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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. 

Yeah, no.

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.”

 

Chapter 2

“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. 

Chapter 3

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.

Steve.

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.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

There was a puddle of drool on the pillow under Tony’s mouth when he woke up the next morning. Afternoon. Whatever.  He rolled over and buried his head under the covers, dimming the light that was insistently spilling through the window. 

He wasn’t quite ready to get out of bed yet.  Getting out of bed meant facing a day of—of something.  Dealing with Steve, he supposed.  Whatever that meant, and hell, after last night, who the hell knew what that meant? Not him, that was for sure.  He was…disconcerted, Tony’s mind settled on the word after picking around for a moment.   

Last night had not gone as he had expected. 

Not that it had gone badly.  The opposite, really.  Steve’s lack of anger over the garage, his delight at the idea of Tony’s ‘bots, his disinterest in, well…Tony, all these were good things, as far as Tony was concerned, but since when did he get to have nice things?

Maybe Steve wanted SI for the military connections that came with it.  Steve seemed like career military.  SI came with not only money, but prestige and connections with the brass.  Made some sense.  SI was Tony’s best attribute, after all.  How many times had he heard how valuable he was because of the company his father built? 

He was missing something, some variable he wasn’t seeing, and it made his stomach twist in knots if he thought about it too much.   If he thought about it too much, he’d give himself a headache.

So, bed was better.  Bed was great, in fact.  Bed was warm and his and no one was bothering him, which, come to think of it, was a bit odd.  How had he managed to go this long without being reminded of how lazy and slovenly he was?  It was almost as if he didn’t need the constant reminder, and still managed to rise and shine and feel shitty about himself all on his own.  And Howard said he wasn’t self-sufficient.

Well, okay, point to dear, old Dad, Tony thought, digging his head down into the soft pillow.  Not so much with the rising and shining, admittedly. 

The bed was still soft and sleep-warm, or maybe that was him, but the idea of moving just yet seemed wildly unappealing.  Moving meant an obligation to eventually get up that he didn’t quite want to make just yet, so he burrowed back under the quilted blanket and pulled it up to cover his head, making the light behind his eyelids darken to something that didn’t demand action.

Bed was, however, a place where a bathroom didn’t exist and this poor design of a living space was going to become an issue shortly, Tony realized after a few more minutes of wallowing in his nest of pillows and blankets.  The bladder really was the weak link in hiding schemes, no doubt about it.

With a reluctant sigh, Tony folded the comforter down and flopped over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.  Last night already had this hazy, faded quality to it, like he couldn’t quite call it up from memory.  Not dreamlike, exactly, just not fully real either, not the way other memories were.  Maybe because he hadn’t quite managed to absorb it all yet. 

There was still plenty of time to pick it apart, after all.  That definitely seemed like an after-coffee kind of project.  Though, lying there, he couldn’t quite escape thinking about it.  Steve standing there, staring at the stars and not really seeing them.  How many times had Tony done that over the years?  Enough to recognize someone looking to the heavens and seeing only escape when he saw it on someone else, apparently, Tony thought, scrubbing both hands vigorously up and down over his face. 

What the hell was wrong with him, anyway?  Golf on the moon?  Astronaut trivia at fuck-all o’clock?  God, he groaned into his palms.  Would it kill him to act normally for once in his whole, God-forsaken life? 

Apparently, it was better not to test that theory. 

Not that the evening couldn’t have gone worse than him making an idiot out of himself.  Far worse.  He knew that.  All things considered, it had gone pretty well.  Apparently, the gods would accept a burnt offering in the form of an omelet. Who knew?

An Alpha who left him alone, and, grab three wise men, folks, because it was a fucking miracle happening, actually seemed to not mind Tony’s few, minor, barely-there faults that seemed to manifest in the form of things that went boom.

Whatever it was, it had been unexpected, Tony thought, twisting the word around a bit in his head again.  Unexpected.  Such a simple word that held so much.  Unexpected meant unpredictable.  And unpredictable meant Tony couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to do, how he was supposed to act, what he should say or not say, and that, dear friends, usually ended up going very badly for him.  

How he was supposed to act probably involved getting his ass out of bed and making something at least semi-edible for his Alpha prior to lunch, which was on his list of Things He Wanted to Do somewhere below waxing and day-long self-help seminars.

Quiet, Tony mentally whispered to himself in a terrible impression of an Australian accent.  Here we observe the Omega in his natural state, where he doesn’t give a flying fuck what the Alpha wants.  Watch as he does not rise early and prepare breakfast.  See how he could not care less what his Alpha is up to this fine morning.  Monitor the Omega as he cautiously slips off to his garage without so much as acknowledging his Alpha.  We can speculate as to why an Omega would be driven to solitude, but we may never know why this lone, lost Omega chooses to fend for himself.  For we are Alphas, and have no fucking clue. 

Tony huffed out a rough, deprecating laugh and sat up, letting his legs dangle over the side of the bed.  He glanced at the clock.  11:32. Great.  Apparently, crashing from an anxiety binge was great for sleeping like the dead.  With a long huff of air, Tony bent down and grabbed the black Pink Floyd t-shirt wadded up in the pile closest to the bed and sniffed it, catching a hint of motor oil.  It wasn’t so bad it needed to be relegated to the dirty laundry rug he was systematically creating, so he shrugged it over his head.  A pair of heather-grey sweatpants were within reach of his toes, so he picked those up and pulled them on over his boxers.  There were twin streaks of black running down the thighs where he must have wiped his hands at some point, and they were probably a day away from walking themselves to the washer and jumping in, Joe Versus the Volcano-style, but he figured he could get another day out of them.  He couldn’t help grin at imagining his mom’s reaction to his choice of attire. 

Anthony, can you, for once, dress yourself properly?  How will you find an Alpha if you can’t put forth even the tiniest bit of effort into your appearance?

No worries, Mom.  I come with a very fashion-forward accessory.  Gee, I hope my weapons manufacturing company doesn’t make my butt look big, Tony thought with a snort. 

Steve’s dog tags were curled up on the dresser next to the lamp where Tony had tossed them aside last night.  He’d stopped wearing them when he got up to the cabin, figuring why bother, until a few days in, he’d found himself talking to squirrels and fingering the place on his neck where a cool weight should be.  He should probably give them back now.  No point.  Not up here. 

He stared at them a moment longer, then picked them up and threaded the chain around his head, tucking the tags under his shirt so they lay just below the hollow of this throat providing some sort of strange comfort.   It wasn’t like anyone was going to show up at Ye Olde Murder Cabin and demand to know what Tony was up to with all the stuff he’d been getting courtesy of Agent Agent. 

But.  But, if they did. 

Why did everyone at SHIELD react the way they did when they found out he was Steve’s Omega?  What did the X mean, the one after Steve’s name and Alpha designation? Captain Rogers is…he’s very important, Tony remembered Coulson saying.  Why did Coulson behave like there was probably a shrine with Steve’s toenail clippings somewhere?  Not like anyone was going to clue him in.  He was just the Omega who was Bonded to the guy and got to spend the rest of his life doing whatever Steve told him to do.  Yeah, definitely no reason to teach Tony the secret handshake, he thought bitterly. Still.  He reached up and placed his hand over the small rectangles beneath his shirt.  Just, better safe than sorry. Unofficial Omega motto, that.  Couldn’t hurt to hold onto them. 

With a small groan, Tony pushed himself up and out of bed, nearly tripping over his shoes where he had toed them off the night before after retreating to his room.  When he opened his bedroom door and peeked out, the hallway was clear.  He darted to the bathroom and took care of his bladder, then washed his hands and stared at the figure in the mirror. 

The person looking back at him was wide-eyed, with dark circles from last night’s mascara casting judgment on him this morning, hair askew, still trying to be slicked down in spots while the rest of it decided to try to pull off an 80’s permed look.  He quickly wet his hands and combed his fingers through it, trying to make it look at least like he hadn’t tried to partially electrocute himself last night.  He grabbed a tissue and wet it, then dabbed at the dark circles until he just looked hungover instead of like he’d lost a fight to the MAC counter. 

With a disgruntled shake of his head, he opened the medicine cabinet behind the sink above the mirror and took out his bottle of pills, sitting one on his tongue and then palming a handful of water from the faucet to down it with.  Even after he felt the small pill slide down his throat, he took another gulp of water and swallowed again, just for good measure.  He closed the mirror and stared at his reflection again.  A part of him still couldn’t believe there were suppressants sitting in his medicine cabinet by the aftershave and packet of Tylenol.  There were seven white tablets hidden in a baggie under his mattress, just in case, his mind supplied, but the bottle of miracle pills sat undisturbed, as far as Tony could tell. 

Unexpected, to say the least.

Steve doesn’t want me, so he doesn’t want me to suffer, Tony told himself.  That was…kind. Kind?  He tried the word out in his head for a moment, let it settle, like a stone that had been sent skipping across the surface of a pond and was finally able to slowly sink to the bottom.  The thought was new, foreign, but it sunk into the muck of his brain and sat there, unmoving.  Not all Alphas were terrible, obviously.  Obie had always been nice enough in his way.  At least he’d taken an interest in Tony, and he had always been generous, even if his gifts ended up in the pile with the crap Tony’s mom insisted on giving him.

The suppressants were a kindness, in their own, strange way.  More kindness than he’d thought he would get from his Alpha, that was for sure.  Something that did nothing for Steve, except perhaps relieve a guilty conscience, but helped Tony immensely.  Not being at the mercy of his body was a freedom he’d never dared to so much as consider, yet here it was, nestled by the unopened twinpack of Axe-O Dark Temptations body spray his mom had sent with him, which promised to ‘Drive Alphas Wild.’  In the first place, in what world was that ever a good plan?  In the second place, God, who the fuck wanted to do it while smelling like chocolate, amber and red peppercorn?  Amber wasn’t a scent, for fuck’s sake, it was fossilized resin. 

Yeah, because it was the scientific inaccuracy that was the problem there, Tony thought glumly. 

When there was really nothing left to do in the bathroom except admit he was hiding, he dried his hands and opened the door, taking a step into the hall and listening.  The house felt empty, which was probably a weird thing to say, but he had years of figuring out when a place was empty and when it wasn’t.  This place felt empty.

Which was good.  Of course, Steve wasn’t going to just hang out while Tony snoozed away the morning.  Made things easier, really.  Though, it was one of those odd things that left him unsure how to feel about it.   Thankful, he supposed.  But, there it was again. The unexpected thing.  No one dragging him out of bed, telling him to quit being so lazy.  Which, considering the time, would’ve been a tad hard to deny, he thought with a sigh. 

The kitchen itself was clearly empty, though it had the feeling of having been occupied not too long ago.  There was a frying pan soaking in soapy water in the sink and a wet rag draped over the faucet to dry.  His eyes immediately went to the coffee maker, which was still lit up with a nearly full pot brewed and waiting.  There was a note attached to the top of it, just above the on light, which helpfully told him that breakfast was in the oven.  Curious, he opened the oven door and found a plate stacked with pancakes and bacon sitting on the middle shelf.  There was even an oven mat on the counter for him to use to retrieve it. 

Okay, so, breakfast.  Brunch. Whatever. That was nice, Tony thought, with a fissure of unease prickling down his spine.  He was supposed to think it was nice, right?  Nice. Because people just did things out of the goodness of their hearts without any thought of future obligation.  Right.  That happened. 

He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the small kitchen table with his plate in front of him.  Reaching out, he grabbed the bottle of syrup that was standing next to the salt and pepper shakers, dousing his pancakes with a liberal coating.  His tablet was on the side table by the sofa where he left it yesterday, probably still trying in vain to show him how to cook an omelet, so he got up and went to pick that up, closing out the browser tabs with a baleful look at one of the YouTube videos entitled “The Perfect Omelet.”   Thumbs down, Tony decided firmly, recalling last night’s disastrous attempt at cooking.  Granted, some of that could probably be attributed to being terrified he was in monumental amounts of trouble, but it had to be at least 60/40 the fault of “1-2-3 Omelet,” he figured. 

Tony was halfway through solving an issue some grad student had raised on the MIT Engineering student forum he’d hacked when he heard footsteps outside the front door, followed by the sound of the doorknob clicking open.  Steve stepped in and immediately looked over at Tony, who had a bite of pancake halfway between his plate and his mouth, dripping a steady line of syrup back down to the plate, because he apparently liked to project an air of calm coolness when around his Alpha.

Okay, so, his Alpha was not unattractive.  He’d have to be blind not to notice.  Blind, living on another planet under a rock at the bottom of a frozen ocean of nitrogen.  So, basically, your standard unable to observe.  Looked like Steve had just come from one of those perfect jogs that somehow managed to leave him looking like he’d stepped out of some workout video, glowing with just the right sheen of sweat, hair slightly mussed by the wind, and wearing workout clothes that were doing the Lord’s work.

“Morning,” Steve called out after a short pause, giving Tony a chance to decide to take a bite or close his mouth.  He picked closing his mouth, which was, generally speaking, always a good option for him.  “I see you found breakfast.”

“Um.  Yeah.  Thanks,” Tony mumbled and set his fork back down on the edge of his plate.  “It’s good.”

“No problem,” Steve replied.  He went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of water, drinking it down with the door open, light and cool air wafting out.  There was the bottle of ketchup sitting accusingly on the top shelf, Tony noted with a glare. Damn judgmental condiments.  He’d tried.  “You going to work on your robots today?” Steve asked, turning back to face Tony.

“I—I guess.  I mean.  Mostly, maybe.  I’m just, you know, checking a few, ah, news sites.  Stuff like that,” Tony said, holding up the tablet in one hand and tilting the screen towards his chest so Steve couldn’t see the MIT header on the top of the page.  “Are you going in to SHIELD?”

“Oh, no.  No, I don’t—I mean, not until they need me,” Steve answered, which made no sense.  So, he was just, what?  Some kind of on-call agent?  “I thought I’d work on the cabin a bit.  Not the power.  Promise,” Steve said quickly when Tony started to open his mouth to object.  “Maybe head into town and pick up a few things.  If there’s anything you want, just, uh, here,” Steve continued, pulling open a drawer and taking out a pad of paper and pen.  “Just write it down.  I’ll see what I can find.”

“Thanks,” Tony said again, glancing at the pad of paper Steve was holding.  Today’s test will be a written exam, it seems. 

“Unless you want to go, too?   You must get kind of, I don’t know, lonely up here, right?  I know this isn’t exactly the kind of place you were probably expecting,” Steve said, giving Tony a quick look before dropping his eyes to where his scuffed trainers where toeing at the wood planks that lined the floor.  “Probably pretty bored, huh?” Steve asked with a nod at the tablet Tony was clutching to his chest.

“Huh?  No, its fine.  I mean, the cabin, its fine.  Its…” Tony trailed off.  It was fine.  It was crappy and smelled a bit like mothballs and Listerine, everything was outdated and plaid was the new black, but, it was…fine, he decided.  The cabin was fine, if by fine, you meant better than going on a grocery run with his Alpha, which seemed to be the morning’s metric for fine.  “I’ll just stay here.  Hang out in the garage.  Get some stuff done.”

“Okay, well.  If you think of anything you want, just write it down,” Steve told him, snapping the pad of paper against his hand before he put it and the pen down on the kitchen counter.  “I’m just going to go clean up,” Steve said, pushing himself off where he was leaning a hip against the counter.  “Anything you want, okay?  Just—just put it on the list,” Steve repeated somewhat shakily as he slowed next to where Tony sat at the small kitchen table.

Tony nodded and kept his eyes on his plate of half-eaten pancakes and bacon, one hand holding the fork dangling over it, which let him partially hide his face.  He felt, as much as heard, Steve move away then, own the hall and to the bathroom.  A moment later, the water of the shower blasted on, and some of the tension left his shoulders, though the sugary breakfast was already curdling in his stomach.  He put his fork down and picked up the mug of coffee, taking a long swallow of the lukewarm brew. 

Getting out of bed had been his first mistake.

His gaze lifted to the pad of paper and pen on the counter.  Steve wanted him to ask for things.  Why, Tony had no idea, but it seemed oddly important to Steve that he did.  And, if there was one thing Tony knew for sure, if it was important to an Alpha, then you did it.  He didn’t really need anything.  He’d been ordering everything he wanted and then some online or going through Coulson for the few things he couldn’t get over the Internet without annoying hurdles like permits and clearances he’d have to take the time to obtain.  Fake.  Whatever. 

Tony took another sip of coffee and got up from the table, emptying the remains of his breakfast into the garbage and putting the dishes in the sink.  He turned around and looked over at the pad of paper again.  It was still obstinately blank.  He walked over and picked up the pen, pulled the cap off and stuck it on the end, chewing absently on it while he leaned a hip against the counter and considered his options. 

Shampoo?  Or would that seem vain?  He wouldn’t mind one of those razors with all the different trimmer heads.  He could try growing out some kind of beard again.  Every Alpha liked a well-groomed Omega, right?   But, then maybe Steve wouldn’t like facial hair.  Seemed a safer bet to get that online, where at least Steve wouldn’t feel like he’d been duped into inadvertently helping Tony if that was something he didn’t care for.  God, this sucked.  Write down what you want, Tony. Anything you want.  Just put it on the list.  What if he picked the wrong thing to ask for, though?  The list was a fucking minefield, he thought with a flash of annoyance.

He finally settled on soap, laundry detergent and socks, which he figured were all innocuously domestic enough.  Leaving the list sitting on the counter, he tromped outside and across the driveway to the garage.  After he punched his code into the door and went inside, he felt instantly lighter.  The cabin might be a bit on the relic side, but this…this was his home now.  He still couldn’t believe Steve was okay with him having it.  That probably wasn’t going to last, he realized, but he’d take what he could get while he could get it.  My precious, he thought with a gleeful smirk, surveying the workstation he’d meticulously set up. 

The morning was spent working on DUM-E’s code, which he still couldn’t get quite right, then tinkering with the designs for the missile he’d told Joshua about.  Tony had started calling it the Jericho, in honor of his furry sounding board, and found himself humming the tune to the old, familiar song his mother used to sing to him as he worked on the designs. 

The walls came tumbling down, indeed, Tony thought with satisfaction as he looked over the design again.  It was beautiful.  It was spectacular. 

He’d designed something, something new and innovative, from the infancy of idea to an actual design. Something Howard hadn’t thought of, no matter how many times Obie mentioned the military’s desire for something long-range, but small enough for fighter jets and tanks, with precision detonation capabilities and enough of a blast force to penetrate the rocky terrain where terrorists liked to hide, he thought, mind flashing to watching Joshua bury nut after nut in the patches of ground between rocks along the edge of the mountain.

It was perfect.  And it would work. He knew it in his bones. 

Not that anyone would ever know or care, except perhaps the squirrel he was systematically escalating towards North Korean dictator levels of crazily militarized.  The amount of people interested in an Omega’s take on weapons designs currently numbered a big, fat one, and despite his last name, Tony knew no one at SI would listen to him.  Not on something like this. 

On what carpeting to pick out for the offices, sure.  Well, at least in theory, until he’d pointed at the swatch of fuchsia paisley while he was distracted by the upgrades to the engines on the latest Navy helicopters some of the engineers were discussing.  The damn saltwater and damp, sea air was always a problem, but they had a new idea for a polymer coating they thought might work, and Tony could see it in his head in an instant, as soon as they mentioned to his father what they were going for.   Of course, he got all of a pat on his head and a round of laughter for his efforts, but he did take some satisfaction in the fact that it took the elitist asshats another seven months of research to figure it out, though. 

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed going over the preliminary designs for an upgraded guidance system before he heard a knock on the door.  The security camera showed it was, of course, Steve, holding a brown paper bag and a Styrofoam container that Tony’s mind instantly categorized as food, making his stomach rise to the occasion with an empty groan. 

So, he might have skipped lunch. 

Tony heaved out a sigh, pressed the button to darken his workstation and went to the door.

“Oh, hey,” Steve said, almost in surprise when Tony opened the garage door.  “Got what you asked for.  And, some lunch. If you’re hungry,” Steve finished, holding out the white container of food and brown bag of put-it-on-the-list-crap that Tony didn’t really want. 

“Thanks,” Tony replied, taking one in each hand.  He stood somewhat uncertainly in the doorway.  Should he invite Steve inside?  Ask Steve to join him?  Probably.  He didn’t move though.  He couldn’t keep Steve out if Steve really wanted to come in, but in order to be a doormat, you have to lay down first, something he’d never quite managed.  The impulse to do so didn’t seem he’d be starting today, so he pulled the door a little shut, just enough to keep Steve from seeing his workstation, if only because it felt more his if Steve couldn’t see it.

“Having a good day?” Steve asked with what Tony recognized as a forced attempt at a smile.

“Sure,” Tony answered warily.  I’ve been designing advanced weapons systems while you shopped for toiletries I don’t need.  All in all, a great day.  Probably shouldn’t say that out loud, though. “Fine.”

“Okay, well, good.  I’ll just—I’ll see you for dinner, then?” Steve asked.

Dinner. Fuck.  Was he supposed to cook dinner?  How did Steve feel about a nice, healthy bowl of ketchup?  Ketchup was a vegetable, right?  Maybe some minute rice.  He could do that.  Probably in half the time. 

He really should’ve paid more attention when Jarvis tried to teach him a few go-to recipes.  By more, he meant any at all.  Crap.  How did you make that stew Jarvis said you could throw together…freezer stew, he’d called it, because it was just stuff you pulled from the freezer.  How hard could that be?  He’d spent the afternoon designing one of the most advanced missile systems the world had ever seen. Stew.  He could do stew.

Oh, God, he was going to fuck up the stew.

“Ah, right.  Dinner.  I could maybe, ah—“ Tony started, looking around behind him like the answer would magically appear. 

“We could order a pizza.  Maybe try a movie, if you want.  I…haven’t seen a lot of the new releases, so.  Whatever you want,” Steve said with a shrug and a quick half-frown. 

Pizza.  Not stew.  Pizza.  Pizza was a dinner food.  Pizza was the perfect dinner food. The kind that if it was fucked up, it was definitely not going to be Tony’s fault.  So, you know, checked all the boxes on Tony’s perfect food list.

“Sounds great,” Tony managed, more in relief than because he actually wanted to spend the evening pandering to Steve, but at least he wasn’t expected to cook.

“Okay, so, I guess I’ll see you later, then,” Steve replied, stepping back from the doorway with a nod.  “Maybe six or so?” 

“Huh?  Oh, yeah, fine.  Six,” Tony said, with a flat smile.  “See you then.”  Steve gave a little wave and backed away, before turning around to head towards the cabin. 

Tony closed the garage door and went back to his workstation. He set the food down on the desk and the bag of random stuff he’d asked for on the floor next to his feet, using one finger to peek inside.  Yep, a bottle of light green detergent with bright flowers on the front promised him laundry that would smell like a tropical paradise (good luck overcoming the mothball cabin stench, he thought grimly), a pack of six plain white tube socks and three things of soap, like Steve couldn’t decide which one to get. 

One was a standard ivory bar in a white and blue box that smelled like, well, soap.  Tony dropped that back in the bag and pulled out the next, a large, dark tan square wrapped in a wrapping of black and red swirls that claimed to smell of sandalwood.  The image of Steve sniffing soaps in the grocery aisle like some sort of clandestine cleaning mission made him chuckle.  The third though, that was…well, okay, that was actually kind of incredibly observant, Tony thought, looking down at his fingernails, which were wreathed in dark stains.  It was a dishwashing liquid, actually, but Tony knew from experience that it was the best at getting the engine oil and grease he used on the ‘bots off his hands.  Huh.

He rubbed a hand over his mouth and opened the Styrofoam container.  Rotisserie chicken, potatoes and an assortment of steamed vegetables were inside, next to a tiny sliver of brownie wrapped in wilted plastic.

Honestly, having an Alpha was turning out to be a lot like having a butler.  Sure, a butler who could beat you or fuck you on a whim, but at least there were snacks.  No one told him about the snacks, he thought with a strange, giddy sort of breathy high running through him. 

It couldn’t last, of course.  He’d screw up, sooner or later.  Do the wrong thing.  Say the wrong thing, more likely.  He was good at that.  Excelled at it.  One of his many talents.  Wonder if that was on whatever profile his parents submitted to Steve? 

Tony is a lovely Omega who will be frequently disobedient, often stubborn and recalcitrant, occasionally a complete asshole, and rarely, actual use to anyone, but he comes with a small weapons manufacturing company, so please overlook all of the above.  Be sure to feed him, but never after midnight, Tony thought with a snort of laughter. 

Well, if Steve was stupid enough to take that deal…apparently, he coveted SI more than an Omega he actually, well, wanted, so, fine.  Whatever.  Joke’s on him, right?  Tony got left alone and carte blanche to do whatever he wanted so long as he kept it in his garage, out of sight, out of mind.  Healthy living, as far as he was concerned. 

Tony was certainly fine with the situation.  Really, the whole set-up, maybe sans the Friday the Thirteenth cabin of death, was actually rather ideal, at least for however long this little interlude of guilt or lack of interest or whatever it was on Steve’s part managed to last. He’d take what he could get.

After finishing his lunch, he tried to get some more work done on the squirrel missile—no, God, don’t start calling it that, it’ll stick, he mentally admonished himself--over the course of the afternoon, but couldn’t seem to concentrate while dinner with Steve loomed last meal-style.   When he finally gave up for the day, the sun was already hanging low over the mountains, casting a soft, hazy glow over the cabin. 

He walked out to the deck and stopped for a moment, watching the bottom of the sun disappear behind one of the peaks.  It was beautiful here, for all the old, musty smells and outdated furnishings.  Far less fancy than what he was used to, that was for sure.  That had been a beautiful prison.  Top notch, really.  All the finest accoutrements.  This was…he didn’t know what this was.  Different.  Strange. 

Unexpected.

There was the rub of it, he supposed.  Last night had been filled with assurances and promises and all the right words, like they were taken from some cue card, but it was smoke and mirrors, and he knew that.  All of this could disappear at any moment.  His garage, his space, his freedom.  Snap of the fingers and it was gone, and literally no one would say anything. Hell, there would probably be a line of people waiting to applaud, from his Ms. Minch of a dance instructor to the engineering monkeys practically jerking themselves off over finally figuring out the right polymer combination.  And Howard.  Let’s not forget who will be our Cheer Captain for that little exercise in comeuppance. 

Behind him, the unmistakable crunch of tires on gravel announced the arrival of dinner as a small, blue two-door with a scrape along the passenger’s side and a brightly lit sign proclaiming the obvious on top. 

Steve stepped out of the cabin’s front door and gave a quick glance to Tony before going to meet the delivery driver, who was struggling to get four boxes of pizza out of the insulated carry-box. 

“I didn’t know what you liked,” Steve said over his shoulder as he dug a wad of bills out of his pocket and handed a few to the driver.  “Hope something here is okay.”

“I’ll eat pretty much anything if it involves bread and cheese,” Tony told him, turning away from the view and walking over to where Steve was standing, balancing the large, white boxes on one hand. 

“Thank you, Sir.  Enjoy,” the delivery driver said with a deferential nod to Steve.  Tony figured he could’ve done the Macarena naked while tossing the pizza in the air that’s-amore-style and Pizza-Uber here wouldn’t give him the time of day.  As archaic traditions went, not having to deal with Alphas looking him over like a nice cut of meat at the butcher’s was probably one to put on the keep list, even if they did it out of respect to Steve and not him.  Lemons into lemonade, Tony thought with a quirk of his mouth.  Honestly, he’d feel badly for the kid, except he couldn’t care less.

Alphas who had gotten hit by the reality-sucks-stick were really one of life’s true pleasures, he thought somewhat waspishly as he watched the delivery driver climb back into his car.  They were so wonderfully shocked and dismayed by the world not conforming to them and what they had been told they were entitled to have.  Must hurt to find out that all the promises were just a great, big lie sold to them by a society that didn’t want to admit it couldn’t be true for everyone, and now you just have to put on a hat with pizza on it and suck it up like the rest of the world.

“Ready for dinner?” Steve asked, hoisting the pizzas. 

“Starving,” Tony replied, trying for some enthusiasm and missing somewhere around not completely surly.   He followed Steve inside while the disappointment to his parents drove off down the steep, curving road that led up to the cabin. 

Tony’s own mom was probably breaking a nail or three patting herself on the back for finding him a match, while Howard starred in his own version of life as one of those fish that swim along next to sharks, always the little fish chasing after the big ones, but Howard had thrown out his best bait and gotten quite the catch, couldn’t argue with that, Tony had to admit.

Whoever Steve was, you just had watch other Alphas around him to know that they had figured out the pecking order.  Maybe it was the military thing or the annoyingly perfect thing or some other thing that only Alphas who knew the secret spit and scratch or some stupid Alpha scent bullshit knew, but they all got it, and got it fast.  It would be fun for Tony, all the bowing and scraping to his Alpha, except for the paralyzing terror.  What must it be like, to always be able to get what you wanted? Still seemed hard to believe that someone like Steve, who had clearly hit the Alpha lottery, managed to not be an utter dick simply because he could. 

“What do your parents think of all this?” Tony heard himself ask as he clicked the front door shut behind him.  He hadn’t meant to ask that.  He hadn’t meant to ask anything, really, but found he was more curious to know the answer than he’d realized. 

“They’re, ah.  They’re—“ Steve started, and Tony really knew the end to that sentence, but he couldn’t bite back the question now.  “Both dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said with genuine regret. My mom always called me Steven, at least when I was in for it.  Damn.  Open mouth, insert foot.  He should really have come with some kind of warning label.  Maybe he had, for all he knew.  Caution:  Omega may not behave appropriately.  In case of emergency, break glass, but not the good crystal, Howard, it’s from Prague. 

“It was a long time ago,” Steve replied, his voice gone quiet.  The whole room seemed quiet, or a silence with a different timbre to it than just the usual.  Tony’s gaze swept over the mantle, with the obnoxious clock he really was going to turn into a timing device on a nuclear weapon one day, so help him, to the dark green, plaid sofa to the simple kitchen with its cheery yellow refrigerator and countertops laminated in a mustard yellow with small, green vines running around the edges, like someone had tried to make the place match once upon a time, when someone who lived here had actually cared about this place.  It occurred to him then that this place may be what Steve had left, and that he might have chosen a place removed from the world not because Steve didn’t want the world to see what he was, but because he didn’t have a place in it. 

What had Coulson said?  He needs someone to come back to.  And now he’s stuck with me.  Your tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.  Leave it to the government to solve a problem by creating a bigger one. 

“Well, I’m still sorry,” Tony finally managed. 

“Do you miss your parents?  I know you haven’t had a chance to visit since, ah, since you left them,” Steve finished, putting the pizza boxes down on the kitchen counter.  Tony watched him pull two white plates out of the cabinet and put them on the counter, too, then open the cabinet with the glasses.  “Wine?  Or, there’s lemonade, I think.  Maybe some soda.”

“Lemonade’s fine,” Tony replied, while Steve nodded and pulled two glasses from the shelf.  “Have what you want, though.” 

“Alcohol doesn’t do much for me,” Steve said as he pulled the pitcher helpfully labeled lemonade in black marker out of the refrigerator.  It was a small thing, of all the things since yesterday, so Tony couldn’t say exactly why it made something tighten, then loosen, in his chest.  Maybe because it was so freely given, not out of any kind of obligation or guilt or worry about Tony, just because, apparently, it was true. 

“My dad drinks.  Sometimes. I mean, he’s not like an alcoholic or anything.  Just.  He drinks,” Tony stammered, feeling his throat closing up around the words.  I’d like Things We Don’t Talk About for $500, Alex. 

Steve stilled as he set the pitcher down on the counter.  He looked over his shoulder at Tony, still hovering by the door, and Tony didn’t think that was lost on Steve, or that much of anything was lost on Steve.  Dish soap, Tony reminded himself.  Be careful with this one.  He doesn’t just see, he notices. 

“My dad drank, too,” Steve said finally, and went back to opening pizza boxes.  “We have cheese, pepperoni, veggie and something called Tuscan, but I think they just threw a dart at a map of Italy and called it that, because it isn’t much like anything from Tuscany.” 

“Ah, veggie’s fine.  So.  Italy.  You’ve been?”  Tony asked, moving over to the kitchen table and taking what his ass had now apparently decided was his seat.

“I—yes.  For a short time,” Steve replied and slid a plate with two large slices in front of Tony, along with the glass of lemonade. 

“What was it like?” Tony asked, picking up a slice and taking a bite of the end.  Not bad. 

“Beautiful.  Parts of it anyway.  Parts of it were, well.  I’m sure it’s changed a lot since, ah.  Since I was there,” Steve offered. He pulled out the chair across from Tony and sat down, leaning forward on one elbow, with a stack of one of each kind of pizza on his plate.  “Have you been?”

“Me?  I haven’t left the state.  Barely left L.A.  Well, until now, I guess,” Tony replied somewhat more defensively than he’d meant to.  Wasn’t his fault the Stark prison work-release program hadn’t gone international.

“Think you’d like to travel? One day, anyway,” Steve asked.  “It would be…easier now.” 

With an Alpha, you mean, Tony’s mind filled in, though, he didn’t think that was quite right for some reason, like he was one letter off from a triple-word-score.  It had been impossible, of course, for him to travel on his own without being Bonded, and his parents felt they owed it to the world to keep him at home, but, with an Alpha, he could go wherever his Steve-shaped permission slip allowed. It could be…possibly not entirely awful, though the idea of it, going places, seeing some of the world, almost seemed like one of those thoughts that couldn’t quite take hold in his mind, just sort of wisped through without really planting itself there.  He could almost imagine it.  Almost.  But, it was like a possibility that existed for someone else.  Someone who maybe looked a bit like him, but acted a bit less like him. 

“Maybe.  I don’t know.  I mean, I guess,” Tony mumbled, swallowing down the bite of pizza with some effort. 

“Where would you go?” Steve questioned.  To be fair, Steve sounded genuinely interested, but Tony knew there were right and wrong answers to opinion questions just as much as there were to fact questions, at least if you were an Omega. 

“I don’t know.  Italy’d be nice, I suppose.  See all the sights.  Paris, London,” Tony said with a shrug as he chewed on another bite of pizza and washed it down with a swig of lemonade.  “Switzerland.”  Switzerland, where CERN was located.  CERN, with its large hadron collider, its superconducting electromagnets, its cryogenics systems, its antiproton decelerator finding antiatoms, studying antimatter at the edge of science.  Switzerland would be glorious.  Well, obviously, it wouldn’t, because no way they’d let an Omega go all Bill Nye on their particle accelerator, but it would be neat to get close to it, maybe take a tour. 

He could get a pen from the gift shop. 

Tony looked down at his plate and found his appetite rapidly retreating.  This sucked.  He wasn’t going to go to Switzerland, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to get any closer to an electron than the local Apple store, so why even bother?

“Switzerland is nice,” Steve commented.  Stupidly observant, dish soap-buying Alpha, Tony thought with a wave of annoyance, though he wasn’t sure if it was directed primarily at Steve or at himself. 

“Yeah, well, probably not going to happen, so,” Tony said brusquely.  “I mean, you’re, what, on-call with SHIELD for whatever it is you do, and I’m—“ He was what?  Busy?  That was a fucking laugh.  I’m busy building a missile named in honor of a furry rodent because that’s the deepest interpersonal relationship I’ve had in a while.  So, cross Switzerland off the list, Steve-o.

“I…actually have a lot of…flexibility with my schedule.  Maybe put Europe off for another time, but, one day.  Soon.   If you wanted,” Steve replied, then cleared his throat when Tony remained silent.  “Speaking of, ah, trips, I was going to go into town again at some point, maybe pick up a few things at that shopping mall there.  Happy said you two stopped by?  Uh, there’s a—end of next month—there’s this gala, ah, thing, that Fury wants me—us--to attend.  Not a big deal,” Steve said, in the way that said it probably was a big deal. 

“But, I’ve been told I need to update my wardrobe,” Steve told him, with a deprecating sort of smile, though Tony had tuned most of that out after the part about Happy telling Steve where he’d taken Tony, which meant Steve was keeping tabs, which, okay, of course he was, but the chauffer-shaped LoJack still rankled a bit.  “Maybe you could point me in the right direction.  You could pick up whatever you might want, too.  I know you didn’t bring much from home.  You might want…something new.”

Tony looked down at his t-shirt with its pink triangle and stained sweats and felt a wave of remembered shame sweep over him.  He liked to tell himself that he didn’t care how he looked, but he knew the way he dressed was as much an act of defiance as anything else, if for no other reason than Howard hated it and his mom despaired of it, and he liked to call it self-expression when it was really a small battle he could fight that didn’t matter to anyone but him, but it did.  It mattered.  When it was one of the few things he had, it mattered, and he hated that he could still feel like he looked like an idiot even when he chose it.  It felt like losing, and he wasn’t sure if he hated himself or Steve more in that moment.

Nah, he was sure.  Self-loathing for the win.

“Sounds fun,” Tony replied dully.  “Who doesn’t love getting to dress up?” Tony asked, mentally raising his hand.

Gala.  Great.  If it was anything like the occasional soirees his parents threw at the mansion, it would involve a lot of eating, drinking and pseudo dick-measuring contests not so cleverly disguised as self-congratulatory pats-on-the-back amongst the Alphas.    How could he resist?  Not that he had a choice, particularly since Steve hadn’t actually asked so much as told him what he’d be doing.  At least he’d have the benefit of being Bonded.  That was something.  He could hang onto Steve’s arm and be left alone, which, while mildly unappealing, wasn’t exactly live TV musical level of misery.  He could handle it for a night.

“Ah.  Okay, great.  Right, well.  So, that’s settled, then,” Steve said with another small, fading smile, before he cleared his throat and soldiered on, because even Tony knew he was being shit conversation and Steve was trying in his own clueless, Alpha way.  Tony knew he could at least try, though he made no effort to do so.  Hell, he’d started off the evening by mentioning Steve’s dead parents, so, really, did he think he was going to top that and screw up more?  High bar, even for him.  “Speaking of your parents…if you want to visit them, you know you can.  Just call Happy, and he’ll take you.  Anytime.”

“I don’t,” Tony said quickly.  Damn. Too quickly.  “I mean.  It would be weird, right?  Us just Bonded and all.  They don’t—I don’t think they expect to see me. They’d just think that I had….I mean, you know, probably not, like, this soon or anything, right?” 

“Well, if you change your mind…” Steve trailed off. 

“Yeah.  Sure. Definitely,” Tony responded, then took a sip of lemonade to avoid having to say anything else.  Nope.  Full stop. Definitely not. 

“So…how are your robots coming along?” Steve asked when Tony kept chowing down in silence.  “Did you get—U, wasn’t it?  Did you teach him fire safety?” 

Tony stared across the table at Steve for a moment, the slice of pizza dangling from one hand.  It was sort of sweet, in a Smokey the Bear kind of way, the idea that Tony had been sitting in the garage explaining why we don’t play with fire to his robots.  Completely inaccurate, but, well, yeah.

“I worked on some additional parameters for his code, upgraded his internal processor and put in a few more learning algorithms. Which,” Tony continued, warming a bit to the topic.  “Is to say that he now understands that the slippery-when-wet sign is not a part of his fire suppression regimen, so.  At least he’s stopped just spraying everything,” Tony finished with a diffident shrug. 

“Really?  Wow.  That’s—that’s really swell, Tony. That you can do that, I mean.  Getting a machine to—to figure that stuff out.  That’s amazing,” Steve said with a smile that actually reached his eyes.  They did this crinkle-slant at the corners thing when it was one of the real ones, Tony noticed.  It made Steve look softer, somehow, when he was usually all perfectly sharp angles and hardness.  Younger, maybe.  They weren’t actually that far apart in age.  At least he didn’t think.  Which—yeah.

“How old are you?” Tony blurted out.  It was that switch being flicked again, he thought a moment later, when the soft expression slid of Steve’s face.  Tony never knew when he was going to hit it, but he seemed to have a knack for finding it.

“I’m—I—“ Steve stumbled. 

“Not a trick question,” Tony said, meaning to be glib, but it just sort of came out like an apology, though for what, he had no idea. 

“Twenty-five,” Steve responded, sounding a bit like he was answering his drill sergeant.  Tony watched him put the slice of pizza he’d been holding down on the plate and duck his hands under the table.  Rubbing his legs or twisting his hands together or some other nervous gesture, all over a simple question.  Maybe he thought he was too old for Tony.  Or too young.  Who the hell knew?

“I’ll be eighteen in just over a month,” Tony told him. 

“I know,” Steve replied after a beat, though there was something off about his voice.  Hoarse, maybe.  Wrong.  Maybe Steve thought Tony was too old for him.  Lots of Alphas wanted young Omegas for reasons that were both obvious and gross.  He’s just a late bloomer, Tony thought in his mother’s pleading voice, where it didn’t sound quite like an accusation, the way it did when his father said it.   He’d managed to drive away the few Alphas who had come sniffing around by simply being himself.  Then his first Heat hit, and him with no Alpha, you’d have thought he had blowtorched a puppy by the way his parents reacted.  Not his fault his body was done playing nice.

“You’re not that old.  I mean, not that much older than I am,” Tony observed.   “Only a few years, really.” 

Steve looked across the table at him for a long moment.  There was something about Steve’s gaze that made Tony’s spine prickle, something heavy and…sad.  A different kind of sad than the foot-in-mouth disease that brought up Steve’s parents, more wistful, maybe, Tony wasn’t sure.  

“A few years,” Steve finally echoed in a stilted, curt tone that didn’t fit the words and bothered him for some reason, though Tony couldn’t figure out why, but he wanted to take back the whole conversation.  There was something buzzing in his ear, something he couldn’t see, but was setting his teeth on edge about the whole thing. 

“We should do something to celebrate.  Your birthday, I mean,” Steve said, a bit too quickly for it to be anything other than a topic change.  “You pick, of course.  You like astronomy, right?  Maybe head into the city, check out the Griffith Observatory, or, I don’t know—I mean, I’m not trying to—whatever you want, I mean.”

“Observatory’s fine,” Tony replied.  “My mom took me when I was a kid.  It’s fun.  Kinda cheesy, you know, but fun.”  The Tesla Coil was kind of neat in a blast from the past kind of way, with its weird noise and lightning-like discharges.  Energy without wires.  That was Tesla’s goal, or one of them, anyway, Tony remembered.  Fairly impossible, at least these days.  Until someone figures out hot fusion and the tiny problem of plasma containment once you actually managed to create the reaction.  Bumps in the road to progress, Tony thought with a small smile.

“Well.  You think about it, and just…just let me know,” Steve said a bit more easily, probably misinterpreting Tony’s smile for excitement about the observatory as opposed to pondering immensely powerful theoretical energy sources.  “I know you, ah.  You like the stars.  The telescope?  And all that about the astronauts.  You—you seem to know a lot about it.  Space and…all that.  What is it about astronomy that you like so much?”

“Huh?” Tony mumbled around a bite of crust.  “Oh, well, I don’t know.  I used to look at them—the stars, the moon, the planets—outside my window at the house.  It was…something to do, I guess.  Helped me sleep.”

“Counting stars instead of sheep?” Steve asked with a hint of bemusement. 

“My Dad had this book of star charts.  Navigational thing from one of his boats, back when he thought he might sail the world.  I used to memorize them, try to find them in the skies.   We call them stars, name their homes after gods and heroes, but so many of them are these other things that almost seem too fantastic to be real.  Dying suns.  Galaxies being born.  Gas giants and white dwarfs.  For every piece of them we think we understand, there’s something new,” Tony replied, looking down at his plate with the dry bits of crust and their burnt edges. 

He should stop.  He knew that.  But he hadn’t been counting stars instead of sheep, he’d been sitting at his window, watching the only science, the only math, the only thing that made sense slowly drift by, night after night, a glimmer of something wonderful and terrible that they couldn’t take away. 

“The Mayans tracked their movements, partly for religious reasons, partly to know things like when to start planting, depending on the appearance of certain celestial bodies,” Tony continued.  “The Vikings used the North Star’s distance from the horizon to help navigate.  I--anyone--anyone can look at them and, with enough time and effort, understand a bit about what they are seeing.  You don’t—you don’t have to be…I mean, anyone can do it.  They’re—the stars—they’re for everyone.”

Steve was quiet for a long moment, looking down at this plate with his hands still held under the table, brows drawn together, though not in a frown, just like he was considering something very carefully, possibly the remaining pizza for all Tony knew.

“I used to go up on top of our building when I was a kid.  Back in Brooklyn, I mean.  That’s where—that’s where I grew up.  Seemed like you could see the whole sky up there,” Steve remarked with an odd sort of wistfulness in his tone.  New York City was probably the last place Tony would suggest for stargazing, with all the city lights and Jersey’s factories too close for great air, but whatever.  Stars were pretty, blah, blah, blah.  “You’re right.  There’s a gatekeeper on so much of the world, one way or the other.  Who you are, who you know, how much money you have, your—your health.  Always someone ready to tell you that you can’t do something.  Guess maybe you know a bit about that,” Steve acknowledged with a small nod. 

Tony wanted to snort with laughter, because really, Steve was trying to find common ground and picked this as his go-to?  The idea that someone like Steve had ever been denied access to anything was ridiculous.  He was probably one of the youngest Captains in Army history, at least outside a major war, and even the pizza guy practically wanted to prostrate himself, so, really, pull the other one, Tony thought derisively, though silence was the better part of valor on this one, that was for sure. 

“It isn’t the same, I know,” Steve continued with a flat grimace. 

Honestly, it was like Tony’s inner monologue had gotten closed captioning without his permission, which was just annoying.  He didn’t want Steve’s faux understanding, however sincerely it may be offered, which, yeah, okay, weirdly enough, Tony thought Steve actually was making an effort.  He didn’t know what to do with that, so he took the safe route and stuck his head in the proverbial sand by chowing down on his other slice of pizza. 

“Those other things you talked about…red dwarfs, gas giants…I looked up some stuff on the Internet—ah, space stuff,” Steve said, making Tony want to roll his eyes.  Space stuff.  Jesus.  Tyson—Degrasse, not Mike--would probably, nevertheless, gnaw Steve’s ear off for that kind of talk.  “I saw something once.  A, ah, I guess you’d call it an image.  From space.  Not like anything I’ve ever seen before, though,” Steve continued, his voice taking on an odd tone.  “Not stars.  Or not just stars.  Planets.  Other things.  Other places.  It—it was…” Steve stopped, sitting back in his seat, hands coming up to rest on the table in fists that kept clenching and unclenching.  “Do you know what an Einstein-Rosen bridge is?”

“Do you know what an Einstein-Rosen bridge is?” Tony parroted before his mind caught up with his mouth.

“I’m going to pretend your shock and awe is because you are impressed,” Steve said with a teasing smile.  “On odd days, I can also walk and chew gum at the same time.”

“I—I didn’t--I didn’t mean—it’s just—“ Tony stammered, trying to find words willing to come out of his suddenly dry throat.

“Tony, it’s fine.  Really.  It’s fine,” Steve cut in.  He reached a hand across the table and, before Tony could react, just gripped Tony’s wrist for a flash of a moment, his thumb tracing over the jumping pulse-point on the underside before he let go and slid both his hands back under the table.  Tony stared across the table at Steve for a beat.

“If you practiced, you could probably get it on even days, too,” Tony suggested. Steve grinned, and Tony found himself, well, not smiling back, more like blinking in confusion, squirming in his seat and looking away, but his whole chest bloomed with a pleased warmth at the attention and obvious approval, which was, you know, nice and God, stop that, he told himself firmly, though he was currently not listening to himself particularly well.  Maybe Howard had it right on his listening skills after all.  “So, right.  Einstein-Rosen bridges, yeah, I mean, I’ve read about them.  A bit. Like a paragraph or a footnote.  The pictures were pretty.”

“They were,” Steve agreed.  “Made me think of Chagall.  Like someone painted a dream, but—but its real.  Or, I think it’s real.  Do you…do you think they’re real?  Could something like that exist?  A…a door.  Through space.  In the, um…the paragraph you read.  When you were looking at the pretty pictures.  Any of that give you an idea on it?”  Steve asked with a small quirk of his mouth. 

Damn dish-soap-buying Alpha.

“You’re asking me?” Tony replied with a curious tilt of his head, testing the words like wetting his finger and sticking in the air to see how the winds were blowing. 

“I’m asking you, Tony. What do you think?  I’d really like to know,” Steve said quietly.  “If you want to talk about it.”

“If I want to talk about it,” Tony repeated slowly, rounding out the words with his tongue because they sounded foreign in his mouth.  If he wanted to talk about it.  Talk about astrophysics and cosmology.  With his Alpha.  Danger, Will Robinson, Tony’s mind clanked, though not as loudly or as insistently as usual.  The whole conversation had gotten weird.  Had they been talking about his birthday?  And now…now he was having pizza and lemonade and discussing theoretical physics with his Alpha, which was, well.  There weren’t really words for what this was.  Unexpected, his mind supplied helpfully before he shushed it.  He’d say or do the wrong thing one of these days, he knew that.  Maybe it was today.  But if there was a hill to die on, he supposed he’d take this one.   “Okay.  Okay, well, yeah, in theory.  The kind of energy something like that would take would be massive though.”

“But, if there were an energy source.  Say…say there were.  Something powerful that could…channel this energy…could it work?” Steve pressed, something shifting behind his eyes, making Tony pause at the sudden change of tone from curiosity to something deeper, something more urgent that rattled Tony for a bit. Why did Steve suddenly care about this kind of thing?  Where in the world was this coming from? Tony had thought it was about him, testing him, maybe, some weird Are You Smarter Than Your Omega Was In Fifth Grade thing, which, no, probably not, but this was clearly about Steve, which was…weird.  “Do you think—something like that, something that could do that—what else could it do?”

“If—and I mean if—something like that existed, which it doesn’t because we are nowhere near that advanced, but, I mean, if it did exist, then…then I’d be really interested in what else it could do.  That kind of power, the power to punch a hole through space and time like that--we could—it would be almost limitless, what we could do with it.  I—I’m—I mean the possibilities…” Tony trailed off shaking his head.  “I’d need to think on it for a few days.”

“Just a few days?” Steve asked with a slight quirk of his mouth. 

“Well, I mean, it’s just theory, right, so.  That kind of thing, it’s probably hundreds of years off, if that,” Tony pointed out.  “We’re nowhere close.  Though—it is, of course, possible that if something like that did exist, we wouldn’t be the ones who created it.  Given the size of the universe, it isn’t just possible that intelligent life has arisen elsewhere, it’s likely.  Also, given the scale of distances and the energy involved in trying to traverse them, any advanced alien race that needed or wanted to expand beyond their local galaxy would need to create things like Einstein-Rosen bridges to get around, unless there is some law of physics we haven’t come across yet that would let them routinely not just break lightspeed, but wildly surpass it.  Getting around the universe is a bit like crossing Africa, the Pacific and Atlantic if you’re an ant.  Really going to need a better mode of transportation.”

Steve was leaning against the back of his chair, one arm slung over the railing, watching Tony with a strange, guarded expression that made Tony want to shift in his seat, though he willed himself to stay still. 

“Say there was a device like what you’re describing…something alien, maybe…maybe we found it.  What then?” Steve asked. 

“What, were we metal detecting along the beach and stumbled on a couple of pennies, a ring and a wormhole device?  Banner day.  Okay, okay,” Tony said with a wave of his hand.  “Theoryland.  I can play.  We have an alien-made, space-portal-punching device.  What do I think we do with it?   We poke it.”

“Excuse me?” Steve barked out with a laugh.

“Well, I mean, scientifically, I’d say we probably run various tests and analyses, monitor it, that kind of thing, but, yeah, basically, we poke it with a stick and see what happens. That’s what humans have been doing for ages whenever we encounter something we don’t understand, but seems powerful.  Bear? Poke it.  Sabretooth tiger? Poke it.  Fire? Poke it. Ouch, right?  See, we learn.  Faster learners get to live, reproduce, and so on,” Tony replied.  “We’re one big, long line of pokers, basically.”

“So, you’re saying, if we found something like that, we would eventually have to…take her out for a spin, so to speak,” Steve added. 

“Exactly,” Tony agreed.  “Just human nature.  ‘Course, something like that…you start messing around with it, who knows?  That kind of power…you have to ask yourself, open that door, what’s waiting to come through?”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked with a frown.

“Well, in theory, anyway, portals, bridges, wormholes, whatever you want to call them, they aren’t really like roads, with people staying in their lane. They’re more like those revolving doors…once they start to move, they go in all directions at once,” Tony told him.  “You can go through, but anyone else can step on as it spins, and there’s nothing you can do to stop that without stopping the whole door.  But, problem.  Once its open, once its spinning and has people moving through it, that gets a lot harder to do.  A lot. You’re working against the movement—the energy—of the door, which is going and wants to keep right on going, because that’s what it does.  That’s all it does.  You can’t just wedge something in there and stop the energy. That would just stop the door from spinning, but it’s still open, see?  You’d have to—I don’t know—like, collapse it in on itself.  Basically, spin it so fast, it falls apart.”

“Use its own energy against it?” Steve asked.

“Right!  Yes, that’s---yes.  I mean, in very simplified terms,” Tony clarified.

“Thanks for using the small words,” Steve replied with a half-smile tugging at his mouth.

“I have a pack of gum in my room.  I’ll donate to the cause,” Tony offered with a grin. That got a surprised, delighted-sounding laugh from Steve, a real one, probably the first time he’d heard laughter that didn’t sound like it came from one of those studio laughtracks in years.  It seemed to almost startle Steve as much as him.  That warm, pleasant tingle was filling Tony’s chest again, pricking at the backs of his eyes and making his throat tighten.  It was annoying as fuck.  That wasn’t true, but he wanted it to be true.  Needed it to be true.  He couldn’t let himself want something like that to continue, not something that was dependent on how Steve felt about him.  One-way ticket to Disappointmentville, please and thank you.  Just no.  Stop it, he told himself.  Himself was still being an asshat about the listening, though.

“Well. Thanks for the science lesson+, Tony.  That was...clarifying.  So, ah, did you—if you’re done—did you want to watch a movie?  Or, if you’re tired, maybe some other time,” Steve offered. 

He was giving Tony a way out, one with those neon, arrow-shaped signs like Tony was a cartoon rabbit with an attitude, and normally, Tony would’ve taken it, but he was one foot into Wonderland, and there was a bottle labeled Drink Me sitting right there.  He had a garage with robots and the beginnings of a missile, pizza and theoretical astrophysics for dinner, and an Alpha who was…whatever Steve was.  Kind, his mind supplied, though he shied away from the label, which came with far too many expectations for the few days they’d spent together.  Just because he wanted something, didn’t mean that was the way things really were, and he knew from too many life lessons that he didn’t usually get what he wanted. He didn’t even want a kind Alpha.  He didn’t want an Alpha, period, not that anyone asked him. 

Well, okay, Steve had asked.  And that was…he didn’t know what that was.  He didn’t know what any of this was. Seemed far too elaborate to be a ruse, unless Steve was ridiculously bored by life. Which left, guilt or…or Steve was, maybe, possibly, not…completely terrible, Tony thought, mentally groping for the right words.

Not completely terrible, Tony settled on instead.  How was he supposed to resist seeing what happens next?  Human nature…we see something that could kill us and want to poke it with a stick.  Typical. 

“Movie sounds great,” Tony replied, which seemed to make Steve’s posture soften, like he’d been holding his breath, which was silly, but, made that happy, warm thing start spreading through Tony’s chest again.  Damn thing couldn’t keep still once it got a chance, Tony thought, trying for frustration, but coming up short.  Intellectually, he knew his brain kept releasing happiness in the form of endorphins when he pleased his Alpha.  The carrot in favor of the stick, he thought derisively.  It still felt good, and that was in too short a supply to worry about the why of it.  “We could stick with our space theme.  You said you haven’t seen many movies, right?  You’ve seen, like, the new Star Wars, though, right?” Tony asked.

“Um.  No?” Steve replied.  “I’ve heard of it, though.  It’s on—I have a—a list.  Of stuff to catch up on.”

“Were you raised in a cult?  How did you miss Star Wars?” Tony demanded incredulously.  “Star Trek?  No?  Seriously?” Tony said when Steve shook his head.  “Okay, well, we have a lot of catching up to do, sounds like.  What about Lord of the Rings?”

“I read the books,” Steve replied.  “They made those into movies?  Really? With the…Ents and the singing and all that stuff?”

“You’re like Peter Jackson’s dream fan, aren’t you?  Don’t worry, you’ll love it,” Tony promised, taking a large bite of pizza. 

Which was how the Movie Education of Steve Rogers began, Tony thought a few weeks later as he pawed through the remaining DVDs in his collection that they hadn’t managed to watch just yet.  They mostly stuck to science fiction, fantasy and comedies.  War movies were out, after a disastrous attempt to watch Saving Private Ryan that ended with Steve getting up and walking out to the deck without so much as a word to Tony or a backwards glance almost as soon as Tom Hanks set foot on Omaha beach. 

Tony would rather pull out his own fingernails than watch a romcom with Steve sitting next to him for reasons he wasn’t going to think about, but they made it through the original Star Wars movies, the even-numbered Treks and all the Lord of the Rings without incident, unless you considered the Great Eagle Debate to be an incident, which you couldn’t, really, when Steve was so clearly wrong about that, and it was awesome and magnificent, clearly foreshadowed in The Hobbit, and not some deus ex machina Tolkien cooked up because he couldn’t figure out how to rescue the characters he had a penchant for, okay, fine, somewhat dramatically stranding places. 

That had been fun, though.  Arguing with Steve over something so stupid, but both of them committed to their position like they were tasked with holding the ever-changing lines at Iwo Jima.  This suspended state of reality that seemed to exist between them the past few weeks, where they could discuss astrophysics over dinner and shout good-naturedly, but very much determinedly, about fictional plot devices afterwards, was still something of a revelation to Tony. 

Tony shut the DVD cabinet and looked up at the mantle clock, which was resolutely ticking towards eleven, when Coulson’s latest message said he expected Steve to be back from SHIELD.  Steve had left sometime in the wee hours of the morning a couple of days ago, when a car showed up at their door.  Steve barely managed to say goodbye to a half-asleep Tony, when he stumbled out of bed, rubbing his eyes and yawning, trying to see what all the fuss was about at o’dark-thirty.

That was the last he’d heard from Steve.   For two—well, almost three—days now.

Which was, of course, fine.  Not that Tony really expected anything.  Steve was probably very busy doing important things.  Stealthy, important things.  Things that probably didn’t allow for time to check in with Tony. 

Which was fine. Did he mention it was fine?  Because it was.  Fine. Completely fine.

Fine.

Tony got up from his place on the floor and headed out the front door to the deck.  He stopped, just above where the small stream flowed from the rocks under the wooden planks, and gripped the railing with both hands, tilting his head back.  Without the city lights, the stars seemed closer somehow. Brighter.  Like someone had strung those pointy Christmas lights around the world and they were pushing their tips through the dark expanse of sky. 

M-O-O-N, that spells fine, Tony thought, staring up at the bright orb.   This sucked.  Might as well just admit it.  He dropped his gaze to the stream, where it gurgled over the speckled gray rocks that jutted out of the side of the mountain.  Gneiss, he thought it was, with their undulating layers of grays, blacks and whites, bands of different rocks exposed to extreme temperatures and pressures over the eons until these combined forces destroyed virtually any trace of the original rock.  It was a German word.  He remembered reading about it in some geology for kids book that talked about California’s mountains.  Gneiss.  Pronounced ‘nice,’ which seemed oddly appropriate.

Be nice, Anthony. 

Be nice.  Be polite.  Be good.  Smile. Play along to get along.  Different verse, same as the first, Tony sang in his head with a frisson of bitterness racing down his spine and settling low in his stomach.  All his life, he’d been told that was the path to happiness.  Conformity.  The, the past few weeks, he’d been doling out these small shards of himself, piece by piece, until he almost felt like he was…existing?  No.  Present.  Here.  As himself, in a way he hadn’t been in, well, probably forever. 

There was an idea in geology, neocatastrophism, to be exact, that said that conditions on earth change very slowly, except when they don’t, or, said differently, the history of the earth is basically long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.  That pretty much summed up his life, Tony thought with a dull sort of discomfit.

Up until the past few weeks, anyway.

And now, here he was, waiting for Steve to get home—back, watching the road from his very own widow’s walk, and he understood why, it made sense.  This life, this thing he’d had a glimpse of, it was far too precious to imagine letting go of it now, and if something happened to Steve, then it all disappeared.

That…made sense.  In his head.  In the bright light of day, in his garage where he was getting fuck-all done, sitting on that ugly, plaid sofa coming up with lists of movies and TV shows for them to watch.  Basically, it made complete sense when he wasn’t laying in a quiet house at night, wondering what Steve was doing for reasons that didn’t have much to do with how it would affect his own newfound freedom. 

“I feel you up there, with your silent, furry judgment,” Tony said to the tree where Joshua was probably curled up in his rounded next of leaves and twigs, wiling the night away dreaming of big stacks of acorns, fluffy nests of dried leaves and bent twigs, missiles that split into smaller missiles once they reach a designated height and acquire their target, or whatever it was that squirrels dreamed about.  Probably, mostly the latter, Tony thought. 

A Series of Unexpected Events.  That was what his life the past few weeks amounted to, all apologies to Mr. Snicket.  He wasn’t even sure how it happened.  He’d gone…fishing.  On a picnic.  With fishing.  Which, as far as Tony could tell, consisted of being patient while something with a brain the size of a pea constantly outwitted them. He hadn’t even meant to say yes when Steve invited him.  The word had just come out, seemingly of its own accord, and before he knew it, he was hiking down what Steve insisted was a path that Tony felt really qualified as more of a Place with Shorter Bushes Than Other Places, towards a small lake that Steve swore had fish in it. 

That hypothesis turned out to be harder to prove than Tony would have expected. Though, he had to admit, even with the fishing minus the actual fish,  it hadn’t been all bad, sitting on the blanket, under the shade of the swaying trees, munching a turkey sandwich and tapping out some new designs on his tablet while Steve sat opposite him, sketching the view with a look of intense concentration on his face that Tony thought made him look like he was going to frown the sketch into submission if it didn’t cooperate soon. 

So. Not all bad.

Just…unexpected.  Much like Tony’s current lack of domestic duties.  Steve, as it turned out, preferred to do the cooking, mainly because he took the whole thing about eating small meals throughout the day as some kind of personal challenge, and, as he assured Tony, figured it wasn’t fair to expect Tony to try to keep up with his metabolism.  Tony strongly suspected this, while possibly true given Steve’s physique, was what he’d come to think of as “Steve-speak” for ‘Please, God, don’t make me another omelet.’  Steve had a way of saying things that were both true and completely full of shit at the same time, a skill Tony had to grudgingly admire.  Steve was probably just too polite to admit the truth, not that Tony wasn’t relieved to be free of the apron strings, though Steve’s staple of recipes was heavy on the meat and potatoes and whatever could be boiled, which turned out, unfortunately, to be most anything. 

It was an incredible amount of freedom, this routine they’d fallen into.  He wasn’t oblivious to how unusual the whole situation was for him.  To be left alone, to be trusted, to not have to constantly try to be perfect.  He could spend all day in his garage, and Steve didn’t say a thing about it, just went on doing whatever it was Steve did during the day.  Fixing up the cabin.  Going for runs or hikes.  Reading. Chopping firewood.  Painting disturbing panoramic swirls of blues and blacks that looked like something you should put at the bottom of a well in hopes a demonic child having a really bad hair day will crawl out.  Your basic mountain cabin life stuff.

Tony looked down at where his hands wrapped around the wooden deck rail.  Clean hands, he observed, the thought wafting through his head like an invader.  He should be reveling in the past two Alpha-free days.  It almost seemed like a betrayal of…something…the number of times he’d looked at that damn clock lately. 

No one bothering him in the middle of the day with whatever latest and greatest recipe from Boiling for Dummies that he wanted Tony to try.  No one—wrongheadedly--arguing over movies with him.  No one sitting across the dining table throwing ridiculously interesting topics of conversation Tony’s way.  No one insisting fishing was a sport, though Tony firmly believed Steve had been goading him on that one.

For most of his life, he’d wanted to be left alone, but alone had meant away from Howard and the laundry list of never-met expectations, away from the crawling feeling that started in his stomach and worked its way up his back whenever Obie visited, away from the constant need to get things right, all the damn time, which somehow felt worse than any consequence for failure could be.  Alone meant freedom. Safety.  Happiness. 

Except now, he had all those things, all those things he’d wanted for years—freedom, safety, happiness, even if they did come with some expiration date he couldn’t see--they just came with a side of where-the-fucking-hell-is-Steve that he couldn’t explain away, no matter how convoluted an argument he tried to make in the middle of the night when he couldn’t get to sleep. 

There was an empty space next to him that hadn’t been empty a few weeks ago, and now it was, and it was right there, all the damn time.  Across the dinner table from him, where the popcorn bowl sat on that ugly-ass couch, sitting beside him on the deck while he pointed out Cassiopeia and Cepheus, Lyra and Bootes, the herdsman pushing his plow, with its bright, red supergiant Arcturus glowing at the point. 

Speaking of herdsmen, could ask Coulson for an update.  As it was, Coulson’s occasional cryptic messages were going to be Tony’s supervillain origin story.  He could, of course, try actually asking for an update or at least something more specific—Steve was his Alpha, after all, but that seemed like an admission somehow, and one that he wasn’t sure he wanted to make.

He sucked in a breath of cool night air and let it out again in a long, low hiss.  Maybe they could try Ghostbusters next.  Thanks to Steve’s Paul Bunyan impersonation, they had enough firewood to actually roast Mr. Stay Puft himself, but Tony would settle for s’mores.  Steve would like that one.  It would make him laugh, really laugh, that deep, full-throated laugh where he tossed his head back and threw a hand over his heart like he was intending to say the Pledge, but got overcome by hysteria instead.  Tony loved it, probably because on the rare occasions he got to hear it, it was always followed by a sense of accomplishment, like he’d cracked some kind of enigma code.  Stupid brain chemistry getting fucked up over his Alpha laughing, that’s what it was.  That was all it was. 

It made so much sense in his head.

A check of his watch told him that he had just over twelve minutes left of being seventeen.   He’ll be back for my birthday, Tony told himself.  He won’t miss it. They were going to the observatory.  Steve had promised.  Tony would show Steve the Tesla Coil and explain what Tesla was trying to accomplish, and Steve would listen and look at Tony in that soft, slightly awed way he did sometimes that made Tony’s stomach start cosplaying Nadia Comaneci. 

Eleven minutes.

With a light push off the railing, Tony walked over to the telescope and adjusted the position a bit before leaning over to look through the lens.  He could pick out Hydra’s serpent head, though the light was rather dull tonight.  Focusing in on the Hydra cluster, with its abundance of cold dark matter left over from the beginnings of the universe, like mysterious subatomic particle breadcrumbs, was far more interesting.  Tony pulled up one of the folding chairs that leaned in a neat row against the back of the deck and adjusted the telescope once more.  He’d have to show Steve the pinwheel galaxy.  Less interesting, cosmologically speaking, but stunningly beautiful, with its double nucleus and nearly perfect symmetry.  Steve would like it, he thought, blinking as he drew his eye away from the lens.

It was an odd thought, one of many that drifted through his mind the last month or so, this idea that he had something he wanted to share with Steve, but he couldn’t quite push it away.  He wasn’t even sure if he wanted to anymore. Instead, it sat there, hanging in his head like a cord to a lightswitch he was afraid to pull.  Careful there, Tony.  Might not like what you see if you cast too much light on it.

He ran his hands up and down his arms to ward off the chill of the night air and leaned back, letting his head rest against the webbing-covered metal bar that formed the back of the chair.  I have a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate. 'Scuse me Egon? You said crossing the streams was bad!

Reverse the particle flow.  Steve’s Einstein-Rosen bridge thought experiment.  Use its own power against it.  Could work, Tony supposed, stifling a yawn.  You’d need a way to channel the reaction, but it could work.  He’d have to think about it a bit more.  Maybe then he could bring it up to Steve again.  See what Steve thought.  See if Steve liked that Tony kept thinking about it.  That Tony had figured something out.  Been clever, he thought with a yawn.  As he stared up at the spot in the sky where he’d pointed the telescope, he had the weird, blindingly clear thought that Steve would.

“Don’t cross the streams,” Tony mumbled, then reached out in blind panic as the earth underneath him started rocking back and forth.  No.  Wait.  He blinked and groped for purchase as his hands found the arms of the chair he was…sleeping in?  It’s legs settled against the deck where his panicked waking had sent it into motion, and he looked up to find Steve leaning over him.  There was a warmth ghosting its way across his cheek, and a heavy weight settled on his shoulder as he twisted to an upright position in the chair and shook himself awake.

“Tony?  Are you okay?” Steve asked, a deep furrow forming between his brows as he took his hand off Tony’s shoulder and straightened up.  “What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

“You’re back,” Tony observed, then grimaced at stating the obvious.  “I was—“ waiting, Tony thought, then rejected it before the idea could grab hold.  “Looking at the stars.  Pin—pinwheel cluster,” he explained around a yawn.  “Guess I must’ve fallen asleep.  Everything, ah, go okay?  With your mission stuff?”  Mission stuff.  Honestly, just stop speaking until your brain decides to roll out of bed, Tony told himself in disgust.

“How about we get you to bed?  You’re freezing,” Steve said, instead of actually answering.  Tony frowned at that.  Steve usually answered him, at least when Tony asked a direct question.  He wasn’t exactly the kind to dissemble, but Tony supposed there were probably rules about what Steve could and couldn’t talk to him about, at least regarding his work for SHIELD.  It bothered him anyway, rationalizations be damned.  Tony privately thought that part of Steve’s ability to tell the truth all the time came from simply not talking about shit he didn’t want to tell the truth about. 

Not that if you looked up Healthy Coping Mechanisms in the dictionary it would say, see Stark Comma Anthony, so he wasn’t one to criticize.

“M’fine,” Tony said automatically, then realized his body disagreed with him, muscles stiff from the cold and terrible position protesting as he stretched and tried to stand.

“Right,” Steve responded agreeably, drawing out the word.  “At least let me get you a blanket, if you want to stay.”

“Huh?  Oh.  Ah, no. No, that’s—that’s okay. I’m done,” Tony said quickly, one hand going to rub at the back of his head as he twisted around where he stood.  Anticipation was coursing through him, while part of himself braced for disappointment, and the two warring impulses seemed to lock him into place, like a glitch in a game, fading in and out while everything else skipped on around him. “I’ll just…I’ll head to bed.  Get some sleep.  Probably a good idea.  With tomorrow and all,” Tony finished lamely.

Subtlety, thy name is Tony Stark, he thought with a grimace.

“I hope you like what I have planned for your birthday,” Steve said with a small, tremulous smile that tugged across his face. 

He’d remembered, Tony realized with a spike of relief.  Steve had remembered.  Steve had planned for it. Like it mattered. Like Tony’s birthday meant something, Tony thought, swallowing thickly.

Now, Anthony, don’t be like that.  You know how busy your father is with a company to run and all his projects…he’s just bad with dates.  Go order yourself something nice to make up for it.  You’ll give yourself frown lines if you keep that up.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure it will be fine. I mean, whatever.  No big deal,” Tony replied. 

“Of course, it’s a big deal,” Steve protested, turning towards the cabin with a sweep of his hand in front of him.  “It’s your birthday.  Wait--actually, your birthday’s now, right?  We’re past midnight.  Sorry, my time zones are completely off, I should’ve—damn, I, well—Happy Birthday, Tony.”

“Th-thanks,” Tony stuttered, grinding his teeth together to halt any more words before they escaped.  “So. Tomorrow, then, huh?  Observatory?”

“Ah.  Yeah.  We can stop for lunch on the--the way there,” Steve said.  

“Sounds good,” Tony agreed, following Steve towards the cabin’s front door.  He stopped long enough to put his hands on his hips, twist a bit and pop his back.  Sleeping in a deck chair wasn’t exactly the best idea, chiropractically speaking.  “There’s some leftovers in the ‘fridge, if you’re hungry.  Don’t panic, I didn’t make them, so they’re edible.  Pretty decent, actually. Coulson had the food delivered while you were—oh.  I guess you probably know that,” Tony amended, catching Steve’s lack of surprise.

Apparently, Steve was up to Chapter Three in Care and Feeding of Your Omega, ‘What to Do After You’ve Boiled Literally Everything.’  Which was…nice.  That Steve had even given any thought to it, once he’d realized that Tony was more mirror-verse Julia Child that actually useful in the kitchen like your average Omega.  Tony could admit he hadn’t exactly missed the Fahrenheit 451 brand of cuisine Steve favored, but it was the realization that Steve had not only noticed, but also done something about it--even if it was to tell his favorite errand boy to handle it--that left Tony at a rare, if momentary, loss for words. 

“You didn’t have to—I could’ve just made my own,” Tony mumbled as they stepped inside the cabin.  There was a sharp pang bursting in his chest that seemed to hitch on every breath, because he wanted, wanted so very badly, wanted far too much, to read more into Agent Agent’s Meals on Wheels efforts than was probably really there.  

Steve was polite.  Thoughtful.  With everyone, probably, not that Tony really had any way to know that, but it seemed like the kind of thing that would be true.  It’s just a few ready-made meals, Stark.  Unless the carrot sticks spell out a secret message, probably best not to assume it meant anything other than Steve didn’t want him to burn the cabin down.  Clean-up was such a bitch, after all.

“With just your bots on fire safety?” Steve teased with a wide smile, making Tony startle at how close it was to what had been running through his head.  “Besides, I figured you were getting a bit tired of my cooking, anyway,” Steve replied.  “I could do with a bite, though.  Didn’t get much chance to eat in the field.”

“Well, there’s some risotto and chicken in there that was pretty good,” Tony told him as his eyes adjusted to the bright light in the kitchen.  “Guess I’ll just…head to bed, then.”

“’Night, Tony.  Sleep well,” Steve offered as he pulled out one of the kitchen table chairs and started opening his stack of clear, plastic containers. 

Tony paused for a moment, then, when he couldn’t think of anything else to say and couldn’t figure out why he wanted to say anything else, gave up and walked down the hall, leaving Steve to his post-midnight snack.  He stopped in the bathroom, then headed to his room, though he stopped short on the threshold and glanced back down the hallway.  Steve was sitting at the table, arms cradling the container of food with the fork was standing on end, stuck into the risotto.  He was staring at the tabletop and seeing nothing, or seeing too much, Tony wasn’t sure which. 

There was so much about Steve he didn’t know.  For the first time, it occurred to him that he might want to.  To know.  To know Steve.  The Risotto Revelation, Tony thought with a flash of silliness on the heels of a wave of satisfied relief, the kind that showed up when he solved an equation or fixed one of the ‘bots.  

He might like Steve a little.  Or, maybe not, not yet, but he might be able to like Steve a little, and that qualified as a revelation, as far as he was concerned.  It had never occurred to him that he might like his Alpha.  Not living in terror seemed the thing to shoot for there.  Liking his Alpha?  So far off the grid, it might as well be a compound in Montana with a shitton of condensed milk and a Unibomber starter kit.

Maybe it was gratitude, and this was all some Patty Hearst-level bullshit response.  Maybe it was his delicate Omega brain fuzzed over by all the hormones that made him incapable of coherent thought beyond not wearing white after Memorial Day and an inherent knowledge of how to decoupage things.  He should decoupage the missile casing with flowers and kittens and unicorns, he thought with a snort.  It would be somehow poetic.

Instead of disappearing into his room, Tony turned and walked down the hall, pulled out a chair and sat down opposite of Steve.

“Thought you were headed to bed,” Steve said, looking up at him with a sharp, surprised look.

“Kinda up, now,” Tony replied, trying not to blow it with a yawn.  “Figured I’d keep you company.”

“You don’t have to do that.  You must be tired,” Steve pointed out.   “You should get some shut eye.”

“Look who’s talking.  Didn’t you just get back from a mission?  Some highly-classified, probably world-saving thing I can’t know about?  I’m sure that wasn’t tiring in any way,” Tony countered. 

“You still don’t have to stay up,” Steve replied, voice tight, eyes darting to Tony and away again with a jittery quality that Steve didn’t usually have, like he couldn’t quite find purchase. 

“I want to,” Tony said.  He did.  Mostly.  There was still a part of his brain, a smaller part now, maybe, but still there, squirming in the back of his mind, that was insisting he should get out of here, go to the sanctuary of his room and close the door, because Steve was wired, that much was clear. That was different and different was a minefield of things that could blow up in Tony’s face, but this minefield had a path, and Steve was on the other side.  Somewhere, somehow, Tony had started to want to get across. 

Mostly.

Steve stared at him blankly for a moment, then nodded once and went back to picking at his food. 

“Was the mission really fine?” Tony asked cautiously.  Should’ve sent the rat through the minefield first, he thought, but noooooo, let’s just drive over it with a tank.  Good plan. 

“All the missions are fine,” Steve answered in a dull, flat voice.  Tony didn’t know what to say to that, because it sounded like something good, but it wasn’t, though Tony didn’t have the first clue why. 

“Are you…fine?” Tony asked, swallowing down something that kept trying to keep him from talking.  Probably a chunk of common sense lodged in his throat.

Steve let out a laugh then, hard and brittle and not at all like a laugh in the way that the good words didn’t really sound good, and for a moment, everything was upended.  All Tony’s certainties, all the things he’d thought he knew the past few weeks, all the maybes, all the possiblies, all the might be’s, all gone in that instant. 

“Why do you think you’re here?” Steve husked out, a horrible, bitter sound.  The fork clattered to the table with a sharp, metallic clang that seemed to snap something back into place inside Steve, because he went rigid, closed his eyes and swallowed, throat bobbing with the effort.

Right.  Because Steve didn’t want this, didn’t want Tony or any of this. SHIELD wanted this.  The U.S. Army wanted this.  The government needed Steve, and that was apparently high priority enough to set up the Department of Homeland Dating and find Steve a ball-and-chain that they thought would drag him back when good, old-fashioned survival instincts weren’t quite enough, and you had to add things like guilt and responsibility to the checklist. 

“I’m sorry.  That—that came out wrong,” Steve said with a twisted grimace.  “I’m.  I’m just tired.  That’s all.  I didn’t mean—“

“I get it.  It’s fine.  Boss man says jump, you gotta ask how high, right?  Not a problem,” Tony interjected quickly.  “You were right.  I should really get some sleep.”  He was out of his seat, trying to get his legs to not tangle with the chair and losing rather spectacularly.

“Tony, wait.  Please,” Steve implored.  He stood up, though he didn’t move from his spot at the table across from where Tony was losing a fight with the chair legs.  “I’m sorry.  I really didn’t mean…” Steve stopped, let out a rush of air and ran a hand through his hair.  “I’m bad at this.  I know that.  I never know what I’m supposed to say to you, and I end up getting it wrong at least half the time.  If you knew anything about me, you’d know how wrong you are.  SHIELD wanted me to Bond, that’s true.  I know you already know that.  But, if I hadn’t wanted this, it wasn’t like they were going to bench me.  I chose this.  I chose you.  Not because Fury or anyone else told me to, but because I.  Well.  I wanted to.”

“Why me?  You could’ve had practically any Omega out there, to hear my parents tell it.  Why pick me?” Tony asked. 

“I liked your picture,” Steve replied, looking down at the table where the risotto was still impaled with a fork.

“You liked my picture,” Tony repeated dully.  He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to hear, but not some half-baked, swipe-right, lame-ass reason for suddenly finding himself Bonded.

“You were in some kind of, I don’t know, like a library or parlor or something.  You had a suit on.  Ivory, with a black bow tie.  You were posing, sort of, I guess.  One hand behind your head,” Steve said, watching Tony across the table with a solid, direct gaze that kept him pinned there when everything in him was saying to run for his room before he did something truly stupid like care that Steve had picked him for how he looked.  Care.  God, he didn’t know which way to go with that.  Part of him was stupidly pleased that Steve might like how he looked, and part of him hated himself a little for that and hated Steve a lot for that. 

“My mom picked the suit,” Tony said, remembering.  He’d hated that suit.  Made him look like a tiny Colonel Sanders peddling his chicken recipe. 

“There was a…cabinet behind you.  Glass.  With a bunch of…ceramics?  Plates, crystal, that kind of thing,” Steve said. 

“Mom’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  All her Capidomonte she orders from TV, awards the ladies who lunch give each other, that kind of crap,” Tony told him listlessly.  He should go to his room.  He wanted to go to his room.  Or his garage.  Or anywhere that wasn’t right here, listening to this.

“There was a—a large silver plate.  In the cabinet. Right behind you,” Steve said.

“Garden club.  Best tomatoes,” Tony replied, twisting his mouth around the words.  “She was very proud.”

“The hand you had stuck behind your head?  You were giving whoever was taking the picture the middle finger.  I could see the reflection in the plate,” Steve said, canting his head to one side with a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.  It took a moment for the words to register with Tony.

“I—wait.  I was—what?  What—what are you even talking about?  That—“ Tony stammered, the memory floating to him even as he spoke.  His Mom picking out the suit, and he’d been pissed about it.  Insisting he smile, pose a bit, it had been so, so stupid.  He’d looked ridiculous, but Howard had barked at him to do what he was told, so he had.  He had, but…yeah, he’d shot him the bird from behind his head, where Howard couldn’t see, but Tony could have that small bit of satisfaction. 

“There’s a lot you don’t…well, let’s just say, being my Omega, it isn’t the easiest thing in the world.  I know that.  I need someone who can handle that.  Being with me.  It’s a lot to ask.  More than you know, which isn’t really fair to you, Tony.  It never has been fair to you,” Steve said, voice going quiet for a moment.  “Then I met you, and you were…you were so brave.  I know you don’t believe me right now, but I know what it’s like, to stand up just because you have nothing left to lose except giving that up.  It’s the thing they can’t take away.  That choice, to stand your ground or run away.  And you stood, when anyone else, put them in that situation and they’re going to tap out.  I thought—I thought maybe.  Maybe it would be okay.  Maybe I could, if it were you.  Maybe you’d be okay with that…with me.”

Tony was trying to process the words that Steve was saying, since they didn’t make much sense in the order Steve was using them, but his mind kept coming back to Steve saying he was brave, like a record skipping and getting caught on one lyric.

“I’m okay.  With that.  With you,” Tony said in a stilted, hoarse voice that didn’t quite sound like his own. 

“I’m glad,” Steve said after a long moment of silence punctuated by the ticking of the mantle clock.  Tony glanced over at it.  Seriously.  Nuclear timing device in 3, 2, 1, he thought to himself.   Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Little Ben.  “I’m probably not the best company right now.  It’s your birthday, and you should—you should probably get some sleep.  Big day tomorrow.  If you still want to do something, that is.”

“Huh?” Tony said, gaze snapping back to Steve, who was standing stiff-backed across the table from him.  “Oh, ah.  No.  I mean, yes.  To the tomorrow thing.  No to the—I’ll just—I’ll stay.  Sit.  Eat.  If you want. I’ll—I’ll stay.”  His mind was still turning over the whole conversation in his head. 

“Okay.  If you want,” Steve said after a beat.  Steve gave him a lingering look, then pulled out his chair and sat back down, though he didn’t go back to eating, just let his gaze dart to Tony, then to anything else in the room that wasn’t Tony.   He’s nervous, Tony thought with a pang.  Minus the threat of bodily injury, he might be just as nervous as I am, though, come to think, it had been at least a couple of weeks since he’d genuinely given any thought to that possibility.  The idea had seemed to narrow, more and more, in his mind until there was just a splinter of it left, still there, still something he could worry at when he thought on it, but most of the time, it wasn’t something he was consciously aware of anymore.

Steve could hurt him.  But.  Somewhere along the line, he’d stopped thinking Steve would hurt him.  Jesus, that Goddamn pasta was full of revelations.

 “I think I have U’s coding figured out,” Tony began, taking in Steve’s startled look at the sudden shift of topic. “He’s a learning bot, you know, so I don’t want to imbed the actual information, so much as build a system that will recognize efficiencies and redundancies, apply established parameters to new problems, build on what he already knows,” Tony said.  “It’s a genetic algorithm with a self-modifying and self-improving code.”

“Genetic?” Steve questioned with a raised eyebrow, though he sounded at least interested.  Steve liked the ‘bots, that much Tony knew.    It was a pretty blatant play for a distraction, but it seemed to be doing the job.

“Modeled after biological evolution.  Basically, when he encounters something new, he has to pick a series of instructions at random, then check the results.  Because he can process things so fast, he can do thousands of these computations in very little time, so he figures out which one works best,” Tony explained.  “Each time he figures out what works best in a situation, he can analogize next time he encounters a situation with similar parameters, and this cuts the number of instructions he needs to try out.  Gets faster and faster each time, as he learns.”

“Like natural selection,” Steve replied.

“Exactly,” Tony said with a pleased grin.

“Tony…that’s…that’s incredible,” Steve said with a quick shake of his head.  “Wow.”

“Well, you actually gave me the idea,” Tony told him, watching Steve’s face draw into a confused frown.  “You with your learning fish.”

“Learning fish?” Steve parroted with a confused frown.

“When we were fishing, you said the we caught the only one who hadn’t seen a worm on a hook before,” Tony reminded him.  “Which got me thinking.”

That got you thinking about how to get a robot to learn?” Steve laughed, sounding delighted by the idea, which made Tony’s stomach do that gold medal routine thing again.  “You’re really doin’ this stuff out there in your garage?”

“You should come see them. The bots, I mean,” Tony clarified. 

He wasn’t sure if he or Steve was more surprised by the offer, but as soon as he said it, he realized how much he wanted to show Steve his creations.  Show them off.  Show off.  Okay, so, yeah, he wanted to impress Steve a bit.  Obviously, his cooking wasn’t the way to go, but this…this he could do. 

Brave, he thought to himself, and found it seemed to be running on infinite loop in his head. Steve thought he was brave.  Not obnoxious.  Not rude.  Not a freak who didn’t know his place, who couldn’t behave like he was supposed to. 

Brave. 

It wasn’t true, of course.  He knew that. People like Steve were brave, not people like him.  People who did things, helped, made a difference.  People who stood up for themselves, who drew a line in the sand and said, this far and no more.  That wasn’t him.  Not even close.  How many years had he been under Howard’s thumb doing fuck-all about it other than the occasional useless act of defiance that left him with little more than bruises and disappointment to show for his effort.  He was the last person Steve should consider brave. 

Didn’t mean he had to correct Steve, though.

“I’d like that,” Steve replied, giving Tony a small half-smile that made that thing in Tony’s stomach clench and release.  “I’d like that a lot, Tony.”

“Okay. Well.  Whenever you want,” Tony offered with his best nonchalant shrug.  “No rush.”  Maybe tomorrow.  He could put a birthday hat on DUM-E and maybe they could have cake.  He could blow out the candles and definitely not give U the fire extinguisher.

“Thank you,” Steve replied, eyes going soft at the edges in the way Tony liked.   “Have you always liked to build things?”

“I guess,” Tony said, looking over at the mantle clock and tapping out a rhythm against the edge of the table again before forcing himself to stop.  “You always like to paint?”

“Since I was little, yeah.  I was sick a lot when I was younger.  Made going to school tough.  Drawing kept me busy while mom was working.  Something I could do, you know?  When I couldn’t do much else. Like your stars,” Steve added, something wistful and almost sad wavering through his voice.  Tony blinked at him, recalling their conversation from weeks ago. 

