope you change your mind about the Avengers." Steve ventured, and when Tony seemed to freeze, added, "And um, the next time you're free, maybe we could… maybe we could catch a game. Or lunch. Something."
"'Something'," Tony echoed, but teasingly now, as he drummed his elegant fingers briefly against his cup. "Ditch your breakfast. I'll show you someplace better that does a great fry up."
"I'll like that," Steve agreed, and it was too rushed to be anything but eager and stumbling, but the way Tony smiled, secretive, amused, and genuine? That had to be worth all the embarrassment in the world.
It struck Steve around the tenth orchestrated date night that Tony was just as bad as Steve was with dating, and the revelation was somewhat of a relief. When he grinned around his mouthful of incomprehensibly prettied-up meat-or-something-or-other, Tony swung his gaze over to him from where he'd clearly been watching the entrance of the restaurant with his peripheral vision. Sometimes, bored paparazzi ambushed Tony from around corners.
"Share the joke, Steve," Tony drawled, and it'd taken this long, months, for Tony to lose the edge of wariness he always assumed when Steve accidentally did something that pushed one of Tony's many, many triggers. At least they could usually hold a normal conversation now without Steve feeling as though he was walking on the edge of a minefield.
Whatever they had between them; the strange, thorny creature that was growing slowly less fragile by the day - it was exhausting to nurture, but in its own way, Steve felt, far more rewarding than if he'd just met Tony and had a storybook fling.
It could, however, be really trying sometimes, especially when Tony was in one of his pricklier moods, and Steve still couldn't always read him correctly, especially now that Tony had gotten used enough to him to relax.
"I was thinking about how we're both really bad at dating." Usually, honesty with a smile had a high chance of tiding him past conversational land mines. Tony would tease him, Steve would blush, and that would be it.
Today, the grin slipped off Tony's face, and Steve's heart sank. "You're not having fun?"
"I am," Steve noted quickly. "I mean, I'm never sure if you are."
The edges of Tony's eyes crinkled, as though he was about to smile, but Tony leaned back instead, picking up his wine glass. "Don't lie. I can sense it, Steve. You're always so fucking nervous when we're on a date."
Steve's heart sank further. "I don't want to say anything wrong."
Tony made a frustrated, hissing sound, and Steve belatedly realized that he had tensed up, that his feet were flat on the ground. Carefully, he forced himself to sit back, and not for the first time, he wished that alcohol still affected him. "Okay. I admit it. I don't normally date. Usually, it's a one night stand with some curious omega that I might have picked up in a gala."
Steve nodded slowly, hoping that the twinge of jealous unhappiness that welled up didn't show. "I know that."
"Well, I know enough that dating's not meant to be forced," Tony growled, glaring at Steve over the edge of his wine glass. "Or it won't work."
Steve wanted to say it's working, but he knew that Tony would call him out on it, just to be contrary if nothing else, so he drank some wine anyway, just to keep his hands busy. "I want it to."
"People want a lot of things that don't happen. Controlled climate change. An end to poverty." Tony tipped back his glass with a furious urgency that made Steve wince, then he slapped it back down on the table, almost hard enough to break it. "Maybe we should stop wasting each other's time."
"I won't quit the Avengers," Tony interrupted, with a hard set to his jaw, "But this isn't working, Steve. So just fucking leave me alone."
Steve caught up with Tony only at the parking lot; he'd hurriedly paid, hopefully enough, and he grabbed Tony by the wrist and pulled him around, held him by the arms until Tony finished snarling and struggling. Eventually, Tony settled down, sulkily, panting. "How the hell do you do that?"
"You're an omega. Even Pepper starts freaking out inside when I get angry. I can sense it. But you're holding me down," Tony noted, sounding mildly astonished at it all. "And you don't smell like you're freaking out."
"I had to learn. The army teaches you some of it." Steve admitted. If he didn't learn how to control the omega part of him, he would be useless as a leader, as a soldier. It wasn't easy, still, but Tony didn't need to know that. "Do you understand, now?"
"Do I understand what?"
