Tony leaned his head back against the honey-colored oak paneling behind him with a dull, satisfying thunk. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, hands balled into fists. He could still hear them, muffled voices creeping through the woodwork, mapping out a future he didn’t want. Not that such a minor detail mattered.
Some of the voices were familiar enough. His parents, of course. His father, smiling brightly while he negotiated his only child’s life away to a virtual stranger, and his mother, tight-lipped, and watery-eyed, but not a hair out of place. A part of him still couldn’t quite believe they were going to do this, despite the years of disappointed looks that turned into gazes that slipped right through him, like he wasn’t even there, which was somehow far worse. At least he could be useful like this, he supposed. That’s what Howard said. Help cement the company’s ties with the military or some such crap Howard wanted to believe. Years without a war made everyone in the business of war nervous, and it had been too long since the world tested out its own stupidity.
Obie was in there, too, at his father’s side like always, pushing for every inch they could get out of the deal. That was what Obie was good at. Closing the deal, the particulars, the details. Dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. Or, more specifically, making sure the company, God forbid, didn’t get screwed in whatever deal it was Tony’s father hatched. Howard had come home from one of his business trips practically frothing at the mouth over this guy, and Obie probably worried he’d sign over half the company to get an Alpha like that to take Tony.
He wondered if that was awkward for Obie. Negotiating over Tony. He hoped it was. He hoped it was weird and uncomfortable and all the things he’d felt sitting in his mother’s parlor listening to infomercials while she calmly explained that Obie had offered to take him through his first Heat. A shiver of distaste curled up his spine and settled in his stomach as he remembered the shocked horror he’d felt at hearing that had even been on the table. Sure, his Heat had been a blindingly unpleasant experience without an Alpha, but, God, Obie? He’d known the man his whole life. And he was at least three times Tony’s age. And he was…he was Obie. The idea of…well, of doing that with him slammed shut some kind of door in his mind that he just steadfastly refused to open.
A choked, bitter huff of a laugh escaped him as he thought of the stilted dinner conversation that followed. Of all his pleas to his mother to make sure that didn’t happen, it had been his father who, surprisingly, had put his foot down on the whole thing. Not because he particularly cared that Tony didn’t want to, which was, on the list of things his father cared about, somewhere down around whether or not the grass cared if it got cut, he figured, but because, Tony recalled Howard saying, some Alphas wanted an untouched Omega. So, really, just keeping the options open. Good to know where he stood, he thought with a distant, hollow burning threading through his chest. It was a strange day when his interests aligned with what Howard wanted for him, but, hey, if his father wanted to be a traditionalist all of a sudden, fine by him.
Just thinking about his Heat made his stomach turn and chest heave with shuddering breaths. It had been years since he first hit puberty, and the beginnings of what would settle into his Heat cycle started. He’d thought he was prepared for it. He’d read the little yellow pamphlet his mother had given him, with the brightly smiling Omega walking on a sparkling beach, enjoying the warmth of the sun while her toes dipped in the waves, thrilled to be welcoming her first Heat.
Heat, a real Heat, was nothing like that, as he’d learned last month when his body finally decided it was ready to kill him slowly and painfully for a few days because of one tiny little, utterly useless quirk of genetics. Fucking fuck, that had been awful. Hell, he’d have taken Obie and his creepy old man dick by the second day if he could’ve gotten it, but, instead, he’d been given a case of Powerade, some protein bars, a bathtub filled with cool water and a few anatomically questionable toys. Most of the worst of it was a hazy cycle of pain and need that, thankfully, he could barely remember, except nothing had been enough, no matter what he did, and fuck, he’d tried everything he could to find whatever it was his body demanded, but nothing worked. Everything he’d tried left him in a frustrated state of over-simulation, chasing a release that he couldn’t quite find no matter how many times he came, until he was empty and open and sore as fuck. It was never enough.
He’d woken up on the fourth day feeling like he had the worst hangover of his life, his dick red and chafed and so damn sensitive it hurt to touch, his hole loose and raw around one of the dildos that was still shoved up inside him, being utterly useless. Someone helped him into the bath and cleaned him up, but the cold water stung at the abraded skin, and left him shivering and curled into a ball on the mess of a bed, just barely able to muster the energy to hate life.
He was fairly certain the whole experience had been designed to make him more cooperative with Howard’s plans. Be a good, little Omega, get on his knees and beg for some big Alpha to be so kind as to knot him.
Mostly, Tony had just been royally pissed.
Not that it had changed anything, except his subsequent attempts at defiance in the form of not immediately capitulating to Howard’s plans appeared to have cemented Howard’s idea that he needed an Alpha who would, in his father’s words, “appreciate that he needed a firm hand.” So. That didn’t sound particularly promising.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t known this was coming. As soon as he presented as an Omega, the writing was on the wall, so to speak. He wasn’t going to get to run the company. He wasn’t going to finish school. He wasn’t going to get to do much of anything that didn’t involve taking it up the ass from some Alpha. That was what he was good for, and his body was going to make that clear to him one day, or so the doctor promised when he patted a sympathetic hand on Tony’s mother’s shoulder.
No matter how many things he built from his father’s cast-offs or how many online courses he took, ultimately, he was going to service an Alpha his father chose for him and--hey, look at the happy Omega on the pamphlet—absolutely love existing to be a vessel to take an Alpha’s knot. Sure, that sounds concerning, right? Oh, no worries though. Apparently, his body would cheerfully help him not give a fuck about anything else and dulling his mind until he didn’t care about anything but rutting with some big Alpha cock.
So helpful, that biology. Definitely not at all fucking him over, both literally and metaphorically.
At least, this happy pronouncement was what the doctor had cheerily assured him would happen during the exam his father had insisted on, when his ass was still sore and stinging from the coiling pressure of the metal speculum sliding inside and stretching him open, and he was desperately trying not to dig his fingers hard enough into the ridiculous paper covering beneath him to tear it. That would have been some kind of admission that it had seemed important not to make while the doctor worked latex-covered fingers deep inside his gaping body so he could check off some box on a form that said Tony hadn’t been knotted. There really was a form for everything.
And now…well, now there was a room full of men hashing out whatever deal it was they were making to get this Alpha to take Tony. Must be someone pretty high up, Tony assumed. General Ross was in there. A dour-looking African-American man with an eye-patch who made Tony want to ask if his favorite letter of the alphabet was ‘R,’ except that would probably embarrass his father and thus, not be worth the fallout for what amounted to bubble-gum wrapper-level humor.
There was another, smaller man with thinning hair and a kind face who had come with Eye-Patch McFrowny, though he had barely looked at Tony as they passed through the mansion, which, Tony admitted, was better than the curious once-overs the others had given him, like he was produce at the market that was a bit too close to its sell-by date. They probably expected him to look away, avert his gaze like a proper, unbonded Omega would do around so many Alphas, none of whom he belonged to, so he’d forced himself to stare back, working through differential equations in his head to keep at it, but he’d done it.
Through the door, he could hear laughter, loud and rich and deep, the kind that sounded less like amusement and more like power, the way his father laughed on the rare occasions that he did. The massive oak door started to swing open, and Tony scrambled to his feet, pressing his back against the wall. Tony made himself stand up straight, shoulders back, so he didn’t slouch, pulling himself up as tall as he could, which, fine, wasn’t much, but he wasn’t going to let them see him cower, even as his stomach flip-flopped and his chest tightened like someone was squeezing a vice around him.
It was done. Whatever it was, it was done. In the span of the few hours since he’d woken up this morning, his entire life had done a one-eighty. His life. What a fucking joke. It had never been his life, not his own, not in the way that he imagined it must be for other people. He was someone else now, but he’d never really been him, so what did it matter? They’d sloughed off his entire identity and given him another with the stroke of a pen, and were too busy patting themselves on the back for their sheer awesomeness to notice Tony’s world crumbling in on him.
Or they did, but it was different now, wasn’t it, he realized grimly. He wasn’t Tony Stark, Omega son and heir of Howard Stark, scion of the weapons and technology industries, a curiosity, if nothing else. Not anymore. He was some stranger’s Omega. Someone else was going to tell him where to live and what he could do, how to dress and what to read, but it wasn’t any of these someones, these men who had come to drink and smoke cigars and take away what little control he’d been clinging to, even as he’d known it for the illusion it was. He was someone else’s property now, and we really must keep up social mores, mustn’t we, Tony thought sarcastically as the men walked past. Wouldn’t want to do something improper while we’re handing someone off to play whore to some Alpha. Good Lord, no. Hide the good silver, Jarvis, Tony thought, feeling hysteria bubble up in his chest.
Surreal was a pasty-faced word for what this was.
“Everything went fine, Tony,” Howard said, pausing long enough to clap Tony on the shoulder and give his rigid frame a small shake. “We’ve worked out all the details, I think. The Captain—Captain Rogers. Steve Rogers, that is—he’d like to meet you first, of course. Director Fury will handle all the arrangements on his end, but, assuming the Captain approves of you, it’s a done deal.”
That was a lie, Tony could tell. Howard was saying that because of Tony’s mutinous expression and, well, past behavior being something of a predictor of future behavior and all that. But, it clearly wasn’t a done deal. He wasn’t stupid. His mom was still flitting about the military brass like a hummingbird, darting in and out to bring drinks and cigars where they gathered in the billiards room. Tony could recognize the nervous desire to please, the hushed, unadulterated envy that settled over his father whenever he was around a bunch of Alphas.
Howard gave Tony’s shoulder a hard squeeze, which Tony squirmed away from, followed by a long, reproachful look. Nothing about this was done. This was Howard, clamping his jaws around whatever it was they were dangling in front of him that he wanted so badly. There was still a way out. Not a good way, admittedly, but if the plan hinged on Tony managing to impress this Captain Rogers, then chances of success had plummeted to what amounted to a statistical impossibility, as far as Tony was concerned.
“This is our chance,” Howard told him, leaning in close to Tony’s ear. He could smell the sweet port on Howard’s breath, familiar and repulsive at the same time. “We need this, Tony. You don’t know how close we are to losing everything. This? This could keep us in the government’s good graces for decades. Ha!” Howard chortled. “Decades,” he said with a shake of his head. “This kind of opportunity…you have no idea. Rogers. Unbelieveable.”
“Howard?” his mother called, her perfectly-coiffed head peeking out of the billiards room, where the crack of the cue stick against the cue ball seemed to break something else open inside Tony. He wanted to run, to flee, to just be anywhere but here, but there wasn’t any place to go. No one would hire an unbonded Omega. He had no money to his name, since he couldn’t even open a bank account. He was surrounded by riches, and couldn’t own any of them. And there was absolutely nothing wrong with anything happening here tonight, at least as far as the rest of the world outside of Tony’s party of one was concerned. So, there were some hurdles to his escape plan, he could admit.
“Be right there, Maria,” Howard called out, his gaze sharp on Tony. “Whatever it is you’re thinking, don’t. That’s your problem, Tony. Always trying to figure something out instead of just letting those who know better handle things. Well. Not this time, do you hear me? We can’t lose this chance. I know you’re thinking you can make the Captain change his mind. And yeah, you could do that,” Howard said, voice low, like they were conspiring, like this was, in any way that mattered, a group effort. “But, and you listen to me, boy. There is no outcome here where you skip merrily home and go back to your little “inventions,’” Howard sneered, the way he seemed to have to in order to get the word out whenever he applied it to Tony. “Your books and those online courses you think I don’t know about.”
“They aren’t for credit,” Tony said quickly, which was a mistake, he knew instantly, wincing at the level of sheer stupidity he was about to attain around Howard.
“Huh,” Howard ground out, breath wheezing out a raspy huff. “Jarvis let you use his name and social to register? Wait. Don’t answer that. I’d hate to have to fire the best butler we’ve had. Always had a soft spot for you, and we both know, that isn’t what you need. Is it, Tony? Come on. You can whine and pout and put on a show of it all you want, but in the end, you want this. You know you do. If you need me to be the one to play the bad guy, fine. Tell yourself I’m the black hat here, if it helps whatever goes on in that head of yours. But, between us, let’s not pretend. Not anymore. Haven’t we done that enough over the years? You are what you are, and you need this, even if you don’t want to admit it. This is the best thing for you.”
“The best thing for you, you mean,” Tony parroted sullenly, then let his gaze drop to his shoes.
“The company needs this. I won’t lie. Look, Tony,” Howard said, stepping back and raking a hand through his hair. “What else are you going to do? This way…at least you can be useful. You can help. Think of all the people we employ. Thousands, Tony! You can help them keep their jobs, put food on their tables…all you have to do is exactly what you were made to do. What your body wants to do. I know you think I don’t care about you, but I do. You need this. You want to act like you don’t? Like you’re above this? Special? Fine. But, we both know better, don’t we? You really want to go through your Heat again without an Alpha?”
“I want to go through life without an Alpha,” Tony retorted, hands balling into fists. He wasn’t going to cry. He wasn’t. But, damn if he was going to be told what he wanted by someone who had never cared enough to even try to figure it out.
“Well,” Howard said after a moment, his voice hard enough to make Tony go still and silent. “That isn’t an option. Since we’re being upfront with each other, I’ll tell you what your options are, how about that? You go, make nice with the Captain, get him to Bond and have a nice life as the Omega of someone important. Or, you keep on with this…this unnatural defiance that you seem to take great joy in spouting…and the Captain decides he’d much prefer some sweet, little thing who doesn’t mouth off or get it in his head to build a reactor in the basement on a whim—“
“That worked. It worked, until you made me take it apart, but it worked,” Tony cut in, almost out of air, his throat was so tight, but it had worked, damn it. It had. He may be a needy bitch Omega, but he’d built something with scraps that had worked, and fuck Howard and his pathetic, jealous bullshit. He wondered, in that moment, staring back at his father’s dark eyes in the hallway while raucous laughter spilled out of the billiards room, just how much of this was because Howard didn’t want him around, didn’t want his Omega son showing him up, and maybe, yeah, maybe this was a bit about punishment for being capable of doing that in the first place, he acknowledged with a piercing pain that sliced through his chest. Wasn’t every day you learned just how much your father hated you.
“You’ll Bond with Captain Rogers,” Howard snapped, grabbing both of Tony’s shoulders and turning him roughly around to face him, waiting until Tony finally dragged his gaze up to look him in the eye to continue. “You’ll do it, Tony, or so help me, your next option won’t give a shit about your sparkling personality, you understand me, boy? You want to screw this up for me, wanna be spiteful and make your old man look like an ass who can’t even control his own Omega son, you can. Sure. I can’t stop you. But, don’t do it because you think there is something that comes next that you’ll like better. Grass isn’t greener, Tony. I promise you, you fuck this up for me, you won’t like what comes next. Either way, I win. Remember that. I win.”
“I’ll throw you a ticker-tape parade,” Tony retorted listlessly, tearing his gaze away from his father’s hard look. He needed to get away before he made even more of a fool of himself and did something that really encapsulated the definition of insanity, like plead with Howard not to do this. It was currently a toss-up between that or just collapsing into a heap and refusing to move for the rest of his life, though, he suspected his father might actually find the latter a bit more acceptable than Tony’s usual behavior. At least he’d be in the right position. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. This was happening. A part of him still couldn’t wrap his head around it. Maybe he’d wake up, hunched over his desk to find that DUM-E had made him a shake with a bit too much of his mom’s special pills he wasn’t supposed to know about.
“Get to your room,” Howard ordered, pulling himself up and straightening his suit jacket. “We’ll go meet Captain Rogers day after tomorrow. Your mom’s got people coming to get you ready starting tomorrow morning. Try to think before you do anything stupid. And then, word of advice? Don’t even try it.”