“You were sick?” Tony asked with a frown.  “With—with what?”

“You name it,” Steve said with a light laugh.  “Had all kinds of things wrong with me.  Nothing serious, don’t worry.  Just enough to keep me in bed more often than not.”

“Guess you got better, though, right?” Tony questioned.

“That’s one way of putting it,” Steve agreed, sounding almost embarrassed.  He pursed his hands together in front of him, rubbed them together, then leaned back, letting them fall to the table to rest.  “I think…I’m about done here.  Thanks for the company, Tony.  That was real sweet of you.  You should get to bed, though.”

“Oh, yeah, no problem,” Tony replied quickly to cover the disappointment that welled up in him.  Something had opened there for a moment, and then slammed shut again, and he didn’t have the first clue why, except the feeling that he’d said something wrong.  Again.

Tony stood up, slowly this time, to avoid the chair’s tentacle-like legs.  “Night,” he said to Steve with a curt nod. 

“Tony?” Steve called out to his retreating back.  Tony stopped and turned around.  Steve got up from the table and reached for something sitting in the umbrella stand by the front door, nestled between a green and white golf umbrella and one advertising a credit card company in white against a navy background.  He walked over and pulled out a cylinder-shaped package wrapped in red paper, with a yellow ribbon tied around it. “It isn’t much.  We’ll celebrate for real tomorrow, but.  It made me think of you.  Here,” Steve said holding out the package to Tony. “Happy Birthday.”

“Thanks,” Tony mumbled, turning the package over in his hands.  “Should I…”

“Oh, sure.  If you want,” Steve said quickly, rubbing his hands against his sides and crossing his arms over his chest.  He’s nervous again, Tony thought, the idea filling him with a flood of warmth.  Whatever it was, he would tell Steve he liked it, he realized.  For maybe the first time in his life, he’d happily pretend to like something to spare someone else and not himself.  It was...strange.  Not unpleasant.  Just strange, the way it felt to see Steve happy when it wasn’t caught up in worrying about what Steve’s unhappiness might mean for him.

Tony tugged at the ribbon carefully, then harder when it wouldn’t cooperate, pulling it over one end and tearing at the paper.  A cardboard tube was inside, with plastic caps on each end.  He popped one off and tipped the tube upside down, letting the roll of crisp, creamy paper fall into his hands.  He unspooled it carefully, holding it by the edges, until the picture formed. 

“Her name’s Maria.  Like your mom’s,” Steve told him.

“This is from Metropolis,” Tony recognized the iconic robot immediately.  “Did you…did you draw this?”

“I—yes.  Nothing fancy, I know.  I’m not an artist, really.  Just thought, maybe.  Since we talked about it,” Steve said in a stuttering, halting voice that cracked a bit on the end. 

He hadn’t seen Steve do anything artistic except paint the increasingly disturbing series of dark swirls that Tony had begun to think of as part of Steve’s Timmy’s In the Well Period, because they looked like a cry for help if Tony had ever seen one, not that he was about to mention that to his Alpha.  But this…this was beautiful.  Surreal and almost sensual, with her blank-faced, human-like form.  Not clunky or functional like his own ‘bots, but smooth, undulating metal forming a single, cohesive body, more like a sculpture than a machine. 

“You gave me a robot,” Tony breathed out, staring at the sketch. 

“Well, it’s—I mean, it’s just a sketch, obviously, but I thought, maybe you’d like her,” Steve said, running a hand through his hair and letting it hang there on the back of his head for a moment while Tony looked between Steve and the sketch, trying to find the words, the words that would explain why he wanted to clutch the drawing to his chest, bury it inside him and keep it there, where it could be a part of him, because this…this was…it was almost too much.   His whole body was rigid with the sensation of too much, and it was going to burst out, explode, send him into a million pieces with the force of too much at once.

“You gave me a robot,” Tony repeated, voice thick and almost slurry. 

“Tony?  Are you…is it okay?” Steve asked, head tilted to one side, arm reaching out to hang in the space between them, like he might grab onto Tony, or maybe so that Tony could grab onto him.  He thought he might already have. 

“It’s just. Everyone always takes them away from me,” Tony said quietly, turning back to the sketch. 

It really was beautiful.

Chapter 5

Ten years later...

The back of his hand itched.  Not a scratchy-itch.  The stinging kind of itch.  The kind that got under your skin, like an army of ants marching through your veins.  That—the itchy, stinging pull--was what woke him, all at once, with a sharp alertness that had been learned—no, remembered—in the dark of a cave.  He knew it was a combination of the IV and his imagination, but he couldn’t quite shake the idea, not here in the dark when terrible ideas seemed more possible. 

He wanted Steve. 

Somewhere around day thirty-eight, it had stopped hitting him with a pulsing, gut-punch of need and settled into a dull ache that sat on his chest and pushed down, pressed in, dug around under his ribs, leaving little pinprick trails cutting their way through him.

Like shrapnel.

Almost thirty-six hours.  Thirty-six hours since he’d knelt in the sand, first and last time, he thought with a grudging surge of pride.  Knelt there in the liquid heat of it, in front of a path of bloody footprints the desert had already swallowed, and let Steve tell him it was going to be okay.  Thirty-six hours since he remembered what safe felt like.  Like Steve’s arms, strong enough to break, but always keeping him from breaking, the rough scrape of Kevlar, the smooth points of a star, he caught the edges of out of the corners of sweat-stung eyes.

Thirty-six hours.  Not that long, really, but too long.  He wanted Steve, and he wanted everyone to stop looking at him, all sympathetic tut-tutting, thinking they knew, without knowing anything.  Soldiers and doctors, with their overly solicitous looks that were going to drive him up the wall. 

Up the wall, through the wall, out the wall. 

Away. 

The tape holding the IV in place had begun to peel at the edges, pulling away from the hairs on the back of his hand, just above the plastic bracelet someone had put around his wrist.  No MRI, it read. 

Yeah.  No fucking kidding. 

Tony reached up the non-IV-impaled hand and scrubbed it over his face.  The room was dark.  Not deep-dark, not cave-dark. Give the man credited, Rhodey had learned that pretty quickly. 

A faint light snuck in under the curtains that shrouded the single window, making shadows that moved when the curtains fluttered against the slow susurration of air moving through the vent.  Air conditioning.  There was something comforting in the low hiss of air.  Probably because it told his hindbrain Not Cave, and that was enough to keep his pulse somewhere around skydiver reaching for the second chute level. 

It wasn’t cold in the room, though.  He doubted anything here was ever actually cold.  Just some stagnant state of being not-hot that never managed to move the needle towards cold.  The sheets were bunched at the end of the bed where he must have kicked them off and managed to tangle them around his feet instead.  Walking through sand.  That’s what he’d been doing in his dream.  Walking through sheets of sand that went on and on, making his legs cramp and blistering his feet until each step was agony. 

He let his hand trail down his chest to the edge of the reactor where the soft, blue glow shone through the t-shirt Rhodey, or someone with a morbid sense of humor, had given him.  Bagram Hiking Club, Est. 2001, it proclaimed across the chest, with a soldier flanked by mountain peaks in the background, and the words ‘Tread Lightly’ in bold script across the back.  Soldier’s humor, half defiance, half ironic acceptance, he thought with a jittery sort of coughing laugh. 

Ten bucks said Rhodey got him the shirt. 

Speaking of, Tony thought with a glance over to the tan, pleather couch, where a slightly smashed pillow was stuffed between the cushion and the wooden arm.  There was still a depression in the seat, waiting to pop back up once it sucked in more air, which meant Rhodey had apparently handed off the baton not too long ago.

So, not just the IV that woke him, then.

His mouth tasted like sand, making him want to spit, but he couldn’t quite get enough saliva to form to do anything, so he settled for licking his tongue over cracked lips and trying to push himself up on his elbows.

“Feel better?” Tony rasped out.  Next to his head, he heard the rush of water being poured from the plastic pitcher, and a moment later, the cool rim of the cup and blessed water reached his lips.  An arm slipped behind his back, lifting him up to a recline so he could drink.

“Slowly,” Steve’s voice warned softly.  “Should be asking you that.”

“M’good,” Tony coughed a bit, the water gurgling back up his throat in some kind of battle with air that air was winning.  He coughed again, drank a bit more, then pushed the cup away and looked up at Steve. 

No uniform.  Showered.  Shaved.  Someone wants to tell, not show, Tony thought to himself.  God, you freak out one time over what was, by any estimation, way more blood than any one person should lose, and he never forgets it, Tony thought, finding a strange, fond comfort in that. 

“Did you throw people through walls?” Tony asked, trying for something approaching teasing, though he sounded a bit like Stevie Nicks with a sore throat, and it came out sounding harsher, more accusing than he meant.  Or, more than he meant to mean.  

He understood Steve’s need to do what he did.  He got it.  Really.   Or, probably, he didn’t, not really or not quite in the right way, in the way that burrowed itself down into Steve’s brain and came out the other side with an almost methodical brutality, but close enough.  He belonged to Steve, and someone had touched him, put their hands on him, hurt him, and Steve couldn’t function in a world where those people still existed.  It should probably bother him.  That level of violence.  Tin Man, he thought to himself, splaying his hand over his chest.  He’d have to ask the Wizard for a heart and few fucks to give, he supposed. 

He wanted Steve with him, though.  All that logical understanding turned back into a pumpkin in the middle of the night when it was not-cold, and he still couldn’t get warm, and it wasn’t cave-dark, but it was dark enough to see how wrong he was now.  He needed Steve to tell him he was right. That he was alright.  Whatever.  He just had to trust that Steve would answer a question he wasn’t able to ask yet. 

“Tell me you threw people through walls. That always makes you feel better,” Tony pointed out, nudging out with a hand until he found Steve’s wrist.  He tugged, and heard Steve sigh into the darkness, which meant Tony would get his way.  The cup came to his mouth again, and Tony drank, slower this time, though he ended up sputtering through the last of it, despite the effort.

Tony heard the click of the cup as Steve put it down on the table, then the bed sank down next to his shoulder.  He felt the lightest of touches across his chest, enough to make the shadows move, like a campfire game.  What shape will he make of me? 

“Can I see it?” Steve requested.  His voice was low, not a whisper, but the kind of hushed tone you hear in hospitals, when bad news is delivered in soft tones. 

Tony swallowed past a dry lump in his throat and rolled up the material until Bagram Hiking Club had disappeared and his chest was bare. 

“Is it…does it hurt?” Steve asked.  He was still.  Not moving, not touching, everything wound up while he waited. 

“No.  Not now,” Tony said.  One hand came up to tap at the edge of the reactor.  “When it first happened.  But, not anymore.  Docs say I’m all good.  It works.  Of course, it works, I built it, but, you know. They have to check.  Makes them feel like all that studying was for a good cause.  More letters after your name, the more you think you gotta give an opinion.  I should know.”  He was rambling, he knew.  Filling the silence so the silence didn’t become something painful, something brimming with things Tony wanted to hear that weren’t being said, which was ridiculous, he knew. Dammit, he knew that, he just couldn’t quite stop himself. 

Steve.

 “I’m going to be pissed at you just as soon as I stop being so damn happy to see you,” Tony warned through a shuddering, watery breath.

“I know,” Steve said with a sigh.  “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have—I know.  Dammit.  Dammit, I know.  I’m sorry, Tony, I’m so, so sorry. But, they took you,” Steve rasped out in a broken, thread keen of words.  Tony wasn’t sure if Steve was apologizing for leaving him with Rhodey and going after the Ten Rings, or letting Tony go off to Afghanistan in the first place.  Maybe both.  Maybe Steve wasn’t sure, either.   “You were gone.  From me.  They took you.  They took you from me, and you were gone.”

“I’m okay.  I am, Steve,” Tony insisted.  He wasn’t, but he would be, because Steve was here, and he would be okay for Steve.  It was easier this way, to be strong for Steve.  He could do that.  He could give Steve that, and Steve would make it true, make him strong.  Make him shine.  It was a ludicrous thought, except for the part where it worked, flooding him with a calm, centered warmth.  It had always worked.  Light a candle in the darkness, he thought.

 “I’m here. I’m not—I’m not going anywhere.  I’m right here, Steve,” Tony soothed.  “Everything’s fine. Docs say I check out.  Nothing to worry about.  Hey, you always said I was practically part robot, now it’s kinda true. Bit like your Metropolis girl, huh?” 

It was horrible.   He put a car battery in me, Steve.  He saved my life, but there was a fucking car battery in me, and I thought maybe they’d take it away, if I didn’t do what they wanted.   It was terrible and awful and all the words he didn’t want to say, and there was a gaping hole of wrongness in his chest, which sort of made sense, didn’t it, Tony getting his heart scraped out and a desperate replacement cobbled together from bits of karma and failure. 

No, fuck, that was…he didn’t think like that anymore.  I’m not that person.  I’m not.  Binary systems don’t work like that. 

God, he hadn’t had that thought in years.

 It felt like a young thought, some distant flash of memory from childhood, folded over with the slightly embarrassing feeling you got when you remembered thinking maybe you could live in a boxcar or go through a magic wardrobe even though you knew it wasn’t real.  You knew, but the line between real and not-real was still thin enough to have it feel like believing wasn’t so lost. 

It wasn’t a young thought, not really, not like those thoughts, but it wasn’t a grown-up thought, either.  It helped, oddly.  Maybe because if you were going to fly in a metal suit using the world’s most powerful pixie dust, you should probably try believing.  Think of a wonderful thought.  Any merry, little thought.

Steve.

“It’s horrible, I know.  When we get back to Malibu, I’m going to work on something nicer.  Not much I can do about the size, but I’ll see what I can—“ Tony started, fighting back the sickening feeling in his stomach that always came when he thought about this thing that was in him now, that someone had put in him, and he couldn’t do anything about it except try to make it his.  He was trying.   It had been so long since he’d hated a part of himself, but damn if it wasn’t easy to pick right up where he’d left off.

“You’re beautiful,” Steve whispered, with a low huff of breath that had a smile in it.  He reached out and put a hand over Tony’s, then shifted a little higher, splaying over the blue light like he could catch it.  His dog tags hung there, dragging against the edge of the reactor where the skin clung to the casing, and Steve traced the pad of his thumb over the slight indentations that spelled out his name over the thing that was now Tony’s heart.  Maybe it was the other way around, Tony thought as Steve rubbed the flat of the tag lightly over the round arc that held the reactor. Metal on metal, Tony thought.  Conductivity.  “Like a star,” Steve said, eyes locked on Tony. 

When he was ten, Tony remembered getting the idea that he would run around the perimeter of the estate ten times, probably because it matched his age or was just a good, solidly-impressive sounding number.  He was halfway to lap six when it occurred to him that when he stopped, his legs were going to be in terrible pain. At the time, it had seemed logical to just keep going.  But, every stride after that, he’d known it was going to be awful when he stopped.   So, he’d kept running.  But, the whole time, he couldn’t seem to get anything except that thought out of his head.  He’d done his ten laps, and limped to a halt by the large, potted ficus near the end of the driveway, where he’d collapsed in a heap.  It had hurt.  Terribly.  His muscles kept cramping, and every breath had felt like it was being shoved inside of him.  But, it had also been over, and after a while, he’d gotten up, dusted himself off and gone to find Jarvis. 

He hadn’t realized he’d been running so long until he stopped. 

You’re beautiful.  Like a star.

Tony rolled into Steve’s chest, hands coming up to grip the plain, gray shirt in tight fists like it was a lifeline.  Maybe it was.  Steve wrapped one arm around Tony’s back and the other came up to stroke through Tony’s hair, soft, soothing motions in time with the warm breaths bleeding warmth into the curve of his neck. 

I can fix anything, Tony thought, burying his head into the vee of Steve’s neck.  His skin smelled like soap.  Not dishsoap, but close enough, familiar and soothing.  I can fix anything, except me, but I’m not broken with Steve, so it’s okay.  Not broken, just…a little worn, he recalled, rubbing his fingertips together through the cotton of the t-shirt, just above the seam. 

Too long.  It had been too long.  He’d come too close to losing this.  He was shaking. Small, hitching breaths of it at first that seemed to struggle to get out of his throat.  Then deeper, lower, shuddering breaths that sounded like the last part of a scream.  He knew that sound.  The one your body kept making when it didn’t know it was out of air.  He wanted it to stop. Wanted to make it stop.  It didn’t seem like something he could stop, though, because every effort he made to make himself stop left him shaking even more violently. 

Steve. Steve would make it stop. 

It was irrational, but he clung to the thought and buried his head into the center of Steve’s chest, digging his forehead back and forth like maybe he could push himself inside, crawl under Steve’s skin, beneath the flesh and behind the bones, and stay (hide) there, just for a little while.  Just until everything stopped.

“I’ve got you, Tony.  It’s okay now, baby.  No one is going to take you from me again,” Steve was whispering hoarsely into Tony’s skin, ghosts of words branding themselves into his flesh like invisible scars.  It hurt, to hear Steve like this.  Maybe I didn’t leave my heart in the cave after all, Tony thought, slurry with sleep and medicine and safety, scattered thoughts that kept gathering to pool in his chest before skittering away again.  He couldn’t quite grab them, not and hold on, so he held on to Steve instead, and let those thoughts go.

“I promise.  I promise, Tony.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry, Tony. I can’t—you were gone.  You were gone. You were gone, and I’m sorry,” Steve finished. The last came out in a choked-off sob, and Tony found himself pressed so hard against Steve’s chest he thought he might get his wish or maybe he already had, melded together until everything that was a part of him was a part of Steve, too.

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, intertwined, linked in whatever way they could be, but it settled deep into his bones, a key sliding into a lock he had forgotten how to open, and it wasn’t okay, not yet, but it could be.  For now, that was enough.

Polaris, Tony thought with a buzzing sort of strangeness that centered in his chest.

“It wasn’t your fault, Steve,” Tony mumbled, then let out a long sigh.  “It wasn’t.  There’s nothing to apologize for.  Come on, how many of these dog-and-pony shows have I done?  Exactly,” Tony nodded when Steve’s mouth flattened.  “It’s been fine.  Everything’s been fine.  This was--there was no way to predict this.  Besides, I handled it.  Though, thanks for the assist on clean-up.  I’m fine.  Really.  Docs say…well, they say they have no idea what the hell I did, but they just pronounce it as “novel medical device” or “enhanced pacemaker,” but they also say things like, “pending release to his Alpha,” and that, unfortunately, is not as dirty as it sounds.”

“Think I just won’t let you out of my sight anymore,” Steve said after a beat of silence that held the promise of many, many, undoubtedly very long conversations to come.

“Well, you might be surprised to know that I’m kind of okay with that idea,” Tony offered, feeling Steve’s whole body tense next to him.

“Why am I instantly concerned?” Steve asked, giving Tony a speculative look that was so full of familiar tenderness and adoration that it momentarily took everything else out of Tony’s head, and, dear God, it was good to be looked at like that again, to remember what it felt like to be someone’s world.  Somewhere along the line, I’m supposed to take care of you, had become a question, how do I take care of you, and Tony got to be the one to answer it.  He still sometimes marveled at that. 

“Because you’ve met me?” Tony replied with a quirk of his lips.  “The whole time I was there, I kept thinking, it had to be for a reason,” he continued, letting the teasing pretense slip away.  “All of this.  It has to mean something.  I can’t…I can’t have it not mean something.  I have to make it mean something, Steve. I have to.”

“I know,” Steve said softly, almost sadly, tilting his head so his forehead rested against Tony’s.  “Someone knew about your squirrel missile,” Steve said, changing course with all the subtlety of Liberace’s gayness. 

“Hey.  Hey, we talked about—I told you not to call it that,” Tony protested, shoving slightly away from Steve’s chest and shooting him a glare.  “But, yeah.  Someone knew about the squirrel missile.  Damn. That name’s not going away anytime soon, is it?”

“Colonel Rhodes thought it was very catchy,” Steve said mildly. 

“You’re in so much trouble,” Tony replied with a teasing smile.  “I’m going to have to talk to Rhodey.  He should hear it first. Well, after you.  I’m shutting down SI’s weapons division.  At least until I get a handle on all this.  They were using my stuff, Steve.  It literally had my name on it.” 

“I know.  I saw it,” Steve said with a grimace. 

“You’re not going to object?” Tony asked, picking at the words like a wound that had scabbed over and was better left alone. 

“Company’s yours.  Always has been,” Steve shrugged, sidling over a bit on the bed so he could lay on his back and pull Tony into the curve of his body.  “You wanna make omelet makers, I’m onboard.  In good conscious, I can’t really see my way to giving you an endorsement, but do what you want.”

“Funny.   You’re funny.  You’re a fucking troll is what you are, Rogers.  Anyone ever tell you that?” Tony demanded, then was hit by another round of coughing.  Steve reached over and grabbed the cup of water, this time putting a straw in it and handed it to Tony. 

“Not to my face,” Steve replied, mouth lifting up at the corners.  “Present company excepted.  Present company tends to say whatever goes through his head, matter of fact.”

“You like that about present company,” Tony pointed out.

“I do,” Steve admitted.  He craned his neck down and planted a quick kiss on the top of Tony’s head. 

“They’re going to say it’s because I’m an Omega.  That they all saw it coming.  That I’d be weak.  Emotional. That you never should’ve let me run the company after mom and dad died,” Tony said, letting some of the bitterness seep into his voice.  It had taken so long, so damn long, to get the company where he wanted it.  Or, he had thought that was what he was doing.  Now.  God, now, he wasn’t sure what he’d been doing.  Too delighted in being able to do it think if he should. 

“Who are these people who are going to say these things about you?” Steve asked, voice low, but Tony knew that tone well enough.

“Can’t throw everyone through walls,” Tony replied, though his mood improved.  “Well, I mean, technically, you probably could, but Pepper can only spin doctor so much bad PR at one time. The-the, ah, the soldiers.  Who were with me…” Tony trailed off.  His hand was wrapped in Steve’s shirt again, blending the black R and M of the standard issue Army tee into a dark swirl. 

“Rhodey’s Humvee was pretty severely hit, but everyone except the driver survived,” Steve told him, answering the rest by not mentioning it. 

So many dead. Because of him. 

“It wasn’t your fault, either, Tony,” Steve said quietly, doing that Vulcan mind-meld thing Steve sometimes did with him.  “You make weapons, which help keep our soldiers safe.  You don’t make decisions about whether to fight or who to fight.  You’re not responsible for every terrorist who ever went shopping on the black market.”

“They didn’t get those missiles from the local Bagram Fiesta Mart, Steve.  This was a demonstration of a prototype.  Those aren’t even on the market yet.  Supposedly,” Tony said with a grunt.  “Which means some of this, Steve. Some of it’s on me.  You said it yourself.  The company’s mine.  I’ve turned a blind eye to how it’s being run because I want to build my better and brighter toys, not look at spreadsheets, but that’s where they hide this shit, Steve.  In the God-damn paperwork.  How is this not my—“

“Which means someone who had access and who knew it was something you wouldn’t catch if these things got funneled off to the side.  This project has been on SI’s books for at least two years in the development stage, and yet working prototypes are already in the hands of terrorists who just happen to know your schedule? This was a set-up from the beginning.  Which means someone sold you out,” Steve countered, voice tight with barely-restrained fury.  “What is does not mean is that you are responsible for any of that.  I’ll say it however many ways you need to hear it, until you believe it.”

Tony let out a long breath against Steve’s side and felt something break open and release inside him.  He didn’t believe it, but Steve did, and that was enough for now.  Until he could make it, not right.  He couldn’t do that.  But, he could make it count for something.  He could count for something more. 

This was the beginning he’d been waiting for, spending his life pushing forward, reaching out for something that he couldn’t find, but it had always been there, waiting.  It’s up.  I’ve been leaning forward for so long, my head was against the wind, and I could only see one foot in front of the other. 

I’m supposed to look up.

Polaris, he thought again, and let his eyes fall shut. 

************Ten Years Earlier**************

How do you solve a problem like Maria, Tony hummed to himself as he flopped over in bed and blinked at the soft morning light pouring in through the edges of the curtain. 

The sketch of Maria was rolled into a half-curl on his bedside table when he woke, her eyes fixed, body a molded metal suit, bound in spirals of energy that Steve somehow managed to capture as if they were undulating on the page, up and down, a sinuous prison.  She should be expressionless.  Impassive.  But, there was something about the way she stared out from the page that implied an eerie, gleaming awareness, some kind of otherworldly power that was both beautiful and vaguely terrifying.    A machine, but a more human machine, something other, artificial and frighteningly real.  Something caught brutally in-between, and more threatening for it.

He loved it.   Loved it in some visceral, grasping way he couldn’t quite understand.  Maybe because it was the first gift he’d gotten that was for him, not given to him to nudge him to try to be someone else, he thought, looking askance at the jars of face cream, lotions, and lines of colognes his mother insisted he bring with him when he moved in with Steve.

Damn.  His mom.  Fuck. It was officially his birthday, which meant the No-Dodging Rule was invoked.  He was going to have to talk to his mom.  She’d probably sing.  Then tell him not to eat so much cake, after offering whatever flimsy excuse she had this year for why his father wasn’t wishing him a happy birthday.  He would come to the phone, Anthony, of course, he would, but he stubbed his toe on a Doesn’t Give a Fuck and then tripped over a Can’t Be Bothered, you understand, don’t you, dear? 

Actually, he understood perfectly.  Quite frankly, the idea of not having to talk to Howard was a gift in and of itself.  If he made a list, it would probably be 1) Four More Inches in Height; 2) Firefly Back On the Air; 3) Not Talking to Howard; 4) World Peace (mostly because this would annoy Howard); and 5) Personal Acknowledgment from George Lucas that Han Shot First. 

Didn’t seem that much to ask for, when you got down to it.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to his mom.  It was that he really, really didn’t want to talk to his mom.  How many emails and voicemails had he ignored at this point?  Let her wallow a bit longer in her guilt-induced e-cards.  Animated cats toying with balls of string were cute, but they didn’t really say, ‘Sorry for foisting you off on a stranger and telling you to like it.  Hope you aren’t dead,’ now did they?

Really should’ve gone with Hallmark for that, mom. 

Except, of course, that he decidedly wasn’t dead or really anything worse than famished at the moment, and that was only because he hadn’t gotten up and eaten whatever it was his Alpha had prepared for him.  If he told his mom that, she’d freak.  Which, admittedly, made it almost worth calling her.   If she asked him how he was doing, and she would, of course, he could lie or admit that this whole thing didn’t entirely suck, which might make her feel better, and he wasn’t ready to be that generous just yet. 

Maybe it was petty, but giving her any satisfaction for being right by pure happenstance was just more than he could do, high road be damned.  He’d take the low road of imagining her worrying about him in the middle of her morning yoga session and bridge club lunch.  She had a good fifteen, twenty minutes there that were open for worrying about her only child.

She would probably be appalled at how he had reacted to Steve’s gift.  Anthony, that’s no way to thank your Alpha!  What will he think about how you were raised?  Because, it all came back to them, somehow, didn’t it? Like he was some cracked and dust-covered reflection of them, and everything he did reminded them of it.  Made you look, his mind supplied in a sing-song voice. 

Even the wrong kind of attention was still a recognition that he was there, that he existed, that he mattered, which, he realized was fucked up.  Didn’t make him stop, but at least he was self-aware.  He snorted out a caustic laugh and scrubbed his hands over his face. 

He wondered if they’d put that in his biography they sent to Steve, couched in flowery words:  Anthony is headstrong and needs someone with a firm hand to guide him.  Translation, Tony fucks up a lot. Good luck with that. 

He parted his fingers and looked over at the sketch again. 

Translation:  Tony needs someone.

He should have said a better thank you last night.  He knew that, even if the voice in his head sounded a lot like his mom’s.  A proper thank you.  He’d stammered something out, or, he thought he had, and then fled to his room on the heels of some excuse about being tired, holding the sketch protectively to his chest with careful fingers.  He hadn’t wanted to crease her.  It.  Whatever. 

But, getting out of the room before almost too much spilled over into just too much had taken priority over manners.  How was he supposed to explain that it hurt to be given something he wanted so very much?  That didn’t even make any sense, he reminded himself with a grunt of frustration.  Why would getting something you actually liked hurt?

The clock told him it was somewhere past eleven, which meant he had slept through breakfast again.  A pang of regret accompanied that thought, making him rub a fist against the center of his chest.  Breakfast with Steve sitting across the table from him, reading the morning paper while Tony scanned the headlines on his tablet had become something of a routine. 

Not that it was a big deal.  Just.  It was nice.  Steve liked to read Tony bits and pieces of articles and ask him questions about things.  Not quiz-like, or rhetorically asked for the joy of hearing your own voice confirm what you thought, like Howard sometimes did.  Or questions where there were no right answers, which Tony hated, because he knew he was being played every time he stepped up to spin the big wheel.

Steve actually asked genuinely curious questions about what Tony thought, what Tony would do, what Tony would change.  It was…weird.  Disconcerting.  Like playing Battleship where the other guy could put his little patrol boat on D7 or, like, Peru.  Tony had started off giving the answers he thought Steve wanted, which lasted through two pieces of a toast and a slice of bacon before he’d gone wildly off-script on some editorial Steve read him about the requirement for an Omega’s court testimony to be backed up by another witness before the court could consider it as valid evidence.

He was a thousand percent certain Steve did that on purpose, which was weird and manipulative, but altruistically manipulative, if that was possible.  It was like Tony’s efforts to do the Right Thing, no offense to Spike Lee, were being thwarted at every turn by Steve’s little campaign of interesting topics and decided lack of a Right-Thing-O’Meter, though God fucking knew he could borrow Howard’s anytime.  Tony was fairly sure it would have two settings:  the Right Thing to Say and Things Tony Said waaaaaaaay down at the other end.

Well.  No time like the present, he figured, glaring at the clock, which ticked accusingly onward, and pushed himself out of bed, rubbing both hands over his face with a groan.  He picked up Steve’s dog tags from the bedside table where he’d tossed them last night and put them on, the now-familiar cool weight of them settling in the divot of his chest.

He stumbled to the bathroom and got the shower going, then grabbed his bottle of pills from the medicine cabinet and dropped one in the palm of his hand before tossing it back and swallowing it with swish of water from the sink.

By the time he was standing under the hot spray, he was awake enough to turn thoughts of last night over and over in his head, like flipping the pages of a book and always having the same words appear.  He couldn’t get anything new from it, but there was something comforting about the sameness, even in the light of day. 

Tony thought knew what Steve had been trying to say with the sketch. That he was okay with Tony’s little Wall-E-lites out there in the garage, just in Steve’s strange way of showing and not telling, because, God, the guy used his words like they were rationed sometimes. 

He got it.  He did.   He just…didn’t know what to do with that.   Life experiences hadn’t really prepared him for…was it acceptance?  Was that what it felt like, this slivery edge of calm certainty that he could, that it was okay, that he could have this and it could be his and no one would take it from him, which had somehow slipped in when he walked across the driveway to the garage?  When had he stopped hurrying?  He should’ve marked the day he stopped scurrying around, trying to dodge Steve’s presence when he made his break for the garage. 

He would’ve written the date down, maybe circled it on the calendar, something, to say this was when it happened, but he hadn’t recognized the feeling.  Or, the absence of feeling.  Maybe that’s what acceptance was. The lack of the constant, jittery awareness of what he was doing, how he was doing it, whether he was doing the Right Thing.  It had gradually just…disappeared. Sloughed off, like shedding a protective coating, some kind of an invisible skin he hadn’t known he was carrying.   Not skin.  Something heavier, harder.

Armor.

He fingered the dog tags hanging high at the center of his chest, and then wrapped his hand around the warm metal.  The shower was hot. Too hot, hitting his skin and making it redden, but he didn’t adjust the temperature.  He was scrubbing too hard with the cloth, digging into his skin without quite realizing what he was doing.  It hurt, but it felt good, too.  He’d show Steve the ‘bots, he told himself, rubbing the cloth over his shoulders, grinding it against his collar bone in slow, hard circles. 

He’d show Steve the ‘bots, and they would go to the observatory.  He’d tell Steve about Nikola Tesla and his coil.  He’d have an opinion on it.  He’d tell Steve, without being asked.  He thought Steve would like this.  That this might please Steve, and the idea of that, pleasing Steve, sent an involuntary jolt of warmth low in his belly, making it tighten with heat.  

Not that it mattered.  Steve being pleased with him.  It didn’t change anything.  Just made things easier, is all.  Happy Alpha, happy life, right?  Was that a jingle?  It should be a jingle.  With some Omega smiling and holding out a cup of coffee and some slippers. 

He turned the shower off and stood there dripping in the steamy air for a moment, letting his skin cool.  Happy Alpha, happy life.  What a fucking crock of shit. Whose happy life? 

Someone stop me, I’m having opinions, Tony thought somewhat hysterically, giving his head a quick shake.  He pulled back the shower curtain and stepped out, grabbing a towel off the rack and wrapping it around his waist, tucking it in tightly.  He squeezed the excess water out of his hair and ran a hand through the mess.  It always curled when it got wet, much to his mother’s chagrin. 

Tony ran a hand over his chin and rubbed at the small spikes of stubble.  Since they were going out, he should probably shave.  Like most Omegas, he didn’t have to shave very often, but Alphas had some weird preoccupation with body hair on their Omegas.  Not that Steve had said anything about the little patches of hair that resembled crop circles left by drunken college kids as much as a goatee, but Tony figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least attempt to be respectable.  He shaved the few sparse hairs on his chest and underarms, too, rinsing the razor and cream off in the sink when he was done. 

Naturally, he’d managed to nick a couple spots on his face, but he pulled off small dots of toilet paper and stuck them to the drops of blood that welled up.  The ‘naturally’ part of that was mentally added when he pulled open the bathroom door and found Steve standing there with one fisted hand raised mid-knocking motion. 

“Oh!  Sorry! Um…I was—“ Steve stammered, backing up so fast if he were a cartoon character, there would be bits of the floor coming up under his feet. 

“Holy shit!” Tony shouted at the same time as he groped at the towel around his waist and promptly slammed the door in Steve’s startled face. Well. His plan of pleasing his Alpha was off to a fabulous start. 

Gingerly, with one hand clutching the towel at his waist and as much dignity as someone wearing only a towel, dog tags and toilet paper could muster, he pulled open the door. 

“Sorry.  Wasn’t expecting you to be there,” Tony muttered, giving Steve a quick, embarrassed glance.  He could feel his face heating, though he had nothing on Steve, who’s fair skin was doing a good impression of a tomato. 

“That’s—no, that’s fine.  My fault.  I knocked.  I was knocking.  Going to knock.  I—you were in there a long time, so I just…” Steve trailed off, swallowing audibly.  There were patches of bright color blooming on his cheeks and down his neck towards his chest and disappearing under the V of his t-shirt. Not that Tony was looking.  At Steve’s chest.  Because, he wasn’t.  Looking. 

“Are you..” Steve started.

“What?” Tony cut in.  “Ah, just.  I—um. Figured I’d shave.  For tonight.  You know.  Just thought I’d, with the whole birthday thing.  Put some effort in,” Tony explained, tossing a hand into the air, then thinking better of it when the towel slipped below his hip.  For a second, Steve’s eyes followed it, then darted back up to Tony’s face, before flicking down to where the dog tags hung over the reddened patch of freshly-shaved skin.

“Right. Sure. Okay,” Steve rushed out, stepping backwards down the hallway, and managing to almost trip over, well, air, not to be judgmental.  “I’ll just—there’s, ah.  I made.  I have.  Food. There’s food.  If you want it.  That’s what I was going to say.  That there’s food. Okay?  I’ll just—I’m going to be in here. With the food.”

“Yeah?  Oh, great. Thanks,” Tony replied, feeling absurdly happy, even if he was standing in what suddenly felt like the world’s slipperiest towel, having anointed himself with Charmin.  Steve had made breakfast and waited.  Probably because it was Tony’s birthday, but still.  Steve had waited for him, which meant he could get his tablet, and Steve could get his newspaper, and they could sit at the table and talk, and Steve would be pleased with him.  Wait.  No. That wasn’t what he—mostly he was just hungry. 

“I’ll just,” Tony said with a nod towards his bedroom door that was clearly meant to communicate that he would put on actual clothing that did not require a fucking crane to stay put, remove the ass napkins from his face, make his hair look like something other than a massively misguided attempt at a perm, and somehow cobble together a semblance of dignity from denial, short-term memory loss and probably duct tape, because why not?

“Of course, right, you should—yeah,” Steve managed, putting his hands on his hips and looking down at his feet and then, by the look of it, the fascinating air conditioning vent above Tony’s head.  Great. Probably trying to keep from bursting out laughing, Tony figured.  “You.  You, ah.  You have,” Steve started, then tapped a finger along the side of his nose. 

Tony reached up and rubbed at the same place on his own face, then drew back his hand, which had a streak of white foam shaving cream on it. 

Honestly, this was fucking California.  Where were the God-damned earthquakes when you needed one?  This was false advertising, is what it was. 

“Thanks,” Tony muttered under his breath and darted across the hall to his room.  He closed the door carefully behind him, so it definitely didn’t seem like a slam, which would have ruined the last claim to nonchalance he had.  Yes.  Closing the door carefully is really the line of demarcation as far as utter humiliation goes. 

That’ll show him.

“Fucking hell,” Tony breathed out.  The universe had apparently decided to give him an early birthday present.  Look, its embarrassment and mortification!  Open the card first, Anthony:  Hope your birthday is as fucked up as always. Love, the Universe.  P.S., You rubbed the shaving cream from your hand into your hair. 

Fuck.

Why was he always one step above Kardashians without Photoshop when he was around Steve?   He’d worry it was self-sabotage, but not even he could manage to be this much of a hot mess without a Karmic assist. 

Tony let out a long, waffling sigh and threw on something from the nearest stack of clean clothes, which turned out to be blue boxers, jeans and a grey t-shirt that hung loosely on him the way a t-shirt was supposed to, which must mean it was one of Steve’s that had gotten mixed in with his laundry.  He smoothed his hands over the front of it, then lifted the collar and breathed in. It smelled like detergent, of course, and not…freedom, or whatever the hell he’d been half-expecting. 

There was a small hole near the bottom seam that had been sewn closed with tiny, careful stitches.  Tony rubbed his thumb back and forth over it, wondering at it the way an archeologist ponders a fragment of pottery, trying to figure out how it fit into the overall scheme of things.  His Alpha sewed.  He giggled, bringing up a hand to cover his mouth and looking at the door, though there was no way for Steve to hear him. 

The sewing was strangely Steve-like, Tony settled on, and oddly comforting.  Fixing something like an old t-shirt that didn’t matter and could be easily replaced.  He wasn’t sure why it was Steve-like, but the little patch-job practically screamed ‘Steve was here’ at him.

Tony shrugged the shirt off and folded it back up into a neat square.  He would have said he meant to give it back to Steve later, because there was food now, and so he’d just return it some other time, but shoving it in the back of his drawer underneath a row of Black Sabbath and AC/DC shirts he wasn’t supposed to own probably took the proverbial wind out of the sails of give-back-the-shirt plan. 

Grabbing a blue and white striped shirt instead, he pulled that on and headed out of his room towards the kitchen, where Steve was sitting at their little table with a spread of food and two place settings in front of him.  Steve looked up as soon as Tony came down the hall, then quickly stood and smiled in greeting. 

“Happy birthday, Tony,” Steve announced, somewhat formally, but there was genuine warmth there, too. 

“Thanks,” Tony replied.  He walked over to the counter by the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee, then took his seat opposite Steve.  “Looks good,” he observed. 

It looked great, actually, and his stomach rumbled in agreement.  Eggs, over easy, just like he preferred.  Crispy strips of bacon.  Those flaky, layered, artificially butter-flavored biscuits.  They came out of a can, but he still liked them better than the doughy, floury things that Jarvis used to make. 

“You didn’t have to go to all this trouble,” Tony threw out, but promptly belied the notion a bit by piling food on his plate like he was a Weight Watchers burnout at a Girl Scout Cookie sale.

“No trouble.  Not really.  These things are so easy to cook.  We used to have to boil everything.  Took forever and it all sort of tasted the same,” Steve replied, with a slight shake of his head and a half-smile that froze, then slid off his face.  “Ah…I mean…it wasn’t a big deal.  The—the breakfast.  Not a big deal.  We’ll go out for dinner. Someplace nice for your birthday,” Steve promised and started loading his plate with food that would be transformed into perfectly chiseled muscle in some crossroads demon induced process Tony had mentally dubbed Grossly Unfair Magic Metabolism, or GUMM for short. 

“Then the observatory,” Tony reminded him, reaching for a biscuit. 

“Ah. Right,” Steve said.  “Observatory.”

Tony nodded around a bite of egg and grabbed for his coffee.  He’d tell Steve about Tesla.  Maybe Steve would ask him questions and do that thing where his eyes got all round and voice went low and slightly awed when Tony talked.  That would be…nice.  Not a big deal, of course.  Steve might not care about Tesla. 

Nah, that was silly. Everyone loved Tesla. Guy claimed to have actually built a death beam, for Christ’s sake. What’s not to love?  A grin slipped out at that thought, and Steve returned it, almost in surprise, though Tony noticed his shoulders loosen and settle a bit. 

“That’ll be fun,” Tony replied. 

“I hope so,” Steve said, giving Tony a quick look and flattening his smile before shifting around in his seat, like he couldn’t quite figure out how to pull off sitting casually without looking like he was trying to figure out how to pull off sitting casually.  “I just…want you to have a good time,” Steve finished, giving Tony a quick look before shoving his hands under the table and looking away. 

He’s nervous, Tony thought with a fissure of shock.  He’s actually nervous that I won’t like this.

 It didn’t make sense, rationally. If Tony didn’t like it, well, so what?  Just add it to the list of every other birthday ever, no big deal.  Except that it seemed to matter to Steve, for whatever reason.  Probably because he had planned it. 

Alphas were way too used to being told everything they did was amazing.  The lack of a tongue-bathing for basic human decency seemed to constantly throw them for a loop.  Still.  Still, Steve was trying, and at least he had remembered and gone to some amount of trouble to find something he thought Tony would enjoy.  Sure, the observatory was a bit lame, but at least it wasn’t birthday-dinner-at-Howard’s-favorite-restaurant kind of narcissistically unaware.

“It’ll be great,” Tony assured him, taking another bite of biscuit.  “They have the Tesla Coil there.  Tesla had this whole idea of producing electricity without wires.  He actually managed that, believe it or not.  I mean, okay, with a lamp, but still.  Energy transmitted through the air? Genius, really.  Some of his ideas…brilliant.  Crazy.  For his time, anyway.  Mad scientist, I guess you’d say.”

“He really was.  You remind me of him a bit sometimes,” Steve agreed with a nod and low, breathy chuckle, that he quickly swallowed and covered with a cough. 

“You know about Tesla?” Tony asked, trying to keep the surprise out of his tone, which worked mainly because his mouth was tacky with half-eaten biscuit. He’d gotten better at hiding the lingering astonishment at Steve’s interests and knowledge since their discussion of Einstein-Rosen bridges, but couldn’t help occasionally being caught off-guard.  Not just that Steve knew things, but that Steve would talk to him about it instead of talking at him about it, and God, that difference was everything.

“I—a little bit, I guess,” Steve intoned in a careful, flat voice that didn’t sound right on him at all.  He’d gone still, almost preternaturally so, like all the nervous motion from a moment ago had been drained out of him and replaced with…nothing.  For a moment, there was nothing there, nothing on Steve’s face, nothing behind his eyes, just nothing. It was gone almost as soon as Tony caught it, like if he’d blinked or looked away, he’d have missed it, but he hadn’t, and it…he didn’t like it. 

Tony opened his mouth to say something else, then snapped it closed again and reached for his coffee instead.  This was one of those switch-flickers, Tony thought.  Tesla.  Of all things.  He should make a list.  Steve liked his little lists, so it seemed appropriate.

Thou Shalt Not Speak of Tesla.  Thou Shalt Not Watch War Movies.  Thou Shalt Not Melt Plastic By Accident In the Microwave and Stink Up the Kitchen.  Thou Shalt Not Make Loud Noises in the Garage Without Warning. 

To be fair, that last couple were probably true of everyone.

He liked Steve’s predictability.  The routine.  The way Steve’s routine allowed Tony to anticipate things, so he would know how to react.  He liked being prepared.  This…these switch-flickers, God, he hated them.  It was his birthday.  Which was, admittedly, a stupid, selfish reason for not wanting to deal with this, but he couldn’t help thinking it.  Stop being human on my birthday. Yeah.  A bit unfair.

“He had a lab in New York City,” Steve gritted out.  It was an offer, Tony knew.  He could see the effort it took to just get those words out, but Steve did it, maybe because it was Tony’s birthday, and he wanted him to have a good time, or maybe because Steve was too stubborn for his own good, who knew?  Didn’t really matter.  Steve was trying to control the switch, and that was something. 

Except Tony was almost certain it was for his benefit.  He didn’t know why, except that it was Tesla, and Tony had brought it up, but this was the hill Sisyphus there across the table from him decided to push his rock up, so whatever. 

“Yeah, that was…what?  Late 1800’s, or so…right on up until the middle of World War II,” Tony recalled.  “Last lab was down in Long Island, by the shore. Kept trying to get his wireless energy thing going on a large enough scale to be useful.  Speaking of, ah, labs,” Tony said, because he could meet Steve halfway, at the very least.  “If you wanted to come meet the ‘bots, I was going to work on them some later.  They’re not really—I’m still tweaking, you know, so.  Don’t expect much.  DUM-E is still useless, and U wants to be a water bender or some shit, but.  If you wanted, I’m just saying.”

“That would be great,” Steve replied in a sort of shaky, relieved tone.  “I’d love to meet them.”

“Don’t get your hopes up. They aren’t like your Metropolis chick.  Trust me, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Probably end up donating them to a city college for parts or something,” Tony said quickly, waving a hand with a piece of bacon in front of his face before looking down at his fast-disappearing plate of food.  He risked a glance up at Steve, who had his head tilted slightly to the side, a soft slant to his eyes that made something thump in Tony’s chest. 

He liked it when Steve looked at him like that.  It shouldn’t be a revelation, but it had the uncertain, bewildered feeling that said it was.  When was the last time he’d liked the way someone looked at him?  He could catalogue a host of looks over the years.  Knew what they all meant.  Disappointment.  Dismay.  Anger.  Irritation.  Annoyance. Aggravation.  Disapproval.   A bit like the less musically-inclined, more vindictively pugilistic Seven Dwarves. 

And lately…lately, there had been other looks.  From the Alphas who sometimes came by the house to visit his parents.  Looks he couldn’t quite categorize, but they made him uncomfortable.  Disturbed in some way he couldn’t put his finger on, because they didn’t seem like bad looks. There were smiles and rapt glances, but they were wrong somehow.  He felt it, the way they looked without seeing, the way they took something without asking.  It felt like they were saying something he didn’t want to hear, but wasn’t able to avoid.  Just had to grit his teeth and take it.

It didn’t make sense.  He knew it didn’t.   They weren’t doing anything to him.  Just looking.  It wasn’t anything.  He was being weird.  He hated being weird.  It was a compliment, really.  Wasn’t it?   You’re a beautiful boy, Anthony.  Of course, they look!  You should be flattered. 

Maybe he just didn’t have enough experience with compliments to understand they were supposed to make you feel like your skin was crawling, he thought derisively.  He looked up at Steve, who had dropped his gaze to the folded newspaper in front of him and was scanning the articles above the fold. 

Maybe Steve thought he was beautiful.

No—that. That wasn’t what he’d meant to think.  Which, okay, that didn’t make any sense, either.  Crap.  Stop it, brain.  Eat your eggs. 

“So, the election’s coming up,” Steve began, picking up the edge of his newspaper in a not-so-subtle, topic-shifting crinkle of the page.  “Did you have any thoughts about it?”

Tony shrugged and bit into a piece of bacon.  Careful lads.  Here there be Opinions, he thought to himself.  No map, just slipping over the edge of the world into the great unknown.  I’m sure that will go just fine.

“You’re the one voting,” Tony said with a shrug, trying to keep his voice neutral and mostly succeeding, thanks in no small part to the bite of biscuit he shoved in his mouth. 

“One of the votes is really for you, though, so.  If you, you know, had a preference.  Ellis seems decent enough, I guess,” Steve observed, brow crinkling into a frown that was frustratingly adorable.  Steve looked a bit like he wanted to bang the photos of the candidates into the table, crinkle the paper up and put it back together until he got a pattern he liked better.  Like giving a toddler a Rubik’s cube.  “Says he’s gotten some endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce, industry groups, that kind of thing.  Might be good for SI.”

“Dad donates to his campaign. Well, technically, the company does this super-PAC thing, but same diff,” Tony replied.  “Ellis is fine.”

“Great.  Ellis it is, then,” Steve agreed with a quick nod, like they had settled something, and, in Steve’s mind, Tony supposed they had, which, honestly, made Tony want to roll up the newspaper and whack him on the nose with it until he learned.

 “Ellis is fine,” Tony repeated.  “Good guy.  Pretty moderate.  He’ll win the seat.  He’s probably going to be President one of these days,” Tony told him.    “Simpson—ah.  Simpson has some interesting ideas, though.”

“Simpson?” Steve asked, looking down at the paper again, eyes scanning over the page. 

For a moment, Tony’s skin was burning hot and his mouth was so dry, he couldn’t get enough spit to form words.  There was a buzzing in the back of his ears, distant, like a fly at the light outside the door, zapping in and out.  He darted his tongue out to wet his lips and looked down at his plate of food. 

It was easier to focus without looking at Steve, though he could feel Steve watching him.  Steve’s gaze felt heavy, as if it had weight, like one of those lead vests they put on your chest when you get your teeth x-rayed.  He couldn’t not give an answer.  For a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that his Alpha was asking, but also a little bit because there was a drawing in his room that said it could be just a question and not a test.

“He’s not in there.  They wouldn’t…he’s, ah. He’s one of the more progressive candidates, I guess you could say,” Tony admitted carefully.  He picked up his fork and stabbed at the egg yolk, though didn’t take a bite.  He was pretty sure if he did, he’d choke on it.  Which, all in all, might be the better option.  Instead, he cleared his throat and looked up at Steve. 

“Oh?” Steve said, though there was a clear question in it.

“For one thing, he says Bonded Omegas who are of age should get to vote for themselves,” Tony replied, the words rushing out, as if swiftness could somehow dilute their meaning.  “So, there’s that.”

Steve raised an eyebrow and looked down at his Rubik’s cube of a paper that just somehow went all Jackson Pollack on him.

“Is that…something you’d want to do?” Steve asked.  “I know a lot of things have…they’ve changed since…I mean, things have progressed since Omegas got the vote.  For the better,” Steve rushed out, like he was trying too hard, and he probably was.  “That…that hasn’t changed,” Steve continued, sounding slightly unsure. 

“Of course, it hasn’t changed. What possible reason would Alphas have to change that little nuance?  Why would you think I wouldn’t want to vote my own vote?  You get to,” Tony shot back, harsher than he meant, but maybe he was a little surprised at Steve’s pearl-clutching.  Where surprised is another word for annoyed. 

“I just…I guess I figured you would rather me handle that for you. That’s why I’m asking.  So I would know how you wanted to vote,” Steve explained, giving Tony a somewhat baffled look. 

“They did it in…Sweden, I think it was.  Kind of an experiment,” Tony said by way of answer.  “Turns out, when Omegas actually voted on their own, they voted wildly differently than the way their Alphas voted for them.”

“Did their Alphas not vote how their Omegas told them to vote for them?  Because, I’d never…that undermines the whole system,” Steve protested.  “I’d always cast your vote how you wanted, Tony.  It wouldn’t be fair if I…oh.  You said to vote Ellis.”

“Got it in one,” Tony said after a beat.  He looked across the table at Steve and waited.  “He supports more protections for Omegas after an Alpha breaks the Bond.  Financial support, at least.  Some kind of temporary stipend, just so, you know, they’d have some time to deal with things.  Because, it’s hard when you—they--don’t have money and can’t really work, so a lot of times, they have to Bond again or go back home to their parents, or—or other stuff.  That’s a—that can be hard,” Tony stammered as he twisted the tines of his fork around on his plate, making a dull, clicking sound that seemed to be the only thing he could hear over the pounding in his ears. 

“I would never break our Bond,” Steve said quietly.  “That’s—wrong,” Steve settled on, after a pause, giving Tony a hard look.  “Do you…think I would do that?”

“Well.  Some do.  Omegas get older, Alphas want, you know, whatever,” Tony mumbled, waving his fork in the air diffidently.  “I mean, not all Alphas, obviously, just, you know, some.  Some do that.”

“I don’t,” Steve insisted in a rough, thick-sounding tone.  “I don’t do that, Tony.”

“Fine.  I’m not—whatever, alright?  That wasn’t what I meant, anyway.  I wasn’t talking about us or—forget it, okay?  He also says Omegas should have more—“ Tony stopped, blinking rapidly and dropping his gaze down to the salt and pepper shakers in the center of the table.

He should refill the pepper. It was getting low. Steve did love his spices.  A part of him wanted to stop, get up and do that right now.  Do anything at all that wasn’t keeping up this conversation.  He was having opinions.  Really, it was all Steve’s fault, anyway, because a few months ago, he’d never have said anything, and now, he couldn’t seem to make himself stop, and really, the difference was Steve, so he really couldn’t be mad at Tony for it.  That seemed logical. Mostly. 

“More what?” Steve pressed, leaning forward a bit in his seat, a furrow forming in the center of his brow.

“More autonomy to make medical decisions, for one thing.  For themselves. Decisions for themselves.  There was—a few years ago, there was that case in Pennsylvania. She didn’t want the treatment anymore.  Just got too hard on her, I guess, and her Alpha insisted she keep getting it, because maybe she gets better, right?  Got a lot of press because she went to court to try to get permission to stop.  ‘Course they said no,” Tony recalled with a twisted grimace.  “That kind of thing happens all the time.  Just no one talks about it.”

“I—I don’t know what…I’d—I’d never let you…I’d always make the best decision I could for you,” Steve objected before Tony had even finished speaking.  “Of course, I would. I’d never---I would want what’s best for you, but sometimes, you might not understand or might be too close to the situation.  Maybe that’s what this woman, maybe she thought she was a burden or--or…but, you wouldn’t be, you…I would take care of you.  That’s what…” Steve rushed out, words nearly hopping over each other in their hurry to be said.

Steve’s voice sounded thin and strained.  Wrong.  He pushed the heel of his hand against his forehead and ground it in, then let his arms fall to his sides. 

“Can we…can we just finish breakfast?” Steve asked with a weary sort of frustration.  He leaned forward over his plate and picked up his fork, spearing a piece of egg, but not eating it. 

“Sure. Fine,” Tony replied steadily. 

Tony knew he should stop this.  It was his birthday for fuck’s sake, and he was having an Omega Rights rally over cold eggs and coffee in their kitchen.   Steve was clearly not onboard, and why would he be?  Tinkering in the garage is one thing.  Deciding your own fate, well, let’s not be hasty. 

His whole body had gone taut.  He was pushing his teeth together, making his jaw ache.  But, that was somehow keeping him rooted to his seat instead of running off down the hall for his room.  Flight or faster flight, he thought, somewhat hysterically.  His throat was dry and sticky.   Should’ve stuck to Tesla.  Or the ‘bots.  Always had to push, didn’t he?  Couldn’t leave well enough alone.  He forced himself to swallow, and almost choked on the saliva when his throat wouldn’t cooperate fully.

“You really don’t think I’m capable of deciding what’s best for myself?” Tony demanded in a tight, pinched voice before he could stop himself.  “It’s my life.”

“It’s not just---“ Steve shouted, one fisted hand banging on the table hard enough to make the whole thing jump, sending Tony’s coffee sloshing over the rim of the mug.  Tony jerked back, staring at the coffee pooling around the mug.  On the mug, Garfield warned him never to trust a smiling cat.  No shit, Garfield, Tony thought, looking up at Steve.  “You can’t—you can’t ask me to let you go—to—to…watch you…watch that happen when there is any way possible to prevent it,” Steve finished, stone-faced.

Consider that switch flicked, Tony thought to himself.  And that sound you hear?  That was a door slamming shut, Tony thought with a flash of disappointment so sharp, it felt like someone was sliding a knife across his belly, leaving a line of cold, desolate pain its wake.

“I’m sorry, I’m—I have to go,” Steve said abruptly and stood up from the table.  “Sorry,” Steve said again, grabbing a few napkins from their holder and dabbing at the small puddle of coffee while Tony tried to remember how to breath.  

“No reason to be sorry,” Tony replied dully.  He wasn’t even sure what, exactly, the apology was for.  No use crying over spilled coffee.  Or something.  Steve stopped what he was doing and stared at Tony for a beat, then dropped the napkins and walked out the front door without another word. 

Might as well light a candle, burn the place to the ground and sing Happy Birthday to me, Tony thought bitterly.  He should’ve just shut up.  Let Steve cast his vote for Ellis. What was the big deal?  Ellis was going to win, anyway. 

He shouldn’t be this upset about it.  It was just a stupid vote.  His first, but…it wasn’t like he expected Steve to agree with him or anything.  He didn’t know what he expected.  But, if he was honest with himself, and on the rare occasion, he could be, he hadn’t expected Steve to shut him down like that.  Not after opening a window and letting Tony press his face to the glass these past few weeks. 

The empty kitchen was suddenly too empty, the wrong kind of empty.  Tony got up and started towards the door, grinding to a halt by the edge of the table.  He bent down and picked up Steve’s fork, which had fallen on the floor. 

It was bent almost entirely in half.

Tony stared at the twisted piece of metal, then walked over and dropped it in the garbage can.  Not like it was sterling or anything.  Probably just some cheap metal alloy from China that would turn out to contain deadly amounts of kryptonite or what-the-fuck-ever in a few years.  He walked back over to the table and lifted one of the butter knives, studying it for a moment.  Holding it between both hands, he tried to bend the ends together to no avail, so he pressed the thin, flat end to the table and pushed.  Ah, leverage.  A slight bend in middle of the knife edge appeared. 

Fine.  So, he should work out more. 

He dropped the knife back on the table and headed out the door.  Steve was standing over on the deck, staring out at the mountains where they rippled in the afternoon sun.  A part of him wanted to turn away, walk to the garage and shut the door.  A part of him always wanted to do that, but he thought it might not be the best part of him, just the loudest, sometimes, shouting down the rest until he could get somewhere he didn’t need to shout to be heard.  He hated loud voices.  He didn’t know why he listened to his own.

“I shouldn’t have yelled,” Steve called out, turning his head to catch Tony’s eye.  For a second, he froze up, caught doing something wrong, thinking something wrong, and somehow, Steve knew, but then he realized what Steve was talking about. 

“It’s okay,” Tony said dully.

“No, it isn’t,” Steve countered softly.  “I lost someone.  A—ah.  A buddy of mine,” Steve said, walking slowly towards where Tony stood just outside the front door.  “No.  Not a buddy.  He was…he was my best friend.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony responded softly. 

“I was told I should allow him the dignity of his choice,” Steve replied.  “Guess I’m still having issues with that.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Tony said. 

“You don’t know that,” Steve pointed out.

“Yeah,” Tony corrected, surprised that he was, actually, sure of this one thing, if little else.  “I do.”

Steve turned his face towards the mountains again, then looked down and scuffed his shoe through the dirt and gravel that made a makeshift driveway. 

“I don’t know what it’s like for you.  It’s different.  I’m sure it is.  I never really thought a lot about it, I guess,” Steve admitted, sounding almost sheepish.  He glanced up at Tony, then back out to the horizon, before dipping his head to his chest and sucking in a deep breath.  When he looked at Tony this time, he didn’t look away.  “I know what it’s like to be told what your capable of and what you’re not because of, well.  Because of things about you that you can’t control.  I know what it’s like to have other people define your limits for you.  And let’s just say I know how well I handled that,” Steve replied, mouth twisting into a rueful half-smile.  “It’s your vote, Tony.  I’ll vote it however you want me to.”

“Thanks,” Tony said, crossing his arms over his chest and shoving his hands under his arms.  He blinked up at Steve, who was watching him in that careful, assessing way Steve sometimes did, like if he looked at Tony in the right light, squinted or let his gaze unfocus, he could see something else there, like one of those stereogram pictures. 

“I’m supposed to do what’s best for you,” Steve continued.  “I’m supposed to take care of you.  If you think this Simpson is better for you, then…he’s got my vote, too.”

“But…you don’t even agree with hardly any of what he stands for…I mean, there are other things. Things I didn’t mention, so you should probably, you know, look into that before you decide anything,” Tony protested hurriedly.  He glanced at the garage.  The loud voice was shouting that he should go there.  Go there, and it would be quiet.  He didn’t move, though.  “I don’t—it’s your vote, so.  Do what you want.”

“I want what’s best for you,” Steve repeated.  

“Why?” Tony asked. “What the hell does that even mean?” He meant it to sound demanding, not all whiny and pleading like it came out, but he didn’t know what to do with this whole conversation.  He wanted to go back to his room, crawl into bed and spend the next twelve hours reliving everything he’d done wrong since he got up.  As one did.

“Because you’re my Omega,” Steve replied, like he was stating the sky was blue, water was wet and Empire was the best Star Wars.

“That’s…not a reason to do anything,” Tony protested.  It wasn’t.  That made no sense.  He wished his stomach would un-knot itself from downward-facing-dog position and get onboard with the Steve was being ridiculous train.

“That’s a reason to do everything,” Steve corrected, making Tony’s wide-eyed gaze snap to his.  “If you think what this Simpson fella proposes is better for you, then…I trust your judgment,” Steve finished with a quick, firm nod. 

Dammit.  Now, the idea was becoming entrenched in Steve’s head, and fuck it all, the man could be intractably stubborn. Somehow, this was all going to be Tony’s fault when it blew up in his face one of these days.  A box of ballots would spill out onto the roadway right in front of SHIELD where they are found by a passing van of reporters with handheld scanners, who stop at a gas station to call it in, whereupon a seagull lands next to their van with the corresponding voter list key in his beak.  Or something.  It could happen.

“Well, that’s your first mistake.  No one trusts my judgment. Hell, I don’t even trust my judgment most of the time,” Tony objected, throwing his hands up in the air.   “Vote, don’t vote, I don’t even care.  Just, you know, don’t vote one way because of me.  Let your conscience be your cricket. Or whatever.”

“I understood that reference,” Steve grinned, posture loosening as he smiled. 

“Great, well.  Then you remember that Pinocchio ended up a donkey-boy, whale-snack. There’s a lesson about life choices in there, just saying,” Tony muttered, rubbing a hand over his face.  “Wanna go see the ‘bots?”  It was the best he could manage, as far as apologies went.

“I’d love to,” Steve replied.  He started forward, towards Tony, then stopped.  “Tony, I am sorry.  It’s your birthday, and I—I shouldn’t have brought all this up.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  I wasn’t thinking.  You were talking about Tesla, and I…wanted to change the subject.  That was…I should’ve just let you talk.  I like it.  When you talk.  I just.  Some things. I’m not good with them, but it’s nothing on you,” he said in a rush, holding out a hand in front of him like he could wave off the idea. “I really didn’t mean to mess up your birthday brunch.”

“You didn’t,” Tony lied.  “It’s fine. Really.”  Switch-flickers, Tony thought. 

“No, it isn’t,” Steve insisted. “But, I’ll make it up to you.  Tonight.  Promise.”

“Okay,” Tony replied.  He quirked his mouth and jerked his head towards the garage.  “Ready?”

Steve nodded and put his hands in his pockets, following a half-step behind Tony across the driveway to the garage where Tony’s modern-day Keep Out sign blinked red next to the door.   Tony cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Steve, who had looked away, obviously deliberately, and for that, Tony was strangely touched. 

Steve’s Jedi mind tricks notwithstanding, he liked how aware Steve was of him.  It made him feel present in a way he hadn’t realized he’d been missing.  Years of being overlooked, looked through, unseen, unheard, and invisibility stops being a shield and starts being a reality.  Tony punched in the security code and the door unlocked with a loud, metallic click. 

Stepping inside, Tony turned on the lights and took a few steps into the middle of the room, where someone had once parked a diesel truck of some kind that had leaked fuel and oil onto the old floor. That had been a bitch to get out. 

“So, ah, this is DUM-E,” Tony announced, patting a hand on the bulkier robot, who whirred to life and twirled his pincer in greeting.  “And this one is U,” he said, pointing to the slightly more streamlined version who was currently attempting to dry-hump Steve’s leg.  U craned his claw in Steve’s direction, tilted it at an angle and opened the pincer’s wide, in what Tony would have called a smile in his head, if he did things like that.

“Wow.  Tony, wow!  They’re amazing,” Steve exclaimed with a huge grin splitting his face. He looked years younger when he smiled, Tony thought, then shook his head to clear it. 

“Can I—is it okay to touch them?” Steve asked with obvious excitement.

“Nothing below the belt.  We’ve been working on bad touches,” Tony replied, then grinned at Steve’s startled look.   “Kidding.  Go right ahead.  DUM-E will almost pick things up for you, whether you’ve actually dropped them or not, and U might spray you like a bad cat, fair warning,” Tony replied.  “Should get a Roomba instead. Oh, don’t look at me like that,” he said, when DUM-E drooped his claw.  “He tries, okay?  With the picking up thing.  Here, fine, you can show him,” Tony muttered, grabbing an oil cloth and dropping it on the concrete floor in front of DUM-E, who bent down and picked it up with his pincers, then rotated in Steve’s direction and waved it back and forth like a damsel cheering on her knight. 

Show-off.

“That’s fantastic!  Did you train him or…you said he learns, right?”  Steve queried, giving Tony a quick, almost bashful look.  “You said you thought of it, the learning thing, because of the fishing.  What I said about the fishing,” he clarified, then looked back at DUM-E who was, dear God, dropping the cloth and picking it up again.  Steve clapped delightedly. 

Great.   DUM-E would probably lock down the garage now.  He and Steve were going to end up at the bottom of a well while U insisted it puts the oil cloth in the basket. 

“Alright, Microsoft Skynet.  Cut it out.  Steve’s impressed.  Don’t over-sell it,” Tony warned, walking over and snatching the cloth off the floor before DUM-E could perform his routine again.  U was wheeling himself over towards a half-empty bottle of water sitting next to his workstation that Tony had been using as a paperweight.  “U, if you pour that anywhere that isn’t on fire, so help me, I’ll…”

“Here,” Steve cut in. He was holding a lighter in one hand and a yellow, spiraled candle in the other.  “I was going to…this morning, for your birthday.  Thought I’d put it in a biscuit or something.  That was stupid, I don’t know why I thought that.  I should’ve gotten a cake or, well.  Things got off track, though.  So.  This okay?  Not much of a party, I know…” Steve trailed off, looking around the garage where DUM-E and U hummed and clicked, rolling around happily between Steve and Tony.  “Probably not what you’re used to for your birthday, huh?”

“No,” Tony said, swallowing thickly.  “No, this isn’t what I’m used to.  It’s—“  Better.  Wonderful.  Perfect.  “Fine.  Here, just, ah.  Just light it and kind of hold it out.  Yeah, like that.  Point it away from you.  I think he can—maybe--U, slowly, that’s it.  Slow. Ly,” Tony enunciated carefully as the bot wheeled itself over to where Steve held the candle out in front of him. 

“You take it,” Steve said, turning towards Tony.  “It’s your birthday.  You do it.”

“You’re just worried he’s going to pour it on you and make you look like you peed yourself,” Tony replied, but walked over and carefully took the candle from Steve’s fingers. 

“He’s going to do just fine. Aren’t you, U?”  Steve asked.  U beeped what could only be described as a skeptical sounding chirp at him, making Tony roll his eyes. 

“This isn’t going to work,” Tony grimaced when U held the water bottle a good six inches from the end of the candle and tipped it halfway to one side. 

“Sure it is,” Steve said confidently.  “Have a little faith.  He can do it.”

“What makes you so sure?” Tony scoffed, mouthing the word ‘Roomba’ at U, who hefted the water bottle a little higher and stretched out to reach the burning tip. 

“You built him,” Steve replied.  “He’ll work.”  Tony found himself unable to quite look away, and suddenly conscious of the dog tags laying under his shirt, warm against his chest.  He opened his mouth, to say what, he wasn’t sure. 

“Thank you for my drawing,” was what came out, probably to the surprise of both of them, though, when he said it, Tony realized that was what he wanted to say.

“You’re welcome,” Steve replied.  “Happy Birthday, Tony.”

Water is wet, Tony thought, blinking, and then realized his fingers were wet.  He looked down.    A wisp of smoke trailed up from the end of the candle, and a dribble of water dripped onto the floor.  U dropped the mostly empty water bottle onto the floor, where it landed with a dull, crunching sound.  DUM-E hurried over to pick it up.  Or, chase it as it rolled, whatever.  Can’t have everything. 

“He did it,” Tony said, slightly stunned, looking up at Steve in shock.  “My fire-safety robot put out fire.   He actually put out fire. I’ll be damned.”

Tony smiled up at Steve, all amazed, slightly stupefied joy, and Steve was grinning back in return, like it was the damn proudest moment of his life, that Tony’s robot had snuffed out a candle with nearly half a bottle of water at his disposal. 

Steve reached out a hand and clapped Tony on the back, wrapping it around his shoulder and shaking him in sort of congratulatory way that made something warm and wonderful bloom in Tony’s chest.   For a second, it was like he could do anything, anything at all.  The whole world was wide open and waiting, and he could reach out and touch it, if he wanted.  This was what approval felt like, he thought with a distant sort of recognition.   Happiness and possibility, all balled up together into a moment of everything being right at his fingertips. 

DUM-E had managed to pick up the water bottle, and was trailing tiny droplets of water from the top as he wheeled himself over to the garbage can.  U had his claw opened wide and arm extended in what Tony would describe as an expectant look, like he hoped maybe Tony would set something else on fire for him.  Well, chances were pretty good on that, at some point, Tony could admit.  Patience, young Padawan. 

“You did it, Tony.  That’s—that’s incredible.  You really did it,” Steve said, shaking his head.  “Seen a lot of things.  Never thought I’d see something like that, though.  A robot knowing what to do, putting all those pieces together and understanding…just, wow, Tony.  Wow.”

 “Well.  It’s not.  I mean, it isn’t all that big of a deal, really,” Tony replied.  He could feel himself blushing. There was a creeping sort of pleased sensation radiating from low in his stomach out through his skin.  “Just some programming tricks, is all.” 

Actually, the leaps in logical functioning that were required to get a machine to understand fire, the utility of water and that a plastic bottle left on Tony’s desk from yesterday contained it were more complicated than what NASA used to get to the moon, but putting that aside, really not that big of a deal.

“Whatever you did, it’s pretty swell,” Steve said, giving Tony’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.  “Thanks for letting me meet them.” 

It was too much.  He didn’t know what to do with it all.  Actual success, and Steve being all…proud?  Tony turned the word over in his head.  Proud.  Of him.  Of what he could do.  He suddenly needed to be somewhere else.  If he stayed here, he was going to…what?  Do something wrong.  Mess this up.  This perfect moment, and he was going to fuck it up, he knew it.  Best to get out and leave it like this, capture it in his head, so he could come back to it later. 

“Well, I’ve got stuff to do, so…” Tony said pointedly, gesturing towards the workstation, where the screensaver sent images from the Spitzer Space Telescope across the monitor. 

Tony twisted away, out of Steve’s grip, meaning to head to his workstation, find some excuse for more work or a reason to scurry away that wasn’t pathetic, but as he turned, Steve’s hand slipped from Tony’s shoulder across the back of his neck, and for a moment, just a few heartbeats that had inexplicably slowed and lengthened, it stayed there, heavy and firm against the curve of Tony’s neck. 

Tony went still. He blinked, slowly, mouth going dry, breath coming in shallow pants, as he looked up at Steve.  Everything seemed to slow, become almost hyper-realistic.  The Steve’s thumb and index finger moved ever so slightly, the way the soft pads of his fingers pressed against the cords of tendons on Tony’s neck, how the hairs there stood on end, like there was something moving through the air.  How warm Steve was, heating Tony’s skin.  He could feel his eyes widening, watering as he stared. 

There was a low, tight heat crawling through his belly, thumping and pulsing an urgent demand.  Steve was watching him, and for fraction of a second, Tony thought he was going to say something, move, do something, anything—more, his mind supplied—but, Steve jerked his head to the side and dropped his hand from Tony’s neck, rubbing his palm against the side of his thigh as he stepped back.

“Tony—“ Steve started, then stopped, and swallowed whatever else he was going to say.  Steve shifted a bit, rocking back and forth on his feet, his hands going to his pockets, then his sides, like he couldn’t figure out what to do with them.  Steve looked at him, then dropped his gaze to the center of Tony’s chest, before clearing his throat and looking away. 

Oh, God, Tony thought, abject humiliation washing over him.  He doesn’t even want to look at me.  He probably knows.  Alphas can tell, right?  They all say they’re able to tell, even when an Omega denies it.   Is this how they know?  Can they smell it?  Steve already notices too damn much.

Fuck, what if he knows? Maybe that was why Steve looked so uncomfortable and wouldn’t look Tony in the eye.  Well, obviously, I’ll have to live in my room for the next twenty years or so, but there’s no reason to panic, Tony told himself with a shaky, caustic huff of a laugh that he smothered with one hand.  Yeah.  Definitely nothing problematic happening here. 

Tony eyes fell shut for a moment, and breathed out through his nose.  Just get Steve out of here, he told himself.  He stood as still as he could, careful not to move and make it worse, except the longer Steve stayed, the worse it would be.  God damn it.  God damn it, he hated this.  He fucking hated this.

He needed Steve to get out of here.  Right. Fucking. Now. 

“I’ve really…I’ve got stuff to do,” Tony ground out.  He gritted his teeth, gnashing his jaw together around the words, trying to keep his body taut.  He glanced over at the workstation, trying to focus on that.  It was hard to do, with Steve right there, but he had no choice.  If he kept looking at Steve, he was going to fall apart, like everything was held together with some string that staring too long at Steve was slowly loosening. 

“Tony,” Steve said again, quieter, gentler, and pulling Tony’s gaze back to him of its own volition.

“You said I could have the garage.  That it could be mine. Well.  What, you want to talk politics some more?” Tony demanded, voice harsh and as forcefully as he dared.  “Or feel like telling me again about how your dead best friend gets more say in my life than I do?” he spat out.

He didn’t quite know where that from, but a well of pain and frustrated, impotent anger came on its heels. It wasn’t aimed at Steve, exactly, but it wasn’t not aimed at him, either.  Tony had just enough time to think, ‘fuck, too far,’ before Steve drew back like he’d been slapped.  Tony opened his mouth to apologize, but couldn’t get any sounds to come out. 

He could see the tension spread out in waves across Steve’s chest, muscles tightening and stance becoming rigid.  Fight or fight harder, Tony had a split-second to recognize, before Steve moved, just, as it turns out, to cross his arms over his chest, but it was movement, and the line was way, way behind Tony, he knew that, he always had to push, didn’t he, but, Tony wasn’t stupid.   He ducked his head, braced himself and waited.  The waiting was the worst.  That was a lie, but he sometimes told himself that when he waited.

After a few shallow breaths, Tony looked up.  There was a sad, knowing look on Steve’s face that was almost as bad as a blow.  Hurt.  In a different way, but it hurt, landing somewhere in the center of his chest with little pinpricks of shame pushing deep inside. 

“I’m sorry, Tony.  I shouldn’t have—I—I’m sorry,” Steve said in a quiet, tight voice.  He sounded upset.  Like he was in pain.  Well, what do you expect when you throw his dead friend in his face?   Steve gave him a lingering look, bit his lip and let his head fall to his chest, then gave a quick nod.  “I’ll be inside.”

Tony didn’t watch him walk out.  When the door slammed in Steve’s wake, Tony jolted at the sound in the now-empty room.  DUM-E, who had picked up a pair of pliers, whined and drooped his claw.  Tony swallowed past the lump in his throat and raised a hand to rub at his face, only to realize he was still holding the candle. 

Steve was gone. That’s what he’d wanted.  Not like that, though.  Fuck. FUCK.  They’d been having a good time.  A great time.  Of course, Tony had to go and ruin everything because he couldn’t control his body or his damn mouth.  

He was slick.  He could feel it, wet and slightly sticky against his boxers.  Shame, bright and hot, flared behind his eyes. It was just biology, he told himself.  Practically an automatic response.  Like breathing.  Which…he needed to do.  Breathe.  In and out, don’t—don’t think about it.  Just breathe.  He sucked in a gulp of air, and let it out again, the sick feeling in his stomach expanding as he felt the slick seep down between his legs.  Don’t think. Just breathe. 

It didn’t mean anything.  He didn’t even want that from Steve.  Which worked out great, seeing as how Steve didn’t want him, either, and definitely wouldn’t now.  Perfect couple, really.   So, his body hadn’t quite gotten the memo, yet.  Not a big deal.  He’d just…he’d deal with it.  It was okay.   This was normal.  Okay, not the sort of weird sort of MST3K porn-o scene he had going here, but—but, he could deal with this. 

This is for your Alpha, a voice in the back of his head reminded him. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.  Well, he didn’t think it was, anyway.  When your Alpha wants you, your body will ready itself to accept your Alpha’s knot.  That had definitely been in the pamphlet.  There had been an exclamation point on the end.  Isn’t it exciting?  It must be.  Look at the punctuation we used!  See! That tells you to be excited about it!

It didn’t feel exciting.  It felt…wrong, he thought, with a surge of disgust.  Steve didn’t want him.  Hell, he’d barely touched Tony, and not like that, not really.  He reached up and rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, pressing down a little, hard enough to feel it, at least.  Why was it different when Steve did it?

Not that Steve had really done anything.  Of course, Steve wouldn’t do that on purpose.  He wouldn’t wrap his hand around the back of Tony’s neck and push down, press Tony down, until his forehead touched the floor and he was fully presented, slick and ready and open.   The concrete would be smooth and cold under him, hard against his knees, and good, God, it would feel so good, and smell a bit like oil, metallic and coppery, and—ow! Fuck.  Tony’s hand jerked to his mouth, and came away with a line of bright red along his finger.  He’d bitten his lip.  He traced his tongue over it, then pressed his hand to his mouth again, blinking and looking around the garage. 

Steve wouldn’t do that.  He said.  He said he didn’t want that.  Not from Tony, anyway.  Tony squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to think about it, not to see it in his head, Steve behind him, stripping him, opening him, looking at him like that, displayed and ready, dripping with want.  He sucked in a harsh, shaky breath and shoved his fist in his mouth.  His body pulsed and jerked, another spurt of warm fluid spilling down his thighs.  Stop.  Stop it. 

Please, God, stop it.

He hated this.  They were right. They were all right, the ones who said Omegas couldn’t control themselves, that it was an Omega’s nature, to want to be fucked.  One touch.  One stupid, God-damn touch, and it was all he could think about. 

He dabbed again at his mouth, but it seemed to have stopped bleeding, then went over to the tall tool chest that stood in one corner of the garage and opened a drawer.  A clear, plastic package of white cotton oil cloths was inside.  He tore it open and pulled a couple out, his mouth flattening into a thin line. 

He walked over and locked the garage door, leaning his forehead against it for a moment.  His chest was tight.  His eyes stung.  There was a queasy, loose sensation in his stomach.  He swallowed, but it took effort, and he was conscious of everything.  It all took effort.  He hated how much effort it took just to get himself under control.  No wonder they won’t let us do anything, he thought.  How can we, when this—this is what happens.  Good for one thing, isn’t that right?

 It wasn’t fair.  He was having a good day, then his stupid body had to go and ruin it, all because Steve had been nice and proud and had touched him, for God’s sake. 

Years of thinking about the ‘bots, the code, the idea of them, months of working on them, and here he was, celebrating success by wiping slick out of his ass because all his stupid brain could think about was how good it would feel if it were Steve’s hands, strong and wide, long, blunted fingers, sliding over him, between him, inside him, filling him. 

Tony unbuttoned his pants and slid the zipper down.  Cleaning himself up was easy enough, but there was something terrible about it, too.  It felt wrong.  Awful.  Mortifying.  He didn’t want to deal with any of this, but he didn’t have much of a choice. Thanks, biology.  Great assist, there.  This is what you’re made for, he heard echoing in his head.  Why would your body do this if it were meant to be any other way?  A warm, moist hole for an Alpha to put his dick in, and you’ll say thanks afterwards, just like all the rest, he thought bitterly. 

He hated this.  He hated his body, and that it didn’t matter if he hated it, because it wasn’t listening to him, anyway.  He hated that it still felt good, even if he didn’t want to want it.  He hated this part, the mess, the evidence that he couldn’t control himself, that he wasn’t any different from any other Omega when you got right down to it, no matter how much he liked to tell himself he wasn’t like that. 

Tony squeezed his eyes shut and did it anyway, wiping the cloths between his legs and down his thighs, where the slick had dripped.  He pulled his pants back up, though his boxers were still damp. It was disgusting, but there wasn’t anything to be done for it, except wait it out. His cock was hard, but he ignored that, too.  There wasn’t anything to do about that, either.

He sat down at his workstation and stared at the pictures from the space telescope that appeared, then faded, from the screen.  He rubbed a hand over his eyes and screwed his mouth shut.  Wanting Steve was a biological imperative.  Nothing more.  Fantasies were normal.   Part of growing up.  It was acting on them without his Alpha that was wrong.  That’s taking something that belongs to your Alpha. 

Your parents said you were acting out, Tony.  I know it feels good when you’re doing it, but that feeling you have afterwards? The guilt?  Do you know why you feel that way, Tony? Because you know that this is for your Alpha, not for you.  You feel guilty when you do it, don’t you?  That’s why it doesn’t feel right when you try, see?  That’s taking something that belongs to your Alpha, and your body knows it. That’s why you can’t enjoy it. 

Don’t worry, Maria, I have some cream he can use. Should dissuade him, but if you keep having problems, call my assistant and let her know. She can help you get something ordered. There’s quite the array of choices these days. Oh, no not the torture devices you’re probably thinking of, goodness no!  This isn’t the Dark Ages.  These are designed to be very comfortable, sanitary, and attractive.  This company, here, it’s the highest rated by Alphas according to Consumer Reports.  Believe it or not, even after Bonding, some Omegas are still prone to lapses.  Not their fault, of course.  Can’t help themselves, can they?  These things, really, they’re for his own good.  Wait until you see how much calmer and happier he is when he doesn’t have this to worry about.

Well, what if your Alpha doesn’t want you, huh, Doc?  What then?  Have an oil cloth and call me in the morning?  God, he had fucking hated that catalog, sitting there menacingly on coffee table by the stack of coasters and a Southern Living proclaiming the “Summer’s Best Cakes” next to an article on how to lose twenty pounds in month.  He’d only looked at it once, even now, the images were enough to make him keep his hands on the keyboard.  His cock hurt, straining against his pants, and leaking small trails in his already-damp boxers.  He didn’t touch himself, though.  Cakes and cages and cock rings, oh my, he thought with an edge of hysteria creeping in. 

He wiped a hand over his eyes and tried to focus on anything that wasn’t how good and terrible it would feel to just find some relief.  That was for his Alpha, and if Steve didn’t want that from him.  Well.  He could do this.  He wasn’t some bunch of hormones that couldn’t fucking think past what his dick was doing.  He could handle this.  He had for years, and it wasn’t really any different now.  Just because Steve was there and could…Steve could touch him.  Steve could make him feel good, and it would be okay.  It wouldn’t be bad, after. But, Steve didn’t want that.  So.  So, he’d just…do whatever it was he was doing. 

Tony spent the rest of the afternoon staring at the most recent Clay Millennium Problem involving Clay-Mills equations and the existence of a mass gap in the solutions to the quantum versions, which at least required enough concentration to take his mind off things.  He wasn’t any closer to figuring it out when his phone rang, startling him out of the cocoon of numbers he had built around himself.  Tony considered not answering, but she’d just call back, if for no other reason than she wanted to be able to tell her ladies who lunch that she’d talked to her son on his birthday.  That being the proper thing to do and all.

“Hi, mom,” Tony said into the phone. 

“Anthony!  Oh, its—it’s so good to hear your voice.  Happy Birthday!” she replied breathlessly.

“Thanks,” Tony responded flatly.  She hadn’t expected him to pick up and had been preparing her voicemail in her head, he could tell from the surprise in her voice. 

“Should I sing?” she asked with a breathy sigh, like the conversation was already exhausting.  “You’re probably too old for that now, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Tony replied listlessly, picking at a thread on the bottom of his shirt.  He thought about Steve’s shirt, the one with the patch on it, tucked in Tony’s drawer.  My Alpha sews, Mom. Also, he doesn’t want me, but no need to call the doctor or look at that stupid catalogue, I behaved myself.  Happy Birthday to me.  

“How are you doing?  I’ve tried not to bother you.   I know how it is, newly Bonded and all,” she said with a tittering, nervous laugh.  “Probably don’t want to hear from your poor, old mother, now that you have your Alpha, but you could at least email sometimes, Anthony.  Your father and I were beginning to worry.”

That may or may not have been true.  He rather hoped it was.  Let them worry.  Whether it was worry over Tony’s welfare or worry that Tony had screwed up things badly enough that Steve was pissed at them, it all amounted to the same small, useless bit of payback he could hope to get.

“Things are fine,” Tony replied noncommittally. 

“Good!  Good, that’s good to hear,” she cooed, then paused, and Tony could almost hear her clicking her perfectly manicured nails on the top of her desk.  The gilded, gold-leafed monstrosity she’d bought because someone told her it was classical and she confused that with classy.  “Everything’s alright, then?  With you and Captain Rogers?”

He gave me a robot for my birthday, and we put out my birthday candle in the best way possible, and then I lost the plot, Tony thought to himself.

“Fine,” he said instead. 

“Did he get you something nice for your birthday?  Alice’s son, David, do you remember him?  He was Bonded just a couple of months before you were.  She thought he was never going to find anyone after his father lost so much in the recession.  You know, real estate really took a hit.  Your father is so careful about diversifying, thankfully, but I know she despaired. Anyway, his Alpha gave him a Rolex for his birthday.  One of those limited edition ones for Omegas that track your Heats.  Wasn’t that thoughtful?” his mom asked.  Come on, Anthony. Surely, you can do better than that.  I need something to tell the ladies.

“Thoughtful,” Tony repeated.   He did remember David.  Small and stick-thin, with wide gray eyes and an avid interest in those romance books with pirates or knights or whatever strong, handsome Alpha was going to sweep him off his feet and carry him away from mundanity.  David’s Alpha was sixty-something years old, pock-marked, liver-spotted and balding, save for a few long strands he combed over his head.  Congrats, David.  Bet that watch was super-helpful. Tony rubbed a hand against his forehead.  He could almost swear he heard ticking, but it was his heart, beating in his ear that held the phone to it. 

“Steve gave me a, ah.  A piece of art,” Tony replied. 

“Oh?” his mom questioned, clearly curious.  “An artist we know?”  I’m asking for a friend, he thought to himself with a smirk.  She didn’t know the first thing about art, and didn’t care, as evidenced by her penchant for Thomas Kinkade and his creepy floral fairy vomit.

“New artist,” Tony answered without answering.  “We’re going out tonight. Dinner and the observatory.” 