"That you can't hurt me," Steve told him, pitching his tone low, reassuring, "Not as you are."
Something crumpled in Tony's expression, a sharp, heartbreaking vulnerability creeping into its place before Tony took in a long, shaky breath and struggled into a brittle grin. "I get it, supersoldier."
"And very, very few other people can hurt me too," Steve continued, mildly. "I've survived being frozen for decades. I've survived a World War, Doombots, the Mandarin, and those weird giant hairy blue crab monsters last week, more. Nobody can hurt you through me. They'll have to get past me first. And that's tough."
Tony was getting angry again, squirming. "I get it already, all right? I fucking get it."
"No, I don't think you do," Steve retorted. "This is all painfully awkward because I'm crazy about you, Tony, I'm always scared that I'm screw something up, that I'll say something wrong and you'll never forgive me, but you know what? If I have to try and try for the rest of my life until this is okay, until we're okay, fine! I will. You're worth it, Tony, even if you don't believe it."
"Let go of me," Tony demanded, and because there was a desperate edge to his voice, Steve did so, stepping back and putting up his hands, backing off. For a moment, it looked as though Tony was considering driving off and leaving Steve behind, but he pursed his lips and let himself into the driver's seat. "Get in the car," he told Steve flatly. "I'll drive you back."
The ride back to the Triskelion, despite Steve's many, failed attempts at conversation, was stiff and cold.
It occurred to Steve rather belatedly, when Tony had predictably dropped out of sight again, that he didn't even know where Tony lived. He had Tony's phone number, sure, but it wasn't as though Tony even answered it often, and although Tony had been over at the Triskelion lots of times, Steve had never ever been to Tony's place.
Because it was a slow day for SHIELD, Steve popped over to the Stark Industries building, and asked the receptionist for Pepper when told that Tony was not available. As it turned out, Pepper was out on business, and so Steve settled down to wait, and about two and a half hours later, when Tony's secretary finally padded into the building, she blinked at the sight of Steve happily talking to Mrs Macaulay about her two children and their potential new puppy.
Pepper glanced at him, then at the receptionist, and exhaled. "Come on up, then."
Instead of heading to the top floor again as Steve expected, Pepper took him to the second floor, which seemed to be some sort of rec room for the staff. It was empty, at present, and as Pepper sat down primly at one of the couches, Steve awkwardly folded himself into a love seat.
"Sorry to intrude."
"It's not a problem." Pepper said tiredly, lying through her teeth and not bothering to hide it. "I'm not being paid to be my boss' relationship manager, by the way."
"I know. I'm really sorry." Steve hesitated, then he tried, "Is Tony all right?"
Pepper snorted. "No. His cycles have been getting worse. Longer. He used to just dose up on painkillers and take a lot of cold baths. It's not working so well any longer. And I think it's pretty obvious why."
An alpha's cycles were known to get erratic when they were off chems and met a suitable omega. Steve felt a cold pit open in his stomach. He'd forgotten that he could have actually been hurting Tony all this time. He should have realized. "Can I talk to him?"
Pepper hesitated, looking uncertain, picking at the hem of her skirt, then she sighed. "Steve, did you really mean everything that you said to Tony in the carpark?"
Part of Steve was instantly jealous about how clearly Pepper was Tony's confidant, but he swallowed and struggled to be calm. "Of course."
"Figures." Pepper shook her head. "You do know that it will never, ever be easy. Not with Tony. Sometimes he'll hurt you just for the hell of it. Just to see if you'll take it from him. And if he's your alpha, it'll be worse. Much worse."
"I know." An awkward thought occurred to Steve. "Did the two of you ever…?"
"Briefly. We didn't date leading up to it, and we stayed friends afterwards. It didn't work out," Pepper noted wanly. "We couldn't bond. At first, that was great. I didn't really like the idea, anyway, I couldn't imagine what it was like being tied to someone forever. After a while, it was just something else to fight over."
Tony had definitely left this particular tidbit out of their conversations. "Oh."
"But he does really like you," Pepper assured him. "Really. I know the signs. And more importantly, I think maybe you can help him." Heal him.