Tony watched his father’s back as he walked away to join the other men celebrating in the billiards room, then turned and walked slowly up the staircase towards his room. He stopped on the landing when another round of laughter echoed out into the mansion’s foyer. He hated them. Hating Howard was easy enough. He’d learned how to do that at his father’s knee, after all. He hated all of them, though, with their cigars and brandy and stupid jokes, with their lingering gazes and averted eyes, because let’s have some fucking decorum here while we’re doing this, by God.
He thought he might hate his mother the most. Her perfect mascara, not even a bit runny. Dab, don’t wipe, he thought bitterly. The way she held his hand and told him it was going to be alright, that he would be happy, that it was better this way. All the things his father said, but didn’t really give two shits if they were true. When she said those things, though…she actually believed them. And that, that she really, truly did want this for him, hurt in a way he couldn’t quite comprehend.
Neither of them had ever quite known what to do with him.
Howard had settled on hate fueled, Tony had come to suspect, by his own insecurities, honed by a lifetime as a Beta, clawing and grasping his way through a world where the Alphas made climbing to the top look so easy. His mother had chosen love, and that meant, for her, at least, making Tony into the perfect Omega, one who find an Alpha to take care of him, dote on him, even, if he was lucky enough, beautiful enough, good enough, then he could have that. Everything would be so easy for him, if he’d just let it.
So, yeah, she had failed rather spectacularly at that.
Two days later, as he rode in the back of the limo over to SHIELD’s West Coast headquarters where the meeting with Captain Rogers was supposed to take place, Tony thought his mom might have won at least one round. Yesterday had been filled with one appointment after the other filing through the mansion with their lotions, oils and colognes, waxes and powders, scented shampoos and designer clothes, making sure Tony looked the part, down to the white lace underwear that kept trying to creep its way up his ass like it had its own secret mission to pave the way.
He swiped a hand over his mouth, rubbing at his chin where he had been trying to grow in something of a beard. That had been toast right off the bat. He’d balked when one of the aestheticians suggested shaving, well, everywhere, but his face was clean-shaven and plucked smooth. His chest, legs and arms were denuded, just like he was supposed to be. Someone had tried to tame his hair, which was slicked back flat on his head and fighting against the effort for all it was worth. His mother had applied a line of coal under his eyes and a coat mascara to his lashes, which made him look like he was permanently surprised, as far as he could tell, but she kissed his cheek and told him Captain Rogers would love it, which worried him about the good Captain’s taste, among other things.
It still rankled. It had taken forever to get that damn goatee going, Tony thought with a exaggerated sigh that everyone in the limo ignored.
The limo cut through traffic and took the exit off the main highway, making Tony’s stomach jerk along with it. He hadn’t eaten much since the cadre at the mansion night before last, and there was a sour, queasy feel to his stomach that left him vaguely lightheaded. His mother had told him he looked thinner, which apparently meant the same as good.
As they drove, Tony tried again to picture the faceless man he was going to meet, but the image that kept creeping in was someone who looked vaguely like Obie, just in a military uniform, jowls shaking while he told Tony to make sure he got a clean, close shave, just like the commercials promised. He’d tried to find out some information on the Internet about Captain Steve Rogers, and there had been some hits, but no one seemed particularly likely. The one active duty hit he found was married with three kids and living at Fort Bragg, which, okay, sure, some oil-soaked sheik might decide to get himself an Omega on the side, but not a corn-husking Presbyterian from NeverGoHere, Nebraska. The other Captain Steve Rogers he was able to find was retired and raising bees, and as nice as that had initially sounded, not really someone whom his father would look to for connections.
No one would answer his questions, of course, either because they didn’t know or had been told not to tell him, since Howard seemed to want to play at fucking Wadsworth and cloak the whole thing in mystery. Tony wasn’t sure if Howard was just being a RuPaul-sized drama queen about it or if Rogers wanted Tony kept in the dark. Maybe there was some reason they didn’t want to tell Tony anything. Like…Rogers’ last Omega had been found dumped in a shallow ditch with his head shaved and fingernails pulled out.
Or, maybe Howard was just being a dick. Hard to say, Tony admitted darkly, shooting a glare at where his father hid behind the business section of the Wall Street Journal, which literally no one believed he was actually reading.
The tall, rectangular concrete building that was SHIELD’s main office in California was close to Fort Irwin, just outside of Barstow and a million miles, give or take, from their Los Angeles mansion. Smaller buildings flanked the main one on either side. Tony thought it looked like a giant penis and set of balls, and figured some Alpha designed it in honor of himself, but kept that thought to himself.
They were waved through the checkpoint in short order, since the words “Captain Rogers’ Omega” seemed to have some kind of talismanic power over the low-level grunts stuck manning the proverbial door, and parked across three spaces marked for visitors. He followed his parents out of the limo and stood there long enough for his mother to smooth the wrinkles from the suit she’d picked out for him, a cream-colored number with a soft blue shirt and tie that she said set off his skin, which Tony thought made him look like a giant Easter egg.
“Remember, be nice. Smile for him. Tell him how excited you are. Show him what a good boy you are, how polite. Let him talk. They like it when you listen. Be impressed. Tell him what an honor this is that he’s picked you,” his mother was saying, though he’d heard it enough times over the past couple of days he could have recited it backwards.
“Just…do what he says, okay, son? It’ll be easier if you just go along with it. Don’t—don’t make this harder on yourself than it needs to be,” Howard admonished, though he wouldn’t look at Tony. There was something lacing his voice that on anyone else, Tony would have called sorrow, but there was too much belligerent hope there, too.
“So, should I just bend over as soon as we walk in or wait until after we introduce ourselves?” Tony rasped out. He could feel panic snaking its way up his spine, making him jittery, his heart racing, thumping loudly in his hears until it started to down out everything else.
“That’s just the kind of—“ Howard started in, pointing a finger at Tony’s face.
“Howard, no. He’s nervous. Can’t you see that? Leave him be,” Maria scolded. “Anthony, don’t antagonize your father.”
“Don’t screw this up, Tony. I mean it. You want to play it that way, we can, but I don’t think you’ll like how that works out for you,” Howard said, the steel back in his voice. Ah, there he was, Tony thought. Better. He could handle a lot, but pity from the man selling him for an Alpha’s good graces was not something he could deal with at the moment. “Let’s go.”
The smaller man who had been with Director Fury at the house two nights ago greeted them at the entrance. Agent Coulson, Tony learned, repeating the name in his head, though the flunky agents were all pretty much interchangeable, Tony figured.
“Welcome to SHIELD, Mr. Stark. Mrs. Stark. Anthony, good to see you again,” Agent Coulson said, shaking Tony’s parents’ hands. “Captain Rogers’ is waiting for you in conference room B. If you’ll follow me?” he asked. There wasn’t really anything to do but follow, since running was probably an exercise in futility considering the guards, fence and massive lack of any actual plan for life.
“Oh, ah,” Coulson stopped, holding out a hand when Howard started to follow along behind. “Just Anthony, Mr. Stark. Agent Thompson here will show you and Mrs. Stark to a waiting area where I’m sure you’ll be comfortable. Snacks. Drinks. Cable TV. We’ve got all the toys,” Coulson promised, though there was something almost challenging running under the words, nice as they seemed on the surface.
“I think I should accompany my son, Agent Coulson. They still aren’t…I mean, this isn’t…” Howard trailed off, clearly not ready to announce to the lobby that this whole thing was still as up in the air as a Macy’s balloon.
“Sorry,” Coulson said, sounding anything but. “Captain Rogers was very specific.”
Captain Rogers wanted to see Tony by himself, so, apparently, that was what was going to happen, and Howard could just take a fucking seat. Tony would be gleeful if he wasn’t currently going with Option B, terrified.
“Come on, Howard. It will be fine. Let them get to know each other. It’s just for a little while, isn’t that right, Agent Coulson?” Tony’s mother questioned, reaching out a hand to wrap around Howard’s arm, like she was going to bodily prevent him from following if it came to that.
“I have no idea,” Coulson responded, blinking at them. “Anthony? You ready?”
He wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, so he nodded and followed Coulson through the labyrinth of hallways and elevators until he saw a sign that helpfully pointed them towards conference room B, where Captain Rogers was waiting for him.
“Just in there,” Coulson told him, pointing towards the windowless black door. “Anthony?” he said, when Tony didn’t move.
“Tony,” Tony corrected him. “I go by Tony.”
“Tony,” Coulson began, his formerly clipped tone softening. “It really is going to be okay. I know you don’t believe me right now, and that’s understandable. But, Rogers…he’s a good man. He’s…he’s been through a lot. I think you might understand that. You could be good for him. For each other, I think. Just…try to keep an open mind, okay?”
Tony was either going to laugh at him or throw up on Agent…Agent, whatever, his mind blanked, and it was a real toss up for a few seconds, but what he managed to husk out was a sharp, brittle, hacking sound and not the few bits of toast he’d had for breakfast, so, small favors there. Keep an open mind. Yeah. He’d just…do that. It was always possible this wouldn’t end with him on his knees getting split open by an Alpha he didn’t want. Maybe they’d just do the crossword. He could do it in pen. Surely, that would be enough for Rogers. See? His mind was so fucking open, it was practically a 7/11.
Tony swallowed thickly, throat bobbing with the effort and reached out to pull open the conference room door. His first thought when he walked in was that it was bright in the room, which was meaningless, but still true. Bright sunlight streamed through a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the desert in the distance below an infinite blue sky. His second thought was that Captain Rogers was probably the absolute most opposite of Obie that you could get without literally turning Obie himself inside out.
Captain Rogers, or who he assumed was Rogers, anyway, was standing in front of one of the tall windows wearing his dress uniform and facing Tony, hands behind his back, which had the effect of making him look even broader in the shoulder than he was. And that was seriously saying something. Bit like saying the Rockies have a few good mountains.
“Uh…hi?” Tony stuttered, coming to a halt behind one of the big, black leather conference chairs. He gripped the back of it and felt it wiggle in his hands as it rolled, making a short creaking sound that seemed to be amplified in the quiet of the room while he studied the man who was supposed to be his Alpha. Dishwater blonde hair, tall and fair-skinned, despite the California sun. Blue eyes, a trim waist that bordered on unfair, long legs and strong thighs, and yeah, okay, Tony was staring, but, to be fair, so was Rogers, until he caught himself doing it and looked away.
Young, Tony noted. Younger than Tony had dared to hope. Maybe seven or eight years older than Tony, which put him on the very young side for a Captain, that was for sure. Up and comer, Tony guessed, by the look of the hardware on the guy’s chest. That was a hell of a lot of metal, Tony noticed, momentarily distracted. A lot-a lot. Like, drag-you-to-the-bottom-of-the-ocean-a lot. No wonder Howard was salivating over the guy. Decades of connections, indeed. Guy was clearly going places.
Tony kept looking Rogers over, since he hadn’t been told not to, and he was being open-minded and shit. Whatever image Tony had conjured in his mind, it sure as hell wasn’t this, he could freely admit. Handsome didn’t really quite capture Rogers, Tony thought, like it was too small a concept for what Rogers was like in person. More like, someone should put him on a billboard kind of gorgeous that made Tony suddenly feel ridiculous with his hair that wouldn’t stop trying to curl, watercolor suit and make-up that was probably smudged by now, though, it was kind of nice that Rogers appeared to have put some effort into his appearance, too. That was something. Not like Tony wasn’t a sure thing, at least as far as Rogers knew, but it was something.
“Hello,” Captain Rogers replied, voice sort of slurred, like he wasn’t sure of his word choice. Tony watched him shift his stance, hands falling to his sides as he sort of stutter-stepped like he was going to walk forward and got caught rethinking it in the middle of acting on the thought. “Ah. Thank you. For coming today, I mean. All the way here. I know that was a trip. For you and your family. I really appreciate that. Ah…may I call you Anthony?”
“Tony,” Tony said again. “Only my mom calls me Anthony. I hate it.”
“Tony, then. My mom always called me Steven, at least when I was in for it,” Captain Rogers told him, almost sheepishly, with a twisted sort of lopsided smile ghosting over his face, gone before it really had a chance to take hold. “Which was a lot of the time,” he admitted.
“Troublemaker, huh?” Tony asked before he could stop himself. Rogers just laughed though, a short, relieved sound, followed by a rueful smile that made whatever it was wrapped around Tony’s chest uncoil a bit. Hey, at least he wasn’t being thrown over a conference room table while his parents munched on croissants and coffee downstairs. Always a silver lining. And Jarvis said he wasn’t an optimist.
“Sometimes. Guess I always knew where to look for it, that’s for sure,” Rogers said easily. “Um, would you—Sorry, I should have asked. I’m just—ah--there’s water and coffee. I think maybe some soda. I can call the mess—the, uh, cafeteria, I mean—and have them send up anything you want, if you’re hungry?”
“I’m not hungry,” Tony replied. “Water is fine.” Mostly, he just wanted something to hold in his hands, but his throat was parched, and he kept having to clear it, and drinking gave him something to do that wasn’t talking. Always a plus for his interpersonal relations, as pretty much anyone could attest. Rogers picked up a bottle off the credenza and carried it around the table, holding it out in front of him towards Tony.
“Would you like to sit down?” Rogers asked, nodding his head towards the conference table. Maybe this was the interview portion, Tony thought dully. Let’s see….he wanted to be a good Omega, please his Alpha and world peace. Of course.
“Why not?” Tony answered, taking the bottle of water out of Rogers’ hand and pulling the chair he’d been gripping like a lifeline out from the table. After a beat, Rogers sat down next to him, though he pulled the chair back far enough to give Tony some extra space. “So,” Tony said when the silence stretched out too long for comfort.
“So,” Rogers repeated, sucking in a deep breath and squaring his shoulders. “Um. Right. So, like I said, thank you for coming here today,” Rogers began, which had the ring of a practiced speech to it. “I wanted to meet you and—and give you the chance to meet me before we…settled on anything permanent. I know we don’t exactly have a lot of shared life experiences, but I thought it would be a good idea to see—to see if we’re…compatible.”
“Do you like macramé?” Tony asked.
“No?” Steve replied with a frown, voice wavering with uncertainty at the oddity of the question.
“Me neither. There. See? We’re compatible,” Tony said.
“Ah. I see,” Rogers said, shifting a bit in his seat, shoulders hunching like he was trying to make himself smaller, which was, let’s face it, a physical impossibility as far as Tony could tell. “So, this, ah. This whole thing isn’t really your idea, I take it?”
Life really wasn’t fair. Honestly, he’d tried. He’d gotten all dolled up, put his game face on, walked the Green Mile and come in here, only to have verbal diarrhea at the last minute because he couldn’t figure out what the guy wanted from him. Compatible? Well, your knot will fit fine in my ass, and that’s all anyone cares about, so yeah, we’re compatible. Move the fuck on. The dog and pony Newlywed Game was getting stale really fast.
“Does it matter?” Tony asked harshly. The nearly empty bottle of water folded in his hands, making a grating, crinkling noise as he released it. “Look, either you want to do this or you don’t. I’m sure How—my father already told you about me, so.” So, get on with it. Get it over with, whatever this is, please God, Tony silently begged. Just get it over with.
“Director Fury thinks this will be good for me. Help me acclimate,” Rogers explained, ignoring what Tony had said. Acclimate? That made no sense. Acclimate to what? Tony wasn’t about to ask, considering he’d already pretty much fucked this up beyond all recognition. See? He’d studied his military terms so diligently. Shame for that vast storehouse of useless knowledge to go to waste. “Your Dad, he—he said you were excited. About this. Not really sure what you get out of it though.”