“Oh, that’s nice,” she said, in a way that clearly implied it was something far less than nice.  Score one for Alice.  “Ah, is—is everything else going well between you two?  Getting along, and all that?”

“I guess,” Tony equivocated.  He wasn’t in the mood to give her what she was looking for.  Some kind of absolution from him that the happenstance of his happiness could provide.  Let her pat herself on the back that her son’s Alpha was some big to-do at SHIELD, and so what if he didn’t hand out Rolexes, Alice, look at SI’s stock prices since we hitched our son to this little red, white and blue wagon.  Plus, we’re diversified, you bitch, Tony snorted, then scrubbed a hand over his mouth to cover it. 

“That’s good.  That’s good, Anthony.  I—well, I suppose I just wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday.  Your father said to tell you the same.  He has a meeting with one of the suppliers or I’m sure he’d tell you himself,” she lied smoothly.  Of course, by this point, it had to be easy for her.  Tony thought she might even have convinced herself she believed it. 

“Okay, well, thanks.  I should probably go get ready.  Big night, you know?” Tony said with a grimace. 

“Of course!  You’re going to wear something nice, right?  None of that weird stuff you used to wear around the house, I hope.  One of the suits I sent you, maybe?  I’m sure you know what Steve likes by now, but you do look good in pastels.  That light blue, and I know I sent at least two different—“ she began, finding her stride in telling him what to wear.  Just like old times.

“Steve likes red,” Tony cut in.  He actually had no idea what Steve liked, but it shut her up.  “Says it looks good with my skin or something.”

“Red—oh.  Oh., Red.  Well, of course, whatever your Alpha likes,” she rushed out.  “You know him best.”  

“Right,” Tony replied. 

He could hear her now, down at the club, picking at a salad with the dressing on the side and two glasses into a bottle of wine to make up the calories, talking about how her son’s Alpha invested in artwork, something that will only increase in value, Alice, so smart, isn’t it?  And something they can enjoy together.  Oh, and he likes to show Anthony off.   Red.  I know, I know, it is a little scandalous, Alice, dear, but he just loves how it sets off Anthony’s skin.  I spent years trying to get that boy to take care of his complexion, but you know how it is, one word from his Alpha…

“Have fun tonight, Anthony,” she said.  For a moment, there was the hint of something in her tone that might have been regret or wistfulness or something like loss, but it was gone before Tony could really catch it.  “Don’t forget to smile.”

Fuck you, Alice.

He hung up without saying goodbye, and lifted his head to look at the ‘bots.  “So.  I think that went well,” Tony offered.  DUM-E nudged Tony’s shoulder with his pincers and offered him a crushed up can of soda he’d probably dug out of the garbage.  It was red, Tony noticed, and huffed out something that could’ve been a laugh, though there wasn’t much humor behind it. Tony took it, and patted the side of DUM-E’s telescoping arm.  “Thanks, buddy.” 

He really did need to go inside and get ready.  Steve had gone to some trouble for the evening, so he could at least make an effort in return, particularly after his screw-up this afternoon.  He would have to make that right, somehow. 

What said, sorry I used your dead best friend to get out of an embarrassing situation?  Was that daffodils?  Jesus.  How he’d managed to take what had seemed like such a great day and fuck it up this much was truly one of life’s great mysteries.  He should put himself on the Millennium Problem list, but he suspected his self-sabotaging stupidity would be languishing there, unsolved, a lot longer than Riemann and his hypothesis.

Tony tried to muster his earlier excitement about the observatory, but could only manage a dim reflection of it.  Fake it ‘til you make it, right? Though steering clear of the Tesla coil sounded like the better part of valor, all things considered. 

When he peeked out the garage door, Steve was nowhere in sight.  The deck was empty, save for Tony’s telescope and an easel that was folded up and leaning against one of the rails.  Great.  Steve was doing his angst-painting.  That always boded well.

Tony hurried across the driveway and back into the cabin.  The shower was running, though for how long, God only knew, so Tony dashed past it and into his room, closing the door behind him.  He opened his closet and stared at the contents.

“I have nothing to wear,” he muttered to the full closet.  Blue.  His mom said blue.  So, clearly, that was out, he thought, reaching for a pair of tan slacks and a cream button-up shirt.  He did settle on a blue striped tie, though, if only because it was all he could find, stuck down in the back of his sock drawer.  The silk was wrinkled, so he laid it on his dresser and put a few books on top of it in the hope that gravity and pressure would work.

His hair was its usual uncooperative self, but he at least managed to get it looking less like it was styled by sticking a fork in a light socket.  A dot of cologne went on the insides of his wrists and behind his ears.  He YouTubed how to do smoky eyes, but by the time he had finished his first attempt, he came to the conclusion that the YouTube channel was sponsored by raccoons, because he didn’t look so much smoky-eyed as about-to-rifle-through-your-trash-for-scraps-eyed.  Getting the eyeshadow off left his face red and blotchy in patches, but at least he was less likely to be mistaken for the Hamburgler. 

Domestic science failed him, since the tie was still wrinkled, but he put it on anyway and smoothed it down as best he could.  Taking a quick look at his reflection in the mirror above the dresser, he pivoted around, tilting his head to the side as he studied himself. 

He wanted to look good.  He had to apologize to Steve for earlier, and it would be better if he looked good, which made no sense, but experience told him it was probably true.  It was like a no solution equation.  No matter what variable he put in, he was left with a contradiction.  So, best to aim for looking presentable, at a minimum.

He remembered David, all fine-boned and delicate angles.  Maybe that’s what Steve liked.  Probably David knew how to have a conversation with his Alpha that didn’t involve setting him off and sending him running.  Oh, you know I don’t follow all that political stuff, darling, David would have said and looked down at his watch.  Almost time to take your little blue pill, dear.

Tony thought he might be a real asshole sometimes.

He sucked in a bracing breath, pulled the door closed behind him and walked down the hall towards the kitchen.  Someone, meaning Steve, had cleaned up their brunch.  The dishes were drying on the rack, and thank goodness, the pepper shaker had been refilled, so he could cross that off the list. 

His mouth twisted up in self-disgust.  He really was terrible at this.  At least Steve got SI in the bargain.  Forgive me, but I come with great financials?  He should put in more of an effort, though. Contribute.  He picked up the pepper shaker, then set it back down and rocked it back and forth along the edge of the table. 

Maybe Steve would like a nice differential equation. 

God, he was so fucking useless.  He had robots that had thus far managed the equivalent of tasks a two-year old could accomplish, and an idea for a missile that would never happen because no one would give a weapon designed by an Omega a second look lest it turn out to shoot rainbows and unicorns or some shit.  So, why he was wasting his time on that when he could be at least making some kind of attempt to—to—oh, holy fuck.

“Hey, Tony,” Steve said, walking into the kitchen were Tony was, Jesus Christ, playing with the pepper.  He stopped rolling the shaker and tried to grab for it, nearly knocking it over before managing to get it put back in its place next to the salt.  “You look great.”

“You thanks too.  I mean, thanks.  You, too.  Look great,” Tony stammered, squeezing his eyes together in frustration.  Because, dear Lord, Steve did look good.  It was easy to forget that.  Or, not exactly forget, but not be so acutely aware of it.  Just one of those background facts that Tony filed away as true, but unimportant for daily living.  He was definitely noticing now, though.  Definitely very aware of it now, thanks so much, brain, good timing.  Helpful.  Obviously, this information and a vocabulary above that of Furby at the same time was too much to ask, but whatever.

Maybe his sudden awareness was because Steve had clearly gone to some trouble.  He was wearing slate gray slacks that fit him like he’d made a deal with the Devil, and a dark indigo shirt and matching tie that made his eyes seem an impossible shade of blue.  

Maybe it was because a couple hours ago, Tony had been imagining Steve mounting him in the middle of his garage while his ‘bots looked on and probably waved oil cloths and offered bottled water. 

Hard to say for sure.

“Thanks,” Steve replied, mouth ticking up at the corners, clearly somewhat thrown by Tony’s momentary lapse into good manners.  “Ready to go?”

“Uh, yeah.  Yeah,” Tony repeated, clearing his suddenly dry throat. “Steve…about…about what I said. Earlier.  In the garage.  About, ah.  About your friend.”

“It’s okay, Tony,” Steve put in, mouth flattening against the words. 

“No, it really isn’t.  I didn’t mean it.  I didn’t, I swear.  I just…I needed space, and instead of just asking for it like a normal person, I was an asshole, and I’m sorry.  I really am.  And thanks for not, you know,” Tony finished, swallowing heavily and biting at his lip.  “Freaking out about it.”

“You weren’t wrong,” Steve replied softly after a beat of silence.  “What you said.  I didn’t much like how you said it, but…you had a point.”

“I did?” Tony questioned with a frown. 

“I shouldn’t have to find some way to relate my life to yours in order to give your opinion weight, and that’s what I was doing.  You don’t do that with me, and I never question why not, because that’s just the way it is, but my life experiences aren’t what make your opinions valid,” Steve said while Tony blinked in owlish amazement at him. 

“Okay, I can do non-Euclidian math in my head, but I have no idea what you just said,” Tony spluttered, shaking his head. 

“I know.  But, I’m going to work on getting you to understand,” Steve replied evenly. 

“Sounds time consuming,” Tony pointed out.

“I can do this all day,” Steve said, a small smile pulling up the corners of his mouth, and Tony had the feeling he’d missed something, but he was too relieved that Steve wasn’t pissed to care.  “I’m going to make mistakes, Tony,” he continued, turning serious.  “The voting thing. Today…in the garage…you were so happy, and I…well.  You said you had work to do, and I—I didn’t listen.  I messed up, and I’m sorry. That’s all I can say,” Steve finished. 

“Wasn’t—wasn’t your fault,” Tony objected with a weak shrug.  “Not a big deal.  I was the asshole, anyway.  I--I really am sorry.  About your friend, I mean.  And…for what I said.”

“Thank you,” Steve replied.  “He’d have liked you, I think.  He’d have told me I was in way over my head, but he’d have liked you.”

“You think?  Really?  What was his name?” Tony asked curiously.

Steve paused at the threshold of the front door, one hand on the knob.  Tony could almost see Steve’s mind turning the question over and over, though he wasn’t sure why.  He’d never lost anyone close to him, though. 

“James,” Steve answered.  “His name was James.”  Weirdly, Tony’s first thought was that Steve was lying, which made no sense, because why would anyone lie about that?

“That’s a nice name,” Tony replied, which he instantly thought was a stupid thing to say, but Steve grinned, wide and unabashed, like Tony had said something delightfully insightful. 

“He hated it,” Steve chuckled.  “Wanted to be something cool, like Clark or Gary.  After you,” Steve said, holding open the door for Tony.  Clark or Gary, Tony mouthed silently.  Okay.  Outside the cabin, Tony could hear the sound of tires on gravel, which meant their ride had arrived.  “That’d be Happy with the car.  There’s a little place not too far from SHIELD. Kind of a hole in the wall, but I’ve heard its good.  Thought we’d stop there for dinner before the—ah, observatory,” Steve suggested.

“Sure.  Sounds good,” Tony mumbled. 

Now that they were past the awkward apology portion of the evening’s competition, he was insanely conscious of his words, the way he moved, the way he fucking breathed.  It was annoying as hell, but trying to make himself stop just made it worse.  Where was anxiety overriding everything else and sending you into a blind panic when you needed it?

He slid into the back of the car next to Steve, who greeted Happy warmly and gave him the name of what Tony assumed was the restaurant. 

“Thanks again for letting me meet DUM-E and U,” Steve said after the car pulled off their private road and onto the highway.  Steve was tapping his fingers against the car door and staring out the window where the road had been carved out of the side of the mountain. 

It made Tony think of his phone call with his mom, her tapping her nails on her desk, probably impatient to get off the phone with him once she’d accomplished her goal.  That made him think of David.  Dear little David, who was getting fucked according to an expensive timepiece.  

“No problem,” Tony responded in a flat voice. 

Tony turned and looked out the window, mimicking Steve, though he kept his hands in his lap.  He didn’t know why he was so damned fixated on the no-doubt very timely David.  He didn’t want that from Steve, afternoon hormonal freak-out aside, and even if he did, Steve didn’t, so it was a moot point.  It wasn’t even a point.  It was nothing.  It didn’t exist. 

You worry too much, Howard.  Tony’s just high strung.  He’ll settle down after he’s been knotted a few times.  You’ll see.

Obie had looked at him then, and it had been one of those taking-looks.  The kind that followed you, that you knew were still happening, even when you couldn’t see them.  He remembered hating Obie a little then.  Swearing to himself that it wasn’t true, it wouldn’t be true, he wouldn’t let it.   And yet, here he was, jealous of David and his limited edition Viagra clock. 

“So, did you work on anything new this afternoon?” Steve asked.  He was clearly trying to make conversation.  Effort, Tony reminded himself. 

“Just some math stuff,” Tony replied. 

“Like Sudoku?” Steve questioned, brows drawing together as he looked over at Tony.  “Couple of the guys at work love that.  Got it on their phones.  Looks tough.”

“No, not like Sudoku,” Tony snapped in agitated annoyance.  “Millennium Problems.  Not who Taylor’s dating, what Zayn’s up to, massive debt or a fucked-up environment kind of problems.  See, there are these seven problems the Clay Mathematics Institute put out back in 2000, and no one’s solved them. One of them, the Riemann Hypothesis is from 1859, and we still can’t figure it out, so they put these out there, with a million-dollar prize attached to each, to celebrate the millennium, and you were screwing with me on the Sudoku thing, weren’t you?”

“Maybe a little,” Steve replied, biting back a grin.  His eyes were doing that soft, crinkly thing that Tony liked so much, which made Tony’s heartrate do that thing he didn’t like so much.  “You figure any of them out yet?”

“In an afternoon?  Please.  I’d need at least the weekend,” Tony scoffed, then let out a short huff of laughter and grinned back at Steve.  “What’d you do all afternoon?”  Tony asked.  You know, after I kicked you out so I could drip on the floor in peace.

“Painted,” Steve said, and left it at that, which meant Tony had been right.  It was that kind of painting, the kind with the dark swirls that went everywhere and nowhere and looked a bit like the dark, dead eyes of the animals mounted on the walls of his father’s study.  It was probably Tony’s fault, the painting.  Making Steve think of his dead friend.  He was such an asshole. Of course, Steve had lost people, doing…whatever it was Steve did.  That made sense, though Tony hadn’t really thought about it until Steve had said it.  There were a lot of things about Steve he still didn’t know, and until the thing his morning, he’d been fairly content not knowing.  Now, it just seemed all these unknown variables were floating around out there waiting to screw up his nicely ordered existence where Steve didn’t bend cutlery when Tony said the wrong thing.

“What you do…with SHIELD.  It’s dangerous, right?” Tony heard himself ask. 

“Sometimes,” Steve replied.  “It can be.”

“I mean, you said.  About your friend,“ Tony began.

“I’ve already arranged things.  With SHIELD.  In case something happens,” Steve cut in before Tony could ask more about what had happened. 

That—that wasn’t at all what Tony had been talking about.  They were talking about Steve’s friend. Tony was going to apologize. Again.  Or something.  They weren’t going to talk about this…this thing that wasn’t going to happen. 

“What I do.  I know the risks,” Steve continued, apparently oblivious to the fact that they weren’t talking about this.  “I wouldn’t want…if something did happen, I’d want you to be taken care of.  To…have options.  If you wanted to—to Bond again, or…whatever you wanted to do.”

“You’re not going to die,” Tony said, blinking at Steve while something hammered its way out of his chest.  He glanced towards Happy, who was driving the car while temporarily deaf, it seemed. 

Steve wasn’t going to die. That was ridiculous.  Steve was great at…whatever it was Steve did.  No need to panic.  No need to worry that he would end up with some old, balding geezer who smelled like Preparation H, popped little, blue pills, didn’t draw him robots and bought him nice watches.  Definitely no reason to panic.

“Tony,” Steve said, drawing out the word in a gentle sigh.  “I’m just…I’m saying I’ve taken care of that.  You.  I should’ve mentioned it before, but. Well.  I didn’t.  I don’t know why.  It didn’t come up, or—I didn’t want to talk about it, I guess.  That—I’m trying not to do that.  Not talk about things.  It’s hard sometimes, but…anyway, look, if anything happens to me, you’ll have enough money to do what you want, if you’re careful, without going back to your parents.  Technically, they can’t make you, now that you’ve been Bonded.  If you wanted to Bond again, well.  That’d be up to you.  But, only if you wanted to.  You don’t need to worry about that, okay?”

“I don’t want another Alpha,” Tony said in a high, thin voice.  Probably because of the altitude. Or the fact that he was about to hyperventilate. 

“Well, that’s—that’s what I’m saying.  You wouldn’t have to Bond again, if you didn’t want to,” Steve replied.  That hadn’t exactly been what Tony said, but he didn’t correct Steve.  “Is this what had you upset about Buc—James this afternoon?  I thought…maybe I’d—maybe I’d done something wrong…something that bothered you…” he trailed off, frowning in confusion.

“I don’t follow all that political stuff,” Tony said stiffly.  He was going to try, dammit.  Fill that pepper shaker like pro, he thought to himself and nearly snorted at the absurdity of it all.  He was terrible at this.  Miraculously finding his inner domestic diva was probably a lost cause.  There was a picture of him on a milk carton somewhere, but he’d never see it because his Alpha was the one who did all the cooking and grocery shopping.  There was irony and then there was just being bitch-slapped by a universe of your own making.

“I’m betting you know more than I do about it.  I’ve been kind of…out of the loop you could say,” Steve admitted, looking down at his lap and lacing his hands together.  “Never been really good with politicians, anyway.   Always some butter and egg man behind him, you know?  Can’t trust a word they say.”

“Butter and egg man?” Tony repeated, giving Steve a baffled look. 

“Ah.  Someone who puts up the money.  Buys their vote, all that,” Steve explained, shifting a bit in his seat.

“Like a lobbyist?” Tony asked. 

“I guess,” Steve replied, turning back to look out the window.  “They were always after the ward boss, got couple of ‘em, but Mom said it was on account of them bein’ Irish and Catholic.”

“Back in Brooklyn, you mean?” Tony asked.  Steve’s New York accent was showing, something it rarely did.  Usually only popped up when they were talking about something to do with Steve’s childhood.  Ward bosses. Huh.  He hadn’t heard that term before, but California was its own political beast and probably didn’t share a lot in common with the East Coast.

“Ah,” Steve mumbled, rubbing a hand over his mouth.  “Yeah.”

“Huh.  Don’t remember reading anything about that, but we don’t get a lot of East Coast news out here,” Tony replied. 

“It’s been a while ago,” Steve said, swiping a hand over his mouth.  “So, I hope you like Italian.  This place is supposed to have the best tortellacci, at least according to…to Phil. So, ah.  Guess you know its authentic,” Steve finished with a frown, like it had just occurred to him that they might be heading to low-rent Olive Garden. 

“I’m sure it will be great,” Tony assured him.  So help him, he would say it was great if they brought the jar of Ragu to the table and poured it over microwaved mac-n-cheese. 

“Hope so,” Steve replied, then returned to his staring contest with the window. 

Tony’s mind decided to spend the rest of the drive replaying each of the day’s fuck-ups, just in case he needed extra incentive to be on his best behavior. 

Steve wasn’t going to die.

Like his friend.  His friend who died, Tony’s mind chimed in.  Remember, the one you like to bring up when it’s convenient to help yourself out?

Better to focus on how ridiculous he’d looked this morning when Steve caught him leaving the bathroom.  Sure, it was breathtakingly humiliating, but at least it didn’t come with a side of soul-crushing guilt with a to-go serving of selfish panic that he might end up in a situation where he had to find another Alpha. 

It was late afternoon by the time they got to the restaurant, and Tony had to admit he was actually hungry.   He hadn’t finished the late breakfast this morning, on account of deciding to go temporarily insane and channel his inner Michael Moore.

The restaurant was tucked between a big box sports store and a strip mall that had an office supply store, nail salon and dry cleaners, as must be required by some law.  It looked like a house someone had forgotten to tear down, with clapboard sides painted green and white under a slanted roof.  The sign proclaimed it the Cucina Romana, and boasted it had been established in 1989.  Ah.  Charming.  Just like Rome, then, Tony thought as he followed Steve up the brick steps and inside.

It was cozy, Tony would give it that.  Long wooden booths along the large front window were sparsely occupied.  Scattered tables covered in red-checked tablecloths under real candles sitting in cream-colored saucers.  A line of wine bottles sat atop the chair railing and circled half the room.  Posters of Italy, mostly the stock kind of the Coliseum, Forum and the Leaning Tower, decorated the walls, but it was cheery and smelled promising. 

The maître’d led them to their table, off to one side and against the far wall.  Heads turned as Steve passed, Tony noted.  Some of them glanced over Tony, probably wondering how the hell that happened, but most went back to their own meal and conversation.  It was strange, Tony thought, looking around.  This was the first time he’d been out with Steve, he realized. One of the first times he’d been out since they Bonded, period. 

No taking-looks.  None.  Wow.  This was…different.  Odd.  Not bad-odd, just…he hadn’t realized how much energy it took to be looked at until he didn’t have to walk a gauntlet of those looks and what they said without saying anything.  The few Alphas in the room ignored him, of course.  He belonged to Steve now, so they didn’t get to look, at least not without permission. The mostly Beta patrons gave him a few curious stares, but it was different with them.  It was always different with them.  

Steve held his chair out for him and then sat down on the opposite side of the table. The maitre’d handed Steve a menu, and left, while a server brought around water. 

“Did you want to try the tortellacci or something else?” Steve asked, looking up from the menu. 

“Tortellacci’s fine,” Tony replied. 

“Is this an ‘Ellis is fine’-fine or do you really want the tortellacci?” Steve asked, eyebrows raised. 

“This is an ‘I’m going to start chewing in the candle wax if we don’t get some breadsticks’-fine,” Tony answered. 

Later, Tony would swear it happened just this way:  Steve turned a bit in his seat, caught the waiter’s eye, and plates of food suddenly appeared. 

 “Like it?” Steve asked, sounding amused some time later.  Probably because Tony had scarfed down half his portion like he was Lardass Hogan at the Great Tri-County Bake Off and Pie-Eat.  He stopped with a pasta shell partway to his mouth and licked his lips, lowering his fork.  “Here,” Steve said, cutting off a portion of his chicken cacciatore and scooping it onto Tony’s plate.  “You have to try this.”

“If I feel like, if I said I couldn’t possibly eat that, Maury Povich is going to show up with an envelope,” Tony admitted with a grin.  

“I—don’t know what that means, but I’ll take it as a yes,” Steve replied. 

“So…” Tony started, shoving the food around his plate with his fork.  “Don’t suppose you’d actually like to tell me what it is you do for SHIELD?”

“You know I can’t,” Steve replied.  He actually sounded somewhat apologetic about it.

“Okay, not asking specifics, here, just…I mean, it isn’t like you’re pulling a Mr. Incredible, sitting behind a desk, right?” Tony asked.  “Obviously, you do the punchy-kicky stuff.  Technical terms,” Tony said, waving his fork in the air between them when Steve’s brows shot together.  “And now you have, let’s go with close ties?  Close ties to a weapons manufacturer.  Hi, I’m Close Ties, nice to meet you,” Tony quipped with a nod.   “So, what’s the plan?”

“I’m just supposed to ignore the punchy-kicky thing, I suppose,” Steve replied with a loose smile.  Tony waffled his head back and forth and took another bite of pasta.  “What do you mean, plan?”

“Well, other than picking me because of my stellar non-verbal communication skills, you have to have something in mind for SI, right?” Tony prodded.  “When Howard—Dad—retires or, I don’t know, loses the ability to speak in a tragic autoerotic asphyxiation experiment gone wildly, karmically wrong.”

Steve choked on the drink of water he was taking, and put the glass down carefully, giving Tony a bemused look. 

“It could happen,” Tony said, and went back to pushing his pasta around until he realized he’d done a fairly decent recreation of the molecular structure of glycerol. 

“I haven’t really thought much about it,” Steve said.  “Have you? The company, I mean.  Not the—other thing.  Have…have you thought much about it?” Steve was blushing. That was cute.  In a God, why must you torture me so, kind of way.

“No,” Tony said quickly.  “Not really.  I mean, some.  Just because I would hear Dad talking company stuff with Obie or whoever.”

“Obie?” Steve asked.

“Obadiah Stane, his sort of business partner.  Dad always did the designs. Obie’s the business guy. CEO, officially,” Tony explained.  “You’ll probably be working with him, really.  Obie’s a good guy.  Smart.  Knows his way around the military and all.  You’ll like him.”

“Sounds like,” Steve responded in a measured tone.  “Any ideas?  For the company, I mean?”

Tony tapped the tines of his fork on the edge of the plate, then looked up at Steve. 

“A few.  Maybe.  Nothing dramatic,” Tony assured him.  “Expand some product lines, diversify, that kind of thing.”  Stop speaking. Seriously, just stop speaking.  Why is it so hard?  Dead best friend.  Dead best friend, Tony chanted.  Tony had already screwed up once today by running his mouth when he could’ve just shut up.  He wasn’t going to do it again.  He wasn’t.  He—“We have way too many resources committed to production of old lines and not nearly enough invested in R&D.”  Dammit.  So close.

“Seems smart,” Steve replied.  It did?  Okay.  Tony felt himself relax, some of the tension draining from his shoulders.  He took another bite, just to give his mouth something else to do.  “SI is pretty niche right now.  Short and medium range ballistic weaponry, mostly, right?  But, a lot of warfare is moving to precision strikes, unmanned drones, mobile units.  Not the kind of thing they launch from an aircraft carrier.”

“Exact—that’s exactly what I’m talking about!” Tony nearly shouted, banging his knee on the underside of the table.  He forced himself to lower his voice, but couldn’t help leaning forward, punching at the air between them with his fork as he talked.  “SI’s been good at lobbying to get its projects approved. That’s Obie, your butter and egg man, so to speak, but Hammer Industries just got the contract for the tactical drones the Army wants, and that Phalanx anti-missile defense system the Navy just started implementing came out of General Dynamics, but we should’ve had that years ago.  I mean, hell, we make the missiles, we should know how to defend against them.”

“It’s a shame you haven’t given this much thought,” Steve observed mildly.  Tony opened his mouth to say something, snapped it shut, and then caught the teasing gleam in Steve’s eye.

“You’re screwing with me,” Tony said sullenly. 

“I’m really not,” Steve responded.  He was doing that thing again where he looked at Tony with a gentle, hazy expression that made his eyes slant and face go all soft.  It made Tony’s stomach go all watery and his heart start to pound in his chest, while his brain played catch-up, trying to figure out how he stumbled into doing something right.  “I think you know a lot about the company.  Probably a lot more than you’ve let on to anyone.  I think you did a bit more than just sit back and listen to your father and his friend talk.  And I think you have more ideas in that head of yours than you know what to do with.”

“So what if I do?  No one’s going to listen to me, anyway,” Tony pointed out with as much nonchalance as he could manage.  It was true.  They made weapons, for Christ’s sake. They weren’t going to listen to an Omega.  Even if his ideas were better, even if he was somehow able to get the R&D people to try one of his designs, they could never sell it.  No military organization would buy a weapon designed by an Omega.  Wasn’t going to happen.

But, it wasn’t like he’d thought about it.

“You do have ideas, though,” Steve reiterated. 

“Maybe a few,” Tony admitted. 

“Okay,” Steve said, and went back to his cacciatore.  He seemed content to leave it at that.  Which was…Tony didn’t know what it was.  He had no experience with someone not demanding a full answer.  Tony shifted in his seat and felt his leg bouncing nervously underneath the table, like it was trying to tap out a rhythm in time with his heartrate and couldn’t keep up.  He ran his hand over it and pressed down to make it stop.

“That’s it?  Just…okay?” Tony repeated with a confused sort of agitation. 

“You’ll tell me when you’re ready.  Or not,” Steve shrugged.  Tony could recognize the invitation by now.  He also knew it was impossible for him to ignore it.  He suspected Steve knew that, too.  Tony’s self-resolve was being slowly chipped away at by Steve’s barrage of interesting topics, and damn if Tony wasn’t coming to firmly believe that Steve sat around and thought this out beforehand. 

“Even if I did…have ideas…no one is going to listen to me.  So.  What’s the point?” Tony demanded flatly. 

“I’ll listen to you,” Steve replied.  “I’m not saying the rest of the world is going to bend its ear quite so easily, but, you might be surprised.   The military likes things that work.  They have to constantly innovate, because as soon as they put out a new technology, the other guys are figuring out ways to copy it and beat it.  Show them what you can do is better.  Not a little better.  A lot better.  That’s not fair, but somehow, I think you might just be able to do it. Maybe some will still care.  People don’t change that quickly, I know, but a lot of them just want results.”

“You’d really let me…I mean, you’d be okay with…all that?  Your Omega.  Building weapons.  You’d just be all--all fine with that,” Tony asked with a snort of disbelief.

“Tony, I’m not you, but I’m not an idiot, either.  I know what the schematic for a missile casing looks like, and you had one sitting on your desk by the water bottle U grabbed,” Steve told him, making Tony blanch and nearly choke on his tortellacci.  “I know you think I’m pulling your leg, but I do actually have some inkling of what it’s like to be told you can’t do something you know you can do just fine if they’d give you a shot at it.  Or…well, maybe I couldn’t have done it just fine.  They were probably right, about me, at least, but I know how much I hated being told I couldn’t.  I also know how well I listened.”

“I’m going out on a limb here and saying ‘not well,’” Tony remarked.

“Not well,” Steve affirmed.  “That’s…something of an understatement, but let’s go with that,” he continued with a slight smile that Tony thought was directed inward as much as to Tony. “Tony…look, we’re not always going to agree.  I’ll try to handle it better than I did this morning.  I meant what I said.  About Simpson.  If he’s your guy, then that’s good enough for me.  But…I get mad sometimes.  I say the wrong thing.  I don’t say enough of the right things…I’m trying, though,” Steve told him, voice ebbing with weary frustration.  “I really am trying, Tony.”

The sketch of Maria flashed in Tony’s mind.  Forty minutes spent arguing about the merits of incrementalism versus the kind of sweeping, New Deal-esque changes Steve favored over hamburgers and potato salad that had too much mayonnaise.  The little bottle of pills that gave Tony a modicum of freedom and control.  The way Steve glanced away when Tony typed the security code into the garage door.

How Steve looked at him after U put out the candle. How Steve had said, you did it, and meant Tony.  And it hadn’t been an accusation, but an exclamation full of awe and pride and…joy. 

“It’s not a missile.  It’s an individually-guided cluster sub-munition, actually,” Tony corrected after a moment more of hesitation.  He sucked in a breath and waited, rubbing his hands along the tops of his thighs. 

He could feel his knuckles scrape against the underside of the table, but kept doing it.  It gave him something to focus on, something to ground him, keep him here instead of letting his head run away, like it sometimes needed to when things got to be too overwhelming.  See? You see that, Maria?  He’s not even listening to me!  He blinked back the sudden stinging in his eyes and looked up at Steve with an expectant rush of, not excitement, exactly, but hope.  Maybe.  Maybe, hope.  Maybe he could hope.

“Ah,” Steve said with a smile that looked somehow relieved.  “I could take it to SHIELD. See if there’s any interest.  If there is, might help grease the wheels at SI.”

It took Tony a couple of seconds to process the words, like a door he needed to unlock and couldn’t quite get the key to slide in properly.  There was a mental click when it finally fit, and something opened that he hadn’t realized had been closed.  Inside him, between them, he wasn’t sure, but there was a sliver of light coming through, and a way forward that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“Yeah?” Tony asked. His voice shook more than he wanted it to, but he’d gotten his leg to stop tapping, and his hands to stop moving, so he supposed that was progress.

“Yeah,” Steve replied with an easy smile.  Tony could see some of the tension leaking out of Steve’s shoulders, which made the tightness in his own muscles slowly start to ease.  “You’d like their R&D division.  I’ll have to take you for a tour one of these days.”

“I’d like that,” Tony said, almost shyly, glancing up at Steve.  Tony picked at the rest of the food on his plate for a moment, then gave Steve another quick look.  “I’ve got other ideas. Not just the missile.”

“Individually-guided cluster sub-munition,” Steve corrected with a teasing smile.  “Good.  I like your ideas.”

Steve liked his ideas. Which was…close to liking him.  It had to be.  It felt like it could be almost the same thing, if you squinted.

“Well.  Thus far, we’ve covered politics, clandestine advanced weaponry design, and I take it you’re Catholic, so that’s religion,” Tony ticked off as he chewed.  “Why not knock out the rest of the controversial subjects and be done with it?”

“Okaaaaay,” Steve said dubiously.

“Coke or Pepsi?” Tony asked.

“Um…Coke, I guess,” Steve replied, giving Tony a questioning look.

“Young Elvis or Fat Elvis?” Tony continued.

“…Young?” Steve said, looking around the restaurant like he might want to phone a friend.

“Which 007?  No pressure, but the answer is Connery,” Tony prompted.

“Connery,” Steve grinned.  He leaned back in his seat and splayed his legs out, smiling warmly at Tony across the table.  It was…nice. This was nice.  Being out with Steve like this.  Tony paused and glanced around, where other couples and families, tables of friends or coworkers, were laughing and eating and having a night out, like normal people.  Having fun. Enjoying themselves. 

We look like them, Tony realized.  We look happy.  Fake it ‘til you make it.  Was he faking? Had he been faking?  He didn’t know anymore.  Tick-tock, his mind supplied. 

My life experiences aren’t what make your opinions valid.

Maybe he didn’t want Tony.  But, it was possible Steve wouldn’t want a David, either. He could work with that.  That could be enough.  He didn’t have to be wanted.  Just not to be unwanted. That could be enough.

“Beach or skiing?” Tony asked, clearing his throat and taking a drink of water.

“Definitely beach,” Steve answered quickly. 

“Flintstones or Jetsons?” Tony asked. 

“You like the Jetsons, so I’ll go with them,” Steve said, bringing Tony up short for a second.  Steve remembered that stupid little detail.  It was…unexpected.  The way Steve paid attention to him, like Tony mattered.  Like even the stupid stuff about him, the stuff that made him ridiculous or different, mattered to Steve.  It probably shouldn’t make him feel so good, Steve’s approval.  Probably shouldn’t make a difference. But it did.  Vindication, Tony supposed. 

“Football or baseball?” Tony continued, forcing himself back to his mental list.

“Baseball,” Steve replied with a slight frown. 

“Your team not doing well?” Tony asked sympathetically.  He didn’t much follow sports, but he knew enough about Alphas to know that this was Serious, and he should show Interest.  To be fair, it wasn’t like Steve didn’t show interest in things Tony enjoyed, so there was that. 

“My team’s in California,” Steve replied in such a dramatic, horrified tone that Tony had to smother a laugh behind a drink of his water.

“You realize that we are in California,” Tony pointed out. Steve muttered something under his breath that sounded like ‘sacrilege,’ and Tony rolled his eyes.  “Okay…let’s see…Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.”

“Mickey, hands down,” Steve said emphatically. 

“Legit choice.  I favor Marvin the Martian, just so you know.  Technically, he’s a villain, but mostly, in order to improve his view of Venus, he just uses science in ways that would, if successful, interfere with our continued planetary existence,” Tony explained in what he thought was a fair estimation.  “Cool motive, still genocide?” Tony put in at Steve’s expression.  “Fair point.”

“Alright…thin mints…frozen or out of the box.  Wait,” Tony interrupted before Steve could answer, slicing his hand through the air and shaking his head.  “Trick question. Both are one-hundred percent amazing.  Um…who’d win in a fight, Captain America or Superman?”

“Ah,” Steve started, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.  He looked around the room and bit his lip, then back at Tony.  “I’m absolutely certain Superman would kick Cap’s ass,” Steve responded, then coughed into his fist to cover his laughter. 

“Okay, okay…you already put the toilet paper roll on with the paper coming over the top, which, you know, good, because that’d be a deal-breaker,” Tony said, pretending to mull it over as he chewed. 

“Microsoft Outlook or a mouth full of bees?” Tony asked, rolling his lips together to keep from smiling. 

“Wow.  Well, I haven’t had occasion to try either, but I’m going with the outlook thing,” Steve shrugged. 

“Brave soul,” Tony commended, placing a hand over his heart.  “Bless you and your forty-one new viruses.”

“I like to live on the edge,” Steve countered, grinning back at Tony, then shaking his head back and forth and letting out a low laugh.  “You’re something else, Tony.  You know that, right?”

“I’ve been told.  Let’s see…ship has probably sailed on blonds or brunet, so…Stones or Beatles?” Tony asked.

Steve stared at him blankly.

“Stones or Beatles?” Tony repeated after a pause. 

“I don’t…I’m sorry, I don’t…what is the comparison?  A stone and a beetle?” Steve asked, leaning forwards so his forearms were against the edge of the table.  “Is it…they’re both round?”

“What?” Tony said, blinking at Steve in confusion.  “No…no, ah.  The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. They’re…they’re bands.  From the 60’s?  I Can’t Get No Satisfaction?  Sympathy for the Devil?  Hey Jude, Yesterday?  I mean, I’m a Stones man myself, but can’t exactly say there’s a wrong answer there.  Any…ah, any of that ring a bell?”

“Oh, right. Right.  Of course.  Ah…I guess, Stones?” Steve said, looking down and away, then back at the placemat with the map of Italy in front of him. 

“Were you homeschooled by the Church Lady on a Martian potato farm?” Tony demanded, cinching his shoulders up and rolling his eyes heavenward.  “How do you not know the Stones and the Beatles?”

“Don’t listen to a lot of music,” Steve muttered, looking down at his placemat with a deep frown etched on his forehead.  “This map of Italy is wrong.”

“Yeah, but…” Tony trailed off helplessly.  It was weird, sure, but…but, what?  He had no idea.  “What?” Tony asked distractedly.  “Looks like a boot, what’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing,” Steve said quickly.  “Nothing.  Forget it. We should get going if we’re going to make the observatory,” Steve said. 

Tony opened his mouth to say something else, ask some other question, then closed it again.  So, Steve wasn’t a big music fan.  Wasn’t a crime.  At least he hadn’t said he preferred The Monkees. 

Tony sipped his water while Steve paid the check, and glanced around the dining room again.  There were several pairs of Alphas and their Omegas scattered among the mostly Beta crowd.  One couple had two young children with them, and the Omega was picking noodles out of the toddler’s lap while the older child colored with an intense concentration Tony reserved for propylene torches and separating the marshmallows out of the Lucky Charms cereal.

Tony found himself focusing on another Alpha and his Omega, who were sitting across from each other at one of the booths.  She was young, blonde, courtesy of a store-bought box, and wearing too much make-up.  Not as young as he’d first thought, but trying to look it.  The Alpha was older, an accountant or lawyer-type, with wire-rimmed glasses and a sensible haircut.  Probably drove a BMW and called it a Beamer.   Watched The Wire down at the gym doing his cardio and pretended to read the stock reports and care about what he would refer to as ‘the situation in Syria.’  All that, who wouldn’t try a little Fountain of Botox to keep him?

When Concerned Citizen, Beamer Owner and Wire Fan turned to answer a phone call, she looked up from her salad and over to where Steve was putting his credit card back in his wallet.  Her gaze slid over to catch Tony watching her, and for a moment, he could see something slip off her face, and she did look young, for that second.  Young and sad and longing, but then it was gone, and she was smiling at her Alpha again, telling him it was no problem, of course he had to take the call, and no, she couldn’t possibly eat dessert, don’t be ridiculous. 

It wasn’t that Tony didn’t know he had it good, all in all.  Maybe it was just happenstance, and not because of anything his parents had done to ensure it, but he wasn’t blind to what he had in Steve.  It could’ve been a lot worse. 

For some reason, he thought of Obie, and had to repress a shudder.  Of course, Obie had probably been joking.  They’d known each other Tony’s whole life. It would have been way too weird.  There were professionals who would take an un-Bonded Omega through Heats.   It was highly unusual for a first Heat, since most would be Bonded before that ever happened for just that reason.  Still, as terrible as his Heat had been, he was glad, for once, that his father was enough of a ladder-climber to not want to take anything off the table, even if Tony was well past when he should’ve been Bonded. 

It was a strange world where he found himself thankful that his father didn’t give a shit how much discomfort he was in, so long as it helped secure a better Alpha, but small favors, thy name is Howard Stark.  He’d meant what he said in the car. He didn’t want any Alpha other than Steve.  Just the idea of it sort of ground his mind to a halt in front of a big Turn Back Now sign where the mental tracks broke off and there was just a vast chasm of Do Not Think About It beyond.

“I’ve got all a bunch of their music on my computer.  You should try it.  Bet you’d like it,” Tony offered.  “I can put a few songs on a play list for you, if you wanted.”

“Really?” Steve said, sounding surprised.  “That’ be great, Tony. Thanks.  I’d like that.”

“Sure, no problem,” Tony replied.  I’ve just offered to make you a mixed-tape, but as long as I don’t stand outside your window with a boom-box over my head, we’re all still fine here.  

Steve stood up from the table, and Tony followed suit, hunkering at Steve’s side as they left the restaurant.  He knew people were looking at them.  People were drawn to Steve, to whatever it was about him that screamed power so loudly even the Betas could hear it.  People wanted to be near him, catch his attention, find a bit of reflected glory, who knew?  It still boggled Tony’s mind that he was the one next to someone like Steve.  He almost looked back at the blonde Omega, with her painstakingly careful dye-job and bowl full of please-don’t-leave-me salad, dressing on the side, but he didn’t.  It would’ve been with pity, and that wasn’t fair to her. 

At least he had SI.  Steve wouldn’t leave him, not if it meant losing the company.  Right?  That…had to be true.  He needed it to be true.  

What if there was a better company out there?  A better option?  An Omega with everything Tony had to offer, but one that Steve actually wanted?  One that did things like refill pepper shakers and not design missiles.

Individually-guided cluster sub-munitions.

Whatever.

Stop, brain.  Do Not Enter. Do not pass Go.  Do not collect two hundred reasons why this could totally happen.  Do not go directly to panic. 

It was a testament to Tony’s level of distraction that he didn’t notice they’d passed Los Angeles until they hit one of the freeway’s tunnels.

“I thought…aren’t we going to the observatory?” Tony questioned.  He squinted to look outside the window as they came out of the temporary darkness of the tunnel and hit the glare of the setting sun.  Ahead, a green highway sign informed him that California Boulevard was ahead. 

For a second, his mind just blanked.  There was nothing there. He couldn’t process it. There was no frame of reference for it.  Like suddenly looking over and seeing the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man walking stepping on a church.  He had no context for something like this. 

Reboot, he thought. Start in safe mode.

“This is Pasadena,” Tony observed.  He tried to keep his tone neutral, but he could hear his voice quivering, though he couldn’t say if it was excitement so much as just being completely overwhelmed.  He swallowed, nearly choking on the lump in his throat. 

Happy turned the car off the freeway. Tony’s stomach did a drop-swoop thing and his chest constricted so tightly that for a second, he wondered if he was going to pass out. 

“This is Caltech,” Tony said.  Because it was. It was.  Oh, God.  It really was. He remembered the address from the alumni record and various announcements and pleas for donations that had come to the house over the years.  “What…what are we doing here?” Tony asked, sucking in a breath and letting it sit in his chest so long that it started to burn.

“I figured this might be more your speed than the tourist thing.  We can do that some other time, if you want.  I’d like to see that coil thing you mentioned,” Steve replied easily, as if he was explaining that they’d be having fish on Tuesday and there might be rain on Wednesday, so bring an umbrella.  “They don’t actually have an observatory here, but they use one in San Diego.”

“Palomar,” Tony breathed out.  “The Hale Telescope’s there.”

“Right. Well, actually, the guy I talked to, Professor Thorne, he works mainly with some kind of observatories in Louisiana and Washington, I think he said, though he does most of his research from here,” Steve explained.  “Seemed like a nice guy. He’s going to be the one actually giving you the tour.”

“Louisiand and Wash—LIGO.  LIGO’s there,” Tony stuttered, his mind grinding to a halt.  This wasn’t looking at the pretty stars, drawing the constellations over them on one of those souvenir map things.  This was real.  This was real, honest-to-God research. 

“The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory,” Tony amended when Steve gave him a blank look.  “They’re trying to detect cosmic gravitational waves.”  Among other things that Tony wasn’t supposed to have been hacking into the MIT and Caltech servers and reading up on.  Also, probably not the National Science Foundation servers, either, but it wasn’t his fault the firewall was clearly built by the same people, so that door had practically already been open for him.

“See?  More your speed,” Steve replied with something that sounded like relief.  The car was pulling into a space marked for visitors next to a chunky, light-colored stone building with the windows jutting out like it had been built with modern-day Lincoln Logs. 

Tony’s gut clenched, and he tried to get enough saliva in his mouth to swallow, but that was apparently a losing battle. 

“I can’t…I can’t just go talk to this guy, Steve.  I can’t,” Tony objected, hunkering down against the leather car seat and clutching at his seatbelt.  “I’m not—I mean, I haven’t even.  I did some school, the basics, you know, but…nothing like this, Steve.  Nothing remotely like this.  I can’t…they’re going to think I’m…”  Ridiculous, his mind supplied, but he couldn’t quite say it.

“Tony,” Steve said, turning to face him, his tone gentling.  “I don’t think you have the first clue how smart you are.  I don’t think anyone does.  If you want, this guy will give you a tour, let you look around, and then we can leave.  If you want to do something more, well.  That’s up to you.  I’m going to be with you the whole time.  Nothing bad will happen.  No one is going to make fun of you or be rude to you.   I promise.”

“Only because they’re scared of you,” Tony argued weakly.  He looked out the window towards the physics building.  A tall, thin man with wispy, graying hair and glasses was coming down the steps, tugging a blue blazer on over a tan polo shirt as he went. 

“Well, they’re smart folks,” Steve said, giving Tony a teasing smile.  “Come on.  We both know you’re not one to sit in the car.”

“Fine,” Tony replied.  He sucked in a breath, then, after a moment’s hesitation, shoved open the door and got out. 

“Captain Rogers?” the man said as he took the last few steps down to the parking area.  “Welcome to Caltech.”

“Professor Thorne, thank you so much for taking the time to meet us,” Steve said, extending a hand in greeting.  “This is my Omega, Tony.”

“Tony, a pleasure,” Professor Thorne said, turning to shake Tony’s hand, which Tony remembered to do after Steve nudged his shoulder.  “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Hello,” Tony replied.  A part of him wanted to step behind Steve and bury his face in Steve’s back until all this was over.  A bigger part of him wanted to get inside that laboratory Kool-Aid Man-style.  So, there was that.

“Captain Rogers tells me that you have an interest in space science,” Professor Thorne continued. 

“Tony’s particularly interested in the research you’re doing with LIGO on your gravitational waves project,” Steve, the attention-paying-bastard, put in helpfully. 

“Really? Well, fantastic,” Professor Thorne replied.  He sounded surprised, but not…not unhappy about it, so Tony nodded.  “Great, well, you’re in luck.  I have a group of my graduate assistants working on a project and some preliminary detection results right now.  It’s just a theoretical study at the moment.   We’re still at the limits of what we can test.  It’s aimed at developing techniques to calculate G-wave signals from sources such as coalescing black holes and neutron stars.  You can listen in, if you think that might be something that interests you?”

“Yes,” Tony said with a short nod.  He looked up at Steve, who gave him a small, encouraging smile in return.  “That sounds…are you using gravitational radiation?”

“Uh, yes…yes, we are,” Professor Thorne replied with a small huff of a laugh.  He looked over at Steve, as if in question, and must have gotten a satisfactory response because he turned back to Tony with a genuine smile.  “I can tell Captain Rogers didn’t oversell you.  This way, then.  I think you’ll fit right in.”

He did.  Sure, it took a bit. The graduate students and the few postdocs who were working that evening had clearly been gathered at the Professor’s behest thinking they were putting on some kind of show for some bigwig’s Omega who wanted to play scientist. 

So, that impression took a good ten minutes to blow through.

Actually, they weren’t bad, once they got past the weird introductions and ogling of Steve and on to the actual science.  Pizza arrived at some point, and cold sodas were passed around.  Someone turned on the coffee machine and tried to heat up yesterday’s leftovers, but, thankfully, Steve intervened and had Starbucks delivered.  They were tired and punch-drunk on discovery by the time the Professor called it a night.   One of the graduate students was passed out on a stack of graphs and someone had begun a paperclip chain to represent the black hole separation and velocity, so it was probably time to wrap it up.

“Did you hear?” Tony burst out as soon as he and Steve were outside the building after saying their goodbyes to Professor Thorne and his students.  It was late.  Tony actually had no idea what time it was, but it was dark and the street was clear of traffic.  He probably should be exhausted, but he was too jittery with exhilaration to be tired, nearly bouncing down the steps towards where Happy waited with the car.  “Professor Thorne wants to tell the NSF—uh, the National Science Foundation—about what I said.  The NSF!  Can you believe it?  He said they might want to publish something.  Just maybe like a Review Letter or whatever, not a full-on paper, but still.”

“Told you it would be fine,” Steve said with a low chuckle. 

“Fine?  Fine?  It was amazing!” Tony practically shouted.  He wanted to do something crazy.  Spin around, slide down the stair rail, something, just to get some of the energy out of him, mark the moment somehow.  “You don’t even know what happened.”

“You’re happy.  I don’t need to know the details,” Steve replied, grinning. “Not sure I’d understand them, even if your repeated…whatever it was you were doing on the whiteboard.  Looked a bit like hieroglyphics.”

“It’s not hieroglyphics!  It’s finally people who speak English!” Tony snorted. 

“Is that what that was?” Steve teased.

“Okay, okay,” Tony began, feeling the excitement start to well up again.  “So, in the first detection set, we had a gravitational-wave transient, GW150914.  Now, if we analyze coherently across the LIGO network using a suite of accurate waveform models that describe gravitational waves from a compact binary system in general relativity, this tells us that GW150914 was produced by a nearly equal mass binary black hole of masses,” Tony explained. “Taking into account that the dimensionless spin magnitude of the more massive black hole is bound to be < 0.7, and figuring the luminosity distance to the source and the corresponding redshift…assuming standard cosmology, of course.”

“Of course,” Steve agreed, drawing out the words.

 “Which tells us that this black hole is significantly more massive than any other,” Tony finished triumphantly.   He didn’t quite do jazz-hands, but, under pain of death, he wouldn’t entirely swear he didn’t do them, either.

“Big black hole. Gotcha,” Steve chuckled, then turned serious.  “You should be very proud of yourself, Tony. Really.  I don’t know how you got that out of all those numbers, but everyone was so impressed.  I could tell,” Steve replied. Tony almost took a wrong step at that and lost his footing as he took the last couple of steps down to the parking area, but Steve reached out a hand to steady him.  “They, ah. They thought you were fantastic.  Brilliant and…they were just really—ah, they were really happy to have you.”

That’s what this feeling was, Tony realized. Pride.  Self-worth.  Gratification.  He turned it over and over in his head as he slid into the back seat of the car next to Steve.  That felt…correct, but it was hard to wrap his head around it feeling right. 

“Professor Thorne said he’d like to maybe email me.  Send me some stuff.  Like, just to look over.  Kind of a collaboration thing,” Tony said quickly.  “If that’s okay with you, that is.”

“Of course, it’s fine with me,” Steve responded.  “Can’t say I’m surprised.  He looked like a soldier who’d just been given a day pass on payday.”

“That’s…wildly specific.  Anyway, good.  ‘Cause I already kind of told him yes.  And gave him my email. And phone number. And set up Skype,” Tony continued.  “And got an ID and password so I can log-on to the LIGO research team forum.   And got on the mailing list for the Caltech Astronomy and Physics Departments. Technically, he didn’t give me that last one, but I feel he would want me to have it.”

“I’m glad you found someone who you can talk to about this stuff.  You should have friends,” Steve went on, looking out the window as Happy merged the car back onto the more heavily-trafficked freeway. 

“There’s this whole new data set we’re just getting, and he’s going to send it to me as soon as possible.   Apparently, both LIGO detectors simultaneously observed a transient gravitational wave signal, and I’ve looked at the first data sets, and it could—I’m just saying could—end up being the first observation of a binary black hole merger.  Which is just…I mean, can you imagine it?” Tony asked, splaying his hands wide. 

Tony was halfway through explaining the need to refine the detectors’ searches by using general relativity-based models and spin precession in order to perform a coherent Bayesian analysis when Happy pulled off the highway and onto the winding road that led up to the cabin.  He sputtered to a halt somewhere around quasicircular inspirals, though Steve was still watching him with seemingly rapt attention.

Dear Lord, he’d talked the whole way from Pasadena back to the cabin. 

“So…ah, that’s, you know. The basics of it,” Tony mumbled, turning to look out the window as they climbed the winding road that spiraled up the side of the mountain.   “You have no idea what I just said, do you?”

“Nope,” Steve replied, then ran a hand over his mouth and started laughing.  “Not a clue.  But, I like hearing you talk about it.  I’m glad you had fun.”

“Fun?  This was only, like, the best day ever.  Or, at least right up there with the time the Skee-Ball machine at Chuck E. Cheese accidentally started spitting out tons of tickets, and I got to trade them for the remote-controlled monster truck and two pixie sticks.  Kind of a tie,” Tony grinned. 

“Good to know,” Steve responded, returning the smile. 

The car stopped in front of the cabin, and they thanked Happy and climbed out.  Seemingly by silent agreement, they watched until the car’s tail lights disappeared around the curve. 

“I’m just…I’m going to…” Tony began, jerking his head towards the garage.  “Too many thoughts in my head to sleep.”

“Okay,” Steve said softly.  “Guess this is goodnight then.”

“Yeah.  Night,” Tony replied, feeling suddenly uncomfortable.  He was too wound up to sleep, but…he didn’t really want to be away from Steve, either. Which was becoming something of an embarrassing habit, come to think.  “Listen, Steve…thanks.  Again. For, you know, everything.  Not just today—which was great! Amazing.   Best day ever, really, forget that stupid thing I said about Chuck E. Cheese.  I don’t know why I do that.  I just say stuff, whatever pops in my head sometimes—but.  I—well, thanks.  Just thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Steve replied in a low, warm tone.  “Happy birthday,  Tony.”

Steve was looking down at him with that expression Tony was beginning to think of as something reserved for him alone, this gentle, delighted awed look that made Tony’s stomach play Twister.  

Thank him properly.

He didn’t mean to do it, or he didn’t think it through, at least.  It was all mixed up in his head.  He was happy, so effusively happy that he was light-headed with it, and that was all wrapped up in Steve and how it made him feel to be with Steve. 

Joking and teasing where the punchline was acceptance.  Arguments and debates where the outcome was compromise.  Someone who paid attention to him, who saw him, in ways he’d tried for so long not to allow to be seen.  Who saw those things and pushed for more?  When had anyone asked Tony to be more of himself?  It was almost too much to comprehend, somehow far more difficult to fathom than gravitational waves. 

Later, he would blame terrible decision-making skills on that ebullient, overwhelming surge of feeling, but in the moment, he didn’t think at all, just grabbed onto the current of feeling running through him and let himself get carried away.

Tony leaned forward and wound his hands in the front of Steve’s shirt, tugging lightly at the material and using it to leverage himself closer.  His hands were sweaty, and the gravel underneath his feat shifted, making a crunching sound when he moved closer to Steve.  That probably should’ve been a warning.  That he was moving and Steve wasn’t, but it didn’t make it past the buzzing thrill of happiness and desire that fogged his mind.  Steve’s arms came up to grasp at Tony’s shoulders, which felt good, so good. Warm and solid, and if Steve would just move his hand a little, just a bit, Tony could maybe pretend it was the kind of caress he wanted.  He tilted his head back, closed his eyes and pressed his mouth towards Steve’s. 

His mind had time to think, just like in the movies, before Tony caught on to the fact that he wasn’t moving.  Above him, he heard Steve sigh.  Tony froze.  He was suddenly keenly aware of how close he was to Steve, the way his heart was slamming against his ribcage, how his mouth was hanging there, parted in anticipation of something that was never, ever going to happen. 

He wasn’t proud of it, but he would’ve run then, if he could’ve gotten free of Steve’s grip.

“Tony,” Steve said, voice rough and almost hoarse, like the words hurt to say.  “You don’t need to do this.”

Right.  Right, of course. Right, Tony’s mind stuttered.  sorrysorrysorry.  I didn’t mean it.

Shame seemed to start in his throat and course through him each time he swallowed, leaving the bitter, coppery taste of bile in his mouth.  He desperately wanted to move, but his limbs felt weak, shaky.  He couldn’t seem to get his body to cooperate, like part of his comeuppance for his mistake was to stand rooted to the spot and have to actually listen to Steve tell him that he didn’t want him.   It was like falling, and knowing there was nothing he could do to stop the impact.   It was just going to hurt.

Steve let go of Tony’s arms, and stepped back, putting some space between them.  As Tony watched, he ran a hand through his hair and put the other on his hip, letting out a hiss of air through his nose, clearly agitated.  Of course, Steve was agitated. Hell, he’d told Tony he didn’t want anything to do with him, and Tony had practically thrown himself at him. 

“Don’t—forget it, I—“ Tony started, then couldn’t think of what he was.  Horrified came to mind.  Worthless was right up there, too.  “I don’t know what I was thinking.  I wasn’t thinking.  Sorry.  I’m sorry.  I’ll just…I’m going to go.  I have—in the garage.  I have.  To go.”

He finally managed to get his legs to move.  Spastic, jerky movements, but they got him going.  He shoved his hands in his pockets and kept his head down, angling for the garage door and a haven where he could curl up and die in peace. 

Tony made it inside the garage, barely, before he slumped over, bending at the waist and tried to swallow enough air to get his lungs to cooperate.  It was like he’d forgotten how to breath.  How could he have messed up that badly? He felt turned inside out, exposed somehow, like one of those dreams where you show up naked and don’t realize it until too late.

He nearly jumped on top of U when the knock sounded on the door behind him. 

“Tony?” Steve’s muffled voice came through the door.  “Are you okay?”

“I said I’m fine,” Tony shouted.  He went over and sat down at his workstation.  The missile designs for what he was calling the Jericho were sitting exactly where Steve had noticed them.  A spiteful part of him, the part of him that wanted to punish himself for messing up, kept trying to tell his brain to ball them up and throw them away.

“Tony.  Can we talk? Please?” Steve asked. 

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Tony replied.  He fisted his hands on top of the workstation desk.  What was there to say?  He’d screwed up again.  They could just leave it at that, really. No need for rehashing and awkward recriminations.  “I just need to work.  Okay?  Can you just leave me alone and let me work?  Please?” 

He hated how his voice sounded, all watery and pinched, like each word was on the cusp of becoming a sob.  It wasn’t quite begging, but it wasn’t far from it, either.  He thought about the dyed blonde in the restaurant.  He’d been so smug, looking at her, trying so hard to please her Alpha.  He could take a lot of things, but not pity.  Not from Steve.

It was quiet for a long time before Tony finally let himself relax enough to breathe in great, hulking gulps of air that burned their way down to his stomach.  He didn’t know how long he stayed there, not even able to manage distraction.  It kept playing over and over again in his head, on some infinite loop.  Leaning in to kiss Steve, digging his hands into Steve’s shirt, how warm Steve felt next to him.   How there had been this one bright, perfect moment before it all went to shit, when he’d been so incredibly, deliriously happy. 

When he finally left the garage, the moon was hanging over the mountains with a Cheshire-cat grin.  It was bright enough that he could see tufts of clouds moving past it, casting night shadows. 

Steve was standing on the deck, both hands on the railing as he stared out at the starlit sky.  It was so similar to that first night Steve was home that for a fraction of a second, Tony thought he was seeing things.  He stopped, halfway across the driveway to the cabin, frozen in place while he waited to see if Steve had noticed him. 

Of course, Steve noticed him.  The universe wasn’t nearly kind enough to let an opportunity like that pass it by. 

“Hey,” Steve said, loud enough for it to carry over his shoulder.  He turned around to face Tony and leaned his hips against the railing, cupping his hands around the wooden edges. 

“Hey,” Tony replied.  It sounded steadier than it felt, but he supposed that’s what counted. 

“Thought you were going to be in there all night,” Steve said. 

“I had work to do,” Tony lied.  To be fair, ‘I sat at my computer for hours thinking about how I shouldn’t have tried to kiss you,’ sounded way worse.  “You didn’t have to wait up.”

“I wanted to talk,” Steve replied.  He pushed off the railing and started walking towards Tony, slow and steady, like he was afraid Tony would bolt.  Which, fair enough.  Not like Tony wasn’t considering it.  The closer Steve got to him, the better an option it seemed.

“I’m tired, so.  Maybe in the morning,” Tony offered half-heartedly, where morning meant absolutely never.

“I think we should talk now,” Steve responded smoothly, stopping just in front of where Tony stood. 

There was a light just to the right of the front door to the cabin.  Just a bulb inside a metal cage.  Moths kept flying around it, beating themselves against the glow over and over, no matter how many times it got them nowhere. Tony could relate.  It gave off just enough light that Tony could see Steve’s face.  He was doing that thing again.  That thing where he looked at Tony all soft and slant-eyed, all careful, cautious amazement. 

Tony looked away.  He couldn’t stand to have Steve look at him like that and know…know things.  Things about how Tony felt.  It hurt.  There was a deep ache in his chest that crept up his throat and made it tighten, made his teeth gnash together until he thought he must be grinding down the enamel.   His shoulders hunched forward, and his hands balled into fists at his sides. 

Tony’s gaze darted up to Steve’s face, watching a muscle tic in his jaw.  He wanted to look anywhere but at Steve.  It would be easier that way, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself from looking.  Behind him, he could hear the metallic thunk of a moth hitting the lightbulb and felt hysterical laughter welling up.  I feel you, buddy, he thought scornfully. 

“You don’t owe me anything, Tony,” Steve began slowly.  “I don’t need gratitude for basic human decency.  That isn’t how this works.  You don’t have to…” Steve trailed off and looked down at the ground between them before setting his shoulders and looking back at Tony. 

“This isn’t a trade-off, Tony.  I just want to see you happy.  That’s all.  I’m not going to leave you, no matter what. I’m not—that’s not going to happen.  And if something did happen to me, you aren’t going to lose…this life, if that’s what you want.  So…” Steve stopped, seeming to have finished whatever speech he’d been practicing out here all night.  It was a bit like watching a tire deflate, everything going slack and wobbly and unsure.  “You don’t have to worry about…about, ah, that.  I don’t expect--is what I’m trying to…I—I just.  I wanted to tell you.  So you wouldn’t worry,” Steve finished, wincing a bit as if he didn’t quite like the words. 

“Oh.  Okay,” Tony responded dully.  What could he say?  “No problem.  Good to know. Won’t happen again.”  He turned towards the cabin and started forward on feet that seemed to drag through the gravel.  Nothing was working right.  He wasn’t working right.  He wasn’t right.  Something like that.

“Tony,” Steve said, reaching out and placing a hand on Tony’s arm.  His grip was light, but it held Tony in place when he wanted nothing more than to run.  “I really did have a good time tonight.”

“Yeah,” Tony replied in flat, sluggish tone.  “Told you.  Best day ever.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Tony tore off the top of a yogurt cup that held a depressingly small amount of granola and dumped it in a pile on top of the deck railing. 

Joshua was sitting on the corner of the fence post chattering in Tony’s general direction with what Tony assumed was heartfelt agreement.  Steve’s position on this was entirely indefensible.  So indefensible that even the resident rodent population was providing what could only be described as full-throated support.

“That’s not—you can’t just punch it, okay?” Tony said, twisting his head around to frown at Steve in frustration.  “What part of acid for blood did you not understand?  You get your ass in the power loader. Even things out. Then you punch it.”

“I’m not climbing in that rig and getting stuck like a turtle on its back when it falls over,” Steve shrugged.  “I prefer to be mobile in a fight.”

“Mobile?  Because a good ground game worked so well for the colonial marines.  What’re you going to do about the tail, there, Jumpy McAlienFodder?”  Tony demanded archly.

“Could use a shield, I suppose,” Steve replied from where he was reclining in one of the wooden Adirondack-style deck chairs with a paper plate holding a sandwich perched on one knee.  He caught Tony’s frustrated groan and grinned goofily like he had said something amusing and not simply bat-shit crazy.  

“Acid. For. Blood,” Tony reminded him with an exasperated snort.  “It’s going to melt through whatever you use for a shield. Did you not even watch the movies?  It drips through like five decks on the Nostromo, for Christ’s sake!  Face it, you’d be toast.  Whereas, I,” Tony continued, waving his hand with a flourish and giving a firm nod.  “Will use my, well, probably at least Class 5 rating--no offense to Ripley, Class 2 is nothing to be ashamed of--and put that P-5000 loader to good use, saving your ass.”

“My hero,” Steve smiled up at him and bit into his sandwich.  As if on cue, Tony’s stomach did that clench and roll maneuver it saved for jumping out of airplanes and getting one of Steve’s smiles.  He turned away from Steve and flicked a piece of granola in Joshua’s direction, which earned him a baleful glance from the squirrel.

“I’ll bet I could seriously retrofit that loader, though.  Add some weaponry.  I mean, all its got is a glorified Yankee Candle, but you throw some missiles on that exoskeleton, and you’d have something,” Tony said in a considering tone.

“Individually-guided cluster sub-munitions,” Steve called out from behind him.

“Not going to let that go, are you?” Tony asked, casting a look over his shoulder and catching Steve’s smirk before turning back to the vista in front of him, while Steve went back to eating his lunch.  Or, second lunch.  Seclunch, Tony mentally snickered.  Or third?  He’d lost count.  Steve ate a lot.  Like, a lot-a lot.  Not that Tony was criticizing, because God knew, the man could turn a muffin into muscle like nobody’s business, and small meals throughout the day were the better part of valor, but damn, Steve had the metabolism equivalent of Usain Bolt on speed doing downhill.  Wearing Heelys.  

Probably best not to think about Steve and his appetites, though, Tony thought.  All things considered.  Or, all things we definitely weren’t considering, no Siree.

It was early afternoon, and the sun was glaring, impossibly bright, over the mountains.  Bulbous, slow-moving clouds dappled the landscape with shadows that clung to peaks and hillsides, and crept across the valley below, darkening large swaths of land before moving on and letting the light back in.  

Almost two weeks had passed since Tony’s Best Day Ever, and his semi-disastrous attempt to kiss Steve and basically fuck everything up.  Or, The Event, Tony mentally corrected.  At some point along the way, he’d decided it was easier to think of it as some fixed point in time instead of an actual action.  Probably how the dinosaurs would’ve eventually come to view that lovely meteor shower.  You know, had they survived.  Lucky, extinct bastards, Tony thought with a wry twist of his mouth.

Two weeks since The Event. 

Every time he got close to believing maybe The Event was just one of those anxiety dreams, like where you showed up naked to dinner and didn’t realize it until halfway through the appetizer course, he’d remember what Steve smelled like.  Soap and earth and musk and Steve.  How beautiful Steve looked, under the stars, with the moon glowing over the mountains.  How Steve seemed relaxed, happy even, soft, carefree, and so young, with the usual tension ebbed away to just a halo around the edges.  How solid Steve felt under Tony’s hands.  A single point of stability for Tony to cling to.

Immovable object.  Stoppable force, apparently. 

The way Steve had looked at him, all sorrowful, awkward regret and probably a healthy dose of disgust and secondhand embarrassment.  If Tony thought about The Event, which he didn’t, because that was the clearly marked path to self-recrimination, it was probably the pity that emptied itself, stinging sour and bitter, into his gut that was the worst of it.  Pity managed to hurt more than any blow, probably because it was the kind of compassion only those with the power got the luxury of having.  Steve didn’t want him, and there was nothing he could do to change that.  He just had to accept it. With good grace, of course.  Would be rude to throw that back in Steve’s face.

Afterwards, after the stomach-churning mortification subsided, after Tony could breathe again without it spiraling through his chest in a rictus of cold tightness, after he could look at himself in the mirror again, Tony could step back and see just how monumentally he had misread the situation.  Or, hadn’t read it at all.  Just tried to take that little bit extra, that little bit more, the part that didn’t belong to him.

Tony recalled spending most of those first few days after The Event huddled in his garage over reams of detection data that Professor Thorne provided, courtesy of LIGO.  He had stuck his head out just long enough to grab whatever food it was that Steve left in the oven or in plastic containers stacked in the refrigerator.  Steve went to SHIELD and played very intense games of beer pong or whatever it was Steve did there.  Yes, Tony had been hiding.  He wasn’t proud of it, but it had been unlocking the mysteries of the universe or putting a bag over his head and shame-walking around the cabin like he was Cersei Lannister. 

The stalemate lasted all of four days before Tony found himself dragging out of bed at the butt-crack of dawn to see Steve off before he left for SHIELD.  Not that Steve had actually seen him, of course, what with the peeking out from behind the blinds being somewhat on the less obvious side of goodbyes, but the relief in not seeing Steve in the first few days post-The Event had slowly given way to an annoying lack of Steve that bordered on, well, missing Steve enough that even abject shame couldn’t quite beat the feeling into submission.

When Tony finally left the garage that fourth night, Steve had been sitting on the sofa staring at the wall with a book on the Apollo missions in his lap, and Tony’s first thought was, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ before he sat down on the other end of the sofa instead of creeping on down the hall to his room like someone with a well-developed sense of self-preservation.

“A Nazi got America to the moon,” Steve said, emotionlessly, like he was reciting a fact. And he was, but it felt wrong, hanging flat in the air like that with nothing attached to it.  No derision, no confusion, no shock, just a tired sort of acceptance. 

“Von Braun?  Yeah,” Tony replied.  “The V-2 was the first artificial object to cross the boundary of space.  What’s a little ethnic cleansing in the face of beating the commies to the moon?” Tony asked with a sarcastic bite to it. 

“They say we won.  They didn’t say what we lost,” Steve said in that same quiet, flat voice. 

“I guess,” Tony said after a long silence while he waited for the right words that would probably occur to him later, in the useless dead calm of night.  “I guess maybe we compromised.  We said, what’s next? We moved on.  Maybe that’s the best winning can look.  Like a future.”

Steve looked at him, then, holding Tony’s gaze for a beat too long, then slouched down and stretched out his legs in front of him, letting his head dip back to dig into the curve of the sofa. 

“Tell me about the rocket. This thing the Nazi built that was worth lookin’ the other way for,” Steve said, turning his head to look at Tony again, that soft, half-lidded expression on his face.  Flick that switch, Tony thought, oddly pleased with himself.

Tony wanted to think that it was a very short time after that when he realized Steve was fast asleep, but all things considered, Apollo Ten was probably a good stopping point for the night. Morning.  Whatever.   Steve was slumped to one side, head lolling towards Tony, one hand resting open on the cushion between them. 

He looked younger, Tony thought, with the tension and worry lines melted away by sleep.  Beautiful followed on the heels of that thought, like an unwelcome guest who slipped in an open door before Tony could quite manage to close it.  It was thoughts like this that caused The Event in the first place. 

Of course, his Alpha was, objectively speaking, gorgeous, but there was nothing objective about the way it made Tony feel to look at Steve like this, when he could really, truly look his fill.  Beautiful wasn’t so much a description, accurate as it may be, but a feeling, something that swirled around in Tony’s chest like it was looking for a place to land, making his heart beat like hummingbird wings against his chest. 

The Event was an outlier, Tony decided.  The problem started that night, really. 

That was the first time, in the dark, with the clock ticking its way through the night, on the heels of war and rockets and something shifting and reordering itself that seemed just out of reach when Tony tried to catch on to the thought. 

That was the first time one of these thoughts crept in.  A small crack that opened a fissure and let something in that Tony couldn’t seem to push out again. 

Steve would be warm and soft, but solid, which didn’t make sense, but it felt true.  Tony could curl up against his side, lay his head on Steve’s lap, and feel Steve’s fingers lace through his hair, and it would feel so good.  So very good.  Tony had looked at Steve’s open hand, splayed out on the plaid sofa cushion, and wondered what would happen if he slid his own over Steve’s palm. 

He didn’t do it, of course.  But.  But, he wondered.   He wondered about it.  He wondered about it a lot.  It was becoming something of a distraction.  If by distraction, you meant the way Jack Torrance was mildly interested in his winter caretaking duties at the Overlook. 

So. Yeah.  It was becoming something of an issue. The wondering.

After that night, things largely went back to normal between them.  Or, rather, nothing actually changed, except Tony stopped hiding and shelved the embarrassed sulking.  Steve was still remarkably, unpredictably nice.  They watched movies.  Steve read books, and Tony read LIGO detection reports, and sometimes Steve asked him about what Tony saw in the numbers, and sometimes Tony could get Steve to talk about Asimov or Clarke.

One night, they ended up debating Watership Down until two o’clock in the morning, when Steve finally conceded Tony’s point that, for the Omega rabbits, Hazel or Woundwort didn’t make much of a difference.  Granted, Steve’s admission came in the form of getting up and leaving the room, but the next day, Steve sat down at breakfast, put the book in front of Tony’s plate of biscuits and admitted he’d spent the night looking for instances where Hazel listened to any of the Omegas and hadn’t found any, much to Steve’s obvious discomfort. 

Then there was the night that Steve found an old chess set in the top of one of the closets, and actually looked proud when Tony managed checkmate in four moves without really meaning to.  Alphas and Wookies.  Better to just let them win, as Tony had learned at an early age.  But, Steve had been ruefully admiring, and seemed to have no desire to pull either of Tony’s arms off, though he did insist on a rematch.  Took eight moves to Bobby Fischer Steve that time, but only because Tony had been distracted by the way Steve was rubbing his thumb up and down over one of Tony’s knights, because apparently chess porn didn’t just mean Kasparov’s Immortal. 

They switched to cards the following evening, and Tony won the first round of poker fairly handily.  Steve did manage a straight and two flushes in a row after that, claiming he’d learned how to play in the Army.  Which was probably true, Tony acknowledged, considering that when Tony’s mental probability math finally turned on the Kill Bill sirens, and he grabbed the deck from a snickering Steve, it was obvious Steve had been dealing from the bottom.  Figured I’d even the odds, was all Steve said, then set about shuffling the deck for real, leaving Tony flummoxed and strangely warm at the teasing. 

Somehow, in all of that, Tony accidentally invited Steve to the garage to hang out while he worked on upgrading the bots.  U could now spray things as well as dump water on them like a very expensive cat behaviorist.  DUM-E managed to stop, drop and roll things, so they were sticking with a Backdraft theme. 

Steve spent the time with a pencil moving up and down a sketch pad making low, scratching sounds when the end wasn’t propped between Steve’s teeth waving a giant ‘Oral Fixation’ flag in Tony’s direction. 

Tony emailed back and forth with Professor Thorne and some of the grad students.  He was still half-convinced they only listened to him because of Steve, and were probably laughing at him behind his back, but none of that changed the fact that they were often wrong about things.  Honestly, these were the best and brightest?  It almost caused physical pain. 

Actually, it did cause physical pain, because he’d smashed his knee against the bottom of the workstation in a fit of pique over how they hell they failed to account for the inductance of electromagnetic coil actuators in their detector calibration model. 

Might as well just put a tin can to your ear and aim it at the sky, Jesus Christ Almighty, Tony recalled shouting in annoyance, while Steve handed him an icepack, nodded his sympathy and punctuated his concern with tsking sounds that Tony appreciated, even though he suspected Steve was humoring him.  If only because the next day, there was an actual tin can on a fucking string attached to the wall next to his workstation, helpfully labeled as the ‘Someone is Wrong About Science Hotline.’  Tony had stared at it a full five seconds before his brain caught up with what he was seeing, and he’d spent the rest of the afternoon randomly looking over at it with a stupid grin on his face like it was Christmas. 

That got him wondering, too. What would it be like to tease Steve like that, joke with him, make him laugh, the real kind that made Tony’s insides go liquid.  What would it feel like to be the one who could do that for Steve?

They went fishing. 

Or, well, they went and sat on the dock, staring at the lake, while the fish ignored them.  Steve claimed this was fishing, and that Tony lacked patience.  Tony pointed out that Steve may have the patience of Job, but he lacked fish, and they ended up sitting there for three hours and then ordering pizza.   

After that, Tony just started taking small projects with him whenever Steve decided it was time to go “fishing,” and then picking out something like Piranha 3D from his list of Movies With More Fish Than Us to watch after dinner.  It’s all just a relaxing American pastime until someone loses a foot, after all.  Steve rolled his eyes, but managed Jaws, Lake Placid, A Fish Called Wanda, Finding Nemo and The Incredible Mr. Limpet before finally throwing in the proverbial towel at Sharknado, then suggesting they play cards instead. Tony was still rather disappointed in himself that he hadn’t seen Go Fish coming. 

They talked.  Actually, they talked a lot, particularly during Steve’s little fishing expeditions.  And it wasn’t like Tony hadn’t figured out that was exactly what they were. 

Fishing expeditions.

Except Tony was the one swimming around the hook, trying to decide if it was worth chancing it for that lovely morsel of approval from Steve. He was so used to being quiet, blending in, fading away as much as he could, that these times when sheer boredom led to random spurts of conversation did feel a bit like being pulled out of his world into something where he could barely breathe, but it was all so bright, so warm and clear for those moments, he couldn’t help not quite wanting to go back under. 

It had some otherworldly feeling to it, sitting with his feet dangling in the lake, watching the sun streak through the wooden slats of the dock, lighting the ripples of water as they moved.  It was easier to talk there, for some reason.  Maybe because it wasn’t the cabin, and they were both going to the lake, not for the actual fishing, but because they couldn’t quite bring themselves to go much of anywhere else yet. 

This is a story of how an Omega had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected, Tony mentally paraphrased with a sigh, closing his eyes against the white-bright of the sun as it peeked out from behind the clouds.

“SHIELD’s working with Hammer Industries on something kind of like what you’re talking about.  Exoskeleton armor.  Very early stages,” Steve mentioned from behind him.  Casually.  The way Steve mentioned these things.  These things that he knew would interest Tony.

Bait.

“Hammer’s two decades from anything that even resembles working,” Tony declared archly. 

“What about SI?” Steve asked. 

“Probably about the same,” Tony replied reluctantly.  “Their robotics division hasn’t gotten the funding it needs, and with the way DoD doles out those contracts, it’s like Hunger Games, if Katniss and Peeta had to really rough it, and in the end found out they won unreasonable expectations, an impractical timeline and not nearly enough money.”

“Hmmm,” Steve responded, giving Tony a look.  “How far would SI be from something like that if you were part of the development team?”

Bait.  That was familiar enough.  The lack of the ‘and switch’ part, whether literal or metaphorical, was what confounded him.

“Well, I’m not, so what does it matter?” Tony asked tersely.  “Even if Howard—my Dad—let me do anything with the company, the engineers wouldn’t listen to an Omega, and no one would buy weapons built by an Omega, so what’s the point?”

“So, I’m guessing the answer is something less than decades, then,” Steve said, giving Tony a speculative look.

“Maybe.  A little bit,” Tony acknowledged with some reluctance.  Seriously, the real fish might actually be smarter than he was.  At least they left the worm on the hook.

He knew what Steve was doing, with these little comments and questions.  He just…didn’t know why.  Why did Steve care that Tony had wanted the erector set for his eighth birthday, and that the big box under the tree had made noise when he shook it.  Parts-noise, pieces-noise, the noise of things jostling around inside of it, and how disappointed he’d been when he’d opened it to find scrapbooking supplies? 

Why did Steve want to know about the circuit board he built when he was four or the music he liked—not the kind to clear his head, but the kind he liked, and where did Steve get off knowing there was a difference--or whether Tony had noticed that Ellis’ team didn’t have a single Omega consultant or what Tony thought about the crap going down in Sokovia?  Why did Steve bother to listen when Tony got up in arms over violent rabbits, for God’s sake? 

None of it mattered.  Tony knew that.  His whole life had been a series of lessons on how to hide opinions behind politeness, humility and unnecessary apologies, all in the name of keeping the peace, which seemed to be a notion entirely interchangeable with keeping things peaceful for the Alphas. 

Then Steve happened.

Steve and his bull-headedness, his argumentativeness, his sometimes sullen bouts of Deep Thoughts.  Those would be annoying, Tony supposed, but for the fact that Tony found himself rather enjoying the challenge of convincing Steve of his side of the debate, or, well, that was probably overshooting, but it was a goal.  The fact that it was even possible was what kept throwing Tony for a loop.

It made no sense.  There was literally no reason for Steve to give two shits about anything Tony thought, except that Steve did, and it was enough to keep Tony constantly off-balance.  Half the time, he felt like he was trying to decipher an equation by looking at it in a mirror, and everything was going into his brain backwards. 

The other half of the time…fuck. The other half of the time was spent wondering.  Wondering what it would be like to answer without even having to pause to wonder if it was the right answer, the way he could when it really was an equation. 

Every Omega knew there were right opinions and wrong opinions, it was just that the line kept blurring and shifting every time he tried to find it with Steve.  Sometimes…sometimes, he couldn’t even find it, and those were the times that were the most disconcerting. Those were the times that made him wonder.   Those times were getting more and more frequent, Tony mentally acknowledged, to the point where he thought maybe, just maybe, there wasn’t a line. 

So, really, not much had changed since The Event.

Except that everything had changed, and it kept on changing, more and more each day.  Tony kept on changing.  He couldn’t seem to stop himself.  When he woke up, there was this buoyancy that followed him throughout the day.  He stopped measuring every, single word for correctness, stopped worrying that every action was going to lead to an equal and opposite reaction, and slowly found himself feeling like he was crawling out from under an invisible weight he hadn’t known he was carrying.  Sometimes, it would come crashing back on him, slamming into his chest with enough force to knock his breath out, when he said or did something he knew he shouldn’t.  Except…except, nothing.  Nothing happened. 

It wasn’t that he didn’t see the pattern.  It was that the pattern was so foreign, so utterly alien to him, a distorted, mirror-verse of the world he was used to, it kept coming in and out of focus like one of those optical illusions where the image appears to move.  Tony remembered reading an article about them once that postulated that our brains couldn’t adjust to what our eyes were seeing in time, so everything seemed in a constant state of movement. 

That pretty much summed up life with Steve. 

The sudden burst of energy and focus that resulted from the lack of constant second-guessing was almost overwhelming at first.  There were too many choices, too many possibilities, too many thoughts in his head that he was free to think without the fear that they would slip out by accident.  He was never more thankful for his garage than the past couple of weeks, when he could pour all of that into his ‘bots and the LIGO project, two never-ending coffers of distraction and focus that let him slough off some of the too-muchness into equations and circuitry and things that worked.  Things that could be solved.  He liked the neatness of it. The order.  It helped organize his mind in a way he couldn’t explain. 

Tony turned around and leaned back against the deck rail, planting his elbows on the flat top of the railing and twirling the spoon around in his yogurt cup.  He squinted at Steve, scrunched up his face, looked away and wondered. 

He could see himself, sauntering over, crawling into Steve’s lap.  He would brace his knees around Steve’s thighs.  Steve would flush that lovely shade of pink that Tony liked, maybe look up at Tony, eyes the dark, deep blue of stormclouds over the mountains.  Tony would lean down and kiss his way along Steve’s jaw until Steve’s arms wound their way up Tony’s back and pulled Tony’s mouth to his own.  The sun would beat down on Tony’s back, warming his skin through his t-shirt.  He could almost feel it.  He drew in a shaky breath and glanced back over at Steve, who was finishing his sandwich, wholly unaware that Tony was picturing mauling him.

These images kept presenting themselves to his mind, fully formed, like someone put them on a flash drive and plugged it into Tony’s head.  He could page through them in his head.  An old-fashioned mental Rolodex of curling up against Steve’s side on the couch while they watched a move, reaching up to brush his hand through Steve’s hair, resting his head on Steve’s thigh while Steve got outsmarted by the mutant fish that stocked their lake…Now he could add climbing into Steve’s lap to his growing list.

“You should eat.  Happy will be here soon with the car,” Steve reminded him, drawing Tony’s mind out of its reverie. They were going shopping.  Not Tony’s favorite pastime, but he could admit that Steve’s wardrobe needed something less Howdy Doody and more How You Doin’. 

“I want to learn to drive,” Tony blurted out.  He shoved the last spoonful of yogurt into his mouth and pretended to look down at the empty cup of yogurt with intense interest. 

“You do?” Steve said after a beat of silence.  “Happy will take you anywhere you want to go.  You know that, right?  That’s why he’s here.”

“I know,” Tony replied.  “I know I can’t get an actual license,” Tony said quickly.  “But it’d sill be nice. To know how, I mean.  I wouldn’t go anywhere,” Tony assured him, because that seemed like an important thing to add. 

Now that he’d said it, Tony realized just how badly he wanted it, but he couldn’t quite explain why.  There wasn’t anywhere he particularly wanted to go that Happy wouldn’t take him.  He was pretty sure Steve wouldn’t say no to most any destination.  That was the kicker, though, wasn’t it?  The decision still wasn’t his own.  Schrodinger’s restriction.  It both did and did not exist until he opened the wrong box and found out.

I could go anywhere, Tony thought.  If I could drive.  I could go anywhere.  I wouldn’t.  But, I could.

Steve opened his mouth to say something, then closed it and swiped a hand over his jaw, giving Tony a considering look. 

“You want to learn to drive,” Steve repeated.  Tony nodded, then looked down at the bottom of his yogurt cup, scraping the spoon along the sides, mostly for something to do.  “Help me understand why.”

 “When you got your driver’s license, did they ask you to explain why you wanted it?” Tony retorted in a slow, careful tone, like he was simply mildly curious. 

“No,” Steve acknowledged after a pause.  “No, they didn’t.”

“Well,” Tony shrugged pointedly, looking back down at his empty yogurt cup.  There was a single streak of pink still on the bottom of the cup, and Tony scraped the spoon tip against it, mostly for something to do that wasn’t thinking about how badly he wanted Steve to be okay with this, though he wasn’t entirely certain why it mattered so much.

Tony could feel Steve’s gaze on him, but he kept his expression neutral.  Finally, Tony looked up and caught Steve’s eye.  Steve let out a low huff of a laugh that had a smile in it and nodded his head at Tony.

“Okay, point taken,” Steve admitted. 

“Yeah?” Tony asked in a breathy, excited voice.

“Sure.  It’s probably smart to learn the basics. Stuck up here.  You never know,” Steve replied.  “I’ll have to find a parking lot or somewhere open where I can teach you.  Just, ah.  Just don’t hotwire the car until after we cover parallel parking, okay?” Steve said with a light laugh, one of those things Steve found funny that Tony didn’t quite get. 

“Are you—are you sure?” Tony asked, a nauseating hesitancy filling his stomach now that he’d actually gotten what he wanted.  What had possessed him?  This was crazy.  He swallowed down and tasted bile.  Steve was laughing, but this was serious.  Like, the illegal kind of serious.  Steve worked for the government.  They could get in trouble.  Real trouble. The kind that came with records and handcuffs and probably a call to Director Fury’s office for something more than a stern talking to.  “Really, it isn’t a big deal.  I mean.  I can always call Happy.  Like you said.”

“You…you just said you wanted to learn,” Steve said, frowning in confusion.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Tony.  It’s pretty easy, once you get the hang of it,” Steve continued, seeming relieved, like he’d solved something.  “You’ll do fine.”