"I want to," Steve told her, as earnestly as he could. "I want to try."
"Fine. Okay. Right." Pepper squared her shoulders. "Tony's on the top floor right now."
"Oh." Steve blinked, surprised - but then again, the last time had been here, Tony had also been working through one of his cycles.
"You can get upstairs with my swipe card." Pepper handed him a small white plastic card with her name and photograph on it. "I expect to get this back."
"I'll keep it safe," Steve promised, his heart rate picking up, nervous now. "Thank you." He was going to walk into an alpha's territory while the alpha was in heat. Steve knew what that meant. Objectively, he knew that he should be wary, but he only felt a thick, heady sense of anticipation.
"He's on his first day," Pepper added, almost as an afterthought. "His mind's still working. I wouldn't have let anyone up there near the end of the cycle."
"I know that you wouldn't." Pepper was evidently fiercely loyal. "Tony's lucky to have you."
"That's what I always tell him," Pepper replied lightheartedly, though she was still and pale when Steve walked into the lift, swiped Pepper's card, and thumbed the top floor.
Tony's scent hit him even before he stepped out of the lift, and Steve exhaled, his hands shaky again as he slipped Pepper's pass into his pocket and looked around. Taking a slow, deep breath, light-headed again, Steve took a careful look around, the way surprise hadn't let him the last time.
The top floor was decorated like a corporate apartment, all sleek, elegant furniture, low glass tables and leather couches. A frosted glass space had been walled off, to his right, and a corridor led away from the central space, possibly towards Tony's office. The view from the windows looked out into inner city decay, and Steve had padded over for a closer look when behind him, Tony growled.
The rumbling, animal sound made Steve shiver, and even as his omega instincts screamed at him to submit, to go down on his knees, he turned around, as calmly as he could, gritting his teeth as he did so. Tony's amazing scent was making his mind foggy. "Tony."
Tony had stepped out of the frosted glass door, unshaven and tousled as though he'd slept in the shirt and jeans that he was wearing, his hands blackened with grease to the elbows and he was beautiful, so beautiful that Steve wished for a moment for pen and paper, to capture all the tense, elegant lines of Tony's body and the wildness of his eyes.
"We have to talk."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Tony snapped, his hands clenching, "Do I really look like I want to talk right now?"
"You're in the early stages yet," Steve shrugged, fighting the uneasy roiling in his gut at standing firm. "Still firing on all cylinders."
"You want to see firing, I'll go get my gauntlets," Tony shot back, though he only rocked back on his heels and looked hunted again when Steve walked up to him. "Steve."
"Tony, I want to know," Steve said quietly, "Do you really, truly, want to have nothing to do with me? It's fine, it really is." He'll be heartbroken, certainly, but if Tony truly didn't want a relationship, no matter what Pepper said, Steve wasn't about to push on just because he wanted one.
Tony, however, only stared at him nervously, shifting his weight, then he muttered, "You do know that right now, all I really want to do is shove you up against the wall and fuck you, right?"
Steve blushed at the hot, low drawl that Tony had used, and felt his jeans tighten up. Felt himself start to get wet, between his legs, as his body started to work on biological imperatives. "You're only in your first day. You could still walk out."
"Do you want me to?" Tony asked, and then he bared his teeth when Steve instantly shook his head, grabbed Steve's shirt, smudging it, and shoved him up against the glass, leaning up to kiss him, and their first kiss - first! - was awkward and full of teeth and amazing. Tony's mouth was hot, fever-hot, he bit and growled and his hands left stains up Steve's shoulders to his neck as his scent strengthened and became heady.
Steve was gasping when Tony finally let up, but he had enough brain power left to awkwardly tug off his shirt when Tony pulled irritably at it. Greasy hands stroked slowly up his abs, as though admiring him, and this time, when Tony looked up, the angry, fight-or-flight wildness was replaced by a sort of predatory satisfaction that made Steve's toes curl in anticipation.