“What I get out of it?” Tony bit out. “I get—“ he broke off, grinding his teeth together in an effort to keep the words in. What did he get? He got the devil you know, he supposed with a dull pang that seemed to shake through his whole body. The one sitting next to him, who had at least made a show of trying. “It would be an honor to be your Omega, Captain,” Tony said stiffly.
“Wow,” Rogers replied after a long beat, watching Tony toy with the bottle cap on the tabletop in front of him. “That must’ve hurt to get out.” Rogers gave a huff of amusement and sat back in his chair, studying Tony with a sudden intensity that made Tony feel like he should be tied to a chair with his eyeballs pried open.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Tony replied. “I—I do want to do this. Really.” That much was true in the way that he imagined someone pinned under a pile of concrete wanted out. Then, no matter how bad things turned out to be, at least the waiting would be over. Rogers gave him a dubious look, then looked across the table to the row of windows.
“Do you even remotely want to be my Omega?” Rogers asked, still keeping his gaze locked on the horizon.
Tony knew the answer he was supposed to give. He tried to get it out of his throat, where it seemed to be hopelessly lodged, probably because his heart was stuck there, presently not letting air or anything else useful get through.
“I—I don’t want to not be your Omega,” Tony finally managed. He nudged the bottle cap with his fingers, sending it rolling across the desk. They both watched it tumble, neither of them moving.
“Okay,” Rogers said after a long moment, letting out the word with a slow hiss of breath that he’d apparently been holding.
“Okay?” Tony repeated. Rogers pushed the chair back and stood up, pulling at the bottom of his dress uniform jacket, which made the medals shake across his chest. “So, that’s it. Just like that. We’re…you’re…and I’m…”
“Bonded,” Rogers offered when Tony stumbled over his words. Try to control your excitement, Tony thought with a surprising amount of annoyance, but the thought fled as Tony looked up, blinking with something between panic and bitter disappointment as Rogers started to shuck his jacket. Well, that nice-guy act didn’t last long, Tony had time to think before he realized that Rogers hadn’t actually remove his jacket, just opened it enough to tug something out of the collar. A necklace, Tony’s mind supplied. No, wait. Dog tags.
“I have to go away for a few days. I’m sorry. I know the timing—the timing’s bad,” Rogers was saying. “Take these. Show them to Coulson. He’ll know what it means. Tell him anything you need, and he’ll make it happen.”
“I—but--do I just…” Tony stammered, taking the dangling chain for lack of anything better to do than just stare at it. “Just go back home?”
“If that’s what you want,” Rogers said with a slight frown. “I thought you might be more comfortable with your folks,” he continued, watching Tony while Tony fidgeted with the dog tags, unsure if he should pocket them or wear them or what. Was there a protocol for this? Everything was happening too quickly, and nothing was happening fast enough, like the whole world around him was out of equilibrium. “But, I—I, ah, have a place. Outside the base. Up near Big Bear. There’s a lake. Mountains. Good hiking, fishing, that kind of thing.”
“More of a wormhole kind of guy than actual worms,” Tony replied, his mouth twisting into a grimace. Probably better to get everything on the table up front than face whatever might result from Rogers being disappointed later.
“Okay. Really? Um, well. I don’t have that, but there’s internet. Plenty of books. DVDs. Nice deck, if you wanted to get a telescope or something. I could—I could bring one up for you. If you wanted,” Rogers offered, almost hesitantly. “Got an empty garage up there you can store whatever you want in.”
“Empty garage?” Tony piped up.
“Um, sure. Yeah, um, all yours, if you want it,” Rogers told him. “I don’t really have a lot of stuff. Yet. I mean, I was. I will. Maybe you can make a list or something,” he said, scrunching up his face a bit in a way that Tony would have found endearing if it weren’t for the massive loss of nonexistent personal autonomy.
“Carbon fiber reinforced polymer,” Tony blurted out, then winced. Shut up. Just stop speaking. Things always go better when you do, Tony told himself firmly.
“I was thinking sofa,” Rogers responded with a laugh. “But, I’ll put it on the list,” Steve promised, and damn if he didn’t pull out a small spiral notebook and write it down. “So, ah, Coulson. I’ll take care of getting the cabin stocked, and we’ll have your things packed up and sent over. Anything else you need, just let him know. He’ll take care of it.”
Tony stared at him, mouth opening and closing while he waited for the other shoe to drop. When he couldn’t wait any longer, he finally sucked in a deep breath and stood up, pulling the dogtags over his head. They were heavier than they looked, solid and cold against his the hollow of his chest, making a slight, roughened noise when they rubbed together. His left hand snaked around them, clutching them in his fist and pulling the chain tight against the back of his neck until it dug into the crease of skin there. He meant to ask what he was supposed to do up there at Rogers’ little Alpha hut, but what came out was, predictably, not quite what he’d intended.
“Do you want this?” Tony heard himself say in a shaky, breathy tone that grated like nails on a blackboard. “Me. To be your Omega, I mean.”
“I don’t want you to not be my Omega,” Rogers said, blue eyes dark and soft with something like sadness. “Looks like we’re compatible, after all.”
“I flew,” Tony rasped through a mouth that tasted like sand and blood. He squinted up against the glare of the sun haloing Steve’s face where he knelt in front of him. Hands, warm and soft and familiar, cradled the sides of his head, while deft fingers gingerly poked and prodded. Tony slumped forward and let his head rest against Steve’s chest, breathing in a long, shuddering breath that was half-sob, one hand winding into the bulk of Steve’s uniform, just below the star.
“I know. I heard. You did great, Tony,” Steve husked out. Tony could feel him shaking beneath his hands, small, aborted quivers of muscle spiraling through the terror and anger and relief, which, more than anything since he’d woken up attached to a car battery, ripped apart what was left of Tony’s composure. “I’ve got you now. You’re safe. You’re okay. You’re okay, Tony,” Steve was saying in a low, broken whisper against the side of Tony’s head.
Tony wasn’t sure which of them Steve was trying to convince, but he let the words wash over him, through him, cleansing away something he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge. He had to resist the urge to curl in on himself, make himself smaller until he could disappear, something he hadn’t felt in years, years spent making himself into someone who didn’t do anything small, but old habits apparently dwelled deep inside the dark places, the corners of desert caves, with their tunnels to nowhere and buckets that held more nightmares than water. Instead, he bunched his hands further into Steve’s uniform, drawing him closer, his head digging into the column of Steve’s throat until he could smell the familiar mix of Irish Spring soap, leather, sweat and whatever it was that said Steve to his scattered brain.
There was a tang of coppery metal there, too, mixed in with the familiar, comforting scents, splotches on the uniform that were too dark for sweat. The backs of Steve’s knuckles were still smeared with brownish-red streaks, and crusty flecks darkened the ridges of his fingernails. Steve had been busy, Tony thought, though there wasn’t really any satisfaction to it—maybe later, but not yet--just a solid sort of certainty.
“Think these belong to you,” Steve said, pulling a silver metal chain out of one of the pouches on his belt. Tony released his hold on Steve’s uniform long enough to snake a hand up and grab for the dog tags, fitting them over his head with fumbling fingers that left them catching on his ear until he tugged them down. The familiar weight, both lighter and heavier than he remembered, sitting high on his chest, the way they felt cool for a moment, then warmed against his skin, sent a flood of rightness through him that had been missing since someone jerked them off his neck.
“Believe it or not,” Steve continued, his eyes dropping to where the dog tags dipped just below the curve of Tony’s black tank top. “They tried to deny you’d been there. As if I don’t recognize a level of destruction from a box of scraps that only you can achieve by now,” Steve teased. The attempt fell flat, sounded almost wistful when you took away the words, but Tony appreciated the effort.
“Hey Rhodey,” Tony mumbled from the hollow of Steve’s neck when a shadow fell across the sand next to where he huddled against Steve’s body.
“Next time, you ride with me, okay?” Rhodey said, voice tight and thick with emotion. Steve’s arms grasped Tony closer, pressing him so hard into his chest that Tony knew he could feel the reactor, even through the Kevlar, but he didn’t say anything or move way, just kept up a the slight, gentle rocking motion, one hand running up and down Tony’s back while the other cupped the side of Tony’s head, fingers playing lightly through his hair. Steve had always liked his hair, Tony thought with a strange, slurry sort of fondness that seemed out of place in the middle of the desert, surrounded by troops and helicopters, but the memory grounded him in a way. Steve was here, and he said it was okay, so that had to be true, because Steve didn’t lie, and he never lied to Tony.
“Next time you ride with me,” Steve breathed into the curve of Tony’s neck, just above his ear, part promise, part prayer, and everything that mattered.
“Take me home,” Tony pleaded. He didn’t mean for his voice to sound like that, but he couldn’t quite help it. “Not the Malibu house. Home.” He wanted away from this place, with its endless hills of sand and rock bleeding into one another, with its gray war and death that came bearing his own name. He wanted mountains and streams that wouldn’t shut up, and to sit outside, in a world that was open wider than maybe anywhere on earth, and look at the dying stars through his telescope while Steve painted dark canvasses of dreams he wouldn’t tell Tony about until much later.
“Okay, Tony,” Steve said after a beat. “Home. First, we’ve got to get you back to base, get you to a hospital, okay? He needs fluids,” Steve said, craning his neck over Tony’s head to talk to Rhodey.
“No hospital,” Tony protested. “Steve,” he said, more urgently, pulling one of Steve’s hands to the center of his chest and watching something like anguish flash across Steve’s stricken face as he looked down at Tony, cradled against the curve of his body in a bough of sand. Steve’s hand open and closed over the reactor spasmodically, and for a second, panic coursed through him like a current, his body jerking away in response, leaving Steve’s hand hanging in midair between them. “No hospital,” Tony repeated, risking a glance up at Steve’s ashen face.
“No hospital,” Steve promised, though his words were directed at Rhodey, who gave him a questioning look, but nodded, since there wasn’t really anything to argue about, which would usually annoy Tony, but was currently rather convenient. His Alpha said no hospital, so no hospital.
“Corman’s a medic, and we’ve got emergency supplies in the chopper,” Rhodey replied. “Come on, Tones. Let’s get you going.”
Tony felt he honestly tried to get his legs to work properly, but they were currently being absorbed by the sand and heat or something, because they definitely weren’t listening to him. It didn’t matter, of course, because Steve lifted him into his arms and stood up in one, fluid motion, hugging Tony to his chest as he walked to the waiting helicopter.
“This isn’t necessary,” Tony objected mildly. Technically, it probably was, and, truth be told, he’d always rather liked it when Steve used his strength to treat him like he was infinitely breakable.
“Indulge me,” Steve scoffed, giving Tony what was probably supposed to be a reassuring smile, but turned tremulous the moment his eyes met Tony’s.
“Yes, Alpha,” Tony tried, throwing Steve a teasing smirk that probably didn’t work quite as well as he’d hoped with cracked lips and blood-stained teeth. That, at least, drew something that vaguely resembled a smile out of Steve, so Tony counted it as a win.
“Don’t think you much pull that off,” Steve replied, just on the cusp of when Tony thought Steve wouldn’t be able to give him that, the steady reassurance that came from years of stumbling into time-honored jokes that no one else was privy to because some things belonged only to them. Of course, Steve would, even as Steve’s face was drawn and pale and his brow creased with a worry that wouldn’t let go anytime soon, he would always give Tony anything he asked, though Tony had long ago stopped asking for anything other than Steve.
Tony let out a long, wheezing breath and turned his head so his cheek rested across Steve’s shoulder. From this vantage, Tony could see the pulse point jumping in Steve’s neck, the rigid set to his jaw that screamed, but it was the his eyes, though, full of sorrow and a desperate, frail sort of longing that Tony recognized all too well. He’d seen it in the mirror too many times not to know it.
“Don’t. Don’t do this to yourself. This wasn’t your fault, Steve. None of this. I’ve done two dozen of these presentations with no problem. This wasn’t—hey, look at me!” Tony snapped, drawing Steve’s eyes away from the black hole he was staring at in the distance. “Not your fault. I’m okay. You said so yourself.”
Steve sat him down gently in the belly of the helicopter on a jacket someone had laid out on the bottom, tore open a plastic package and pulled out one of those thermal blankets to wrap around Tony’s shoulders. Rhodey hopped into the helicopter next to Tony, and he could hear the scraping whir of the blades start to rotate above them. Someone in a dust-colored helmet with a cross on it was pushing up his sleeve and tapping at the veins there.
“I’m fine. Really. So, all that running through your head, you can just…just forget it, okay? Get your ass in here, Rogers,” Tony ordered gruffly, tapping at the space next to him.
Steve gave him a long look, then placed one hand over the center of Tony’s chest where the reactor hummed inside a casing of peeled-back skin, keeping him alive. Tony’s teeth ground together as he returned Steve’s look, then he reached up and wrapped his hand around Steve’s wrist, pulling the other man’s hand back until he could twine their fingers together, letting the pads of his fingers scrape over Steve’s knuckles, through the caked on blood there, and over the back of his hand.
“Steve,” Tony breathed out, a benediction, though he knew Steve wouldn’t accept it. Maybe couldn’t.
Steve brought their hands up to his chest, twisted them enough so that he could lean down and press a kiss to the inside of Tony’s wrist.
“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, painting the word across Tony’s skin, where the pulse quickened. A flicker of pain contorted Steve’s face in a bright fracture of what could have been, then Steve pulled his hand away and tapped the side of the helicopter, stepping back as the blades picked up speed.
Tony looked over at Rhodey, who was crouched down next to him, then back down at Steve as the helicopter lifted off, sending swirls of sand curling around Steve’s legs as he watched them depart. Someone pulled the door closed, and then they were airborne, flying towards the sun. Tony felt the sting of the needle sliding into his arm at the same time, pain and precious life flooding through him as he looked down in time to see Steve reach over one shoulder and grab the shield from his back, holding it for Tony to see, both a salute and a promise.
“I already took this part of the tour,” Tony said dully as he watched the dunes roll like waves across a dead seascape. “Where’s he going?”
“Just the B crew was left by the time we got to the camp where they were holding you. Most everyone high-tailed it out of there as soon as you escaped and holed up in a place called Gulmira. Using your weapons, I might add,” Rhodey informed him with an annoyed twist of his mouth.
“He’s going to kill them all,” Tony said in flat voice that was probably acceptance on its best day, if you squinted and wore blinders.
“Yeah,” Rhodey replied after a beat. He shucked his helmet and scrubbed a hand over his face where sand stuck in the tracks of beads of sweat, then gave Tony a sharp look. “Yeah. He is.”
Tony twisted his head away to look out the window again, wincing at the movement. Damn. Everything was sore once he stopped walking. He reached up and wrapped his hand around the dog tags, rubbing the pad of one finger over the raised letters and numbers that spelled out Steve’s name. “Well. They shouldn’t have touched me.”
***********************Ten Years Earlier***************************
Tony followed Captain Rogers out of the conference room, where Agent Coulson waited in the hallway outside the door, arms crossed over his chest like a pencil-pushing sentinel who would definitely send you a strongly-worded memo if you didn’t replace the toner cartridge.
“Captain?” Agent Coulson questioned with a quick glance at Tony, his gaze dropping to the dog tags slung around Tony’s neck. “Ah. Congratulations are in order, I see.”
“Thank you, Agent Coulson. I have the, ah…” Rogers began, hands going to his hips as he looked around.
“The thing,” Coulson offered helpfully. Tony rolled his eyes.
“He has to go on a super-secret mission I’m not supposed to know about to protect freedom and liberty and, I don’t know, puppies, whatever it is you crazy kids are calling it these days, and you have to feed and water me while he’s gone,” Tony stated, lips curving into a flat grimace. “If you don’t let me out at least once a day, I’ll chew the furniture.”