“No, I mean, not—I’m not worried about the driving part.  Have you seen the mouth-breathers that drive?  How hard can it be?  I—the—with me being an Omega and all…” Tony trailed off.  “They could arrest us,” Tony finally pointed out when Steve just kept looking expectantly at him.

“Well,” Steve began, tilting his head slightly to the side as he looked at Tony with a wry sort of knowing amusement.  “They could try.”

Great.

Thirty seconds ago, and it was, sure, fine, whatever you want Tony.  Have a pat on the head.  Now, one casual mention of actual legal authority having an objection, and suddenly, Steve was invested.

He should’ve just kept his mouth shut.  Why would he need to drive?  He didn’t even want to go anywhere.

Yes, you do, a voice whispered before he could tell it to shut its pie-hole.

“I think you’re missing a bit of how the law actually works,” Tony observed.  “Just forget it, okay?  It isn’t a big deal.  Not like I have anywhere to go, anyway.”

“Tony, they aren’t going to arrest us,” Steve said, putting his plate aside and leaning forward in his seat so his elbows were on his thighs.  “Can you trust me on that?”

“They could,” Tony insisted.  “They could, Steve. Then what? Then you get in trouble, and have to bail me out of jail, and—“

“They would not touch you,” Steve cut in with the same delusional certainty.  “If you want to learn how to drive, I don’t see how it’s anyone’s business but mine.”

“Okay, you say that, but there are actual rules about this, and they are the police, so, I don’t know why they’d care that you said it was fine.  I mean, excuse me, Officer, but my Alpha thinks this is just dandy, so screw your laws is not an actual defense, last I checked,” Tony argued.  “This was a stupid idea.  Can we just forget I said anything?  I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Tony,” Steve began, standing up and walking over to stand at the deck railing in front of Tony.  “If you want to learn to drive, if that would make you---“ Steve stopped, looking down at the valley in front of them for a moment before drawing his gaze back to Tony.  “If you would feel more secure if you could drive, then you should learn.  No one will try to stop you.  No one will arrest you.  No one will do anything to you.”

“You say that, but—but—I don’t see why---just because you---I mean—it doesn’t work like—like--“ Tony started, breaking off into a sputter when Steve’s hand came up to graze over the curve of Tony’s neck, drawing out the chain that held his dog tags. 

“It would displease me,” Steve said in a low, steady voice, letting the dog tags dangle between them for a moment before settling them on Tony’s chest.  Tony’s eyes followed the movement.  Steve’s fingers were light against his chest where they cradled the dog tags, but somehow felt heavy, like they were pressing into Tony’s flesh, sinking into him, warm and hard.  Heat coiled low in Tony’s belly, a line of it scorching it’s way from Steve’s hand down to the tip of Tony’s cock like a livewire. 

If he moved forward any at all, it would almost be an embrace.  For a second, Tony could almost feel the slight tug of the chain digging in to the back of his neck, or wished he could.  He looked up, only to find Steve’s eyes on him, dark and hazy under the shadows cast by the trees as the wind caught the branches. 

Tony could hear his own heartbeat filling his ears in a rush of pounding he could feel in his throat.  His chest was tight, prickling with pinpoints of sensation, and Tony realized he’d forgotten to breathe.  He sucked in a gulp of air, and opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out, just a soft, breathy oh-sound that got partially stuck in his throat.  This is what they mean by weak in the knees, Tony thought to himself.  This blissful, draining feeling.  His mouth was dry.  He seemed to be able to breathe or swallow, and not both, so he chose air, but it burned its way through his chest when he drew in a deep breath.  There was a sick, queasy feeling low in his stomach, and he could feel himself clenching up, trying to stop what was happening.

He wondered what it would be like if Steve slid his hand up, traced the chain around the back of Tony’s neck, ran his fingers over it where it lay against Tony’s skin.  If Steve cupped his hand there, pressed the tiny, round balls of metal into the curve of Tony’s neck and held it there, pushed, just hard enough to be insistent, so Tony would know.

He’d always thought it would feel like being held down, having an Alpha signal him like that.  He wondered, though, with Steve, if it might just feel like being held. 

Steve dropped the tags abruptly and stepped back, turning towards the railing and bracing his palms on top of it.  He dipped his head to his chest, let out a long breath and closed his eyes for a moment before looking back at Tony. 

“Happy,” Steve said.  Warm pleasure spiked through Tony.  I made him happy, Tony thought to himself with a waffling sort of disbelief that made his limbs go loose.  Then, Tony caught the telltale sound of tires on gravel coming up the drive.  It took a few, discordant seconds for it all to coalesce in his head with the kind of realization that manages to creep up on you and hit all at once at the same time.

Right.  Happy.  Not happy.  Shopping. 

Stupdstupidstupid, Tony’s mind rang out.

“Oh,” Tony managed, craning his neck to look down the driveway. 

Steve walked across the deck to the driveway and held up a hand in greeting as Happy pulled the car alongside. 

“Ready?” Steve called out to Tony. 

“Sure.  Um. Yeah, I just—hang on,” Tony spluttered, tossing the yogurt cup into the garbage and heading for the waiting car. 

“Good to see you!” Happy said when Tony slid into the back seat of the car. 

“You, too, Happy,” Tony replied.  Steve climbed in next to him, and gave Tony a quick, searching look before buckling up. 

“Doing a bit of shopping?” Happy asked, though he obviously already knew the answer. 

“I’m told I should expand my wardrobe,” Steve said.

“Gotta keep him looking good, am I right, Tony? Need to stay after him.  Don’t let him go to pot just ‘cuz he has you now,” Happy advised.  “My second cousin’s an Alpha.  Got Bonded, and boom!  Spare tire like you wouldn’t believe,” Happy announced with a derisive snort.  “’Course, he says, why bother, now that he’s Bonded, but I’m like, Frank, you’re gonna grow into that recliner, man.  Gina, she’s his Omega, she’s not gonna be happy with you, letting yourself go like that.”

Tony glanced over at Steve and tried to picture him with a paunch and receding hairline.  For some reason, it made him think of Obie, and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat, turning to look out the window instead. 

“So what?” Tony asked. 

“Huh?” Happy said.

“What if she isn’t happy about it?”  Tony clarified.  “What if she hates the way he looks?  What if she finds him repulsive?”

“Well, you know.  You know how they are,” Happy said, somewhat uncomfortably.  “Alphas, I mean.   Gina, she says she don’t care, ‘course.  Likes Frank just the way he is.  But, Alphas, they want their Omegas happy, right?” Happy said. Tony saw his gaze dart to Steve in the rearview mirror.  “Isn’t—isn’t that so, Captain?”

Tony resisted the urge roll his eyes. Sure.  Gina was just thrilled to death with dear Frank’s Al Bundy routine. Gina probably spent hours in the gym each day, ate rabbit food and worshipped at the Spanx altar in the hopes Frank and his spare tire didn’t notice she was committing the Omega cardinal sin of aging. 

“I think they would say they do,” Steve said after a beat.  He was tapping one finger on the top of his thigh, looking down at his lap.  He opened and closed his mouth, like he wanted to say more.  It struck Tony that Steve didn’t like his answer very much, though Tony wasn’t sure why.

They rode the rest of the way in relative silence, though Happy occasionally punctuated it with comments about the other drivers, the interminable road construction and how Google maps once tried to kill him by giving him a route through Buchanan Street down in San Diego, which involved the rather dubious prospect of driving across a gaping chasm of death.  ‘No shit, rerouting, am I right?’

The mall was the same outdoor shopping mecca Tony and Happy previously visited.  Happy pulled up to the curb, and Tony and Steve hopped out.  Steve looked around a bit dubiously at the maze of shops, restaurants, fountains and carts selling everything from battery-powered walking pets to snow cones, promising more than fifty flavors. 

“There’s a department store, down on the end,” Tony suggested after he realized he was supposed to be the one who knew and cared about this stuff.  He pointed towards the large store that dominated part of the mall.  Steve nodded, and started walking in the direction Tony had indicated. 

The mall wasn’t too crowded, being a weekday, but there were more people than Tony was used to seeing.  Families chased after squealing toddlers, who ran towards the jets of water spurting up from the ground in front of the fountain.  Couples strolled past store windows.  Groups of teenagers hung together in packs.  

There were a few Alphas, Tony noticed.  You could always spot them, even in a crowd.  Tony plastered himself as close to Steve’s side as he could while maintaining any semblance of nonchalance.    The Alphas watched Steve, then looked away, their gazes never so much as touching on Tony, not with his giant Off Limits sign that only Alphas could read, Tony assumed.  Probably some primordial leftover from when they all lived in caves, and Alphas had to figure out a way not to kill each other all the time. 

God dammit, evolution, you had one job, Tony thought, ducking his head with a snort of laughter that earned a questioning look from Steve.

They did get looks from the mostly Beta crowd, of course.  Steve was Steve, after all.  Tony thought it might be helpful if he had a t-shirt made for himself that explained, ‘Weapons Manufacturer Included With Purchase.’   He’d be annoyed, but he really couldn’t blame them.

The department store was brightly lit, and cut through with large, tiled aisles with bins and racks of merchandise, mostly colognes and jewelry.  White-walled make-up counters gleamed from the center of the store, with poofy, rotating chairs and black-draped cosmeticians explaining the price of beauty to avid Betas and an Omega whose fingers sported more rocks than Stonehenge.

When they reached the menswear section of the store, four salespeople seemed to materialize out of the ether, waving at them with painted-on smiles.  It didn’t take long for Steve to be stuffed in a dressing room, while Mary Pat, Mary Kate, Mary Francis and Tovah, or whoever the hell they were, played lifesize Ken doll.  Tony flopped down in an armchair and pulled out his phone, scrolling through his emails from Professor Thorne.  Wrong again, he thought, reading through one of the messages from Grad Student Bobblehead Series 3 (still in box). 

“What do you think?” Tony heard Steve ask as he was halfway through typing a reply. 

“Looks great,” Tony replied, without looking up.  Honestly, if they were going to use the Bayesian-inference software library, to identify the most probable binary black-hole waveform, they had to compute its effect in both detectors, and then subtract it from the data or the model was going to be shit.

“You like it?” Steve asked, hesitation dogging his voice.

Tony glanced up.  “Fantastic,” he said, going back to his phone. It was like these people learned general relativity from the back of a cereal—oh, hello, Tony mentally stuttered, thoughts grinding to a halt as his mind processed the image he’d seen. 

Steve in jogging sweats and too-tight Army shirts was the kind of thing they put on billboards in Times Square. Steve in his military dress uniform, in retrospect and absent the crushing fear, was a work of art. 

But, Tony decided he’d take Steve in jeans, a white t-shirt and leather bomber jacket any day.

“You don’t think it’s kinda, I don’t know…a little casual, maybe?” Steve asked, canting his head to the side as he looked in the mirror. 

“We’ll take it,” Tony said to the saleswoman.  “Two more pairs of jeans like that.  Couple extra shirts.  Something in blue.  Go a size smaller, live a little,” Tony reeled off.  “If you let him try anything plaid or baggy, we’re walking.”

In the mirror, Tony watched Steve’s face flush a bit as he smoothed his hands over the jacket, but he seemed relieved.  Pleased, even.  Right.  This was…Tony was supposed to care about this.  It was almost annoying that he actually did care and even started to enjoy himself, at least once he paid attention.   It turned out to be impossible to maintain a clinical cynicism in the face of My Fair Alpha over there, looking ridiculously good in everything.

Before Tony quite knew what was happening, he had an armful of outfits that he shoved over the top of the dressing room door, then found himself giving a yes or no nod to one of the salespeople when Steve dutifully trotted out and turned in a slow circle for Tony’s approval. 

“Get it,” Tony urged, leaning back in the chair until he was almost sliding off of it. There was a pile of clothes and shoes next to him on top of the one the displays, and he had his elbow propped on the leather jacket, his head resting against his fist.  “If you don’t get it, I swear to God, Ralph Lauren himself is going to rise from the grave and come haunt you.”

“I don’t think he’s dead,” one of the salespeople remarked.

“Whatever,” Tony said with a wave of his hand.  “Get it. And the gray.  And the—you know, we’ll just take all the suits, and—no, not—honestly, does he look like a forty-year old accountant who wants to dress like a frat boy?  No Hilfiger,” Tony finished with a glare. 

“You should get you something, too,” Steve told Tony while one of the salespeople pulled his arms into the suit jacket of the three-piece Tony liked.  “Feel like one of those real swells in this,” Steve said, smoothing down the vest and twisting a bit as he considered his reflection. 

“I’d say real swell about covers it,” Tony muttered under his breath.  “I’m just going to look around a bit.  Maybe pick up a couple of things.”  He didn’t need anything, but he was supposed to want stuff, and Steve seemed intent on Tony leaving with something other than a hard-on.

“Good.  You should.  Pick out whatever you want,” Steve encouraged, then headed back to the dressing room to change.  “You said you had something for the gala, right?”

“Yeah,” Tony replied, thinking of the suit hanging in his closet.  It had to have come from Jarvis, considering that it didn’t look like something Siegfried and Roy rejected for looking too much like a walking Lite-Brite. “I have something.”

Tony wandered over to the wall of neatly folded jeans and pulled a couple of pairs in his size out of one of the bins.  Even though he didn’t need anything, picking out his own clothes was a bit of a novel experience.  A dark blue long-sleeved shirt almost made the cut, but then he remembered his mom’s admonition about blue, and put it back on the rack, pulling out a black Pink Floyd t-shirt off the bottom of a stack instead. 

“We have a nice selection in our Omega department, if you’d like to look,” a salesman said as he approached.  “I’d be happy to show you.”  Tony looked over his shoulder, but the door to Steve’s dressing room was still closed, so he shrugged and followed the salesman over to where good taste went to die. 

Tony thumbed through a rack of gauzy shirts, florals and pastels that had been attacked by a Bedazzler and lost after a valiant effort.  He pulled out a shirt in a clingy material that had a sheer panel down the middle and held it up to his chest.

“That’s a nice choice,” the salesman said approvingly.

“Comfy,” Tony observed dryly. 

“The material really breathes,” the salesman said. 

“I’ll bet,” Tony snorted, putting the shirt back on the rack.  “I’m probably good for today.”  He started to walk back towards the register, where he could see Steve waiting, head swiveling around to look for Tony.

“Perhaps something to say thank you with?” the salesman suggested, holding up a diaphanous red nightie, edged in lace and draping open in the front in a swish of fabric.  Tony stared at it for a second, waiting for the horror to come, but instead, there was a rush of wistful sadness.  He blinked at the sudden stinging at the corners of his eyes and looked away. 

“I’ll just—ah, use my words,” Tony garbled out, his gaze snapping up to where Steve stood in front of the register.  Steve wasn’t looking at him, thank God, but Tony had the fleeting sense that if he’d looked up a second sooner, he would’ve caught Steve watching him, probably wondering what in the hell Tony thought he needed from the Desperate and Horny department.  Great.  Just great. 

He brushed past the frowning salesman and hurried over the desk in front of the register.  Two salespeople were carefully folding and bagging their purchases. Tony added his handful of clothes to the pile, with a quick glance over his shoulder at the salesman hanging that…thing…back up on a tall rack of similar garments next to the aisle. 

“That all you could find?” Steve asked in a crisp, clipped tone without looking at Tony.

“Huh?  Oh, yeah. That’s it. That’s all,” Tony rushed out, feeling himself warm with embarrassment as his mind helpfully brought up an image of the red negligee.  “Don’t really need much.  My mom sent a bunch of stuff with me. So.  I’m good.”

“You hate the clothes your mom sent,” Steve pointed out after a pause. 

“True,” Tony acknowledged. 

“You put most of them in garbage bags and told Coulson to donate them to the Trump Foundation,” Steve reminded him.  “And then asked him for a power distribution transformer.”

“I believe in doing good works?” Tony replied with a light shrug.  Steve picked up most of the bags and slung the plastic-wrapped suits over his shoulder by the hanger, while Tony grabbed his small bag of purchases and followed Steve out of the store.

“Speaking of Coulson, I need to swing by SHIELD,” Steve said as they walked out into the too-bright sunlight.  “Just for a bit.  You can visit the R&D department, if you want.”

“What?” Tony squeaked, head swiveling around to where Steve strolled next to him.  “Really?  They wouldn’t mind?  I wouldn’t touch anything,” Tony promised.  “I could just look.  They wouldn’t even know I’m there.  You really think that would be okay?”

“Of course.  You’ll like them, I think.  They’re smart.  Like you.  Or, maybe not like you, but smart,” Steve amended with a quick, rueful look at Tony.  “I just have to meet with Fury.  Won’t take long,” Steve told him. 

Happy had the car waiting at the curb, and Steve loaded their purchases into the trunk.  Tony took his seat and buckled his seatbelt across his lap.  His right leg was bouncing up and down, and he had to physically tell himself to stop the motion.  Nervous excitement washed over him, making his skin crawl.   Getting to go to a real, working engineering lab, let alone one of the caliber of SHIELD…he’d never imagined something like that, and Steve treated it as if it was no big deal. 

Sure, I’ll just give my Omega SHIELD’s E-ticket tour, no worries.  Of course, Steve probably literally did think that, because Steve had a completely skewed vision of how the world actually worked.  Still, Tony recalled his first meeting with Coulson.  Coulson probably had a Trapper Keeper somewhere with ‘Agent Agent Rogers’ drawn in a little heart.  Maybe a quick lab tour wasn’t out of the question. 

Tony’s mind flashed to his garage, with its makeshift fabricator and CAD station, all cobbled together from what he could surreptitiously get off the internet and through Coulson’s unsuspecting assistance.  He would probably embarrass himself.  And Steve.  God, what if he embarrassed Steve at SHIELD?  That would be bad, right?  Of course, it would be bad.  Stupid.  This was probably going to be a disaster, let’s face it.  He scrubbed a hand over his face and looked out the window.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Steve fold himself into the seat next to him. 

I’ll keep my mouth shut, he told himself.  I won’t touch anything.  Just look. Observe.  Listen.  Just being there will be enough.  It would almost be like being a consultant.  Well.  Without the consulting.  But, still.  I’ll be good.  Everything will be fine.  What could go wrong? 

Well, fuck, don’t answer that, Tony mentally admonished himself, then immediately set about thinking through everything that could possibly go wrong.

They passed through the guard gate without incident and pulled up next to the entrance.  Steve hopped out and held the door open for Tony.  For a brief moment, he thought about just telling Steve he’d wait in the car.  It would be so much easier.  Even he couldn’t screw that up. 

Bait.  Hook. 

Fuck.

Tony crawled out of the car and squinted his eyes into the waning afternoon sun where it bounced off the building’s windows.  The last time he’d been here, he had been terrified.  Even the memory of it was enough to make his gut clench. 

“It’ll be alright, Tony,” Steve said, leaning low, next to Tony’s ear.  He took Tony’s hand and gave it a soft squeeze.  Tony nodded, then cast a furtive, grateful look up at Steve. 

“I’m fine,” Tony replied. 

He stared up at the imposing façade, with its eagle symbol and cordon of concrete posts that protected the entrance.  It wasn’t that long ago that he’d walked through the doors with his parents in tow, wearing a wrinkled suit and a layer of anxiety that vibrated through him until he thought he would come apart.  Not all at once.  Just a piece here and a piece there, until someone finally noticed there wasn’t anything left of him.

“He’s not going to pick me,” Tony said.  “He’s not, and then Howard’ll be pissed, like it’s my fault,” Tony continued, picking at the collar of his shirt while Jarvis ironed the jacket portion of the eggshell-colored monstrosity his mom was making him wear.  He shifted where he was standing.  He wasn’t used to wearing anything remotely like the undergarment that was currently spelunking its way up his ass.  Jesus, these things were uncomfortable.  Why did people wear them?  For the same reason people did anything.  Because that’s what Alphas wanted. 

“Don’t fidget.  Your father will find a way to be upset, regardless,” Jarvis said without lifting his head from where he was pushing the iron across the sleeve of the jacket.

“Yeah,” Tony acknowledged bitterly, looking out the window.  Two of the lawn service people were trimming the hedges into neat rows.  Clip-snick, clip-snick.  Let’s make sure everything looks perfect.  From the outside, anyway.   He caught his reflection in the mirror, eyes lined dark and hair slicked back, his face smooth and clean-shaven.  Must keep up appearances.  Clip-snick.

“What if he does pick me?” Tony asked in a small, thin voice that came out all in one breath.  “What if he does, and he’s…he’s…you know,” Tony said, waving his hand in the air with a flat grimace.  Jarvis turned to look at him, iron still held in one hand.  A rush of steam blew off of it with a whoosh and disappeared into the air.

What if he’s cruel?  What if he hates me?  What if he takes everything away from me? What if he hurts me?

What if he’s like my father?

“What if he isn’t?” Jarvis responded softly, in his usual precise, clipped voice. 

“I recognize the theoretical probability of that, but I find that it falls within the margin of Not Fucking Likely,” Tony ground out. 

“Then you shall simply have to kill him in a manner that avoids detection,” Jarvis said primly, setting the iron down on the ironing board.  “This suit is a disaster.”

“Tony?” Steve said with a frown.  “You sure you’re okay with this? We can go home and try this another day, if you want.   I shouldn’t have sprung it on you.  I wasn’t sure if we’d have enough time with the shopping, and I thought…well, I thought you’d be excited.  Like with the birthday thing.  That you’d like it.”

“Huh?  No, no, it’s fine.  I’m fine.  I’m—it’s good.  Really.  I’m just—last time, you know.  Forget it.  It’s stupid.  I want to.  Let’s go,” Tony urged in a rushed voice, blinking back the sudden sting at the corner of his eyes. 

He missed Jarvis.  He’d been avoiding anything to do with home, but that also meant denying himself the one thing about it that made it home.  

“Tony,” Steve said again, a sigh in his voice. 

“I was thinking about when I came here before.  Jarvis—he’s our butler.  He—I haven’t talked to him in a while.   I talked to Mom, but.  I’m not—I’m not really supposed to talk to Jarvis after, well.  He was the one…he let me, sometimes, when he could.  He brought me books and stuff.   When I was little.  Got me one of those star chart things.  I kind of used his info to do this online school thing.  At least until Howard found out and read Jarvis the riot act.  It wasn’t Jarvis’ fault.  I was the one—it wasn’t his fault.  It was me.  But, Howard said it was a problem, Jarvis letting me get away with stuff, and I had to leave Jarvis alone, or he’d have to let Jarvis go, so,” Tony husked out.  “Jarvis, he would…he’d like this, I think.  I was just thinking about him.  That’s all. It’s nothing.  Don’t…don’t worry.  I want to go, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve said softly.  “I’m glad you had someone like that.  We could invite him up to the cabin, if you wanted.  I’ll bet he’d love to see your garage.”

“Yeah?” Tony asked, blinking up at Steve in surprise. 

“Of course.  I’d love to meet him,” Steve replied. 

“I’m not—I’m not really supposed to,” Tony began haltingly.

“I’ll handle it,” Steve interjected. 

Now, Steve was invested, Tony thought with no small amount of glee.

“Ready?” Steve asked again.

“After you,” Tony nodded.

The guards at the security desk nodded to Steve as they passed through the metal detector, which beeped when Tony went through, probably from his phone or belt, though no one made a move to do anything about it.  Tony supposed the guards either didn’t figure he was a threat or didn’t want to attempt to explain the need for a pat-down to Steve.  Tony almost grinned at that thought, and tossed a look over his shoulder at the guards. They weren’t looking at him, of course.  He could probably walk in with a rocket launcher and get nothing more than a stern look.

“This way,” Steve said, pressing his hand against the small of Tony’s back to guide him.  It wasn’t anything more than a polite gesture, Tony knew, but it settled his nerves to a dull roar.  SHIELD, being at least pseudo-military, had a higher concentration of Alphas than the general population, and definitely a lot more un-Bonded Alphas roaming around. 

Long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs has nothing on me, Tony thought grimly, but none of the Alphas so much as looked at him.  He had his Steve-shaped invisibility cloak, he supposed.   The absence of scrutiny still took some getting used to, but, dear God, it was nice to not have to plaster on a second skin, to not have to worry, even just for these few moments.  He hadn’t realized how much energy it took to be constantly aware of himself and his surroundings until he didn’t have to be.

Agent Coulson was crossing the lobby towards them with an eager expression on his face.  Tony was 99% sure the man kept Steve’s toenail clippings in a box somewhere.

“Captain,” Agent Coulson said as he turned to match their stride.  “Director Fury is in his office.  Tony, good to see you again.  How’s the power transformer working out?”

“The conductive coupling’s a nightmare.  I think it’s the temperature drift at that altitude,” Tony said.

“Sounds problematic,” Coulson said sagely. Tony couldn’t tell if the man was humoring him or offering serious commentary.

“Agent Coulson’s going to escort you to the R&D floor,” Steve said.  “I won’t be long with Fury.  If you need anything, Coulson will call me.”  Tony nodded, rocking back and forth on his heels, hands snapping together with nervous excitement.

“I’ll take care of him,” Coulson promised, watching as Steve walked away.  He turned to Tony with an appraising look.  “Ready?”

“I guess,” Tony said, casting a look at in the direction where Steve had disappeared.  It was odd.  Being without Steve.  He hadn’t wanted Steve around, and then he hadn’t had a choice, and now…now, he was spinning in place, trying to figure out which way was up, all because his Alpha had left him.  Pathetic.  Get a grip, he told himself firmly.  It will be fine.  No talking.  No touching.  Just like getting to peek into Howard’s lab, but minus the soliloquy on how much of a disappointment you are.

“Weird, huh?” Coulson said.  “Being here again, I mean.”

“Sort of,” Tony admitted dully, then flashed a wan smile at Coulson.  “It’s fine.”

“Tony, I know you don’t have much reason to believe me when I say this, but I promise, everything will be alright,” Coulson said with a blasé smile.  “And by that, I mean that if anyone here causes you harm, threatens you, makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, if you stub a toe or get a paper cut, if anyone says anything that results in a mild case of the unhappys, or a sudden desire to listen to Alanis Morrisette and wear plaid, I will taze them, tie them to a chair and watch SuperNanny while they drool into the carpet.”

“That’s…disturbingly specific,” Tony said, blinking at Coulson with a stupefied confusion. 

“Shall we?” Coulson asked, sweeping a hand out towards the elevator bank. 

“Sure,” Tony nodded, shoving his hands in his pockets and checking around the lobby for a moment to see if anyone thought there was anything remiss about one of their agents threatening to Clockwork Orange people.  Apparently not. 

Tony followed Coulson to the elevator and stepped inside, watching Coulson hit the button for the nineteenth floor before the doors slid shut.  A few floors later, the doors opened, and two impossibly large Alphas stepped in, chatting about something to do with fibers from forensics. 

“Coulson,” the slightly less enormous one with the short hair and rough, gravelly voice said.

“Rumlow,” Coulson said evenly.  Rumlow glanced over his shoulder at where Tony stood against the back of the elevator next to Coulson with a casually appraising look that quickly turned to something far less casual. 

“They just letting O’s roam around now?” Rumlow asked derisively, rubbing his finger under his nose in a crude gesture.  He looked at Tony again.  Looked.  Really looked.  Up and down, the way that was meant to make Tony feel it, and he did, curdling in his stomach like soured milk.  It had been awhile since Tony had felt that look, the one that tried to take something, but this time, he returned it without flinching.  “We givin’ fucking do-gooder tours or something?  Jesus.  You smell that, Rollins?  Going to have to douse the place, Coulson.”

“No shit.  How’re we gonna get anything done?” the one called Rollins demanded. 

“A question I ponder daily,” Coulson said.  “He’s Rogers’ Omega,” Coulson added placidly, rocking a bit on his heels.

Honestly, Tony would have laughed if he hadn’t been so surprised.  The one called Rollins physically recoiled, like the air around him burned, and nearly slammed into the elevator doors.  Rumlow jumped.  Actually, scratch that, he fucking leapt for the elevator buttons, pushing the next three floors for good measure and then trying to plaster himself into the farthest corner of the elevator from Tony. 

It was glorious.

“Christ, Coulson, warn a guy, would you?” Rumlow demanded, turning to face the elevator doors and pressing the button for the next floor once more, just in case that light was a feint, apparently. 

“Sorry,” Rollins muttered to the seam of the elevator doors.

“Yeah, sorry. Didn’t know,” Rumlow added hoarsely.  “Cap asks, you tell him we didn’t know, okay?”

“Sure,” Tony replied airily.  “Steve—I call him Steve, of course. He’s really understanding.  About most things. Crazy protective, though.  Us newly Bonded and all.  I keep telling him, Steve, baby, calm down, you know?  Chill.  It’s not a big deal, but, well, I mean, you know what he’s like.  So old fashioned sometimes,” Tony said with a dramatic sigh.  Next to him, he heard Coulson let out a small cough to cover a surprised laugh.

Tony watched the two Alphas trade uncomfortable looks with a surge of satisfaction.  When the elevator doors finally opened, they scurried out and down the hall, shoving at each other and anyone else who got in the way of their escape.  Ah, the brave men of SHIELD. It truly warmed the heart. 

Tony turned to Coulson.  “Having fun?” he asked with an impudent grin.

“Just taking an elevator ride,” Coulson replied with a serene smile. 

“How come everyone’s so twitchy about Steve?  Not that I didn’t enjoy that.  Oh, don’t do the look. I know you can’t tell me anything, I’m just talking out loud,” Tony went on as the elevator ascended again.  “I mean, he’s young for a Captain.  Must have joined up at an early age.  Must be good at what he does to end up on loan to SHIELD.  Still.  Boulder and Slightly Smaller Boulder there seemed a tad melodramatic about it, you have to admit.  Own up, Coulson. Did SHIELD Treadstone the poor guy?  What’s with the X designation on these things?” Tony asked, tugging the dog tags out from under his shirt.

“Captain Rogers—“ Coulson began.

“I know, is a very special snowflake, and you want him to stop making paintings like he went to art school in the Upside Down.  Believe me, so do I,” Tony said.  “He’s better, though, right?  I mean, since we…since.  You know.  Since me.”

Coulson gave Tony a long look, then nodded once.  “He’s better, Tony,” Coulson replied. 

“But not okay,” Tony pressed. 

“You tell me,” Coulson responded, watching Tony with that same mild, probing gaze.  “SHIELD’s gym equipment budget can only stretch so far,” Coulson added, which seemed like a completely random segue. 

“I don’t…what does that even…he’s fine.  He’s—we’re fine,” Tony said, frowning in confusion.  “We—we fish.  Well, not really.  Mostly, we get outwitted by Nemo and friends, but it’s good. Things are good.  We’re fine.”

“Hmm,” Coulson replied noncommittally.  “This is us,” he said, as the elevator pinged and came to a stop on their floor. 

Tony half expected colorfully-dressed little people suggesting he take a nice, saffron route.  SHIELD’s Research and Development lab spread out in front of him, with sleek black floors, workstations filled with blinking lights and screens displaying graphs, schematics and---Galaga? 

Keeping quiet.  Not judging.  Around him, there were various rooms enclosed by large glass panes, some darkened, preventing Tony from seeing what was going on, and what looked like a detonation bunker sat in the far right corner. 

“Wow,” Tony breathed out in awe. 

“We try,” Coulson responded.  “Tony, these are Agents Paz and Dupree.  They’re fresh from Sci-Tech, and working in our robotics division.  Captain Rogers thought that might be a good place for you to start.”

The two agents nodded at Tony in greeting, and one waved him over towards one of the large bay doors that had the SHIELD eagle etched on the glass, which slid open as they approached. 

“I’ll just…ah, stand over here, if that’s alright?” Tony stuttered, moving to one side of the room while the agents went towards the conference table and started tapping into flat keyboards that were built into the edges.

Just look, Tony reminded himself.  Don’t touch.  Don’t talk.  Just look.  See?  Lots of neat things here.  Take a peek.  Be good. Wait for Steve.  He could do this.  He could.  He—

“Hey, does that drone have cloaking capabilities?” Tony asked, walking over to where a small, round device with four arms extending out in a quad-copter design sat on a table.  Small, reflective panels lined the surface, which, when viewed from the ground, would create enough optical camouflage to fool most anyone who wasn’t looking.

To be fair, it had been a plan destined to fail, Tony figured a couple of hours later as he tore the multi-spectral targeting system from the belly of the drone and turned it over in his hand.  The laser rangefinder was something from the Dark Ages.  Or Windows ’98.  So, basically the same thing.  Probably needed an exorcism to get it to work properly. 

“You could do with an upgrade to image-intensified TV for your laser-guided munitions,” Tony called out over his shoulder, where Thing One or Thing Two, he couldn’t remember who was who, tapped out something on a tablet.  “And synthetic aperture radar that can operate in spotlight and strip modes.  Seriously, was this designed by Amish with some kind of moral objection to advanced technology?  Clue, was it delivered by covered wagon?  Think back.”

“Ah, Hammer Industries produced that model,” one of the agents offered.  “I’ll just…make a note.”

Behind him, the glass doors slid open, and Steve walked in.  Tony’s hand stilled where it held the rangefinder, and he gave Steve what he hoped was an appropriately apologetic, downcast look, only to be rewarded by a pleased grin spreading over Steve’s face. 

“Coulson said you were having fun,” Steve chuckled, mouth tugging up at the corners.  A warm burst of pleasure bloomed in Tony’s chest at the sight.  It wasn’t relief, or at least, not entirely relief.  He hadn’t screwed up.  He hadn’t embarrassed Steve, who, come to think of it, was beaming a knowing smile at Tony.  So, relief, yeah, okay, a little, but floating above that, for the first time in God only knew when, there was pride, undiminished by fear or self-loathing, and it was such a heady rush of emotion that for a second, his vision swam and the room seemed to slant before righting itself again.  He sucked in a shaky breath and pointed at the, well, pieces of the drone.

“This Hammer tech is shit,” Tony told him.

“So, fun, then?  Everyone made you feel welcome?” Steve continued. Steve glanced at him with a question in his gaze, then looked over at the Agents and nodded, which sent them into deep fits of concentration over whatever it was on their tablets

“What?  Oh, yeah.  They were great.  I—I may have made a few, very minor, suggestions,” Tony acknowledged, setting the rangefinder down. 

“I’m sure,” Steve replied smoothly.  “Thanks for letting us barge in on your day,” Steve told the agents.

“Anytime, Captain,” Agent Dupree said. 

“Absolutely,” Agent Paz agreed.  “Tony’s given us a lot to think about.  I didn’t know SI was even working in the UAV arena, but Tony’s points…well, I’m somewhat dismayed that we haven’t been more proactive about the lack of upgrades to the product.  SHIELD’s had the contract with Hammer for years now, but it’s up for renewal soon.  I’ll have to put a word in with the Director.  Have him take a look at what SI has to offer.”

“Oh, well, the company isn’t really—“ Tony started.

“Thanks, Agent Paz.  I’m sure SI would appreciate the opportunity to compete.  Tony, he’s got all these amazing ideas.  You wouldn’t believe some of the things he talks about.  It’s all way above my head,” Steve said, giving the agents what Tony thought of as Steve’s aw-shucks grin.  Tony clamped his mouth shut and narrowed his eyes, watching Steve charm the agents through things like requisitions and cost-plus-fixed-fee arrangements like he was shilling used cars. 

“Ready?” Steve asked once the agents filed out of the room.

 “They’re going to go to Fury about the contract,” Tony pointed out. 

“I certainly hope so,” Steve acknowledged.

“They think I’m involved in SI’s R&D division,” Tony said.

“You don’t say?” Steve replied.

“Well, what happens when they find out Howard won’t let me near any of the company stuff?” Tony demanded.

“Huh.  That does seem to be a bit of a pickle, doesn’t it?” Steve asked, then broke into a wide grin.

“You did this on purpose,” Tony accused, pursing his lips and shoving his hands into his pockets.  “You knew what would happen if I got up here.  You knew about the contract up for renewal.  You…you planned this!”

“Tony, you want to build things for SI, right?  You’ve clearly given it a lot of thought.  Well, until the company passes to me, there’s only so much influence I can have.  SHIELD and its multi-million dollar drone contract, on the other hand…that’s pretty persuasive,” Steve suggested evenly.  “I know it won’t be easy for you.  You’ll have to convince the people at SI to listen to you, and they won’t want to.  They’ll think you’re there because of me or your father.  Maybe a lot like those agents who just spent over two hours typing out everything you said.  Give them a bit of a chance to see you, to see what you can do, and they’ll come around.”

“If they don’t?” Tony asked after a beat.

“Then I’ll have a nice talk with them about their job prospects,” Steve replied. 

“Is it wrong that I like it that other people find you threatening?” Tony asked, then waved off whatever answer Steve would have given.  “Okay, say this works…I’m just going to, what?  Start working for SI?  For…for Howard?” Tony stammered, feeling a pit of anxiety open up in his stomach.  He wasn’t sure he could do that. 

“You don’t answer to him,” Steve snapped tersely, hands going to his waist.  A muscle twitched in his jaw like it was keeping time.  “If we do this,” Steve continued.  Tony rather liked the way he said we, like they were a team.  “You’d be sort of an independent consultant.  Work on the projects you want.  Be your own boss.”

Keep an Omega off the SI employee roster, Tony mentally added.  Whatever.  He knew how things worked, and he wanted this, what Steve was offering him on a silver platter.  He wanted it with a desperate sort of hunger, and it terrified him at the same time.  He could screw it up.  It could all go wrong.  He could mess everything up for the company and the people who worked there.  They’d blame him if this drone thing went to the shitter, that much he was certain of.

It wouldn’t though, a small voice said from the back of his head.  This, he could do.  He knew he could, the way the LIGO data made sense, the way equations seemed to solve themselves.  He knew it in his bones.  He could do this. 

He may not be what Steve wanted, but he could build a stronger, more successful company.  That was why Steve chose him, after all?  The company.  That was the whole point of the mail-order Omega thing.  He owed Steve at least to try.  Plus, if he built things for SI, he would, in some small way, be keeping Steve safe.  His brain flashed back to Steve’s promise that Tony would be taken care of if something happened to him, and his own panic at the idea, which felt a lot more like a hollow emptiness now than it once had.  

So, we have making Steve happy and keeping Steve safe, Tony thought to himself.  It surprised him, just how much he wanted both of those things.  He could do this.  For Steve.  For both of them.

“I guess I could do that.  If you think Howard and Obie’ll go for it,” Tony said finally.

“Good.  Your parents invited us to dinner in couple of weeks.  I believe Mr. Stane was invited as well.  That should give SHIELD’s SI liaison enough time to broach the subject, once she has Fury’s approval,” Steve replied.

“You’re kind of devious when you want to be, you know that, right?” Tony asked, walking over to stand by Steve. 

“Don’t tell anyone,” Steve admonished with a smile.  “Don’t wanna ruin everyone’s impression of me.”

“Secret’s safe,” Tony assured him, returning the smile before turning away.

Through the glass panes that surrounded the room, Tony could see grey-coated agents working on various projects.  A holo-table floated blue schematics of what looked like part of a turbine engine in front of a group of agents, one of whom pointed at a spot with a thin metal stick, causing the schematic to instantly zoom in. 

The idea that this could be his world, too, was almost too much to grasp onto at one time.  A few months ago, he’d been bent over Howard’s desk with his ass on fire because of the school thing, watching through watery, stinging eyes as the metal balls suspended in a row that adorned Howard’s desk clattered against each other with each blow.  Now, he was working with CalTech on proving Einstein right, and, apparently, about to become a weapons designer. 

And he had Steve.  Well, not had Steve.  Not really.  But, he had not-fishing and chess, debates and discussions, his garage and his sketch of Maria.  He had laughter.  He had that warm feeling in his chest whenever Steve walked into a room.  He had that swooping, diving thing his stomach did when he wondered about things.  He had the way Steve smiled at him, all soft-eyed and bright.  He had his tin can hotline and DUM-E and U.  He had Steve listening while he rambled over long afternoons in the garage until Steve’s bottom lip had a dusting of graphite on it. 

That could be enough.  He should be happy with that.  It was more than he’d ever thought he would have, this lack of being a disappointment, this absence of constant worry about every, little thing he did or said.  Let alone the fact that Steve actually seemed to rather enjoy his presence.  Coulson even thought Steve was doing better since their Bonding.  That had to count for something to Steve.  He had to count for something.

“Thanks,” Tony said quietly.  “For, you know. All this.  The company thing, and, just.  This,” he finished, waving a hand lamely around the room, then running it through his hair. 

Thanks for being kind.  Thanks for liking me.  Thanks for giving me things I love.  Thanks for not hurting me. Thanks for not being like Howard. 

He didn’t know how to say all of that, and he’d already messed up, trying to kiss Steve, so he just stood there, watching the agents build and test and tweak and—okay, Thing Two was not seriously going to use nitrogen pressurization in the landing gear when they could just put in an upgraded shock absorber, was he?  God, they were Philistines. 

Tony was so caught up in the technology travesty unfolding outside the room, he nearly jumped when he felt Steve take his hand, his mind stuttering to a halt somewhere around computing the reduction in gross weight and resultant shorter runway takeoff length. 

For a moment, Tony had the crazy thought that Steve was going to hug him.  Steve didn’t. Of course.  That was stupid.  Instead, Steve took one of Tony’s hands in his and gave it a slight, reassuring squeeze. As he did, Steve’s thumb rubbed lightly against the inside of Tony’s wrist, over the pulse point, just once.  He let Tony’s hand go and cleared his throat, shifting a bit on his feet. 

“I’m glad you’re excited about it.  I’d hoped you would be,” Steve said, actually managing to sound like he was relieved by the idea.  “Ready to go home?  We can order pizza, maybe watch more of those Alien movies.”

“There are no more Alien movies,” Tony said dully.  The place where Steve’s thumb touched was throbbing and warm, like a brand.  He wanted to touch it, but forced himself to keep his arms at his side. 

“Are you sure?  I thought…” Steve began.

“We don’t speak of them,” Tony cut in, holding his hand up.  “Predator, though.  You’ll like Predator.  You can tell me how you’d beat a technologically advanced super-hunter with a shield.  Though, technically, Arnold did it with mud and sticks, but that’s not helping my point, so I’m ignoring it.”

“There you two are,” Coulson said as the doors whooshed open. 

“We’re just about to head home,” Steve announced.   “Tony was just telling me that I couldn’t beat some kind of alien predator with a shield,” Steve said with an exaggeratedly disappointed shake of his head.

“Didn’t Arnold just cover himself in mud and sharpen some twigs?” Coulson asked. 

“Don’t help,” Tony shot back with a frustrated grimace.  “It was looking for heat signatures.  Have you felt him?  He’s like a damn furnace,” Tony said.  “You’d have been skinned first.  Sorry.  I’m small and non-threatening. I’d probably have survived.”

“You’d have Home Alone’d him until he ran away screaming,” Coulson replied evenly. 

“Don’t help,” Steve said to Coulson with a sigh and slight roll of his eyes.  Tony grinned wickedly and shot a thumbs up in Coulson’s direction.  “Ready?” Steve asked Tony.  Tony nodded, and they made their way towards the elevators.

Coulson escorted them through the lobby, giving Tony a bit of history on SHIELD as they went.  He pointed to a large framed portrait of a beautiful brunette in a deep olive green military uniform that stood at one end of the main lobby next to a gold plaque.

“Margaret Carter.  Peggy to her friends. She was a code-breaker at Bletchley Park.  Started with SSR way back during World War II,” Coulson told him.  “Then, after the war ended, she helped found SHIELD.”

“Hell of a career path,” Tony observed admiringly.  “Wait…Peggy Carter.  Was she the one who was the inspiration for Betty Carver?  From the Captain America Adventure Program?  God, I loved that when I was a kid! They put it out on CD in this neat collector’s case shaped like the shield.  My favorite one was where he rescues her from Hitler and his Nazi guard.  That was great.  I mean, kind of cheesy, but still, it was…” Tony trailed off, looking between Steve and Coulson, who was watching Steve with a raised eyebrow while Steve looked vaguely horrified.  “Well, I thought it was fun, anyway.”

“I loved it, too, actually,” Coulson admitted wryly, turning his gaze to Tony.  “I had them on these little 45s.  Used to play it on my dad’s record player and listen to it all day, one after the other.  It’s good to have heroes, right?  Especially when you’re a kid.”

“Uh.  Right.  Yeah,” Tony agreed with a flash of uncertainty.  He looked over at Steve, who hadn’t said anything, and was still looking at the painting of Peggy Carter. 

“She’d have hated it.  Betty Carver, always getting in trouble and needing to be rescued.  She’d have punched Hitler herself,” Steve gritted out, looking down and across the lobby without really seeing anything.  “Let’s go,” Steve said sharply and started heading for the door, leaving Tony standing there next to Coulson without even looking back at him. 

“Okay.  Ah, bye,” Tony called out to Coulson and tossed a quick wave over his shoulder as he hurried to catch up to Steve.

And we are off, Tony thought with a flare of annoyance a half hour later as Happy drove the winding road that wrapped around the mountain towards the cabin.  Not we are off in the sense of heading for some grand adventure.  Clearly, somewhere between drone contracts and forties’ radio serials, they’d flicked a switch, and Steve was currently in the upright and locked position.  Steve hadn’t managed more than a few grunts of acknowledgment at Tony’s increasingly desperate attempts at conversation since they got in the car.  Instead, he just stared out the window, one hand rubbing up and down on the top of his thigh. 

“So…pizza?” Tony tried.  “Pizza’s good with me. You still feel like movie?  Try to contain your excitement.”  The car was turning off the main road onto their gravel-covered dirt driveway, the tires making a rushing crackling sound as they did. 

“Yeah,” Steve said as the car bounced down the drive.  “Yeah, I—sorry.  I’m…sorry, Tony.  I don’t mean to be…” Steve trailed off with a frustrated sigh, waving a hand in the air in front of him. 

“Hey, it’s okay.  Really. We don’t have to.  Movie night, I mean. Or, we can, whatever,” Tony replied, looking over at Steve’s tightly drawn posture.  “Was it…something I said? The drone thing, or…with the contract?  I—I know I sometimes…my mouth says things before my head gets there, you know.“

“No,” Steve cut in.  “No, you did fine. Great.  Really, Tony.  You were wonderful.  I’m just…they call it processing these days, I think,” he said with a small huff.

“Want to talk about it?” Tony asked as the cabin came into view around a curve.  “I know, I’m not exactly the best for that.  You don’t have to,” Tony rushed out with a wince, throat clicking as he tried to swallow.  “But, if you wanted to.  I’d listen.”

“Thanks,” Steve said, then cast a grateful glance at Tony.  “I mean it. Thanks, Tony.”

“Is that a no?” Tony pressed.   “You don’t want to talk to me, I get that.  I do. But, I told Coulson we were fine.  That you were fine.  Are we—are we fine?” 

Happy pulled the car up next to the deck and Steve pushed open his door, crawling out without answering.  Tony caught Happy’s look in the rearview mirror, nodded, and followed Steve out of the car, hearing the front door of the cabin slam as he did. 

Tony stared at the door for a second, then twisted around to watch Happy do a three-point turn and head off down the drive, sending tufts of dust in the car’s wake.  When it disappeared around the bend, he sucked in a shaky breath and walked the few paces up to the door and pushed it open.  Steve was standing at the kitchen sink with a hand braced on either side of it where the metal rim met the countertop.  The water was running from the faucet in a long, continuous stream.

Tony couldn’t say why the sight opened such a wide, gaping pit in his stomach, but it was like being punched in the gut and pulled apart at the same time.  A part of him wanted to turn around and walk out.  Run out, really.  Go to his garage and pretend he had never seen this.  If he left now, he wouldn’t have to hear whatever it was Steve was going to say, and they could go back to not-fishing and arguing about movies and debating whether doing the probabilities in his head counted as cheating at cards. 

He didn’t move, though.  Just stood and waited, watching Steve as he stared out the window above the sink with a blank, unseeing look on his face. 

“I don’t like the sound of running water,” Steve said, looking down at the sink where the faucet emptied a steady stream next to the drain. 

“Okay,” Tony replied carefully.  “You know you picked a cabin with a stream that runs right next to it, right?”

“Yeah,” Steve said flatly.  “Peggy…Margaret Carter.  She’s still alive.  Did you know that?  Lives in Arlington.”

“Really?  Oh.  Well. That’s…” Tony began, then realized he wasn’t sure what it was, other than wildly unsettling for some reason he couldn’t pin down.  The way Steve said it, he supposed.  Steve’s voice got all thready and tight, like he was going to crack if he said the wrong word.  That, at least, was a feeling Tony could relate to, if not the reason. 

“Senile.  That’s what we…that’s what it used to be called.  You call it something else now, but….” Steve said.

“Oh.  That’s…ah.  That’s awful,” Tony stammered.  The whole conversation felt surreal, but now they were veering off into some Mirror Verse where nothing made sense.  Running water?  Peggy Carter?  The hell?  “I’m—I’m sorry?” Tony said, which was true enough, if only because it seemed to make Steve draw in on himself, shallow out in a way that made Tony deeply uncomfortable. 

Steve looked down at the counter where his hands curled against the linoleum and balled them into fists, letting out a long sigh as he did.

 “Sometimes, I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing,” Steve said finally, then reached out to shut off the water, for which Tony was eternally grateful in ways he couldn’t quite comprehend.  “Seems everything I do, it isn’t quite right, you know?  Nothing’s quite right.  But, I can’t stop doing it, can I?”

More than anything, Tony wanted to rewind the day to arguing about aliens and spending a great deal of effort not thinking about The Event, which had seemed the day’s biggest issue until this conversation grabbed the car keys and took a joyride to Mirkwood. 

 “But you…you’re doing me right,” Tony blurted out, then sucked in a wince and rolled his eyes at himself.  “What I mean is…you and me, we’re…we’re right.  I think…I think we are.  To me, I mean.  Obviously.  But, I think—I think we’re right--alright. Aren’t we?” Tony finished in a small, thin voice.

Tony watched the muscles of Steve’s back hunch and shift as he ground his knuckles into the countertop and closed his eyes for a long moment.  Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, letting out a low hiss of breath.  Tony wasn’t sure what force it was that moved him across the kitchen to stand behind Steve.  It seemed to happen without any conscious thought.  Steve was hurting.  Steve was in pain.  Tony needed that to not be the case, simple as that. 

Steve’s shoulders tightened at Tony’s approach, but he didn’t move.  Tony stood behind him at the sink for a long moment, then wrapped his arms around Steve’s waist and pressed his head against Steve’s back where it dipped between his shoulder blades.  He felt Steve stiffen, then relax and go loose-limbed, almost curling back into Tony’s embrace.  One of Steve’s hands came up to cover Tony’s, rubbing absently up and down Tony’s arm where it hugged Steve’s waist in a soothing gesture. 

“I think you might be the only right thing about this,” Steve replied, then turned in one, smooth motion, wrapping his arms around Tony and all but hanging on him, like Tony was the thing keeping him from falling.  Tony face was pressed into the curve of Steve’s neck where it met his shoulder.  Soap, Tony noticed. That mottled green kind that purported to be Irish.  The hint of sweat.  He wondered idly, thinking of Coulson’s remark, if Steve had gone to the gym while Tony was busy undermining Hammer’s contracts. 

The underlying musk that Tony’s hindbrain recognized as quinetessentially Steve.

Tony wondered what it would be like to be saturated with that scent.  To have every pore infiltrated with Steve’s musk.  To be able to breath it in, taste it in his mouth, feel it in the back of his throat.  He was warm and safe, so safe here, with Steve draped over him.  Not just safe from the boogie man, in whatever form he took.  Howard.  Other Alphas.  This broken, brittle world.  The one the Alphas built that they now told Omegas they had to protect them from. 

Safe meant having his own thoughts and being able to express them.  Safe meant carte blanche to his own feelings.  Safe meant control of his body.  Safe meant boundaries he got to make for himself.  Safe was permission to be wrong.  Ideas were safe.  His intelligence was safe.  Safe was a tin can phone and a robot drawing.  Safe was a garage and Steve looking away when he typed the door code in.  He was safe.

Being himself was safe.

First time for everything, Tony supposed, sucking in a warm, clean breath of air.

Steve’s hands were on his back, fisted against Tony’s spine, holding him close.  Tony could feel Steve shudder underneath him, his whole body quaking, just once, and then it seemed the moment passed.  He felt Steve draw back, putting some distance between them, though he didn’t entirely release Tony, and for that, Tony was absurdly grateful. 

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t…I don’t mean to put this on you,” Steve said gruffly, mouth flattening into a thin line. 

“Hey, no.  No, it’s fine.  I’m…I’m glad.  I mean, I’m not glad.  Not that you’re, ah.  Struggling.  I’m glad I’m here, and, you know, can maybe help,” Tony offered.  “Coulson said.  He said maybe I was helping.”

That was technically a bit of a stretch, but Tony needed Steve to be alright in the deep, profound way that he needed his equations to work.  This was something he needed in his core, for the world to work as it should, for anything to make sense, for there to be any kind of order to his existence.  He needed Steve to be okay.

“You do help, Tony,” Steve said gently with a sort of crooked half-smile that was almost sad.  “More than you can imagine.”

“Yeah?” Tony asked in a breathy, slurry voice that almost didn’t sound like his own.

“Yes,” Steve replied firmly.  “Very much.”

Tony could feel Steve’s hand glide down his back to settle at the curve of his waist, sending fire through his veins as it did.   Tony tried to swallow and felt it get stuck in his throat, unable to move past the lump there.  He’d already misread things once.  He wouldn’t make that same mistake. 

But, he couldn’t help leaning forward enough to bend his head into the center of Steve’s chest, leaving the back of his neck exposed. Not that he thought Steve would do anything, of course, but just because it felt good.  His Alpha was pleased with him.  He was helping, and even if Steve didn’t want him like Tony wanted him, it still fulfilled some deep-seated need to offer comfort to his Alpha.

“Yes, Alpha,” Tony murmured. 

He meant it to be placating, maybe even a little teasing, but it just sort of came out rough and thick, like the words were sticking to the roof of his mouth.  God, Steve smelled good, Tony thought sluggishly.  He sucked in a deep breath through his nose, and felt the powerful musk burn its way down his throat to his lungs.  Everything went sort of hazy and muffled in his head for a moment, like he was at the end of a tunnel and something was rushing towards him with a low rumble of energy.  His body instinctively poised for flight, coiling up like a spring, but he didn’t move.  He wasn’t sure he could, even if he wanted to.  His mind seemed barely capable of offering suggestions to his body, who was currently sort of taking things under advisement. 

Steve’s hand spasmed where it gripped Tony’s waist.  He sucked in a short snap of air, and jerked his hand away from its place on Tony’s hip, slipping out from between Tony and the sink and walking to their small dining table.  When Tony looked up, Steve had his hands on his hips and was looking across the room, where the mantle clocked chimed the half hour, breaking whatever spell had temporarily put Hormones at the Control Console in his brain’s headquarters. 

“I’ll call for pizza,” Steve was saying, though it sounded off somehow.  “Why don’t you pick out a movie?  That one you mentioned sounded good.”

“What?” Tony said, blinking in momentary confusion while his brain caught up.  “Oh, ah, right.  Sure.  I can do that.”

Steve nodded once, then pulled his phone out of his back pocket and hit one of the contacts.  A moment later, Tony could hear him in the living room, asking for a veggie pizza, hold the black olives, probably because Tony had picked them off last time. 

Tony looked around the kitchen, then remembered he had a task.  Movie.  Okay.  He could do that.  What had they talked about?  Right.  Predator.  He glanced around numbly, then shook his head to try to clear it.  He braced a hand against the countertop for support, while he tried to convince his legs to stop shaking, then frowned at the sudden sense of wrongness.  It took a second to find the source of the feeling. 

The countertop was cracked.  Not just on the top, but down through the layers of faded yellow laminate in thin, spidery cracks that swept out to cut through the line of green vines that ran along the edge.  Tony frowned and peered at it, then looked over to see a nearly identical pattern on the other side of the sink.  Not coincidentally, where Steve had been idly grinding his fists. 

This place was old.  Probably in all kinds of levels of disrepair hell.  No telling how ancient these countertops were.  Decades, at least, based on the color choice and pattern.  Not to mention that this stuff wasn’t exactly top notch quality to begin with, anyway. 

Still, Tony thought, thinking of bent silverware and Alphas who practically climbed out of elevators with their tails tucked between their legs at the drop of Steve’s name. 

Still. 

“Pizza’s on its way,” Steve announced from the living room, sounding a bit awkward. 

“You broke the countertop,” Tony told him.  He traced one of the cracks with a finger. 

“Huh?  Oh,” Steve said, in a way that Tony knew from his own experience was code for ‘Fuck, Busted.’  “I’ll patch it up tomorrow.”

“Who are you?” Tony asked, tearing his gaze away from the deep fissures and back to Steve.  “The Director of SHIELD plays matchmaker to keep you happy.  Coulson pulls his Dr. Phil routine whenever he sees me.  You’ve got that X on your tags, which means something to somebody, but I looked all over the DoD’s server—ah, website--and there’s nothing about that even existing as a designation.  You’re strong.  Not normal Alpha kind of strong, but, like, strong-strong,” Tony pointed out, rubbing a hand over his mouth.  “Alphas, even the ones that are the size of something that tries to trash Tokyo, run for the hills at the drop of your name.”

“Did someone—“ Steve began. 

“You said you needed an Omega who could handle being with you,” Tony continued, ignoring Steve’s interruption.   “That…all of that…it’s all tied together, isn’t it?  And it has something to do with why you have all these triggers that make your head go all wonky.  Running water.  Peggy Carter.  Tesla.  Nazis.  Cold!” Tony snapped his fingers at Steve.  “You don’t like cold, either.  That one gets you, too.”

“Tony,” Steve started, drawing out his name. 

“You can’t tell me.  Fine.  That’s—fine,” Tony ground out, his tone suffused in bitterness, because it wasn’t even remotely fine, but there wasn’t much he could do about it.  “I get it.  It’s, what?  Need to know?  Guess I don’t need to know, just being your Bonded mate and all.  So. Fine.  I’m not going to bug you about it.  You don’t need that on top of everything else.  I am, however, going to figure it out.  Eventually.  Fair warning and all.  You know I will.  I think a part of you wants me to, anyway.  You have all the subterfuge finesse of Austin Powers.”

“I don’t know who that is.  And Fury has his reasons,” Steve said obliquely. 

“I’m sure.  His reasons.  Fury’s using you, Steve,” Tony protested with a sudden urgency that came from absolute certainty.  “He’s using me.  That’s what he does.  Oh, greater good, blah, blah, blah, but come on.   He’s been at SHIELD almost since it’s founding.  I remember him from when I was a kid, sweeping into the house like a giant bat with a briefcase and disappearing into Howard’s study.  He’s a spy.  He’s the spy,” Tony reminded Steve. 

Steve took a deep breath and looked at some point over Tony’s shoulder, before dropping his gaze back to Tony and shoving his hands in his pockets.  “You’re not wrong,” Steve admitted.

“So…just…all I’m saying is, be careful, okay?” Tony implored.  “Whatever Fury’s agenda is, whatever he’s telling you that you have to do or be…just remember that when they thought something was wrong—Coulson.  Coulson was practically clutching his pearls and having the vapors that day I met him, all worried about you.  They thought you were going to do something stupidly reckless and come back wearing a flag.  Just remember, their solution wasn’t to bench you.”

“I’m not really someone you bench, Tony,” Steve replied with a wry twist to his mouth.  “I kinda like their solution, anyway,” he finished, voice going soft and almost unsure.

“Well, you’re…you know,” Tony stammered, waving a hand in the air before letting it fall flatly to his side, momentarily thrown.  “You do?” he asked in a high, surprised tone before he could stop himself. 

Of course, Steve liked their solution.  He got SI and everything that came with that, or he would.  Hadn’t he just seen Steve manipulate his way into a possible drone contract? Don’t read into it, Tony admonished himself sternly.  On the list of Things We Don’t Think About, can we not put The Events, plural?  Get it together, Stark.  

“Yeah, I do,” Steve answered with a solid, urging sort of tone.  “Even when their solution is too smart for his own good,” Steve said with a low chuckle that made Tony’s stomach twist with pleasure. 

“You ordered pizza without olives, and you think I’m not going to notice you going all Deer Hunter on me over seemingly random things?” Tony retorted, then rolled his lip between his teeth.  “Are you…are you okay?  I mean, really?  Sometimes…”

“I’m not a danger to you.  I wouldn’t have done this if there was even a possibility of that,” Steve replied with a rushed sort of assurance that seemed to want to get all the words out and wipe the thought away at the same time.

“No, I—I know that.  You wouldn’t hurt me,” Tony said, realizing that he actually believed it.  How long had it been since Steve had promised him that?  Long enough for it to become truth, Tony supposed.  “I mean, sometimes you get all sort of, like, closed off or something.  You paint those swirly dark things that make me wish you were painting clowns.”

“What?” Steve asked, brows snapping together in confusion. “Clowns?”

“I’m just saying, you get all Heathcliff on the moors about it sometimes, and I don’t know what to do then, so I just…I don’t know what to do.  Do I say something?  Leave you alone?  I told Coulson you were fine, but we all know that’s a lie.  Not that you’re ready for an I-Love-Myself jacket or anything.  I don’t—I’m not good at this, is what I’m saying, but I want to help,” Tony finished with a frustrated shrug.  He ran a hand through his hair, then up and down the back of his head before looking back at Steve. 

“You do help.  Every day.  You help,” Steve replied, an unreadable expression on his face for a moment before it lapsed into Steve’s practiced smile.  “Just…keep being you.  Keep being happy.  Let me…” he stopped and cleared his throat, chin dipping down to his chest for a moment.  “Let me take care of you. There’s so much…sometimes, it gets to be too much.  Noise in my head.  Trying to make things fit.  Trying to make me fit. Figuring things out.  And then, there’s you.  Taking care of you is quiet.  I can make you a sandwich or get you the right soap, and I’ve done something that makes sense when nothing else does.  My mom.  She took care of me.  I—I like that.  Doing that for you,” Steve finished, giving Tony an almost sheepish look. 

Tony stared at Steve, turning the words over and over in his head as he did.  As much as he pulled them apart, he couldn’t find anything but actual affection there, even if it was the kind Steve felt for his mom, which, okay, fine.  Never thought he’d be depressed at the lack of Greek tragedy in his life, but whatever.  He thought about the way his equations and data sets calmed him, helped him find order in a world he couldn’t control, and wondered if the simple tasks of taking care of Tony in a world that demanded a soldier maybe did the same thing for Steve. 

“Well….I’m not saying that’s a terrible coping mechanism, as these things go,” Tony began, lips pursing to keep from grinning.   “Want to start the movie while we wait on the pizza?  I could make popcorn.”

“Sounds good, Tony,” Steve replied, the tension visibly leeching out of his shoulders when he realized Tony really was going to let it go.

The last thing Tony remembered was Arnold telling the Predator it was one ugly motherfucker.  When he woke up, he was tucked in his bed with his shoes neatly lined up next to his dresser, the laces even tucked inside.  He groaned and rolled over, scrubbing a hand over his face.  Tonight was the gala.  He should get up and iron his suit.  Maybe spend some quality grooming time. 

Neither option sounded particularly appealing, but he did want to look good for Steve tonight.  Well, not for Steve, of course.  Steve probably wouldn’t really notice.  But, he didn’t want to embarrass Steve.  They were already a study in One of These Things Is Not Like the Other, so why make the contrast more obvious?

It was still early, Tony noticed.  The light had that airy, filtered look to it as it broke through the slats of the blinds and peeked out from the edges of the curtains.  Steve was probably on his morning run.  There would be breakfast warming in the oven.  Because Steve liked to take care of him, he thought with a pleased grin.

Tony kicked off the covers and lay there, staring up at the ceiling fan making a slow circle overhead.  He could do a better job.  He’d never be one of those Martha Stewart Living kind of Omegas, with the cans of homemade preserves, wreaths twisted from the sprigs he found wandering through his garden or candle holders whittled from small logs delivered by tiny beavers who sang a happy working song while they rolled them to Tony’s feet. 

But, he thought with a sigh, he could do better.  Help out more.  With the cabin, sure, but there were legitimate fire safety reasons to limit his attempts, despite the resultant delight for U.  With SI, though…Steve was right about that.   Tony had thought about the company and where it could be better.  Not just the tech.  Okay, mostly the tech, but there were some business opportunities where it seemed a natural synergy existed with what the company was currently doing.  They already had to design finely-tuned systems that could operate in saltwater and desert conditions, and they had a bioweapons division that dealt with protective gear and containment. Why not halophytic crops that could grow in high salinity regions? 

If Steve was really going to let him be involved with the company…well, not let, so much as practically shove Tony at it and hope he stuck.  Point being, Tony could do more to help the company grow, which would make Steve happy, so…yeah.  He could do that.

With an exaggerated groan, Tony swung his legs over the side of the bed, got up and headed for the bathroom.  By the time the shower finally warmed up, his head was full of biocontainment filtration systems.  He washed his nest of hair as he worked through the pros and cons of internal air filtration system designs for biohazard suits.  Really a suit is only going to be as good as the filter, when you got down to brass tacks, he decided. 

He scrubbed the rest of the shampoo out of his hair and let the water sluice over his face, before shaking his head back and reaching blindly for the soap.  It was the green one with Irish Spring written across the top that Steve used, though now the words were roughened down by use to just a slight indentation. 

He stared at it in his hand for a moment, then brought it to his nose and breathed in the now-familiar scent.  Cleans An Alpha Up Right, their ads proclaimed, usually with some Paul Bunyan-type sauntering through rocky mountain streams while vaguely Irish music played in the background.  Tony was fairly sure Coulson had brought it to the cabin on one of his supply runs while Steve was gone right after they Bonded, because Steve had asked him once in all seriousness if it was a joke and then seemed to not quite believe Tony when he said it was a real thing.

He wondered what it would be like to rub the bar over Steve’s skin while the water rained down on both of them. 

No.  He shook his head and put the bar back on the small, plastic soap shelf that was suction-cupped to the shower wall.  He was thinking about filtration systems.  Not the way Steve’s skin would feel with beads of water dotting the ridges of muscle. 

Filtration systems.

filtrationsystemsfiltrationsystemsfiltrationsystems.

“Damn it,” Tony muttered under his breath and switched the hot water off, sucking in a sharp intake of air when the cold hit his groin.  Fil-fucking-tration systems.  God, he was never going to look at an air filter the same way again.  Getting a hard-on from Hepa was probably going to be tricky to explain.

He finally cut the water off and stepped out, wrapping a towel from the rack around his hips and using a smaller one to rub the excess water from his face and hair.  Swiping a hand over the glass to clear the condensation, he stared at his reflection in the mirror for a long moment, studying his face and deciding it was probably a good idea to shave.  A few days’ growth of stubble had resolutely appeared along his chin and jaw in awkward spikes of various sizes.  He thought it might not look bad if he let it grow in, but right now, it just looked like Dr. Seuss drew on his face with a fine-pointed sharpie. 

After his face was smooth, he considered doing his chest, then figured it wouldn’t matter.  Not like anyone was going to see it.  For a second, he imagined what it would look like covered in a gauzy, lacy red material.  How it would feel, the soft satin rubbing across his nipples.  The lace, just abrasive enough that he would feel it under his shirt all night.  No one would know, except him. And Steve. Steve would know.  Every time he looked at Tony, Steve would know, and Tony would know he was thinking about it. 

Seriously, filtration.  Biohazards. Ebola. Bleeding eyeballs, what the fuck does it take for a God-damn distraction?

Tony opened the mirror to reveal the medicine cabinet and took out his bottle of pills, shaking one out into his palm.  The faucet was running into the sink, and for a moment, he stared at it, thinking of Steve and these little things that needled at Steve, then brought the pill almost to his mouth before stopping, hand held out in midair in front of his mouth.

He could not take it. 

He could not take the pill. It would take a few days at least for his body to get the message, but his Heat would kick back in again.  An Omega in Heat…even if Steve didn’t want Tony, specifically, he’d be hard pressed to ignore that, right?  He could tell Steve he forgot.  Or that they weren’t working properly.  Steve would believe him.  Steve would take care of him…maybe Steve would even think it wasn’t that bad.  Steve might even like it. 

No.

Fuck!  No.  God, he was an awful person, Tony thought, shaking his head, gaze flicking to his reflection in the mirror.  There was a warm flush blooming on his cheeks, and his eyes were round, dark orbs. Well, put his body in the yes column, he supposed.  Just, no.  No. Stop it.  Fucking stop it already.  That would be wrong on so many levels.  Hideously, horribly wrong. 

Heat-trapping was a petty, vindictive, truly shitty thing to do to anyone, let alone someone like Steve.  It was the worst kind of manipulation.  It happened often enough that even Tony was aware of it.  Hadn’t his mom told him some story about a friend of a friend, twice-removed, whatever, whose daughter ended up with a broken Bond right before her Heat and got some random Alpha on the hook? What a fucking mess.  Literally, he snorted.  He couldn’t do that to Steve.

Plus, Steve wanted him to take the pills. That was the whole point of skirting the rules in the first place. Steve expected Tony to take them.  He’d put himself on the line to make sure Tony had them.  For obvious reasons.  It was a kindness, really, since he didn’t want Tony, to give him a way to avoid the unpleasantness of a Heat without an Alpha.  That little merry-go-round of disappointment hadn’t exactly been fun the first time, and he sure as hell had no desire to repeat it. 

Tony popped the pill into his mouth and cupped his hand under the faucet to chase it down with a swallow of water before the devil on his shoulder started playing his favorite tune. 

By the time he got dressed and wandered into the kitchen, Steve was standing in his grey running pants and the shirt that fit him like a second skin with the refrigerator door open, drinking from a bottle of water.  He stopped and wiped his arm over his mouth when Tony walked in. 

“Morning,” Steve said in greeting.  His hair was slightly damp with sweat and his face was flushed with patches of red from the exertion of the run.  Tony watched him hold the half-full bottle of water against his forehead for a moment before he went back to drinking it and seriously considered how his life got to the point where he was jealous of a Dasani.

“Good run?” Tony asked, going over to the coffee pot and pouring some into the SHIELD mug that was sitting next to it.  He glanced at the sink, spared a brief look at the fine, radiating cracks in the countertop, then looked out the window above the sink where the sun was lighting its way through the trees that clung to the mountain.  “Hey, when did we get a delivery of firewood?” Tony asked, canting his head to the side in question.  There was a huge, somewhat haphazard pile of it out by the garage.

“Ah…I just…I thought it might be good. To stock up,” Steve replied. 

“It’s spring,” Tony pointed out, though Steve just shrugged and pointed the almost empty water bottle down the hall as he closed the refrigerator door.

“I’m gonna hit the shower,” Steve said with a nod.  “Leave me any hot water?”

“Yep,” Tony replied with a self-deprecating sigh.

“Need anything for tonight?” Steve asked.

“A desire to be around people would be helpful,” Tony replied with a flat grimace.  “What’s this thing for, anyway?”

“Some veterans’ group fundraiser, ostensibly,” Steve told him.  “Mostly, it’s a chance for the California brass to get together and see who can avoid pulling a muscle patting themselves on the back.  SHIELD works with a lot of the military branches in attendance, though, and Fury wants us to have a presence there.”

“Fury wants you to have presence there,” Tony corrected.

“Yeah,” Steve admitted.  “He thinks it would be good to make some contacts.  One of the World Security Council members will be attending. General Ross.  General Stryker. Admiral Fairfax.  A Colonel Talbot, who I haven’t heard of.  Some industry people.  A few others.  No one from SI, though. I checked.”

“Sounds thrilling,” Tony said flatly.

“There will be other Omegas there.  Have you met many?” Steve asked.

“Not really,” Tony admitted. “A few, when we were kids.  Mostly.”  His thoughts flickered to David. David and his pretty watch.  I will not be jealous of David and the fucking Dasani at the same time, Tony told himself firmly.  One depressing spate of self-hatred at a go, please. 

“See?” Steve replied brightly.  “You’ll have fun.  Meet new people.  You can get to know them, make friends, maybe.”

The unlikely phrase, ‘I don’t want friends, I want to be a bottle of water,’ came to Tony’s mind, and he would have rolled his eyes at his own stupidity if Steve wasn’t watching him so closely.

“I guess,” Tony said finally. 

“There’s waffles in the oven.  And some bacon,” Steve told him with a small smile.  He dropped the bottle of water into the recycle bin and headed off down the hall towards the bathroom to go smell all manly and Irish or whatever.  “Save me some coffee, would ya?”

God, this was pathetic. 

“Sure,” Tony nodded, holding his cup up like a promise. 

Tony spent most of the rest of the day in his garage, mostly going through the LIGO detection data.  Steve joined him with a tray of lunch and his sketchpad tucked under an arm, alternately chewing large bites from his three sandwiches and drawing a charcoal pencil over the sand-colored pad of paper in his lap. 

Sometime around four in the afternoon, when all of Tony’s data sets had begun to look like they pointed to the universe existing on the back of a turtle, Steve announced he was going inside to start getting ready.  He tore a sheet from his sketchpad and placed it on top of Tony’s printouts, patted U’s arm and dropped a roll of duct tape on the ground for DUM-E, who chirped happily and rotated his claw with ill-concealed glee.  Suck-up, Tony thought fondly, though he wasn’t sure where exactly the fondness was directed.

Tony took a sip of his bottled water, then nearly choked on it as he caught sight of the sketch.  It was him, inside the power loader from Aliens, with a squirrel holding a missile perched on his shoulder.  DUM-E was on one side of him attempting to pick up a round, cartoon bomb with a lit fuse, and U was on the other side with a fire extinguisher at the ready.  A wide grin split Tony’s face as he looked at the drawing.  He cast a glance over his shoulder, but Steve was already out of the garage.  He quirked his mouth and bit his lip.  A warm, loose bolt of pleasure raced through him, curling around inside until it settled in the center of his chest. 

When had being happy become so easy?  It was a learned behavior, like anything else, he supposed.  He wasn’t quite sure he could pinpoint the moment he stopped questioning it and started believing he might not only get to have it, but actually deserve it.  How did you know when an invisible scar began to heal? 

Tony sighed and tucked the drawing safely away in a long drawer.  He still needed to find a frame for his Maria, and now he could add this one to the collection.  He suspected he might end up covering his bedroom wall with Steve’s drawings, and that...didn’t sound so bad, actually.  He could take down the posters of heavy metal bands that no one was around to hate.  Made them wildly less interesting. 

After shutting down his computer, Tony locked up the garage and headed back into the cabin and to his room.  He could hear light movements from Steve’s room, where Steve was probably getting dressed, which Tony wasn’t going to think about. 

Taking the suit out of the closet, he unzipped it from the dust bag and ran a hand over the lapel.  It was a dark blue, with a few small crystals shining across the pockets and collar.  Sure, blue had the downside of his mother being right, but it did look good on him.  The bling was flashy, but not ostentatious.  A dark blue shirt and matching tie went underneath, with a single, crystal stud for the tie pin.  He spent too much time trying to shame his hair into cooperating. Without much success.  A bit of eyeliner and the barest swipe of shadow were enough, he thought.  The mascara was somewhat mockingly described by the name Better Than Sex, but he gave it a shot, and ended up with blotches of dark stain at the corners of his eyes and grave concerns about the love lives of make-up marketing people.  Heeled boots were last, giving him a bit of height and making his ass look great under his jacket.

When he was finally ready, he turned in front of the dresser mirror, giving himself a last once over.  He heard a horn outside, which meant Happy had arrived.  Not terrible, he judged, tilting his head to the side.  He wouldn’t embarrass Steve, at least.  Might even look like he belonged on Steve’s arm. 

His momentary flash of confidence abandoned him when he walked out of his room and into the kitchen.  Steve was waiting for him, wearing his Army blue dress uniform, the same one that he had been wearing when they first met at SHIELD.  For a second, Tony was back at that meeting, sweaty-palmed and brimming with an anger born of terror, and Steve was the great unknown, too tall, too broad, with too many medals and too many questions. 

Now, though.  Now.  Now, Tony could fully appreciate the picture Steve presented in his finery.  The tight, cropped jacket with the scrolls of twisted gold cord braid adorning the arms. The fitted blue pants with a smart gold stripe running down the side. The crisp white shirt and bow tie—God, a bow tie, Tony was going to wonder about that a whole fucking lot, he thought, swallowing down a derisive snort. 

“Wow,” Steve breathed out.  “You look amazing.”

“Back at you,” Tony replied with a careful air of nonchalance, walking into the kitchen where Steve waited. 

“Ah, you know. We gotta…” Steve began, waving a hand up and down, apparently to indicate that the Army required him to look like patriotic spank bank material.  “But, you.  You, ah.  You look really great.   Color,” Steve said, blinking at him owlishly, a slow blush creeping across his cheeks.  “Color’s great on you. The blue.” 

“Thanks,” Tony replied hoarsely, finding himself filled with a strangely pleased bashfulness.  He dropped his gaze and darted it around the room, coming to rest on the pepper shaker on the table that he still hadn’t remembered to fill, though it was nearly full because Steve liked to take care of him.  He was suddenly absurdly conscious of the feel the cool metal of Steve’s dog tags brush against his skin under the shirt.  One hand came up to press against the center of his chest, warming the metal into his skin.  “So.  I guess we should, ah…”

“Huh?” Steve said, eyes following Tony’s hand before snapping back to Tony’s face. Steve’s mouth flattened and gave his head a little shake, coughing into his fist before continuing.  “Right.  Yeah, um, Happy’s waiting, so.  Ready?”

“Let’s get this party started,” Tony said with a practiced grin.  Steve held the door open for him, and Tony brushed past, then stood on the stoop while Steve locked up.  “Niiiiiiiice,” Tony whistled, nodding at the limousine that Happy had managed to maneuver up to the cabin. 

“SHIELD thought we should arrive in style,” Steve explained.  Happy jumped out to open the limo door, and Tony ducked inside, and Steve followed.  “Thanks, Happy,” Steve said, as Happy shut the door. 

“Anything I should, like, know to do or, let’s be real, not do for tonight?” Tony asked as the limo started to roll over the bumpy road down to the highway. 

“I don’t think so.  Just have fun.  Relax,” Steve replied.  “There will be plenty of food and other Omegas to talk to, if you want.  They have an Omega room, if you wanted to use it.”

“Fancy,” Tony remarked with a huff.  Sitting in a stuffy room that looked like a bottle of Pepto-Bismol birthed a floral arrangement listening to a bunch of Omegas discuss hair products, celebrity divorces and how little McKynleigh knows all her Presidents did not sound like a great deal of fun, but whatever.  Technically, he’d never actually been in one, but he’d lost enough IQ points watching TV shows that depicted them like Downton Abbey: Kardashian Edition to know that he probably didn’t belong. 

“Well. That’s up to you,” Steve said quickly, giving Tony a look before going back to watching the road pass by outside the limo’s darkened window.  “There will be dancing.  I don’t really dance, but, ah. I could try. If you wanted.”

“Don’t worry.  I’m not really big on dancing,” Tony replied.  How to say, I’m afraid my ass will go Exxon Valdez by the second verse of The Way You Look Tonight, so I’d rather not?   Yeah, dancing was probably not a great activity choice, he sighed.

Tony shifted in his seat and twisted to look at Steve.  He’d missed something. Steve’s back was stiff and his jaw tight.  One hand was rubbing up and down on the top of his thigh.  Not a switch-flicker, but something, Tony thought. 

“We can dance.  Something simple.  I’ll show you the steps.  I’ve got six years of dancing instruction with a woman who missed her calling as a prison guard on the Green Mile, so whatever,” Tony offered.   “It’ll be fun.” Steve’s gaze flicked to Tony’s face, then dropped down to Tony’s chest for a fraction of a beat, lingering where the dog tags lay beneath his shirt.

“That’d be nice,” Steve replied after a pause, when Tony thought he was going to say something else, though he had no idea what, just that the words didn’t sound quite right.

Steve spent the rest of the limo ride telling Tony a little bit about the party guests wanted to meet with, partly due to SHIELD’s little propaganda exercise and partly, Tony suspected, to pave the way for expanding SI.  Tony had to hand it to Steve.  When the man got a goal in his head, he attacked it with the kind of determination Tony reserved for the Theory of Everything and bubble wrap. Tony was already familiar with many of the names Steve rattled off from his Dad’s contacts, but some were new.  He listened with half an ear and tried not to think about how good Steve looked or the way he smelled, how he felt under Tony’s hands by the sink in the kitchen or other musings that led to situations like The Event.

The city came into view while Steve was on the head of some company called Viastone.  Tony could see lights spread out from the skyscrapers that marked downtown like a gossamer web. He’d always imagined living in the city, but he had to admit, the cabin, in all its rustic glory, was growing on him. 

LA traffic was terrible, as always, but Happy got them through it.  By the time they pulled up in front of the Disney Concert Hall, the sun was a sliver of bright yellow just hanging on over the horizon, sparking against the windows of the skyscrapers and lighting them up like candles.  A tuxedoed usher opened their door, and Steve stepped out onto a red carpet buttressed by thick, corded rope-lines running through small, metal stands, then turned and held his hand out to Tony. 

Tony slid his hand into Steve’s and climbed out, gazing around at the crowd of people filing into the hall in pairs and small groups.  Around him, camera’s flashed and clicked.  He hadn’t really thought about photographers being here, but he supposed it made sense.  There were a lot of important people in attendance, at least based on Steve’s mental list.  Not like reality TV star kind of important, but still.  Tony felt Steve wrap his hand around Steve’s outstretched elbow, and realized he’d been standing there like it was his first time facing the Kodak soul-stealer or something.  He sucked in a breath and straightened his shoulders, looking up at Steve only to find Steve watching him with an expression that made Tony’s mouth go dry.

“You really are beautiful, Tony,” Steve said leaning down and pressing the words against the side of Tony’s temple, like a kiss that almost was, then started forward, leaving Tony with no choice but to follow.

“Th—thanks.  You, too,” Tony managed to rasp out before his chest constricted painfully right around where his heart was trying to hammer its way out of his ribcage.  Steve smiled, quick and sweet, and they were moving into the sea of people, headed toward the doors.

So, this was what it felt like to hear a compliment and know it was meant, just as it was said, with no ulterior motive behind it, no hidden meaning, no backhandedness, no underlying implication that was a debt that would be collected later.  Just a compliment.  Because he was beautiful, apparently.  To Steve, anyway, and that was who mattered. 

It had always been hard to believe the good things.  They were doled out in such miserly portions and usually came with so many strings attached.  The bad things…the bad things, they hurt, sure.  But, they made sense.  They lacked the confusion that came on the heels of the good things.  There had to be some truth in the bad things, if even if his own father hated him, right?  There was a certain comfort in that, oddly enough.  The symmetry of it. 

But this…this good thing…it slipped into Tony’s mind and coiled there, settled in and made itself at home.  Like it belonged.  It was the strangest feeling to receive praise without the concurrent need to figure out why. 

Tony wasn’t sure why Steve’s words felt true, or truer, anyway, except that he trusted Steve in a way he wasn’t sure he had trusted anyone before.  Even Jarvis had owed some kind of allegiance to Howard, and that had always been a wall Tony couldn’t, or wouldn’t, try to climb. 

He was beautiful to Steve.  All the other people here, in their couture and uniforms, and he didn’t even need to compare himself to them because he was beautiful to Steve.  It was a heady, disorienting sort of feeling, a bit like cartwheeling down a hill, Tony thought, feeling a wobbly smile form.  To just get to be beautiful to Steve.  That could be enough.  Steve may not want him, but Tony wasn’t unwanted, and a lifetime of joy and possibility lived in that difference.

By the time they got inside, the crowd was pouring into the hall, where the dance floor was flanked by a small orchestra and long, white-clothed tables laden with an array of food surrounding various patriotic themed ice sculptures that glowed red, white and blue.  Tasteful, Tony snorted, noting the pattern of stars lighting the light wood-paneled floor.

“Feels a little like Coulson decorated,” Steve commented with a huff of a laugh. 

“Huh?” Tony asked, drawing his gaze back to Steve. 

“Oh, ah. Nothing.  Nevermind,” Steve demurred.  “Would you like to get something to eat?”

“Maybe just some punch?” Tony suggested, eyeing the fountain where red punch drizzled into silver tiers. 

“Coming right up,” Steve said.  He nodded at one of the waiters and held up two fingers, which somehow produced two glasses of punch a moment later.  Tony took one and sipped. It was tart and sweet at the same time and the red was the color of that thing he wasn’t wearing and definitely not thinking about.

It wasn’t long before Steve was surrounded.  A two-star General was chowing down on a mini-quiche and telling Steve about his exciting role in the Gulf War, which, from what Tony could tell, involved sitting in a Hum-Vee while Iraqi troops desperately tried to surrender.  A Vice-Admiral was nodding along and attempting to interject something about cruise missiles whenever the General shoved another mini-quiche in his mouth. 

Tony stood at Steve’s side and mostly just enjoyed the spectacle of a bunch of uber-Alphas kowtowing to Steve, as if by some silent, mutual agreement they’d all elected Steve prom king.  It was weird.  Steve didn’t outrank most of the military Alphas here, and he certainly wasn’t as rich as some of the industrialists, or as famous as the few celebrities putting in an appearance to show their deep commitment to the military.  Yet, here they were.  All Single White Alpha-ing the hell out of Steve for whatever reason.

They didn’t know who Steve was or what was special about him, Tony was almost certain, but they knew there was something. Something that set Steve apart.  Agent Agent, who was hovering next to Darkwing Duck over there by the dessert bar, knew, and probably a few others.   Tony raised his glass, and Coulson nodded, giving Tony a wan smile. Fury just glared.  Or, possibly, winked. Tough call.  Did you look at the patch or the eye?  He’d have to ask Steve. It was all very confusing. 

Did that guy—Rumlow, of the Monty Python levels of running away—did he know?  Maybe, Tony mentally acquiesced.  Or maybe Rumlow and Hagrid or whatever the other guy’s name was just knew enough to know they didn’t want to mess with Steve. It was a bit hard for Tony to quite wrap his head around it.  Steve was intimidating in the way Alphas just naturally were.  Bigger. Stronger. Too used to getting their way.  But, Steve was Steve, and Steve was…kind.  Smart. Funny.  Occasionally goofy, when you got down to it.  Liked to take care of Tony.  Liked to be outwitted by fish.  Steve.  Hard to really see why everyone acted like he was going to pull a Mr. Hyde.

Tony let his mind wander a bit while the Alphas droned on in their attempt to be chosen as Steve’s best friend or whatever the hell they were up to.  Steve hadn’t introduced Tony to any of them, which was fine.  More than fine.  It was nice, actually. He didn’t even have to pretend to be interested.  He could enjoy drinking his punch, admiring the décor and replaying Steve telling him he was beautiful in his head. 

“—we gave them water and food, of course, but you should’ve seen them, arms in the air, kneeling down, just take me!  Anywhere but back to Iraq!” General Mini-Quiche laughed.  “I don’t think I’ve seen our boys as welcomed since a USO show.”

“You know, we’ve actually done some follow-up studies on the Iraqi soldiers to help better understand Gulf War Syndrome.  There’s been some link to the depleted uranium dust on leftover Iraqi soldier vehicles and equipment our troops were exposed to,” another voice cut in, making Tony’s ears perk up.  He turned to the speaker, a tall, balding man with a slight paunch wearing a dress uniform similar to Steve’s.  “Our biohazard suits hadn’t been tested under those types of conditions.”