"Mmm," Tony hummed appreciatively, looking him over again, slowly, until Steve's every nerve was thrumming, slip-sliding into primal habits; he was an omega, and his alpha was in heat, and wanted him, and he was going to give Tony what Tony needed. "Oh, look at you. And you're going to be mine."
"Tony," Steve insisted, his voice cracking, and when Tony glanced up at him, almost lazily, Steve nearly started begging right there and then. "What do you want me to do?"
"Get these off," Tony purred, tugging lightly on his belt and jeans, and leaning over to tongue up Steve's neck, huffing and breathing in his scent with another, drunken rumble when Steve tried to obey with shaky fingers. He squeaked when Tony mouthed over his collarbone, then he yelped and stumbled back against the glass when lips pursed tight over a nipple and sucked.
"Keep going," Tony murmured, and pressed the flat of his tongue over pebbling flesh when Steve fumbled his buckle, mewling, trying to step out of his shoes without falling over. When he finally toed off his jeans, Tony pressed flush against him, impossibly warm, and bit down into the flesh of his neck with a low moan, and Steve very nearly came right there and then. "Ah!"
"I need to be inside you," Tony stuttered, fingers curled tight around Steve's hips, even as Steve let out a shuddering sigh when Tony pushed rough denim between his legs. "I know you're wet for me, you are, aren't you, Steve? I can smell you. God. I need to fuck you. Let me fuck you."
"Y-yes," Steve said shakily, then, because he wasn't sure what else to say, mewled, "Please."
"Get yourself ready for me," Tony instructed him, even as he undid his own belt with shaking fingers. "Now, Steve."
"I, uh," Steve hesitated, blinking and confused, and Tony stared at him owlishly for a moment before groaning and ducking his head.
"Don't tell me that you haven't done this before."
"Not even with other omegas?"
"Well," Steve started, defensively, then he whimpered instead when Tony dragged him down for a kiss so deep and rough that they ended up crashing against the glass and sliding down onto the carpet in an awkward tangle of limbs, and when Tony pulled away, the hunger on his handsome face was so naked that Steve's breath hitched on the next note.
"I'll walk you through it," Tony's voice was tight with impatience, his gaze fixed on Steve's swollen dick, heavy over his belly and already leaking, anticipating an alpha's claim, an alpha's knot. Licking his lips, Steve whimpered again as he felt himself grow wetter, between his thighs. "Look at you, gorgeous," Tony growled, breathing deep. "Start with a finger. Push it in. Stretch yourself."
Steve fixed his eyes on the carpet as he did it, pressing one finger into himself, biting down on his lip as he felt his own muscles clench down, velvet smooth and wet. Needing more, already impatient, he pressed in another, shaking and tightening up at the burn, then he started with a yelp when Tony bent down, meeting his eyes, and sucking in the swollen head of Steve's cock, wrapping grease-stained fingers around the base and squeezing.
It wasn't long before he was breathlessly following Tony's pace, thrusting fingers into himself as Tony jacked him roughly with long fingers even as he took him greedily into his mouth as much as he could go, and when Tony growled and pressed down his bucking hips, holding him down, Steve clutched blindly at his alpha's shoulders with his free hand, and spent himself with a shout. Tony swallowed, greedy as anything, then he pressed one last, playful lick over Steve's softening cock and leaned up to kiss him, forcing Steve to taste himself on Tony's tongue.
Boneless, Steve watched, dazed, as Tony dragged off his pants and kicked off his shoes, then he stared, blinking, at the very swollen cock heavy between Tony's legs, at the obvious, faint swelling at the base that marked the start of a knot. Looking up, he found himself meeting Tony's flushed, but concerned expression.
"If you want to stop," Tony pointed out shakily, "I can stop."
By way of an answer, Steve drew out his soiled fingers, spreading his legs wider, and Tony hissed, baring his teeth and settling between Steve's thighs. The pheromones and lubrication made the slide deliciously easy, and Steve locked his ankles around the small of Tony's back once Tony bottomed out with a hoarse groan.
"You're so wet," Tony purred, hot and breathy against his ear. "So tight. Pulling me in, like you never want me to leave. Would you like that, Steve?"