Coulson blinked at him, then looked up at Rogers with what looked like, for just a moment, an utterly pleased expression before it flattened out to what Tony had decided was Coulson’s usual blank, expectant look, which he probably adopted mainly to make everyone hurry. Rogers raised his eyebrows and gave a slight, surprised huff of air, and swiped a hand over his mouth, apparently willing to ignore Tony’s outburst, at least for the moment.
“He’s going to be staying at the cabin,” Rogers told Coulson. “I’ve got a few things up there already, but haven’t really moved in. He’ll need his things from his parents’ house, too. And…carbon fiber reinforced polymer?” Rogers recalled, looking to Tony who gave him a jerky, little nod to cover his shock that Rogers had actually followed through and not just made a show of it. “Probably some other things. Let me know what I need to sign off on.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Coulson promised.
“Tony, would you like to say goodbye to your parents? I believe they’re still waiting downstairs,” Rogers asked, looking to Coulson who gave a confirming nod. “I’m sure it would put their minds at ease to know how things went.”
“Well, that’s certainly true,” Tony snorted. “Sure. Why not? It’ll be fun.” Coulson started walking back the way they’d come, though Rogers hung back a bit, standing next to Tony.
“Sure you want to do this?” Rogers asked carefully. Tony wasn’t sure what he was asking about, the Bonding thing or the obligatory parental visit, though, since his enthusiasm level was about the same for both, he supposed it didn’t really matter what answer he gave. Might as well give Rogers the one he was looking to hear.
“Yes, Alpha,” Tony replied, keeping his head ducked down and peering up at Rogers through his lashes trying for demure and probably landing closer to I-have-something-in-my-eye, though the other man sucked in a harsh, surprised-sounding breath and actually fucking started to blush, which, of course, managed to look good on him.
“Don’t think you much pull that off,” Rogers remarked dryly. “Ah, Steve. You can call me Steve,” Rogers said quickly, covering a slight frown with one hand, then dropping it to his side like he suddenly had one hand too many and wasn’t sure what to do with it. “If you want. Up to you.”
“Steve,” Tony repeated, trying the name out. It was better than having to use the kowtowing honorific some Alphas still preferred, he could admit, though he kind of enjoyed Rogers obviously thrown reaction. Still, better to stick to names. He strongly suspected, in a weak moment, he’d end up referring to Rogers as Alphalfa, Alf or some other less than respectful variation and that would probably end with his ass black and blue, so best not to tempt fate.
“Shall we?” Steve asked, nodding to where Coulson was holding the elevator for them.
They crowded into the elevator car, and Tony watched the numbers tick off on the lighted board until they reached the ground floor. He was suddenly very tired, which made sense given how little sleep he’d gotten the past few nights, but it was a numb sort of exhaustion making his limbs feel watery with the effort of walking across the lobby to the waiting are. His head picked that moment to start pounding like it wanted everyone to Wang Chung tonight, and he brought a shaking hand up to rub at the bridge of his nose where the pain seemed to decide to set up shop.
He’d done what they wanted, he thought, drawing in a deep breath that didn’t much manage to be steadying, just made his chest pull like it was being squeezed by phantom hands. He was going to be Rogers’ Omega. His parents would probably finally be proud of him. His mother might cry a little. Not too much. There would probably be pictures, and she wouldn’t want to look blotchy. Howard would pat him on the back, and tell him he’d done a good job.
He couldn’t do it, he thought, his steps slowing without really meaning for them to, but each movement forward seemed to be through invisible quicksand that affected only him. It was going to be too much. Except, he’d already said yes, and Rogers—Steve—thought he should, because that was what good sons did. But, honestly, if he saw them again right now, he was probably going to completely lose his shit, because they were going to be so happy, so fucking happy, and he was…this was…suddenly, all he had left to hang onto was not going in that room and throwing confetti at his own funeral with the rest of them.
“I can’t,” Tony announced, stopping abruptly in the middle of the lobby. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” His couldn’t make his hands stop shaking, so he started snapping his fingers together, an old habit from when he seemed to have too much energy to stay still and quiet and it all wanted to escape through his mouth or hands. Or maybe his hands were still and his body was shaking. Hard to say. His heart was pounding so hard against his ribs that it felt as if it could be sending reverberations throughout his body, which was both crazy and probably true. Coulson and Steve exchanged a look that was probably disappointment, but Tony couldn’t focus on either of them long enough to care.
“Okay,” he heard Steve say softly, probably because he didn’t want any of the agents shuttling through the lobby to know that his Omega was already causing a problem.
“I’ll make your goodbyes to your parents,” Steve was saying. “You can go with Agent Coulson and get started on everything. I’ll make arrangements for a driver to take him to the cabin this afternoon, once you get the deliveries handled,” Steve told Coulson in a firmer voice.
“I’ll take him to Medical first,” Coulson replied. “Tony?”
“I—no. I already. They did that. Already. I had my exam,” Tony stammered, his whole body stiffening as his gut dropped and clenched. “There’s a form.” It hadn’t occurred to him he’d need to do that again. He wasn’t prepared. It was okay, if he was prepared. He could handle it. He drew in a deep breath, but the air didn’t go down right, just sort of sat in his throat, while his lungs seemed to shrink in on themselves with the effort to get to it.
“What’s he talking about?” Steve asked, a frown creasing his brow. Great, now Steve was getting pissed that he was balking. Of course, his Alpha was upset. Why wouldn’t he be? Fifteen minutes into Bonding, and his Omega was throwing a fit at a routine exam. If they’d just told him. He could have prepared himself.
“Ah, some--well, I mean it isn’t uncommon, even these days. Some Alphas still want, ah, confirmation, so,” Coulson replied, sounding wildly uncomfortable. Well. At least Tony knew what would make the man’s composure falter. Good to know. “Tony, that’s not what Captain Rogers—“
“No one is going to touch you,” Steve cut in. There was the Steve who tried not to smile at Tony’s audacity, and there was the Steve who was strangely more tongue-tied than Tony at times, and Tony was still trying to reconcile these things in his head. Then there was this Steve, who said something that Tony believed was one-hundred and ten percent true because absolutely no-fucking-one was going to do anything except what Steve said to do.
Tony was torn between a desire to sag with relief and grab a spoon and a Rita Hayworth poster and start digging his escape tunnel. Other than Obie, the only Alphas he’d really been around had been his father’s business associates and the occasional military liaison who stopped by the mansion, and they had been nothing if not obnoxiously predictable with their looks of half-interest, half-disgust. Steve was…different. Different meant unpredictable, which probably meant Tony ending up not able to sit for a few days.
“Of course not, Tony. I’m sorry. I didn’t think. We just need to get some supplies for you. They’re heavily regulated though, so we have to get them from SHIELD Medical, that’s all,” Coulson told him soothingly, like he thought either Tony might rabbit if raised his voice or too much volume might accidentally cause him to lurch forward and touch Tony, which would be bad in some way Tony didn’t quite understand, but “some way Tony didn’t quite understand” was currently glaring a hole through the door of the waiting room, clearly ticked off, and why wouldn’t he be? Tony was making a scene in the middle of his work, in front of his coworkers, his superiors, making him look weak, and he knew they hated that.
“Don’t be too hard on the boy, Howard. Every Omega I’ve ever had, they all start off uppity like that. Think they know better than their Alpha. Gotta test those boundaries, you know?” Obie said with a shake of his head and a smile he shot at Tony that was all teeth. “He’ll calm down once he’s broken in,” Obie said as he shoved a bit of prime rib into his mouth, one elbow on the table where he leaned over toward Howard as he chewed. “Takes a bit to get it out of them—and your boy there more than most—but, if you invest the time, do it right, then its smooth sailing. I’m telling you. You’ll see, mark my words. He’ll come around. They always do.”
Tony wondered what was so heavily regulated they had to get it from SHIELD Medical, though he knew better than to ask. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Maybe it would make it easier. The calming down. Maybe he’d be so calm, he wouldn’t care what happened.
“So, I should just—“ Tony started, pointing at Coulson. His voice sounded thin and reedy, like it was piped through something the way elevator music sounded wrong, but he couldn’t seem to get any saliva in his mouth and his tongue felt two sizes too big, gnashing against the backs of his teeth.
“Go with Agent Coulson. He’ll get you settled. If you need anything, anything at all, just ask Coulson, here, and he’ll take care of it,” Steve told him. “I won’t be back for a week or so, but you’ll have the run of the cabin. Pick whatever room you like,” Steve continued, his voice tight and posture rigid, clearly pissed. Great. Fabulous start, Tony. A-plus work. He should write How To Piss Off Your Alpha For Dummies. “I haven’t even really moved in, so they’re all open. I’ll—I’m. Ah. Just. You know. Take care of yourself. While I’m gone. Remember. Any problems, tell them you—tell them you’re my Omega. Okay?”
“I’m Captain Rogers’ Omega,” Tony repeated flatly.
“Um. Right,” Steve said, giving Coulson a quick glance. “Good.” Coulson just raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms over his chest, the corners of his mouth tugging up ever so slightly. Probably not a good sign if the Beta was openly close to laughing at his new Alpha. Why didn’t the floor refuse to open up and swallow him when he needed it to? Physics was so fucking unhelpful sometimes.
Since he didn’t really have much of a choice, he followed Coulson back to the elevator, which took them down two floors to what served as the Medical wing for the base, cheerily decorated in post-apocalypse dystopian-edition chrome and the utilitarian line of beige, lighter beige and this-won’t-show-barf-beige. Charming.
“Dr. Reese, this is Captain Rogers’ Omega, Tony Stark,” Coulson was saying to a short, round man with a tuft of puffy, pale gray hair whoTony instantly dubbed White Coat One, and made him want to ask if he was late for tea. White Coat One held out a stubby hand in front of him, and Tony instinctively reached for it.
“Ah, no,” Coulson said, shaking his head quickly. “Just to be safe.” White Coat One drew his hand back like he’d stuck it in a flame, which would have been comical except for the rather terrifying realization that literally no one was going to risk crossing his new Alpha, so he should probably not require any actual physical assistance while he was here. On the other hand, he’d probably kick ass at hand-to-hand combat at the moment. “Tony, Dr. Reese is going to go over some things with you,” Coulson said, indicating a door just over White Coat One’s shoulder. “I’ll wait right out here until you’re done.”
White Coat One was clearly part of some elaborate ruse, Tony decided, a few minutes later as he sat on one of the barf-hiding-beige faux leather chairs that squeaked when he moved. This was a test. This was a test to see just how stupid he was right out of the gate, and no way in hell was he playing bait and probably literal switch with this shit.
“I don’t need those,” Tony said, staring at the small, blue bottle with horrified fascination. “Those are unnatural. And illegal.”
“Suppressants are only available in certain, very limited, circumstances, that’s true,” Dr. Reese admitted, propping one hip up on the desk and folding his hands across one knee.
“Because they’re wrong,” Tony reiterated urgently. “Everyone knows that. No Alpha wants an Omega who would…you know,” Tony finished, jerking his head at the bottle that was still sitting on the desk next to Dr. Reese’s knee.
“A lot of people feel that way, I can’t deny it. But, the realities of SHIELD operations mean that Captain Rogers may not be available during all of your Heats. You just had your first, right?” Dr. Reese asked. Tony nodded in response, his eyes darting back to the blue bottle. Suppressants, his mind reeled. He’d heard of them, of course. Warnings of the serious side effects, overdoses, Alphas who found out and ended up breaking their Bond, leaving the Omegas virtually helpless. “Without an Alpha?” Tony nodded again. “Hmmm. Well.”
“It was fine. I was fine. I’m good. Everything’s good. I don’t need—those,” Tony stammered.
“As you say. Still, my instructions were very clear. I am to give them to you and explain how to use them. Whether or not you choose to do so is, of course, up to you,” Dr. Reese stated, pushing himself off the desk. “Tony, I’m not your doctor, and you have no reason to trust me, I realize. But, these are medications used to treat a common, but disabling physical condition that occurs in all Omegas over the better part of their lives. The side effects, which I’m sure you’ve heard about, are actually quite minimal and the serious complications extremely rare. Do you know who runs pharmaceutical companies? Who makes the laws that say these drugs can’t be dispensed except in the most egregious of cases and that even then, I have to tell you that taking these drugs may diminish your capacity to induce a Heat, may increase your risk of certain types of cancers and could result in Alpha-rejection, which is all bollocks by the way. Do you know who requires all of that? Alphas. Alphas and the Betas who listen to them instead of science. ”
“Steve—Captain Rogers—really said this was okay?” Tony asked dubiously after a long moment. White Coat One, Dr. Reese, okay, fine, whatever, was either the world’s best at inducing Stockholm Syndrome or telling the truth, and Tony wasn’t sure which concept was harder to accept. His mind was skidding through the possibilities too quickly, like he was seeing them out the car window in one long, blurred line. The idea of--of having some control, not having to go through that again…He thought back to being curled on the floor by his bed, pumping a dildo in and out of his ass while he rutted against the carpet, trying to get any kind of relief while his body was on fire from the inside out, and he wanted to grab the bottle and run almost as badly as he wanted to assure the doctor that he would never, ever use such a thing.
“He did. Which, you don’t believe right now,” Dr. Reese said, giving Tony a long look when he didn’t respond. “I know you’re giving me the answers you think I want to hear, Tony,” Dr. Reese acknowledged, peering down at Tony from over the top of his round spectacles, not without some sympathy, Tony noted. “But, this isn’t a test. This is a choice.”
“Same thing,” Tony pointed out.
“Perhaps. In some cases, perhaps. But, not, I dare say, to Captain Rogers. If anyone would understand about having your life dictated by your body’s limitations, it would be Captain Rogers,” Dr. Reese remarked, which made no sense. Tony wasn’t blind. That body had zero limitations, except perhaps finding shirts that fit. “Here. Take this. When you get low, let Agent Coulson know, and I’ll send more along,” Dr. Reese said, holding the bottle out towards Tony. It hung there between them for a long moment before Tony reached up and picked it out of the doctor’s grasp, pocketing it without a word. “Good. Agent Coulson will see about the rest of the things you might need. If you have any questions—about anything at all—my number is on the bottle.”
“Thanks,” Tony mumbled, standing up. He had to force himself to resist the desire to reach his hand down and wrap it around the bottle to make sure it was still there.
Coulson was waiting for him when he walked out of the room, and he figured by the man’s expression that he knew what the doctor had given Tony, though he just asked if Tony was all done in a clipped tone, and started walking towards the elevator when Tony nodded.
The rest of the afternoon was largely spent arranging the packing and moving of his things back at the mansion, and putting in the few requests he could think of for the cabin. Since he hadn’t actually seen the cabin yet, it was difficult to say exactly what he might need, and he figured that a supply of palladium was probably not what Steve had in mind when he said to ask Coulson for whatever Tony wanted.
His thoughts were scattered, anyway, skittering between the dog tags that seemed to hang so heavily around his neck that he could feel them when he swallowed, and the bottle in his pocket that he kept running a hand over so he could feel the small cylinder rattle through the fabric. He wondered what his parents would say. Probably that he shouldn’t use them, he figured, so he dry swallowed one of the white tablets in the stall of the men’s restroom at SHIELD Headquarters, feeling a certain bitter satisfaction when he looked in the mirror as he washed his hands.