“Excuse me, sorry General. Hate to interrupt.  That’s a heck of a story.  I’m going to need to hear the rest of it,” Steve cut in. “Dr. Barker, this is my Omega, Tony Stark.  Tony, this is Dr. Barker from the Army Science Board.  His Board advises the Secretary of the Army, the Chief of Staff and other senior leaders about science and technology issues.  Dr. Barker, you just spoke at the Army Research Lab about the adaptive armor program, right?”

Oh, Steve.  You flatterer, you, Tony thought with a small grin.

“I—yes.  Yes, I did. I’m surprised you heard about that,” Dr. Barker swooned.  Well, he didn’t swoon, but close, Tony amended.

“Tony—you know Stark Industries, right?  Tony’s father founded the company.  Tony would be the one to talk to about adaptive armor.  Actually, Tony and I were just talking about some of the ways to improve armor maneuverability while enhancing protection and lethality,” Steve said smoothly. 

“We were?” Tony said.

“Remember.  I drew you that sketch based on our discussion,” Steve reminded him, when Tony frowned in confusion.  His eyes were twinkling, and he was biting a bit at his bottom lip to keep from smiling. 

“Oh, right.  Right.  Yes.  Yes, that.  Of course. Armor maneuverability and enhanced lethality protocols. We were definitely talking about that,” Tony grinned widely. 

“My, well,” Dr. Barker chuckled.  “I wish my Omega would let me talk about adaptive armor!  Last night, I had to listen to twenty minutes of what was wrong with his mother’s feet,” he said with a low laugh that trickled through the pack of Alphas laying wreaths at Steve’s feet and imagining naming their firstborn Steve.

Dr. Barker was at least interesting, though.  They spoke for a good twenty minutes before he had to move on, and Tony thought he’d done well.  He remembered to ask questions, instead of just info-dump the poor guy, so he thought he was improving.  Steve seemed pleased, when Tony’s gaze strayed back over to where he stood with his court.  It was a good contact for SI, no doubt about it, Tony supposed. 

Once Dr. Barker departed, Tony made his way back to Steve’s side, and mostly just listened again until someone mentioned the Army’s work with NASA on rotorcrafts and Tony somehow found himself surrounded by three Alphas discussing avionics and aeromechanics, particularly individual blade rote control and vibration characteristics, which were not really his best areas, but he figured he could brush up on it over the weekend. 

When he looked back up, Steve was speaking to an elderly man in a wheelchair. The man was wearing a vintage dark, green Army uniform and garrison cap over wisps of white hair, and his chest was covered in medals and ribbons.  The man’s Omega stood next to the wheelchair, watching the exchange with a soft, watery expression. 

“Normandy. That was hell,” the man was saying in a raspy, dry-throated voice as Tony approached.  “Wrote a letter to this one,” the man continued, pointing a thin finger at the man next to him.  “Telling him to go find someone else, I wasn’t coming back.  Didn’t think any of us were coming back.  The water.  The water was red. We had to step on bodies getting out of the boats. Mines all over the place.  Damn Krauts.  They’d come out at night and loot the bodies for cigarettes, did you know that?”

“I heard that, yeah,” Steve replied in a low, slow voice. 

“We got ‘em, though.  Went after one of those bunkers, little pillbox things they built into the sand.  Had to go at it from the sides, but we got ‘em,” the man continued.  “Ah, enough of that.  Supposed to be a party.  This one,” he pulled his head at the man standing next to him again.  “Says he can’t take me anywhere these days.  Says I’m an old curmudgeon.  You believe that?” he asked, nodding at Tony. 

“Hard to imagine.  Corporal, this is my Omega, Tony Stark. Tony, this is Corporal Ellers,” Steve told him, turning to nod at Tony.

“He’s Charles.  Chuck if you want to piss him off,” Corporal Ellers said to Steve.  “Can’t say as I recommend doing that, though.  Call me Dave.  None of this Corporal nonsense.  Makes me want to check if my shoes are shined.”

“Charles, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Steve replied.

“And you, Captain,” Charles responded with a slight smile.  He had a slight British accent, the kind that has been in America long enough to be almost a memory.

“Steve,” Steve corrected. “Please.”

“Well, Tony, go ahead and ask.  All the young ones want to know,” Dave said, leaving Tony staring blank-faced at Steve in confusion.  “Did I know him?  Yes, yes, I did. Well, not know him.  Not really.  Saw him, though.  Him and those commandos of his.”

It took Tony a second to catch up to the old man’s train of thought.  Normandy.  World War 2. Europe.  Commandos.

Captain America.

Oh. Well.  Fanboy mode engaged.

“Really?” Tony asked.  “For real?  What was he like?  I’ve got all the comics, books, couple of action figures, the—the ah, the radio program,” he said, casting a furtive glance at Steve, who was watching him with an indecipherable expression. 

“Huh, well.  Your comics and books, they’re all pretty and colorful and Cap always saves the day, right?  Eh, yeah.  War.  War’s not really like that,” Ellers was saying in a thick, but surprisingly firm voice.  “We saw him, alright.  Wasn’t a game.  Wasn’t one of your funny books, like we used to call ‘em.  No punching Hitler, no chorus girls on a motorbike.  But, I saw what he could do with that shield.  I saw what was left when he was done.  And I was glad of it.  You hear that? Glad. Glad he was one of us, that’s for damn sure.”

“That’s…wow, that’s…” Tony stammered, eyes darting to Steve, whose face was drawn tight, and was staring mutely at someplace far over Eller’s head, with one hand fisted against his thigh.  “That’s amazing.  I mean, not the…not the war stuff.  But…”

“I think that’s enough war stories for tonight, David,” Charles announced. 

“The boy asked,” Ellers protested gruffly.

“He did not.  You volunteered, like you always do.  I should get him an “Ask me about the time I saw Captain America,” t-shirt so he can talk about it more often,” Charles muttered to Tony. 

“I heard that,” Dave said.

“Well, you’re blind, not deaf, dear,” Charles pointed out, making Tony cough to swallow a bark of laughter.   “Tony, I was thinking of taking a break. Would you like to accompany me?”

“Huh?  Oh, ah. Sure.  Sure, I—is that okay?” Tony stopped, turning to Steve. 

“Of course. Go relax,” Steve said quickly.  “I’d love to talk to Dave a bit more.”

“His nurse is getting him a plate of food.  She should be back any minute. Don’t let him start in on Italy,” Charles warned. 

“West and Compton, pulling that Biscari bullshit, pardon my French,” Ellers stated.  “All those prisoners shot, and Patton didn’t want to do anything about it at first, did you know that?”

“I did,” Steve said curtly.  “It was suggested that he should rethink his position.”

“Humph,” Ellers snorted.  “Patton was an ass.  Decent General. But, an ass.”

“No comment,” Steve chuckled.  “Go on,” he said to Tony. 

“Are you…sure?” Tony asked.  This wasn’t one of those switch-flicker moments, but it almost was.  He wasn’t sure where the line was drawn for those in Steve’s head, but this one had moved on to something else.  Still.  There was a part of him that didn’t want to leave Steve’s side, and certainly not to go sit in some retiring room for delicate Omegas who needed to recharge after having to be around all these Alphas, he thought, with a mental shudder. 

“It’s fine.  Go enjoy your evening,” Steve urged.  “I’ll find you later, okay?”

“Okay,” Tony replied, a bit nervously.  He turned to follow Charles, then cast a look over his shoulder at Steve, who had leaned down to hear whatever it was that Ellers—Dave—was saying. 

“He’s found an audience,” Charles said, with a small, fond shake of his head.  “He’ll talk your poor Alpha’s ear off.  Nice of him.  Your Steve.  Most wouldn’t want to give David the time of day, not now, anyway.  He’s too old.  Reminds them of what they’ll become.”

“Steve’s…he’s…nice,” Tony managed.  “Different.”

“Hmm…yes. Yes, I suppose I can see that,” Charles commented as they wound their way through the room. 

“How did you two meet?” Tony asked when they stepped out of the ballroom into the hall. 

“David and I?  Oh, he was on leave in London.  Knew a few Brits from his tour of duty, and ended up at a dinner party with some of their families. Almost like they adopted him, since their boys were still off, you know?  I was there.  With my parents, of course.  Not many parties to be had in those days, and we took what we could get.  I took one look at David, all dashing in his uniform, and set my cap for him, right on the spot,” Charles recalled with a bright smile that melted away the years.  “My parents refused, of course.  He was no one, and probably going to get himself all heroically killed, after all.”

“Guess they changed their minds,” Tony said.

“Well.  I was rather insistent,” Charles said with a light laugh.  “They were so very worried, you see. All the Alphas gone off to fight the Germans, and a whole generation of Omegas left without anyone.  What will we possibly do with Charles?  How they fretted.   Then, there’s this loud, brash American sending me letters and little gifts, asking to court me while I was mooning in my room and saving my pin money for a ticket to New York.  I think they were just trying to stay a tiny step ahead of me,” Charles admitted with a small quirk of his lips.

“How long have you two been Bonded?” Tony asked curiously.

“Let’s see…almost seventy years.  Hard to believe,” Charles replied with a wistful remembrance thickening his voice.  “So much has changed. So very much.  But, here we are.  Still together.”

“Wow,” Tony said, raising his eyebrows in surprise.  It seemed almost impossible to imagine.  Seventy years together.  His mind conjured up the image of him doting over a frail Steve, the way Charles looked when he stood by his Alpha’s wheelchair, and found himself filled with a sudden rush of emotion at the thought.  “He never wanted to, you know.  Ah. Find someone else?”

“I’d smother the bastard if he tried,” Charles said with a chortle.  “No, no.  Not my David.  He likes to tell it that I chased him down, and the poor man had little choice, but, ask him, really ask him, and he’ll tell you. Saw me at that party, and thought, ‘That one’s mine,’ and that was it.  When my parents objected—he didn’t have much to offer, not then, as I said—he told him all about his plans for after the war.  How he’d take care of me.  Sales, he said.  He could sell water to a drowning man.  Cars were the new thing.  Everyone needed a car.  In America, anyway.  He’d start in sales, but he’d save.  Have his own dealership soon.  Then a franchise.  He had plans, you see?  Impressed them.  How much thought he’d put into it.  He did it, too.  We had eight dealerships by the time he sold them.”

“Sounds like a good match,” Tony remarked.

“He always took care of me, my David,” Charles replied.  They were approaching a pair of tall, wooden-paneled double doors, flanked by a doorman in a pristine black tuxedo, with a gold plaque next to the right door signifying they had reached their destination.  “Now, I get to take care of him.”

The doorman opened one of the doors as they approached, and they walked into the suite.  To Tony’s relief, it was less pink floral vomit and more salon waiting room.  There were long couches and comfortable looking chairs with down pillows, tables with snacks and magazines, and a flat-screen on one of the walls that was showing a closed circuit of the ballroom, with a second, smaller screen embedded in the corner giving a celebrity news report.  He scanned the footage long enough to find Steve’s broad shoulders still next to David’s chair, though a woman, obviously a nurse, was bending over David and fitting a clear, plastic tube into his nose to give him oxygen. 

A handful of other Omegas milled about in small groups, chatting amiably, with occasional bursts of loud laughter.  Tony caught a few curious looks aimed in his direction.  Most everyone seemed to know each other, which made sense, he supposed.  Omegas were such a small part of the population as a whole. The stereotype that they all knew each other wasn’t completely without some merit.

“First timer?” a woman with dark hair and a slim, dancer-like frame asked from next to the food table. 

“That obvious?” Tony answered, shoving his hands in his pockets. 

“First timers always have this look about them when they come in.  Like they expect to be attacked with a curling iron and diet books any second,” another woman added with a light laugh.  She had crisp, dyed blonde hair swept into a twist and wearing a deep red sequined pantsuit said in a honeyed voice that sounded like a song and put her from somewhere in the South.  There were teardrop shaped diamonds dripping from her ears that matched the larger one at her throat.  It made him think of his mother’s questions about whether Steve had given him any jewelry yet.  “We leave all that nonsense out there with them.  I’m Flannery Jean, by the way. Horrible, I know. Everyone calls me Sugar, probably ironically. That’s Rebecca. Charles, darling, good to see you. How is Dave?  We haven’t seen you since the VA thing last year.”

“Oh, the same. He has his good days and his not so good days.  This is one of the good ones,” Charles replied.  “This is Tony Stark.  Captain Rogers’ Omega.”

“Rogers?  Which one was—oh!  Yes! Yes, of course,” Rebecca replied with a bright, amused smile.  “Did you see Victor taking a selfie?  The man is sixty years old, for Pete’s sake.”

“Please.  Andrew was so excited, I thought he was going to soil himself.  Good Lord,” Sugar scoffed.  “Alphas. Honestly.  Grab you a plate, Tony, honey.  I know you didn’t eat enough down there. No one ever does.”

Tony wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but he was soon lounging against the overstuffed arm of a sofa with a plate of food on his lap and a cup of punch on the low table in front of him, listening in rapt wonder as the Omegas traded stories, gossip and advice, like well-dressed crows on a telephone line. 

It both was exactly what he expected and nothing whatsoever like he’d anticipated.  They talked a lot about their children.  Robert and Zoe were in college.  Deacon was at West Point.  Alan would probably present soon, and they already had several Alphas interested, but he was such a special boy, they weren’t going to accept just anyone. Sadie had a piano recital coming up.  They’ve been listening to Braham’s Lullaby so much, she was surprised they hadn’t all passed out.  Greg was still struggling with algebra. 

Tony wanted to find it trifling.  He’d just been talking about adaptive armor, now he was listening to Sugar lament that Deacon was never going to settle down and find an Omega, but it was strangely relaxing, being here, with just Omegas, listening to the mundane parts of everyday life.   They seemed, overall, to be happy, which was something of a revelation in and of itself, though he wasn’t sure why.  When he thought of happy couples, he thought of his parents, though…that wasn’t quite right, he realized, looking over at Charles.  His parents would probably say they were happy, but he wasn’t sure they even knew what it meant anymore.

“Did you and Dave ever have kids?” Tony asked, turning to Charles, when the rest of the group seemed preoccupied with the choice of venue for someone named Tegan’s Bonding celebration. 

“Two boys,” Charles said proudly.  “Here,” he said, pulling a small wallet out of his breast pocket and unfolding a plastic sleeve of photos.  “That’s Oliver.  He’s a lawyer in San Francisco.  Three kids, and now, Emma, our great-grand-daughter.  And that one, that’s Benjamin.  Benji,” Charles said, his tone shifting a bit as he rubbed a finger over the plastic next to where the younger of the boys grinned at the camera with a gap-toothed smile.  “He died in Vietnam in ’68.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said quickly, gaze shifting back down to the sepia-tinged photo of two sandy-haired, barefooted boys next to a small pond with fishing poles and a scuffed green tackle box.  

Maybe it was the fishing poles, Tony thought dully, but it hit him then, staring at Charles’ dead son, that he wouldn’t have this with Steve.  There wouldn’t be a son or daughter to teach how to not fish or help with their homework.  No Crayola art to stick on the front of the fridge.  No one to worry about when they went off to college.  To find a good mate for if he or she were Omega, like him. 

Perhaps it was better this way, Tony thought.  Couldn’t lose something you didn’t have.  He’d never have that kind of grief that Charles still so clearly carried.  He’d never have to worry about pain like that.  He’d never have to figure out how to go on.  He watched Charles carefully tuck the pictures away and put his wallet back in his jacket pocket.  He somehow doubted Charles would say it wasn’t worth it.

“War is a terrible thing.  David talks about what he saw, maybe now more than ever.  I think he knows there isn’t much time left for those who were there.  Who remember what its really like.  He insists on coming to these things because he wants them, the young ones, to know.  Sees it as his responsibility,” Charles explained.  “He thinks we shouldn’t have been so quick with ‘Nam.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony said again.

“It was a long time ago,” Charles replied, in a way that didn’t make it seem so long ago at all.   “I should really be getting back to my David.  It was a pleasure meeting you, Tony.  And your Steve.”

Not my Steve.  Not really, Tony thought. Not the way he’s your David and you’re his, though Tony said nothing to correct Charles. It sounded nice.  Even if it wasn’t true.

“I should probably go, too,” Tony started when Charles shifted to get up.

“Oh, no, no, don’t be silly.  Night’s young.  Stay and enjoy yourself,” Charles interjected, rising from the sofa and saying his goodbyes to the rest of the group.  “Sugar, Rebecca, you two take care of Tony, would you?” 

There was a lull in the conversation after Charles left.  Most of the other Omegas seemed to have trickled out of the room and back to the ballroom, Tony noticed, sparing a glance at the flat screen where couples whirled around on the dance floor.  Staying out of the ballroom seemed like a good call, he thought dully.

Tony took a sip of punch and caught Sugar purse her lips and exchange a look with Rebecca as a trio joined their group.  An older, rotund man with salt-and-pepper hair, who looked slightly over-inflated, like he had insulted Harry Potter’s parents, plopped down in a barrel chair across from Tony, and a blond man around Tony’s age with wide-spaced gray eyes and thin, delicate features, and a stunning woman with golden hair that fell in waves around a movie-star worthy face took up the empty space on the sofa next to him.

“Ah, new blood,” the large man announced over the creaks on the chair when he sat down.  “You’ll belong to Rogers, then, I suppose.  Told you,” he said with a satisfied smirk, turning to his younger male companion.  “Pay up.”

“It’s so fucking unfair,” the younger man said with an affected pout as he slid a folded twenty over to the other man. 

“Must you?” Rebecca asked.  “Don’t mind Josh, Tony.  He’s just jealous.”

“Of course, I’m jealous.  Did you see him?  Bet he doesn’t have to pop enough blue pills to give a rhino an erection just to get you through your Heat,” Josh shot back, taking a sip of punch and making a face.  “Oh, for God’s sake, Sugar, what is this, a kiddie play date?”

“Here,” the large man said, taking a silver flask out and tipping it into his cup and then Josh’s.  “Anyone else?  No?”

“Michael, how have you been?” Rebecca asked the large man with some effort at politeness. 

“Same as always.  Good food, better liquor, too much money and too few morals,” Michael snorted in response.  “How’s Victor?  Still doing terrible at golf and terrorizing everyone at the club?”

“Retirement has been something of an adjustment for both of us,” Rebecca admitted. 

“Andrew still holding out for that fourth star?” Michael asked Sugar.

“I’ll never get him out of that uniform, I swear,” Sugar replied.  “He keeps putting it off, one crisis and then another that, oh, just can’t be solved without him, you know.  Not that I want him poking around the house all day.”

“Preach,” Josh said, shifting around on the sofa.  “Ugh, God, Hugh is always there. Puttering around, building his little model airplanes, listening to the news all day and telling me how we should put all the money in gold.  I swear, if he croaks, and I have to dig up the petunias looking for his God-damned stash, I’m going to go bonkers. How’d you get so fucking lucky anyway?” Josh asked, turning to Michael.

Rebecca and Sugar exchanged a look, faces flat and expressionless. Social tiers colliding, Tony thought, as the dance of politeness continued.  It was strange, Tony thought. Even amongst ourselves, we scrabble for scraps of power.  Maybe that wasn’t so strange, when you thought about it. 

“Bonded well, what can I say?” Michael laughed, as if it was an old, familiar refrain.  “Oh, don’t look so surprised,” he said to Tony, though Tony wasn’t aware he’d made a face.  “I didn’t always look like this.  Back in the day, I was quite the hot, young thing, like you.  My first Alpha was, oh, what?  Fifty years older than me?  He passed a few months after we were Bonded.  Heart attack.  Then, Edward.  Dear Edward, who liked his fast cars and thought the glasses made him look old.  Which got me to Malcolm, and, well, no one can do that much coke and survive for long.  He took a dive off a hotel balcony.  Very dramatic,” Michael explained. “But, then again, he always was.”

“How…terrible?” Tony tried uncertainly.

“For him, yes,” Michael replied.  “For me…well, my parents, God rest their souls, were both lawyers, and each time I Bonded, they made sure everything was in order.  So, now, I am left with my memories, my mutual funds and my stock options, all held in trust, of course.  I’ll let you decide which one is most dear to my heart.  Would you quit fidgeting?  Honestly, you’re just making it worse,” Michael said, swiveling his head around to Josh and poking a finger in the younger man’s direction.  “Someone was naughty last night,” he announced to the group.  Tony cast a quick glance at Josh, who shifted again in his seat, caught Tony’s eye and cupped a hand over his groin and pushed the fabric of his pants taut so it outlined the metal cage.  Oh.  Oh.  “Ignore him,” Michael urged.  “He does it on purpose.  Kinky bastard likes it, don’t you?”

“Not my fault he won’t leave those damn airplanes alone long enough to do his job. What am I supposed to do?” Josh demanded with frown that quickly changed to a knowing, cheeky smirk when he looked at Tony.  “Come on, Tony, sharing’s caring.  Give me something, I beg you. God, I bet he’s got a huge knot, doesn’t he?  The kind that really fills you up. Not the rinky-dink, sausage party bullshit I have to put up with, that’s for sure. Spill, for the love of God. I need something to think about while Hugh’s gluing wings on the B-52 and listening to Glenn Beck.  Help an O out, would you? Whit, you saw him, right?  Tell me I’m wrong.  You can’t, so whatever,” he finished, waving a hand in the air and taking a sip of his drink.

“Josh, really,” Rebecca admonished. 

“Forgive him,” Whitney put in.  “He never did learn to behave.  Which is why he’s in the state he’s in.”

“I think I’m going to see if I can pull Andrew away. He promised me a dance,” Sugar said, standing up and smoothing out her pantsuit.  Probably dusting off the cooties, Tony thought with an inward grin. 

“I’ll join you,” Rebecca said.  Tony knew he should probably leave as well, but something held him back.  Curiosity, he supposed.  He’d never met anyone like Josh and Michael, who spoke so baldly and plainly, and a part of him wanted to watch a bit more of the trainwreck. He glanced up at the television, and saw they had started a waltz, then turned back to the group.  Also, the dancing thing, he sighed.  Definitely not a good idea to get that close to Steve, let alone in front of a room full of people.

“If you see Calvin, ask Victor to tell him I’ll be along shortly,” Whitney called out, receiving a sort of flat smile and nod of agreement in return. 

“I thought they’d never leave,” Josh said when the door closed behind Sugar swish of sequins. 

“Oh, don’t start,” Whitney interjected.  “Word of advice, Tony, don’t listen to anything these two reprobates say.”

“She’s not wrong,” Michael admitted, taking another sip from the silver flask that seemed to appear and disappear at will.  “She’s dying to get to the juicy bits just like the rest of us—huh, more than the rest of us, if I know Calvin--but she isn’t wrong.”

“So, dish.  What’s he like?” Josh asked, leaning forward, then seeming to think better of it and slouching back against the sofa again.  “Ugh, this sucks.”

“Steve’s…great. He’s great,” Tony replied.  “Nice.”

“Oh, you’re precious, aren’t you?  Listen to him,” Michael snorted, throwing an eyeroll at Josh. 

“Honey, I’m asking you to tell me about how that great, big Alpha cock of his splits you open until you think you’re going to choke on it, not whether he helps little old ladies cross the street,” Josh said pointedly. 

“Forget it. He’s all moon-eyed about it.  ‘My Alpha’s just the best.  So nice. So great,’” Michael parodied, pitching his voice high.  “Sure he is.  Now.  While you’re all shiny and new.  Enjoy it.  Trust me, it doesn’t get better.  Get what you can, while you can, I say.  His cock.  His money. Whatever you can get.  Ask him right after he knots you, when they’re all happy and loopy.  Works like a charm,” he said, tipping his glass in Tony’s direction.  Tony swallowed stiffly and dropped his eyes down to his lap where his punch was cradled between his hands.  He had absolutely no idea how to answer, or if he should even try.

“If I had that, the only thing I’d ask for is for him to shove that big Alpha knot in me again and again,” Josh cut in with a trilling laugh that grated down Tony’s spine.  It was suddenly no longer curious or interesting or fun.  He wanted to leave.  Find Steve.  Get away. 

“Leave him alone, you two,” Whitney scolded.  “Look, he’s blushing!  How precious is that?  Now, stop.  You’ll chase him away.”

“Oh, like you’re one to talk.  I saw you out there, trying to get Rogers’ attention,” Michael shot back.  “Calvin put you up to that, or was that your doing?”

“Calvin wouldn’t know a good opportunity if it smacked him on the ass. But, he wasn’t opposed to the idea, let’s just say. Even suggested I see if we could work out a trade,” Whitney purred, watching Tony with slanted eyes, her head cocked to the side in question. “I think he may have quite enjoyed that.”

It took Tony a full three heartbeats to understand what she was implying.  He counted, because he could hear them in his head, pounding against the base of his skull behind his hears. 

“Steve’s my Alpha,” Tony said numbly, a sour, biting nausea curdling his stomach.  His voice sounded too small for what he was trying to say.  “He’s…I’m…I’m his Omega.”

“Oh, isn’t that the truth,” Whitney laughed, though it was harsh and bitter and nothing like a laugh.  “Look at him,” she continued, nodding at the screen showing the ballroom where Steve could clearly be seen in the group of people at the edge of the dance floor.  “He looks like someone took away his favorite puppy.” 

Sure enough, on the screen, Tony could make out Steve in the middle of a swarm of people, looking over the shoulders of the group around him.  Tony couldn’t see his expression, of course, but there was something lost and lonely about the way Steve could be standing in the middle of all of those people wanting his attention and still look like he didn’t quite belong.

“What I could do with an Alpha like him,” Whitney said with an exaggerated sigh, then gave Tony a calculating look.  “My first Alpha, Lucas, now, there was a man with ambition.  I was his second Omega.  Never be a second, Tony.  Whatever they tell you about how much they adore you, how they need you, how they never really liked their first.  It’s a set-up.  God, his first hated me.  Tiny, little fly of a man was always trying to undermine me,” she continued in a tone laced with bitterness.  “And he did.  I heard Lucas set him aside a few years ago for some fifteen-year old who just presented.  There’s your lesson.  So, I ended up with Calvin, and here we are, chasing some other Alpha’s leavings. Now…an Alpha like yours…maybe he could handle two Omegas.  Hmmm?  What do you think, Tony?  You’re smart.  Little on the naïve side, maybe, but we could fix that.  We could make a real go of it, you and me.”

“I don’t--I should go,” Tony rushed out, standing up so fast he nearly fell back onto the sofa again. 

“Oh, I’m kidding, of course,” Whitney put in.  She was lying, Tony knew.  Covering for the trial balloon she’d floated.  This was a woman who never truly joked, not really.

“You ran him off,” Michael accused Whitney, though there was laughter behind it.  Tony thought that was aimed at him. 

“I’d run, too, if I had that waiting for me,” Josh put in with a wolfish grin.  “So nice. So great,” he cackled at his own joke, too loudly to not have something to do with whatever Michael had been spiking their drinks with.

“Run along, precious,” Whitney said, with a tip of her glass and a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.  “Wouldn’t want to keep that Alpha of yours waiting too long.  Someone might snatch him up,” she warned, a triumphant smile splitting her face.

Tony was proud of himself for not running out of the room, though he did walk fast enough that he almost managed to bang a knee against one of the tables on his way out.  There was a round of laughter echoing under the door as it closed behind him, but he was too relieved to care. 

By the time he got back to the ballroom, there was another crowd moving on the dance floor as the band struck up Sinatra. He could see Steve off to one side in deep conversation with Fury, Coulson and General Ross.  It looked important.  Well, technically, they could be debating who wore it best for all he knew, but he wanted Steve, and didn’t really want the others to see him for some reason he couldn’t quite get his head around. 

Why should he be embarrassed or ashamed because of what those Omegas said?  He shouldn’t, he knew.  They didn’t know. They didn’t know that Steve didn’t want him.  They weren’t mocking him. Well, not for that, anyway.  In his head, he knew that wasn’t what Whitney had been insinuating, but he couldn’t force the idea that they knew something wasn’t right out of his head. 

Was it so obvious that something was wrong with him?  Could they tell that something was off?  Why would Whitney even think that…that thing she suggested was a possibility?  Okay, sure, some really well off Alphas could have more than one Omega, but…Steve wasn’t…he…Steve didn’t want that. He didn’t.  Did he?  No. He’d never mentioned it.  Why would he, though?  Stop, God, Tony told himself, digging the heel of his hand into his forehead.

But he’s so interested in the company succeeding, another voice, deeper and familiar, slithered through his head.  He doesn’t want you.  And he can’t set you aside and keep the company.  But, he wants the company to do well.  Do you really think Steve plans to be celibate for the rest of his life?  How do you know he doesn’t already have someone?  Someone not you.  Someone he wants.  Someone he’s willing to put up with you to get.  Someone he takes care of in all the ways an Alpha can.

Tony turned and ducked out of the ballroom, walking nearly blindly down a long hallway outside the ballroom, past the restrooms and coat check, around a corner and down to a quiet, darkened area until he reached a pair of glass doors that led out onto a curved balcony.  It was deserted.  He pushed open the door, half expecting an alarm to sound or someone to pop out and tell him that the balcony was closed for the evening, but no one did.  It was quiet and away—alone, his mind supplied.  He sucked in a deep breath of cool, night air and stared at the view in front of him. 

The city lights glittered in the background.  The skyscrapers were lit up in chessboard-like patterns of light and dark.  Above, he could make out Ursa Major, of course.  Perseus and Gemini. Even a bit of Andromeda, despite the city lights obscuring everything. 

He sucked in a calming breath and closed his eyes, opening them again and reeling off the names of the stars in his head as he looked skyward.  It helped.  The routine of it.  How many nights had he sat at his window back home and looked at this same sky, mentally checking off his list because he could, because it was something they couldn’t take away from him.  Even when he was in his bed and couldn’t see the stars themselves, he could see them in his head, bright pinpoints across the backs of his eyelids.

She said those things on purpose, Tony told himself.  Not because she knew anything, but to get a rise out of him, because she could.  Because that’s what someone like that does.  That’s what she calls power, twisting other people’s lives around her words. 

He reached out his hands and cupped them over the cool metal railing, which warmed to his touch, and tilted his head back.  He would ask Steve.  Just ask him.  He could do that.  How hard could it be? ‘Hey, think you’d like to have an Omega around who you actually want to fuck one of these days?’  Yeah.  Maybe try bit of a build up to that, he thought with a mental eye roll. 

Behind him, he heard the sucking whoosh of the doors opening, and turned, finding himself facing a tall man with shaggy blond hair in a white tuxedo jacket and black tie, holding an unlit cigarette in one hand.

“Sorry.  Didn’t realize this was taken,” the man said, though made no move to leave, just sort of held himself there, expectantly. 

“It’s not.  I mean, it’s fine,” Tony said, wondering for a moment why it didn’t feel quite fine.  Then it hit him.  Alpha.  The man was an Alpha, and he was speaking to Tony, and that was…that wasn’t supposed to happen.  “Ah…”

“Oh, right, sorry. Again.  These little social niceties.  Were we not introduced earlier?  You seem familiar, but I can’t remember everyone tonight. Terrible with faces,” the man said quickly.  “I’m Tiberius Stone. Ty, for short.  Head of Viastone.  I would swear we met inside.  No?” Stone continued, eyebrows raised, then shrugged when Tony shook his head.  “Ah, well.  Hey, you sure this is okay?  I can find somewhere else to grab a smoke. Though, it’s L.A., so easier said than done, but,” he finished with a deprecating laugh, keen eyes on Tony.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Tony replied.  Viastone…he vaguely remembered Steve mentioning that company in the car, though he hadn’t paid attention to the context. Guy just wanted a smoke, and Tony was hogging the whole balcony.  It was fine.  No sense in being unreasonable.  They were in a public place, after all.  Guests.  And Steve was right inside. He swallowed thickly, a surge of need to be near Steve hitting him without warning.  He dropped his gaze from the man and looked back out at the skyline.   “I’ll just…” he said, inching towards the door.

“Oh, now, don’t be like that,” Stone said.  “I’ll feel bad if I run you off.  You were here first, anyway.  Look, forget it, I’ll find someplace else.  No big deal.”

There was something about that phrase, run you off, that got Tony’s back up. Probably because he’d just slinked out of the Omega room, and then the ballroom, and now, here he was ready to run for cover just because some guy was talking to him, for Christ’s sake.

“No.  Really.  Stay.  It’s fine. Really,” Tony said quickly.  “Honestly, it’s fine,” Tony repeated in a wavering voice, turning back to the railing and sucking in a deep breath.  It was fine.

“You sure?  Well, if you insist,” Stone said.  He walked forward, and Tony heard the flick of a lighter, then the first waft of smoke drifted past him.  It smelled like leather and spice, not the typical cigarette smell, but one that was hand-rolled somewhere and meant for brandy and tables of cards.  “Nice view.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “The stars are nice tonight.”

“Can’t usually see much in the city, but there, if you look closely, that’s Castor and Pollux,” Stone told him.  “Pollux is a bit bigger and more golden, see?”

“I—yeah,” Tony replied.  “Castor’s actually six stars.  Three—three pairs of binary stars, I mean.”

“Really?  You know astronomy, hmmm? How fascinating,” Stone said with a low, surprised bark of laughter.  He took another drag of his cigarette.  “What about that one?” he asked, pointing towards a general area above the U.S. Bank Tower. 

“Which one?” Tony asked, squinting at where Stone was pointing. 

“That bright one, there, with the smaller one next to it,” Stone replied. 

“You mean the North Star?” Tony asked with a frown, trying to follow the line of Stone’s finger.

“No, not that one.  See, there,” Stone said, stepping behind Tony and pointing an arm up next to the side of Tony’s head. 

“That’s…ah…Dubhe.  Part of the Big Dipper,” Tony added, looking askance at where Stone’s sleeve brushed the top of his shoulder.  It was fine.  He was just showing Tony what he was trying to ask about.  It was fine.

“Huh,” Stone shrugged and dropped his hand down to the railing on Tony’s right.  He didn’t move away.  Just stood there, close enough that Tony could feel the warmth radiating off of him.  “You really know your stuff.  What about the other ones?  You know all their fancy names, too?” 

Stone took another pull of his cigarette, dropped it to the ground and crushed the tip under his shoe.  As he did so, Tony felt the man’s groin brush against his hip.  It was the kind of thing that was supposed to be accidental.  Tony knew that.  He wasn’t sure how he knew that, but the rule was, it was an accident, and he was supposed to ignore it.  Except, it wasn’t an accident, and they both knew it, and this was some game they were playing, but Alphas had made up the rules, and the rule was:  It was an accident. Ignore it or…or something.  Something bad, Tony’s mind shuttered, closing in on itself. 

“Smart and beautiful.  I like that,” Stone said with a smile that was probably supposed to be flirtatious but sent Tony’s heartrate spiking and klaxons blaring in his head.

This was not fine.

Tony wasn’t sure if it was the compliment that wasn’t really a compliment or the way the man’s arm was casually holding on to the balcony railing, not close enough to be touching, but somehow meant to keep Tony where he was, but things had gone from fine to not fine, and his whole brain was sounding Def Con 1.  He couldn’t quite say why it wasn’t fine, though, and that left him momentarily reeling with indecision.  Stone wasn’t doing anything, not really.  He wasn’t (he was, but don’t think about it or it will be true). 

Tony’s heart was pounding out a staccato beat in his chest, and he could feel his muscles go loose and quavering, no matter how much he told himself to calm down, nothing was happening, quit being like this.  It wasn’t rational, and he hated that, the idea that fear could so quickly overrule higher brain function, but here he was, shifting to flight mode like he was a Wright brother.

“I should really go,” Tony said, moving around where Stone stood behind him, careful not to touch.  

He tried to force himself to straighten his shoulders, keep his hands steady, pitch his voice to a casual tone.  If he acted like it was a problem, it would be a problem, which made no sense, but he was completely certain it was true, like the only thing stopping Stone was the lack of acknowledgment.  They were still pretending. They were still doing this dance, and as long as they did, he was okay. It was fine.  Don’t tell him you know, Tony mind supplied.  You can get out of here if you keep pretending its fine.

“Really, it’s—it’s late, and.  You can’t even really—it’s not—it’s not clear, with the lights, so you can’t—you can’t see much from here.  So,” Tony said, stumbling over the words like his mouth had marbles in it. 

“Oh, don’t be like that!  We were having such a nice conversation,” Stony said with a frown that for the world looked truly put out.  “All everyone in there wants to talk about is some Saving Private Ryan bullshit.  Can’t stand all that drivel,” Stone said derisively, tossing his head in the direction of the door and making a curl of hair fall over his forehead.  Tony would swear he practiced that move in front of a mirror.  “But you, at least, are interesting.  Different.  I can tell.  I like different.  Different’s good.  Even put my cigarette out because I knew it was bothering you.  Can’t abandon me just yet, not after I gave up my nicotine, right?  You gotta at least tell me names of the other ones in that Dipper thing.  I’ll impress the hell out of my friends.”

“I—I really have to go.  Sorry.  I--my Alpha will be wondering where I am,” Tony replied.  He tried to make it sound regretful, though he wasn’t sure why.  It just seemed like he shouldn’t let Stone think he wanted to leave.  That it was better (safer) to let him think he had to go. 

“Your Alpha?” Stone parroted, drawing his head back in surprise.  “Your Alpha,” he snorted with a disbelieving laugh.  “Ah. Right.”

Tony was honestly so used to any mention of Steve working like some kind of magic stop sign that it took him a second to realize that Stone thought he was lying. 

“I’m—I do.  I have an Alpha. Steve Rogers. Captain Rogers.  He’s—he’s right inside.  Probably—probably looking for me,” Tony stammered.  “I should go.”  He shifted around Stone, who didn’t budge, and took a step towards the door before he felt the weight of an arm across his shoulders, turning him back towards the balcony railing. 

Stone was standing too close.  Too close, his mind screamed with an almost overwhelming insistence.  The wrong kind of close.  The kind that felt like an invasion, like being trapped, and he wasn’t, of course, he wasn’t.  Not really.  He was being ridiculous.  Overreacting.  They were on a balcony at a concert hall filled with people.  It was just the guy’s arm.  That’s what people did to show camaraderie, right?  Not like the guy was groping him or something.  It was fine.  It was fine.  Itwasfineitwasfineitwasfine.

“This Alpha who lets you roam around all by your lonesome?  Try selling me something else, how about?” Stone said with a low, conspiratorial laugh, like they were sharing something.  Tony felt a rush of warm breath against his neck as the man leaned down and sniffed, closing his eyes dreamily and licking his parted lips.  “Don’t smell Alpha on you.  Just smells…nice,” Stone said with a small smile.  “Very nice.”

He slid his arm across Tony’s shoulders, and for a second, relief washed through Tony in a wave, but Stone’s hand slowed, just between Tony’s shoulders, below his neck, hanging there, heavy and warm, against the back of Tony’s jacket.  Then there was the pressure.  A small hint of it at first, then harder.  Tony looked up at the man, throat clicking as he tried to form words.  Stone’s eyes were dark, and his mouth was split with a feral smile. 

“I need to go,” Tony managed to husk out.  Move, he told himself.  Move. Why was it so hard?  He isn’t going to do anything (he could).  Just move.  We’re in public (we’ve been in public).  I can just scream (but then they’ll know).  Know what?  I shouldn’t be here.  Why did I stay?  Why did I tell him to stay?  I could’ve just told him to leave.  He offered.   I told him to stay.  I told him to.  I talked to him when I wasn’t supposed to.  Why?  Why did I do that?  I shouldn’t have done that.  This is my fault.  They’ll know.  They’ll see.  Move.  Move, damn it.  Move.

Tony got his feet to cooperate enough to stutter-step to the side, but at least that resulted in Stone’s hand moving away from his neck and down to his shoulder, where it sat, no, gripped.  Tony looked down at the large hand holding his shoulder and had the absurd thought that his suit would be wrinkled. 

Jarvis. 

You didn’t do anything wrong, Tony.  He blames you for his behavior because he never met a problem that couldn’t be solved by changing someone else.  No, not like that.  Wide end over the small end, then up into the neck loop.  Observe.  See?  Well, yes, that’s quite terrible, isn’t it?  Do find a nice YouTube and tell your mother I showed you how to do this, would you?

Tony wretched his shoulder away, surprising Stone enough that Tony felt only the slight sting of a reflexively tightened grip before Stone’s hand dropped from Tony’s back (neck). 

“Don’t,” Tony bit out. It came out shakier than he meant it in his head, but he’d said it, and just the act of getting the word out was a release.  “I’m going.  I need to—Steve,” Tony blurted out with a surprised gulp. 

Relief flooded through him, loosening his chest and letting air fill it again.  Had he been holding his breath?  He didn’t remember doing it.  Tony raised his eyes to Steve’s and let out a shaky breath.  It was okay. Steve was here.

Steve was here, seeing him, alone with another Alpha in a place he wasn’t supposed to be, standing so close to the other man that they were all but embracing.  Next to him, Stone visibly stiffened and drew his shoulders back.  His mouth flattened into a thin line, and he shot Tony a narrow-eyed look that felt like an accusation.

I can explain, Tony thought wildly, eyes darting between Steve and Stone.  Tony stepped back, and turned helplessly to face Steve.  He opened his mouth, but no words came out. What could he say?  I’m sorry. Don’t be mad. 

Please.

 “I—“ Tony began, looking up at Steve, before dropping his eyes again and swallowing thickly.  His heart froze in his chest, then bobbed up to his throat, before sinking down to his stomach like a lead weight.

“There you are,” Steve said brightly.  “Thought I’d lost you.”

“Wha—what?” Tony stammered in momentary confusion, blinking up at Steve as his words caught in his throat with an audible click.  Steve wasn’t mad.  Steve wasn’t going to yell at him.  Nothing bad was going to happen.  It was okay.  Tony hadn’t screwed up.  Everything was okay. 

“Shouldn’t let them just wander around,” Stone put in, as if he was agreeing with what Steve said.  Steve’s eyes never left Tony’s, and for a moment, something heartbreakingly gentle slashed across Steve’s face.

 “Are you about ready to go?” Steve asked, as if Stone hadn’t spoken.   Tony glanced up at Stone, then walked over to stand in front of Steve. 

“Yes,” Tony replied, raising his eyes to Steve’s, waiting.  He bit his lip and dropped his gaze, then felt Steve’s hand wrap around his own, solid and warm and centering somehow.  Tony drew in a shuddering breath, then let it out, keeping his eyes on Steve.  “I’m ready.  If you are.”

“Good,” Steve said with a lopsided smile.  “Have to admit, my feet are starting to hurt in these shoes. I need to say a few goodbyes.  Lots of interesting folks here tonight.  Didn’t even get a chance to eat.  Hey,” Steve stopped, giving Tony’s hand a quick squeeze before releasing it.  “Would you mind making me a plate to go while I make the rounds before we duck out?”

“Sure.  Sure, I—yeah, I can do that,” Tony said with an eager nod. Steve was hungry.  Of course, he was hungry.  Steve was always hungry.  Well, this, Tony could do.  He probably should’ve thought of that earlier.  Making sure his Alpha ate.  Another thing he’d forgotten.  He’d do better, though.  He’d make Steve the best God-damned plate of defrosted finger food he could find.

“That’d be great, Tony,” Steve replied.  “Meet you at the exit, okay?  Get me some of those little sandwiches, would you?  And one of those chocolate boat things, if there are any left.”

“Will do,” Tony rushed out, running a hand through his hair.  “Anything else?”

“Nah, that should do me,” Steve said. 

“Okay.  Okay, so, I’ll see you in a bit then,” Tony said, brushing past Steve’s shoulder and heading for the glass door. 

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve called out over his shoulder, as the door clicked shut behind Tony.

Tony was holding a mini-quiche with a pair of tongs, considering where to put it on the plate he’d loaded with food and ready to do battle with the elderly woman across from him who was eyeing the last chocolate boat when it occurred to him that he was a giant, gullible idiot. 

It would displease me.

Tony nearly dropped the plate, ending up having to catch a spiral sandwich with the side of the tongs before it rolled off the edge.  He turned and headed for the ballroom doors, cutting through the crowd so fast he almost crashed into Coulson, who opened his mouth to say something, but whatever it was ended up lost to the music and buzz of the crowd as Tony rushed past him. 

The hallway was empty, except for a few partygoers returning from the restrooms.  Tony followed it towards the balcony, unsure of what he would find, but filled with a sort of nervous anticipation.  What if there was a fight?  What was he going to do?  Should he get Coulson?  Or Fury?  No, not Fury.  He didn’t want Steve to get in trouble, not over something stupid like that.  Wait…what if Steve was hurt?  Steve was Steve, fine and good, but that Stone guy was not small and---Tony almost rounded a corner, before low voices stopped him. 

“---I mean by making things worse,” Fury was saying.  Tony peeked around the corner far enough to see Fury with his hands on his hips, pacing back and forth in a small line, while Steve leaned against the wall, looking about as interested in what Fury had to say as Tony usually was.  “Look, Cap, I get it, okay?  I’m not saying what the guy did was on the up and up.”

“Good,” Steve spat back, crossing his arms over his chest. 

“I’m saying, you have to think about how this looks,” Fury said, holding up a placating hand.  “You know what people are going to say.  Why was Tony out there in the first place, all by himself like that?  Why didn’t he just leave?  If he was in trouble, why didn’t he call for help?  There’s practically an entire brigade a doing the chicken dance not a hundred feet away.”

“Which people?” Steve asked in a tight, low voice.

“Which people what?” Fury repeated, drawing up his brows.

“Which people are going to say this about Tony?” Steve asked, giving Fury a long, challenging look, until Fury looked away, pursing his lips in displeasure.  “Tony wasn’t doing anything wrong, and you know it.  That…man should never have put Tony in the position of having to be the one to leave or call for help.  Stone knew what he was doing when he went out there.”

Steve’s words burst through Tony with a physical force that was almost painful.  His eyes stung and his vision blurred.  There was a lump in his throat that he couldn’t swallow past, but it didn’t matter.  Steve. Steve.  Tony could’ve said the same things to himself a thousand times and they wouldn’t have meant as much as hearing his own vindication fall from Steve’s lips. 

I’m not saying it. I’m saying, you know how people are.  Don’t get all pissed at me, Cap,” Fury said, dipping his chin down and giving Steve a long look.  “This could’ve been avoided, and you know it.  You got an unclaimed Omega walking around a room full of un-Bonded Alphas,” Fury continued.

 Oh, God, Fury knew, Tony thought with a rush of horror. Fury could tell.  Could everyone tell?  Did they all know Steve didn’t want him? That was why Whitney had suggested she could be Steve’s second Omega, because she knew.  She knew, they knew, they all knew. Shame clawed its way up his throat, closing it off, and for a second, it was like he forgot how to breath.  

“Recipe for disaster,” Fury was saying.  “Look, Cap, if you don’t want Stark, you want to pick someone else, whatever, we can make that happen. Tony’s young, he’ll find someone--”

“Tony’s mine,” Steve snapped sharply, pushing off the wall he’d been leaning on.  Tony’s gut clenched, then released, mouth parting in a silent oh of relief. He closed his eyes, just for a moment, and repeated Steve’s words in his head.  Tony’s mine. 

Tony’s mine.

“Well, how about you start acting like it?” Fury suggested, seemingly unconcerned by Steve’s response.

“How I deal with Tony is my business,” Steve replied sharply. 

“Well, deal better, would you?” Fury said gruffly.  “First time I let you two out of the gate, I’ve got property damage.”  Steve dipped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose, letting out a long, frustrated sigh. 

“It wasn’t his fault, Nick,” Steve said again, sounding wrung out. 

“Maybe not.  But, that’s not the way people will see it. You know that, Cap.  Maybe it isn’t fair, but that’s the way people are,” Fury added.  “That’s just how it is.”

“It shouldn’t be,” Steve argued.  “It doesn’t have to be.”

“Not even you can change the way the world works, just to make things easier on your Omega,” Fury said in a tired-sounding voice. 

“Maybe not,” Steve admitted, keeping his eyes steady on Fury.  “Seems like a good reason to try, though.”

Fury snorted, and flattened his mouth, giving Steve a piercing look. 

“This gonna be a thing?” Fury asked.  “’Cause, I got a proposal on my desk that involves moving our drone program to SI so we can work with Tony Stark, who I know for a fact has never set foot in SI’s research labs.”  Tony started, almost moving forward like he was going to interject something, but he had no idea what, so he hung there, mid-motion, caught by indecision while he stared at Fury’s black-coated back.

“It might be a thing,” Steve said evenly, eyeing Fury.

“Yeah?” Fury demanded in a clipped tone.

“Yeah,” Steve said, drawing out the word and ending on a small smile.

“Good,” Fury said. 

“I never know if I’m coming or going with you, Nick,” Steve said with a surprised shake of his head. 

“Good on that, too,” Fury added with a low chuckle.  “Howard, he never knew what he had.  Or, he did, but he was too much of a jealous, petty little dick of man to do anything with it,” Fury snorted, making Steve huff out a laugh and Tony have to swallow a shocked cough.  “You don’t want to take my advice about the boy, fine.  But, next time, can you maybe try just keeping him on a shorter leash?  Coulson’s already said the phrase “custom-made Douglas-fir paneling” more times than I ever want to hear in my life.”

“I’m good for it,” Steve offered.

“Ah, don’t worry about it.  Guy was an ass,” Fury said with a wave.  “Coulson just wants you to sign one of the pieces.  I think he’s going to have it framed.  Now, get out of here.  We’ll handle clean-up,” Fury told Steve, walking off down the hall.  Well, sweeping off with a flare of his coat that had more drama than a RuPaul’s Drag Race reunion show, whatever.

Steve watched Fury walk away, his back to Tony.  Tony looked down at the plate of food he was holding, wondering if he could make it to the exit before Steve did. 

“You can come out now, Tony,” Steve called out, making Tony’s head snap up.  “I know you’re back there.”

“I got your distraction food,” Tony groused as he walked around the corner, shooting Steve a half-hearted frown. 

“Thanks,” Steve replied. 

“Did you mean what you said? To Fury, just then.  About…about it not being my fault?” Tony asked, stopping a few feet from Steve.  He dropped his gaze long enough to put the plate of food down on a credenza and then turned halfway around so he could see Steve’s expression. 

“It was not your fault,” Steve said in a firm tone that caught on each word.  “It wasn’t, Tony.” His gaze held Tony’s, and there was no question in it, no guile, no dissembling.  

There was that moment when the pressure is too much and the water that was a trickle seeping through a crack becomes a flood.  That was what it felt like. Too many emotions pushing through too little space able to deal with it, overwhelming everything in their path.  Tony heard himself make a hiccupping half-sob, almost in startle, then bent over, sucking in a tremulous breath only to find himself wrapped against Steve’s chest with Steve’s face buried in the top his head, telling him it was alright.  And it was.  It was.  Everything was fine, and it was too much. 

“I tried—I wanted to leave, I should’ve left, I don’t know why,” Tony said into Steve’s chest, the words coming out smashed together and watery.  “He did ask, but it was just to smoke, and it was fine, and then it wasn’t, and I didn’t know what to do.  I told him to stop.  I think.  I wanted to, I don’t know, I don’t know.  I should have, I’m sorry, I know—I just---I’m sorry, I didn’t know what to do, and I’m sorry!”

“Shhhh. Shhhh, Tony, it’s okay.  You were so brave.  I’m so proud of you,” Steve whispered against the side of his temple, where the pulse was beating through his skin.  Tony gulped in a shuddering breath and squeezed his eyes shut.  “That should never have happened.  I should’ve been there sooner.  I’m so sorry, Tony. This was my fault. You didn’t come back to the ballroom, and I—I should’ve been there.  I should’ve come looking for you, but I wanted to give you space, even when I…I’m sorry,” he finished, shaking his head, eyes downcast, but holding Tony’s gaze.  “It wasn’t your fault.”

“’S’not,” Tony started, pushing back from Steve’s chest and wiping at his nose with the back of his hand.  “Not your fault.  I mean, God.  Definitely not your fault.  I’m the idiot who can’t just go back where I’m supposed to go, like everyone else.  I’m just…I’m glad. That you came. To find me.  That’s…just, you know, thanks. And for—for not being mad and all,” Tony rushed out, looking down and away and twisting his mouth to one side in frustration.  He didn’t know what he wanted to say to Steve, and couldn’t seem to find the right words, so he settled on the ones he did know. “Can we go home?” Tony asked in a shaky voice. 

“I’ve already called Happy to bring the car around,” Steve told him, then paused, giving Tony a considering look.  “I’ll always come find you, Tony.  You belong to me.” 

One of Steve’s hands came around from where he was cradling Tony against his chest, and he traced a single finger down over the chain that was hidden beneath Tony’s shirt until he came to the flat metal tags laying in the center of Tony’s chest.  Steve’s eyes, dark and hooded, followed the path of his finger, only returning to Tony’s face after what seemed like an eternity.  Tony’s breath caught in his throat, or it would have, if he’d remembered how to breathe, but that suddenly seemed like a tall order. 

“Do you want him to apologize?” Steve asked in an oddly distant tone.  “Stone. Do you need to hear it from him, that it wasn’t your fault?  I can do that.  If you want.”  There was a hard edge to Steve’s voice, something dark and twisted moving underneath the words that sent heat flaring at the base of Tony’s neck. 

Tony could feel the press of Steve’s finger against the tags, just hard enough to flatten them into Tony’s skin, where he could feel it.  His heart was thundering against his chest.  He wondered if Steve could hear it, it seemed so loud, like when you hid as a kid and tried to be quiet. 

This wasn’t the Steve who laughed with him over movies, cheated at poker and played endless editions of drop-and-pick-up with DUM-E.  This was the Steve that sent Rumlow running out of the elevator. This was the Steve who was certain that no one would stop him if he wanted to teach Tony to drive.  This was who other people saw, who Steve didn’t show to Tony, except in small bursts when switches got flicked, and Tony got a peek behind the curtain. 

This Steve left custom-made Douglas fir wood paneling in pieces for Coulson to frame, and Tony wasn’t sure if he wanted to not think about that or think only about that. 

It should have made him afraid.  Sent him into a panic.  Revolted him, perhaps.  Instead, there was a fire blazing its way through his veins and coiling low in his belly.  Alpha, Tony’s mind rang out, his thoughts going cloudy and soft at the edges.  Alpha.

“No.  No, I’m good,” Tony finally managed to choke out in a breathy, rasping voice.  “Just want to head home.”

“Okay,” Steve breathed out, and the moment, whatever it was, passed.  Steve gave him a quick smile, took his hand, and led him done the hallway towards the exit. 

The photographers had disappeared from the red carpet by the time he and Steve made their way down the steps.  A number of other guests were also waiting for their rides.  Tony kept himself plastered to Steve’s side while they waited for Happy.  Steve still hadn’t let go of his hand, and for that, Tony was eternally grateful.  He thought he might start shaking and never stop, but for Steve’s solid grip on his hand, keeping him together somehow. 

Tony twisted his head around to look through the crowd.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Josh’s pale, blond head standing next to a much older man with a large, protruding stomach, somewhat grotesquely held in by his cummerbund.   Model-airplane-building, blue-pill popping, tiny-cock-having Hugh, Tony supposed, suppressing the urge to shudder.  Couldn’t really hold it against Josh for wishing he had Steve.  Hard to blame the guy, considering. 

The crowd parted long enough for Tony to get a better look, and Josh turned towards him at the same time.  His suit was askew, one of the tails of his shirt hanging out the back untucked.  There were red blotches high on his cheeks and his eyes were puffy.  He didn’t seem to register seeing Tony, but he was staring off into the distance, seeing nothing, Tony imagined.  Tony watched Hugh grab Josh’s arm with a rough jerk and small shake that had a warning in it and hustle him into a black Mercedes that pulled up to the curb. 

He watched the car drive off with a dull sort of sadness.  Maybe he should have been kinder.  Maybe Josh didn’t want kindness.  Tony knew that feeling, too.  It wasn’t that Tony was unfamiliar with using shock and bravado to push back against a life you hated.  He leaned his head against Steve’s arm and let it rest there until Happy pulled the limo up in front of them.  One of the usher opened the door, and Steve urged him inside, tapping on the privacy panel when they were ready to go. 

“Here,” Steve said, pulling a balled up napkin out of his pocket and opening it up.  A chocolate boat, broken in half, sat inside.  “Saved you one.  Sorry, it’s…it got a little smooshed.”

“Custom-made Douglas fir wood paneling will do that,” Tony replied with a small smile. Steve gave him a crooked smile in return, his eyes dancing, bright and blue.  Tony reached out and took half of the chocolate boat, biting off the end.  “S’good.  You take the rest,” Tony said, nudging at the napkin Steve was still holding in the palm of his hand.  

Steve might not want him, not the way Tony wanted Steve, but Steve cared for him.  Wanted him to be happy.  Wanted to take care of him, Tony thought, letting the chocolate melt in his mouth.  That could be enough.   Tony could be happy with that.  It didn’t have to be some sweeping, grand romance.  They could be friends.  Good friends, even.  The kind who laughed, watched movies, played chess, argued about books and…schemed to get SHIELD drone contracts.  Your basic secret handshake stuff.

And he could…he could take care of Steve, too.  Steve wanted the company, and he wanted it to succeed and grow.  Tony could make that happen. He knew he could.  Well, tech side of it, anyway.  He’d have to leave Steve to the salesmanship, since no one would want to buy weapons from an Omega, but he could give that to Steve.  He could give Steve money and power and a name for himself, all those things that Alphas wanted. 

Let me have part of you in return, Tony silently pleaded. A piece.  Something. Whatever you can give.  Let that be mine.  Give that to me, and I’ll give you everything, Tony promised silently, watching Steve stare out the window at the city passing by.

“You said you won’t break our Bond,” Tony said carefully, drawing Steve’s surprised gaze to his face. 

“Of course not,” Steve said, brow furrowing with a frown.  “Why?” he asked, then his expression splintered into something fragile for a moment.  “Tony, even if something had happened, I would never—I would never break our Bond.”

“What?” Tony said, drawing his head back in confusion before shaking Steve’s words off.  “No, no, not—not that.  Not anything—no.  Just.  Okay, see, there was an Omega I met tonight.  She said she was once someone’s second, but it didn’t work out,” Tony told him. 

“Oh, that’s…I’ve heard of that,” Steve said, almost cautiously. 

“Well…I was wondering if, you know, one of these days, you might—maybe—I don’t know, be thinking about something like that.  An arrangement like that,” Tony said.  He dropped his gaze and looked out the window for a moment.  A semi-truck sped past them, its mud flaps sporting a large, silver O that Tony remembered thinking was pretty when he was younger, before he understood the implication. 

“Is that…something that…you would like?” Steve questioned in a halting tone. 

“Huh?  Me? No—I—no.  I mean, I’d understand, if you, you know, needed someone.  On the side kind of a thing.  That’d be fine, if you wanted,” Tony stammered, the words sort of falling over themselves in his rush to get them out.  It didn’t register what he’d said until the words were already out, sitting there in the space between them, while Tony stared, horrified, at the gaping wound they left that he couldn’t quite figure out how to close.  “The whole first, second thing, that’s kind of awkward, though, right?  I’m guessing.  It seemed awkward.  When she—when she mentioned it.  Maybe it’s good for some people, I suppose. Some couples, maybe that’s good.  For them.  Extra help or, like, companionship, maybe, I don’t know—I don’t…For us, though, I don’t think…I don’t…I was thinking we didn’t really need that.  So much.  Unless you think we do.”

Maybe Happy would let Google Maps drive them over the side of the mountain, Tony thought wildly.

He glanced back over at Steve, who was watching him with one arm laying across the car door below the window, his knuckles rubbing absently against the glass. There was a muscle ticking in his jaw.  Tony watched it pulse, counting the seconds as the silence stretched out.

 “No, I don’t think we really need that,” Steve said in a flat tone, then slumped back in his seat and turned to gaze out the window with half-lidded eyes.  Tony looked away, biting his lip.

“Well, good.  Good, then. We agree. R-right?” Tony stuttered. 

“We agree,” Steve replied, without looking at Tony. 

“Good,” Tony repeated, nodding his head once, then pinching his hand over his bottom lip.  Good?  Good.  Seriously.  That’s what he was going with?  Good?  Good that he’d just told Steve to feel free to fuck someone else, so long as he didn’t bring him or her home? 

Well.  He finally managed to sound like his mother.  All it took was wanting to do anything to hang on to whatever shred of happiness that could be his.  Huh.  Almost like there was some kind of pattern there, Tony thought with a frustrated grimace. 

“Charles was nice,” Tony said, when he couldn’t take the silence and couldn’t think of anything else to say. “He and David seemed really sweet.  Kind of cool that he actually saw Captain America.  Not that he had to go to war, of course, but still.  Interesting, what he said about him.  I guess the real guy, he was probably a lot different than the comics and radio show, all that.  They probably sanitized it a lot.  Rescuing dames and punching Hitler,” Tony said with a low laugh.  “Guess it wasn’t really like that.  Hard to sell stepping over body parts, I suppose.”

“Howard had all these collectibles and comics and stuff I wasn’t supposed to touch,” Tony added when Steve remained silent.  “I had a stuffed bear when I was a kid.  It even had a little plastic shield.”

“Coulson has a set of trading cards. They’re vintage.  Near mint condition, or so I’m told,” Steve replied after a beat, a slight hint of a smile creeping into his voice.  “Slight foxing around the edges.”

“Yeah?  I’ll have to ask him about them,” Tony said, tilting his head to the side and regarding Steve across the back seat of the limo. 

“Oh, God, don’t do that,” Steve smiled, really smiled, the kind that crinkled his eyes and made his face go soft and lax.  “He’ll show them to you, and that’ll be your afternoon gone.  Trust me.  Just don’t.”

The traffic waned when they exited off the freeway.  The road slowly elevated, carving steeper and deeper cuts through slashes of rock that rose steadily higher as they drove.  They were both quiet, lost in their own thoughts, but it was a gentle, companionable kind of silence.  The absence of talking, not the absence of anything to say.

“I’m sorry. About tonight,” Steve said with a grimace.  “I wanted it to be fun, a night out for you.  Someone like you, you should be…out there.  Having a good time.”

“I did have a good time,” Tony insisted, twisting in his seat.  “Well, right up until, you know.  Everything happened.  But, it’s fine.  I’m fine.  It’s all…fine.  Stuff like that, it happens,” Tony said, voice going stiff and tight. “I mean, nothing happened-happened.  Not really.  I don’t know why I didn’t—“

“Tony,” Steve cut him off, then sighed. 

“Sorry,” Tony replied, shaking his head and scrunching his eyes together.

“You don’t need to apologize,” Steve told him.

“So—“ Tony began, then clamped his mouth together, looking over at Steve.  “Solar desalination,” he amended.

“What?” Steve huffed.

“Solar desalination.  I’ve been thinking about intellicrops,” Tony added, with a straight face.  “Energy efficient desalination systems would be crucial.”

“Intellicrops, huh?” Steve said, wiping a laugh away with his hand. 

“SI needs to diversify.  We’re too dependent on wars, which, okay, sure human history being something of a benchmark, not a terrible strategy, but we should at least be looking at other technologies,” Tony pointed out.  “Look at Apple.  It stopped innovating—or, rather, it stopped buying companies that were innovating—and now they’re blowing through market share like Cartman through his bag of cheesy poofs.”

“I…did not understand that reference, but I take your point,” Steve replied.

“I’m just saying we—the company, I mean—could do more.  Weapons are our bread and butter.  Well, guns and butter, he, but, whatever,” Tony said.  “I can…I can do something. With the company.  Not now, obviously, but one day.”

“I have no doubt that you can do pretty much anything you put your mind to,” Steve agreed.  He was tapping at his bottom lip with the pad of his thumb, and Tony found his eyes drawn to the movement.  Tap-tap-tap.  Finger against lip.  Tony wondered what it would be like to feel Steve’s thumb slide along his lip, push inside, Tony’s mouth closing around it, sucking gently while Steve watched him.  There was an answering pull in his belly at the thought, deep and low, sending a warm pressure arching down between his legs to the tip of his cock. 

I’m wondering again, Tony thought with a strangely dull sort of hysteria.  I really should stop doing that.

“The company, though,” Tony reiterated, trying to force his mind to focus. 

Steve wanted the company to be a success.  That was the whole point of all this, and if that was what Steve wanted, then, well, Tony would give it to him.  It was as simple as that.  In a way, it was calming, to have something he knew he could do for Steve, something that would make Steve happy.  I can take care of him, Tony thought.  Not the way he wanted to, but the way Steve wanted him to, and that was the point, wasn’t it?  Hadn’t Steve shown him that these past months? 

“I can do that.  Build it.  Grow it.  Whatever you want,” Tony told him.  “I can do that.  I’ve got—well, ideas.  For what I’d do.  Not that I ever thought I would, of course.  Just…sometimes.  Sometimes, I thought about it.”

“You’ll get your chance, Tony.  I promise,” Steve replied, glancing out the limo window as it bounced off the highway and onto the road that led up to the cabin.  “It won’t be easy, though.  Any of it.  You know that.  But, you’re not alone, Tony.  Whatever happens…whatever it takes, we’ll face it together, okay?”

“Okay,” Tony said, glancing over at Steve before dropping his gaze down to his shoes.  They were still shiny, catching a bit of the glow from the low lights that illuminated the back of the limousine. 

“Tony,” Steve called out softly at the same time his hand reached over and covered Tony’s where it lay on the seat between them, threading his fingers through Tony’s against the leather of the seat.  It reminded Tony of his thoughts while he and Steve were curled up on the sofa.  How badly he had wanted to twine his hand into Steve’s, to feel that connection, and here it was, offered up freely and without expectation.  It was wonderful and terrible at the same time.  So near to what he wanted.  He could close his eyes and push away that single sliver of space between what he had and what he wanted. 

This is what bittersweet feels like, Tony thought, with a deep, aching tug in his chest where his heart tried to close that gap all on its own.

“You won’t be alone.  I mean that.  I’m not going anywhere.  I won’t leave you,” Steve said in an oddly rough, scraping tone, like the promise burned. Tony felt an answering pull in his chest, and for a moment, he wanted to let himself believe there was another promise behind those words.  He couldn’t, of course.  That kind of thinking would lead to another Event, if he wasn’t careful, Tony thought with a flutter of remembered embarrassment.

The limo ground to a halt, kicking up gravel and dry dirt beneath the tires, and Tony peered out the darkened window at the cabin. The light by the front door was on, probably zapping moths who couldn’t resist trying for something bright and beautiful. 

They sat there in the still, silent limo for a moment, hands wound together on the space between them, which maybe said something about their relationship that Tony didn’t want to think about too hard.  Steve made no move to get out or extricate his hand from Tony’s.  Instead, he flexed his fingers, curling them tightly underneath Tony’s and held on. 

“What did you do to him?  Stone?”  Tony asked in a careful, neutral tone, keeping his eyes on the tops of his shoes where the slashes of light glinted off the black leather.  He’d worn the heels to make himself feel taller.  No.  That wasn’t true.  That’s what he’d told himself, but he’d known, even as he slid them on and felt his toes crunch against the sides, that he was lying to himself.  He’d worn them in the hopes Steve would notice he looked good. 

You really are beautiful, Tony.

 “Did you hit him?” Tony asked, biting as his bottom lip until it stung.

“Technically, the wall hit him,” Steve said, with a rueful twist to his mouth. 

A laugh welled up inside Tony, part disbelief, part a hysterical sort of amazement.  Anthony, don’t provoke him.  Why do you do these things you know will just upset your father?  When had anyone actually defended him or taken his side, let alone tried to…shield him from it?  Tony let out a shaky huff of almost-laughter and shook his head, rubbing at his forehead with his other hand.  He looked down at their joined hands, then raised his eyes to Steve, who was watching him with an unwavering, if somewhat hesitant, gaze. 

Cracks in the countertop, Tony recalled.  He keeps everything so close to the vest, wound up like a jack-in-the-box, and he doesn’t want me to see it when it finally hits the last note, Tony realized with a jolt of understanding.  

“I feel like I should tell you not to do that, but…not going to lie, it’s kind of awesome,” Tony said, returning Steve’s look.

“Yeah?” Steve asked.  Tony nodded, dropping his gaze for a moment, then dragging it back up to Steve’s face, which flashed with surprise before relaxing into that soft, easy look that Tony liked. 

“Yeah.  Don’t judge me for it, but yeah,” Tony admitted, a half-smile tugging up the corner of his mouth.

“Trust me, it’s a point in your favor that you don’t mind that I went to a fancy work party and got into a fight,” Steve deadpanned, lip curling around something of a smirk.  There was relief there, too, Tony thought, looking up and finding himself momentarily thrown by the thought that Steve had worried about how Tony would feel about having his honor defended with a good, old-fashioned, glove to the face, throw-down.  “I should take you to Brooklyn.  Show you all the places I got into fights. Fair warning, that’s gonna fill a day.”

“I’d kind of like that.  See your old stomping grounds,” Tony said, dragging his gaze back to Steve’s face.  “Thank you.  For, you know.  The wall thing.  And just for, well, everything. Tonight.  It was nice.  I had a nice time.   Other than the thing.  But, I don’t know.  I still had a nice time.  Even with the thing, or because of it—not because of it, but…the after, I guess.  With you, and…what you said.  It was nice.”

“I’m glad,” Steve said in almost a whisper as he turned away from Tony and looked out the window.  “I wanted it to be perfect, but, I’ll take nice.” Tony felt another squeeze, and then Steve slipped his hand out of Tony’s and pushed open the limo door. 

“Night, Happy,” Tony called out as he slid across the seat and ducked out the door, where Steve waited. 

“Night!” Happy replied, then opened the limo’s moonroof enough to give them a small wave as he put the limo into a three-point turn to get out of the driveway. 

Tony turned his face up at the night sky for a moment.  Dubhe.  Merak. Phecda.  Megrez.  The body of the Great Bear. Alioth, Mizar, Alkaid, the tail, he listed off the familiar names for the stars in the Big Dipper in his head.  It calmed him, the way it always had.  That they were still there, in his head.  They hadn’t been taken or tainted.  They were just there, his, like they always were. 

At first, he wasn’t sure why it surprised him, that his thoughts should belong to him, but when had they been his in any real sense?  In a way that couldn’t be derogated, controlled or contaminated by someone else?  By his own fear?  By the demands of a society that just wanted him to behave?  Had his thoughts ever been fully his own? 

Tony looked over at Steve, who was standing almost at attention, watching Tony look at the stars with such an intense look, it made Tony’s mouth go dry.  He had thought Bonding meant losing what little of himself he still clung to, that hidden and shriveled part he buried under so many layers.  But, with Steve, he was more himself than he had ever been.

“It’s late.  You should go inside,” Steve said, looking over his shoulder at the waiting cabin, while Tony struggled to keep any kind of neutral expression on his face.  He could hear the limo grinding down the road towards the highway, and when he managed to tear his gaze away from Steve, the taillights were disappearing around the curve.  He didn’t want the night to end, not like this, not fizzling out into tired goodnights, where they went to their own rooms, like friendly companions who just happened to share some official paperwork.  He didn’t think he could bear that. Not tonight. 

“We didn’t dance,” Tony blurted out.  “At—at the thing.  We didn’t dance.  We were going to—you—you said.  But, well.”

“That’s okay, Tony.  We’ll get another chance,” Steve replied, turning to go towards the cabin. 

“No!” Tony nearly shouted.  A creeping, shaking panic was slowly working its way up his spine.  He knew he was overreacting, but he couldn’t have explained why to save his life.  He just…didn’t want Steve to walk away.  Not right now.  Not yet.  Give me a little more, he thought urgently.  Just a little.  Something.  “I mean.  I mean, I’m not tired.  Kind of keyed up, I guess. With everything.  I was going to—“ his eyes darted over to the deck, landing on his telescope.  “If you want, I could—I have a, a speaker thing for my phone.  I’ve got some music.  I could hook it up.  If you wanted,” Tony offered, then instantly regretted the opening for rejection as soon as he recognized it. “Or—or not.  You’re probably tired. It is late, like you said.  We should just go to bed.  Some other time, right?”

“I’d love to dance with you,” Steve said softly.  He shifted and held a hand out to Tony.  Tony stared at it for a second, then reached out and tucked his hand into Steve’s while his heart burst open.  It felt like falling.  No--flying.  Soaring and swooping with the ground far below, the stars above, and only he and Steve in the space between.

“Ah—I—“ Tony stuttered.  “Let me just—I need to get my phone and—and the speaker.  Hang on.  I’ll just--”   he jerked his head towards the garage, and Steve nodded, letting go of Tony’s hand.  Tony gave Steve a hesitant look, then turned and stumbled off to the garage, trying to force himself to walk at a semi-normal pace.  He punched his code into the door and pushed it open.  He grabbed his phone and the speaker and cord off his workstation desk, checking the power supply long enough to be sure it was fully charged, then hurried back to the door.  Standing in the threshold, he could see Steve illuminated by the bulb that glowed above the front door and the partial moon that shone above.

Oh, God, I’m basically holding a boom box outside his window, Tony thought with a glance down at the phone and speaker in his hands.  He shook his head and hurried back out to Steve, letting the door close behind him.

“Okay, so, I have music,” Tony announced.  “Any requests?”

“You pick,” Steve replied. One hand went to the small of Tony’s back, warm and steady, guiding him forward to the steps leading up the deck.  Tony nodded and started to scroll through the playlists he’d created.  Demolition.  Fabrication. LIGO.  Jericho.  Inspirational, but probably not great dance music, Tony mused.  He finally settled on a Van Morrison tune and hooked the phone up to the speaker, setting both on the arm of a deck chair. 

When he turned around, Steve was standing statue still, a shadow of something that looked like sadness passing over his face, making it tighten for a moment before it disappeared, to be replaced by a soft smile as the music drifted between them. 

These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there's only future
There's only here, there's only now

“Shall we?” Steve asked. Tony couldn’t have answered if he’d tried.  Instead, he just nodded and stepped towards where Steve stood. 

I’m supposed to show him how to do this, Tony thought, feeling a hysterical laugh try to work its way out of his throat.  One of Steve’s hands slipped around to splay against the small of Tony’s back, heavy and warm where it settled at the base of his spine. The other encircled Tony’s hand and held it up, just below Tony’s eye level.

Oh, Tony thought, breathing out a long rush of air.  Okay.  He could do this.  Oh, God, how was he supposed to do this?  He wet his lips and craned his neck back to look up at Steve, who was looking down at him with half-lidded eyes, mouth slightly parted like he was about to say something, though the silence stretched on until Tony cleared his throat.

“Okay, so, you just sort of can move backwards and forwards, like this,” Tony instructed, shifting his feet against the planks of the deck.  “Then to the side.”  Steve mimicked the movements of Tony’s feet, picking up the simple steps in no time. “See, you’re a natural,” Tony whispered, voice cracking on the end. 

“Just needed the right partner,” Steve responded after a beat in a deep, husky tone that went straight through Tony and coiled low in his belly, filling him with an impossible heat that left his mouth dry and heart pounding in his ears.  Tony dropped his gaze to just over Steve’s shoulder, where the canopy of stars spread out over the mountains.

I’m in love with him, Tony thought dizzily as the world tilted in front of his eyes, then righted itself.  The idea flooded through him, warming his limbs and sending a spasm through his chest that he realized was what it felt like when you forgot to breathe.  It wasn’t exactly a revelation, not really.  More like something he’d known, but just now remembered.  Like it had always been there, waiting for starlight dances, drawings of his robots and to be told it wasn’t his fault to unlock the memory.   Some kind of quest he hadn’t known he was on, and he’d finally found all the pieces.

Their movements slowed and the steps Tony had spent years practicing melted into little more than a gentle sway, as the last strain of the song echoed and then went silent.  Tony tore his gaze from the view he was barely noticing, and looked up at Steve uncertainly, nearly choking on his breath when he did. Steve was looking down at him with an expression of such unbearable tenderness that it was almost painful. 

I wonder what it would be like if he kissed me.  My first kiss, Tony thought with a moment of bright, panicked exhilaration before his eyes drifted closed for a moment.  I wonder what it would be like if he loved me.   His felt Steve’s hand slowly slide from his back and the loss of warmth, the loss of everything, when Steve let go of his other hand and stepped back. 

“Thank you,” Steve said, clearing his throat.  “Hope I didn’t step on your toes.”

“Huh?” Tony said dazedly as bitter disappointment and humiliation drove everything else out of his head.  “My—what?  Ah, no. No.  You were great.”

Do not cry.  Do not.  Do not do anything stupid.  Like try to kiss him again.  Do not.

He looked up at Steve.  Beautiful, kind, funny Steve, who wanted to take care of him and told him it wasn’t his fault, who listened and laughed, who gave him robots and stars, and Tony swallowed everything else down. 

This could be enough.  Part of Steve. That’s all he asked.  Part of Steve got to be his, only his.  That was enough.  He could make Steve happy.  Give him what he wanted.  That would be more than he ever though he’d get, after all.  More than he ever expected.  Why did it seem so small now?

“Think I’ll head to bed,” Tony said dully.  “Guess the night got to me more than I realized.”

“Goodnight, Tony,” Steve replied.

“Aren’t you coming?” Tony asked.

“Not yet.  Think I’ll stay up a little longer,” Steve said, making no move to leave. 

“Out here?” Tony asked. 

“Might try out that telescope of yours.  I won’t hurt it, promise,” Steve assured him quickly. 

“Oh, no, it’s fine.  I mean, sure.  Go right ahead.  Here, I can…I can get it positioned for you.  If you want,” Tony offered.  “Polaris is bright tonight,” he continued, walking over to the telescope and turned on the motor. 

“Polaris?” Steve repeated, glancing up at the sky.

“North Star.   See, there, by the Big Dipper,” Tony said, pointing as he angled the telescope.  “Since it’s so close to the North Pole.  Stays relatively stationary in relation to the sky, which makes it handy if you’re a Viking explorer or something,” Tony told him.  “You can figure out how far you are from the North Pole using the height of the star over the horizon.  Find your way home,” he explained.  “Celestial navigation.”

“Celestial navigation, huh?” Steve said, walking over to stand in front of the telescope.  He ran a hand along the smooth tube, then looked over the top at where Tony was fiddling with the viewer. 

“It’s ready,” Tony said. “Just look through here.  This adjusts the zoom.  This one is for resolution.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve replied, though made no move to actually sit down and look through the scope. 

“Well.  I guess goodnight, then,” Tony said, hovering a bit between wanting to make a break for it and wanting Steve to ask him to stay. 

“You could stay.  If you wanted.  Just for a little while,” Steve said, looking back towards the vista that spread out beneath the cabin.  “Tell me about what I’m looking at.”  At first, Tony wasn’t even sure if he’d heard the invitation or just started listening to his own wishful thinking. 

“Yeah?  You sure?”  Tony asked, trying to keep his voice closer to eager rather than desperate and pathetic.

“If you’re too tired—“ Steve began.

“No, no, it’s fine.  I’m good.  I can stay for a bit.  Point some things out,” Tony offered.  Steve nodded, and brushed off the bench behind the telescope, sitting down and angling the viewer towards him.  Tony sat down next to him and checked the settings, waiting until Steve leaned back before peering through the scope. 

“Vikings, huh?” Steve said after a moment.  “Kind of nice that even that long ago, they were looking up at the same stars.  Guess some things don’t change.”

“Well.  Technically, the pole stars will change over time due to precession.  The gravitational pull of the sun and moon working on the rotation of the Earth on its axis,” Tony said, turning on the bench to face Steve.  “So, Polaris wasn’t always the North Star, and, eventually, it’ll be Vega.”

Steve looked at him, blinking owlishly, then tilted his head back and let out a husked out version of a laugh that set Tony’s teeth on edge.

“I mean…it’ll take another thirteen thousand years or so…” Tony added, frowning in confusion. 

“So.  Everything changes, huh?” Steve said quietly. 

“Not everything,” Tony replied. 

“Yeah?” Steve rasped out, staring over the horizon beyond the deck, where Polaris glowed low in the sky.

I think I’ll always love you, Tony thought.  Maybe not this same way.  Maybe I’ll shush you when you tell war stories to strangers.  But, I’ll love you. That won’t change.

“There are fundamental physical and mathematical constants,” Tony said instead.  “Speed of light.  The Planck constant.  Those kinds of things.”

Steve scrubbed a hand over his face, leaving a lock of hair brushing over his forehead that Tony had to resist the urge to push back into place.  He looked off to the side for a moment, then back at Tony with dark eyes that seemed too old and weary for his face. 

“Tell me about the stars,” Steve said, sitting up and placing a hand on the side of the telescope tube. 

Tony wasn’t sure how long they spent sitting there while Tony pointed out the constellations and various stars he thought might interest Steve.  It wasn’t a clear enough night to get the best view, but up here, away from the city lights, they could see the bands of clouds circling Jupiter, and her four moons, the Trapezium, a quadruple star in Orion’s belt, and the Andromeda galaxy, which Tony explained would collide with our own in about four billion years, so no worries.

He shivered against Steve’s side, and found his shoulders covered by Steve’s jacket a moment later.  It was warm, like Steve, and was almost like having Steve’s arms around him, so he snuggled into it.  The last thing he remembered was trying to find the Swan Nebula, but they were too far north to get a good view. 

Tony woke to a panicked, disoriented startle, finding himself in his own bed, the room pitch dark, save for the glow of the numbers on his clock, which told him it was a little after two in the morning.  He was still in his suit.  His shoes were gone, though, and the covers were thrown over his legs. 

He really had to stop the fucking Briar Rose routine around Steve, Tony thought with a disgruntled sigh. Though, there was something about the image of Steve carrying him back to bed, laying him down, removing his shoes, maybe watching Tony sleep for moment…God, he was pathetic.  We’re down to imagining Steve tucking him in like a five-year-old, he snorted derisively.

Tony ran a hand up and down over his face and let his heartrate return to normal as he watched the outline of the ceiling fan cut through the air above.  He wondered what had woken him.  There was something on the edge of his mind, a dream or snatches of it, but it was already fading with wakefulness.  Maybe a nightmare, if the way his heart was hammering was any indication.  Wouldn’t be surprising, all things considered.

He should’ve just left the balcony as soon as that guy showed up.  He’d known.  Damn it. That was the thing.  He’d known.  In that irrational, snap judgment kind of way that was so easy to discount and talk himself out of, but he’d known.  He just hadn’t wanted to know, or hoped he was wrong or, or, or.  He should’ve stopped it sooner.  Told the guy to take his stupid questions he didn’t really care about and fuck off.  Gone and gotten Steve. 

Steve.

God, when he’d turned around and Steve had been there…his stomach churned at the memory. Relief, followed by horrified awareness of everything he was doing that looked wrong.   In that bright, clear moment of panicked realization, he’d wanted to run.  Not run from Steve, though.  Run to him.  Explain.  Make him understand.  Apologize until Steve forgave him.  Give Steve a piece of his mind for even thinking that he would do that. All of it spiking through him in that one, drawn-out heartbeat of time. 

The idea that Steve wouldn’t be mad hadn’t occurred to him.  Well, not mad at Tony, anyway.  Stone…well.  Hard to muster any real sympathy there.  Custom-made Douglas fir wood paneling, Tony thought with a low snicker.  Just trying to catch some air and look at the stars, groping not required.  That’s what you get for ruining my night, buddy, Tony said to himself.  

Too bad it hadn’t been Steve finding him out there. 

A shiver racked his body, sending sparks of heat from low in his belly down to the tip of his cock.  He ran a hand through his hair and rolled his tongue over his bottom lip, taking it between his teeth.  He swallowed thickly and felt his chest tighten.  He was strangely conscious of each breath, in and out, each beat of his heart pulsing against his ribcage.  Every sound was exaggerated, pounding in his head.  The cool air from the fan hitting his skin made gooseflesh rise.  He ran his hand over the soft sheet, then higher, over his chest, tracing the row of buttons up his shirt to the collar. 

Don’t.  The command rang in his head.  This is wrong.  Go to sleep.  His hand stilled, hovering at his shirt collar, then undid the top button and pushed the points aside, sliding underneath to the heated skin there.  He sucked in a breath, held it, and pushed his hand under his neck, gripping the curve just at the base and pressing.  A low, surprised moan escaped him.  He could swear he felt it vibrating through him, down the column of his neck, lower, echoing through his chest and down to the top of his cock. 

Tony didn’t remember closing his eyes, but he opened them into the darkness.  He turned his head towards the wall that separated his bedroom from Steve’s and stared for a minute, throat bobbing as he tried to swallow.  This was wrong.  He knew that.  This was for his Alpha. 

Where’s the manual on what to do when your Alpha doesn’t want you?  He closed his eyes and slowly turned his head back to face the ceiling.  Steve was probably going to find someone else.  Hell, he’d all but told Steve to, if Steve would just come home to him. Some Omega on the side who didn’t build missiles in his or her garage.  Someone who took care of him the way they were supposed to, not with better drones and stock splits. 

Tony’s jaw clenched hard, and he swallowed, blinking against the burning at the corner of his eyes.  No artwork stuck on the front of the fridge, no Legos on the floor, no grief, no loss.  Nothing.  What did it matter if this was wrong?  This was all he had.  He pressed the heel of his hand into the base of his neck again, and felt an answering rush of slick, wet heat underneath him, and let his eyes slowly drift shut.

“Thought I’d find you out here,” Steve said, pushing open the balcony door and walking towards him with smooth, purposeful strides.  

“Busted,” Tony said with a grin as he turned around and braced his elbows on the railing, leaning back until he felt the round, metal rails against his spine.  “How’s the party?”  he asked, tilting his head up at Steve when Steve stopped in front of him.  “Are we having fun talking shop with all the big Alphas in there?  Getting a lot of glad-handing done with all your butter and egg men?” he teased.  “Or, wait…why, Steven Rogers, are you having trouble concentrating? Shocking.  I’m shocked.  Do I look shocked?”

“You look,” Steve began in a low, husky voice that made Tony’s heart flutter in his chest.  “Absolutely amazing.”  Steve leaned down closer on each word, bracing his arms around the railing on either side of Tony.  “But, you already know that.  You know what I’ve been thinking about,” he said, bringing one hand up to trace a finger down the front of Tony’s shirt, stopping just below the second button where his dog tags pressed into Tony’s chest.  He pushed two fingers between the flap of Tony’s shirt and ran them over the metal, then lower, where the vee of soft, red lace dipped low underneath the crisp cotton shirt.  “Want to see you.”

“You do, huh?  Tell Happy to bring the limo around, and I’m pretty sure—oomph!” Tony yelped.  One of Steve’s hands had snaked behind Tony’s back and jerked Tony hips forward into the center of Steve’s thighs.  He swallowed back the rest of his words.  Steve’s cock was rock hard, pressing into Tony’s stomach.  Tony’s hips twitched in response, eliciting a bitten-off curse from Steve.  A slow trickle of slick dripped out between the crack of his ass, and he felt his own cock harden in response.  “Steve…” Tony moaned, either a warning or a plea, he wasn’t sure.  “We can’t.  Not here.  They’ll see.”

“Let them,” Steve growled against the side of Tony’s throat, sucking a line from just below Tony’s collar to the underside of his jaw.  “You’re mine.”