"Want your knot," Steve panted, struggling for words, "Want you, want you, Tony, please, please-"
He was babbling after that, nonsense words, driven wild by Tony's heat, his cock already filling up again, and Tony stroked hot palms up and down his flanks, nuzzling his jaw, licking at him. "Shh. I've got you. Breathe. You're so good for me, Steve. So good." Tony rocked in, experimentally, and when Steve whined with impatience and bucked, he chuckled. "So very good."
It was rough after that; Tony's self-control had already been stretched to the brink, and he held Steve down and took, all sharp snaps of his hips that punched him deeper and deeper yet until Steve was mad with it, bracing himself on the window as he tried desperately to meet Tony's thrusts, panting at the sounds of each wet shove into his own body.
He was burning up - they were burning up - and this wildness was theirs, this and more; Steve cried out and dragged Tony flush against him when Tony snarled and bit down again, on his shoulder, stinging, bleeding him, and at that, Steve spilled again, untouched, crying out Tony's name.
Tony's grip on his waist was vise-like as he held Steve against him with a low groan in response, thrusting in as deep as he could go, and now Steve could definitely feel it, the knot swelling, thickening, even as Steve instinctively squeezed down on it. It stopped just shy of pain, and Tony let out another growl, leaning up to kiss Steve, sloppy and slanting as he shuddered against him and filled him up in thick spurts, whining as he did so, his seed as fever-hot as his skin, and Steve moaned, squirming already, wanting more.
"Stop that," Tony muttered, shifting awkwardly until they were both in a more comfortable position on the carpet, still locked together. "You'll make it worse."
"You've done this before?" At least he was too exhausted for jealousy.
"Of course not. This doesn't happen if the omega's not compatible. I just know."
"Ah." Steve smiled, suddenly, deliriously happy, on top of the buzz of satiation. "That's good." Things hadn't changed that much on this front, then.
Tony was his.
"You'll regret this," Tony predicted, even as he settled comfortably against the bulk of Steve's body, nuzzling the bite mark again, with a low, contented rumble, still hard and full inside Steve.
From the information books, Steve supposed that it was probably going to be another hour or so before the knot went down and Tony needed to mate again. And it'd be about two, three days before the continuous meld of Tony's pheromones and Steve's scent forged the inextricable biological link between them which was as old as humanity itself.
He was definitely looking forward to that.
"Points for utterly unsafe sex," Tony observed, on the third day, with Steve sitting on the edge of the bathtub, warm and clean, Tony gently wiping him down with something soft and fluffy.
Steve was exhausted, he was sore even with the supersoldier serum, and it was great. Sometime during the second or third time, when they made it to Tony's bed, Tony had introduced Steve to his prostate. Steve hadn't realized that sex could be that good. He hoped that the floors had soundproofing; even his throat felt raw.
The wildness had left Tony's eyes, at least, and his movements were sure, careful and unhurried, an alpha's instinct to take care of his mate. On the tail end of his cycle, Tony was solicitous and gentle. Steve hadn't been surprised.
"I can't catch anything," Steve assured him, leaning over absently to rub his cheek against the inside of Tony's wrist when Tony reached up to dry his hair.
"Yeah. I know." At Steve's blink, Tony smiled, a little shamefaced. "You have no idea how much time I spent digging up stuff on you. Hacked into the SHIELD network and everything. I'm also clean, by the way."
"You could ask me anything you want."
"It's more fun when there's theft involved." Tony snorted when Steve frowned at him. "All right, also, I guess sometimes I was kinda hoping that there was something wildly wrong about you. Seems plain stupid now, but I wanted to cut you off. You seemed far too perfect, and I thought that since I was going to ruin things anyway, it might as well be your fault." Tony rubbed a thumb over a still-healing bite mark on Steve's bicep, and grinned when Steve let out a gasp. "Definitely stupid."
"It isn't that bad now, is it?" Steve asked hopefully.