Tony thought he might see Steve again before they left, but Coulson explained there was an “ongoing situation in Bogota,” which apparently required his Alpha’s undivided attention. He told himself to be glad of the extra time to adjust, but not seeing Steve again just made the whole afternoon seem that much more surreal. He was Bonded, he’d choked down a suppressant over a toilet in the middle of SHIELD, and now he was being whisked away to what was probably Site B. He should have Coulson take a picture so they’d know what he was last seen wearing, but it was too horrifying to contemplate that he might literally be caught dead in this, he mentally groused. By the time he and Coulson were ensconced in the back of a large, black sedan, his headache was back in full force, pounding steadily at his temples like something was trying to crawl its way out.
Silences had never been his best moments, Tony thought, as the car drove through the gate and past the guard house. Coulson was reading something on his tablet, and their driver, a short, stocky man impossibly named Happy, occasionally pointed out various points of interest, which, in this area, largely amounted to restaurants where you could get a great burger, the junior food store with a beer cave, and a tackle store that had crickets by the hundred, which Tony assumed was so you could fish for Megalodon or something.
“So,” Coulson said finally, putting the tablet down on the seat next to him. “Happy here will be your driver, whenever you need him. This,” Coulson said, taking out a smartphone, “Is for you. Happy’s number is in there, and so is mine. I programmed it with a few other numbers that might be useful—Dr. Reese, pizza place—“
“Route 66, not that franchise crap,” Happy interjected firmly. “They do it right. Got one a’those brick ovens and everything.”
“Few other places that you might be interested in,” Coulson continued without pausing. “Of course, Happy will take you wherever you want to go. This, is your bankcard,” he said, handing Tony a bright green card with Steve’s name emblazoned on it. “And your SHIELD ID, in case you need to come to the base for anything.” This one had Tony’s full name and social security number with a –O at the end to indicate his status, just above where it said, Rogers, Steven G., Capt.—A(X).
“What’s the X stand for?” Tony asked curiously. He’d never really looked closely at a military ID, but he’d seen enough to know that they didn’t usually have extra letters by the designation.
Coulson turned his body in the seat enough to look at Tony with a flat, serious expression that was almost…sad, was Tony’s first thought, though that didn’t seem quite right. Regretful, maybe. Hard to be sure with Agent Blank Stare, here. “Captain Rogers is…he’s very important. To a lot of people. To this country. To what we are trying to do here. We…we all owe him a great debt,” Coulson told him, picking at the words like bowstrings, as if he expected Tony to pick up on the reverberations.
“So, I’m, what? Doing my part for Uncle Sam?” Tony asked, more caustically than he’d intended. He turned to look out the tinted window again, where the most interesting thing was a billboard advertising a new kind of Whopper.
“Captain Rogers has been through a lot. These last few months…it’s been…an adjustment. Director Fury thought, maybe if he had an Omega, it would…help,” Coulson finished with a frustrated sigh. “There were concerns. About—well. We just wanted to make sure he had someone to come back to.”
Tony burst out laughing, which was, he knew, incredibly inappropriate and rude, but he couldn’t help himself. It was all suddenly just too much, though Coulson’s bland expression didn’t falter.
“Wow. Did you ever fuck up,” Tony said, running a hand through his hair. “What did my dad tell Fury and Rogers to get them to go along with this? Because, news flash, literally no one wants to come back to me. ‘Cept maybe for one reason, I suppose, which your Captain Rogers doesn’t seem all that interested in, though I guess that makes sense if I’m a duty-fuck. Knot and think of America? Stuff of dreams. You put that on the recruitment poster? I mean, hey, fine by me, but if you were aiming for some deep Bonding mojo-bullshit that gets the good Captain to watch for power lines when he saves the cat up the tree, you picked the wrong Omega by a mile and then some.”
“Not so sure about that,” Coulson replied smoothly, annoying unfazed. “Besides, I didn’t pick you. Captain Rogers did. There were a number of candidates suggested, by the way.”
“My Alpha’s an idiot, then, if he couldn’t see through Howard’s used car salesman routine. All shiny on the outside, but take a look under the hood, kick the tires a few times, and you realize you got stuck with something that is never going to work right. Rogers is going to flip his lid, and I’m going to be—“ Tony broke off. “Is it SI, he wants? We’re small, but there’s potential. Howard never really, well. Just--I mean, there are avenues. For growth. If that’s it, I’m sure we can, I don’t know, figure something out…” he trailed off.
He actually had little to no idea what was going on with the company, since he couldn’t inherit and absolutely no one in R&D would do more than pat him on his head and suggest he do something that kept his hands soft and nails unbroken. He’d told them he’d just play with the weapons they were producing because he was pretty sure he’d be safe, which had gotten his hide tanned pretty good, true, but had been worth it for the looks on their faces, because the useless fuckers knew it was true.
“I’m fairly sure the absolute last thing Captain Rogers cares about is owning is a weapons manufacturer,” Coulson replied evenly.
“A soldier who doesn’t like weapons? Right,” Tony said scornfully. “Well, news flash, Howard can’t wait to tell the Board he finally has an Alpha to pass the company on to, so Rogers is in the weapons business whether he likes it or not.”
Coulson just hummed in response, which did nothing to settle Tony’s already frayed nerves. His Alpha was apparently so special, Coulson probably kept a framed picture in his locker and drew little hearts around his name on all his forms, but didn’t actually want to be Bonded with anyone, and just drew Tony out of a hat to satisfy the higher-ups. Hell, Steve didn’t even want…that, at least not with Tony, which was fine, of course. Tony didn’t particularly relish the idea either, and at least he had the suppressants now. That was something, he supposed. All in all, maybe this was actually not a bad scenario, he considered. Steve got to look all homey and settled to the brass, and Tony got to be left alone to…wither and die in holy fuck what was this Grizzly Adams backwoods Laura Ingalls bullshit?
“Here we are,” Happy announced. “Home sweet home.”
“You’re kidding. He’s kidding, right? This is a joke? Please say joke. Someone jump out with the “Gotcha!” sign,” Tony pleased as Coulson threw open the car door and stepped out. The cabin gave the concept of rustic heretofore unexplored depths, Tony thought, trying to muster some reaction that didn’t stop and start at appalled.
“It has all the amenities. Internet, running water, modern appliances. Just looks rough on the outside. Garage is over there,” Coulson informed him, pointing at a dark green painted outbuilding with an A-framed roof and two large double doors on the front that blew right past “empty” and landed on “should be condemned.”
“Charming,” Tony observed dully. He was really supposed to live here? “Should I be expecting a little, blonde girl to come around and eat my porridge?”
“Like Captain Rogers said,” Coulson continued, ignore Tony’s jibe. “You can pick which bedroom you’d prefer, since he hasn’t actually been up here other than to buy it. I’ve had a number of necessities delivered. You’ll find most of everything you need in the kitchen, I believe.”
“First time for everything,” Tony responded tightly. Coulson passed him a set of keys and before he knew it, he was watching the car depart down the winding dirt and gravel road that had brought them here.
The cabin actually wasn’t as terrible as he’d first thought, and there were, in fact, plenty of supplies, courtesy of Coulson. Someone had furnished it, probably Coulson again by the utilitarian nature of the choices, Tony guessed. Still, it was functional, and…empty. There was that.
He chose the bedroom without the view of the mountains, mainly because he felt like he should, but it also happened to look out to the garage, which, he considered to be the far more intriguing view anyway. As promised, there was a small deck out back, and a thin trail of runoff water gurgling under it as it flowed down the side of the mountain, and a Celestron NexStar in burnt orange sitting above it. God bless America.
Tony couldn’t resist going out on the deck and running his hands over the gauges and dials, even though it was still too bright to see much through the lens. There was an AutoAlign feature, and a wireless module, which, when he looked at his phone, he realized it was connected to one of the apps there. That was…surprisingly thoughtful, Tony admitted. He could imagine, at night at this altitude and away from the city lights, the views would be amazing. Solitude was sounding better and better.
Eight days later, he told Joshua about his idea for a new kind of missile. Josh was a good listener as long as you kept tossing nuts his way, but ran up the tree by the deck and chattered at him, tail all puffed out, if he ran out. Or maybe Josh was just a pacifist. Hard to say. He finally broke down and called Happy, who showed up a couple hours later and took him to an outdoor mall boasting over one hundred and fifty shops and restaurants, or so the brochure proclaimed. Tony sat in the car and stared out the window at the people out enjoying the day, while Happy brought them both back milkshakes. If he thought it was strange that Tony didn’t get out of the car, he had the wherewithal not to say so. Maybe one day, he’d go back. Walk in a store and buy something that he picked out, all on his own, because he liked it, but for now, it was enough just to be close to it.
When they got back to the cabin, he invited Happy to dinner, and they ordered pizza, made in a real brick oven. Tony fed his crust to Josh, who devoured it in a few big bites and raced up his tree with his cheeks filled to near bursting.
He went through the things his parents had sent, which included a new wardrobe obviously chosen with care by his mother. He spent a whole day in the ivory and lavender-striped linen suit out on the deck sipping lemonade, eating whatever food he could put a toothpick through and chucking nuts for Joshua to rummage around until he found them, then boxed all the clothes up and had Coulson arrange to have them picked up and delivered to whichever organization he hated the most.
He finally got around to going through the rest of the items, which didn’t amount to much, though his mom had also sent along a some oils he was supposed to put places that he didn’t want to think about. There were some photos, though, and a few of his old toys, which he knew had come from Jarvis, so he tucked those in a slim cardboard box under his bed. His father sent proposed new contracts for something he wanted to sell SHIELD. Tony roasted marshmallows over them out on the deck while he looked at the stars.
So, yeah, he was getting a little bored.
He’d read the books that were stacked on a large shelf against one of the living room walls. Histories, mostly. Lots of World War II retrospectives. Two on the making of the H-Bomb. A Churchill biography, and one on Eisenhower. Two on Patton. Olson’s book on Captain America, which didn’t look like it had been opened. A shit-ton of books on Vietnam and the Cold War, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rabin and the new Pope. The latest one by Senator Ellis sat shoved on top of the row of books, also unopened, though there was a personal dedication from the Senator inside, Tony noted as he paged through it. So, Steve was a military buff, no surprise there, though there were a number of science fiction and fantasy tomes. Heinlein. Tolkien. Asimov. Old school, but not terrible taste, Tony could admit.
Careful searches on the computer led to the discovery that he had full Internet access and his bank card worked just fine on anything he wanted to order. He bought something called “How to Please Your Alpha: An Omega’s Guide to Happiness,” and then, when that went off without a hitch, “Your Omega Body,” which said it was restricted and required an Alpha passcode to order, but the confirmation popped up on his screen as soon as he entered the bank card number. Steve had apparently let the computer remember his Alpha passcode for ease of ordering, bless his trusting soul. The book arrived two days later in a manila envelope. Tony tossed that aside and promptly downloaded as many electrical and mechanical engineering texts as the computer could handle.
He figured Coulson wouldn’t go for the big ticket items right off the bat, so he started small, with a request for sockets, wiring, compressed air outlets and a set of pneumatic tools. They arrived, exactly as he’d specified, a few days later.
Then he started on the garage.
The thing at least had a concrete floor already, so that was something. He coated it with epoxy, then went to work on the wiring and electrical. A rotary screw compressor, which he tore apart as soon as it arrived, formed the basis of the fabrication unit. Sound absorbing panels came next, then a power amplifier and back-up generator, because the cabin’s lights kept flickering, and he’d already blown the microwave’s fuse twice, since that was the only appliance he was using other than the computer.
If Coulson had any objections to the ever-growing lists of requests, he wasn’t voicing them to Tony on any of Coulson's random, little check-in visits. It was, looking back, probably too good to be true, Tony thought a month later, as DUM-E scooted across the garage floor to hand Tony, well, a sock, but, hey, small steps, while Tony used the CADCAM design station that had been delivered a week ago to adjust the designs for an upgrade to the telescope and his phone beeped.
Mission complete. Be at cabin by 19:00. SR
Tony looked around what had once been a garage and was now filled with multi-drawered, French-fitted tool chests, storage bins, pallet racks, metal tubing, coils of various types of wires, carts, a gantry crane and one useless ‘bot that kept confusing wrench with sock because his programming said there something called a socket wrench.
This was probably what Obie meant when he said if you gave an Omega an inch, they’d take a mile.
Tony sat at the cabin's small, round dinner table and nudged the fork next to his plate into a straighter line, then back again when it still didn't look quite right. He looked across the table at the empty place meant for Steve, and reached across to adjust Steve's fork before raising his eyes to look at the clock on the mantle. Rather judgmentally, in his opinion, it was steadfastly ticking towards the time when Steve was scheduled to arrive.
Hindsight currently deciding to be somewhat predictably helpful, Tony realized that he probably should have at least made a show to Coulson, on one of the man's frequent visits to the cabin, about being concerned over Steve's longer-than-expected mission. That would have been proper. Polite.
Probably expected to at least ask, at a minimum. His newly-bonded Alpha gone for an extra three weeks and all that. Instead of inquiring about the delay, Tony had ordered a reciprocating saw, two transmitters and a tablet, which he'd promptly cannibalized for parts and was now in pieces on the workstation.
Oh, and also the workstation.
Tony slumped forward and ran a hand up and down over his face, fidgeting in his seat while he watched the clock tick down towards the time when Steve was due to arrive home. It wasn't like he didn't know that he'd let himself get a tad carried away with his transient bit of freedom. He'd basically approached it in the way that Augustus Gloop handled a chocolate river. Get it while you can and drink down everything you can swallow before you get Oompa-Loompa'd.
Not the best plan, admittedly.
Steve would be here soon, and undoubtedly freak out. Not without a modicum of justification, Tony could admit. His mouth curled into a rueful, slightly annoyed grimace at the thought. Coulson had probably already filled Steve in on the details, so there was no point in trying to put a spit-shine on things. He hadn't only dug his own grave, he'd bought the shovel and headstone. Here lies Tony Stark. He was given an inch and took a mile.
He reached out and straightened the fork again where it sat on one of the cloth napkins by his plate. It still didn't look right, not the way Jarvis always had things, anyway. He tried shifting the salt and pepper shakers to a more centered position on the table, then moved them back, then to the side.
It was the waiting that was going to do him in, he finally decided when exactly two minutes had ticked off the doomsday clock. He was too jittery with nerves to sit still for long, but moving around had the ridiculous sensation of somehow speeding time up along with him, and he couldn't bring himself to do that.
A part of him wanted to say it had been worth it, enjoying himself these past few weeks, relishing the time left to his own devices with no one to tell him everything he was doing wrong. That might have been true last night, when he'd popped open a beer and sat on the deck tossing granola to Joshua, who followed in Tony's self-disciplined footsteps by stuffing his fat, furry cheeks full of the stuff then scampering off up a tree while Tony kept up a running mental commentary telling himself that no matter what happened, he'd been someone he almost didn't hate these few weeks. Maybe even this morning, he could have at least made a good show of convincing himself that all of this had been worth whatever was to come.
But now, with Steve's arrival imminent, every step he'd taken, from his let's-test-the-firewall book order on up to a semi-sentient, laundry-obsessed bot seemed more like blindingly stupid self-sabotage than anything else. That's what Howard would say, no doubt. That Tony had one job, just one simple job, namely not screwing up literally being left alone, and he'd somehow managed to fuck that up in truly epic fashion, the way only Tony could.
He could call his mom.
She'd be disappointed, God would she. He could almost hear the echo of it in his head. Oh, Anthony....But, she'd want to help.
I made dinner, mom, Tony thought to himself, eyes going to the rather forlorn looking attempt at apology cuisine. He'd dressed with care, too, to please and distract and whatever it was that how he looked was supposed to mean that he didn't want to think about. Done his hair, or made the attempt, anyway, though flyaway curls kept wanting to escape even though he'd used enough mousse to plaster Sasquatch into a shellacked primadonna. Fixed his eyes the way his mom said they looked best, smokey and doe-eyed at the corners, set off by a touch of mascara. Not too much. They don't like too much, you'll look tarty, Tony recalled with a laugh. Too bad MAC didn't make an I Fucked Up Grey. That'd be a bestseller, Tony thought with a flat nothingness.