Tony gasped and shuddered, his eyes falling closed.  “Alpha,” he husked out, barely a whisper.  With a shaking hand, he somehow managed to undo the top two buttons of his shirt, revealing the red satin and lace underneath.  The final buttons honestly never stood a chance, he figured, popping off and landing with small pings on the balcony floor when Steve got impatient.  One of Steve’s hands worked its way around the back of Tony’s neck, while the other made short work of Tony’s belt and the fly of his pants, opening them to reveal Tony’s cock straining against the red lace of the panties.  Dark, wet stains spotted the red satin.  He could feel the slick pooling between his thighs, coating his entrance.

“Look at you.  You’re so wet for me, Tony,” Steve groaned, while Tony arched his neck in blissful surrender.  Steve pressed his hand against the curve of Tony’s neck, hard, giving it a small squeeze at the scruff, just enough for Tony to feel the burning ache of it all the way down his cock.  A small spurt of precum leaked out the head and through the lace of the panties.  “Tell me what you want, baby.”

“Touch me.  Please.  Please, Steve,” Tony begged.  He gasped when Steve did just that, wrapping a large hand around Tony’s cock was it strained against the lace and rubbing, up and down, gently, but hard enough that Tony could feel the scrape of lace against the over-sensitized skin.  It burned, white hot heat that scorched its way up into his belly and back down again, sending more precum dribbling out of the top of his cock.  A steady stream of slick was leaking out his hole.  He could feel himself relaxing, opening up, readying himself for his Alpha. 

“Steve,” Tony groaned, turning his head blindly until he felt Steve’s lips against his own.  Tony’s mouth parted under Steve’s, and he felt the soft slide of Steve’s tongue past his lips at the same time Steve’s hand stroked from the base of Tony’s cock down to the tip, where it bulged against the lace of the panties.  Tony started, hips thrusting into Steve’s hand of their own accord. 

Steve’s tongue delved further into his mouth, seeking, exploring, sliding along the side of Tony’s, then flicking, before withdrawing again to run over the seam of Tony’s mouth.  He was canting his hips into the palm of Steve’s hand, seeking friction, wanting more, more Steve, more of everything.  Steve’s thumb hooked under the top edge of the lace and slowly peeled it down, until Tony’s cock sprang free. 

“Fu—fuck,” Tony stammered.  “Alpha.  Alpha,” he panted.  “Please, God.  Please. Steve.  Alpha!”

Another thrust.  Another stroke.  Steve’s mouth on Tony’s again, harder this time, bending Tony back against the railing until he could open his eyes and see the stars.  Steve’s hand dipped between Tony’s legs, cupping Tony’s balls, hefting, then giving a slight tug.  Tony’s hips spasmed at the sensation.  Steve held them between his fingers and thumb, rubbing gently over the sensitive skin, then shifted them aside and pushed two fingers behind them up between the cheeks of his ass, gathering slick.  He smeared it up the underside of Tony’s cock, then wrapped his hand around Tony’s length and twisted his wrist in a circular motion, coating Tony with his own wetness. 

Tony’s mind stuttered and skipped, pressure and heat coiling deep inside.  Steve traced the pad of his thumb over the slit on the head of Tony’s cock, and was rewarded with another burst of precum.  He tore his mouth away from Tony’s, and looked down where one hand cradled Tony’s neck and one held Tony’s cock. 

“You really are beautiful, Tony,” Steve whispered as he pressed his lips to Tony’s forehead and pushed his hand into the curve of Tony’s neck, giving Tony’s cock one last, long stroke, flicking his wrist around the head in one, smooth motion.

His orgasm slammed into him so hard Tony’s vision went white behind his eyes while his body worked through the tremors.  An involuntary cry escaped his throat.  He twisted his head so he could bury the rest of it into his pillow and tried to breathe through it.  He blinked and turned his head towards the ceiling, trying to find enough saliva to work up the ability to swallow past a dry throat that wouldn’t cooperate.

Long, white stripes of thick fluid coated his hand, shirt and pants and leaked onto the sheet.  A wet, sticky pool had soaked through his briefs into his pants.  He looked down at himself. Even in the low light, he could see that he was a complete mess.    Gingerly, he forced his shaking legs to swing over the side of the bed.  He pushed his undone pants down and kicked them off, then shrugged out of his jacket and shirt, sitting naked on the bed. 

He could feel the wet spot cooling underneath his thigh.  His cock lay soft between his legs, still throbbing and warm.  Wasn’t this supposed to feel good?  He didn’t feel good.  He felt…queasy, empty.  Wrong.  This was wrong. He was wrong.  Wasn’t that the problem?  God, he was so fucking pathetic.  What kind of Omega jerks himself off when they’re not even in Heat? 

Tony got up and walked over to the pile that spilled out of his laundry basket.  He rummaged through it until he found a slightly damp towel.  He rubbed that over his cock, cleaning himself off. Too hard.  It hurt.  He didn’t care.  Probably a good thing.  He wiped the towel up the crack of his ass, ignoring the rough burn of it. 

The bedsheets were next.  They went into a ball with his suit.  He’d have to do the laundry himself.  Or burn them. Whatever.   He pulled a pair of boxers and a t-shirt out of the dresser drawer and shoved them on, then crawled back into the bed and curled up on his side, staring at the wall between him and Steve.  He let out a low hiss of breath and rubbed at his eyes.  At least Steve couldn’t have heard him.

Chapter 7

“I didn’t know it would feel like this, Jarvis.  I never really even imagined it would happen to me, so why bother thinking about it?” Tony said.  “This overwhelming sort of, I don’t know, just…it’s all I think about, you know?  I wake up thinking about it.  I go to sleep thinking about it.  How am I supposed to concentrate when there’s this amazing, wonderful…thing…right here, so close, and I can’t have it all the time?”

“Sounds like true love,” Jarvis observed primly. 

“It is.  It really, really is,” Tony assured him, nodding.  “I mean, just look at the engine, J.  It’s based off the Lamborghini Gallardo’s.  Gets 532 horsepower.  Aluminium monocoque structural skin.  Bit like the Lotus, so it’s lighter weight, which helps your acceleration.  Zero to sixty in 3.9 seconds, according to specs.  I, uh, might have made a few minor modifications…” Tony admitted, rubbing a hand to the back of his head and glancing over at Jarvis.

“Shocking,” Jarvis replied, a small smile quirking his lips as he considered the silver Audi R8 parked in the middle of Tony’s garage.  “Captain Rogers approves of this, I take it?”

“It just showed up one day on the back of a tractor trailer,” Tony replied with a shrug.  He traced a finger over the silver curve of the wheel well, then wiped the mark off with the end of his t-shirt.  It was beautiful, sleek and predatory in a way, all curves and power.  An apology in metal and horsepower.

A part of him wanted to Cameron Frye the thing over the side of the mountain. He thought he might hate it a little bit.  Or hate something, anyway.

“Steve’s been teaching me to drive,” Tony explained at Jarvis’s look. “I—I asked.  We started out playing Driving Mr. Rogers around the mall parking lot, but we did, eventually, graduate to actual road conditions. Not exactly Formula One in the sedan of Happy’s, but, still.  I don’t think Steve’s exactly crazy about the idea, and, quite frankly, he’s been a bit of a drama queen during our lessons.  Got his panties in such a twist when I, maybe, kind of, sort of, might have cut some eighteen-wheeler off—other guy’s fault!” Tony said quickly, slashing a hand in front of his face.  “Broke the oh-shit-handle clear off the roof of the car, though.  I don’t think Steve has much of a stomach for white-knuckling it, to tell you the truth.  Then…this,” Tony finished, tossing a hand out towards the coupe.  “Just showed up one day.”

“Well, that’s certainly quite the gesture,” Jarvis remarked.  “It’s quite a bit nicer than your father’s coupe.”

“You don’t say,” Tony snorted.  “You should say.  To him, I mean.  Howard. Just, you know, drop that in to casual conversation where you can,” Tony suggested.  “More gravy?  By the way, Tony’s new car could kick your Jag’s ass.”

“I shall endeavor to slip that in the moment such a circumstance presents itself,” Jarvis promised with a small smile. 

Tony darted a glance over at Jarvis, who was cradling his elbow in one hand and rubbing his fingers over his chin as he took in the roadster.  He should be thrilled.  He should feel exactly the way he described it to Jarvis.  He should feel a lot of things, probably.  Not this…this blinding resentment towards an inanimate—and completely awesome—object. 

A part of Tony, a large part, still couldn’t believe he was not only driving, but there was a car of his very own sitting in the middle of a garage of his very own being occasionally almost-polished by his ‘bots.  Not just any car, either.  The one he had spent so much time ogling in Car and Driver magazine that the pages were practically stuck together.  At this point, if Steve did ever question him about his sudden interest in laundry, he could just about legitimately blame it on the R8 with a straight face. 

Not that Steve would notice the laundry, since that tended to fly under the radar when you were playing Call of Duty:  Avoid Your Mate Edition over at SHIELD.  Other than their driving lessons on the weekends and the occasional late night two-ships-passing-in-the-hallway routine, Tony had barely seen Steve since the night of the gala.  When Tony had walked out of his room the next morning---well, not so much walked, as stuck his head out, listened for movement, then dashed to the laundry room in a sprint that would’ve put Usain Bolt to shame--Steve had already been gone with little more than a terse note stuck to the refrigerator explaining his absence as some totally not made up SHIELD thing.

Tony wasn’t sure if it was wrong to hope his Alpha was, in fact, risking his neck for a shadowy government organization run by the Mad-Eye Fury, but the alternative was that Steve actually listened to Tony’s suggestion to find someone on the side, and was simply attempting to be discreet about it out of some kind of weird sense of politeness. That…was not something Tony cared to contemplate, mostly because when he did, his throat closed up on itself, and he couldn’t seem to force air into his lungs.  Life threatening danger for the win, then, Tony thought glumly, looking back over at Jarvis.

“Wanna take her out for a spin?” Tony offered.  “Not far.  Just up the highway a bit?”

“Surely, you don’t intend to drive this without Captain Rogers?” Jarvis asked, cocking an eyebrow at Tony.    “Why do I even bother asking?  Of course, you do.  You do realize that driving without a license remains somewhat frowned upon by the authorities.  And, to think, your mother was so hoping for jewelry,” Jarvis said with a deep sigh. 

“It came with a keyring,” Tony pointed out with an indifferent shrug. “Don’t worry, J. I have a Ron Swanson permit,” Tony explained.

“You speak perfectly understandable words, and yet I have no idea what you are saying,” Jarvis replied with a shake of his head.

“Steve gave it to me,” Tony continued.  “Basically, it says I’m his Omega, and he says I can do what I want.  Okay, so, technically, there are some fancy words, my picture, a California DMV stamp and Steve’s Alpha ID on there, but same diff. I’m ninety-nine percent certain he just went to SHIELD’s version of Legal Zoom and told them to give him one.  Want to see?”

“It would likely just induce nausea,” Jarvis protested, shaking his head.  “Speaking of your Alpha, I was under the impression Captain Rogers would be joining us?”  There was a question under that question, but Tony ignored it.

“He’ll…he’ll be here,” Tony assured Jarvis, though the words wobbled with uncertainty.  Steve would be here.  He would.  He’d texted Tony just yesterday about it.  It was fine

Steve would remember.  He was good at remembering things.  He would be here.  He wouldn’t forget, not something like this.  No matter how…busy…he was.  With other things.  That Tony wasn’t going to think about. Think about the car, Tony told himself.  The beautiful, expensive, laden-with-guilt-car that showed up in the middle of Steve’s absence.  Yeah.  Good call. Focus on that, Tony thought with an inward eye roll.

“He’s going to stop and pick up lunch on his way back from SHIELD,” Tony told Jarvis with more confidence than he felt.  “I’m…glad you came, Jarvis.  I know I’ve been terrible at keeping in touch.   Mom’s on my case about visiting, but…I just…haven’t.  Sorry.  I’m an asshole.”

“You are not, though you do a good impression of one at times, I’ll give you that,” Jarvis replied.  “Can’t think of where you might have picked that up,” he said around a polite cough.  “We all understand how difficult your schedule is when you are newly Bonded, Tony.  We just want to know that you are alright, is all.”

“We?” Tony questioned. 

“We,” Jarvis insisted firmly.  “Your mother included.  I know how you feel about her, but, she does care.  In her own way.”

“In her own way,” Tony huffed out a laugh and walked over to where Dum-E was attempting to wax-on/wax-off a chamois over the car’s hood.  “I told her everything was fine.”

“Yes, I know you did.  Difficult to understand for you, I’d imagine, but that isn’t quite what she was hoping for. You know that I do not countenance some of your parents’ choices in regards to you, but, it would be good of you to visit.  Let her see you,” Jarvis urged.   

“So she can figure out what to tell her Bridge club about me?” Tony scoffed.  “Tell her about the car.  Tell her about the ‘bots and the SHIELD drone thing.  Not that she’ll care, but it’ll probably drive Howard crazy, so a job worth doing.  Tell her about…tell her…I’m fine.  Okay?  Tell her I’m fine.”

“Are you fine, Tony?  Is that what you are?” Jarvis pressed after a long pause spent watching Tony, seemingly idly, but it was enough to make Tony want to squirm like a bug who knew the pin was coming, but couldn’t move away fast enough.  “I have been here over an hour. You’ve shown me your car, your garage, your telescope, your room.  Which desperately needs tidying, by the way.  All of these things are lovely, of course.  But, you’ve barely mentioned your Alpha, and when you do, it is like you are talking about a stranger who happens to occasionally pop round to see you fed and bring you gifts.  This doesn’t suggest fine to me, Tony, though I know how good you are at convincing yourself otherwise.  You can tell me, you know.  You always could.  This is no different than a skinned knee from climbing, wanting to take classes or rummaging for tossed out bits of machinery in the recycle.  Whatever it is, good or bad, you can tell me.  You can tell me, and we will figure it out.”

“Is that what we did, Jarvis?  All those years.  Figured it out?” Tony asked, craning his neck around to look at Jarvis a long moment before going back to studying the car.

“Well, I suppose that depends on whether you are fine or not, doesn’t it?” Jarvis replied archly.  “It was never easy.  Certainly, not on you, but I suppose I speak for myself now, old man that I am.  Watching you grow up and being forced to face all you did, so young.  I wanted so much more for you.  Wanted to do so much more for you. I should have.  I see that now.  When it is too late, of course.  I let my debt to your father overshadow his failings for far too long.  No, no, don’t,” Jarvis said, holding his palm out when Tony opened his mouth, a protest dying on his lips.  “You know it is true. That is something I must live with, but I can do what I can now to rectify things as best as possible.  Starting with why you are not at all fine, no matter your fancy car and your permit with a name.”

“You did plenty, J, come on,” Tony replied, somewhat abashed.   “You can’t change the world.”

“Not even you can change the way the world works, just to make things easier on your Omega.”

“Maybe not. Seems like a good reason to try, though.”

“Did I?  Truth will out, I suppose,” Jarvis said, voice tinged with a thread of self-reproach that made Tony’s stomach twist. 

“I am fine, Jarvis.  Really.  I am.  Steve,” Tony began hesitantly, taking the cloth and swiping it gently over the silver metal in a small, circular motion before handing it back to Dum-E’s waiting pincer.  “Steve’s nice.  You’ll like him,” Tony rushed out, glancing over his shoulder at Jarvis. 

“I’m sure that I will,” Jarvis said carefully.  “But, that wasn’t what I asked, was it?”

“Everything’s great, J.  I mean, look around.  What’s not to like?  I’ve got…” Tony broke off, dropping his gaze back down to the hood of the car.  His own face, distorted, funhouse-mirror-style, gleamed back at him.  Him, but not him.  Fine, but not fine.  For a second, he had the crazy thought that maybe he looked like that to Jarvis.  A bit like himself, recognizable enough, but wrong.  Off.  Not really him, just some fuzzy image that wouldn’t quite coalesce.  He shook his head to clear it, then turned back to face Jarvis, crossing his arms over his chest as he did.  “I mean.  Look around you.  I’ve got everything I could possibly want,” Tony finished in a flat, listless tone.

“I see,” Jarvis replied. 

“Oh, don’t with the…I know what you’re doing.  I’m not…everything’s fine.  Really.  I-I told you.  You don’t need to worry or what’s British for worry? Fret?  Do I need to put an extra letter in there for absolutely no reason? No fretting, J,” Tony implored weakly.  “Really.  I’m fine.  Honestly.  Stop looking at me like that,” Tony protested, striding over to his workstation.

Tony picked up a wrench and tapped it against the desk with a muted clang, for no particular reason other than that he didn’t want to face Jarvis’s too-knowing look.  He twisted his head around to glance of at Jarvis, then dropped his eyes back to the workstation. 

His new coffee mug was sitting half-filled next to a stack of printouts from Professor Thorne.  He was running the data through an algorithm he’d created to detect gravitational wave bursts in interferometric data, but he liked looking at the numbers themselves, seeing the elegant way they told stories.  He was guessing a bit at the probability distribution equation.  LIGO detection noise wasn’t exactly Gaussian, but he thought he was getting some useful data, if for no other reason than Thorne just kept replying to Tony’s results with increasingly long series of emojis. 

“Steve, he…” Tony began, dragging his eyes back to Jarvis, mouth curling into a grimace.  Tony pressed his lips together, feeling his jaw tighten.  His throat clicked as he swallowed.  The urge to roll his eyes, crack a joke or otherwise deflect was nearly overwhelming.  Saying it out loud, that made it more true somehow, like the world would absorb the knowledge and reorder itself around it.  It could never be taken back, not really, not once it was said.

“I like him, okay?  I like him.  I like him, and he doesn’t like me.  Not the way I like him, anyway.  That’s it.  It’s not a big deal.  Just is what it is,” Tony finally replied, blinking back against the sudden stinging in the corners of his eyes.  He tried to swallow around the lump in his throat, and found he couldn’t, so he coughed to cover it, and glanced quickly at Jarvis, before dropping his eyes back down to the wrench in his hand that he was holding with a white-knuckled grip.

“Ah,” Jarvis replied. 

“Ah.  Yeah.  Right.  Exactly,” Tony scoffed caustically, dropping the wrench onto the workstation with a loud clang that echoed around the garage.  “Got any other syllables of wisdom for me, J?  SHIELD wanted Steve to quit sowing his wild oats or whatever and settle down.  He picked me because he got some idea in his head that I could handle an Alpha with his…lifestyle, whatever the hell that is.  Leaving for weeks at a time to play with the other spy kids, I guess.  Not to mention, my gift with purchase is a nice, little weapons manufacturer, and that was fine.  Great, even.  Now, it’s…,” Tony broke off, blinking and looking away from Jarvis’s steadfast gaze.  “I’m—I don’t know what I’m saying.  It’s nothing.  Everything’s fine.”

“Tony,” Jarvis said around a sigh. 

“No—just—forget it. Forget I said anything.  It doesn’t matter.  I’m good, Steve’s good, everything’s good.  I got—there’s all this to do, and now with SHIELD and the company, maybe.  I don’t know.  It’s a life, Jarvis.  A good life.  It’s…” Tony trailed off, his suddenly burning gaze dropping back down to his new coffee mug. 

“Not unhappy is not a substitute for happiness, Tony,” Jarvis said quietly.  “Tell me about him.  This very nice Captain Rogers, who is not here with you, and does not like you the way that you like him.”

“Forget—“ Tony started.

“Tony,” Jarvis cut in, giving Tony a long look before his face softened to something like regret.  “Tell me about him.”

 “Steve, he’s…I know I said nice, but nice.  Like, just…good, I guess,” Tony began, then flattened his mouth at the simplicity of the words.  “God, I know how that sounds, but…it’s different. With him.  It means something. He’s funny, though you sometimes have to really pay attention to catch what an asshole he can be, because of the nice thing.  It’s awesome,” Tony grinned, looking over at Jarvis, whose face softened into a half-smile at that. “He’s smart, too,” Tony went on. “Not the same as me, but, like...more, I don’t know, clever or something.  About people.  What they’re going to do or how they’ll react.  Like…like how to plan things out, because he gets how people will think.  And, he notices…things.  He listens.  Even when he doesn’t agree, he’ll listen, and…it’s easy. With him. It’s just easy.  Being me.  Being me has always been hard, like, just every day, it’s hard, you know? But with him…it’s just so much easier.  Quieter.  Softer.  Everything’s softer. That doesn’t make sense, does it?  I know it doesn’t, but, I swear--”

“It makes a rather great deal of sense, Tony,” Jarvis said softly. 

“But, he doesn’t like me. Or, he does, but not the same way that I like him.  Which is fine, I get it.  I do.  That…that isn’t everything.  I know that,” Tony ground out harshly, mouth twisting around the bitter words.

“It may not be everything, but it is something, Tony,” Jarvis interjected gently.  “Something you deserve.  Very much, I believe."

“Well, we don’t always get what we deserve, do we?” Tony ground out, words fused with bitterness and longing. 

“No. We do not.  But, that does not make us long for it any less,” Jarvis pointed out, voice thick with an old sadness that made Tony think of hand-knitted baby blankets, tiny shoes with blue teddy bears embroidered on them and things they didn’t talk about.

“I-I have this amazing, wonderful life, with everything I ever wouldn’t let myself want,” Tony husked out.    “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m supposed to be happy. I know that, Jarvis, really, I’m trying.  I’m trying, but…sometimes…I didn’t know I wanted that, see?  Not just from Steve.  From anyone, really.  But now--now, I do, and I can’t make it go away.  I try, and I’m good for a while. I’m good.  Then. Then, he…he comes home from a mission I’m not supposed to think about with a coffee mug that says ‘Blame it on Dark Matter. Everyone Else Does,’ and a Wall-E poster that, hand to God, Jarvis, he tells me is for Dum-E and U.  How am I not supposed to, you know…feel things?”

“Oh, Tony.  Of course, it is quite normal for you to feel things, whether those feelings are returned or not,” Jarvis said softly.  “But, I suppose you already know that quite well.”

“Yeah,” Tony snorted with a rough, rasping sound.  “Yeah, that I got down pat.” 

“I wonder if you aren’t, perhaps, unable to see things quite as clearly as you believe you do,” Jarvis suggested mildly, peering down at his hands as if examining his fingernails.

“This isn’t about…I’m not projecting my bullshit Daddy issues onto things with Steve,” Tony snapped back, then winced at Jarvis’s look.  “I’m not.”

“Your issues with Howard are hardly, ah, rubbish, Tony.  And, you idealized your father long before you hated him,” Jarvis reminded him, walking over to stand next to Tony at his workstation.  “You know, when you were little, we didn’t have to put those little covers on the electrical outlets.  I explained about electricity and conductivity.  You understood that it was something that could hurt you, so you left it alone.  Always such a bright child.  Incredible, really.”

“What does that even have to do—“ Tony started. 

“I did not have to explain about your parents.  You figured that out just fine on your own,” Jarvis continued, ignoring Tony’s interruption.  “It is one of my greatest regrets in life, that I had all the tools at hand to protect you from things you didn’t need protection from, and no way to shield you from the things that could truly harm you,” Jarvis went on.  His voice was clipped, but steady, an old scar that sometimes sent phantom pain that felt too real.  “I am merely suggesting that you should consider that it is possible you learned your lesson far too well.  People do not work the same way as outlets, Tony. They are not all the same. Just because some have failed you, does not mean that all will do so.  The man you are telling me about is hardly indifferent to you.  Perhaps, his feelings are not as strong as your own, but, in time…”

“He wants the company, not me.  Who can blame him? So.  So, we’re going to do that.  The company.  I can do that for hi—us.  Not exactly what I want, but since when do I get what I want?  I can’t make him…you know, feel the same, can I?” Tony replied numbly, looking down at this desk.  “Besides, he…maybe, he,” Tony stammered, brain flatlining as he tried to pick out words he desperately didn’t want to say.  “I think maybe he,” Tony began, sucking in a deep, bracing breath that went down cold into his chest like it might freeze his heart if he didn’t exhale.  “Maybe, there might be someone else.  I don’t know.  He doesn’t…you know. With me.  We don’t, I mean. We haven’t. So,” Tony stopped, clearing his throat roughly and keeping his gaze fixed on his computer screen, where a brightly-colored pop-art version of Neil DeGrasse Tyson provided the occasional quote of wisdom.  “There’s that.”

“Ah,” Jarvis said, a shock of surprise carried in his tone.  “That is…unconventional, I’ll admit.  I’m…surprised.”

“Unconventional?” Tony huffed bitterly.  “That’s one way to put it.  I mean, I was glad about it, at first, because…well, because.  But then, I thought…maybe with him, maybe it would be okay.  And then, I thought…maybe it would be better than okay.  If he wanted me like that.  Which he doesn’t, so, fine. Whatever.  Let him have what he wants.  I have my ‘bots and my work and…”  Tony stopped, forcing out a rough breath of air that seemed to have to scrape itself out of his lungs.  “He’s gone a lot.  Missions and stuff. Brings me souvenirs, though.  That’s what I get. A--a coffee mug. When he comes home.  A mug. But, he comes home to me.  To me, Jarvis.  He comes home. That’s enough, right?  I mean, that should be enough.  I don’t know why that isn’t enough, Jarvis.” 

“Tony…” Jarvis trailed off, shaking his head. 

Tony swiped the back of his hand over his eyes and looked over at Jarvis, before dropping his gaze back down to his workstation.  Neil helpfully suggested that his view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer.  This fortune-cookie soundbite was followed quickly by screen-Neil helpfully informing him that if you removed all the arteries, veins, and capillaries from a person’s body, and tied them end-to-end, the person will die.  Thanks, Neil.  Good tip.

“Lots of people have it way worse.  I don’t know why I’m even…being like this,” Tony finished, scraping a hand roughly through his hair.

“Because you are in love, and it is only ever terrible or wonderful.  Love, Tony.  It tends to make us all a little crazy, from time to time.  It is the most powerful force in the universe, after all,” Jarvis replied.

“Actually, it’s probably gamma ray bursts or strong nuclear, depending on how you define force,” Tony said with a self-deprecating sigh.  He swiveled his head to the side in enough time to see Jarvis swallow a smile and duck his head.  “But, I take your point.” 

“Tony, have you told him how you feel?” Jarvis asked.  He was picking at non-existent lint on his coat sleeve and peering at Tony from under his eyebrows.  “That you would, ah…perhaps welcome a more…physical relationship?” Jarvis inquired with a slight catch in his throat around the words.

“I…may have tried, ah, demonstrating my, um…feelings.  Which did not go well, so…yeah,” Tony replied, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth. 

“I see,” Jarvis said. 

“I hate it when you see,” Tony shot back with a pained grimace.

“Well, I dare say someone needs to,” Jarvis replied pointedly.   “By demonstrating your feelings, I take it you…”

“Tried to kiss him,” Tony broke in.  “Emphasis on tried.”

“Ah,” Jarvis said.

“Stop ah-ing.  It’s making me nervous,” Tony protested in a jittery voice.  “It was stupid.  I don’t know why I did that in the first place.  It was my birthday.  He took me to Caltech.  Caltech, Jarvis! I was excited, and got carried away.  I don’t know what I was thinking. I…it was stupid, okay?” Tony said, tossing his hands up in the air, before shoving them across his chest and tucking his hands under his arms.

“You are many things, but stupid is hardly one of them,” Jarvis harrumphed.  “When one of your equations or your robots, when they do not work as you hoped, you simply give up on them, never to return and attempt another solution?”

“It’s different, J. Come on, you know it’s different,” Tony replied softly, looking down at Neil’s smiling face, currently admonishing him that knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.  Honestly, Neil, I’d settle for knowing what to think at this point, Tony thought with a frustrated pang.

“Do you remember the eclipse?  We built those viewers with your mother’s shoeboxes and some aluminum foil?” Jarvis asked, seemingly apropos of nothing.

“Huh?  The eclipse? What are you even—“ Tony burst out in frustration, then cut himself off at Jarvis’s look.  “Yeah, sure.  Fine. The eclipse.  She was pissed. Said her shoes would get dusty.  I should’ve asked her first before getting you involved in my little project,” Tony recalled, mouth flattening at the memory. 

Why had he thought she would be impressed?  He couldn’t remember.  But, he remembered the eclipse, watching the sun disappear and the world go dark through the pinhole, Jarvis at his side.  The way it seemed wonderful and terrible at the same time.  How big the universe felt in that moment. 

“Rejection is a bit like looking at the sun without one of those boxes, isn’t it?  Even when you look away, it is still there, burning brightly over everything else,” Jarvis said, voice tinged with regret.  “It becomes all you can see.”

Tony looked over at Dum-E, still faithfully attempting to, well, pat the Audi, like the ‘bot had found a shiny, new friend.  His mind flashed back to the first few weeks in the cabin, alone and free, ordering all his little shoeboxes and building his viewers, trying to look through the tiny hole he made for himself to see the world. 

“Maybe.  Maybe, one day.  Who knows?  If I—if things…change.  Could happen.  With time, right? I mean, we’re Bonded, so.  Not like I’m going anywhere,” Tony said with a nervous laugh. Steve wouldn’t set him aside.  He wouldn’t.  He had promised.

Please.

From the open garage door, Tony caught sight of a large, black SUV with tinted windows appeared around the curve of the road, chassis bouncing over the uneven dirt and gravel.  Relief flooded through Tony, lacing down his spine and making his stomach liquid.  Steve had remembered. 

“That’ll be Steve,” Tony announced, too loudly.  He was sure Jarvis could hear the way his voice tremored.  With a quick, ruefully apologetic look at Jarvis, Tony walked over and bent down enough to check his reflection in the car’s side-mirror, pushing his hair down as best he could.

“You look lovely,” Jarvis admonished lightly.  “Come and introduce me to your Captain.”

“You’re not going to say anything, right?  About…what I just said?” Tony asked. 

“Certainly not.  However, I will strongly urge you to do so,” Jarvis replied.  “Tony,” Jarvis said, reaching out a hand to grab Tony’s wrist as he brushed past.  “You see that you were rejected once, and I’ll not deny that your…arrangement with Captain Rogers is highly unusual.  But, if you wonder what acceptance looks like, you have only to look around you.  Perhaps it is not love.  Or, not the kind you are hoping for. Not yet, at any rate.  I shall leave you to judge that for yourself.  Though, I would wager it is a lot closer to it than you think.”

“You’re just saying that because you have to.  Because you’re Jarvis,” Tony said, watching the SUV grind to a halt in front of the cabin. 

“Caring for you doesn’t make me blind, Tony,” Jarvis replied.  “I am well aware of your faults, not the least of which being a rather nasty penchant for self-sabotage.  No, I see you quite clearly, I assure you. Understanding you, watching you grow up.  Knowing what you have faced. I think it’s a bit like our shoebox viewers, isn’t it?  It is the perspective that let’s me see something extraordinary that I would have missed without the right way to look at it.  Perhaps your Captain simply needs to be shown the right way to look at things.”

“Jarvis, you promised, you won’t say anything—“ Tony said hurriedly, a surge of panic making the words string together.

“And I will not, of course,” Jarvis promised.  “By chance, did you tell him how much you liked the coffee mug and poster, which have recently elicited so many of these feelings?  No, of course you did not.  That would have given him the opportunity to tell you his secretary bought them or they were left over from the office Christmas party, for example, pulled completely out of thin air.  Or the car?  You thanked him for that, I’m sure…except…except you don’t actually care for it much, do you?” Jarvis asked in a surprised, musing voice, like he was on the cusp of figuring out one of his mystery novels with the cat and the small New England town with the alarming murder rate.  “In fact, you…rather resent it.  It’s too much?  No, no, that’s not it.  Something about it has your head abuzz, though.”

“Because it’s a car, and it’s amazing,” Tony protested.  “You are completely misreading—“

“Not going to tell me?  Well. But, the mug, that’s different,” Jarvis continued as if Tony hadn’t spoken, drawing out the word in a long sigh.  “It is the coffee mug you dwell upon, wondering what it means, like you’ve stumbled onto some Grail lore, for pity’s sake.  Dear boy, may I suggest that if you truly wish to know, you stop ruminating over the deeper meaning in your beverage container and tell your Alpha how much you like him?  You might find yourself surprised.”

“Jarvis,” Tony began, then cut himself off and dropped his gaze to the ground, spine stiffening under Jarvis’s watchful eyes.  “It’s just a stupid mug. It’s not a big deal.”

“It is important to you, which, I suspect, makes it vastly more important to your Captain than you imagine,” Jarvis replied.  “Now.  I believe an introduction is in order, if you please.”

The passenger side door of the SUV opened, and Steve hopped out.  He had one of those soft-sided warming bags in one hand with the name of a local deli in curving golden script on one side.  Tony could hear a low murmur of voices as Steve said something to the SUV’s driver, who put the car in reverse and gunned the engine fast enough to convince Tony the guy’s last mission involved an enchanted Ford Anglia and Hagrid’s questionable friend choices.

“Tony,” Steve said in a strange, careful tone as the SUV’s bumper disappeared around the curve.

“Hey,” Tony called out, waving his hand back and forth in front of him before shoving it into the pocket of his pants.  “Good to see you.”   The ‘finally’ was silent, but Tony felt it was strongly implied. 

“Sorry.  I know, I’ve been gone—the mission, it…well, missions really.  Took a while,” Steve replied with a air of uneasiness, shifting a bit where he stood clutching the bag of food. 

It wasn’t a lie, exactly, Tony thought, but the plain truth that Steve had deliberately chosen to stay gone for so long was hanging between them, being dutifully ignored.  Just like me, Tony thought.  Dutifully ignored.  Have a car.  See you in three weeks.  Don’t think about what I’m doing while I’m away. Or, who I’m doing, Tony mentally corrected with a flat grimace, his mind flashing to boxes with the names of Rodeo Drive boutiques on them and breath that smelled like mint and wine.  

He really, really hated that fucking car.

“It’s good to see you, Tony,” Steve finished with a stiff sort of formality, like they were strangers.  Wasn’t that what Jarvis said?  A stranger, who stopped by to make sure Tony was fed and had plenty of toys to play with?  Maybe that’s what they were.  More so than what Tony wanted to admit, anyway. 

“You, too,” Tony replied, twisting where he stood, as he realized just how true that was. 

He was suddenly ridiculously aware of Steve, drinking him in like a dying man stumbling through the desert.  Alpha, his mind sang, some internal chant that blasted through his veins and into his heart, making it thump against his chest and ring in his ears, the way an engine starts up.  Zero to sixty in 3.9 seconds, Tony thought somewhat hysterically, shifting back and forth on his feet while he watched Steve’s eyes dart to Tony and then over his shoulder towards the garage.  Steve cleared his throat, drawing Tony’s attention, then nodded his head a fraction towards where Jarvis was standing. 

Oh. Right.  Manners, Tony chided himself, shaking his head to clear the momentary reverie. He probably should have actually read some of those etiquette books his mom bought him instead of using them as the bases for his wheeled trebuchets during a particularly exhaustive round of Storm the Castle.  The irony had been beautiful, though.

“Ah, Steve, this--this is Jarvis.  Edwin Jarvis.  He’s my—was my, well, my parents’ butler, really, but, ah.  Jarvis.  Jarvis, this is Captain Steve Rogers, my Alpha,” Tony said with as much formality as he could muster. 

 “Mr. Jarvis,” Steve repeated, extending the hand that wasn’t holding the bag of food.  “I’m honored to meet you, Sir.  Tony’s told me a lot about you.”

That wasn’t exactly true, but Tony didn’t bother to correct him.   Now, watching Jarvis shake Steve’s hand, Tony wondered why he hadn’t told Steve more about how much Jarvis meant to him.  Probably because copping to that meant acknowledging why he didn’t want to visit his parents, despite Steve’s repeated offers, and that seemed more of an admission about himself than Tony wanted to make.  Hey, Steve, my parents kind of hate me, but the guy we paid is super-nice!  Yeah, no. 

“Same to you, Captain,” Jarvis replied formally. 

“Steve, please,” Steve corrected with a quick smile.  “How about we go inside, and I’ll get lunch set up?” Steve suggested, hefting the bag. 

“Yeah, that’d be—ah, let me just.  I’m going to—“ Tony stammered, hooking a hand behind his head and twisting around to look back into the open garage, where the Audi glinted in the sun.  “I’m—the—ah.  My mug. I’m going to grab it.  It--my coffee mug.  Because, I like it.  The mug.  The one you brought me?  It’s in the garage, so I’ll just...I’ve been using it.  The car, too.  Wait.  No.”

“You don’t like the car?” Steve asked, canting his head back with a frown of surprised confusion.

“What?  No, no, I—the car’s great,” Tony corrected quickly.  Too quickly. “Really,” Tony assured him as Steve’s brows drew together.  “I meant that I haven’t been using it.  The car.  Not the mug.  I use the mug.”  I apparently don’t use words all that often, Tony thought to himself in frustration, sucking in a gulp of air. 

“Oh. Oh, good, then,” Steve responded carefully, keeping his eyes on Tony.  “I’m glad you like it. The mug. And the car, of course.”  Tony could feel bright spots of heat welling up on his cheeks.  Why did he always manage to sound like he should be buying a vowel when Steve was around?  Probably because you’ve been spending your nights thinking about how nice it would be to find yourself bent over the hood of the apology-Audi, Tony’s Id suggested helpfully.

“Dum-E and U like the poster, too,” Tony added.  “Can robots develop crushes? Is this like robot porn?  Am I contributing to the delinquency of a ‘bot?  They should put that on the Turing test.  Be more interesting than ‘Tell me about your hair,’ at least, though, I suppose, if you were an A.I.—“

“I know it’s kind of silly.  The mug,” Steve said, bringing Tony’s rambling to a halt.  The small, soft smile that made the corners of Steve’s eyes gather was back, making Tony’s heart skip a beat and his stomach churn with something that felt almost like anticipation.  “I saw it, and I thought about what you said a few weeks ago, about the black holes your telescope found maybe being dark matter.  I said maybe the lens was dirty, and you spent two hours explaining the coalescence of primordial black holes, before telling me that if I wanted a comedy about matter and black holes, we could just watch the Star Trek reboot.”

“In my defense, ‘red matter’? That creates black holes and makes time travel possible? Why not just call it Whatever the Plot Needs Matter?  Honestly,” Tony snorted, tossing his hands in the air. 

“Do you still want me to write this Abrams person a letter?” Steve asked. 

“Yes, but, now, addendum. Starkiller base?  Look, I’m just saying, if you consider the mass of that thing post-suck and the effect of angular momentum on rotation, it would basically just fling people off the surface,” Tony pointed out.  “Not to mention that the waste heat from the Starkiller’s stellar mass to energy conversion is enough to raise the temperature of the atmosphere of the First Order’s megaweapon to nearly 300 million degrees.  I think a strongly worded letter is frankly in order.”

“You really liked the mug, huh?” Steve asked.

“I love the mug.  Can’t believe you…thought about…about that. While you were away. The conversation, I mean,” Tony mumbled.  “You didn’t have to.  But, you know. It’s nice.  That you did.”

“Of course, I thought about…that,” Steve replied.

“Oh, good Lord,” Jarvis huffed under his breath, rolling his eyes.   “Captain—Steve—may I be of assistance with lunch preparations while Tony obtains his mug?”

“Thank you, Mr. Jarvis, that would be much appreciated,” Steve replied.

“I’ll just—“ Tony pointed behind him.  He darted a quick glance to Steve, who gave him a nod, and turned to rush back into the garage. 

By the time Tony rinsed his mug out and made it back to the cabin, Steve and Jarvis were unpacking the containers of food and spreading out various cold pastas, salads, meats and cheeses on platters.  Tony stood in the doorway with one hand on the doorknob behind him and one hand clutching his coffee mug, watching Steve and Jarvis work companionably to prepare lunch.  They had their sleeves rolled up, and Jarvis had a dish towel tossed over one shoulder.  Steve was chopping up a cache of lemons for lemonade.  He would add way too much sugar, Tony thought to himself, because Steve knew Tony liked it sweet. 

A rush of memory hit him, clutching at his chest with a sharp pang.  How many times had he watched Jarvis in the kitchen, performing all those simple, unhurried tasks that meant home?  It had smelled of lemons there, too.  Always.  Underneath whatever the meal of the day might be, there had always been the scent of lemons.  It was the cleaner Jarvis used, Tony knew, but he had always liked it.  He could almost feel the stool twirling a bit underneath him while Jarvis polished the silver.  It squeaked a bit with each twist, but it had been an oddly pleasing sound when he was a child.  He hadn’t been able to keep still, even in there, though Jarvis hadn’t minded, he recalled with a small smile. 

If you keep that up, you’ll spin yourself into orbit.  Come on, make yourself useful.  You can measure out our ingredients. We’re making…let’s see, why, we’re making Draught of Living Death today!

It’s goulash, Jarvis.  Mom already said.

If you knew my Great Aunt Millicent’s goulash recipe, you wouldn’t be quite so confident of your assumptions.

“Hand me your mug, and I’ll wash it out,” Steve offered over his shoulder.

“Already did.  Wasn’t actually going to have coffee,” Tony said, somewhat chagrined.  “Don’t know why I…”

“It’ll drink lemonade just as well,” Steve said, giving Tony a quick, almost furtive look.  “Grab me one outta the cabinet, will ya?”

“You’re weird,” Tony replied, shaking his head and walking over to hand Steve his mug.  He opened the cabinet by the refrigerator and pulled out a mug for Steve and an actual glass for Jarvis. 

Lunch, Tony thought, was a roaring success.  Sure, Steve had given Tony something of a dubious look over the mug Tony picked out for him, though, to be fair, the Captain America mug was maybe a little childish.  He thought Steve might balk, but Steve had gamely poured his lemonade into it without a word. 

“You were, what?  Seven, I think it was,” Jarvis reminisced, leaning back in his seat as he dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin.  “Yes, about that.  Tiny thing.  All eyes and hair, if you can imagine it.  Let’s see…my digital clock, the automatic coffee maker, that talking teddy bear, which was absolutely gutted, poor thing.  His mother’s CD player, the computer…”

“I needed the mother board,” Tony interjected with a shrug, reaching for another scoop of fruit salad.

“The remote-controlled helicopter your father brought back from his trade show,” Jarvis recalled.

“Motor,” Tony explained. 

“All to create this amazing little creature that walked around and would stop and turn on command,” Jarvis finished. 

“My first ‘bot,” Tony proclaimed, digging his fork into the potato salad.

“Did you get a chance to meet Dum-E and U?” Steve asked.  “They’re incredible.  Like something out of one of those B movies.  The Green Hornet.  Undersea Kingdom.  The Phantom Creeps…”

“The Phantom Creeps?  Was that George Lucas?” Tony said with a small laugh. 

“Ford Beebe. He did Buck Rogers, too.  And Flash Gordon.  Phantom Creeps had Bela Lugosi as Doctor Zorka,” Steve replied.  “He built this remote-controlled robot, the Iron Man. God, that thing scared the life outta me when I was a kid.  Eight feet tall, all metal, and it just sort of walked around with this big, bald head and all these teeth,” Steve said, shaking his head while his fork dangled from one hand with a spear of pasta on one end. 

“Bela Lugosi?  Buck Rogers? Seriously?  Excuse him, Jarvis. Steve’s cultural upbringing is something of a work in progress,” Tony explained.  “He’d never even seen Star Wars before he met me.”

“And now, I’ve seen all of them, except the Holiday Special, which you insist does not exist, despite what the Internet says,” Steve said drolly.  “Tony’s been getting me caught up to speed on some things that I…sort of missed over the years.”

“U would probably spray your creepy robot stalker.  Or not, depending on the day,” Tony replied, tapping a finger at his lip.  “Dum-E could, you know, drop things.  Make him trip or something.   Like Home Alone, if Kevin MacAllister had all the strategic savvy of monkeys flinging poo.  Anyway, if you want scary automatons, we could just watch the Kardashians.  I could weaponize them.  The ‘bots, not the Kardashians. Though, come to think…”

“Did Tony tell you he’s going to be doing some work for SHIELD,” Steve told Jarvis, sounding, if Tony wasn’t mistaken, somewhat proud of the idea. Though, that made sense, given Steve’s interest in expanding the company, Tony supposed, but it still made a warm pleasure fill his chest and stomach.

“Indeed, he did,” Jarvis replied, leaning towards Tony.  “Sounds exciting!  You always did want to do more with your father’s work, despite his…lack of reception to the idea,” Jarvis said, turning to Tony.

“Drones,” Tony said around a mouthful of pasta.  “They’re going to be great.  The ones they have use these reflective panels for cloaking.  Which, interestingly, could work on a much larger scale, at least to normal human vision below a certain elevation.  And a missile. Maybe.  We’ll see.”

“Fascinating, to be sure,” Jarvis said.  “I’m glad you have something more to your liking to occupy your time up here. I must admit, I wondered. Rustic is not exactly a concept I normally associate with Tony, and yet, here you are. Roughing it, so to speak.”

“I know the place isn’t much,” Steve began, mouth flattening into a thin line.

“The cabin’s great. Really. It is,” Tony broke in over whatever else it was Steve was going to say.  “There’s a little pond with fish we don’t catch.  Steve likes to show them his collection of hooks, though, which I think is nice of him.  Gives them a bit of excitement.  Something to look forward to, with all that just swimming around, not being caught,” Tony continued with a nod.   Steve rolled his eyes heavenward and the corners of his mouth ticked up in a half-smile as he leaned back in his seat.  “I have my garage, with the ‘bots and all the stuff from Professor Thorne at Caltech—you saw the printouts, J, come on! All that data, and no one understands half of it. We’re just guessing. Educated guessing, but, it’s like cutting edge stuff! And Steve draws.  Or paints, sometimes, but not as much now.  Which is actually a good thing, but, ah.  Anyway, there’s a great view at night for my telescope.  It’s…nice.  The cabin, I mean.  I like it.  Here.  With the—in the cabin.”

“I did not mean to disparage…the cabin, Tony. Merely that I was surprised you found…the cabin…so to your liking,” Jarvis said softly, quirking an eyebrow at Tony. “I assure you, I am quite glad that you have found something here that perhaps you were not expecting.”

“I—yes. I’m glad, too,” Tony stammered, frowning down at his mug of lemonade.

“I always rather enjoyed the classic movies, myself, Captain,” Jarvis said smoothly.  “Hitchcock’s works, of course.  The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Rope.  The Letter.  All those old noirs, you know? Arsenic and Old Lace was a particular favorite,” Jarvis added, glancing at Tony, who found himself choking on a bite of Waldorf salad and reaching for his mug of lemonade as he remembered his conversation with Jarvis before his meeting with Steve.

“Capra,” Steve chimed in.  “One of his better ones.”

“You’re a Capra aficionado?” Jarvis asked.

“Not so much his later stuff, no,” Steve admitted, casting a quick glance down at the table. Tony followed his gaze to the Cap mug, still nearly full of too-sweet lemonade.  “But, I am familiar with his earlier work.”

“That’s right…I almost forgot about that!” Tony burst out excitedly.  “Capra did a bunch of those wartime propaganda films with Captain America!  Remember those, J?  Why We Fight and all that? They were on that commemorative DVD of Dad’s.”

“I remember having to watch that DVD over and over until I felt the nearly overwhelming urge to buy war bonds myself,” Jarvis replied.  “I think Tony had the entire thing memorized.  I found him acting out scenes with one of our garbage bin lids.”

“That…ah, that so?” Steve asked, punctuating each word with a sort of strained tone that pulled at the vowels.  He looked across the table at Tony with something that might have been mere curiosity, but felt different, more…possessive, Tony’s mind settled on with a small shiver that raced down his spine and coiled warmth low in his belly.

 “You think that was the real guy or just some poor schmuck the government found to do the dog-and-pony circuit?” Tony asked, trying to break whatever tension was slowly squeezing the air out of his lungs.

“Maybe he was both,” Steve said, then huffed out an odd, little laugh.  “Garbage can, lid, huh?  You’re something else, Tony.”

“I was seven.  Cut me some slack,” Tony said with a light eye roll and shake of his head, tearing his eyes away from Steve’s, feeling his cheeks warm. 

“I wasn’t…” Steve began, then dropped his gaze down to his plate.  “I got in a fight one time.  Alley, behind this movie theater.  Big lug of a guy. Way bigger than I probably shoulda messed with, but that wasn’t anything new.  Remember how I told you I was sick as a kid?  Well, scrawny, too.  Ninety pounds soaking wet.  I was pretty well getting clobbered, but I grabbed this garbage can lid, held it up like a shield.  Thought the guy was going to laugh himself into a stupor.”

“How’d you get out of it?” Tony asked, trying to picture Steve without the pact-with-the-devil-body.

“My friend...the one I told you about?” Steve began carefully, waiting for Tony’s nod of understanding.  “He chased the guy off.  I still ended up with a fat lip, though. Not my finest moment,” Steve finished with an embarrassed twist of his mouth.

Tony grinned, trying to picture it, but he couldn’t quite get the imagine of a much smaller Steve to work in his head. 

“Well, you’re an Alpha, so…me…me, an Omega, playing like Captain America. That’s pretty ridiculous, I know,” Tony said, casting a furtive glance to Jarvis.  “I stopped.  I mean, obviously, I stopped.  That was years ago.  But, I…it was just that one time.  Wasn’t like I was running around, pretending to be a hero or something.”

“Tony’s father was rather unhappy with his behavior,” Jarvis remarked in a measured tone, almost casually, if you didn’t know Jarvis.  “As he often was.  He felt it was inappropriate for an Omega.  No doubt, he would feel such things as the car you have provided and Tony’s current…activities with SHIELD and Caltech are inappropriate for an Omega, as well.  Many would agree with him.”

“Good thing those people aren’t the ones making decisions for Tony, then,” Steve said sharply, eyes narrowing to a hard line of crisp, bright blue. 

“Because you think differently,” Jarvis replied evenly.  “Than those people.”

“Mr. Jarvis,” Steve began, leaning forward in his seat.  Tony realized he was holding a lump of cold potato salad on the end of his fork, hovering between his plate and his mouth, and slowly let his hand fall back down to the table.  “Have you ever tried making decisions for Tony?”

“Not with a very great deal of success, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis admitted.  Tony could hear the undercurrent of a smile in his voice, but only because he’d known Jarvis for so long, because the words themselves were steel.  “I ask because, as you have, perhaps, ascertained, for people who care about Tony’s well-being, as I do, understanding how special Tony is requires a bit more than giving the golden goose a happy, little nest, you see.”

“Jarvis—“ Tony started.

“I’m not sure what you’re implying, Mr. Jarvis, but I understand how special Tony is just fine,” Steve said, a muscle flicking in his jaw. 

“Thanks.  See?  He gets it.  He does. We’re good.  We’re fine.  Everything’s fine, Jarvis, can you please not, you know…”  Tony rasped out, widening his eyes at Jarvis for emphasis. 

“Do you?” Jarvis pressed, ignoring Tony’s interjection. 

“Mr. Jarvis is just trying to look out for you, Tony,” Steve said gruffly.  “Sounds like maybe he’s been doing that for a while.”

“I don’t mean to interject myself into your relationship, Captain,” Jarvis assured him.

“Yes, you do,” Steve said with a tired sort of acceptance.  “You should meet Agent Coulson.  I think the two of you would get along.”

“Tony tells me you are a good man, which is high praise, coming from him, I assure you,” Jarvis said.  “I only want what is best for him.”

“Then we want the same thing,” Steve replied, his half-lidded eyes shifting from Jarvis over to Tony. 

“I only want you two to stop talking about me like I’m not sitting.right.here,” Tony ground out, shoving back in his chair so hard the legs scraped against the floor.  “I told you, I’m fine.”

“Good,” Jarvis continued.  His gaze flicked to Tony briefly, then back to Steve, who was regarding Tony with a stoic frown.  “Then you won’t mind my saying that Tony understands very well what it is to live a life seeming to want for nothing, while lacking the very things he needs the most.”

“If there is something you want, Tony, you know you only need to tell me,” Steve said, looking across the table at Tony, who squirmed in his seat under the scrutiny.

“I don’t. I’m fine. Great.  Everything’s great. Ignore him.  He’s just…”  Tony stopped, gaze darting over to Jarvis.  “He worries, okay?  It’s not a big deal.  I’m fine. We’re fine.  You and me.  I mean, I think so.  Aren’t we?”  Tony rattled off, the words jumbling together on his tongue.  “I have my stuff, and you have your…stuff. With SHIELD and…whatever.  All good.  Is there more pasta?” Tony asked, reaching for the bowl while his stomach turned sour at the thought.  It was something to do that wasn’t talking, so tie goes to the pasta. 

Tony scooped two spoonfuls of pasta onto his plate, then stared at it while the silence stretched out between them.  To his right, Jarvis coughed delicately into his napkin.  A moment later, when the quiet had gone for wildly uncomfortable to possibly permanently debilitating, Tony felt one of Jarvis’s loafers stab his shin under the table. 

He looked up at Steve, who was watching him with his head titled to the side, studying, the way Steve sometimes looked at a chess board when he was trying to figure out what move Tony was going to make.  Steve’s gaze roamed over him, leaving a trail of warmth.  As Tony watched, Steve’s eyes dipped down, lingered on the mug for a moment, then found Tony’s again. 

Beautiful, Tony thought to himself, not for the first time by a long shot, but it always seemed to almost catch him by surprise, how beautiful his Alpha was.  All bright colors and contrasts.  The kind of beauty that made heads turn and knees weak, not so rare here in California where everyone was in the business, but Steve had something else.  A kind of charisma.  A spark.  Something that set him apart. A shine, his grandmother would have called it.  Like looking at the sun, Tony thought, blinking rapidly and dropping his gaze to his plate of pasta. 

“I know I’ve been busy lately,” Steve said in a careful, tight tone.  “With SHIELD.  Things have settled down now, though.  Hope you don’t mind me rattling around the cabin with you for a while.”

“Huh? No, no, it’s fine.  Your place, too, right?  Gets kind of quiet, just me and the ‘bots,” Tony admitted quietly, dragging his gaze back to Steve with a small shrug of his shoulders.  He flattened his mouth and tossing a look a Jarvis.  “Be kind of nice.  We could catch up on the Indiana Jones movies.  I promise not to nitpick the nuke the fridge scene.  Well, okay, maybe a bit, because a tower drop like that, you’re talking anywhere from ten to forty-four kilotons, and just basic impulse calculations, you’re talking a force of over two million Newtons on that fridge…which is…not important right now.  Anyway, if you wanted.  We could. I’ve missed…” youAlphaStevepleasestaystaystay “…movie night.”

“I’ve missed movie night, too,” Steve replied in a thick, strangled voice that sounded almost sad, though Steve was offering him one of those soft half-smiles that made Tony’s stomach decide to twerk.

“See, Jarvis?  Everything’s good,” Tony said with a quick, emphatic shake of his head.  “We’re good. Fine.  It’s fine,” Tony added with urgent emphasis.

“Yes, well, I am relieved to hear my concerns are unwarranted,” Jarvis replied smoothly, trading a glance with Steve, whose jaw tightened for a moment, then relaxed.  “Why don’t I make us a pot of coffee, while the two of you take that new car of yours out for a test drive?”  Jarvis suggested. 

“Want to?” Tony asked Steve, cocking his brow in challenge.  “Promise, I’ll stay ten miles under the speed limit at all times.”

That, as it turned out, was a big, fat lie. 

Tony quickly figured out that the only thing better than driving was driving fast.  The Audi hugged the curves and zoomed down the freeway like it was made to fly, the engine snarling as they accelerated.  To Steve’s credit, he only attempted to Fred Flintstone-brake a couple of times, Tony noticed, surreptitiously watching Steve grind his foot into the floorboard when he didn’t think Tony applied the brake quite fast enough. 

“Thanks. Again.  For the car, I mean,” Tony said, trying to keep his voice neutral as he maneuvered from the ramp onto the freeway Frogger-style as Steve sucked in a breath and pursed his lips, probably wishing for some pearls to clutch.  “And the license thing.  You didn’t have to.”

“You wanted it,” Steve replied, looking out the tinted window where the lights of passing cars elongated to streaks of red and white.  Tony wasn’t sure if Steve was talking about the car or the license, but he supposed it didn’t much matter. 

He had wanted it, in some abstract way.  Not in any real sense of want where there was the expectation of every having, which, yeah, it wasn’t like he didn’t see the metaphor there, Tony thought, glancing over at Steve.  He had wanted to drive.  A car was a pipe dream, but did he want it?  Desperately.  Just…not like this, Tony thought, keeping his eyes on the road.  He hadn’t realized it was going to be an exchange.  One he very much didn’t want to make. 

Take the car. Take the car, Tony, and don’t check under the hood, because there’s a basket full of crazy if you go down that path, he told himself with as much firmness as he could muster.  There are a thousand or more Omegas who would gladly not look their 570 horsepower of guilt in the proverbial mouth.

Steve was a healthy, adult Alpha.  What did Tony really expect?  Celibacy? No.  No, but…if he was honest, he hadn’t expected Steve to take his suggestion as some kind of time-challenge event.  Didn’t take him long to find someone he enjoyed enough to feel badly about poor Tony, stuck at home with his robots and his numbers, Tony thought with an inward snort of derision.  He flexed his fingers over the curve of the wheel and stared steadfastly ahead.  The car was great.  He loved it. He did.   It was great.

Everything was fine.

“Everything go okay?  On your mission, I mean,” Tony asked, aiming for a conversational tone and landing somewhere around buying a copy of Catcher in the Rye levels of paranoia.  Lie to me, Tony thought to himself as the Audi drifted between an SUV sporting stickers on the rear window announcing their brood like an accomplishment and a dry-cleaning delivery truck that promised same day shirts for two-ninety-nine.  It wasn’t a mission that had kept Steve away this long, and Tony supposed he knew that, but denial wasn’t just a river in Egypt and all that.

“Fine,” Steve said noncommittally.  He was looking down at his hands, sitting atop his thighs, fingers splayed like they were waiting for permission to move.  Tony’s grip on the wheel tightened, and next to him, he saw Steve’s posture stiffen out of the corner of his eye where the dim evening light and glow of the dash cast a grayish-blue pallor over his skin.  Sick when he was young, Tony recalled, trying to see it in his head, a toe-headed young Steve with fever-red cheeks and bright, watery eyes.  

My mom, she took care of me.  Let me take care of you. 

Taking care of you is quiet.  

What did that even mean?  What was so loud in Steve’s head that he needed this to find quiet in taking care of Tony?  The car, dishsoap, his garage, a visit from his butler.  Tony supposed that was all somehow wrapped up together in Steve’s mind, filed under Taking Care of Tony, Vol. 1. 

He thought of the way math offered a refuge for him, how the path of numbers across the sky ordered the world when it seemed nothing else would, how equations gave him answers when he couldn’t find any.   There was a calmness in the predictability of numbers.  The certainty that it could be explained.  Why taking care of Tony could provide anything similar for Steve made no sense.

I can build the company into what Steve wants, Tony thought, watching brake lights appear up ahead.  I can make things that keep him safe.  He’ll come back to me, and he’ll be happy, and that’s almost like me being happy.   When he’s happy.  When he looks at me with his head tilted just so, eyes soft and shuttered, a slow smile pulling at his lips. When he’s happy with me, it’s so close to being happy, too, I can pretend it’s the same thing.  Maybe one day, it will be.  But that…wasn’t the same for Steve.  Obviously.  Obviously, it would be different for Steve, Tony told himself, rubbing his thumb across the smooth leather of the steering wheel.

Taking care of you is quiet.

 “That’s good.  Glad to hear it,” Tony remarked, sucking in a breath and meaning precisely the opposite.  “Long mission,” Tony said without meaning to, then winced in self-flagellation as the words left his mouth.

“Iraq,” Steve said after a moment, glancing over at Tony with a long, slow blink. 

“Oh.  That’s. I’m just.  I’m, like I said, I’m glad you’re back, is all,” Tony added, flexing his fingers across the wheel.

“I’m glad I’m back, too.  I missed you, Tony,” Steve said, looking out the window. It was dark enough that Tony could catch Steve’s reflection in the glass.  A slight frown.   Brow pulled together.  Tense.  But, when he actually turned to look at Tony, that all seemed to melt away, making Tony’s breath catch in his throat with a click before he plastered his eyes back to the road.  Quiet, Tony thought, wondering again what that meant to Steve.

“Take 18,” Steve said, nodding at the green highway signs.  “There are some nice views.  You’ll like it.”

Tony nodded and maneuvered the Audi towards State Route 18, which lauded itself as scenic. 

“There,” Steve said after about twenty minutes of pretending to be interested in the mountain vistas that stretched out into dark swaths beneath them. 

“Where?” Tony asked, seeing nothing but road and night in front of them.

“Right up ahead,” Steve replied.  

Tony hunched forward over the steering wheel and squinted until he caught the glint of a metal railing in the Audi’s headlights.  He pulled off into one of the five parking spaces lined with barely-there yellow paint.  A sign next to the brown and yellow state forest marker warned them to beware of falling rocks.  A smaller sign nailed to the railing in front of the car’s hood told them not to sit on it or lean.  Charming, Tony thought.  If you’re a forest ranger.  Or a serial killer.

Tony turned off the engine and glanced over at Steve, who sat still for a moment, like he was girding himself for something, then he reached for the car door.  A blast of chilled, evening wind, damp from the plump clouds that hovered near the tops of the mountains, hit Tony in the face as Steve climbed out of the Audi and slammed the door behind him.

Steve walked the few steps to stand by the railing, head tilted back.  Above him, gray clumps of rain-heavy clouds drifted past the stars, blocking the light and giving the night the thickness of weight, like some great, visceral thing wrapping itself around them, making him seem smaller somehow.   Tony flicked the car’s low beams on, the lines of light cutting through the darkness until they, too, were swallowed by it, then sighed, long and low, and pushed open the driver’s door.  It was cooler than he expected, but he hadn’t exactly dressed for number three on the Unibomber’s top ten date night suggestions.

“So, this is what a mountain view looks like,” Tony said sarcastically as he walked up to stand slightly behind Steve, who seemed uninterested in obeying the spirit of sign number two and was way too close to the railing for Tony’s comfort.  “Seems a bit off the tourist route,” Tony observed, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking from one side to the other. “Kinda nice, though.  Quiet.  In a…completely different way than the place we live is quiet.”

“When I was a kid, I was alone a lot,” Steve began, staring out at the deepening night. “Ma had to work.  I was too sick to be in school.  Bu—my friend.  He’d come by when he could.  After school or work.  We’d play checkers with bottle caps he found down by the corner store.  Yellows, oranges, greens and whites, those went with the reds.  Purple, blue, silver, those went with the blacks.  I don’t know why.  Cream sodas.  Those had the most colors.  Cards, sometimes.  His deck was missing a couple, but we made up our own rules,” Steve said, mouth tight, then suddenly relaxing into a smile.  “We did that a lot. Made up our own rules.  He’d tell you it was me, dragging him into…whatever it was I got myself into.  He always followed me, though.  Always,” Steve said with a shake of his head.  He dropped his chin to his chest and looked over at Tony.  “I don’t know why.  Guess he felt responsible or—I don’t know.”

“How…how did he die?” Tony asked carefully.  He toed at the flecks of gravel under his shoe and watched the sand and dust float through the car’s headlights.  “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t…it isn’t my business.  You don’t have to talk about it.”

“He fell,” Steve said quietly, turning back towards the view.  “We were in the mountains.  A bit like this, come to think.  It was colder, at least then.  Beautiful, though.  Like something out of a Christmas card.  I remember thinking that I wanted to paint it.  I still do, sometimes.  Start trying to paint it.  But I—“ Steve stopped and dipped his chin to his chest.  “He fell.  He fell, and I didn’t catch him.  Wasn’t fast enough.  That wasn’t supposed to be happen.  Not anymore.  Me not being fast enough, I mean.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Tony cut in, instantly sure of that, if nothing else.  “It wasn’t, Steve,” Tony insisted when Steve didn’t respond.  “Look, I know that I didn’t know him or about what happened, but…if he was your friend, like you say he was, he wouldn’t want you to think that.  I don’t think,” Tony said around a swallow.  “Is that why you came to the mountains?  Because of…what happened?”

“You think I’m punishing myself?” Steve asked tersely. Tony couldn’t see his face, but he could hear the quiet acceptance underneath Steve’s tone. 

“Like with the running water,” Tony continued with a frown.  “You don’t like running water, but you decide to live in a cabin by a stream.  The mountains make you think of your friend, but here you are.  And…and SHIELD.  You don’t like it.  You don’t like what you’re doing, these missions.  You don’t trust it, the whole spy thing, but you do it because—because of—something,” Tony finished lamely, the tail end of an idea flitting off before he could catch it.

“You’re too smart for your own good sometimes, Tony,” Steve husked out, back ramrod straight.  In the car’s headlights, Tony could see a muscle ticking in Steve’s check like a warning.  Canary in a coal mine, Tony thought, ignoring it.

“Which means I’m right, but you don’t like hearing it,” Tony pointed out.  Steve let out a rush of air that might have been a laugh or a sigh, Tony wasn’t sure, and ran a hand through his hair before shoving both of them in his pockets. 

“I thought you’d like the view up here,” Steve said, lifting his gaze back to the sky.  “I thought you’d like the car, too.”

“I do like the car,” Tony protested.  “I love the car.  Who wouldn’t?  It’s amazing.”

“Tony,” Steve said in an exasperated tone that set Tony’s nerves on edge.

“Steve,” Tony retorted back in as close an approximation to Steve’s tone as he could muster.  “The car’s great.  Can you drop it?”

“Why don’t you like the car?  Is it the wrong one?  The wrong color or—“ Steve began, his frown deepening.

 “The car’s perfect. Everything’s perfect. Your…mission, whatever.  I’m sure that was perfect, too,” Tony shot back.  He could practically taste the bitterness on his tongue, a dark, metallic tang. “Was it?  Was it perfect? Was it what you wan—“ Tony broke off, shoving the heel of his hand into his forehead and twisting away.  “Forget it.  I don’t know what I’m saying.”

“Tony, what are you talking about?” Steve asked, cocking his head to the side as he watched Tony with a confused frown.  It was one thing to be given a Guiltmobile because his Alpha felt bad about fucking around.  But the honest confusion on Steve’s face was just too God-damned much.  Anger fired through his veins, stretching his skin over his bones like he didn’t fit on himself anymore, like he could peel it off and show Steve there was a living, breathing, beating heart underneath.

“It’s---alright, fine.  Fine.  My mom has the Mercedes version of it, you know.  Guilt is a really expensive habit, fair warning.  But, you know, whatever.  It’s good.  I love it.  Really,” Tony spat out in a near-shout.  “You don’t have to.  Just.  There’s that. You don’t have to.  I’d rather…if you do stuff like this, then I have to know, okay?  I can’t…look the other way.  Its sitting in my garage, and I have to know, and I don’t—I don’t want to know, okay?  I get it.  It’s fine.  It’s—its fine.  I told you, it’s fine for you to…do what you need to do.  Just.  I don’t need to know, okay?” Tony said, the last of it coming out like a plea, the anger leaving him so fast he half expected to simply crumple to the ground, like it had been the only thing animating him.

He wrapped his arms around himself and rubbed up and down.  It wasn’t all that cold here, but he felt cold, like the warmth was seeping out through the pores of his skin.  His eyes caught on the toe of his shoe.  There was a drop of dark oil there. Motor oil, his mind supplied.  One shoelace was half undone.  It was honestly that lace dangling in the dust and gravel by the side of the road next to his guilt-gift of a car that came the closest to making him want to assume the crash position and simply check the fuck out.  It wasn’t tempting, so much as the only option for that fraction of a second.  There was ‘pull chord’ or he was going to face plant in the dirt at Steve’s feet, and no other choice seemed to exist.  Then the moment was gone, and it was just a lace, and he was just an idiot again.  

He comes home to me, Tony told himself.  To me.

It’s fine.

“You don’t need to kno—oh,” Steve said, cutting himself off abruptly and staring at Tony.  “It was a long mission, Tony.  That’s all it was.”

“What?” Tony snapped, his eyes snapping up to Steve’s. 

“The mission.  Iraq.  That’s why I was away.  There were hostages.  It got complicated.  That’s it.  I wasn’t…it was just a mission,” Steve said in a quiet, firm voice.  “Nothing else.  No one else.  Just a mission.”

“Oh.  That’s—I mean.  Okay.  That’s—that’s okay,” Tony stammered, suddenly out of breath, nerves shaking with a flood of relief he hadn’t been prepared to feel.  His head was swimming, and the thing that he hadn’t even realized had been coiled around his heart loosened and shrank, letting it skip along at an alarming rate.  “That’s. I mean, that’s good.  Right?  That’s good.  You’re back, so.  Must have—must have gone well, I guess?  Don’t worry.  About the car, I mean.  It’s—I’m just.  I’m—it—it’s great, really.  Forget I said…what I said.  Car’s great.  Really.  I was just—“

“Pissed off,” Steve supplied, voice rising in question. 

“No,” Tony said immediately.  “A little.  Maybe. Yes,” he amended with a sharp intake of breath.  Fuck. Why couldn’t he shut the hell up?  “Look, I know that isn’t fair or reasonable or—I shouldn’t feel that way, I get it, I do.  But I thought you were---you know,” Tony rushed out, waving a hand in the air in front of him.  “Which I told you.  Is fine.  If that’s what you, you know.  Want. Whatever.  Up to you.  But, you didn’t, so.  That’s…it just…it was kind of.  The car,” Tony said, gulping down a swallow of air that turned out to be too much and made his voice thin, like it was stretched out like candy floss.  “The car was right there.  All the time. And I—forget it.  I don’t what I’m.  You were on a mission, it went long.  Forget I said anything.”

“The car, it wasn’t a—what did you call it?  Guilt?  It wasn’t that,” Steve said. 

“I know. I know, you said that. So. So, no worries, right?” Tony replied, blinking into the fluorescent halo of light around Steve.  “I’m just—I’m being—It’s stupid, alright?  Forget it, okay? Forget it.”

“Tony,” Steve began, turning from the railing so he faced Tony. 

“Why’d you even pick me anyway?  You like—you like taking care of me?  What does that even mean?  Could’ve gotten a dog, you know.  Lot less trouble,” Tony snapped brusquely.  “This—this—me…am I part of your whole punish-yourself routine?  Is that it? Get an Omega who can’t even fucking deal with—with…with what.  You know.  Happens.  Reality.  All that.  Should’ve dug a little deeper than a picture and a few financials before you signed on, I guess.  Should’ve—should’ve maybe thought this through.  A bit more.  I mean, the car, though.  Car’s--” Tony said, tossing a hand wide towards where the Audi sat a few feet away.  “Car’s great.  Thanks.  Really. Everything’s…everything’s just great,” he grimaced in a rictus of a smile.  “What kind of an ungrateful asshole would I be if I maybe wanted to, I don’t know, watch the damn thing plummet off a cliff or something?”

Tony waited, body going rigid, for the inevitable explosion.  Steve was staring at him, the wind brushing his hair over his forehead, but otherwise, he was almost preternaturally still.  Then, his face softened, and his mouth quirked up at the corners, lips flattening like he was trying to hold in a smile.  Which…was annoying, Tony decided.  He was pissed, and Steve was…laughing at him, which might be the only thing worse than yelling at him.  God-damn California DOT and their unkept promises.  Where was a fucking falling rock when you needed one?  He wasn’t sure if he wanted it to put him out of his misery or if he preferred to brain Steve with it. 

“I like how you talk,” Steve replied, drawing Tony’s surprised gaze to his.

“Rogers, party of one,” Tony sang out, holding up a single finger to the wind and cocking his head to one side. 

“You’re jealous,” Steve observed mildly. 

“Am not,” Tony snorted, head drawing back in shocked rebuke at the suggestion.

“You are,” Steve grinned. 

“I am not,” Tony insisted again.  “I just…find that the idea of you, perhaps, feeling guilty over…actions.  You may have taken.  Or might take.  Whatever.  Makes me want to…” Tony trailed over, wagging his head from side to side.  “Destroy symbolic property in a pit of fiery metal carnage?” he finished with a frown.

“You told me I should find someone on the side.  That night after the gala.  In the limo.  You told me that, Tony,” Steve reminded him, though he didn’t sound particularly off-put by it.

“Well, I also told you those two plaid shirts I let you keep weren’t really that bad.  Why are you even listening to me?” Tony demanded, throwing his hands up in the air.  “I thought.  I thought—maybe you wanted that. So.”

“Easier to offer it than to have it forced on you,” Steve suggested softly, with a slow nod.  “That way, it feels more like a choice, even when it isn’t.”

Tony looked at Steve, then dropped his eyes, watching the motes dance in the car headlights, round and round, tripping over air currents that he couldn’t even feel. 

“I do like the car.  I do.  Really,” Tony responded dully. 

“You’re not a punishment, Tony.  Not even close,” Steve replied.  “You’re…I don’t know.  I don’t know what you are.”

“Great. Thanks.  Good to know,” Tony said flatly. 

“But, I looked at your picture.  You were—even then, God.  You were fighting this unwinnable fight.  Everyone was making all these decisions for you, about who you were supposed to be, and you were trying so hard to hang on to what you could be, and then I met you, and I…” Steve broke off, looked Tony up and down once, ground his jaw together and glanced away. 

“You what?” Tony pressed.

“I didn’t think I’d like it,” Steve said in low, thrumming voice that set Tony’s teeth on edge and made something jerk just below his navel, pulling at his neck like it was connected by a string.  The urge to bow his head, expose his neck, offer something, himself, whatever it was, was nearly overpowering.  He blinked and waited for it to pass, but it hung there, a warm, spreading fullness in his gut.  Pressure, pressure, pushing down, making him want, though, what, exactly, he wanted was shadows on a wall, moving too fast for him to see. 

“Didn’t think you’d like what?” Tony heard himself ask.  His voice sounded strange, garbled, the words floating away on the wind like they were in those little cartoon text bubbles.

“If I didn’t have you,” Steve replied, eyes narrowing just slightly as he watched Tony, the car’s headlights casting an eerie glow between them, making the air seem thick and gauzy. Tony wanted to say something, to fill the space between them that somehow seemed off, tilted like it was about to spin with the slightest push, but the words were stuck in his throat.

 “If you belonged to someone else…I didn’t think I’d like that,” Steve said in that same deep, vibrating tone.  The words wisped over Tony’s skin like fire.  It felt like he could feel his nerve endings stretching out and reaching for the bottom of his skin.  His whole body lit up with heat, his skin was too tight, he couldn’t breathe.

“Oh,” Tony gasped, a long, slow breath of a word. 

Steve was watching him, considering, like he was one of those drawings that could be two things at once and Steve was trying to puzzle out if he was the old crone or the young lady.  Something seemed to click into place for him, though Tony didn’t know what or even how he knew, except Steve’s eyes gleamed and his posture relaxed. 

Steve pulled his hands from his pockets and turned to the railing again, leaning forward enough to make Tony want to remind him what the sign said.  Then, he pivoted on his heels and walked around the opposite side of the car.  Tony had time to wonder if he was getting something out of the trunk before there was as a loud crunching sound that made him immediately think ‘Rocks!’ and hunch over, one hand going to cover his head because that was going to be the difference in an avalanche, sure. This incongruous sound was overlapped by the squeal of metal, the sharp, splintering crash of shattering glass and a roar that sounded like thunder, if thunder arrived on a train. Tony’s eyes and ears were processing input that his brain summarily rejected because none of it made any sense. 

The car.

The car wasn’t there.

The car wasn’t there anymore.

There was a space where the car had been, but the car wasn’t there anymore. 

There was a space where the car had been, but the car wasn’t there anymore and Steve was walking up next to what was left of the railing, where it split into a large, gaping wound, with one side hanging off the edge of the mountain by a thin, twisted metal cable that twirled and banged against the side of the cliff. 

“HOLY FUCKING SHIT!” Tony shouted, everything slamming into him at once.  “What the—“ he gulped, running both hands through his hair and grabbing at the ends, giving them a sharp tug to make sure he was still conscious.  “What the hell did you do?  Holy shit.  Holy shit, Steve.”

“We’ll get you another one,” Steve said calmly, walking over to where Tony was standing. 

“That’s…wildly, and I mean, wild-fucking-ly, MISSING THE GOD-DAMNED POINT, STEVE!” Tony shouted.  “Holy Jesus, holy-fucking-Christ,“ Tony started, moving forward to peer over the edge.  Steve shot out a hand and grabbed onto him, dragging him backwards across the skid marks through the gravel, but not before he caught the shining bumper of the car sticking out from the boughs of an evergreen about a hundred feet below like the world’s most fucked-up Christmas ornament.

“We’ll go together this time.  Pick out one you like,” Steve promised, as if he hadn’t just somehow chucked a quarter million dollars and about a ton and a half over the side of a mountain.  Tony stared at him, mouth working open and closed. 

“Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Steve!  What the---???  We’re going to get arrested. This…this has to be illegal.  Somehow.  Damaging a…a state forest.  Or something.  Fuck.  What the—what the hell were you thinking?” Tony demanded, voice rising in panic.  “How did you even—how?  That’s not possible.  Shit.  Holy shit, Steve.  We’re in so much trouble.  Fuck.  It wasn’t even in neutral.  This isn’t possible.”

“You said you wanted to watch it plummet off a cliff,” Steve said with a degree of nonchalance that Tony felt completely missed the moment. 

“Please,” Tony began, sucking in a shuddering breath.  “Do not ever tell anyone—EVER--that you did this because of me,” Tony begged, sucking in a hiss of air.  “Fuck.  Fuck. Did you…was this…you aren’t serious.  You didn’t.  Because of what I—that was stupid!  I told you!  I was being an idiot, for crying out loud, who does this?  The railing--”

“I’ll call Coulson,” Steve shrugged.  “Probably going to be some paperwork.” 

“Paperwork!  You—“ Tony threw his hands up in the air and spun on his heels, muttering some version of what-the-hell-who-does-this under his breath as he paced back and forth.  “Oh my God.  Oh my God.  Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.  Why are you not panicking????  I could really use at least some sympathy-panic right about now, tell you the truth. Someone else reacting normally would be nice. Comforting in my completely reasonable freakout.”

“It’s fine, Tony,” Steve assured him in such a calm manner that Tony wanted to tug off his shoe and George Bush his ass.

“It’s fine, he says.  Sure.  This is fine.  This is totally fine.  Why would I think this was an appropriate time for our outdoor voices?  God, you’re…you’re…ugh!” Tony shouted, throwing his hands up in the air again and letting them clap to his sides. 

His Alpha was crazy.  Absolutely insane.  The whole thing was insane. The whole damn evening was somewhere two exits past Crazyville.  First, Steve’s all happy Tony’s jealous, which makes no sense.  Then, he’s—he’s what?  Telling Tony that he wouldn’t like it if Tony had ended up with someone else?  Well, join the club, Steve-o.  We have burned omelets and dishsoap. 

And now—fuck. Now, Tony’s car is at the bottom of a cliff because…because he said he wanted the damn thing there.  No. No, that’s not—fuck.  That’s not what happened.  None of this made sense.  It was all too jumbled in his head to parse out, like someone had upended the Scrabble tiles and all that were right-side up were the Zs and Xes.  He couldn’t do anything with what his brain had to work with. 

“Coulson’s on his way,” Steve told him in that same amiable manner. 

“Great. Good.  Can he get us a getaway car?  We can head for the border before the, I don’t know, California Department of Forestry arrives. Why am I picturing a very stern bear in a hat?”  Tony asked, then waved off Steve’s confused expression.  “We could say it was an accident.  Weird things happen.  Maybe the gas pedal got stuck?  Or the throttle got stuck in open position. Which we didn’t notice when we parked and got out.  Sure. It could happen.  The story would honestly sell better if you’d look remotely panicked, though, no worries.  I can do it for both of us,” Tony assured him in a jittery voice, teeth clanking together like they didn’t quite fit in his mouth. 

He was shaking, and his heart was slamming against his ribs.  His muscles felt loose, like they were just hanging on his bones, ready to slough off as soon as he stood still, but mostly he was just annoyed at Steve’s out-of-place calmness.  The more Steve seemed unperturbed by his actions, the more Tony wanted to grab him and shake some of his own panic into Steve.

 “We’ll get you another car,” Steve promised again.  “One you’ll love.”

“I didn’t…” Tony began, then twisted his mouth together.  “I didn’t hate the car.”

“Yes.  You did,” Steve countered, though he sounded almost pleased about it. 

 “God, you have absolutely no chill,” Tony muttered through his teeth.

“So I’ve been told,” Steve admitted with a sharp sigh that definitely carried a laugh in it this time.  “Do you need to sit down?”

“Probably,” Tony admitted, but made no move to do so.  He heard Steve sigh, then felt himself pulled against the solid bulk of Steve’s chest.  One of Steve’s hands was carding through his hair, over and over, in a soothing motion, while the other stayed low on his back.  Tony folded his arms between them and gripped the front of Steve’s shirt with his hands.  The shaking was subsiding as the surge of adrenaline wore off.  It was still all too surreal to really begin to process, Tony decided somewhat hazily as he melted into Steve’s warmth.  His car was at the bottom of a mountain.  It was impossible, sure, but almost seemed like it wasn’t even the most impossible thing that had happened in the last fifteen minutes, so dealing with that could just fuck off until he had time to wrap his head around Steve’s words.

I didn’t think I’d like it.  If I didn’t have you.

“You could’ve just used your words,” Tony protested in a mumble, then turned his head to press his cheek against the center of Steve’s chest and let the words settle around him. 

Maybe it was because Steve wanted the company.  He didn’t want someone else to have the company.  That made sense in Tony’s head, but…that wasn’t what Steve said.  Tony thought about asking.  That’s what Jarvis would want him to do.  He should.  He knew that. Right now, he could just ask, but then he might get an answer he didn’t want, and for now…for now, the fantasy was more than he ever thought he’d have.  He wanted to cling to it, just a bit longer.  Just for a little while.  A few days of basking in the idea of Steve choosing him because of something he wanted in Tony, and then he could deal with the truth and that could be enough again. 

“Car’s almost here,” Steve said, the words whipping warm air against the side of Tony’s head, just above his ear.  A shiver ran up Tony’s spine and settled at the base of his neck like a drop of water so hot it felt cold.

Tony looked down the road, but didn’t see anything for another few seconds.  Two lights crested the hill, and soon enough, a black SUV pulled into one of the parking spots farthest away from the damaged guardrail, followed, somewhat improbably—though what about this night was following any kind of predictable pattern?--by a red convertible coupe, which double parked next to where the Audi used to be. 

 “I brought forms,” Coulson said, pushing open the door to the red convertible.  “They’re in triplicate.”

“Sorry,” Steve said over his shoulder.  He didn’t sound sorry, Tony noticed.  Coulson noticed, too, but just craned his neck towards the damaged railing with a speculative look. 

“Punching bags weren’t doing it for you?” Coulson asked, making Tony send him a confused frown.

“It was an accident,” Tony blurted out. 

“Tony was jealous,” Steve said by way of explanation.  He was grinning, probably having some kind of a delayed hysteria reaction, Tony thought to himself, but kept his chin resting against Steve’s chest.

“Ignore him,” Tony called out to Coulson from the shelter of Steve’s arms.

“Jealous of the car?” Coulson asked. 

“It was symbolic?” Tony offered in a high-pitched voice while Steve huffed out a low chuckle. 

“Can we symbolically trash state forests next time?  I’ll give you a brochure and a sharpie. Go crazy,” Coulson suggested mildly. 

“I really am sorry about the trouble, Phil,” Steve said, actually managing to pull off contrite if you squinted.

“How sorry?” Phil asked speculatively.

“I’ll sign the damn cards,” Steve replied with a put-upon sigh, hands going to his hips and that little furor forming on his brow as he frowned.  Someone was getting the Disapproving Face, Tony thought somewhat smugly to himself.

“To Phil.  And watch the edges,” Phil said with a shake of his head.  “They’re vintage.”

“Come on. Let’s get you home,” Steve urged, turning Tony towards the SUV when the black-clad driver hopped out to open the door.

“I feel like I should tell you that I don’t hate the plaid shirts.  Please don’t burn them in effigy or something entirely overly dramatic,” Tony said as he slid into the back of the SUV and buckled his seatbelt.

“I should stop wearing them, though,” Steve asked.

“God, yes.  I hate them,” Tony shot back with a grin. 

“Sit tight.  I’ll just be a minute,” Steve replied, smiling at him as he closed the door and walked over to where Coulson was standing next to the side of the red convertible with his arms at his sides, head canted towards the sky like he was curious about the weather.   Tony desperately wanted to roll down his window and try to hear what they were saying, but he assumed the admonition to sit tight included not eavesdropping.  He rubbed his hands together, balling them over and over, and stared at the crumpled pieces of metal railing that were not bowed outward.

Impossible, Tony thought to himself.  It was physically impossible.  The amount of force that required…and it happened so fast…it really was impossible.  Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast, Tony recited to himself.  The car door opened next to him and Steve hopped into the seat beside him. The driver opened the door in front of Tony and climbed behind the wheel without a word and started the engine.

“Agent Coulson isn’t mad?” Tony asked after a moment. 

“He’s…understanding,” Steve replied. 

“Are we going to talk about how you did that?” Tony asked carefully.  He looked over the darkened backseat to the shadow of Steve’s form leaning against the window.  “It shouldn’t have been possible.  I mean…I can do the math in my head, and even if you pretend those railings had the density of paper, it still is next to impossible.   There are other things, too.  The car door handle you just broke off, and I can only tell myself shoddy materials for so long.  Other things.  Am I not supposed to ask?  Is this the part where I guess?”

“Tony,” Steve said in a low voice that carried a warning. 

“It’s SHIELD, isn’t it?  They did something to you.  Drugs, steroids, something.  Universal Soldiered you. And I’m really supposed to just ignore this?  Sit back, shut up and be a good boy?  Have you met me?” Tony demanded.  “Was that why SHIELD was so gung-ho to have you Bond?  They did something to you, and want you to keep quiet about it, is that it?  That’s why everyone’s so freaked out by you, isn’t it?  Did they…wait. Are you okay?  Steve?  Did they…did they mess up?  I mean, is something wrong, or…”

“I’m fine,” Steve huffed out, tapping one finger against the glass window in a slow rhythm as the SUV made its way back to the highway.  “Really, Tony.  I’m fine.”

“You’re fine, I’m fine, we’re all fine,” Tony snorted.  “You just played Donkey Kong with my quarter-million-dollar-not-guilt-induced-wet-dream.”

Steve didn’t respond, just leaned his forehead against the window and sucked in a breath as he watched the passing cars. 

“Thanks for destroying my car, by the way,” Tony said after a beat, waiting until Steve turned away from the window to face him.  “That’s like Lloyd Dobler-boombox-outside-your-window levels of some crazy romantic bullshit.”  Tony grinned, a wide, shit-eating smile that broke into a low laugh, tinged with a little bit of leftover amazement. 

“You’re welcome,” Steve replied, biting at his bottom lip, then giving up and returning Tony’s smile. 

“It’s the only time I’ve kind of liked it when someone destroyed something of mine,” Tony said with a small shrug, drawing Steve’s gaze.

“We really will get you another one,” Steve promised.

“Red,” Tony said firmly.

“Red, huh?” Steve asked, raising an eyebrow. 

“Too flashy?” Tony questioned uncertainly.

“Nah,” Steve replied.  “You’d look good in red.”  Steve looked over at him and there was something warm and wonderful in his gaze, something that felt so much like a caress, his skin tingled with a phantom touch of fingers ghosting down his neck to the base of his spine. 