He wasn't sure how he would react now, if they went back to before, all eggshells and conversational mines. Then he recalled Pepper's warning, and calmed down again, slowly. Even if they did, he would deal with it. Tony needed time, and Steve was going to give it to him, however long he needed. Steve had chosen this, and Tony had, too.
"Maybe I could have done some things differently," Tony conceded, his breaths huffing against Steve's jaw as he worked the towel down Steve's back, chuckling when Steve leaned over to mouth up his ribs, over to the scars which marked the start of where the arc reactor was buried.
Tony had been self-conscious about that for about half a day, even refusing to take his shirt off, until Steve had finally convinced him that he didn't care; more than that, if it was a part of Tony that kept Tony alive, then Steve loved it too. Besides, it was beautiful in its own way, a silver and blue heart that pressed a cold light over Steve's fingers as he traced it and felt the continuous hum of its power under his skin.
"Like what?" Steve licked up to the rim of the reactor, enjoying how Tony jerked with a low hiss. Tony didn't have much sensation near the reactor - the scar tissue was fairly thick - but Steve had quickly learned that Tony liked to see Steve interacting with the reactor, at least once he'd gotten over his wariness.
"Taking your virginity somewhere more comfortable, for a start," Tony sounded playful, but now that Steve was attuned to him, to his scent, his moods, rewired by pheromones and intimacy to know his alpha - he could sense guilt.
Quickly, he leaned up to tug Tony over for a kiss, and out of a heat cycle, Tony could kiss, tender, passionate, thorough, with the occasional rasping, back-of-the throat rumble of contentment that he probably wasn't even aware of. On the third day, they'd spent most of it entwined, kissing until their lips bruised; it had been that good, the intimacy slow and all the more intense for it.
"I didn't mind," Steve pointed out, when Tony's eyes had glazed over, his alpha calm and pliant again under his palms. "What happens now?"
Tony visibly shook himself, blinking. "What do you mean?"
"I've only read SHIELD materials. Do we have to fill in some forms somewhere or put our names down-"
Tony laughed, standing back and tossing the towel at Steve, padding over to his clothes by the sink. "Only Captain America would think about process right after getting bonded. Relax. Pepper handled it."
"Okay." Steve made a mental note to do something nice for Pepper; he owed her a lot, and it was obvious that Tony seemed to take her for granted. Maybe women still liked flowers in the new century. He'll have to ask Tony.
"I've got some savings. We could go and find a place. Nice apartment somewhere, maybe." At Steve's frown, Tony noted dryly, "We both live in our workplaces right now. It's probably not healthy."
"You live here?" The private space at the back of the top floor had seemed lived in, with the wardrobe, a bed, a television set and CD racks and even a kitchenette, but Steve had thought that it was only for convenience.
"Laws or not, it's pretty hard to get someone to sell housing to an unbonded alpha. Especially since I'm not really in a position to buy something that isn't an apartment." Tony's tone took on an edge until Steve quickly petted his flanks, splaying hands over his back, and then he relaxed again.
"Okay. I guess we can do that. I'll like that." He was going to live with Tony. Steve supposed that he should probably feel nervous - he seriously doubted that Tony would be easy to live with by any measure - but right now, he could only be content. When the bond was new, it was going to be difficult to be separated.
"I'm not going to want to be apart from you for a while, and when we fight, I think I'll rather we did it in private."
"'When'?" Steve repeated, with a faint grin.
"Count on it, Captain," Tony drawled, even as Steve wiped himself off and padded over to tentatively curl an arm around Tony's waist. "You're in for a really bumpy ride."
"On the bed?"
Tony laughed, although he stopped trying to pull on his belt, his eyes taking on the hungry gleam that Steve had learned to recognize and welcome. "I see that I'm a really bad influence on you after all. We were meant to catch some lunch. Like civilised people."
"That can wait," Steve suggested, already feeling wetness start seeping down towards his thighs at the thought of being taken again, and Tony's nose flared as he sniffed the air, his gaze dilating. They were probably not going to make it to the bed, Steve thought, sucking in a slow, hitching breath, as Tony growled, low and hungry, and that, like everything else, was going to be just fine.