There was wine on the table. Something white he'd pulled from the fridge, sweating droplets of condensation on the table. He should've let it breath. Or something. Though, why should the wine get all that glorious oxygen when Tony couldn't seem to get enough air to make his chest stop hurting?
He should've gotten a plant. Or flowers. Flowers would've been right. Flowers were things that Omegas did, right? Made arrangements that meant things. Red for love. Yellow for friendship. White for sympathy.
Tony looked around the room. There were two screwdrivers, an assortment of screws and hexagonal washers, and a power drill with three different bits sitting in a case on the coffee table.
Well, the drill was yellow, so there was that.
Technically, if you wanted to be really, incredibly, hyper-technical about things...technically, Tony had just spent God knows how much of Steve's money on things for himself without so much as consulting Steve about it. People who were not quite as reasonable as, well, no one in existence who wasn't either a Buddhist monk or possibly Ben Wyatt, might be a tad upset about that. Might find that a bit off-putting from their shiny, new Omega.
He reached out and picked at a speck of nothing on the plate. Maybe he should put ketchup on the table. Please don't be pissed about the power grid. Have some sugared tomato paste? It could work.
Honestly, calling his mom was starting to seem distressingly rational.
The shine of headlights drew his attention to the window, making his stomach do a somersault then decide to fold itself into an origami swan while working its way up his throat, apparently. He stood up and smoothed down his suit, running a hand over his hair in what was probably a useless attempt to get it to look less Bride of Frankenstein meets Fonzie.
He was almost surprised that he could hear the scrape of the key in the lock over the way his heart was hammering in his chest, but it was almost absurdly loud against the silence, punctuated only by the Bataan death march-style ticking of the ancient mantle clock.
He was really going to have to take that thing apart. Take it apart into tiny, little pieces. And then melt them. You're going to make a lovely ashtray, Tony silently warned the clock, which responded with dutiful ticking.
Steve pushed open the door and stepped inside, coming to an abrupt halt just past the doorway. There was a black, Shield-issued duffel bag in one hand that spelled out Rogers on the side in yellow letters and a large, leather satchel in the other. He'd forgotten, or chosen not to think about, exactly how much room Steve seemed to take up, all shoulders and arms, impossible angles and curves, like Hephaestus had sculpted him out of the clay left over from Pandora.
Steve, who had just been God knew where doing things that probably involved punching something other than a clock, managed to look like he'd stepped off a magazine cover after explaining the meaning of life to the Most Interesting Man in the World, with one sweep of dark, blond hair falling just so over his forehead. Which was scrunched into a confused frown at the moment.
Well, here goes nothing.
Tony sucked in a deep breath, had the blindingly clear thought of ketchup, and nearly forgot how to get his tongue to form words. He coughed his first attempt at speech into his fist and tried to regroup.
The important thing was to remain calm, not panic, and handle this like a mature, responsible adult.
Clearly, he was fucked.
“I can explain,” Tony blurted in a rush, wincing as the middle of his thighs bumped against the edge of the table hard enough to make the dinnerware rattle. Steve drew his shoulders back, gaze darting around the room too fast for Tony to follow before it came to rest on Tony. Tony swallowed heavily, and wet his suddenly dry lips.
“Why am I instantly concerned?” Steve asked carefully, his eyes narrowing as he studied Tony.
“I may have ordered a few things. For the garage. And the, uh, the cabin, too. Books and stuff. Stuff. Some stuff,” Tony stammered. “Nothing big. Except for a, ah, a few big things. One or maybe a few more. I made dinner,” he finished, gesturing at the table, where the blackened husk of what was once an omelet sat apologetically on a blue plate. “There's wine. And ketchup in the fridge. I can get it, if you want,” Tony offered with a wince.
Steve blinked at him, like he was trying to process the onslaught of words, then set the duffel and pouch down next to the back of the sofa. Well, nothing for it now, Tony supposed, feeling his shoulders and back stiffen, bracing himself for whatever was to come.
“Great, I'm actually—not that hungry,” Steve corrected quickly, glancing down at the table, gaze going wide for a flicker.
“It's an omelet,” Tony explained, giving the dark glob of former egg a frown. “With spinach. And kale. Because, kale, I guess.” Maybe he should mention the ketchup again.
“Oh. Well, that's...that was...that was very thoughtful of you, Tony. Thanks,” Steve replied, hands going to his hips as he swiveled slightly where he stood, like he couldn't quite figure out what to do with his body.
“It sucks. I know it sucks. You don't have to pretend,” Tony bit out with a spark of annoyance that quickly faded to a self-loathing filled sense of resignation. He'd done this to himself, which was perhaps the worst part of the whole thing. No one to blame, just his own giant vat of stupidity. “Just...can we just, you know. Whatever you're going to do. I'd rather just get it over with,” he finished with a sigh, bracing his hands on the back of the dining chair and looking down at the truly, spectacularly appalling omelet.
He could feel Steve's gaze on him, heavy and watchful, making his eyes sting at the corners, and sending a tugging, pulling sensation through his stomach that was familiar in its blinding unpleasantness. He'd been here before, the standing and waiting point, and it was always the worst part of it, that moment when anything could happen, when he didn't know quite what to expect and there was nothing for him to control, not his reactions, what he said, what he let slip out or didn't show, what gave up and what he kept to himself. It was just the freefall of waiting, searching for the bottom, because there was always a bottom, some place lower than where you thought you were, that place past the fear where there wasn't anything left but a pit of humiliation to wallow in.
Shame, shame, know your name, he thought somewhat hysterically. He'd been wrong, he knew that. This is what happens when you don't just do what you're supposed to, be what you're supposed to be. He knew that, damn it. Why did he always have to fuck himself over? Was the world really not doing just fine at that on its own?
It would be one thing if he could blame this on anything beyond his lack of impulse control. Fuck you Jeff Bezos and your free prime shipping. He was going to write a very strongly worded review if he was ever allowed to touch a computer again. One star, you asshole with your disturbingly accurate recommendations for Tony.
“Ah,” he heard Steve say after a moment, snapping Tony's attention back to his Alpha. Well. Here we go, Tony thought. We'll start with the Ah of Disappointment. Followed quickly by the Deep Sigh of Resignation. On the heels of that, we'll mix it up a bit with the Recriminations and Expressions of Sorrowful Regret, with a lovely side of I Wish You Didn't Make Me Have To Do This, all of which leads up very nicely to the part where whatever was going to happen anyway finally fucking happens, and they can just get on with this dog and pony show, because if he stood here any longer he was just going to start ranting about ketchup and one-click ordering and probably end up--
“I'm sorry, Tony,” Steve said quietly, with a hint of strain that made Tony's spine tingle. Of course, Steve was sorry. Sorry to have to do this. They always were. Everyone was so very sorry when Tony fucked up and needed to be corrected. So very, very sorry. Forgive me Father, for I have fucked up, Tony repeated to himself, choking back a bitter laugh.
“I didn't...I should have realized that you'd...worry. I'm—damn, okay. This is--I'm--Tony, I'm not—I'm not going to do anything to—to punish you. I wouldn't...” Steve broke off, rolling his lower lip between his teeth, his whole posture going rigid.
Tony lifted his gaze from the table up to Steve, who was still hovering in the doorway like an unwelcome guest, hands going to his hips, as he pivoted in obvious agitation. Steve's head dipped down to his chest while he sucked in a breath and finally looked up at Tony, blue eyes clear and bright, holding Tony's gaze when he would have looked away, if he could.
“I wouldn't hurt you, Tony. I wouldn't do that,” Steve said with a firmness that was probably supposed to be conviction, but it softened towards the end, turning into something else. “I wouldn't do that,” Steve repeated, this time holding every word long enough that it gave Tony a chance to really hear it instead of listen for what was coming next. “I'm sorry you think I would, but I should have been more clear from the beginning. This—this is my fault. I didn't think—but, I should have. I should have. I'm sorry. You were worried and upset, all this time, and I wasn't here---I--this is my fault,” Steve reiterated giving him a direct, unwavering look that held Tony there, gripping the chair back so hard he was surprised he didn't feel it cracking under his hands.
It was strangely worse, hearing Steve say that, this...lack of reaction, which made no sense, Tony knew. There should be relief, and there was, it was just a bit out of reach. Something he could see, but couldn't quite manage to grab onto. Instead, it was just...making him off-kilter, like a quarter spinning around on a table until all the momentum it has left leaves it wobbling and rocking, waiting for all the energy to leave it so it can finally just fall down. His insides went watery with relief, leaving him shaking, like his body had just decided to go ahead and react to something his mind couldn't seem to wrap itself around.
“I didn't—I didn't think you would think—I mean, Coulson handled everything for you, and I left my passcode on the computer. I thought you'd be... pleased? Or, maybe not pleased, that's not, I mean, of course, not that I don't hope you're pleased, but, I guess, maybe relieved is more...damn, I'm not,” Steve stammered, a crease forming between his brow as his mouth flattened into a thin, tight line. It occurred to Tony for the first time that Steve's longer than expected absence may have been deliberately designed to give Tony some time to himself, time to get used to his new situation before his Alpha showed up.
That was...thoughtful, Tony supposed, in its own, somewhat self-serving, way. Let the Omega work out his nerves before you have to deal with a breakdown over things like the eight eggs it had taken Tony to make the damn omelet, which had not caused manful tears so much as a fit of pique that led to the unfortunate end of egg number nine, which he'd chucked as far as he could from the deck while Joshua chattered encouragement from the railing. Okay, probably that had been more like squirrel for, where's my fucking handout, you useless, food-tossing human, but Tony felt he could read between the lines.
“I will never hurt you, Tony. I give you my word. I know that doesn't mean a lot to you right now, and you got no reason to trust me. I hope you'll change your mind on that, but if you don't, that's okay, too. Promise still stands. But, you're my Omega. You're—we're bonded. I never thought I'd have an Omega, and definitely not one like you. I mean, look at you,” Steve continued almost shyly, throwing out a hand in Tony's direction.
Well, that made no sense, Tony though mutely. Someone like Steve could have any Omega he wanted. Tony barely knew the man, but he could tell that much. There were alphas and then there were Alphas, capital A, go directly to the front of the line-Alphas, and Steve was somewhere above the latter on whatever fucked-up hierarchy Alphas seemed to instinctively figure out among themselves in some ritual that thankfully didn't involve sniffing each other and dick measuring, but only in the most literal sense of those terms. Tony didn't have the first clue how it worked, but assumed it functioned in a vaguely similar manner to the pecking order of being picked for kickball in grade school.
“I—I want you to be happy here, Tony. I'm sorry,” Steve said again. “I should've been more clear. I'm—I'm told I have issues with communicating my feelings,” Steve continued with a grimace, obviously echoing someone's words. “You're—you're my Omega. I couldn't... I won't hurt you. I would never hurt you. Ever. I—I--This is your home, as much as its mine. You should be comfortable here. Happy,” Steve said. There's that word again, Tony thought. I don't think it means what you think it means, Tony mentally chided Steve.
“I'm glad you're...settling in. I hoped you would,” Steve finished with a slight grimace, like that wasn't exactly what he wanted to say.
“You're glad I'm settling in,” Tony repeated in a flat voice that couldn't quite shake the disbelief or sense that he was in the middle of a test, pencil ready to bubble in answers to questions no one had given him. How was he supposed to know what the right thing to say here was? It was a minefield of ways to fuck up. Might as well light a match, Tony figured. “You're not mad? About the...the garage stuff?” Tony asked, face quirking into a frown.
“I'm not mad about the garage stuff,” Steve told him steadily, in what Tony knew was a deliberate way of repeating exactly what he said. It was...comforting. The specificity of it. “Even if I was mad, we would talk about it and find a compromise. I would not hurt you, even if I was mad about the garage stuff. That isn't how this works.”
Tony stared at Steve for a long beat, the fucking ticking ashtray merrily counting off the seconds.
Fine. Let's find out how it works, then, Tony countered silently.
“I made some changes to the cabin. Mostly—some, ah, electrical. Minor, um. Minor adjustments. There's a hole by the breaker box. I'll fix it, don't worry. And put the breaker box back. The, uh, power. The power lines,” Tony admitted, the words coming out in a rush of air. He ran an absent hand through his hair, and it came away sticky with the mousse he'd used to try to smooth it down. Damn. He saw Steve's eyes follow the movement, and a slight twitch a the corners of Steve's mouth. Great. He probably looked like he'd been using Cameron Diaz's hair-styling regimen. There's Something About Tony. Perfect. He dropped his hand back to the chair with a sigh.
“I made some, just a few, completely safe, don't worry—but, don't touch them, like, at all, definitely a no-go there—modifications to the power supply lines,” Tony finished with a wince twisting across his face.
“Breaker box. Power lines. Got it,” Steve parroted back to him. “Okay. Well, that's...ah. Anything--anything else I should know about?”
The strange thing was, he didn't think Steve was lying. Not exactly, anyway. Everyone had a breaking point, though, and Tony knew from past experience that he tended to find those boundaries with the enthusiasm of a niffler at Tiffany's.
“Just the garage,” Tony replied dully. “It's—I sort of made a workshop. So, that way, I wouldn't bother you, see? You could do your...” Tony's voice faltered. What did Steve do? Fuck. He'd been here weeks. What the hell did his Alpha do in his spare time? He blinked and looked Steve up and down, like maybe he'd suddenly sprout a hobby that didn't involve a national security clearance. Weight-lifting? Mixed martial arts? Distance spitting? Who the fuck knew?
“Art,” Steve supplied almost hesitantly. “I draw. Paint some, when I have time.” Huh. That was a surprise, Tony had to admit. Most Alphas would only paint if it involved shooting pellets at other Alphas and calling it performance art.
“So, um, right. Your art. Exactly my point. I won't, you know, bother you while you...do art,” Tony offered, cutting through the air with one hand. “I mean, you need quiet for that, probably. Peace, quiet. Relaxing stuff, art, right? So, yeah, I thought, I'll just put my stuff out there in the garage, see, and leave you to have the cabin for your...art,” Tony said, letting the lie roll off his tongue as he looked around at the determinedly art-less cabin.
Seriously, Steve could've at least DVR'd Bob Ross or something. Put out a few of those coffee table books people used to seem cultured, but never really read. How was he supposed to know his Alpha liked art? He was probably going to have to spend the next sixty years gushing over landscapes, God help him. Beautiful trees, Steve, dear. Yes, they look just like the ones literally right outside the fucking window.
“Tony, I told you the garage was yours,” Steve replied in a brittle tone, one hand coming up to rub at the back of his head. “I mean, I'd love to see it. If you wanted to show me. But, if you want to just keep it for you, that's fine, too,” he said, gentler, Tony noticed. Like he was trying to make it clear it really was an option, even if it wasn't, because, really, he couldn't lock his Alpha out, and that was that. They both knew it, so this was one of those times he was supposed to make his Alpha feel better about things by simply offering it to him. He knew this dance. I don't want it, you have it. No, its fine. Really.
There was a keypad entry lock on the door. He'd installed it himself, of course. He'd known what he was doing. It was to keep people out, not to keep things inside. Wasn't exactly overly concerned with burglars trotting off with his fabricator, though that fucking rodent with good PR chewed through his insulation, the little shit. Still, he'd looked at the lock and known exactly what it was, a giant Keep Out sign that probably no one was going to pay attention to. They never did, but it was what he could do, and he'd felt the same sense of hopeful trepidation at having put a boundary on something that he had when he hung the sign on his door when he was ten.