“It’s okay, you know. If you’re a government lab rat, I mean.  I don’t mind,” Tony said, keeping his eyes forward and trying not to squirm in his seat.  In the rearview mirror, he saw the driver’s eyes flick to his before going back to studiously pretending Tony didn’t exist.  “It wouldn’t change anything about…anything.”

“Thanks,” Steve said with a slight grimace before shaking his head and looking over at Tony again.  “Hey,” Steve said, drawing Tony’s gaze.  “Thanks, Tony.  Really,” he repeated, though this time, there was a warm, open gratefulness in the tone.

“You didn’t like the idea that I might end up with someone else,” Tony reminded him, feeling heat flood his cheeks.  He flashed a quick glance to the driver, who was still pretending Tony didn’t exist. 

“No,” Steve replied.  “I didn’t.  I still—I don’t.” He rubbed a hand over his mouth and flattened it into a thin line, side-eyeing Tony before going back to looking out the window.

“Me, too,” Tony said quietly, catching himself as his voice shook a bit.  He cleared his throat, trying to shake the lump loose.  “I mean, I’m glad, too.  No one ever picked me.  Before, I mean, when I would meet them.  The suitors.  They thought I was too much to handle or not…not right, you know?  I was always kind of glad, or I told myself I was, even if Mom and Dad…worried,” Tony trailed off, picking non-existent lint off his pants.  “Then I had a Heat, and I think they panicked because no Alpha.  Obie—he’s our CEO, remember?  He offered to, you know. With that.  But my parents didn’t want to, because some Alphas, it’s—they want, with someone who hasn’t—so, more options, I guess,” Tony stopped, catching Steve’s look.  “You’re not going to throw our CEO off a cliff, are you?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Steve replied in a clipped, precise tone that made Tony think of nails on a chalkboard.

“Good, good.  He was just trying to help, really, because How—my Dad was freaking out.  Anyway, I’m just.  I’m glad.  Is all.  That it was you,” Tony continued hurriedly. “Not someone else.  Some boring asshat who probably doesn’t push cars off cliffs to make a point.”

Steve huffed out a laugh looked over at Tony with a slightly bemused smile.  “I like how you talk.”

“Keep saying that and I might start to believe it,” Tony pointed out, giving Steve a sheepish grin. 

“I’m glad it was me, too,” Steve said softly, a low whisper that buzzed through Tony’s head, before they both settled into quiet for the rest of the drive. 

Tony looked out the window and saw Jarvis sitting in one of the deck chairs, sipping coffee and apparently chatting with Happy, who must have arrived to take him home.

“You get that car of yours in a pickle on your first trip?” Happy asked as Tony and Steve exited the SUV and headed for the deck. 

“My Alpha’s got a mile-wide impulsive streak and goes for the big gesture when, you know, words or perhaps a demonstrative hand gesture would’ve been fine,” Tony sniped good-naturedly, sending a small smile over his shoulder at Steve, who canted his head to one side with a half-grin and shrugged. “Car’s totaled.  Not my fault.”

“Are you two alright?” Jarvis asked, sounding more curious than concerned. 

“One of us is insane, but sure.  Otherwise, completely fine,” Tony assured Jarvis and Happy.

“Sorry we were gone so long,” Steve said to Jarvis.  “The evening went in something of an unexpected direction.  We didn’t mean to keep you, Mr. Jarvis.”

“Oh, no, nothing to worry about.  I enjoyed my chat with Mr. Hogan here.  I am sorry to hear about your car, Tony.  That’s terrible.  And on your first drive, too. What a…surprising coincidence,” Jarivs said, sounding wholly unsurprised as he ran a finger over the lip of his coffee mug.

“The gas pedal was sticking,” Tony deadpanned, shooting Steve what he hoped was a look that communicated that he wasn’t off the hook, but also that the whole bizarre incident was strangely pleasing.  “You’re leaving?” Tony asked with a slight frown. 

“I’m afraid I must be off,” Jarvis replied, rising from his seat and setting his coffee mug on the deck railing.  “I did want to say goodbye before I left.  It was good to see you, Tony.  And to meet you, of course, Steve.  A pleasure.”

“You, too, Mr. Jarvis,” Steve said, walking up to offer his hand once again to Jarvis, who clasped it in a firm shake.  “I hope you’ll make this more of a habit.”

“Oh, I intend to,” Jarvis promised, earning a sharp bark of laughter and a nod from Steve. 

“Still feel up for a movie tonight?” Steve asked, turning to Tony.

“Huh?  Oh, yeah. Definitely,” Tony smiled, remembering his earlier offer.  Had dinner only been a little over an hour ago?  It seemed like a wholly different version of himself, who sat across from Steve and worried—fretted—over what Jarvis might say.  “Raiders.  You’ll love it.”

“I’ll start the popcorn while you say good-bye to Mr. Jarvis,” Steve offered.  

“Sure, that…that’d be great,” Tony replied, finding himself feeling strangely buoyant, almost weightless.  When he twisted his head, Jarvis was watching him with a soft, fond smile. 

“Goodnight, Happy. Mr. Jarvis,” Steve called out, nodding and giving a small wave as he walked back towards the front door of the cabin. 

“Night, Cap,” Happy shouted.  “Good to see him back up here,” Happy said with a small nod in Tony’s direction. “Hasn’t been right, you two bein’ apart so much.  Haven’t seen him lookin’ so down since I first drove him up here with that Coulson fella acting like he just stepped off the boat, you know?  Here’s how you order food, here’s how you pay for things, here’s Wikipedia, but don’t trust it,” Happy recalled with a shake of his head while Tony shot him a confused frown.  “I know, right?  Damnedest thing!” 

“When…when was that?” Tony asked.

“Just about a year ago, I reckon,” Happy replied.  “Maybe a bit less.  Long before he had you, that’s for sure.  Alphas, they’re not right without their Omegas, are they?  Never seen nothin’ quite like that, though. I’ve driven for some weird folks over the years, between Hollywood and the government, but gave me the willies, the way Cap just stared, all quiet-like, I’ll tell ya that right now.”

“That is…odd,” Tony said. 

“You did say SHIELD wanted him to Bond,” Jarvis reminded him.  “Seemed rather urgent, if I recall the night your father met with Director Fury.”

“Did wonders for him, that’s for sure,” Happy added, clapping his hands together. “Good guy, Cap.  Just needs our Tony, here, am I right?”

“I daresay you are,” Jarvis replied, arching a brow at Tony.

“I’ll get the car going, Mr. Jarvis.  See if I can find the ball game.  You take your time,” Happy said, pulling the keyfob from his pocket and heading for the car. 

“I’m glad you came,” Tony said when the car door shut behind Happy. 

“As am I,” Jarvis replied. 

“You said you weren’t going to say anything,” Tony pointed out. 

“I said I wouldn’t repeat what you told me in confidence.  Not that I wouldn’t offer my own observations and suggestions to your Alpha,” Jarvis said, rocking back on his heels, then offering Tony an apologetic look.  “But, you knew that.”

“Yeah,” Tony acknowledged after a beat, looking down at the toe of his shoe digging in to a divot in one of the deck planks.  “I didn’t know what to do.  I wanted…”  Tony began, sucking in a breath and cutting off the words in a cold rush of air down his throat. 

“You want him to choose you,” Jarvis finished quietly.  “But, you cannot bring yourself to ask it of him on the risk that he might decline.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, voice shaking as he looked out over the valley below.  “I thought he wanted—with someone else, I mean.  But, he didn’t.  Or, he hasn’t.  He could, I guess, but—he didn’t.  It was just a long mission.  Because of hostages or something.  Not the, uh. Thing I thought,” Tony said with a wan, flat grimace.  “Yay for hostages?  God, I’m a terrible person, aren’t I?”

“Of course you are not a terrible person, but you are human, Tony.  What really happened with the car?” Jarvis asked in a measured tone.

“He push—drove, well, sort of—drove my car off a cliff.  In a nice way, though,” Tony said quickly as Jarvis’s face pulled a shocked and concerned look.  “Because I thought it was because of the—the thing, you know.  I thought the car was like a, ah…”

“An apology?” Jarvis offered, one eyebrow raised to a peak.  “Yes, I polish the apology Mercedes quite regularly.”

“I may have said something about wanting to see it plummet off a cliff. As a metaphor!  A metaphor, Jarvis! Honestly, who would think…anyway, it was…I mean, it’s weird and insane and I’m still—I can’t believe he did that, but…also kind of sweet?”  Tony finished with a limp shrug.  “He said he picked me because he didn’t want me to end up with someone else. Which is sort of, I don’t know, nice and maybe a little bit scary, but not to me or anything, because it’s, like, directed at other people or something.  I don’t know, some weird Alpha thing, I guess.  Who knows how they think?” Tony said with a brusque wave and ducked his head, looking away from Jarvis’s steady gaze. 

“Yes…how would you possibly understand not wanting someone else near your mate?” Jarvis asked drolly.

“Exactly,” Tony agreed, then caught himself frowning and rolled his eyes at Jarvis.  “Fine, so maybe I was a bit jealous.  A tiny bit.  A tad.  Speck.  Molecule of jealousy.”

“You disliked the idea of your Alpha with someone else so much that you are reveling in your Alpha’s little demonstration.  Quite a bit more than you want to admit, I’d imagine,” Jarvis replied in a mild, even tone. 

“I’m trying to be disapproving, but it’s hard when it’s so completely awesome,” Tony admitted ruefully, casting an apologetic look at Jarvis. 

“Yes, well.  You have not had many occasions to have someone’s…regard…for you shown in quite so…forceful a manner,” Jarvis agreed with a slow nod.

“So, this regard…how….ah, how do I…I mean…should I, like, I don’t know…maybe…he listened to you, so…” Tony stammered.  “I mean, let’s face it J, if property destruction is the way to the man’s heart, I’m completely down with that, but…”

“Tony, I am more than happy to be your surrogate, but may I suggest something instead?  Something that I believe will be far more effective?” Jarvis asked.  “Try this particular electrical outlet again. I have a very strong feeling that you will get a much different result this time.”

“I—I just don’t want to mess up, Jarvis,” Tony said, rubbing a hand at the back of his head as he looked back towards the cabin. 

“He has already chosen you, Tony.  Inartfully, perhaps, but I believe he is trying,” Jarvis told him gently.  “He does not see that you have already chosen him, as well.”

“Wh—what do I do?” Tony asked.

“Oh, that’s not for me to say,” Jarvis replied.

“Since when?” Tony demanded with a snort of laughter, peering at Jarvis from under his brows.

“Exactly so,” Jarvis nodded, tapping a finger against his mouth as he considered.  “Really, Tony, don’t be an idiot.  Kiss the man.  Visit your mother.  She would do with seeing you.  And tidy your room.  It’s atrocious, even for you.”

“Can’t you just tell her about the car?” Tony whined.  “Well, not about what happened to the car.  He’s going to get me another one.  In red. God, she’d hate that, wouldn’t she?  Call it garish.  I know, I know, a car is not jewelry.  Damn, what’s her hang up with home shopping network, anyway?  It’s—well, it was an R8, J!  How is that not enough to impress the Real Housewives of New Moneyville?”

“Jewelry belongs to you, Tony.  It is one of the few items of any value that Omegas can legally own.  It’s portable, easily hidden.  You can trade it or pawn it,” Jarvis observed mildly, like he was discussing the weather, while Tony stared at him.  “Do you really think the love of sparkly stones shared by so many Omegas grew solely from shallowness and vanity?  Jewelry is independence.  A way out, Tony.  Not all Omegas are as fortunate as you are in their mate.”

“Oh,” Tony said numbly.  His mind flashed to the robin’s egg blue boxes that arrived on each of his mother’s birthdays, with their brightly-colored little escape hatches nestled inside.  A part of him didn’t want this piece of understanding to slot itself into a place in his mind.  It was easier to simply lump her in with Howard, call it the past and leave it there, as if she was something he could slough off if he kept on walking far enough away not to hear her anymore.  There were too many nights of piano music ringing in his ears underneath the whoosh of air and slap of leather on skin.  He wasn’t ready to stop walking, not yet, but he could look back.  For Jarvis, if for no other reason.

“Now, promise me you will call your mother,” Jarvis said. 

“Cross my heart,” Tony replied begrudgingly. 

“She will be pleased,” Jarvis said with an air of relief. 

“I’m not doing it for her,” Tony said, flattening his mouth together.

“I know,” Jarvis replied quietly.  “And I thank you for that.  One day, I shall get you to do things for yourself, and consider that I have truly accomplished something.”

“I think you’re the only person who would accuse me of a lack of selfishness,” Tony shot back with a bitter twist to his lips.

“Not the only person, if I’m not mistaken.  But, I think you know that, too.  Or, you almost do,” Jarvis said, giving a slight nod towards the cabin.  “Good night, Tony.  It was truly lovely to see you.”

“You’ll come back, right?” Tony asked, almost reaching out as Jarvis started for the lowly rumbling car where Happy waited behind the wheel. 

“You have only to call,” Jarvis assured him.

Tony watched Jarvis step carefully off the deck and walk over to the car.  He gave a quick wave as Jarvis ducked into the sedan, disappearing behind the dark glass.   The car did a three-point turn, stirring up the loose gravel and sending spurts of gray dust into the late afternoon air like small clouds that slowly dissipated in the still air just as the car curved around the bend.

The smell of buttery popcorn greeted him when he pushed open the door to the cabin.  Steve was standing at the kitchen counter, dumping a large, puffed-up bag of it into bowl. 

“Smells good,” Tony remarked. 

“Can’t believe you can make this in a bag,” Steve said.  “Guess they don’t sell it on the street anymore, huh?”

“Like in a food truck?  Don’t think so.  They have those gourmet popcorn shops now.  Kettle corn. Jalapeno flavored. Bacon popcorn,” Tony rattled off.  “Some salesman used to send Dad a big bucket of it every Christmas.”

“Bacon popcorn?” Steve asked with a frown, giving the bowl a little shake so the unpopped kernels fell to the bottom.

“Be glad its not sprinkled with kale or something. This is California,” Tony pointed out at Steve’s look of horror.

Predictably, Steve loved Raiders of the Lost Ark. Who wouldn’t?  Well, right up until the Nazi guy’s face melted off.  Steve had a bit of a squeamish streak, Tony noted to himself, as Steve shifted uncomfortably on the other end of the sofa. 

“Figures the government would take something like the Ark, with that kind of power, shove it in a box and put it in storage,” Tony grumbled as the credits rolled over Indy’s theme. 

“Might be the safest thing to do with it,” Steve said quietly.  He was staring at the screen, an odd sort of detachment in his voice that made the hairs on the back of Tony’s neck stand on end.

“Yeah, but…I mean, they could’ve ended the war.  Stopped Hitler.  Saved all those people,” Tony argued.  He curled his legs further up underneath him on the sofa and turned to face Steve with a frown.  “If you had that kind of power…why wouldn’t you use it?”

“Some things…” Steve began slowly, still staring with the same blank expression at the screen where the Humane Society assured viewers that no animals were harmed in the production.  “Some things…some things are too powerful to be used, even for good.  Even by people with the best of intentions,” Steve said in a hard, low voice, like his jaw was forcing the words out one clipped syllable at a time.

“Who decides that, though?” Tony questioned.  “Who decides when something is too powerful to be used?  It’s always…it’s always the people in power, isn’t it?”

“You think its inherently self-serving,” Steve replied, not a question, so much as an observation.

“I think people in power will always think something more powerful than they are is dangerous,” Tony said quietly, watching the credits end with a piracy warning.  “It makes them feel less powerful.  Maybe it could help, maybe its something that shouldn’t be used, not by anyone. But, we won’t know if all that…that power is shoved in a box.  You have to try.”

Steve was quiet for a long moment, staring at the blank TV screen before twisting on the sofa to look at Tony.  “What are we talking about here, Tony?” Steve asked in a carefully neutral tone.

“The movie,” Tony replied with a confused frown. “The Ark?”

“Right,” Steve said evenly. 

“I mean, you—you’d have tried to stop all that.  Hitler.  The Nazis.  You’d have tried,” Tony insisted. 

“I would have wanted to,” Steve replied, almost wistfully.  “We had a bad guy to fight.  Then.  It was easy, in a way.  Not the war itself.  That was—I—I’m sure that was anything but easy.  But, signing up.  That was—that would’ve seemed so clear,” Steve said, clearing his throat. “Go fight Hitler.  Save the world, right?  That’s what we were supposed to do,” Steve finished in a caustic, bitter tone that sounded tired and wrung out.  He glanced over at Tony and let a out a breath, shaking his head and pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers.  “Sorry, I—forget it, I’m just tired.  I—forget it.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, me too.  Long day, you know? Guess I’ll head to bed,” Tony said dully, darting a quick look at Steve, who was still staring at the television screen, which had gone back to the DVD’s menu.  When Steve didn’t respond, Tony pushed himself off the sofa and trudged into the kitchen to deposit his popcorn bowl.  He dumped the contents into the garbage and set the bowl by the sink on top of the cracks in the countertop.  It felt as if the bubble of the evening had deflated all of a sudden.  Like a switch being flicked, Tony thought with a rueful grimace.

Let me take care of you.

 I didn’t think I’d like it.  If I didn’t have you.

The words flowed over him, suffusing his body with a sudden warmth.  It made him think of tumbling onto the pile of laundry Jarvis had just pulled from the dryer and wrapping the clean sheets around him like a second skin.  Comforting.  Settling.  A cocoon that pushed everything else away, made everything better, at least for that moment. He turned his head to look over his shoulder to where Steve remained sitting on the sofa.  With a soft sigh, Tony placed the bowl in the sink and rinsed it out.  He watched the water pour from the faucet for a long moment, then shut it off and looked over his shoulder again.  Nothing.  Though, he supposed no reaction was just as much a reaction as anything.  Sometimes, that was the best you could hope for. 

Turning away from the sink, Tony skirted the kitchen table and started down the hall.  He was halfway to his room when he heard Steve call his name.  He stopped and twisted around, cocking his head.  Steve had shifted on the sofa enough so he was facing Tony.  His face was shadowed by light from the flickering screen still gamely trying to get them to press play or select a special feature.

“You’re right.  About the—ark.  That kind of power, someone has to be the one to try.  Someone will, whether they should or not, that’s for sure,” Steve said. 

“I—I guess,” Tony mumbled, glancing over at one of the pictures lining the wall.  This one had a bucolic scene involving an old wagon wheel leaning against a stump with a large oak tree in the background dripping bright orange and yellow leaves under an entirely out of proportion sun.  He should really frame some of Steve’s drawings and hang them up.  Even Steve’s creepy nightmare paintings might be better than the ode to Duck Dynasty theme this place had going on.  “It’s all just a movie, though.  I mean…this is theoretical, right?   I guess, maybe the H-bomb is kind of the metaphor, huh?”

“Maybe,” Steve said, looking across the room at Tony with half-lidded eyes.    “I read about that.  Manhattan Project. Fat Man and Little Boy, they called them.”  He sounded…sad, Tony decided, though that wasn’t quite right.  There was a thread of frustration, almost…guilt, crawling through the words.  But that didn’t make sense.

“My Dad always said the best weapon was the one you only have to use once,” Tony added with a small shrug of his shoulders.

“What do you think?” Steve asked, dipping his gaze down to his lap.  Tony’s eyes followed.  Steve’s hands were curled into fists, laying atop his thighs in tight formation. 

“I think…there’s no such thing as a weapon that works that you only use once,” Tony said, voice faltering  a bit as he frowned. 

“I think you’re right,” Steve said in a flat, emotionless voice that crept up Tony’s spine and coiled there, disturbing and wrong and when he closed his eyes, he suspected the words would look a lot like dark swirls of deep blue-green paint.  “Good night, Tony.”

“Night,” Tony said quickly, dropping his gaze and turning for his bedroom.  He pushed open the door and closed it behind him with a soft click, not bothering with the lock.  He could probably leave the door wide open and put out a welcome mat without much of a reaction, Tony thought, pursing his lips with displeasure.

He toed off his shoes and threw his dirty clothes in the direction of the laundry basket.  Pulling open one of the dresser drawers, he rummaged through until he found a pair of boxers and a black t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a heavy metal band his father found entirely inappropriate for Omegas.  Underneath it was a soft gray shirt with an Army logo across the chest.  The one he’d swiped from Steve.  He put the other clothes down on top of the dresser and picked up the Army shirt, rubbing at the soft cotton of the hem. 

He wondered what would happen if he put it on.  Put it on, then walked out to the kitchen to get a glass of warm milk or whatever crappy excuse for Look At Me he could come up with.  Reaching up, he fingered the dog tags that hung in the center of his chest and looked at himself in the mirror.  Probably nothing would happen except then he could tell Steve they needed milk because Tony had forgotten to put it on the grocery list Happy dutifully purchased in the weeks Steve had been gone.  So, a win for calcium, but something of an anti-climatic shirt experiment, Tony thought, sharking his head and giving his reflection an annoyed eye roll.

Stuffing the Army shirt back into the drawer, he shoved on his t-shirt and boxer and climbed into bed.  Sleep refused to come, though, no matter how many digits of Pi he mentally recited.  He kicked the covers off his legs and rolled over, staring at the wall between his room and Steve’s.

If you belonged to someone else…I didn’t think I’d like that.

Tony shivered, skin prickling, and slowly closed his eyes.  Heat pooled low in his stomach, a tight, pulling sensation pulsing through his groin to the tip of his cock.  Shit, he thought, flopping over on his back.  He watched the ceiling fan rotate over his head, around and around without end.   My Alpha pushed an R8 off a cliff because I was jealous.  I feel like we should be talking about this more, Tony thought with a nervous rush of hysterical laughter that made him turn his head into his pillow to quash it.  SHIELD did something to him.  No sense in pretending any of this was normal.  Not anymore.  He had an empty garage where plausible deniability used to be parked.  SHIELD did something to Steve, and when it went sideways, they had their little rose ceremony of Omegas for him and for some reason, he picked Tony. 

I didn’t think I’d like it, if I didn’t have you.

Tony rubbed the ball of his hand against the base of his cock, then rolled over on his stomach and stared at the wall again.  He could feel his cock pressed against the bed.  It almost hurt, but it was the good kind of almost hurt.  The empty and ashamed kind of good.  He shouldn’t feel good, not without his Alpha.  There was probably something wrong with him.   Maybe that was why Steve didn’t want him this way.  Maybe he could tell.  None of the other Alphas he’d been introduced to had wanted him.  Granted, he’d done his best Princess Jasmine routine and gotten rid of most of them by simply being himself, but Fury had known.  That guy, Ty.  He had known Tony didn’t belong to an Alpha, not the way he was supposed to. 

If you belonged to someone else, I didn’t think I’d like that.

Tony looked over at the clock, where the numbers marking it as just past one in the morning glowed somewhat accusingly from the nightstand. With a frustrated grunt, he stood up and walked to the door of his room.  The cabin was quiet, he noted, when he pulled the door open just enough to peer down the hallway.  Steve’s room was dark.  Tony padded carefully down the hall to the living room.  The television was black.  The Doomsday clock on the mantle ticked off the seconds. 

Tony headed for the kitchen, mostly for something to do and excuse if he was caught.  Not that there was anything wrong with being up.  Just that wandering around the house in the hopes his cock would soften was not going to be his go-to reasoning, should he be discovered.  Someone, meaning Steve, had put Tony’s popcorn bowl into the dishwasher, he saw, as he pulled his mug out of the top rack and filled it with water, which turned out to be lukewarm and vaguely mineral tasting. 

Above the drapes that cut across one of the living room windows, he could see the half-crescent of the moon hanging just below the clouds.  Golf on the moon, he thought to himself, recalling that first night when Steve came home and Tony had been terrified of the thing he was obsessing about now.  That was probably irony, he thought.  What in his life wasn’t?

He reached the window and pulled back on the curtain.  It was almost like his memory had somehow sprung to life or altered reality to fit it.  Steve was standing on the deck, staring out at the night.  His hands were clasped behind his back, feet spread apart, his posture rigid.  Tony had been around enough military members to recognize a parade rest stance when he saw it.  At ease, soldier, Tony thought with a frown.  Tony brought the mug to his lips, then stopped, drawing it back. 

It is the coffee mug you dwell upon, wondering what it means…

It means he thought about me.  While he was away.  He thought about me.   No, that wasn’t…that wasn’t quite it, Tony thought, giving the mug a frown.

It means…it means he was coming home.  To me.  It means when he thought about me, he thought about coming home to me.  Whatever else I am, I’m home. And that was…that could be enough, right?  It could.  It was a lot more then he’d ever thought he’d have. 

Is it fine, Tony?  It sounds fine, Tony heard Jarvis’s voice echo in his head.  Shut up, J, I’m trying to settle.

He was almost back to his room before he pivoted on his heel and walked towards the front door, putting his mug down on the kitchen table as he passed. He grabbed the quilt from the back of the sofa, tossed it over his shoulders and pushed the door open.  Steve turned to watch him walk up to the deck, his posture relaxing as Tony approached. 

“I thought you would be in bed,” Steve said.  There was something behind the words, a sort of grudging discomfort maybe, that seemed out of step with the words. 

“Same to you,” Tony quipped in return.  He settled onto the wooden bench next to his telescope and opened the lens cap.  It was too cloudy to see much, but it gave him something to do.  “Want to take a look?”

Steve tilted his head to one side and flattened the edges of his mouth, then walked over and sat down on the bench next to Tony.

“Let’s see…” Tony began, adjusting the scope.  “That’s…Virgo.  A bit there, see?” Tony said, shifting over so Steve could lean forward and look though the eyepiece.  “Supposed to look like a woman lying down.  I don’t know. I think the Greeks were drunk or something.  There are over three thousand galaxies just east of her left arm, though.  Here, let me just—“ Tony said, readjusting the scope just a bit so the spiral galaxy near the top of the Virgo Cluster came into view.  “So, kinda cool, I guess.”

“Beautiful,” Steve murmured, sitting back against the bench.  He glanced at Tony, then looked up at the spot again, though they weren’t really in a place where you could see the Cluster with the naked eye.

“This one,” Tony began, shifting the coordinates in the scope once more.  “Is the Hydra constellation.  See the six stars that form the head?”

“Not a big fan of Hydra,” Steve said with a low chuckle, though he leaned forward to take a perfunctory look through the scope. 

Tony gripped the telescope’s arm with one hand and let his head fall into the curve of his outstretched elbow, his cheek pressed against the quilt where it hung over his shoulders as he regarded Steve. 

“What if I’d said no?” Tony blurted out before the words had even fully entered his head.  It was what he wanted to ask, but he didn’t mean to want to ask it, let alone actually say it.  It was out there between them, though, floating in a cartoon talk-bubble he could almost see.  “You said you didn’t think you’d like it if—if you didn’t have me.  What if I’d said no?  That day at SHIELD.  When we met.”

“Then…I guess I would have asked you for permission to court you,” Steve said slowly after a long moment of Tony watching a myriad of emotions flicker across Steve’s face so fast he couldn’t identify anything other than regret and then only because he recognized it so well.  

“You’d have courted me?” Tony asked in a far higher pitched voice then he intended.  He cleared his suddenly dry throat and swallowed heavily, lifting his head from his arm and staring at Steve.  “Really?”

“Of course,” Steve replied.  “You should have—you deserved that.  To be courted.”

“What, ah.  What would—“ Tony started, leaning back against the bench and rubbing his fingers against the side of his nose.  A nervous energy spiked through his chest, making his heart pound in his ears.  Steve would have courted him.  In his mind, he saw Steve with a bouquet of flowers, greeting Jarvis at the front door and felt a smile softening his face at the image.  “What would you have done?”

“The usual, I guess,” Steve said, canting his head to the side as Tony tried to keep himself still while his head was buzzing, giving him some kind of 404 Not Found Error message because he couldn’t quite get his mind to calm down and deal with the sudden influx of images and thoughts that overlapped in a tidal flood of data.  “At least until I figured out you were anything but usual.”

“The usual,” Tony repeated breathlessly.  “Like—like what?  For example.”

“Gifts,” Steve said slowly as if he was testing the word. “I would have…tried to find out what interested you, so I could talk to you about it.  Dinners at restaurants you liked.  Ah, outings to places you enjoyed.  Chaperoned, of course.  The usual.” 

“Oh,” Tony replied, dropping his gaze to pick at a loose thread on the quilt.  That would have been nice, Tony thought to himself, imagining strolling the grounds of his parents’ home with Steve while Jarvis looked on.  “That sounds nice.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Steve smiled then, a warm, almost wistful smile that carried a current of sadness with it.  “Here, ah.  Speaking of…well, of our Bonding,” Steve said, digging a hand into the pocket of his pants.  He came out with a ring, small and gray with a bright sheen to it that caught the moonlight like a star, shifting back and forth across the band.  “I know it’s late.  I should have…well, I should have done a lot of things.  Here, though,” Steve said, holding the ring out between his thumb and forefinger.  “May I?” 

“Huh?  Oh, yeah. Yea-yeah, s-sure,” Tony stuttered, eyes focused on the metal band.  It slid onto his ring finger with ease, solid and strangely heated where he would have guessed it would feel cool.  “What kind of metal is this?” Tony asked with a slight frown at being unable to identify it.

“Just something I found lying around,” Steve said, one side of his mouth tugging up into a lop-sided grin.  “It suits you,” he added, leaning back against the bench.

“Th-thanks,” Tony replied, giving Steve a quick look before going back to gazing at his ring.  He could almost swear he could feel the warmth of it lancing up his veins, following the heartstring from his finger to his heart, which thudded so loudly against his chest he was surprised Steve didn’t comment.  “It’s beautiful. Thank you.  I should…for you, I mean.  I haven’t…I will, though…”

“I’d like that,” Steve replied.  “Now, show me more of your stars,” Steve suggested after a beat of silence.  “Isn’t that bright one Arcturus?”

“Yeah, that’s…that’s right.  It’s a red giant.  A bit larger than our sun.  Hang on, I’ll see…this isn’t—it’s not a great night for it,” Tony warned, though he gamely scooted forward on the bench and fitted the eyepiece to his face, trying to find a good view.   “Here, this is the best view I can get of it.”

“Thanks,” Steve replied, leaning forward and pressing his eye to the viewer.  “Looks like…part of a kite.  What do you know about it?”

“Do you have three hours?” Tony asked with a grin.  “They’re trying asteroseismology on it.  Looking at it’s internal structure using different oscillation modes to penetrate to different depths.  See, if we linearly perturb the equations defining the mechanical equilibrium of a star, and assuming that the perturbations are adiabatic, we get four differential equations. The solutions give the frequency and structure of a star's modes of oscillation.   Then we can—uh, sorry.  Sorry, that’s…I’m terrible at this.  I know.  I know.  I don’t even have you a ring.  I don’t put my bowls in the dishwasher.  I can’t cook for shit.  I’m--”

“It’s okay, Tony,” Steve said softly, turning to look at him while one hand hung loosely on the eyepiece.  He reached out with his other hand and wrapped it around Tony’s wrist, over the pulse point, just for an instant, before drawing back.  “I like listening to you.”

“What if I’d said no?  After the…even after the courting?  Or—or no to the courting. What if I’d said no?” Tony asked haltingly.  What if I screw this up?  What if I talk too much?  What if I never put my bowls in the dishwasher?  What if I’m never the kind of Omega you should have?

“Then I’d have waited,” Steve said softly, barely a whisper, but it rang in Tony’s ears like a song.  “I would have waited for you.  I’ll always wait for you, Tony.”

I love you, Tony thought.

“They used Arcturus to light the ’33 World’s Fair in Chicago,” Tony said instead, his voice barely quavering, which he considered a victory.  He tapped in new coordinates to the telescope’s computer and it whirred the short distance to the right spot.  His eyes kept darting to the circle of dark silver metal around his finger.  “Four different observatories using the light from Arcturus to light their photocells and sending an electric current by Western Union telephone lines to the Chicago fairgrounds.  Pretty neat trick, actually.  Kind of a big deal at the time.”

“Yes.  Yes, it was,” Steve said, the words coming out in a sigh.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Tony’s fingers fidgeted as he adjusted his tie, trying to catch his reflection in the window while the sedan rolled through the Los Angeles traffic.  Twenty-seventh time’s the charm, he thought dully, willing the tie to straighten. 

“Do you think it’s really called a Windsor knot because of Edward VIII?” Tony asked, trying to look down and managing to give himself an extra chin for his efforts.  He glared down at the offending accessory and stuck two fingers underneath the knot to try to puff it out into something that looked vaguely triangular.  “Supposed to be like his—uh.  His, uh.  His wide tie.  Which he was known for.  Supposedly.  The wide—ah.  Tie.  That’s where I was going with that,” Tony stammered, earning a hitching cough that might have been part laugh from the seat next to him.  He raised his head, blinked and looked over at Steve, who was giving Tony a slightly abashed look of shock.

So, to recap, Tony thought to himself, the score was, Inner Monologue:  One.  Brain-to-Mouth Filter:  Zero.  Great, Tony sighed, grinding his teeth together and aiming an apologetic shrug at Steve. 

“Hey, you’re the one who said you like how I talk,” Tony reminded him, going back to trying to arm wrestle his tie, though now he could feel the weight of Steve’s attention on him, sharp and watchful.  Noticing things.  It made Tony’s fingers tremble unsteadily, nearly unraveling the knot—nope, damn it, not working, Tony’s mind blinkered.  He let his hands dropped to his sides with a grinding, frustrated grunt.  

“I heard that.  About Edward,” Steve said after a beat.  Tony glanced to his right and caught Steve’s eyes, half-lidded and warm with laughter. 

“You did, huh?”  Tony asked, eyebrow raised.  “About his wide…er.  Tie. Which, I’ve certainly not heard about. Ever.”

“Right…lots of rumors flying about him.  Him and that American Omega he fell for.   I think my mom read everything on it she could---” Steve broke off, dipping his head and looking out the window next to him. 

“Your mom was into the whole royal thing, huh?” Tony prompted.  “Mine, too.  When Princess Diana died, I swear, she went into mourning.   Haven’t seen her that broken up since they stopped selling Tab. We had this Christmas ornament that played that Elton John song, except the battery started dying, and it sounded like Elton was singing in whale.  God, I hated that thing.  We should get twelve of them.  I need it. I’m going on eBay when we get home.”

“Everything’s going to be fine tonight, Tony,” Steve promised in a low, firm voice.  He probably believed it, Tony thought.  “You don’t need to worry.”

“Fine.  Yeah, sure.  No worries.  Who’s worried? That’s a legitimate collectible ornament, by the way. Why would I worry?  Sure, there’s the whole thing where you’re shoehorning me into Dad’s company that he built from scratch, mom’s still harping on better living through diamonds, and my butler threatened to poison you—stop laughing at that, it isn’t funny---he could do it, Steve, I’m telling—you know what, forget it.  If dessert is rhubarb pie, don’t eat it.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  And your eye twitches when I mention Obie, but I’m sure everything will be perfectly fine,” Tony muttered, wheezing out the last bit through clenched teeth when Steve continued to give him a bland, unconcerned look.  

“They just want to know you’re okay,” Steve insisted with a blind sort of stubbornness Tony decided was reserved for his Alpha and Wile E. Coyote.   Grab another Acme product off the shelf, Steve.  Let’s see how this one works.  I’m sure it won’t blow up in your face.

“When you met them that day at SHIELD, did they seem to just want to know if I was okay?” Tony asked pointedly. 

“Hard to say,” Steve replied, lifting his shoulders in a low shrug.  “They didn’t really do a whole lot of talking.”

“Well, that’s a first,” Tony said with a snort of disbelief.  “What’d you talk about?”

“The care they provided you before we Bonded,” Steve said in a thick voice, chewing on the words like they had a foul taste.  His hands balled into fists on top of his legs.  So, that conversation had obviously gone spectacularly well, Tony thought, shaking his head.

“So….” Tony said speculatively, drawing out the word.  “Short conversation, then?”  Steve looked over at him, then went back to looking out the car window.  Tony watched his jaw tighten, a thin line of muscle beating out a steady rhythm.  “Dad fill you in on everything wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Steve snapped, head swiveling towards Tony.  His mouth flattened, and he sucked in a steadying breath, his face softening.  “There’s nothing wrong with you, Tony.” 

Tony wasn’t used to words that felt like a warm blanket.  Words were weapons or shields, not…whatever it was that fell from Steve’s lips sometimes.  He should correct Steve.  Really, he should.  He didn’t, of course.  Some part of him couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“Guessing Howard got the ‘You Tried’ Badge on that one, though, huh?” Tony asked.  “Yeah, forget it.  It’s fine.”

“Be there soon,” Happy called out from the driver’s seat. 

“Thanks, Happy,” Steve replied. 

The traffic had thinned, Tony noticed, glancing out the window.  As they drove, the street widened to something more residential.  Cars plodded along.  Pint-sized soccer players watched a black and white ball roll towards a goal in a nearby park.  Two women jogged in tandem.  A dog wearing a Burberry collar and leash was taking a dump while a man holding a Starbucks cup in one hand and a plastic baggie in the other looked on with the resigned annoyance of someone being paid to pick up designer dog shit.

Ah, home sweet home.

It was familiar, but the odd, unsettling kind of familiar where it was unexpectedly exactly the same as he pictured it in his mind, but smaller somehow.  Less.  Lesser.  Diminished, Tony’s mind supplied.  It had once seemed so big, so full of the impossible, this world outside.  Now…now, he didn’t know what it was.  It wasn’t the world that had changed, he knew, but he couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness.  He didn’t belong here.  He never had. 

“Hey,” Steve said, making Tony’s head jerk around in startle.  “May I?” he asked, nodding at Tony’s shirtfront where the tie hung halfway between a Windsor knot and something that belonged on Hello Kitty. 

For a moment, Tony’s mind blanked into a white noise of anxiety and need, but he managed to nod, throat bobbing as he tried to swallow around the yes that was stuck somewhere in his windpipe, cutting off his air. 

Steve shifted and turned towards Tony in the back of the car, then leaned forward and reached out both hands to Tony’s neck.  Deft fingers undid the tie, then pulled the length of it through Tony’s collar, slow and smooth, warming the skin and making the chain of Steve’s dog tags press into the fold of his neck, until one end of the tie hung in Tony’s lap.  Cross, fold, over, through.  Tony’s throat clicked at the motions, but there was nothing in it to swallow, just air he wasn’t breathing.  Steve’s fingers brushed lightly against Tony’s shirt with each movement, until he finished, tightening the knot and smoothing the fabric down over the front of Tony’s chest with a quick stroke before drawing back his hand. 

“There,” Steve said in a soft, husky voice that made Tony’s stomach give a sharp jerk, just below his navel.  “Perfect.”

“Th—thanks,” Tony managed to rasp out.  He cleared his throat and tried to look down at the tie, one hand coming up to test the knot at his throat.  He trailed it down, following the line of the tie where Steve’s hand had smoothed it down, until he felt the stiff metal of the dog tags underneath the silk.  They always calmed him, for some reason.  But now, if he pressed, he could feel his heart fluttering behind them, a butterfly flapping its wings and changing the weather.  Chaos. 

Tony bit the corner of his lip and twisted his head to look out the window as Happy slowed the car to turn.  A large, ornately scrolling gate flanked by a high, sand-colored stone wall loomed in front of them.  Happy tapped the keycode into a small box that jutted out just in front of the gate, and it slowly began to swing open.  Not for the first time, Tony was reminded of a large mouth, swallowing them down some creature’s gullet, its metal mouth closing behind them.  He cast a quick look at Steve, who seemed to be staring straight ahead, though his gaze flicked to Tony as soon as Tony looked over.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.  We can turn around,” Steve told him for probably the thousandth time since Tony announced he wanted to see his parents after Jarvis’s recent visit. 

It had taken a couple of weeks to arrange the dinner, not that Tony minded the delay.  He’d won both showcases and gotten two weeks of Steve’s nearly undivided attention and a shiny, new R8.  In red.  It even had a personalized license plate marking it as Tony’s, though, technically, he supposed the title was in Steve’s name.  Everything else about it was his, though.  They had gone to the car dealership together, where Tony pestered the poor, stammering salesman with a manual’s worth of questions about various features and packages, while Steve looked on with a placid, disinterested smile that practically dared the salesman to say a word. 

In return, Tony bought Steve a collection of Hot Wheels cars and suggested he feel free to heft those off the deck if a sudden burst of car-tossing overcame him.  Tony could still remember how Steve’s face had gone from slack, confused shock to a slowly widening grin that turned into a full-bodied laugh, the kind that shook Steve’s whole body and left him gasping for breath.  The kind that Tony only rarely got to hear.  That laugh somehow felt like a greater accomplishment than unlocking the mysteries of the universe with Professor Thorne.  One was knowledge, there for the taking by anyone, really.  The other…the other belonged only to him.  He thought. Maybe

“No.  I promised Jarvis. And mom.  It-it’ll be fine.  I know it will, I’m just…” Tony trailed off, watching his former home approach through the windshield of the car where Happy’s reflection loomed over it like a Macy’s parade balloon.  “It’s fine.  Be good to see them,” he lied, giving Steve a quick nod.  “Really.”

“Here,” Steve said, pulling a palm-sized, black leather box out of the back pocket of the car seat in front of him. “Thought you might like something new.  For tonight.” 

Watch, Tony recognized in an instant, heart leaping from resting terror to jumping without parachute in an instant.  Something that might have been a thrill went through him, landing somewhere low in his belly with a burst of warmth before he really got a look at what Steve was holding.   The box has small, gold fleur-de-lis on top, just above the name Louis Moinet and the year 1806. Below that, it simply said Astralis Mars in blocky letters. 

A sharp stab of disappointment twisted through Tony’s chest.  Not a Rolex, then.  Not…what that might have meant.  Of course.  Of course, it wasn’t.  How many ways did he need to be told the same thing?  Second verse, same as the first.  Steve didn’t want him, not in the David-with-his-Rolex-watch, the lucky bastard, kind of a way.  It’s just a watch, not a metaphor for life, Tony told himself, though he seemed to listen about as well to his own counsel as anyone else’s. 

“You don’t want it,” Steve observed flatly as the car pulled to a halt in front of the large, wooden front door that was set into the rounded, tile-roofed turret that formed the front of the mansion.  Out of the corner of his eye, Tony could see Steve bite his lip and look down at his hand holding the offending box, brow ridged with frown lines like the damn thing held the Enigma Code.

“Wha—no.  I mean, yes.  I do.  I like it.  Watch.  It’s great. Thank you,” Tony said quickly, dredging up as much enthusiasm as he could muster for the not-Rolex.  “You didn’t have to do this.  Really, it’s…it’s…” 

It’s fine.

“You don’t have to like it, Tony.  It’s okay.  I keep…sorry.  Sorry, nevermind.  We’ll just…we’ll find you something else,” Steve replied, glancing out the window at the house, then forward, where Happy was studiously scrolling through his phone, having gone temporarily deaf, apparently.

Well, great. Now, he’d screwed up, Tony thought, lips puckering to the side in a twisted grimace.  

“I do like it,” Tony insisted.  “I do. I just…wasn’t expecting anything.  I’m not the best at just, you know, getting gifts.  It takes me a minute, okay?” Tony continued, grimacing when Steve didn’t reply.  “Oh God, you’re going to toss this out the window, aren’t you?  I’d be forced to make a time flying pun.  No one wants that, Steve.  Don’t be responsible for bad punning.  You don’t want that on your conscious. Now, give over.  Come on.  It’s mine, and now you’re just being mean, not letting me have the shiny thing,” Tony urged with a small, challenging smile, holding out his hand and motioning with his fingers until Steve set the box into Tony’s outstretched palm and looked away. “Thanks.  See?  Not so…not so…difficult…” Tony trailed off, glancing over at Steve.

Steve rested his elbow just below the car door’s window pane, waiting on Tony to open the box.  He was looking towards the entry to Tony’s parents’ house where gas porch lights burned like lanterns and a doormat promised a welcome Tony suspected he wasn’t likely to find. 

His Alpha’s face held a slight hardness to it, like the skin was pulled just a hair too tight over the bone.  One long finger tapped against the corner of his mouth in an almost nervous gesture, though, after a beat that held too long, Steve turned his head just enough to look at Tony for a fraction of a second before dropping his gaze down to his hands.

This was important to Steve.  For whatever reason.  This was important.

Tony could feel his skin prickling at the scrutiny Steve was trying to hide, every movement suddenly a question. Was this the right way to sit, to look, to breath?  He could feel the pressure to react the right way crawl up his spine and settle, heavy, like a stone, against the base of his neck.  He wants me to like it.  Really wants it, Tony realized with a jolt of surprise that felt a little like pain, though he wasn’t sure who it was for. 

“I—I’m sorry.  I wasn’t expecting…you just caught me off-guard, that’s all,” Tony said, looking down at the black box in his lap.  “I’m not—I told you, I’m not good with gifts.  It’s really…it’s…this is…”  he stopped, opening up the box, really looking at what he was holding, seeing something other than a not-Rolex for the first time. 

He sucked in a sharp breath that squeezed his lungs and echoed in the car with a soft gasp that he hadn’t meant to let escape.  The watch was…extraordinary.  He could see that immediately.  Not just a little, not just in the way something beautiful catches the eye, but in the way the right thing, the perfect thing, the thing you wanted but didn’t know you wanted until you saw it, is instantly recognizable.  It was the solution part of an equation falling into place after staring at the numbers until they shifted to truth.  It was the sky on a clear night from the corner of his window where he could see the universe over the hedges.  It was the smell of lemons under everything, the feel of a finely starched shirt under tweed, even on hot days, rough against his cheek.  Right.  Perfect.  Something that belonged to him in a way that the rest of the world would never be allowed to. 

Inside the leather box, nestled in cream silk, was a watch, though that was a bit like saying the Mona Lisa was a portrait.  His hand shook a bit as he pulled the timepiece out of the box and let it dangle from his fingertips.   Bright, reddish gold surrounded a planetarium housing four rock fragments in a blue disc.  A tourbillion was visible, mounted in a rotating cage with a gleaming, Y-shaped bridge, just between the eleven and twelve o’clock positions. The dial shimmered in undulating waves, like the red sands of its moniker. 

 “They’re meteorites.  The rocks.  One from the moon, one from an asteroid that formed close to the sun, one from Mercury and one from Mars,” Steve explained in a carefully neutral tone.   “There were only four in the series.  Each piece, it’s unique.  I went with Mars because…well, because it was red, and you…said you liked red.  Anyway,” Steve continued, clearing his throat and looking back out the car’s window.  “I wanted you to have something.  Something special.  For tonight, I mean.”

“It’s…it’s gorgeous,” Tony breathed out in awe, holding the watch up higher in front of him as he studied it.

“Moinet studied in Florence.  Made clocks for Napoleon, Tsar Alexander.  Like to invent all kinds of things.  The first chronograph.  That was him.  He wanted something to time the passage of the stars and planets, but nothing was good enough, so he built it himself.  That sounded…sounded about right to me.  Everything he made, everything--it was beautiful, too,” Steve told him in a hushed voice like he was sharing a secret.

It was the too that made Tony’s heart clench in his chest. 

“It’s…wow,” Tony husked out through a rush of air finally releasing itself from his lungs.  “It’s amazing.  It’s…God, Steve…this has to be…how…I mean, it is literally way too much. How—how did you even afford this?  The car, that was too much, but okay, maybe you had some saved up, but this…this is…” Tony stammered, still holding the watch in his hand.

“It was kind of a gift,” Steve replied, looking down at his hands in his lap, his voice suddenly tight with something that sounded a bit like embarrassment.  “I mean, for you.  It was meant for you, but…because of…they sort of wanted to…for something I, ah.  Helped with.  A bit.”

“A gift?  Someone just gives you something like this because you helped them out a bit?  Someone who?” Tony asked quickly, looking down at the watch with an accusatory frown.  Who just gives someone a watch like this?  Well, more to the point, Tony mentally amended, who the fuck gave his Alpha a watch like this, Tony wondered, his mind going from zero to back-the-hell-away-from-my-Alpha in a split second.

“Um…France?” Steve said haltingly, one hand going up to rub at the back of his neck while he gave Tony a strained, almost apologetic look. “In honor of our Bonding,” Steve intoned evenly without quite looking at Tony.

“France?”  Tony repeated, slow-blinking at Steve like one of those dolls you tip up and down to put it to sleep or wake it up. “France.  Like, Marie-the-baguettes-France?  The country.  France.  Wait, why is France giving you a Bonding gift?  Did you insult England really, really well or something?” Tony asked, stupefied.  “Oh my God, you’re secretly the President of the Jerry Lewis Fan Club, aren’t you?  No, no, don’t tell me,” Tony continued, holding up a hand.  “I’ll never be able to look at you the same way.”

“Jerry Lewis?” Steve repeated with a baffled frown.

“France?  Come on, you’re screwing with me,” Tony accused in a breathy huff, looking askance at Steve.  “You’re not screwing with me,” he corrected, watching Steve’s shoulders hunch.  “This is one of those car-meet-gravity-things I’m supposed to pretend is totally normal and not ask questions about, right?”

“Is that physically possible for you?” Steve asked through a strained laugh, though the look he gave Tony was warm and soft, the earlier knife-edged tightness having faded away.

“Don’t know. Never tried it,” Tony admitted, flashing Steve a grin.  “France, huh?  Well, thank France for me, would you?  Do I have to call myself the Nutty Professor?   Wow, the militarizing of our resident squirrel population went unexpectedly ironic, didn’t it?  I draw the line at wearing a beret, though, just so you know.”

“Berets.  Hard no.  Got it,” Steve said, face relaxing into a grin.  “Here, let me,” Steve offered, nodding at the watch Tony was cradling in his hand. 

Tony could practically feel the rush of blood warming his face, and he was sure Steve had to notice the way his pulse jumped against the thin skin of his wrist as Steve placed the watch around it and snapped the clasp into place with a small click that made Tony’s heart skip like it hit a speed bump before racing on, vying with his mind for which would overreact first.  Steve still had Tony’s hand in his, holding it there, his thumb just over the pulsepoint, rubbing a gentle circle into the skin. 

“I’m glad you like it,” Steve said, or Tony thought that was what he said. 

There was a tsunami rushing through Tony’s ears, all tremors and shockwaves, like the place on his wrist was the little red, radiating dot on a map showing the epicenter of some great, tectonic shift.  Steve bent his head, a swath of dark blonde hair falling across his forehead, eyes dark as he watched Tony from underneath it.  It was over before Tony’s brain caught up with what was happening. 

A whisper of warm breath across his knuckles, just the barest touch of Steve’s lips before he let go of Tony’s hand.  Tony could still feel it on his skin, burning hot like a brand.  A cord of fire pulled taut, whip-fast, from his hand to his stomach, jerking and twisting with heat, then lower, lighting its way through his groin and down to the tip of his cock.  His hand was hanging limply in the air, and he had to force himself to let it fall to his side and not to snatch it to his chest, cover it, press it to his mouth, rub it into his skin until it reddened and marked, like it should, so the outside of his flesh matched the way it felt inside.  Heat bloomed between Tony’s legs, followed by a horrifying trickle of sticky wetness. 

Steve was watching him, quiet and still and far too aware.  His face was shadowed in the dim evening light, but Tony could see a line of muscle ticking in Steve’s jaw.  Steve’s eyes were dark pools, with just the faintest glare from the setting sun making pinpricks where his pupils should be, reminding Tony of the way light catches on the eyes of creatures you didn’t even know where there until it was too late. Steve had to know.  He had to. The car was small.  Suffocating.  Did he know?  Of course, he did.  He was probably just too polite to mention the fact that his Omega couldn’t control himself over one stupid kiss that wasn’t even a real kiss. 

Except nothing about this felt polite.  It didn’t feel polite at all, Tony thought, throat bobbing as he swallowed and caught Steve’s eyes tracking the movement.  It felt…good.  Right.  His head was cloudy.  The air felt charged, the way it does before a storm, hot and heavy, ready to boil over.  His thoughts kept stepping out of line like a classroom of preschoolers vying to be first.  It was like that awful day in the garage, but worse, God, so much worse, because it wasn’t just his Alpha now, it was Steve.  Steve, who he could make laugh until his body shook with it, who gave him robots and coffee mugs, who threw cars off cliffs and who probably donated to the MDA telethon every year in honor of Charles de Gaulle or something.

“Tony,” Steve said, voice low, rumbling, almost a growl.  There was a note of warning in it, probably hoping Tony would snap out of his fugue, get a fucking grip on his stupid body, but Tony couldn’t bring himself to care.  Steve’s voice reverberated against the back of Tony’s spine, making him want to fold in on himself.  Everything inside him screamed to dip his head, bare his neck, plead with Steve, if that was what it took.  Anything, anything, just, please.  Please, please, Steve, please…

Alpha.

It was so loud in his head, he thought for a second that he had actually spoken the word.  He looked at Steve sitting on the seat next to him and had the sudden sense of something coiled and powerful, pulled back like an arrow notched in a bowstring.  If he could have gotten any words past his lips, he thought that was the only thing he could have managed to say, but it felt like the only thing that mattered. 

Alpha.

A loud hacking, thumping sound burst through Tony’s haze.  It seemed so out of place, for a moment, he had no idea how to reconcile it with what his mind was processing.

“Sorry.  Sorry. Swallowed wrong or s’mthin,” Happy rasped out around a pointed cough.  “Just gonna step out and get some air.  You two can…ah.  Yeah,” Happy muttered, grabbing the rolled up sports section from the seat next to him and clamoring out of the car so fast you’d have thought there was a cougar riding shotgun. 

The fog in Tony’s head started to disappear, leaving things all too clear. 

nonononono. 

Fuck.  Fuckity-fuck-fuck.  His cock was rock hard.  He was dripping a line of slick into his boxers.  Steve was reaching for the wine they had brought as a hostess gift for the dinner they were having at his freaking parents’ house, and their driver just nope’d right out of playing third wheel in Tony’s sick little fantasy.  He was this close to having a repeat of The Event and embarrassing the hell out of himself, not to mention making things incredibly, ground-swallowingly awkward for the rest of the night.

Differential equations.  Differential equations.   y = c1 + c2e−5x.  No, wait, those were fun. 

Dammit, math!

Filtration systems.  Filtration systems.  Ebola.  Bleeding eyeballs. Goddamn it.  Anything.  Anything at all. Literally anything that wasn’t how much he wanted to feel Steve’s hands on him, Steve’s mouth on his, Steve pushing him down, pressing a hand against the back of his neck, taking him…

Obie naked.  Think about Obie naked. 

Whoa, fuck. That worked.  Thank God, Tony thought, feeling his heartrate return to something approaching mere jumping out of a plane without a parachute as opposed to about to embarrass himself in front of Steve level.  Other parts of him decided to follow suit, thank God, his cock thankfully flagging from full-mast, though not before he had to shift in his seat and cross his legs in a manner that was probably about as discreet as asking to be left alone with an apple pie. 

Well, tonight’s award for Panic in the Limo goes to our own, Tony Stark, he thought to himself, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks.  It was a close race between him and Happy, but seeing as how points were awarded in the categories of Lack of Perspective, Can’t Seem to Learn and Highly Questionable Coping Strategies, he really felt he was the frontrunner.

“Tony,” Steve said again, though his voice sounded different this time.  Thready and thin.  Tony watched as Steve swiped a hand over his forehead and looked out the window, where Happy was nudging at the cobblestones that lined the driveway with the tip of his shoe and entirely too much intensity to be real.  Steve cleared his throat and opened his mouth, then snapped it shut again. 

“I’m ready,” Tony said.

“What?” Steve asked, swiveling his head and jerking it back like he was startled. 

“To go inside.  I’m ready when you are,” Tony told him, canting his head towards the front door.  “Jarvis is probably watching from the window, wondering what’s keeping us.”  Actually, Jarvis probably had a big bowl of popcorn in his lap and was humming along to Let’s Get It On while holding up two of Tony’s old action figures and making them do things that were definitely not on the box, Tony thought, smiling a bit at the mental image.

“Oh,” Steve said, dipping his head at Tony’s smile and turning back to look through the car window towards the front door.  “Listen, ah, about tonight.  If you get ready to leave—doesn’t matter when or why, okay? Just ask me what time it is, and we’ll go.  I’ll make up some excuse.  Promise.”

“I’m not going to skip out early,” Tony mumbled.  He wasn’t.  He’d stay the dinner and deal with whatever Howard wanted to try to throw at him with Steve around.  He could do that much for his mom and Jarvis.  Still.  He wasn’t blind to the fact that Steve was giving him a Get Out of Jail Free card to toss on the table if he wanted, and just having that control made something unclench in his stomach.  He could feel a tension he hadn’t known was there slowly seep away, tick by tick, as his heartbeat slowed to match.  “Thank you, though.  For the out.”

Steve gave him a long look, then pushed open the car door and stepped out into the waning evening light.  Tony took a deep, bracing breath, then climbed out after Steve, reaching up to take the hand Steve held out to assist him.  He would have let it drop once he was out, but Steve hung on, wrapping Tony’s hand around his elbow, the way he had done that night at the gala.  Have to keep up appearances and all that, Tony supposed, letting Steve guide him up the steps to the front door.

It was Jarvis who answered the door, of course.  On the first knock, too.  Probably had an ear plastered to one side of door, Tony figured, smiling up at the familiar face.

“You’re ten minutes late,” Jarvis announced by way of greeting as he shifted out of the doorway.

“In my defense, I literally just got a watch,” Tony said, grinning and reaching out to pull Jarvis into a quick hug as he stepped over the threshold.  “Missed you, too, J.”

“Mr. Jarvis,” Steve said with a nod.  “Good to see you again.”

“And you, as well, Captain,” Jarvis replied.  Tony thought it even sounded genuine.  Maybe death by rhubarb pie was off the menu, after all.  “Dinner will be served shortly.  Your parents and Mr. Stane are in the billiards room, if you would like to join them.”

“Depends.  Are you particularly attached to any of the walls in there?” Tony asked, tossing a small smile up at Steve and getting an arched eyebrow in return.   “Nevermind.  Forget it,” Tony corrected quickly at Jarvis’s confused look.  “We’ll go be sociable.  Come on,” he said, tugging at Steve’s arm.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Muffled voices carried out into the hallway from the study.  His father’s rapid-fire of ideas talking over everyone.  Obie’s deep drawl.  His mother’s lilting laugh that always sounded like champagne bubbling over a crystal flute in Tony’s mind.  All those months ago, he’d stood outside these same honey-colored doors and listened while they negotiated his life away with Fury and the parade of hardware-wearing Alphas who showed up with him. 

A surge of sour, frustrated bitterness clogged his throat for a moment as he approached the door.   How ironic.  He’d hated it then, the whole idea of Bonding to this hand-picked stranger.  It shouldn’t have surprised him the way it did, that his parents would find someone to stick him with who could further their interests. That was what he was good for.  He should have expected it.  It shouldn’t have hurt that much.

“You okay?” Steve asked.

“I’m still pissed they Bonded me out without even asking what I wanted or learning anything about you beyond name, rank and serial number,” Tony answered, the moment of blinding honesty coming from somewhere in the back of his mind where he kept those things for special occasions, like the good china.  “They were just doing what they were supposed to do.  Find an Alpha for me. I know that.  That’s what parents of Omegas do.  It’s just…they didn’t even…you know what?  Forget it.  Just--sorry.  Sorry, I’m—I’m good.  I’m just…”  Tony trailed off, waving a hand in front of him.  “I mean, I’m glad and all.  Because you’re you, and so, you know.  It’s good…but…” Tony said.  “I don’t know, it’s all messed up in my head.”

“Doing something for the wrong reasons…it doesn’t become right just because it works out,” Steve replied.  “If it helps, I’m still kinda pissed about that, too,” Steve added after a beat.

“Yeah?” Tony responded, glancing up at Steve who was looking down at him with a strangely soft expression.  Tony felt his fingers tighten involuntarily on Steve’s arm, drawing him closer.  Tony could smell the starch on Steve’s shirt, the hint of that green soap he used underneath it. 

“Yeah,” Steve answered. 

His gaze lingered on Tony a moment, before slipping away down the hall at the sound of raised voices.  Obie was trying to talk about something to do with the stock, but Howard was on some tired tangent about the time he invested in a production company, made a terrible movie and built a UAV camera that eventually ended up in some military drones.  Tony remembered fiddling around with it, trying to make a movie about the garden gnomes until one of them pulled a Humpty-Dumpty.  Tony had heard the story a dozen times, but Howard liked to remind everyone that even his failures weren’t really failures.  Just genius that had yet to be recognized.  Tony wanted to throw something at his head.  Preferably a camera.

“It does kind of help,” Tony muttered with a huff of breath, shaking his head back and forth at the admission.  “Would’ve been nice, you know. If we’d just sort of…met, I mean.  Maybe at one of those stupid parties.  Like normal, you know?  You’d have liked it.  I’m sure I used several rude hand gestures throughout the evening.” 

“I’d have asked for an introduction,” Steve said, soft and low, bending his head down to Tony’s ear like he was sharing a secret.

“I’d probably have said no, but don’t worry.  My parents would’ve said ‘Yes, please God, thank you, bless you,’ and probably thrown me at you, anyway, which, whatever.  You know, this is not so far off from reality, come to think,” Tony grumbled under his breath.  “I’d have said yes just to shut them up.  Probably would’ve figured I could talk you into running for the hills in under three minutes.  My record was forty-two seconds.  Some guy who was ‘in stocks,’ but his true passion was writing the great American novel about, not making this up, an Alpha who is ‘in stocks,’ but fights crime at night and is incredibly deep and misunderstood, which you know because he---wait for it—likes to write.  Did not see that coming, right?  I may have rather descriptively suggested what he could do with his little self-insert project.”  

“So,” Steve began, drawing out the word, the corners of his mouth tipping up.  “You’d have said you didn’t not want an introduction, then.”

“Not going to let that one go, are you?” Tony asked with a surprised grin. 

“No.  Not going to let that one go,” Steve repeated, following his words with a teasing smile, though his voice was a deep, rich rumble that melted into Tony’s skin.

Tony looked down at the watch that glinted from his wrist.    It wasn’t exactly what he hoped for, but it was undeniably beautiful.  He should probably start looking at other things the same way.  Be satisfied with something unexpected and wonderful in its own right, and quit wanting things he couldn’t have. 

Easier said than done, Tony thought with a soft sigh, raising his eyes to Steve’s.  A breath hitched in his throat as a tremor snaked up his spine.  He could stand here all day or forever, just basking in the way Steve looked at him like this, all sloe-eyed and soft at the edges, but focused, so intensely focused it made Tony almost forget to breath. 

“Anthony, there you are!” his mother’s voice called out, breaking the spell.  She rushed up to Tony and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her cheek to his with an air-kiss in her version of a don’t-mess-up-the-make-up-hug.  “I thought I heard the door.  Honestly, Anthony, why are you skulking in the hallway?  Your father and Obie have been waiting to see you!  That’s not one of the suits I sent you, is it?  Well, at least it’s been pressed.  Captain Rogers, welcome.  We’re so glad you could finally make it.  Please, come and join us.  Can I have Jarvis get you a drink?”

Good to see she still held the record for Most Passive Aggressive Judgments in a Single Breath, Tony thought, squeezing her back lightly, so as not to muss her hair, just the way she preferred her hugs. 

“No, thank you ma’am, I’m fine,” Steve replied, straightening his shoulders and putting on what Tony liked to think of as Steve’s stage-face. Tony imagined it was the same one Steve used when he nodded along to whatever Fury was saying while mentally reciting ‘You Can’t Make Me’ over and over in his head.  “Thank you for having us.  Sorry it took so long for me to make time.  Director Fury keeps me pretty busy.”

Well, deflector shields to maximum, Tony supposed.  They all knew it was Tony who had been the holdout, but it wasn’t like his mom could complain now.  National security turned out to be the one thing that could trump the Mom Guilt Card.  Who knew?

“Of course, of course, I understand,” Maria said, glancing quickly at Tony.  “Your job must be very important, I’m sure.”

“He’s been defending Jerry Lewis’ honor and eating brie or something,” Tony added with a shrug. 

“Oh.  Ah. Well, then, that’s…nice,” Maria replied, darting a confused look between Steve and Tony, though Tony caught her eyes catching momentarily on the way his hand clutched at Steve’s arm.    “Shall we?” she asked, sweeping out an arm towards the open doorway. 

 “Howard, look who I found,” she called out as she walked into the billiards room with Steve and Tony following on her heels. 

Howard was leaning one hip against the billiards table, polishing a pool cue while a half-empty tumbler sat next to him.  His jacket was slung across one of the chairs and his shirt sleeves were rolled up.  Casual. The kind that’s supposed to look effortless.  The pool balls were scattered across the table, with the seven and twelve visible in one of the net pockets at the corner.  Obie was sitting in one of the rounded leather barrel chairs, a glass of Scotch, neat, in one hand and a cigar in the other. 

Something felt off. There was a strange surreality to the moment that Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on.  It was staged, Tony realized.  A whole, carefully-arranged scene.  The perfect gentlemen at play fabrication of it all, like someone was trying to do charades and the answer was Mad Men.  He didn’t know how he knew, but he knew.  Maybe he’d just played pretend too often in his life to fail to recognize one going on right in front of him. 

This was about Tony.  He really should’ve seen that little TED talk coming a mile away.  They wanted to talk to Steve.  They wanted to tell him things, for his own good, of course.  This was about how they were like Steve, how they understood Steve, and just wanted to help, because they were all on the same side here.  The side of keeping things as they should be.  Everything in its place and a place for every thing.

Obie’s gaze swept over Tony as he entered the room.  It lasted only long enough for it to register, before it slipped away and focused on Steve, but Tony felt Steve’s arm stiffen, the muscles bunching under Tony’s fingers. 

This was…probably going to be a lot more fun than Tony had anticipated.

“Now, that wall,” Tony said conspiratorially as he tugged at the lapel of Steve’s jacket and nodded at the wall to their right where a painting of a ship in a storm hung next to a number of plaques from various organizations lauding Howard’s many accomplishments, which seemed to coincide with donations, as far as Tony could tell.  Man of the Year, sign here, please.  “Is a bearing wall.  So, pretty solid. Just pointing that out.  For no reason.  Well, architecture.”

“Captain Rogers.  It’s been awhile,” Obie said, rising from his chair and walking—well, sauntering, Obie did that, all long legs and big hands, like he owned the space around him—over to Steve.  He took a puff of his cigar and blew out a ring of smoke in the air in front of him, holding out his hand for Steve, who looked at it for a second before shaking it twice perfunctorily and dropping it almost immediately.  Tony watched Obie draw his hand back and flex his fingers against his thigh, stretching them out into a fan. “I think Howard and Maria worried you were keeping Tony all to yourself.  Who can blame him, I said,” Obie smiled, one of those oily smiles that felt like it was ready to fall off his face the moment it got there.

“It did occur to me,” Steve replied with a bland look.  No introduction for Obie, then, Tony noticed, watching Obie’s jaw clench as he chewed on his cigar.  His father caught the slight, too, giving Tony a look that clearly said it was somehow Tony’s fault that his Alpha wasn’t playing nice with the other kids. 

“Well, we are just glad you are both here now.  Aren’t we, Howard?” Maria asked a little too airily. 

“Your mom and Jarvis have been pestering me for weeks,” Howard said, dropping the pool cue he’d been holding down onto the pool table between the two and the eight balls and clapping his hands together, sending a small billow of blue dust into the air.  “I told them you were probably too busy messing around at SHIELD to visit your parents, but what do I know?”

“Oh, do you really have to do that now?  He just got here, Howard,” Maria protested.

“Come on, Howard! Every Alpha wants to indulge his Omega a bit, right?”  Obie asked with a chortle, looking over at Steve with a tip of his Scotch like he expected some kind of approval.  “New contract with SHIELD…stockholders could use some good news.  Hell, if SHIELD wants to let Tony play around with some of their gadgets, as long as his Alpha doesn’t mind, what’s the harm?”

“I’m pretty sure the contract specified upgrade SHIELD’s entire drone program, but I assume that’s probably just technical jargon for ‘play around with some of their gadgets,’” Steve replied.  “I supposed you’d know that better than I would.”

“Suppose I would,” Obie acknowledged after a staring contest that didn’t go his way.  He settled for another puff on his cigar and swig of Scotch as manly ways of blinking, Tony noticed, but it was what it was.  “Me—Howard, we’ve been over and over this.  We’re not saying…no. It’s Tony after all, and we all know he’s a bright kid.  Just trying to look out for the company here.  Not trying to tell you how to live your life,” Obie continued in a placating tone, drawing up his eyebrows and pulling an expression Tony recognized as the one that came before someone was about to tell someone else what to do in the most patronizing way possible.  Tony rolled his eyes and looked up at the Immovable Object standing next to him.  Well.  Good fucking luck with that, Obie. 

“Good. See that you keep it that way,” Steve replied.  Tony imagined one of those heavy castle gates closing, but seemed to be the only one who got the message. 

“Look.  I can imagine how it is, don’t get me wrong.  You’ve got a new Omega.  You want to impress him, keep him happy.  I mean, look at him!  He’s beautiful, of course you do! Not the first Alpha to find himself doing crazy things right after Bonding, am I right?  You just gotta…well, slow down a bit, is all I’m saying.  Take the foot off the gas, you know?  We keep this business at SHIELD quiet, no harm, no foul,” Obie suggested with a knowing look.  “I mean, SHIELD, they’re one thing.  You’re there and all.  But the US Military?  Well, now, that’s another.  They aren’t going to buy weapons designed by an Omega.  Just aren’t going to do it.  I don’t care who you know.”

“Obie knows what he’s talking about, Captain.  He’s been in this business longer than you’ve been alive,” Howard piped in, standing up from where he’d been leaning against the billiards table and shoving his hands in his pockets, rocking back and forth a bit on his heels, the way Tony remembered trying to emulate when he was a kid, thinking his father looked so impressive with his perfect suit, hair tousled just so, too much energy to be contained by standing still like other men.   Tony watched the corner of Steve’s mouth tick up at Howard’s words, and he flattened his lips like he was trying to hold back a smile, though Tony had no idea what was funny.  Obie really had been in the business a long time.

“It’s just SHIELD, Dad. We’re not—we’re taking it slow.  It’s just one thing, the drones…it’s barely anything.  I’m not going to—hurt the company or something.  You know—you know I wouldn’t do that,” Tony protested, the words spilling out almost by rote.

“Do I?  Is that what I know, Tony?  This wouldn’t even be an issue if you’d think about someone other than yourself for change.  We have thousands of employees.  Investors. Stockholders.  And you, off playing mechanic at SHIELD because your Alpha thinks it’s cute or something,” Howard scoffed.  “No, no, I’m sorry Captain, but it’s the truth.  SI would be the laughingstock of the industry if we let this be anything other than a vanity project for the newly Bonded.  Board won’t like it, but they’ll understand. They’ve all had new Omegas to break in.  It happens,” Howard finished with a commiserating shrug.

“It’s not a—a vanity project!  Those Hammer drones were crap. Come on!  I could do better with a nine-volt, some putty and whatever’s left of a Samsung after it explodes!” Tony argued, feeling his voice rise to a shout. 

Blood was pounding in his ears.  His heart was beating out a staccato rhythm in his chest.  Damn it.  Damn it.  He willed himself to calm down, or tried to.  It wasn’t working.  Then, he felt the light touch of Steve’s hand twist out from where Tony was clutching his arm.  Just a slow stroke over Tony’s hand.  Steve wound his fingers through Tony’s, intertwining them, and gave Tony’s hand a slight squeeze. 

“You know I can do better.  Dad.  Come on.  You know I can,” Tony added. It was almost a plea.  As close to it as he could let himself get, touching his toe right to the line of setting himself up for disappointment without actually crossing it. Almost a plea, but the last one he would make.  He didn’t have to.  Not anymore.  He squeezed Steve’s hand back. 

Howard opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it, and closed it again, his lips flattening into a thin line.  His eyes were hard, dark, and Tony knew his father knew he was right, but wouldn’t say it.  Couldn’t say it.  Couldn’t give Tony even that much because he saw it as taking something away from him, like there was some kind of ledger that subtracted from Howard every time Tony excelled.

There’s not going to be much left, old man, Tony thought with a sort of vicious satisfaction. 

“That’s probably good advice,” Steve said. “About taking it slow.  Keeping it with just SHIELD.”  Tony’s head snapped to look at Steve in surprise, a pang of shocked hurt drumming through his chest with a familiar beat.

“See?  That’s all we’re saying,” Obie interjected with a triumphant grin that didn’t make it to his eyes.

“Except I just spoke with Army Contracting Command this morning about a proposed contract for adaptive armor research—Tony’s got some great ideas about that,” Steve continued, keeping his eyes on Howard.  “I may be with SHIELD now, but I do still have a…bit of pull, I guess you’d say, at the Army.  Not that I needed to use it.  Tony impressed the hell out of the head of the Army Science Board with his ideas.  Remember Dr. Barker?” Steve asked, looking down at Tony, who could only manage to nod in astonishment.

Too many good things were happening at once.  It was throwing his game off, Tony thought with a bit of disgruntled amazement, trying to reconcile everything in his head.  Dr. Barker.  Dr. Barker, who Steve had introduced him to at the gala.  Dr. Barker, who he had wished his Omega was interested in adaptive armor and who Tony had remembered to ask questions of instead of just info-dumping the poor bastard. 

“Well…that’s…I mean…” Howard stuttered, seemingly torn between the idea of a top-dollar Army contract and something that made Tony happy. 

“If you want, you can explain to Major General Simpson at ACC that SI doesn’t have the…resources…to take on a…what did you call it?  Oh, right. Vanity project,” Steve said evenly, letting the challenge hang there in the air between the men.  Tony was fairly sure Steve’s middle name was Just Try Me.  God, Tony really wanted to golf clap for how smoothly Steve had teed that one up, but figured that was just piling on at this point.

“Good news for SI, then, huh?” Obie said in a speculative tone that was trying hard to be placating.  “Army, eh?  Science Board’s a tough nut to crack, Howard.  Looks like Tony here’s something of a golden goose, as they say.  Hey, look,” Obie said, putting his hands up in the air, palms out.  A gesture of surrender, Tony thought.  “If the military folks don’t care, then I don’t care.  I’m just the money guy, okay?  Someone has to look after the books if we want to keep enjoying this kind of thing,” he said, waving a hand around the room.  “But, Tony’s the one they want, fine by me.  We’ll be progressive.  Hell, this is California.  Probably get some good press out of it.” 

Obie was watching Steve, eyes narrowed.  Calculating, Tony thought.  Obie was always doing that.  Running the numbers.  He’d always been the money-man.  What had Steve called him?  A butter and egg man.  That was Obie.  What could he get and how much would it cost him to get it.  Good quality for a CEO, Tony supposed.

“Anthony’s always been so creative, hasn’t he, dear?  I think he gets that from me,” Maria said, finally breaking the heavy silence. 

“Yeah.  Yeah, always creative,” Howard acknowledged slowly in a flat, grim tone, as if he had the word stuck on his shoe and was trying to pick it clean.

“Really, all this—all this business talk.  Honestly!  Can you all manage to not talk shop before dinner even gets started for once?” Maria asked brightly through a painted-on smile.  “They’ve just Bonded!  They don’t want to talk about contracts and…armor, or whatever, for goodness sakes.  Anthony, Susan Brightman, you remember her from my bridge club?  She said she saw you at the Honoring Our Heroes gala.  Now, I want to hear all about it!  Don’t skimp on the details.  You know your father never takes me anywhere anymore.  Tony never did much care for those kinds of things, Captain,” she continued with an exaggerated sigh.  “Always had to be a bit difficult about it.”  Over his mother’s words, Tony heard Howard swallow a cough at the understatement. “I’m sure it was different with his Alpha  there, though.” 

“He let me talk about my self-insert painting for just over three minutes,” Steve replied.  Tony let out a shocked bark of laughter before burying his face against Steve’s arm to cover his laughter.

“O—oh?” Maria said, brow drawing into as much of a frown as years of practice would allow.  “How…nice.”

“He’s—mom, he’s kidding, he’s—“ Tony tried, biting his lip to try to keep from laughing.  “It’s a—an inside joke.  Would you stop?” he demanded, looking up at Steve with what he hoped was an exasperated frown.  “No one knows when you’re joking.  You have the Serious Face going and everyone thinks they should salute or back away slowly or something.”

“You’ll have to tell me all about it over dinner. The gala, I mean,” Maria replied, falling back to her usual foxhole of inane conversation when things got awkward. 

Howard was watching the whole thing like a he’d been pulled out of the audience into some kind of show he wasn’t supposed to be a part of and had no idea where to stand or what to say.  He watched his father pick up the ubiquitous tumbler from the edge of the billiards table and take a drink that lasted a little too long, then pick up the decanter to pour himself another.   Not because his was empty, Tony noticed, but to give himself something to do. 

“Bet you’re looking forward to a real, homecooked meal, eh?  I tried to get Tony to pay more attention to that stuff, but he never could manage to get the hang of it,” Howard said with a shake of his head, glancing down into the swirls of drink before peering up at Steve. “Even got him one of those fancy oven things with the cooktop and microwave and all that for his birthday one yea.  And how do you think that ended up?  Rewired the damn microwave oven transformer into some kind of metal melter, can you believe it?”

“I can see how that would be surprising behavior from Tony,” Steve said evenly with absolutely zero hint of surprise and, if Tony wasn’t mistaken, an undertone of delight.

“That thing got 800 amps,” Tony tossed out, more to Steve than anyone else, but he said it with a sense of pride that wouldn’t have been there before or would have been, but carefully hidden away with all the other things that he thought had been wrong with him until now.  “Made a spot welder.  To…melt the ring of power in my Mount Doom cake.  Which I totally baked, by the way.  Well, fine, Jarvis did, but I was present,” he amended at Steve’s skeptical look.  “I was Frodo to his Samwise.  It took both of us.”

“Hopefully, he’s taken a bit more of an interest in those kinds of things, now that he’s Bonded,” Howard added with a slight nod of semi-approval.  

“Actually, I do most of the cooking for us,” Steve said.  “Not that I’m great at it, but I can usually manage to put something on the table.  Tony’s got his robots, this whole thing with SHIELD, and, of course, his research—did you know he’s working with Caltech now?  The professor out there, he wants to publish their work in one of those science journals.  Says he’s been invited to give a speech in Switzerland next year. Someplace called CERN?  Anyway, he wants Tony to come along, kind of a thank you for all his hard work,” Steve announced.

“What—wait, what?  He does?  CERN?” Tony stammered. “Me?  I can’t…”

“So, I figure, Tony can unlock the mysteries of the universe, and I can do the cooking,” Steve continued as if Tony hadn’t spoken.  “Division of labor.  You wanted to go to Switzerland, right?” Steve asked, glancing down at Tony.

“I—well, yeah, but…” Tony started.  But.  But, always a but.  But, I can’t. But, I shouldn’t. But, I’m just an Omega.  Howard was expecting the but.  He probably had a rejoinder ready, sitting there, waiting on the tip of his tongue for Tony to lay the groundwork like he’d been taught to, leaning the lesson so well, it felt natural.  Right. 

“Switzerland would be great.  I’d love to tour CERN.  If we can, I mean. That’s the—they have the large hadron collider there. They’re working on measuring different stages of heavy-ion collision.  Fourier expansion coefficients and all that,” Tony said instead. The words tasted a bit like ash in his mouth. Dry and wrong.  They didn’t want to come out.  They wanted to stay buried, somewhere down below that lump in his throat, but he was tired.  Tired of saying all the buts, even when he knew they weren’t true.  These words, they were right, no matter how it felt to say them.  He knew it.  Steve knew it.  Even Howard fucking knew it.  “Fun stuff,” Tony added with a  grin that he couldn’t quite hold.

“Sounds like,” Steve said dryly, though there wasn’t any mockery in it. “Then it’s settled,” Steve agreed.  “You’ll like Switzerland.  Beautiful country there.  Green mountains, lakes like glass.”

“You’ve been before?” Tony asked.

“Well.  Let’s just say I’ve been right up to the border a time or seven,” Steve said with a rueful shake of his head. 

“I feel like you’re picturing Von Trapping through the Alps, and I’m seeing something more like hot chocolate in front of a fireplace,” Tony said with a slight frown, making Steve let out a low chuckle.

“Switzerland with this Professor friend of yours.  How exciting!  He must be quite impressed with you, Anthony.  You were always such a bright child,” Maria offered.  “Wasn’t he, Howard?”

“Wouldn’t know it from the way his tutors complained,” Howard muttered.  He’d been waiting for something, Tony figured.  Some crack in the façade he could worm his way through, throw something in Tony’s face.  Tony imagined one of those workplace signs flipping over with a sharp clicking noise that sounded like teeth.  It has been 0 minutes since our last insult of Tony. 

“Well, God knows, his tutors certainly didn’t know what to do with him,” Maria huffed. 

“Because they were boring and obnoxious,” Tony objected.

“Because they wanted you to learn about how to behave, how to have good manners and act appropriately.  A lesson which you seem to have missed,” Howard pointed out. 

“I did fine in the college classes I took,” Tony argued, shifting to face Howard.  “And by ‘fine,’ I mean I had perfect scores.  In everything. Every single class. Not even a point off.  Until you made me stop.”

“You had no business taking those classes, and you know it,” Howard sneered. “Using Jarvis’s ID to sign up…typical.  Why would you care that it’s wrong?  Since when would that stop you from doing whatever it is you want?  This whole business with SHIELD, it’s the same damn thing all over again, and I won’t sta—“ He stopped.  Tony watched him visibly swallow the words down.  He could almost see them flow back down his throat, one bob at a time.  I won’t stand for it. Not really your place anymore, Dad, Tony thought with a nearly visceral satisfaction. 

“College classes?” Steve asked. 

“Huh?” Tony startled out of his reverie.  “Oh, ah.  Yeah, just some…ah.  It wasn’t anything really.  A few intro things, nothing—“

“Oh-ho-ho! well, see now?  There you go. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Howard all but tripped over himself to say.  “Guess my son forgot to mention that little misadventure to you.  Tony does tend to edit quite a bit, Captain.  There will be some truth there, sure, but not all of it.  Just the bits he wants you to hear. You should keep that in mind, whatever it is he’s telling you.  I know how charming pillow talk can be, but trust me, Omegas will tell you what they think you want to hear and leave out the rest.  Devil’s in the details, isn’t it, though?”

“You took college classes?” Steve asked again, looking down at Tony.  “You said it was an online school.  I didn’t realize it was college classes.”

“It—I—well…” Tony stuttered.  He was standing on the edge of zero to panic.  He could feel it.  His body starting to depress the accelerator, like he was on the outside looking in, watching it happen, but powerless to stop it. 

“Tony,” Steve said, and he felt a squeeze on his arm.  It slowed everything down, somehow.  Grounded him. 

“Just a few.  Basic stuff.  This community college up in Susanville? It wasn’t anything big, really,” Tony managed, though he felt like he had a mouth full of marbles. 

“See what I mean?” Howard smirked.  “I put a stop to it as soon as I found out, of course.”

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Tony protested.  “No one would’ve known.  I was going to drop them before the semester was even over.”

“It was ridiculous, is what it was,” Howard retorted.  “Making a fool out of himself.  Can you imagine what people would’ve thought if they’d found out?  Can’t even control my own son.  He’s signing up for, hell, what was it?  Intro to Computers?  What were you, learning Office for Christ’s sake?  God, that was an embarrassment.”

“Basic Computer Maintenance,” Tony corrected, hating how small his voice sounded.  “Graphic Design.  And…Computer Applications.”  Okay, fine, the courses had been easy.  Ridiculously easy.  

So, he’d designed an AI to do the coursework for him.  Even named it after Jarvis, though he told him that it stood for Just Another Rather Very Intelligent System.  Hey, lots of people had study-buddies, Tony figured.  Same diff.

“See what I mean?” Howard shot back, raising an eyebrow at Steve in challenge.  “Always up to something.  Always pushing limits.  He just can’t let it be,” Howard said, pounding a fist against the edge of the pool table, making the balls roll and clack together. “That’s why I’m worried about this whole thing with SI.  You want to let him play in your garage or you get some Professor who consults with SHIELD on the side to pat him on the head, fine, have at it.  He’s your problem now, God knows. But, this is the kind of thing you end up with.  It doesn’t look good.  And it doesn’t do anyone any favors in the long run, I’m telling you right now.”

“That’s not…” Tony started, then clamped his mouth shut, gnashing his teeth together so hard he could almost taste the enamel. 

“You’re right,” Steve agreed, nodding at Howard.  “Enrolling in those college classes was completely ridiculous.  He had absolutely no business there.”

It hurt.  Okay, it hurt a lot.  More than he would have thought.  It wasn’t exactly unexpected, not really.  Or, it shouldn’t have been. You’d think he’d be used to it by now. Everyone had a line.  Cars, watches, gifts, playing around in his garage…was Thorne really on SHIELD payroll?  God, he was such an idiot.  Stupidstupidstupidstupid.  He wanted to bang his fists against his head, until the word would stay in there where it belonged.

 “I figured you’d see reason after we explained—“ Howard began, a triumphant gleam in his eyes.

“Community college?  Basic courses?” Steve repeated with a chuckle and shake of his head, like they were a punchline.  “For Tony?  Tony should be at…Caltech or…what’s that place where you’re always correcting the faculty on their computer forum?  MIT,” Steve said, snapping his fingers like he just thought of it.  “Cold there, though.  And Red Sox,” Steve said, shuddering with distaste. 

Tony sucked in a breath and looked up at Steve in shock.  Relief or—no, something else.  Something more steadfast and solid than simple relief rushed through him.  It felt like certainty.  It felt like an answer, the thing on the other side of the equation.  It was how he felt when he knew the things he built would work. 

He had to stop dodging blows from years ago, stop expecting scorn because it was something he knew how to escape. Just because it was familiar didn’t make it true.  My math is always right, Tony thought.  I’ve just been using the wrong data for a very, very long time.

“I—they don’t—I mean, I can’t—no Omegas, and all that—“ Tony stammered, trying to catch his breath.  “I can’t actually go to MIT.  But…thank you.  For…you know.  Saying that.”

“MIT?  You have to be kid—“ Howard started.

“Now, Howard, do we really need to do this now?  This is supposed to be a family dinner, not a debate.  You remember what young love was like, don’t you?  One bit part in a movie, and you thought I should have a star on the Walk of Fame,” Maria interrupted smoothly.  There was a note of warning in her voice.  You wouldn’t know it, if you didn’t know what to listen for.  She was always careful about correcting Howard in front of anyone, but Tony could hear it, the plea to, above all things, save face.

“No.  No, you’re right, Maria.  Of course.  My apologies, Captain, if I overstepped my bounds. I was merely sharing my…experience with regards to Tony,” Howard added with a forced politeness that slithered through his teeth.  It was the sound of a hundred We’ll-Discuss-This-Laters, Tony thought with a jolt at the way it could still make him feel small, though not in the way it used to.  Not in the way that made him want to hide or cower or make himself smaller.  Lesser.  Less there.

That was the thing that was off, Tony realized with a start, watching as Howard looked at Steve with a searching, numb expression.  For the first time in God only knew how long, Tony wasn’t the one struggling to figure out what the right thing to say, the right expression to hold, the right way deal with events that were out of his control. 