A vicious sort of possessiveness surged through him at the thought of the garage. It was his, from the concrete floor he'd spent days sweating over as he mixed and poured and raked it as the new layer dried, to the workstation built to his specifications, to the stupid 'bot with a foot fetish. It was his, dammit. Everything else—him, everything—belonged to Steve.
But, the garage was his.
“I'd like to keep it. For just me,” Tony said, holding Steve's gaze and watching for the flare of anger or surprise or something that wasn't this sad sort of acceptance that kept trying to creep over Steve's face. “If that's okay?” he couldn't help add, though he hated himself a little for it.
“Never had much space to myself growing up. Kind of nice to have your own, isn't it?” Steve replied with such a cautious tone that he might as well be trying not to spook a deer.
“Yes,” Tony agreed as neutrally as he could. He wouldn't know, not really. He hadn't had his own space in, let's see...oh, right, ever. But, he imagined it was nice. It must be, since everyone kept taking it away.
“Well. Ah. I should probably get cleaned up. It's late, and it's been a long day. You probably want to get to bed, too,” Steve said, reaching down to pick up his duffel.
Right, bed. Tony felt his face go hot and dropped his gaze to where his fingers were white-knuckling the back of the chair. His stomach did what Tony assumed was a round-off back handspring, then decided to curl itself into a ball and hide somewhere next to his bladder by the feel of it. Bed. Okay, so, he could be mature about this. No reason to panic. Everyone said he would love it. Think of the smiling people on the brochure. Think of the completely trustworthy and not at all biased doctors who said his body was made to take his Alpha's knot.
Even his parents, who, clearly had his best interests at heart, promised he'd feel so much calmer, more relaxed. That he'd feel—be--so much better when he finally had an Alpha to take care of him. Take care of him. He liked how they phrased it. Let his Alpha take care of him. So sweet. Non-threatening. Take care of him. Sure, they meant by bending over and letting his Alpha rut until his knot was ready, but hey, po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.
So, sure, this would be completely fine.
Completely fine. It would be fine. It would be. It would.
He wasn't going to beg or cry or freak out and lose his shit over something that was just a part of life. Okay, he was probably going to do all three of those things, but he would feel really, really bad about it.
“Which—which room did you take?” Steve asked, glancing down the hallway towards where the two bedrooms abutted each other.
“The, ah, the smaller one,” Tony replied.
“Okay. Well, thanks. For—for dinner,” Steve said quickly, rubbing a hand across his mouth, probably because even he couldn't quite manage to say that with a straight face.
Was he supposed to follow? He had no idea, so stood there numbly while Steve picked up the leather satchel, and Tony realized it was similar to the kind artists carried their portfolios in. It had an odd, round shape pressing against the inside, like a big disc of some kind, but his head was too full to spare it much thought.
“Do you want some help?” Steve asked, nodding in Tony's direction.
Help, Tony wondered dumbly. What kind of help? No one said anything about help. Help with what? Was there something—was he supposed to—to get himself ready? Of course, that, yes, fuck. He could do that. He knew what to do, or the mechanics of it, at least. Some Alphas probably didn't want to do that themselves, which, okay, fine, he could handle it. Wasn't like he hadn't tried with his Heat, getting himself as slick and open as he could while he tried to find relief.
“I can put them away while you clean up the, uh, frying pan, if you want,” Steve offered, nodding towards the pan that was sitting cooling in the sink with bits of egg and kale still stuck to it.
The dishes. Oh, Tony thought dumbly, staring down at the table with a strange sort of focused fascination. Help with the dishes. He wasn't sure if he should laugh or cry or if there was really a difference any more.
“No, I got it. It's fine,” Tony replied without looking up from the table. He was such an idiot. Bless Steve for currently being either oblivious or too polite to call him on it. “You go ahead.”
When he heard Steve's heavy footfalls pad away in the direction of the bedrooms, he lifted his gaze and watched Steve's back as he walked down the hall, until he disappeared into the larger of the two bedrooms and shut the door with a soft click.
Tony let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding and stared down the empty hallway. The dishes. Good Lord. He let out a giddy, shaky laugh, his stomach roiling with relief. The dishes, of course, the stupid dishes. Of course, this was only a temporary reprieve, but when Steve's door stayed closed for long, loud ticks of that damn mantle clock, he decided to ignore that for now and do the best damn job of putting the dishes away that was humanly possible.
Seemingly of its own accord, his mind conjured up an elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque dish-putting-away machine that distracted him enough so that he managed not to break anything, and only dropped a fork, which he picked up and stared at guiltily for a few seconds before deciding the five second rule applied to forks and shoving it back in the drawer.
Tony made his apologies to the food gods, who looked suspiciously like chatty, stainless steel versions of Guy Fieri and Gordon Ramsay in his head, and dumped the omelet in the trash. He put the other dishes and the rest of the silverware away, then leaned back against the counter, running his hands over the silver, metal edge.
So. That was it? Put the dishes away and good night. That was the whole drama he'd spent all day working himself into a state of near panic over? Tony peered over his shoulder and down the silent hallway again. Steve's bedroom light was on, and there was the sense of movement there, probably Steve putting his things away, because he seemed like the kind who would not just dump everything on the floor and call it put away if it wasn't spilling out of the bag. Which was a totally legitimate cleaning technique, no matter what Jarvis said.
Tony couldn't quite get his head around it. His whole body was still thrumming with a jittery nervousness, waiting, waiting, waiting for the other proverbial shoe to drop. It was worse when you don't see it coming, when you don't expect it. It was always worse to have it be a surprise, so the key was to always expect it, always be ready for it. That way, you couldn't be caught off-guard, and that? That was the worst way to find out you'd screwed up, to have it just drop in your lap out of nowhere, the run of shock through your body, the tense moments of what, what, what was it, what did I do, where did I mess up? Those were the worst parts, when you got down to it.
Everything else just hurt and was over and done with, but the questions, ah, the questions, they hung on, clawing their way out whenever they could find a handhold, whenever they could remind him that maybe this was the thing, or this, or this could be the thing, too, you never knew. It was an endless loop of never being sure of anything, and it sucked worse than grabbing his ankles ever had. He'd learned that well enough over the years. This...this lull, if that's what it was, was temporary, it always was. Best not to get too comfortable.
He checked down the hall again, but nothing had changed. Well. He couldn't just stand there in the kitchen all night, he thought with a frustrated grimace. Picking his steps carefully as he went, he passed Steve's door, and made his way into his room. He stood there on the threshold of his room, feeling foolish as he rocked back and forth on his feet, unsure whether or not he should shut the door.
God, he hated this, all these little decisions when he didn't know how Steve would react. It was exhausting. Familiar, but exhausting. The last few weeks, he'd shed this constant anxiety over every little damn thing, one decision at a time, so gradually, he hadn't really noticed until he was faced again with trying to figure out what the right choice was every single fucking time. It was a shell game, that's what it was. Trying to pick the one with the ball under it while it kept moving, kept moving so fast you could never keep up, you could never really win it, and God, did he ever hate that.
He wished Steve would just tell him. It would be so much easier. He wanted to shut the door, wrap himself up in his heaping dose of false sense of security and be done with it, but he'd done his Spartacus routine over the garage, and figured it was probably smarter not to push his luck. He settled on leaving the door slightly ajar, letting just a sliver of light spill out into the hall. There. And his father said he was terrible at compromising.
The absolute minimum compliance is not compromising, Tony heard sing through his head in Howard's familiar voice and snorted. Yeah, well, Dad, there's a ten-digit keypad entry on my garage that says differently.
He wasn't sure what to think about Steve, or, to more fine a point on it, Steve's easy acceptance of Tony's fit of retail therapy. And the garage thing. Letting him keep it to himself. He hadn't expected that. At...all. But, then again, he hadn't know that was going to turn out to be the hill he was going to be willing to die on, either. As soon as Steve had mentioned it, Tony knew he was going to fight tooth and nail to keep the garage, to keep it his, his space, his...his sanctuary.
It was stupid and pointless, he knew that. A garage? Not SI or, God, maybe something actually useful like the online classes or a bank card, no, he had to bet it all on a rickety old, halfway to condemnation garage filled with useless robots that stuck the landing on artificial and missed the intelligence portion of our evening by a mile and ideas that would never mean anything, but they were his. His. Sometimes, even the stupid and pointless things mattered, when that was all you had.
Tony caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the dresser and rolled his eyes. Good Christ. Fucking figures, he thought with a wave of frustrated disgust. He looked like a Chia pet someone watered on one side. Calling his hair a lost cause probably did a disservice to lost causes everywhere, so instead of trying to smooth his hair down, he ran both hands back and forth through it, wringing it out into messy curls, before flopping down on the bed. The wooden beams of the ceiling jutted up into an A-shaped arc over his head, with the ceiling fan hanging from the center, the blades undulating in hypnotically slow circles above his head.
Steve hadn't been mad about the purchases. That was...unexpected. Good, obviously, but unexpected. Even good-unexpected was enough to set Tony's mind into the throes of running through ever possible scenario for how this could play out. He steepled both hands over his face and let out a low groan. The night ahead seemed like a fantastic time to ponder all of this, over and over, in minute detail, until he worked himself up into giving up on sleep.
Your Alpha was nice to you. Let's spend the night considering all the Reasons This Could Be Bad For Tony. Perhaps some kind of decision tree is in order? A spreadsheet? Or, consider this, we could simply ignore this whole thing and go out to the garage and build something. Good plan. Well thought out. A-plus reasoning there, Tony, he thought to himself with a derisive huff of laughter.
He scrubbed his hands up and down rapidly over his face and let them fall to his sides. He hated this unbalanced feeling, this confused, unsure litany of questions that filled his head with static. He hated not knowing what to do, how he was supposed to act, what to expect. At least at home, he'd known the rules. He'd ignored a lot of them, fair point, but he'd known.
Tony lifted his head enough to look at the door, steadfastly ajar. He wished Steve would just get it over with. Okay, that wasn't true. But, it was a good lie to tell himself, he supposed, as lying to yourself went. Lie back and think of the garage, he told himself with a semi-hysterical bubble of laughter. How many times had he let his mind fill with numbers and machines, beautiful machines that could be more real than whatever was happening to him if he let them. He could do this. It was just sex. People did it all the time. Omegas were made for this, right? It was what his body was supposed to do. Take his Alpha's knot. How bad could it be?
Don't answer that.
Definitely, don't answer that.
He could hear light, quick movements next door. Drawers opening and closing. The closet door sliding back and forth. The springs on the bed squeaking as something heavy was placed on it.
Every little sound turned the screw tighter and tighter, ratcheting up the tension that was pushing down on his chest, making it feel heavier and heavier to lift with each breath. When it felt like it was a choice between being pushed down into the bed and swallowed whole by it or get up, Tony finally pushed himself off the mattress and went to the door, pulling it open enough to peek down the hall. There was a thread of light under Steve's door, occasionally marred by the shadows of feet moving beyond it. Tony watched with a sort of eerie fixation until the light abruptly clicked off, leaving the hallway dark, except for the soft glow of the lamp from his room.
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, waiting, in some sort of suspended hush of expectation, but it was long enough that when he did move, his leg muscles seemed surprised by it. Going to the dresser, he tugged out a t-shirt that suggested everyone keep calm and code on and plaid sleep pants. He changed clothes and sat on the edge of the bed, turning the lamp off and letting his eyes adjust to the darkness.
Maybe Steve was tired. Whatever it was he did for Shield, it was probably...tiring. Seemed...logical enough to be a plausible answer for why Tony wasn't currently becoming a calmer, more relaxed, better person.
He quirked his mouth to the side as he chewed on the inside of his cheek. The other explanation, the other, rather obvious explanation, was...well, okay,maybe it was ego, but he hadn't really considered that Steve wouldn't actually want him like that. All Alphas wanted Omegas, right? That was...just how things worked. Alphas needed to knot, and Omegas needed to be knotted. Screwdriver was just a fucked-up, useless, hammer-wannabe without a screw, after all.
The suppressants, though, Tony mused. That was not just unusual, that was barely legal, if by barely you meant probably not at all, but everyone seemed strangely willing---eager, really--to do whatever Steve told them to do, smiling the whole time like a bunch of fucking strung-out house elves. You want your Omega to have suppressants that are so off the market they don't even have a brand name? No problem. You want to let your Omega order a veritable Betty Crocker cookbook of recipes for disaster? Happy to help.
It was weird, right? Right, Tony told himself, turning it all over in his mind. Not that he was going to complain. If Steve didn't want him, well, then great. Awesome. Perfect.
That was...definitely perfect. Mostly. Almost. It was. It was just...odd. But, good-odd. Definitely odd of the good variety.
Tony pursed his lips and blew out a long sigh. Who are we trying so hard to convince there, Tony, he asked himself with a blunt sharpness, as he wiped a hand over his face and looked at the digital clock next to the bed.
Or, you know, maybe his Alpha was just zonked out and was more of a morning sex kind of guy, who the fuck knew? God, he hated this not knowing. He could just ask, but the idea of asking for that seemed like the height of self-inflicted stupidity, and as bad as the uncertainty was, he couldn't quite bring himself to go knock on Steve's door and find out.
He looked at the clock again. He'd waited. Ready and willing was probably an overstatement, but, well, he'd been present, so that had to count, right? Sure. He knew he excelled at convincing himself of what he wanted to hear, but by midnight, he decided that “I thought you fell asleep because you were tired from all your Alpha awesomeness,” sounded perfectly believable.
Tony crawled out of bed and shoved his feet into slippers, and padded quietly down the hall towards the front door. He stopped with one hand on the doorknob and glanced over at the kitchen table. He probably could've made more of an effort to welcome Steve home. His mom would give him hell, if she knew. The omelet had been a last-minute hail-Mary, as apology food went, and he could've at least cobbled something better together.
Tony cast a look over his shoulder and down the hall towards Steve's darkened room with a pang of what was probably misplaced guilt, but that knowledge didn't lessen it. He'd let his Alpha go to bed hungry, no matter what crap Steve tried to spew, and that was, well, bad manners was probably the least of what that was. Tony sighed and let his head dip to his chest, his free hand coming up to massage his temples. Fuck. He could be a real ass sometimes. He told himself he'd make Steve a thanks-for-not-being-a-dick breakfast in the morning, and figured cereal would be non-phallic enough to fit that particular bill.
He didn't know why he was fixated on the food. Well, that wasn't true. He did know, but the inexplicable rise of kale was easier to deal with than the jumble of mixed emotions that washed through him when he thought about the events of the evening. Or, rather, the lack of events. Event. Whatever.
Objectively, of course, if Steve really didn't want him, it probably wasn't because of the epically terrible dinner, but damn if that didn't seem emblematic of everything Tony couldn't seem to manage to be, even when he tried.
Why had Steve even chosen him? Well, that answer was probably obvious, since taking on Tony came with a hell of a compensation package.
Never thought he'd have an Omega like Tony, Tony recalled Steve's words. Yeah, no kidding. No one thinks they'll end up with an Omega like him, because Omegas like Tony don't exist. One of a kind, Rogers, congrats. Hope you like your weapons company with a side of uselessness, he thought with the familiar ring of self-revulsion.
He looked once more down the quiet, still hallway and then pulled open the front door. Steeling himself, he stepped into the cool night air. The gravel outside crunched under his slippered feet as he walked across the somewhat haphazard driveway towards the garage. It was chilly out here this late and this high up in the mountains, even though it warmed up during the day, and he hugged his arms around himself, running his hands up and down them to get some friction heat going. The keypad was lit what he considered a cheerfully glaring red, so he punched in the code and stepped inside, feeling instantly...well, calmer, more relaxed. Better, he thought with a bitter husk of a laugh.
Three hours of working on the coding for his next 'bot, currently known by the highly original designation of U because Tony had fallen asleep on the keyboard and left a long line of text that eventually got whittled down to the first letter, and the lines of numbers in front of him had started to bleed together as they trailed off across the edge of the screen. Tony swallowed a sip of cold coffee from the styrofoam cup next to his touchpad and stylus, and rubbed at his eyes, covering them for a moment while he waited in vain for the burgeoning headache to go away. Giving up on accomplishing anything for the night, he shut off the workstation and gave Dum-E a pat on the, well, claw, as he walked by.
The garage door closed behind him with a soft snick, and he heard the reassuring beeping of the keypad resetting. A part of him still couldn't believe Steve had capitulated so easily. It probably wasn't going to last, but he'd take what he could get.
Questions swirled through his mind like leaves on the wind, just hanging there without an answer. It was frustrating and...unsettling. Felt a bit like he'd just gotten off the merry-go-round and the world hadn't righted itself yet, so everything was just a bit out of focus. He was so lost in thought that he almost missed noticing that his Alpha was standing on the deck, arms wrapped around himself, neck craned back so he could look up at the stars.
Tony was mid-motion to trying to quiet his steps and make it back inside before Steve noticed (caught) him when he heard Steve's voice.
“Hey, Tony,” Steve whispered over the wind that was washing through the branches above in long, lazy gusts.
“Um. Hey,” Tony replied, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat. “You, ah. What're you—what are you doing up? It's late,” Tony asked, then rolled his mouth into a grimace. They were both up, you idiot, he mentally scolded himself. What was it about Steve that made him go all slackjawed Lenny Small whenever he tried to use words?
“M'good,” Steve answered, drawing his gaze away from the night sky. “Can't believe we put a man on the moon. Can you imagine?”
Well. That was a non-sequiter.
“I—I guess,” Tony stuttered, trying to find his bearings, which seemed to be a constant state for him when he was around Steve. “I mean, it was a long time ago. They keep talking about going back. Or Mars. But, who knows? Budgets and all that. Guess science isn't a good investment or something.”
Steve laughed at that, though it was the kind of laugh that wasn't real, Tony could immediately tell that much. The kind of laugh you did when it was that or something you didn't want to let out.
“You're up late, too,” Steve observed, moving to brace his hands against the wooden deck railing, leaning over just slightly to watch the flow of the small stream that erupted from the bowels of the mountain and gurgled down the side. Like tears, Tony thought, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Couldn't sleep,” Tony admitted, shoving his hands under his arms to keep them warm. “Thought I'd, you know, mess around in the garage a bit. It—sometimes--it helps me sleep. Slows things down enough, I guess, if I can get some of it out.”
“Ah,” Steve said, because he liked to over-explain like that, Tony thought with a disgruntled, sideways look.
“So. So, I'm just going to go inside,” Tony said haltingly. “To sleep. 'Night.” It wasn't exactly asking for permission, but it was, at the same time, and a small voice inside his head added please, but he couldn't say it. He had the crazy idea that Steve heard it, though, which made no sense, of course, but he couldn't shake it, and Steve was watching him with this careful, soft look that, for a moment, seemed so lost that Tony had to restrain the impulse to—to do something, anything, to make that look go away.
“I'm not going to—to do that. If that's what you're worried about. I won't touch you. Like that, I mean,” Steve said, letting his head fall to his chest before turning to look at Tony. Even across the distance separating them, Tony felt pinned by that look, bug on a backboard-style.
Okay. Okay, so that answered that question. It wasn't really a surprise, was it? Seemed clear when he thought about it. Rushed bonding, Steve bugging out as soon as possible, suppressants and the decided lack of a knot in his ass were all pretty obvious signs. It was good, though, really. Exactly what he wanted. Awesome. Great. His Alpha didn't want him. No problem. Perfect. He wasn't interested in that, either, so. Right. Match made in Heaven and all that.
Granted, none of that perfectly logical bit of rationalization explained the way it felt like a kick in the gut, momentarily knocking the air out of him and leaving him reeling, like he'd just been picked last for a game he didn't even want to play.
“Okay. That's—that's good. I mean. Thanks,” Tony stammered. Thanks? Seriously? He blamed lack of sleep. “I'm just...I'm going to go to bed now.”
“Good night, Tony,” Steve said almost too quietly for Tony to hear, turning away before he finished getting the words out.
Tony stood rooted to the spot for a long moment. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it wasn't this—this dismissal. Just like that. Here's everything you wanted. Stuff like that happened in movies and books, not real life, and certainly not his real life, that was for damn sure.
What was more, he had the niggling feeling that Steve had been waiting out here to tell him that, which was...he didn't know what that was. Unexpected. Fuck. Everything about Steve was unexpected. Talking to him was like rolling dice and finding out you were playing cards.
When Tony finally did get his feet to move, he hit the front door to the cabin at as near a run as he could manage while still technically calling it a brisk walk in the night air. It wasn't that he thought Steve was going to change his mind or suddenly let Tony in on the elaborate joke. It was that he was fairly sure if he stood there any longer, he'd ask Steve why, and that, folks, was not a conversation that needed to be had. Ever. The fine line between knowing the answers and getting the answers was where sanity lived.
He got to his room and paused a fraction of a second before closing the door with a satisfying click. By the time he fell into bed, the night was in that deep, dark part of the early morning where the whole world seemed to be sleeping.
Except Steve, who was still outside, marveling at the moon or whatever it was Steve was doing that Tony was not going to think about. Tony's fingers tapped out a rhythm on his chest as he lay in bed, watching the ceiling fan churn above his head.
Okay, so, he was thinking about it.
He wasn't sure why it bothered him. Steve was perfectly capable of doing whatever the fuck he wanted, and if that currently involved being an emo-astronomer, it wasn't Tony's problem. At all.
But...Steve hadn't come to bang on the garage door, and he hadn't freaked out about all the purchases and he said he wanted Tony to be happy, like that was an actual thing.
And he promised not to hurt Tony, like he honestly meant it, and that sounded so different from why do you make me do this. Maybe they weren't really different, he didn't know, but he wanted to believe they were, that there was a space where this difference existed and maybe, just maybe, Steve lived in that space, and would let Tony live there, too.
With an annoyed sigh at himself, he got up and grabbed the quilt that had slunk half off the bed and made his way outside again. Steve was still standing at the railing, legs braced apart and arms crossed in front of him, staring straight ahead and seeing nothing.
He turned when Tony let the front door bang shut behind him and watched Tony walk up the steps to the deck, though he didn't make a remark, just watched in that slow, steady, annoyingly open way that Steve seemed to be able to look at him.
“Here,” Tony huffed out, holding out the quilt towards Steve when he was a few feet away. “It's cold out here.”
Steve didn't respond, but he did, after a pause when Tony thought for sure he was going to be left with the options of turning and leaving or throwing the damn quilt at Steve and making a run for it, reach out and take it, unfolding it enough to wrap it around his shoulders.
“Okay, so there you go. Better, right?” Tony said after another beat of silence. “If you want, you can use the telescope. For the stars. Or moon, whatever. There are star charts on there, if you need them,” Tony told him, grimacing at how stupidly awkward he sounded.
“Thanks, Tony,” Steve replied softly, hugging the blanket around his shoulders a bit tighter.
“No problem,” Tony said with a somewhat affected shrug of his shoulders, twisting a bit in place. Mission accomplished, he wasn't sure how to make his graceful exit stage left.
“Thought you were going to get some sleep,” Steve reminded him, which gave Tony and out, and damn if he wasn't certain that was the point.
“I could stay. For a bit. If you wanted,” Tony heard himself say. Stupid. He could fix anything in the world except his own brain to mouth filter, apparently. “They played golf on the moon, you know,” Tony said, looking up at the clear, night sky that seemed fuller, brighter somehow, up here, than it had when he'd looked at it from his window at home.
Just when Tony was sure Steve wasn't going to respond, and readied himself to turn to go inside, Steve looked over his shoulder at him, something sad and almost wistful passing over his face almost too quickly for Tony to catch.
“Golf, huh?” Steve finally replied in a low, easy drawl that made Tony's chest warm for some unfathomable reason.
“Apollo 14. Alan Shepard,” Tony explained, almost eagerly, because while he hadn't meant to start a conversation, having something to actually talk about, information he could share with a willing, interested audience, was better than just about anything that didn't involve the potential for an explosion. “See, the moon has reduced gravity, right? And space is airless, so, Shepard gets out his six iron and, okay, shanks the first shot, but the second? Second one he hits, well, he says miles and miles, but probably not that far. But, easily over a mile. Technically, that's the longest golf shot in human history.”
“Golf on the moon,” Steve rejoined with a light laugh and disbelieving shake of his head. “They can do that, but no flying cars?”
“The Jetsons really fucked up people's expectations on the future, right?” Tony agreed with a smile, coming to stand next to Steve at the railing. He looked up at the moon, hanging low in the sky, nearly full, with just a shadow over the outer curve.
“Don't think I understood that reference,” Steve said with a slight frown creasing his brow.
“Uh, the Jetsons? Cartoon. From the sixties, I think? But, there was, like, a reboot in the eighties. Astro the dog, Rosie the robot? None of that ring a bell?” Tony asked, momentarily bewildered. Come on, Steve was older than him, but he wasn't that old. “They showed repeats on Saturday mornings. All these crazy inventions and gadgets. It was so cool!” Tony remembered with a fond grin, catching the small twitch of Steve's mouth at that. “I mean, uh, I liked it. When I was a kid, you know. Rosie, man, she was the bomb. This sort of maid-bot thing that did all this neat stuff. Kinda—kinda the inspiration for, well, some ideas I had,” Tony finished awkwardly.
“Robots, huh?” Steve asked, eyebrows lifting in question.
“Sometimes,” Tony said cagily, glancing down and away as he found a splinter on the railing to pick at. “Sometimes other stuff.”
Steve's sharp bark of laughter took Tony by surprise. It was the first time he'd heard Steve laugh, really laugh, not that fake thing that set Tony's teeth on edge.
“You build robots,” Steve laughed into the fist of his hand, a huge grin splitting his face and taking years off. “Robots,” Steve repeated with a shake of his head.
“I—I know, its not really a—a typical hobby for an Omega,” Tony ground out, suddenly wishing he'd never said anything, because Steve was laughing at him, of course, he was. What kind of Omega builds robots and plots out missile guidance systems in their spare time? The answer was no kind. No kind, because there wasn't a kind for that, because they didn't fucking exist, except for him, him and his stupid, ridiculous ideas that were never going to amount to anything.
He knew that, he did, but hearing Steve's laughter, watching the years, the stress that Tony hadn't even realize had been there, slough off like a second skin at hearing it made something in Tony want to break apart, shatter into so many pieces no one could put him together again, and he wouldn't have to deal with it, keeping himself together, wouldn't that be better? Anything was better than this—this derision, this dismissal, the way it was just so fucking absurd to Steve. It hurt so much, too much, more than being spanked or knotted or whatever the hell else was on the menu, anything was better than this...this burning coil of shame that flooded him, humiliation bright and hot on its heels, but, so help him God, he was not going to cry, he was not going to give Steve and his stupid quilt the satisfaction of seeing that. Not like painting was exactly the most Alpha-esque hobby you could have, anyway, you hypocritical shit, Tony thought bitterly.
“Is that what you're building out there in your garage? Robots?” Steve asked, still grinning like this was Christmas, and Santa gave him a stocking full of idiot Omega.
“Yeah,” Tony muttered under his breath, looking down at his bare feet. If he'd known three AM was the Mock Tony Hour, he'd have put his slippers back on. I've got cold feet, he thought crazily. Too late, you're bonded, welcome to your life of being a constant disappointment. Hey, at least you're well prepared for our speed round! He fucking hated this.
“That's amazing, Tony. Wow. Robots,” Steve said, giving his head another shake and huffing out a small peal of laughter.
“I—they--what?” Tony stuttered, his mental litany still rambling through his head with enough speed that it took him a moment to dial it back to what Steve was saying.
“Your robots. Do they—do they do stuff? Like the one from your cartoon?” Steve asked, head titled to one side.
“Um, well, yeah. Kind of. One, I call him Dum-E, which is not just a depressingly accurate pet name, he's a...laundry bot at the moment. He's still learning. But, that's what he does. He learns. And U, uh, U like the letter, not you like you-you, he's going to be on fire safety when I figure out how to get his coding to figure out the difference between putting out actual fires and preemptively wetting the entire garage,” Tony explained, trying for a clinical, neutral tone, but unable to keep the fondness out of his voice.
“I'd love to meet them one day. If you wanted me to, but, I mean, not that you have to, I understand if you don't want me to—like when I draw something, I don't usually like to show it until its ready, and sometimes its never ready, so I completely—ah, I'm—are you okay?” Steve asked, smile fading to a concerned frown as his words slowed down because Tony had gone very still.
“I'm—yeah. Fine,” Tony nodded. He rubbed a finger at the side of his nose and looked askance at Steve. “You, ah. So, you—you think the robots are cool?”
“'Course, I do. Who doesn't think robots are swell? You ever see that Metropolis movie? German engineer, Fritz Lang, he spent tons of money making this thing, years ahead of its time with the effects, but the visuals, they're like nothing I've ever seen. Cubism, Bauhaus, Art deco influences, obviously, but there's a lot of functionalist modernism there, too. He based the city off of New York, the skyscrapers like these giant, vertical sails against the sky, and that wasn't what it looked like, not really, but it was at the same time,” Steve went on, like someone had flicked some kind of switch that would bring Tin-Man to life. It was disconcerting, at first, anyway, making Tony jerk back a bit and study Steve with a confused frown.
“Um, sorry,” Steve stopped at Tony's look. “It—I didn't mean to get carried away. Just, I haven't really talked to—no one, ah, no one really knows this stuff. I mean at Shield. We don't--So. Um, anyway. Metropolis. You should check it out, if they have it. I heard the original was cut way down when it was first shown here, but maybe they have the German version. I could translate for you, if you wanted,” Steve offered.
“You speak German?” Tony questioned, still trying to find his way through the flow of conversation. Were they talking about robots? Movies? Or something else that Tony had missed in the flash of realization that Steve seemed to think robots were...swell? Who the fuck said swell? He felt like he should ask for malt at the dime store.
“I—yes. I speak German,” Steve replied carefully, the switch clicking back into the off position at that, apparently, since whatever had sent Steve into a moment of relaxed giddiness—robots, Tony thought, my 'bots, me—seemed to have dissipated into the air. Or luft, he supposed wryly. What's the big deal about speaking German? Tony's Italian was perfect, his French terrible, and Latin good enough for an exorcism, but he suspected Steve wasn't really interested in comparative languages at the moment.
“Oh, so, maybe movie night, then?” Tony suggested.
“Sure, Tony,” Steve replied, but the moment, whatever it had been, was gone. “That would be nice.”
Tony started to say something else, if only to fill the sudden, stilted silence, though God and his mouth only knew what.
“You should get back inside. It's cold out here,” Steve reminded him.
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I'll just—I'll go. Never much liked the cold,” Tony said, backing up as he turned to go while Steve leaned forward against the railing, craning his neck back to look at the moon, the long column of his throat working up and down, his whole body gone rigid and coiled. Restrained, Tony thought out of nowhere, and wished he hadn't, because he couldn't unthink it or unsee it, the way fissure of certainty that he might not be the only one who knew how to break apart and put himself back together.
“Me neither,” Steve husked out.