“I completely understand,” Steve replied without dropping his gaze from where it was locked on Howard, who had to top off his drink to give himself an excuse to lower his eyes.  There as a sharp edge to his voice.  A warning, Tony thought.  He knew about those warnings, too. This one wasn’t directed at him, but he could still hear it. 

“Anyway, Switzerland!  That sounds so romantic!” Maria burst out with false gaiety.  “You’ll love it, Anthony.  A trip abroad.  How exciting! Oh, their chocolates are divine.  Like heaven. Have them melt those in some milk for you.  You’ll never want to drink anything else.  Do you remember, Howard?  They used to bring it to me at the chalet while you were off skiing. Such a lovely country,” she recalled.  

Howard didn’t actually ski.  An old knee injury from a motorcycle crash when he was a teenager (Not really, he’d twisted it running down some stairs in a midtown walk-up with someone’s boyfriend hot on his heels.  Not really, he’d fallen, drunk, down the stairs at a party).  Tony was sure his mom knew that.  He sometimes didn’t know if she was deliberately sending thinly veiled reminders to Howard of his infidelity or if she had simply decided to believe the story.  She had always liked fairy tales.  She probably preferred to think of her life as one, where she was the princess and the prince didn’t spend his holidays screwing ski instructors.  

“Speaking of food, why don’t we head to the dining room?  I’m sure Jarvis is ready to serve the first course by now,” Maria suggested when no one else seemed to want to remark on their travel plans. 

“That sounds good, Maria,” Obie said as if on cue, walking past where Steve and Tony stood with a small smile that crinkled his forehead.  He stubbed his cigar out in the ashtray and swallowed down the rest of his drink with a smack of his lips.  “I don’t know about any of you, but I’m starving.” 

It wasn’t exactly the most subtle effort, Tony thought, but it got the job done.  Howard polished off his drink and set it down with a too-hard clink on the table, and left the room without another word.  Obie gave Maria an apologetic look and followed. 

“Anthony, would you show Captain Rogers to the dining room, please?”  Maria requested. 

“Just—ah--yeah, just give us a minute, okay, mom?” Tony asked, twisting around to catch her straighten her shoulders and soldier on with a curt nod. 

“Of course,” she replied and ducked out of the room. 

Tony waited until the sharp clicks of he heels echoed down the hall, and then stepped in front of Steve.  He was still clutching Steve’s hand.  He should probably stop that, but he didn’t.  It gave him something.  Grounded him, he thought again.  Kept the live-wire in his head from overloading from too much input.  He remembered that night in the kitchen, when cracks appeared in the counter to match whatever was going on with Steve, and how he had wrapped his arms around Steve and held on.  He thought it might work like that for Steve, too.  Maybe.  Maybe he kept Steve from overloading from too much input sometimes.  Maybe taking care of Tony was some kind of…subroutine for Steve.  A fallback.  Something he could focus on to get through all the noise in his head. 

“So…” Tony began, drawing out the word.  “Thank you for being a total dick to my Dad.  That was pretty awesome.”  Steve didn’t respond, just stood there, a muscle in Steve’s jaw ticking off the seconds in time with Tony’s watch.  “I feel like you kind of want to say that they started it, but you’re thinking that sounds too childish.  If so, let me remind you my Dad just literally greeted you by polishing his cue stick.”

Steve let out a surprised puff of laughter, then shook his head, letting it dip down.  One hand came up to rub at his forehead, before he dropped it and looked at Tony. 

“They had no idea what they had with you, did they?” Steve asked with a sigh. 

It hurt.  It still hurt, even though he knew Steve wanted the company to do well.  Even though Steve was giving him what Tony had wanted for so long but never dreamed he’d actually get to have.  That was the whole point.  Building the company.  Steve was smart enough to know that he would never get anywhere with it if he didn’t exert some dominance from the get-go.  If Howard and Obie could, they’d run roughshod over him, send him out to glad-hand and give them validity with a military they’d never served while they made all the decisions.  The perfect paper hero they could put on stage and sell to the world. Tony was sure that had been the plan. 

Of course, they hadn’t counted on Steve Rogers being the most stubborn, uncooperative ass this side of a Tom Hanks’ bachelor party.

“In their defense, I’m was a handful,” Tony argued with a smile.  “Look…about Obie…don’t do the eyebrow twitchy thing.  He’s…old school, I know, but he’s not a bad guy, not really.  He’s just…always followed Dad, you know?  He cares about the company.  Really, he does. It’s all he’s ever known.  He never Bonded, no kids.  Just him and Dad, trying to build something out of a few scraps of an idea they put together in Dad’s garage thirty-odd years ago.  This is his life’s work.  He’s just…freaking out about things going to the crapper, and you know—you know—that’s a possibility.  I mean, they’re not wrong about the whole issue with an Omega designing weapons.  Even if my designs are better--”

“Which they are,” Steve cut in.

“They are,” Tony agreed with a nod, his face softening.  “I’m just saying.  He isn’t a bad guy, not really.”

“You want an introduction,” Steve responded flatly. 

“If I’m really supposed to work with the company, don’t you kind of think it might be helpful if the CEO and I occasionally, I don’t know, chatted?” Tony asked, throwing his hands up in the air.  “He was just trying to help.  With the whole Heat thing, I mean.  I know, it’s unusual, since it was my first Heat and all.  I know, that’s…I mean, usually, maybe an Alpha who wasn’t Bonded would help out a widowed Omega or something, but it was a weird situation.  Most Omegas are Bonded well before their first Heat, and if I hadn’t been…you know.  Me about it with every Alpha I met, I would’ve been.  And I didn’t have those…those nice little, ah…helpers, that I have now,” Tony reminded him in low, careful voice.  He was really starting to hate those pills.  Still. They were illegal.  No reason to give anyone who might be listening any leverage.

Steve was looking at some point on the far wall over Tony’s shoulder.  His shoulders were pulled back and stiff with tension.   Someone was a Grumpy Gus, Tony thought, physically restraining himself from rolling his eyes.

“Look, you…you don’t know what it was like, okay?  The Heat.  With no Alpha.  Obie was trying to do something for me, and I’m sure it was as weird for him as it was for me. Weirder, probably.  He’s been with Omegas before.  Dad and Mom, they have no idea.  Not really.  He didn’t want me to have to deal with that.  It’s not—it wasn’t what you’re thinking,” Tony protested. 

A hint of warmth crept up his neck and bloomed on his cheeks, making his eyes prickle.  He could feel the weight of Steve’s gaze as it slid back to him, hovering for a moment on the space around him before finally finding Tony’s eyes. 

“I don’t like thinking about it,” Steve said.  His voice sounded odd. Slightly garbled, like the consonants were mashed together too hard.  “You.  Going through that. By yourself.”

“Well…not going to lie, it wasn’t the best few days of my life, but, you know,” Tony shrugged.  “Not deadly or anything, last I checked.”

“I don’t like thinking about you being alone when you…when you needed--” Steve broke off, gaze sweeping over Tony, making his heart speed up, knocking it against his ribcage so hard he thought Steve had to hear it.

“Well, see, that was where Obie was coming from, is what I’m saying,” Tony said.  “He didn’t want me to…have to deal with that, because…”  Steve was watching him.  No, looking at him.  Looking hard.  Studying him.  Appraising.  His eyes were a dark, deep blue, half-lidded as his gaze raked over Tony, different than before. Different than usual, when Steve was noticing things, the way he did.  This was…it felt like if he moved, it would be because Steve willed it.  Because Steve wanted it. And that was, God, he wanted to just fall into that feeling and stay there for however long he could.

Tony’s tongue had gotten too big for his mouth all of a sudden.  It made him want to lick his lips, but he thought that would look stupid, so he didn’t, but then all he could think about was the desire to wet his lips.  He ran a hand up and down over the back of his neck.  His palm was sweaty.  He could feel it, cool on the skin of his neck.  He started to press down before he realized what he was doing and made himself drop his hand to his side, where it hung limply like the other one, with nothing to do, like two appendages he’d just grown and had no idea how to use.

“I don’t like thinking about that.  You.  By yourself when you needed—someone to take care of you.  But when I think about someone else…I don’t think…if he had…I don’t think I’d much care why,” Steve was saying, low and slow, his mouth barely moving as he spoke.  The words sounded slurry around the rush of blood pounding through Tony’s ears.  Tick-tock, he thought dazedly.  “I’m not sure what that says about me.”

“I—“ Tony started, then had to stop and swallow past a dry throat and nothing really to say to that. 

Steve moved then, so fast Tony would have taken a step backwards if he could’ve gotten his brain to communicate with his feet.  Instead, Steve was in front of him, his face inches from Tony’s, so close, Tony could feel warm breath ghost over his lips.  Hands cradled the sides of Tony’s face.  He could feel the pad of Steve’s thumb trace a line over his left cheekbone.  The one where he had the scar from falling off his bike.  A small white line.  Thin. Jagged at the edges.   Barely there. From falling off his bike, he repeated to himself.  He had forgotten to breathe again.  His lungs were screaming for air, but he didn’t want to move, as if the least little ripple would change everything, a single drop expanding in ever-increasing circles over the surface of the whole ocean.

“Tony,” Steve husked out, raspy, like the word was scraped from somewhere deep inside.  He breathed out then and closed his eyes, stepping back and letting his hands fall away from Tony’s face before opening his eyes and turning to the side.  Tony’s hands were reaching out of their own accord, because he sure as hell wasn’t capable of directing his limbs to do much of anything.  He wanted to stop, he did, or he didn’t.  God, it was so hard to tell.  Nothing made sense. 

“St---“ Tony started.

“There you are!  We’re about to eat without—oh! Oh, sorry! Sorry, I—well, I’ve gone and put my foot in it, haven’t I?”  Maria said with a wince in her tone.  “You’d just taken so long and…well, I…I thought…I’d better check…”

“It’s fine, ma’am.  Sorry to keep you waiting.  We’re right behind you,” Steve said.  His voice wasn’t even shaking, damn him.  Tony’s mind was currently engaged in some toddler-level version of Scrabble where it was just tossing out letter combinations and hoping for a triple-word score.

Steve held out a hand. Tony stared at it, then lifted his gaze to Steve’s. 

“I’m glad, too, you know,” Tony heard himself say.  “About the whole thing with Obie and—and waiting, and all.  I mean, now I have the pi—now, it, ah.  Isn’t really an issue, so.  So, that’s good.  No more worrying about it, I mean.  Load off, really.  I can concentrate on…the work and…all that.”   

Something flickered behind Steve’s eyes, then shuttered and was gone before Tony could catch it.  He took Steve’s hand and let himself be pulled along down the short hallway to the formal dining room.  Howard sat at one end of the table, lounging back in a large wooden armchair with a button-tufted back that Jarvis hated to vacuum.  Maria was at the opposite end, which left Obie sitting in one of the seats along the side, directly across from the place set for Steve.  Tony took his place next to Steve, beside his mother and offered her a small, apologetic smile.

“Well, now that we’re all here…” Howard said pointedly.  “Jarvis!  Let’s eat!”

All in all, Tony thought dinner went well.  Stilted conversation, but no property damage, so he considered it a win.  Steve gave him an introduction to Obie, half-hearted though it may have been.  Mr. Stane, my Omega would like an introduction.  Tony puffed out a breath of air through his nose.  Passive-aggressive Alpha-posturing-bullshit.  Honestly.  My Omega would like an introduction.  Not, I’d like you to meet my Omega.  Or, this is my Omega.  My Omega would like an introduction, and I’m not at all happy about it, though that last part was silent.

Okay, fine, so Tony liked that a little bit. 

“You promised to tell me about the gala,” Maria reminded him, leaning in Tony’s direction and placing a gentle hand on his elbow to draw his attention.  Howard and Obie were attempting to regale Steve with tales of their exploits at some weapons convention they’d been to in Vegas last year.  It wasn’t working, but Tony doubted his father, at least, could tell, though Obie, to his credit, kept trying to steer the conversation to something that involved actual landmines instead of metaphorical ones.

“It was nice,” Tony replied.  He leaned back in his seat and let Jarvis spirit away the sorbet with a quick thanks.  An endive salad followed.  He wasn’t hungry, but he picked up his fork and poked at the plate anyway.  Chewing gave him something to do other than talk, which tended to not end well for him.  He could remember counting as he ate, trying to reach twenty on each bite.  His mother thought he was trying to lose weight. 

“Oh, now, don’t do that!  Give your poor mother at least some details!” Maria protested.  “What did you wear?  Who did you meet?  Other than this…Army science person,” she said, waving the hand with her crystal goblet of wine in the air. 

“Ah…what did I wear?  A suit?  Blue,” Tony told her.

“Blue!  That’s your color!  Haven’t I told you?  You finally listen when you have an Alpha, I see,” she said with a satisfied smile.  Him in blue. That was an accomplishment for her.  Not the “Army science person,” who was so impressed in twenty minutes of time with Tony, they were getting a contract out of it.  Tony sighed.  He was tired.  Tired of trying to get her to want him to be who he was.  She, at least, didn’t hate who he was.  It wasn’t like with Howard. She just…wanted him to be who she was.  He looked around him, trying to see it differently, trying to look at it without all the years of shame and disappointment hammered into every nook and cranny. 

She was happy.  In her own way, she was happy.  She was secure.  She was well cared for.  She had the things that told the world her status.  She wanted him to be happy, too, and the way she knew to give that happiness to him was the way she had gotten it for herself.  By playing the game.  She didn’t make the rules.  He couldn’t keep despising her for not breaking them. 

He looked down at the watch on his wrist, shook it a bit so the face sat on the inside of his wrist, over his pulse.  It should feel cold, the metal on his skin.  Instead, he could still feel the lingering, solid warmth of Steve’s fingers there, melted into his flesh. 

“It was at the Disney Concert Hall.  The one Gehry did, downtown?  Great space.  You and Dad went to the Philharmonic there, remember?” Tony prompted.  “It was a veteran’s thing, so just about every Alpha there was decked out in their uniforms.  Steve though…you should’ve seen him.  I always thought the Marines had the best dress uniform.  I take it back,” Tony said, holding up a hand.  “Army wins, hands down.”

“Damn straight it does,” Steve said without turning, then promptly went back to pretending to listen to whatever Howard was saying about the 800 Club.

“Met a lot of other Omegas.  They had a whole room for us.  Snacks, drinks, TV, the works.  Kind of nice, just being able to hang out,” Tony added.  “Talk.  Mostly.” 

His mind flashed to Sugar, worrying that Tony hadn’t eaten enough and if her son would ever settle down.  Charles, with his photograph of his boys and their fishing poles, and wondered if he and David had traced their fingers over Benji’s name on the Wall.  A bittersweet pang of longing twisted in his chest, high and tight, wrapping around his heart and squeezing, hard enough that he screwed his eyes shut for a second, letting it pass.  When he opened them, Steve was watching him. Steve’s eyes dropped down to where Tony’s arm rested on the table next to his half-eaten plate of salad.  Tony followed his line of sight down to the watch, then gave a quick shake of his head.  He wasn’t going to bow out tonight.  He wasn’t sure why he was so determined to stick the landing tonight, but he was. 

“See?  I told you that you would enjoy yourself if you just gave it a chance!” Maria replied from somewhere in the background of the silent conversation he and Steve were having.   “What else are you up to at that house of yours?  Jarvis tells me it’s quite, er…quaint.”

“Compared to this, yeah.  But, it’s nice.  I like it.  Homey, I guess.  I have my garage.  For my projects.  Ah, robots, mostly.  Some, I mean.  Other stuff, too, but…robots,” Tony said, making it almost a question.  His face squished up in annoyance with himself.  He didn’t mean to do that.  It was still hard, though, especially with his mom.  The fun just wasn’t in shocking and disappointing her the way it was in undermining everything Howard hoped would happen to him.   “The stuff with Professor Thorne at Caltech.  That’s mostly just looking over the data from…from a telescope, ah, thing.”

“Oh?  You did always love all of that star stuff, didn’t you?” she said, almost wistfully. 

“Ah, yeah?  Yeah, I did,” Tony replied.  He was honestly a bit thrown that she’d noticed. 

“And you do that now?  Build your robots and look at the stars?” Maria asked.  “It sounds….like what you’ve always wanted.”  Her voice had gone soft.  For a moment, he was pressed against the sequins of her gown while she read him The Little Prince.  He could almost smell her perfume, feel the way her hair felt stiff and sot at the same time, twisted and sprayed to stay artfully in place.  He had wanted to fix the pilot’s downed plane, he remembered with sudden, vivid longing.  Live on an asteroid like the Prince, and go on a journey across worlds, meeting the extraordinary characters the Prince met.

A king who commands no one.  A vain man who is only assured of his superiority by being alone.  A drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of being a drunkard.  A businessman who spends his days counting the stars instead of appreciating them.  A lamplighter who so blindly follows, he extinguishes the very light he creates.

The pilot had wanted to be a painter, he recalled, casting a sideways glance at Steve, but the world made him fly planes instead. 

“It—it is,” Tony said.  “Nice.  It is nice.  It’s not fancy or, you know.  Like this.  But…it’s nice.  I—we—have a deck.  Steve, he put a telescope out there for me.  There’s a pond.  We keep our pet fish there.”

“I heard that,” Steve chimed in, turning his head enough to smile fondly at Tony.  “Those fish are dinner one day.”

“Awww, you named them.  I like Day best.  He has stripes,” Tony replied.  Steve rolled his eyes and went back to what Tony assumed was naming fish in his head or whatever it was he was thinking about while not listening to Obie and Howard. 

“Just listen to you two!” Maria laughed, the low, pleased kind that said Tony had done something right, which somehow meant she had done something right, as well.   “It’s so good to hear you this happy, Anthony,” she said, reaching out to cover his hand with her own.  “Really.  Your father and I, we…worried, you know.”

Lie.

Whatever.

It was fine.

“But, you seem to be settling in so well now,” she continued. 

“I—yeah. I am. I guess. We are,” Tony replied.  The endive salad disappeared and dessert was served.  Some kind of puff pastries with a deep, red sauce drizzled over them and a spot of cream on the side.  Not rhubarb pie, Tony thought with a rueful look at Jarvis who returned it with a raised eyebrow. 

“I’m glad,” Maria responded.  “When you didn’t take my calls or return my emails, I thought…well.  Silly things.  A mother’s worries. I’m just glad things have worked out so well.”  Thought the worst, maybe, but didn’t do anything about it, Tony mentally noted.  But that was nothing new.

Tony’s appetite was gone.  He picked at the pastry shell with his dessert fork until it was crumbs without eating any, while his mother looked on approvingly. 

“Jarvis!  Bring out that bottle of Glenlivet 25, would you?” Howard called out.  Too loudly, Tony noted.  Slurred, just a bit.  Time to leave, Tony’s brain supplied.  Time to go, Tony.  To your room, to your window, where you can see the stars.  Time to be away.  He looked down at his watch, then over at Steve, siting ramrod straight next to him.  Not tonight.  Tonight, he would stay.  It would be alright.  Steve had promised, and that might not be familiar, but it was true.

“Come.  Have some sherry with your mother and leave this rabble to their Scotch and cigars,” Maria urged, rising from the table.  Tony dabbed at the corners of his mouth with his napkin and stood up to follow her.  He could feel Steve watch him go, but when he turned to look back, Steve was answering Obie’s question about the Army’s contract review process with a detailed precision that was probably what led Howard to call for more to drink.

His mother wound her hands around his arm and tugged him along to her parlor.  It smelled like Chanel, Tony thought as they walked in.  Her sanctuary.  His eyes found the cabinet of his mother’s collectibles and awards for good works on the far wall.   Lifetime achievements, Tony thought.  A series of pastel-painted porcelain flowers.  A hideous peach-colored clock with two flute-playing cherubs on top.  And a large silver plate.  For best tomatoes.  He grinned.  A part of him wanted to flick it off, just for coming full circle.

“Here,” his mother said, handing him a tiny crystal goblet brimming with a dark golden liquid.  Liquid luck, Tony thought.  For her, anyway.  “Drink.  Or don’t.  I know you hate it.”

He took it the proffered glass, but just held it without drinking any.  Maria sat down on one of the damask-covered chairs and rearranged a tasseled pillow behind her back, sipping delicately at the sherry. 

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” she said after a moment.  “Took Jarvis to get you here.  That was to be expected, I suppose.  I suppose I deserved that.”

“That wasn’t…why,” Tony said, though he didn’t mean it.  They both knew that.  Still.  Have to keep up appearances, even when it’s just us. 

“Yes, it was,” Maria said with a somewhat caustic laugh.  “Are you going to tell me?  Really tell me?  Or is that just for Jarvis, too?” she spat out, seeping bitterness, though Tony wasn’t sure who it was aimed at.  Maybe all of them.  “I told myself I wasn’t going to do that,” she demurred with a quick shake of her head.  “Go on. Ask me what you’ve been wanting to ask.  Its why you came here tonight, isn’t it?”

It was, he realized abruptly.

“Did you care when you agreed to have me Bonded to someone you’d never even met?” Tony demanded, the words hissing out through his teeth. 

He hadn’t meant to sound that way.  To let himself sound that way.  The sherry sloshed against the rim of the glass.  He set it down on the marble-topped table and walked over to stand in front of the cabinet.  He could see his reflection in the silver plate.  Jarvis always kept everything in here so shiny.  The way she liked it. The way she liked all her things.  Beautiful and gleaming and perfect. 

“That…was your father’s doing,” she said, her mouth thinning into a frown as she looked down at her hands. 

“Well.  Guess that’s true of a lot of things,” Tony said, turning around to face her. 

Her expression cracked, just for a moment, and Tony could see the sadness there, in the lines on her face.  The regret.  It wasn’t enough, but it was there. 

“Did you know about him? Steve, I mean?” Tony asked.  “Do you know who he is?  Or even…did you even ask?”

“You mean did I ask why the Bonding of a mere Army Captain was a national security matter that required the Director of SHIELD, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and people with titles I’m not supposed to know exist?  Yes.  Yes, Anthony, I asked,” she replied, a rebuke stinging through her words. 

“Did you get an answer?” Tony pressed, though he already knew.

“What do you think?” she replied, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow at him.  “Howard saw dollar signs.  Connections he couldn’t dream of making on his own, despite his delusions of grandeur,” she said with a grimace.

“What did you see?” Tony asked. 

“A chance,” Maria said softly.  “For you.  You would have never let me give you that.  Not that I don’t understand why.  I’m not blind to who you are, Anthony.  I tried.  With you.  Oh, how I tried.”

“I know—I know you did, Mom,” Tony said, swallowing thickly and blinking at the burning edges of his eyes.

“Do you?  I doubt it.  I know what you think about me.  You aren’t wrong, I suppose,” she replied with a small, almost indifferent shrug that looked like acceptance. “It isn’t fair, is it?  You.  It isn’t fair that you are who you are and I am who I am and your father is who he is.  None of that is fair.  The world…it isn’t made for someone like you. I knew that from the time you were a young child.  It would destroy someone like you.  It would have to.  Someone like you…you would make them have to see, and oh, they don’t like that, do they?” she said, head twisting at an angle, eyes narrowing to sharp slits.  “So, I gave you what I could.  What I knew.  Our armor is artifice, I know.  A smile.  A compliment you don’t mean.  A bit of skin when you’d rather cover up.  A well-kept house, a good meal. A cup of hot chocolate when we aren’t supposed to see.  These are how you survive, Anthony.  These are the tools you have, but you…you could never quite get the hang of them.  So, I worried.”

“Mom…” Tony breathed out, momentarily stunned.

“But, then, he picked you, and I hoped…I hoped I wasn’t wrong about the why of it,” Maria explained. 

“The why?” Tony asked, blinking at her in bafflement. 

“I chose your picture, you see,” she said in a soft voice that quavered a bit at the last. 

Tony swallowed and looked down at his feet, then back over to the cabinet, where the award for best tomatoes shone in the light. 

“Oh, yes, I knew what you were doing. And why. If he was going to pick you, I wanted him to pick you.  Not what I tried—and failed, rather spectacularly, I must say--to mold you into.  That.  That was what I could give you,” Maria said.  She leaned back in the chair and rested an elbow on the arm, sipping at her sherry. “And now, you have your robots and your stars and a five-million-dollar savings account on your wrist.  Oh, yes, I know what that is,” Maria said with a pointed nod.  Tony looked down at the watch in confusion, then a sort of dawning horror.  Five million dollars? “Moinet.  One of a kind, too.”

“Who is he?” Tony asked, still looking at his watch.

“I have no idea,” Maria said.

“Does How—Dad know?” Tony questioned.

“No,” Maria replied. 

“It was a gift from France. The watch,” Tony told her. 

“How nice.  I didn’t even get a card from them when I got married,” Maria said, making Tony puff out a surprised breath of laughter.  He’d forgotten how much he’d always enjoyed the rare times she let her humor show.  “You’re happy, then?  Really happy?”

“I—yes,” Tony replied.  She raised her eyebrow again and took a sip of sherry.  “I am.  Really. Steve, he’s…” All the things that Steve was sat there on the tip of his tongue.   Kind. Smart.  Different kind of smart than Tony, but fiercely brilliant, Tony knew.  Funny, when you knew how to read him.  A good man.  That was a trite turn of phrase, but Tony thought it may have never been more true than when applied to Steve.  None of that really told her much of anything, though.  It wasn’t what she cared about.  “I’m in love with him,” Tony said instead.  His throat clicked as he swallowed and dropped his head, one hand coming up to rub at the bridge of his nose.  “I didn’t mean to.” 

“I know,” Maria replied gently.  She put her glass down on the side table and stood up, bridging the few steps between them.  She placed a hand on his arm and tugged his hand from his face, wrapping her long, slender fingers—piano hands, Tony thought—around his wrist, just above the watch.  “It isn’t a weakness, Anthony.  The way you love.”

“Sometimes it feels like it,” Tony mumbled, looking down at his wrist. 

“Does it feel like it with him?” Maria asked.

“Never,” Tony answered without hesitation. 

It was true, he realized with a bright burst of warmth in his chest.  He sucked in a shaky breath, then let it out again, raising his eyes to his mother’s face.  He loved her, too.  Not in the clear, certain way he loved Steve.  She was vain and demanding, and she always wanted more than he could give her, but she was his, and he was hers.  She had loved him as he loved her, always tinged with the hope that each would be someone else.  It was useless to try to love all roses, but you can love a single rose, even if it isn’t perfect, even if there are a thousand better ones in the garden.  You can still love the one, if it is yours.  He supposed he would always try to find his way back to her. 

“Good,” she said forcefully, giving his wrist a light squeeze.  “Now, go find your Captain and save him from whatever supply-side economics lecture Obadiah is trying to give him.  I need to check in with Jarvis.”

She flowed out of the room on sharp clicks of her heels, all golden-haired and swishes of fabric, leaving him to watch her go on to The Next Thing, as if she had checked something off her mental list.  She probably had.  He sighed, reached out and picked up his glass, taking a sip of the warm liquid.  It tasted awful, he thought, wrinkling his nose and setting it back down. 

He walked down the hall, but the billiards room sat empty.  Jarvis had already spirited away the glasses, returned the pool stick to its proper slot on the rack and emptied the ashtray.  Erased, Tony thought.  We do a lot of that around here. 

He took a left in the hall and wandered towards his father’s study, peeking inside the way he had when he was a boy.  At first, he thought it was empty and turned to leave.  Someone cleared his throat, stopping him.  Tony turned around and pushed the oak-paneled door further open, stepping inside.

“I was looking for Steve,” Tony announced. 

“Obie has him cornered,” Howard replied.  He was sitting in one of the overstuffed chairs by the fireplace.  One hand dangled over the side of the rounded, leather arm with a half-empty glass held between his fingers.  “Might be awhile.  I needed a break.”

“Oh. Well.  I’ll just—“ Tony started.

“Have something for you.  There.  On the desk,” Howard said, pointing in the general direction of the desk.  “Our latest drone program research.  Thought that might be useful.”

“Ah.  Yeah.  Yeah, thanks, that’s….great,” Tony replied with a surprised frown.  He looked over at the desk.  How he hated that thing.  He knew how the embossed leather on the top felt against his cheek, how it smelled a little like pine.  That when it was jostled with enough force, the long drawer in the center would open, just a crack.  He walked over to it anyway and picked up the flash drive that was sitting on top of a stack of file folders, then held it up in front of him. “Thanks.”

“Tell Captain Rogers I gave it to you,” Howard said.  “That’s what you want, isn’t it?  See?  I can be reasonable,” Howard continued with a derisive snort, tipping his glass to the corner of his head in a mockery of a salute. “Here’s to my Omega son’s success.  I’ll definitely drink to that.”

“I will.  I’ll tell him,” Tony promised.  “Look, Dad…I know…I know this is weird and I get why you’re…concerned.  I do.  I just…I want you to know,” Tony said, sucking in a breath that almost hurt.  “I’m going to do a good job with this.  I am.  Really.  For the company.  For Steve.  For…for you.  I’m going to do good with it.  You don’t have to worry.”

“Worry?” Howard parroted, standing up on unsteady feet.  He walked over to where Tony stood by the desk and slammed his tumbler down with enough force that one of the files slipped off the stack and onto the floor, spilling its contents in a swish of papers.  “You think I’m worried?”

“I—“ Tony began, then broke off. There wasn’t a good answer here.  The time for good answers, careful words, all that was gone.  His mouth opened, but no sound came out.  In his ears, his heartrate spiked, swooped then started pounding, tick-tock, like a countdown.

Steve, what time is it? 

He wanted to leave.  He wanted to be done, but they were here again.  He was here again. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“I have to go,” Tony rasped out, turning towards the door.

“Don’t you turn away from me when I’m talking to you, boy,” Howard ground out, sending flecks of spittle into his moustache.  There was a hand on Tony’s arm, jerking him around, a finger pointing in his face, and it was all so fast.  He’d forgotten how fast it happened.  How you could never quite be quick enough.  Almost, but not quite. Close, but no cigar, he thought with a strange sort of detached hysteria that seemed to make his limbs go soft and rubbery. 

“You think you can take this away from me?  Oh, no.  No, no, no,” Howard seethed, jabbing his finger closer to Tony’s face.  “Not you.  It will never be you, Tony.  Just because you have your Alpha by the cock doesn’t mean I’m going to stand by and let you ruin this for me.  I should’ve known,” Howard sneered.  “I should have known what you’d do.  Can’t help yourself, can you?  You never could.  Even when you were a child, you refused to just behave like you’re supposed to.”

“You’re drunk,” Tony said with a dull, listless acceptance creeping into the edges of his vision.  “You need to back away and sit down.  I’ll get Mom or Jar-“

“You, with your little machines and your stupid, useless inventions,” Howard bit out, looking Tony up and down and clearly finding whatever he saw wanting.  “Couldn’t show me up then, but now, oh, now.  Now, you’ve got an Alpha, and you think you can waltz in here and take what’s mine?  You think I’m going to let my little brat of an Omega whore his way into what I’ve worked my whole life to build?”

“Theyweren’tstupid,” Tony muttered, then closed his eyes.  He swallowed, or tried to.  There wasn’t any saliva in his mouth.  Why?  Why did he have to do that?   It was like a bell being rung that made his brain sit up and antagonize when he should just walk away. Why couldn’t he just walk away?

Blame it on Dark Matter.  Everyone Else Does.

A spurt of hysterical laughter welled up inside him.  His eyes focused on Howard.  His face was red from drink or anger or both.  His eyes were bulging and his mouth was some bastardization of a smile, filled with loathing and contempt that Tony could finally see wasn’t really even aimed at him.  Just deflected back, he supposed. 

Everyone always took my robots away from me.

He took them away from me.

Away.

Elsewhere. Ah.  Of course.  Away.

“They weren’t stupid.  My inventions.  They were good.  They worked.  My drones are going to be ten times better than what anyone at SI could do.  I blew past that ten years ago with a TV remote, an electric razor and a tinker toy set, but you already knew that.  I don’t need your research.  You need mine.  You always have.  And this,” Tony said, holding up the flash drive.  “Your little Trojan Horse?  Nice try.  But I’ve played that game with you my whole life, haven’t I?  How many familiar things am I going see at SI?  How many of my ‘stupid inventions’ has SI built over the years?  The ones you couldn’t get to work, the problems you couldn’t solve, the ones you’d bring home until I fixed them for you, like that reactor?”

“That what you think?  That I needed you?  You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Howard snapped, but he had wilted somehow, like the truth sucked something out of him.  “You know that stuff of yours never worked.  It never worked, remember?” Howard spat out.

“I remember you told me it never worked.  But it did, didn’t?  It did.  No wonder you hated me.  All those years.  How that had to have killed you.  The one thing you were supposed to be better at that everyone else,” Tony said.  A man who could only be the most amazing person on the whole planet if he lived by himself, Tony thought.  “And you weren’t even better than your Omega son.”

Tony could see the blow coming.  The way Howard’s body tensed just before the movement.  He felt the rush of air against the side of his face and braced, muscles tightening even as his stomach loosened.  It was better not to, but he couldn’t help it.  Howard wore a class ring on his hand.  It would leave a scar.  A thin one.  Jagged at the edges.

Except nothing happened.

Tony had the sense of the world tilting, slipping downward like it was melting, then righting itself and reforming.  He blinked and realized he was looking at Howard’s belt buckle as his father’s body swayed back and forth in mid-air, legs kicking out, though not far enough to reach Tony. 

Steve was standing between them.  Tony almost couldn’t believe it, and, at the same time, had expected it. Of course, Steve was there.  He had promised.  Steve was also holding Howard about his head by the neck with one hand, letting Tony’s father dangle like a marionette. 

Okay, well.  That part was a little unexpected.

“Are you alright?” Steve asked, glancing over his shoulder at Tony with a look of concern.

“Yes,” Tony managed.  Then, “No.  I don’t know.”

“On account of whatever feelings that Tony may still have for you, I’ve tried to be forgiving,” Steve said, turning back to Howard, who was clutching ineffectually at the hand holding his neck, fingers grasping desperately, face red and puffy.  A line of spittle hung from the corner of his mouth where he was trying to speak but couldn’t get any air past Steve’s iron grip.  Steve’s voice was calm, almost nonchalant, if you didn’t know him, but Tony did, and he’d heard this voice before, on an offer to serve Tony a stranger’s apology on a silver plate, if he wanted it.  “But you should understand that if you ever raise your hand to him again, I’ll kill you.”

Howard’s eyes bulged, whether from terror at Steve’s words or a lack of oxygen, Tony wasn’t sure.  Tony heard a sharp, shocked cry and looked over at the study door where his mother hovered with a hand at her throat, eyes wide, Jarvis just behind her with a similarly stunned expression, though he didn’t exactly pull off appalled with quite the aplomb that Maria mustered. 

“Sorry about the damage,” Steve said cooly, not sounding particularly sorry. 

Tony could see his mom start to form the words to ask what damage, when everything went a blur of motion and a loud cracking sound rent the air.  Tony jumped out of the way before he realized what he was moving away from, then looked down.  The desk was split into two parts, both folded in like two cards, with Tony’s father on the floor between them.  Howard’s head lolled to the side, a smattering of papers blanketing him as the tumbler of Scotch rolled across the floor, leaving a trail of droplets.  Tony watched it with an eerie sort of fascination until it came to a rest by Howard’s left shoe. 

Tony stared at the scene for a long beat, then looked up at Steve, finding Steve’s eyes on him.  Steve reached out and cupped Tony’s cheek, the back of thumb tracing across Tony’s cheekbone and down to the corner of his mouth before he dropped his hand, pivoted on his heel and walked out of the room.  Tony opened his mouth to call out, but couldn’t get any sound to come. 

“Oh my God,” Maria wailed, flipping some switch that took her and Jarvis off pause.  She rushed to kneel on the floor as close to Howard as she could get amidst the broken desk.  “Jarvis, call an ambulance. Ice.  We need ice.  Someone get some ice!  Where’s Obadiah?  Oh my God.” 

Tony walked over to the bar and took the lid off the ice bucket.  He realized he was still clutching the flash drive and dropped it into a decanter of whiskey for good measure.  He picked up the tongs and plucked out a few round chunks, putting them in the center of one of the cloth napkins that were neatly folded into squares next to the array of glasses.  He handed it to his mom, while Jarvis gave their address to the operator. 

“Is he…is he okay?” Tony asked carefully, picking at the words as if they were notes he could play.  He wanted to sound sorry, but it wasn’t working by the look his mother shot him. 

“He’s unconscious, but I suspect he’ll recover with little more than a terrible headache and temporary rejection of alcohol,” Jarvis replied, pursing his lips.  “He’ll be fine, Tony,” Jarvis said, a bit more conciliatorily.  “I daresay a bit more respectful of proper boundaries, however.”

“I’m just…”  Tony said numbly, then shook his head and rubbed his hands over his face.  “I’m going to…” he looked over his shoulder, then over at Jarvis, who was shoving his cell phone in his pocket and kneeling down next to Tony’s mother.  Tony swallowed and sucked in a deep breath.  “I’m going to go stick a fork in a light socket and see what happens.”

“I should say so,” Jarvis replied archly. 

Tony took one last look at the tableau of his mother and Jarvis bracketing Howard in the middle of the remains of the desk Tony hated, then turned and walked out of the room without a backwards glance.  By the time he reached the hallway, he was nearly sprinting.  He threw open the front door and stepped into the crisp night air.

Steve was standing by the garage at the edge of the driveway, silhouetted by one of the lantern lights that cast a flickering shadow over him.  He was facing away from Tony, hands shoved in his pockets.  For a second, Tony thought about the Tesla coil, sitting atop its pillar, waiting, radiating barely-contained power. 

Steve turned, just enough to see that it was Tony, then dropped his chin to his chest.  Tony walked down the steps, one foot in front of the other, he told himself, hitting the pavement.  He kept his eyes on Steve, never wavering as he approached. 

“I’m sorry if I ruined your evening,” Steve said, making Tony grin at the very specific apology. 

Not, I’m sorry for slamming your father through a piece of furniture.  Or I’m sorry for playing Stromboli to your father’s Pinocchio.  No.  It was, I’m sorry if I ruined your evening.  God, did he love this man.  He loved him with a blinding, absolute certainty that drowned out everything that had come before.  Tony kept walking, picking up his pace. 

“What are you doing out here?” Steve asked with a slight frown.

“I’m testing a theory,” Tony replied.  He was surprised at how steady his voice sounded.  He walked up to where Steve stood, grabbed on to Steve’s arms for leverage and leaned up on his tiptoes, pressing his mouth to Steve’s. 

It wasn’t a good kiss.  Even Tony knew that much.  It was teeth clacking together, noses bumping, lips sliding against each other, and all around probably terrible, but Tony kept his mouth on Steve’s, and God, it wasn’t a good kiss at all, but it felt like heaven. Steve’s whole body was hard and unyielding, coiled tight with tension, but his lips were soft against Tony’s, warm and pliant.  Tony’s mind helpfully supplied the image of Steve chewing on one of his charcoal pencils while he sat in the garage with Tony, that plump bottom lip of his folded around the curve, and Tony heard himself groan into Steve’s mouth. 

Steve drew back at that small reverberation of air and breathed out a long, ragged breath. This was when Steve would tell him to stop, that he didn’t want this, that he had told Tony.  The Event 2.0.  He could take it.  It would be fine.  Not like he wasn’t used to disappoint—

Tony’s thought cut off, his whole mind going blessedly, remarkably blank as Steve brought his mouth down to Tony’s.  This kiss, this wasn’t anything like Tony’s awkward attempts, his uncoordinated, careful maybe of a kiss.  This was hard and bruising and taking, and oh, God, yes, yes, this, please, Tony’s mind managed to conjure before it hit the hard reset button. 

Steve slanted his lips across Tony’s mouth and brought a hand up to cup the back of Tony’s head, one hand on Tony’s hip, keeping him still and applying enough pressure to get Tony to angle his mouth just so.  The tip of Steve’s tongue traced the seam of Tony’s mouth.  More pressure at the back of his head, and Tony gasped, a small, surprised wisp of air, his whole body going pliant.  Steve’s tongue swept inside Tony’s mouth, sliding along Tony’s, flicking the tip with the flat of his own, then, delving deep, just for a moment, curling back around Tony’s in a slow, velvety caress before drawing back.

There was a distant thrumming in Tony’s ears, a wave crashing over and over on the shore.  This was everything he had wanted and not nearly enough.  Hesitantly, he touched his tongue to Steve’s bottom lip and licked inside the wet heat of Steve’s mouth, just for a second. 

He felt Steve’s grip tighten spasmodically against his hip, the hand on the back of his head pulling him closer, until his chest was pressed to Steve’s.  Steve sucked in Tony’s bottom lip, then released it, the flat of his tongue circling around Tony’s again, and this time, Tony let his mouth go slack and met Steve’s tongue with his own.   Steve’s arms wrapped around him more fully, and the hand that had been holding his hip shifted, splaying wide over the curve at the base of Tony’s spine.

Everything was a haze of pleasure.  Tony tried to open his eyes, but his vision was blurred, softening at the edges.  Tony couldn’t think.  There were things to think about, important things, but none of that seemed to matter to his body.  Electricity was coursing through his body, up and down, sparking to the ends of his nerves and back again, settling low in his belly with a blazing pressure.  He could feel his body loosening, relaxing. Preparing.  A warm rush of slick coated him.  His cock answered with a jolt, a buzzing, insistent pulse of almost-pain that sent tendrils of heat coiling from his groin to the base of his neck. He didn’t care.  Or, he did, but it didn’t matter.  Nothing mattered in the world except the way Steve’s mouth felt on his, the way Steve’s hands held him, the way Steve’s body was moving against his. 

Tony let out a low, shuddering moan.  His hands were still clenching Steve’s arms to keep himself upright on legs that suddenly felt like jelly.  He wanted to feel Steve, though.  Touch him.  How had he gone all these months without touching Steve when it felt like this to be in his arms?  How had he thought anything about that was fine?

Steve tore his mouth from Tony’s, and for a second, Tony couldn’t process the sudden loss.  He just knew he needed more.  He stretched up, using his hold on Steve’s arms for leverage and nudged at Steve’s mouth beseechingly with his own.  He wanted Steve.  Wanted him with a desperate, consuming need.  He wanted Steve to want him the same way.  Please, Tony thought.  Please, please, please. 

“St—Steve,” Tony panted, eyes fluttering open long enough to take in the dark, predatory way Steve was looking at him.  Oh.  Oh

“Alpha,” Tony breathed out, then found himself suddenly spun around, facing the front door of his parents’ house, with Steve’s arm around his waist jerking him flush against Steve’s body.

So, that was a big yes to the does-Steve-want-me-question, thanks. 

A very big yes.

Oh God.  Oh God.  Ohgodohgodohgod.

Steve was going to take him right here in the driveway of his parents’ house, Tony thought with a dazed sort of longing.  He was falling.  Or that was how his mind decided to process the rush of terror and exhilaration slammed through him at the thought, making his heart skip like a pebble on a pond.  This was crazy, insane.  They couldn’t possibly—not here, now—it wasn’t—

Steve pulled the back of Tony’s collar down, enough to bare the skin at the base of his neck and pressed his mouth there, sucking, biting at the skin where it rippled over the bone, hard, almost brutal in the assault. There would be marks there in the morning, Tony knew.  Dark, blue-black bruises on his skin that said he belonged to Steve. 

Okay, really, right here was completely fine.

Right here was glorious, actually, Tony decided, feeling his whole body go limp.  Honestly, what were a couple of scraped knees, really?  He let his chin drop down to his chest and felt a low rumble of a groan in return from Steve, sending a fresh rush of warmth between Tony’s legs.  Tony brushed his hips back experimentally, feeling the hard length of Steve’s cock press into the curve of his bottom.  Steve’s arm tightened around Tony’s waist, holding him there, and fuck, yes, this.  More of this, Tony thought with a helpless moan.

He felt Steve sigh into his skin, place one quick, almost apologetic kiss there, and raise his head.  No, no, no, more of that, Tony mentally protested, brushing his hips back again. 

“Ambulance,” Steve husked out, slowly releasing his grip enough to turn Tony around so he was cradled against Steve’s chest, almost hidden by the bulk of Steve’s arms.  Safe, Tony thought, and pressed his cheek to the center of Steve’s chest, just over his heart where he could hear the rapid beats pound though his ears.  It sounded reassuring somehow.  From underneath Steve’s arm, Tony caught sight of the flashing lights in the distance.  He frowned.  Leave it to Howard to somehow manage to screw this up for him while being unconscious.  Typical. 

“Tony,” Steve said, warm breath feathering into the hair on the top of Tony’s head.  “There’s…something I have to tell you.”

“Unless it involves a recently developed exhibitionism and/or medical kink, I don’t particularly care,” Tony whispered, the last of it coming out in a nervous rush of laughter. 

He felt Steve’s chest hitch against his cheek with a low puff of air.  The ambulance was pulling through the gate. It had stopped its sirens, but its lights were still whirling, sending red, white and blue patterns across everything.

“Its…important,” Steve told him.

“I don’t care,” Tony said, realizing it was true.  “I don’t.  Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.  The—the car, and France and the kitchen counter…It doesn’t—none of that needs to matter.”

“It really does,” Steve replied.

“Not to me,” Tony insisted. 

“You say that, but…damn it,” Steve broke off, shoving a hand in his pocket and coming out with his cell phone.  He frowned at the number, then looked at Tony.  “I have to take this.”

“You do have the argument that it might actually be a matter of life and death, so…” Tony shrugged.  He couldn’t believe he was legitimately getting cockblocked by national security. 

“Rogers,” Steve said by way of answer as he clicked the button on the phone.  “Now isn’t really…Uh-huh.”  Pause.  “I see.”  Hand on his hip.  Toe of his shoe scuffing against the driveway.  Someone wasn’t happy about things, Tony thought with no small amount of glee. “Fine,” Steve snapped, clicking the phone off and dropping it back into his pocket.  “I have to go.”

“I kind of gathered that,” Tony said.  The ambulance came to a halt in front of the house. Jarvis opened the front door, gave Tony a quick look, then proceeded towards the ambulance.  Had everything really happened in the space of the eight minutes it took for the medics to get here?  It seemed impossible that so much could change in so little time. No one seemed to know, which was weird, though Tony couldn’t say why.  It just seemed like the world should be different because…the world was different now.

“When I get back, we’ll—we’ll talk, okay?”  Steve said.  “Happy will take you home.   I don’t want you here by yourself.” 

“What about you?” Tony asked.

“My ride’s almost here,” Steve said.  Happy was coming out the front door and down the steps towards where their car was parked.  He must have been in the kitchen with Jarvis, getting something to eat, Tony figured.  Tony looked around, but didn’t see another car anywhere.  A few moments later, he did, however, hear a low, thudding noise. 

A black shape formed in the sky, low over the line of trees that formed a barrier to the road.  The helicopter turned on its lights once it reached the property, sending a bright, white beam over the entire scene. 

“God, you’re so dramatic, sometimes,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes.

“So I’ve been told,” Steve agreed.  There was a smile playing on his lips when he looked down at Tony.  “I have to go.”  He sounded less than thrilled at the idea, which was something, Tony supposed.  It was getting loud.  There were suddenly way too many people here.  He wanted to be…well, not here.  Someplace with Steve, preferably, but he’d take just being away from here. 

“Thanks for threatening my Dad.  It was surprisingly romantic,” Tony said, peeling himself off Steve’s chest with no small amount of reluctance. 

Steve leaned his head down until his mouth was against the shell of Tony’s ear.  “Anytime,” Steve vowed, the word almost a growl, making Tony shiver.  “I have to go,” Steve said. 

“I know,” Tony replied.  The chopper was setting down on their side lawn, making loud, thumping-whirring noises.  The medics had the stretcher out of the ambulance and were rolling in inside with various medical bags and equipment loaded on top.  Happy popped the car door open and waited next to it for Tony.

Just another dinner with the parents, Tony thought with a rueful grimace. 

“Go on,” Tony urged.  “It’s fine.  I’ll be fine.  Go.  Get tuda choppa!  Sorry, sorry, that was terrible. But, really, when do you get a chance to use that quote?  Like, never.  Unless you’re you.  Or Bonded to you.  Seriously, you shouldn’t let me leave the cabin, you know?”

“I shouldn’t be gone too long this time,” Steve said.  Someone was shouting from under the helicopter blades. Tony squinted, then remembered the man from his visit to SHIELD.  Smaller boulder, Tony recalled.  Steve wrapped his hand around Tony’s wrist, over the watch, and gave it a light squeeze.  “Happy?” Steve called out.

“I’ll get ‘im home, Cap, no problem,” Happy shouted over the noise.  Steve nodded, gave a last, lingering look to Tony, and took off for the waiting helicopter.  Tony walked over to where Happy stood next to the sedan and watched Steve climb into the helicopter’s cabin.  He lifted a hand in the air and let it hang there until the chopper disappeared into the night. 

Tony shot a look at Happy, who just shook his head, then ducked into the back of the sedan while Happy slid into the driver’s seat.  Tony let his head fall back against the curve of the seat, closing his eyes for some amount of time he couldn’t quite track, then twisted his neck to look out the window as they drove.  He watched it all go by with a strange, detached sort of unreality.  A part of him still couldn’t believe the whole evening had even happened, but when he looked down, his watch was still there, marking the passage of time as the sedan turned off the highway and onto the familiar road that wound up the mountainside.  

Time, Tony thought, watching the second hand tick around the face.

He undid the clasp and took it carefully off his wrist, holding it in his palm and really looking at it again.  It really was a work of art.  Who did you send a thank-you note to for something like this?  Dear France, thanks for the watch.  Sorry about McDonalds.  He started to put it back over his wrist, then stopped, and flipped it over.  There was an inscription on the back in small, delicate script.  Something he hadn’t noticed before.  His chest gave a sudden, jerky heave, and he felt his eyes sting as his brow drew together.  Tony stared at the words for a long moment, then wrapped the watch around his wrist once again. 

“Almost home, Boss,” Happy told him.

“Yeah,” Tony breathed out.  “Yeah, I think so.”

I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

 

Chapter 9

Tap.

Tap-tap. 

Tap-tap-tap.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. 

Tony stopped the motion before the—what was it this time?  Wrench, he noticed, looking down at his hand.  Before the wrench hit the edge of the workstation again, where it was clanging out a sharp, staccatoed echo in the garage. 

 He sat for a moment in the quiet.  It was the kind of quiet that said alone, a deep, waiting quiet where sounds not your own are instantly suspect.  He used to like this kind of quiet.  Relish it.  It meant being left alone.  Now, it meant…being left alone.  Tony let out a deep sigh and dug the fingers of one hand into his forehead.

“I’m not worried-worried. I’m not,” Tony insisted to the quiet garage, swiveling his chair around to face the bots.  “I’m really not.”

He tossed the wrench towards the toolbox, missed, and watched it bounce out and land next to the Audi’s back tire.  Tony glanced over at DUM-E, who was hooked into the CPU, downloading a programming update and whirring so excitedly through the process that Tony half expected him to ask for a cigarette when it was complete. Which U would probably helpfully put out, but whatever. 

“I’m just…I’m curious, is all,” Tony said.  DUM-E’s pincer spun and opened in what Tony took as a pantomime of skepticism.  “I can be curious and not be…worried.  Steve’s fine.  So, mission went longer than he probably thought it would.  Happens, right?  Besides, I’ve got plenty here to do, so.  Staying busy with the…the, uh…” Tony stammered, looking around the garage where various unfinished projects were strewn in assorted states of disarray.

 “Stuff it, Neil, I’m trying, alright?” Tony muttered, taking a sip of lukewarm coffee as he watched the neon-colored image of the astrophysicist helpfully inform him that dreams of the future are filled with gadgets.  “Steve, he has a…really important job-thingy to do, you know?” Tony said, looking over his shoulder at U, who nodded his arm.  Encouragingly, Tony thought.  “Saving the world, protecting freedom and America, and, I don’t know, puppies. Whatever.  Important stuff, okay?  Not like he wanted to go. There was an actual helicopter.  It was very dramatic.”

He closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat, then opened them and stared at the garage’s vaulted ceiling.  Steve’s hands wrapped around him, traveling up and down over his body.  Steve’s mouth, hot and insistent, sucking a bruise against the back of his neck.  Steve’s cock, hard and thick, pressed into the cleft of Tony’s back.

There was a thin thread of dust hanging between the dangling light fixture and one of the wooden beams.  If there was a loquacious spider up there somewhere, she was probably weaving a web above his head that spelled out horny.  Tony’s mouth twisted in a half-hearted smile, and he scrubbed a hand over his face, sitting up in his chair. 

“Whatever it is he wants to talk to me about, it’ll be fine.  Communication is good, right?” Tony asked.  His eyes caught on the Someone Is Wrong About Science Hotline, and he felt a fond, watery smile form against his better judgment.  “Foundation of a relationship and all that.  So, whatever the big reveal is, I mean, we’ll deal with it.  That’s all I’m saying.  Not like it is going to be something that stops…things…from happening,” Tony continued, reaching out to pluck a finger over the string that was tied to the tin can. 

He wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince.

Tony picked up the open end of the tin can and put his mouth to it.  “Should I tell him I love him?  Tap once for yes, twice for no,” Tony said, his voice deepened as he spoke into the tin can.  “You can use binary if that would help,” he offered into the silence.  God, he was a dork, he thought, letting the can go so it dangled by its string from the wall.

U blinked his pincers in Tony’s direction, spun them around, then rolled over to try to pick up the wrench Tony had thrown.  The bot managed to snag the wrench in his pincer and drop it in the toolbox, raised his arm and whirred happily. 

“Good job, buddy,” Tony said, his mouth quirking up in a lopsided smile.   At least someone was trying to offer help.  It wouldn’t matter, he told himself firmly.  Whatever it was that Steve wanted to tell him.  It wasn’t going to change anything.  He loved Steve, and Steve…felt something for him.  He was this close to being sure of that.  No one kisses someone like that without there being some kind of—of feelings there.  Granted, he had zero actual knowledge of this, but it felt like it should be true.

Tony let out a frustrated puff of air and turned back to his workstation.  The edge of a catalog peeked out from underneath a roll of blueprints and a ream of LIGO data printouts with a few calculations of the black hole masses written in borrowed charcoal pencil on the top, next to the number for pizza delivery and what looked like a splatter of coffee diluting where he’d begun to calculate the photon pressure they’d need to use in order to calibrate the interferometers.  He eased the catalog out from under the stack and flipped through it as nonchalantly as he could manage. 

After a few pages, his mouth twisted into an annoyed grimace, aimed half at himself and half at the scantily-clad models with their wide-eyed gazes and parted lips.  He tossed the magazine aside, glared at it, then reached over and picked it up again, flipping through the glossy pages.  Victoria didn’t seem to have that much interest in actually keeping anything secret, but whatever, Tony thought with a sigh. 

He wondered briefly if all newly Bonded Omegas somehow got on the special Please Fuck Me mailing list.  In theory, he would have to go to Steve and ask him to actually order something, a thought that managed to make a heady combination of shame and desire burn through his belly and down the length of his cock until he had to rub the heel of his hand into his groin, pushing on the head to make the insistent throbbing stop.  Of course, he had Steve’s Alpha code, so he could order what he wanted.  But, Steve would know he’d ordered something.  Which was both alarming and curiously pleasing at the same time. 

For a moment, Tony tried to imagine Steve getting an email notification of Tony’s order, maybe in the middle of a briefing with Fury or while loading up for the long plane ride back to California from wherever in the world he was.   Would he click on the link to see the item Tony ordered?  What would he think about it? What would he think about Tony in that?  Would he like it?

Would he come home sooner?

Stop, Tony told himself firmly.  He didn’t even want anything from the stupid catalog.  Definitely not that thing on page twenty-two. 

Definitely was not thinking about how Steve’s hands would feel, rubbing the soft, silky material over Tony’s skin.  How Steve would look at him, eyes dark, hungry, admiring gaze roving over Tony.  How Tony would start to strip the garment off with shaking hands, but Steve would stop him, push Tony’s hands above his head and tell him to keep them there.  How Steve could slide his fingers under the lacy straps and peel them down from Tony’s shoulders. 

Nope.

He set the catalog down by his keyboard and watched Neil’s neon face cautioned him that if you wanted to assert a truth, first make sure it isn’t an opinion that you desperately want to be true.  Honestly, Neil could go fuck himself, Tony thought, moving the mouse to make Neil and his bits of wisdom disappear.

It wasn’t as if a week was even that long of a time.  Not really.  Steve had been gone for longer stretches.  Except...except they’d kissed now, Tony thought, absently stroking his fingers over the back of his neck, and…and.  And what?  Steve should just…tell the bad guys that, Tony thought with a self-deprecating huff.  Surrender evildoers, my Omega is horny!  Yeah, so, probably not going to be Steve’s go-to strategy. 

He knew it was ridiculous.  He was being ridiculous.  Steve had a job to do, an important one, obviously.  Lead singer of Fury’s little super-secret boy band or whatever, and Tony just needed to be patient and stop thinking about the way Steve’s hands felt roaming over Tony’s body or how Steve’s mouth felt on his, how it felt like drowning and coming up for air at the same time.  Overwhelming and freeing.  He could do that.  

Absolutely. 

Not. A. Problem.

He picked up the catalog again and let it sit in his lap unopened.  The memory of the day they went shopping, when the salesman tried to talk Tony into a way to show gratitude that involved a bit more in the way of sheer fabric than Tony had thought was strictly necessary, flashed through his mind.  He remembered being embarrassed by the suggestion. By Steve possibly knowing about the suggestion, even though it hadn’t even been Tony’s doing.  Now, he was sitting here in his garage thinking about ways to flirt via Amazon Prime. 

The most creative of people are motivated by the grandest of problems presented before them, Neil offered, popping back up on the screen with brightly-colored enthusiasm. 

“Neil thinks I need a cold shower,” Tony told the bots.  U rolled excitedly towards a half-empty bottle of water that was sitting on top of one of the workbenches, managing to knock into the edge hard enough to topple the bottle, sending a gurgle of water onto the floor. 

“A for effort,” Tony said with a hitching laugh, then let out an exaggerated groan and threw himself back in his chair.  It rolled a few inches away from his computer desk, and the catalog slipped out of his lap and landed on the floor. 

A smokey-eyed young man with cheekbones that could cut glass gazed up at Tony from the page, arms stretched lazily over his head, one bent at the elbow to allow his hand to rest invitingly against the side of his face, and back curved to highlight the thong that disappeared in a lacy v-shape.  As one does, Tony thought, stretching his arms up in mimicry.  He was rewarded with the quick popping sounds of his joints warning him he had been sitting hunched over the computer too long.  Sexy, he thought with a snort. 

The angle did have the advantage of allowing him to notice the grease stain that looked vaguely like Florida on the side of his shirt.  He tugged the shirt out and looked down at it with a grimace, then noticed his hands, which were a couple of shades darker than normal, with deep, brown lines around his nailbeds.  Damn.  He’d been trying to stay presentable on the off chance that Steve might come home.  The first couple of days, he’d dressed with care, managing to get his hair to cooperate and even donning a bit of color on his lips and cheeks. 

Color.  Damn it, Tony thought, grinding his teeth in frustration.  He got up from his chair and walked over to bend down low enough to see his reflection in the Audi’s driver-side mirror.  Yep.  Great. A smear of grease slashed across his check where he’d let his hand dangle.  So much for bringing sexy back, he thought with a sigh. 

Pulling the door to the garage closed, Tony headed for the cabin.  It was mid-afternoon, but already cooling up here as the sun started its slow slide down to the horizon.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked his messages as he walked across the driveway.  Still nothing.  Siri was going to start suggesting types of ice cream and emo music any second now.  

The Doomsday Clock was still jauntily ticking away on the mantle as Tony entered the cabin and walked over to the kitchen sink.  He looked down at the countertop for a moment, then put his hands over the cracks, balling his knuckles into fists and rocking them against the spidery lines.  His eye caught on the flash of gunmetal-gray that circled the ring finger of his left hand.  He still couldn’t identify the metal, which was impossible, yet, like so much to do with Steve, still managed to be true.

Steve was strong.  Stronger than a normal human, clearly, Tony considered.  Was that what Steve wanted to talk to him about?  The Army getting their Walter White on?  He had done some digging, of course.  A little, here and there.  Having Steve around so much since Jarvis’s visit had been…somewhat distracting, admittedly, Tony realized. 

Still, wasn’t like he hadn’t been playing digital Hardy boy when he had the chance.  Once you knew your way past the various firewalls and controls every operating system came equipped with, or had a handy Alpha passcode, whatever, the internet offered a rather gory history of the government’s endeavors with human experimentation, from injecting soldiers with cancer cells to radiation to mustard gas.  LSD.  Retroviruses.  Project Rebirth.  San Quentin.  The Guatemala syphilis experiments. Tuskegee.  The Stateville Penitentiary Malaria Study. Operation Sea Spray.  Project SHAD.  The New York Subway experiments.  The list went on and on.  And that was just the stuff they owned up to.  So, sure, it was possible the Army or SHIELD or some government whack-job dosed Steve up with a drug cocktail that made him go all by-the-powers-of-Grayskull when he got testy.  Could happen.

None of that explained the Stones and the Beatles thing, though, Tony mused, tracing a finger along one of the cracks that splintered out the farthest, disappearing when it hit the edge of the sink. 

Gaps in pop-culture knowledge, sure.  Steve probably spent his adult life training and off doing God-knows-what in parts of the world John Oliver routinely put in the wrong place on a map.  But, come on.  The Beatles, for Christ’s sake. The Rolling Stones.  Who just…misses those?  It didn’t make sense.

Not to mention the five-million-dollar pat on the head from France that was currently wrapped in a faded Army t-shirt and tucked in Tony’s dresser drawer.  Steve was twenty-five.  Twenty-five.  What could he possibly have done that warranted that kind of thanks from a grateful foreign nation?

Tony let out a frustrated sigh and raised his head to look out the kitchen window, where the pile of firewood still sat unused.  They should make s’mores, Tony thought.  When it turned cooler.  Get one of those old, metal barrels out on the deck and roast marshmallows on the ends of coat hangers.  Wrap up in the blanket from the back of the sofa and watch the stars, while the embers danced into the sky like fireflies.  He thought he had seen that in a movie, once.  Maybe a commercial.  He couldn’t remember.  Fire.  He should hack the Pentagon and dig around some there.  Bet their firewall wasn’t nearly as good as they thought it was.  Anyway, s’mores.  It seemed like a thing they should do. Something couples did, like go to wine tastings and talk about the deplorable state of…roads?  Couple stuff, Tony thought with a shake of his head.  Besides, Steve would like the fire.  Keeping warm like that.  Steve didn’t like the cold.

Or the sound of running water, Tony recalled, turning the faucet on.

Yet, here they were, on the side of a freaking mountain next to a stream because someone watched Dr. Phil while staying at a Holiday Inn Express last night and suddenly decided immersion therapy was the way to go. None of it made any sense.  The puzzle pieces were all spread out on the table, but it was as if there were no pieces with straight lines or corners to get him started.    Tony grabbed the dishsoap to clean the grease from his hands, watching the tiny bubbles that sprouted out of the top of the bottle float for a moment before popping, one after the other, like all the crazy theories that popped into his head.

What he needed was some kind of starting point.  A guide or a map or a—wait. 

Map.

There was something…the thought floated through his head, fleeting, almost dancing away, tail of a kite-string, before he could catch it. Map…

The map of Italy. 

At the restaurant they’d gone to on their date.  Steve said the map was wrong.  Tony remembered it looking like a boot with a leaning tower marking Pisa and poorly-drawn David with an unfortunately small fig leaf standing sentinel over Florence, but other than that, nothing stood out as being wrong about it.

“Siri,” Tony began after drying his hands and tugging his phone out of his pocket.  “When did the map of Italy change?”

“There are three Italian restaurants within twelve miles of your location,” Siri announced.

“Honestly, as soon as I’m done with the sex, I’m dumping you and upgrading,” Tony muttered.

“Setting reminder to watch Legally Blonde,’” Siri replied. 

“Well, you’re not totally useless,” Tony sighed, brought up the phone’s search engine and typed in a quick query.  Huh.  That was…odd.  Apparently, Italy’s border changed at the end of World War Two, with the signing of the Paris Peace Treaties in ’47, and then again along the border with what was then Yugoslavia.  The changes were barely noticeable, at least to Tony’s eye, yet Steve had Vespucci-ed the differences from a paper placemat at some hole-in-the-wall Prego joint.

Scraping a hand through his hair, Tony looked down again at the jagged cracks that marred the countertop.  Who misses The Beatles, but picks up on a barely-there change in the line of demarcation between bonjour and boungiorno?  It made no sense.

Tony turned away from the sink with a frown.  He gave the clock an accusatory look as he skirted the kitchen table and walked down the hall toward his bedroom.  As he approached the door to Steve’s room, he slowed.  It was slightly ajar, just enough for Tony to see the edge of Steve’s bed, with its perfectly smooth blue bedspread tucked neatly under a cream-colored pillow.

Technically, it wasn’t really snooping if the door was already open, Tony figured, pausing long enough to lean his head against the doorframe and peer inside.  Of course, going into Steve’s room without permission in the first place on day two of his wilderness time out had been snooping.  Leaving the door open just eased Tony’s conscious a bit the next time, because he had known there would be a next time.

He couldn’t even say what he had expected to find in Steve’s room.  Answers.  Insight.  Some kind of a clue.  Something. Or, so he’d told himself when he walked past it after his shower and realized that he had never actually been inside Steve’s room. At which point, Steve’s room became the mental equivalent of a big, red button under a Do Not Touch sign.

A day of basically holding his finger in front of it and telling himself he wasn’t touching it gave way to the manna from heaven that arrived in the form of a delivery of freshly-laundered clothes from the cleaners.  He would just hang them up in the closet, Tony told himself.  Wouldn’t want the shirts to get wrinkled or anything. 

As excuses for snooping went, Tony figured it was right up there with checking the porridge temperature, but before he let the thought fully form, he had one hand on the doorknob to Steve’s room and the other clutching a neatly-pressed, plastic-wrapped bundle of clothes on enough wire hangers to make Joan Crawford rise from the dead in disgust.

Steve’s room wasn’t what Tony would have expected, if he had really given much thought to it beyond the initial panic that he might end up there.  Once that subsided, it just sort of became little more than a vague notion of a bedroom.  On the other hand, if he had given it thought, he wouldn’t have imagined quite what he found. 

The hinges made a noise when Tony pushed the door open fully.  Everything in this place creaked, groaned or otherwise protested like it was Occupy Lumberjack.   He had gotten to almost find it endearing, the way the cabin seemed to sometimes talk back like a surly, old aunt who clucked and snorted disapprovingly from her rocking chair while pretending not to listen to your conversation.  How many times had he laid in his bed and listened for the squeak of Steve’s door to open or the telltale footfall on that one floorboard in the hallway that always crackled in the morning as if it, too, wasn’t happy about waking up? 

Steve’s room wasn’t so very different from the first time Tony saw it, when it was empty of anything except a few pieces of furniture carefully staged to make the room seem bigger than it really was.  He had taken the smaller bedroom, not particularly because it was smaller, though that had been part of it, but there was a better view of the stars from his window, and then, then…when this whole place had been a prison, he had wanted to be able to see that bit of light through the keyhole.

The bed sat in the center, buttressed by a small, wooden nightstand with a simple lamp, the kind that came out of a box with the shade already on it.  A dresser was pushed against the wall closest to the door.  It was wooden like the nightstand, but a lighter wood, knobbier and chunkier, like it was aiming for rustic charm and accidentally ended up at a Cracker Barrel Country Store.  Clearly something that came with the cabin’s ragtag assortment of Duck Dynasty rejects, Tony thought with a slight smile.  He kind of loved the objectively horrid décor.  It was strangely comforting after years of living in a place with a carefully crafted veneer of beauty meant to hide the decay and rot. 

He walked the few paces to the bed and sat down, grabbing the pillow and hugging it to his chest.  By day two in the Isolation Cabin, not mussing the bedspread had become a lost cause.  The closet door was still open where he had hung the clothes next to the rest of Steve’s collection of Howdy-Doody shirts, khaki pants, and the few Tony-approved choices from their shopping trip.  Neat rows of shoes lined the bottom of the closet, the leather dress shoes polished to a gleaming shine.

By now, he knew the room by heart.  Once the barn door opened on his snooping, the horse was so far gone he was practically Elmer’s.  The dresser contained color-coordinated rolls of socks in one drawer and a series of plaid boxers in the other that Tony wasn’t going to think about.  Well, again, anyway.  Whatever.  T-shirts and a few other assorted clothes were folded in the bottom two drawers.  The Very Secret Diary of Steven G. Rogers was, unfortunately, nowhere to be found. 

Everything in its place and a place for everything, Tony thought, looking around the barren room.  It was the seemingly perfunctory nature of the room that bugged him.  Steve was…Steve was bright.  Encompassing.  In Tony’s head, Steve was warm, bright slashes of color, with such force behind it that it seemed to fill his mind and bleed out at the edges, like he couldn’t quite be contained.  The man who lived in this room…was almost a stranger.  That bugged him. 

Tony’s own room was a disordered mess, with piles of clothes, posters stuck to the wall, pictures of Jarvis and his mom,  receipts he’d pulled out of his pocket and hadn’t thrown away yet, a few take-out menus from the drawer in the kitchen, plastic-sleeved comic books in carefully alphabetized rows in cardboard boxes, bits and pieces of various machines dropped in mid-creation, half-filled coffee cups he hadn’t bothered to take to the kitchen, an embarrassing number of action figures lined up along the top of his dresser and a guitar he didn’t play, but secretly thought it made him look cooler to have it leaning against the wall.  He could learn to play it.  One day.  Could happen.

Anyway, point being, Steve’s room looked like a hotel room where you weren’t staying long enough to bother really unpacking, and Tony wasn’t sure what that said.  Where were the mementos?   The pictures of his family?  Army buddies?  The useless, random things that you kept for no good reason until you stopped having a reason to keep them?   Someone lived in this room, but the room wasn’t lived in, and Tony didn’t know what that said.  Or, didn’t like what that said.

Tony’s eyes darted over to the mirror that hung over the dresser, catching his reflection.  He pursed his lips, giving his image a show of disapproval.  There were a few signs of life in the room, he knew.   He just…didn’t know what these things meant.

Reaching over, Tony tugged open the small nightstand drawer and pulled out the Guide to the Night Sky.  The spine was crinkled from use.  A few pages were dog-eared, though Tony hadn’t really been able to figure out why those particular things caught Steve’s eye.  Certainly, Steve hadn’t brought them up to Tony, yet he must have sat here in bed and leafed through the pages.  Late at night, maybe.  After they finished a movie.  Maybe Steve sat here, like Tony was sitting, with the pillow on his lap and book cradled between his hands, looking at the images of the stars and wondering what about them fascinated Tony so deeply.

The fact that Steve was trying, that he cared enough to be interested, to learn, for Tony’s sake…well, that was something Tony wasn’t sure how to deal with. 

And now, you have your robots and your stars…

Mine, Tony thought, remembering his mother’s words.   Two things that had always been beyond his reach, and now they were his, sitting in his garage behind a door he never locked anymore.  But when he closed his eyes and tried to think of them, his robots and his stars, all he saw was the sketch of Maria, trembling with power and energy, her face, a blank metal mask that seemed to be staring through him.

They burned her, Tony reminded himself.  The False Maria, the robot who they made dance for them and then rebelled, they burned her at the stake.  Probably an important life lesson there.

Yet, it was the robot Steve chose to give him. 

His robots and his stars…he had always craved them.  Acceptance and freedom given beautiful forms.  Those were ideas to be eked out where he could find them in scraps.  Discarded bits, unwanted pieces, to be built into something that was his and his alone, kept secret.  Kept safe.  He had never considered what it would be like to have someone who wanted to give them to him, let alone someone who wanted to…join him.

Tony looked down at the book again, and flipped to the back, just between the end of the index and the author’s page.  His picture was tucked there, just like Tony had found it on his second foray into being a crappy person.  He pulled it out and gazed down at the image again.  God, he really hated that suit, he thought with a frown, gaze focusing on the reflection of his hand on the back of his head that was caught by the silver plate in his mother’s curio, giving the photographer a one-fingered salute.  It was barely noticeable, if you didn’t know what to look for, at least. 

He wondered how long Steve had studied it before catching sight of Tony’s little bit of rebellion. He wondered how often Steve took the picture out, held it up and looked at the image, what he thought about when he did, if he did.  What he saw there that Tony still couldn’t quite see.  He saw coltish angles and uncooperative hair.  A terrible suit and more eye make-up than he needed unless he was trying out for the role of the Black Swan.  An expression that hugged the border between mutinous and terrified. 

Tony sighed, stuck the picture in its place, and put the book back in the nightstand drawer.  He hugged the pillow to his face and drew in a deep breath.  Soap.  The green marbled kind that Steve thought might have been a joke. A hint of musk and Steve underneath. 

He rolled over onto his side facing the closet and took the pillow with him, peeking out from the top of it at the stack of books that sat against the wall.  Six books on World War II.  Two biographies of Kennedy.  One of Churchill.  One of Patton.  Two of Stalin.  One on Hitler stuck on the bottom of one of the stacks with pages so pristinely pressed together that Tony could tell it was untouched.  Three books on Vietnam.  Korean War, Gulf War, blah, blah, war, not-a-war, blah, blah, and so on. 

But there was also Watership Down.  A big hardcover that promised all three Lord of the Rings.  Heinlein and Asimov.  Dune.  Bradbury.  Vonnegut.  The Right Stuff.  Neil Armstrong’s biography.  To Kill A Mockingbird.  Catcher in the Rye.  The Color Purple. Even a Neil Gaiman.  His Alpha was eclectic, at least, Tony figured. He should slip an Atwood in a stack and see what happened. 

The books were a distraction from where his mind wanted to focus, he was well aware.  He let his gaze travel, giving the room one more sweep before settling on the open closet, where lines of clothes still hung in their plastic with a paper bib over the group promising same day service if in by nine.

Pushed to the back of the shelf at the top of the closet, there was a heavily carved cinnabar-lacquer presentation box.  He couldn’t see it from his vantage point on the bed, but he knew it was there.  He knew there was a dragon coiled in relief on the top of it, its claws outstretched, while deeply-cut scrollwork of undulating vines and flowers wrapped around the sides.  He knew the box was exquisite.  Tony wasn’t an expert, but he was almost certain it was authentic, not some eBay knock-off.   Of course, it was what was inside that held his interest.  He closed his eyes and flopped backwards on the bed, burying his face in the pillow.  He could feel his cheeks heating up, flushing with an embarrassing stab of want that started low in his belly and slid lower still. 

He shouldn’t have looked.  He knew that.  He knew it was wrong.  An invasion.  Curiosity kills the cat, right?  No one mentioned the furry fucker died from blue balls, Tony thought with a huff, propping the pillow behind his head and staring up at the still ceiling fan above him. 

The knotting wrap was the most beautiful one he had ever seen.  Wrapped in a simple, cotton muslin, sat a long swath of red silk, embroidered with two golden dragons reaching out for a flaming pearl while gilt-threaded lotus blossoms and chrysanthemums blooms floated around them, edged in cresting waves.  A rich smell clung to it.  An old smell, but not unpleasant. Something familiar, sweet, but with a sharp hint of spice.  Cloves, maybe, he thought.  Reminded him of Christmas for some reason he couldn’t quite place.

He didn’t know if he had ever wanted anything more in his life.  He wanted to feel it wrapped around his hips, feel the brush of Steve’s fingers against him while he tied the knot, feel the weight of Steve’s gaze burn a path across his skin as he looked at him.  He wanted to watch Steve’s face when he untied the wrap and offered himself again.  He felt his skin warm at the thought, sending an involuntary shiver through him, hot pressure spiking down his groin to the tip of his cock. 

Obie naked, he thought, closing his eyes with a grimace as he felt himself harden.  Obie naked.  But, all his mind not-so-helpfully conjured was Steve staring Obie down and refusing to give an inch until Tony asked it of him.  Rolling over on his stomach, Tony stared at the light blue wall between the slats headboard of the bed and tried to will his cock into listening, though it was currently refusing to take the earbuds out. 

Steve was going to come home soon. They would talk.  Whatever that meant.  Behind door number one, Tony listened intently, nodded with understanding, told Steve it didn’t matter, and they spent the next week or so ordering in. Behind door number two…who the hell knew?  It had been a kiss.  One kiss.  One glorious, wonderful kiss.  So, sure, a helluva kiss, but it was possible Tony had turned a haiku into War and Peace in his head.

Jarvis would tell him he had his Issues on speed dial.  Well, he wouldn’t say it like that.  He’d use Jarvis-speak and probably suggest something stupidly helpful like tea and actually telling Steve how he felt.  9-1-1, what is your emergency?  I kissed my Alpha, and he kissed me back, and there’s a knotting wrap in his closet and my picture in a book I think he reads because he likes me?  Send help.

Tony pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked the messages.  Still nothing.  Well, Canadian pharmacists were very concerned about his Alpha’s ability to have an erection, but other than that, nothing. 

“Siri, when will Steve come home?” Tony asked around a sigh.

“I don’t see Will Steve in your contacts,” Siri informed him.

“Yeah, we’re definitely going to need to do something about you,” Tony said, staring at the black screen in annoyance.  Honestly, the simple AI he’d designed to do his coursework for those online classes had been more sophisticated.   Might even be kind of fun to be able to asking J.A.R.V.I.S. things.  He could even give him a British accent instead of Siri’s vaguely-stoned California barista version of ‘Sure, Jan.’ Natural language user interface wasn’t that much of a step up from the learning algorithms his original version had been running.   Just needed a denser set of inquiries and responses.  He could even program him to respond to emotional cues.  Make him insist he wasn’t fretting. Things like that. Good times.

God, Steve and code.  Definitely not doing anything to dampen his libido, Tony thought with an exaggerated groan as he let his head sink down into the pillow.  He pulled his head back with a surprised jerk as the sound of wheels crunching over gravel reached his ears.  Quickly rolling off the bed, Tony went to the window and pulled the curtain back enough to catch a glimpse of a black SUV coming up the driveway.  His heart slammed into his ribcage while his stomach twisted itself into what was probably a very stylish bow.  There was suddenly no saliva in his mouth.  Steve.  Steve was back.  Steve was here.

He tried to swallow and ended up with a hacking cough for his efforts.  Turning away from the window, he caught his reflection in the mirror.  Grease-stained t-shirt, check.  Jeans with the hole next to the pocket showing yesterday’s boxers, check.  Smear of…something…across his face, check.  And we have the Ready For Steve Trifecta!  Somewhat frantically, Tony wiped the slash of grease off his face and tried to fix his hair so that it looked appropriately effortless.  It ended up looking like something that multiplied if you got it wet, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. 

Ah, fuck it, Tony thought, rushing to put the pillow back in its place and pull the bedspread tight enough to even out the wrinkles from where he had been lounging.  It still didn’t look quite right, but after a moment’s indecision, he figured either Steve wouldn’t care or a mussed bed was really the evening’s goal, anyway. 

He took a deep breath, rubbed his hands over his shirt to dry his suddenly sweaty palms, then hurried around the bed to the door.  With a last, lingering glance at the top of the closet, he turned and walked down the hallway.  By the time he reached the front door, his could feel his heart clawing its way up his throat, little grappling hooks digging in and pulling it along, making it impossible to swallow.  Please, Tony thought to himself.  Please let it be door number one.  Let me have this.  Let me have the robots and the stars, but let them be ours, and not just mine, he thought, bracing one hand against the doorframe and wrapping the other around the knob.

For just a moment, he stood there and let his eyes fall shut, trying to find a calm that refused to come. He could see it so clearly in the front of his mind, the images flickering behind his eyelids like they were playing out on one of those old movie screens you pulled down with a rubbery whoosh.  He and Steve curled up on the sofa with the patchwork quilt thrown over their legs where they intertwined so Tony could get his toes warm.   Tony could almost feel his fingers twirling in the soft hair at the nape of Steve’s neck. Not really watching the movie on the TV so much as just enjoying being together.  Maybe Tony made a comment about whatever it was.  Made Steve laugh, the one where he threw his head back and his whole body shook with it.  Or maybe they were trying to be quiet, Tony thought with a sudden, sharp pang in the vicinity of where his heart was supposed to be. 

Please

I don’t think I’ll be fine.

Tony threw open the door with more force than he intended, sending a shock of reverberation up his arm.  The SUV ground to a halt a few feet from the edge of the deck, sending a spray of dirt and gravel into the air around the tires.  Tony raised a hand in greeting and opened his mouth to call out, then sort of let it hang open, fish-like, when Coulson hopped out of the car and started walking towards the front door of the cabin.

Tony’s heart froze in his chest.  Panic speared a trail down Tony’s spine and twisted through his gut, knocking whatever words he was going to say out of his throat.

“St—Steve…” Tony rasped out.  “Is he—“  He couldn’t.  He couldn’t ask it. The words recoiled, skittered to the back of his brain and sat there, immovable. 

“What?” Coulson said, drawing himself up and slowing to a stop a few paces from where Tony stood, gripping the doorframe for support since his legs had decided standing was overrated.  “Oh—Oh, Tony, no.  No. I’m—Steve’s fine.  He’s…I mean, they’ve gone dark, which is not unusual for this type of thing, but—no.  No, I’m sure he’s fine.  That’s not why I’m here.  I didn’t think you’d…I should’ve called first.  I’m sorry.”

“You…oh,” Tony replied numbly.  He cringed and dropped his eyes.  Of course, nothing was wrong.  Stupid.  It’s only been a week.  Jesus, a few days, and you go from zero to Def Leppard levels of hysteria in two seconds because Coulson shows up for a fucking welfare check.  Way to be cool, he mentally berated himself.  Just because things were—are—going well.  No reason to panic.  “Sorry.  Sorry, I don’t know why I even thought…of course, you’re not here for…that.  Sorry.  I’m just, I’m…I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  Forget it.”

“I really should have called,” Coulson said evenly, giving Tony a sharp, quizzical look.  “I wasn’t thinking.”

“No, no…it’s me.  I’m just…crazy thoughts.  Forget it,” Tony said again with a wave of his hand.  It was shaking, he noticed, letting it drop limply to his side. 

There was a metallic taste coating the back of his throat that wouldn’t go away no matter how much he swallowed.  He stepped back and used his body to hold the door open for Coulson, forcing himself to look the other man in the eye and finding something that looked a bit like understanding there. 

“Come on.  Get in here. Check the baby gate or whatever you need to do.  Hey, I still have the chew toy you brought last time.  Barely any teeth marks.  I’m thinking the separation anxiety is getting better,” Tony said.  He tried to smile.  He was fairly sure from Coulson’s expression that he didn’t pull it off.

“You never asked about him.  Before.  When I would visit, I mean,” Coulson reminded him, following Tony into the cabin.  He glanced around the kitchen with a vague sort of curiosity, then looked back at Tony. 

“Check up on me,” Tony corrected with a lopsided grimace. He shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked forward a bit, then rebounded on his heels, twisting around to where Coulson stood, perfectly still in his perfectly ironed suit with his perfect hair.  “It’s okay.  I kind of liked it.  Your visits.  Got a bit…lonely there for a while, just me and the bots.  And Joshua.”

“Joshua?” Coulson parroted, quirking his eyebrow up in question.

“I might be militarizing the resident rodent population,” Tony replied with a shrug. 

“Sounds fun,” Coulson observed mildly.  “Speaking of, I hear SI is making some headway with ACC,” Coulson offered.  “That’s a bit of a bigger fish than a drone contract.”

“Is that why you’re here?  That’s…I mean, that’s Steve,” Tony said quickly, swiping a hand through his hair. 

“Not quite the way I heard it,” Coulson shot back, though the placid expression never faltered. 

“You want something…I have lemonade, or I can make some coffee?” Tony offered, glancing over towards the kitchen. 

“Thanks.  I’m good.  May I sit?” Coulson asked.

“Oh.  Yeah.  Sure,” Tony replied quickly, wincing a bit in apology as Coulson pulled out one of the breakfast table chairs and sat down.  “Steve called them.  The Army science people.  I just…talked to the guy, I don’t know,” Tony said, sliding into the chair opposite Coulson. “They want adaptive armor, but they’ve been working with nanofibers, alloys, that kind of thing, and I just suggested, maybe, you know.  Something a little more…T-1000ish.  The Army guy liked it. I guess.”

“You theorized using nanotechnology to create a liquid adaptive material that solidifies when its hit by a bullet in the twenty minutes between hors d’oeuvres at a meet and greet where half the top brass in the United States military did the chicken dance,” Coulson replied, bracing his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers in front of him.  There was a hint of a smile in the words, like he was hoarding a punchline Tony didn’t get. 

“I just…you know.  Suggested it.  As a possibility.  I’m not a chemical engineer or anything,” Tony pointed out. 

“You wrote the chemical equation down on a cocktail napkin,” Coulson said.

“It was handy?” Tony protested with a shrug. 

“That’s actually sort of what I’m here to talk to you about,” Coulson continued. 

“I stepped on someone’s toes, didn’t I?  I knew it.  I knew--look, I know, I shouldn’t have stuck my nose into that kind of thing.  I get it.  I do.  I just…got off on a tangent, and…it was just an idea, okay?  Don’t tell Steve,” Tony said quickly.  “If someone’s pissed about it.  You remember the car thing you’re not going explain to me, right?  Well, he kind of broke a desk.  With my Dad.  He broke a desk with my actual Dad.”

“You’re…no, Tony.  No one is upset,” Coulson assured him, then narrowed his gaze.   “A desk, huh?  Can’t entirely say I didn’t see that coming.”

“I think that might just be how Steve flirts,” Tony deadpanned.

“That’s…probably accurate,” Coulson replied. He huffed out a laugh and shook his head a bit, then leaned back in his seat and regarded Tony for a moment. 

“So, spill it, Dobby.  If no one’s pissed at me and you’re not here to make sure I’m eating my veggies, what brings you to the Cabin In the Middle of Nowhere? Master give you a sock?” Tony asked, tilting his head to one side with a grin.

“I’ve missed our little chats,” Coulson remarked, then reached a hand inside the front of his suit and pulled out an envelope.  “I have something for you.”  He slid the envelope across the table towards Tony with the address side down. 

For a moment, Tony didn’t want to touch it.  He couldn’t say why, but the feeling clung to his limbs, making them suddenly heavy.  He looked over at Coulson, who was watching him with his usual composed expression that revealed nothing.   With a quick sigh, Tony reached out and grabbed for the envelope.  He flipped it over and stared for a long minute. 

“What--what is this?” Tony demanded, though he could hear the tightness in his voice, the way his throat clicked around the words.  He didn’t mean it to sound like an accusation.  Or a plea.  A spike of embarrassed hurt knifed through his chest as he stared at the sender’s address envelope.  This was a joke. This was someone’s idea of a joke, and it hurt.  It hurt way more than it should.

“Why don’t you open it up and see?” Coulson suggested. 

He ran a thumb over the crest at the corner of the envelope, then turned it over and tore open the sealed flap.  The paper rustled as he pulled it out.  His hands were shaking again.  He swallowed back a lump of bile that was climbing up his throat and let out a cough to cover the way the paper shook in his hands as he opened the letter.  His fingers clenched of their own volition.  He sucked in a halting gasp of air, closed his eyes and bit his tongue hard enough to taste blood.  If this was a dream, he would be waking up now, right?

Dear Anthony,

On behalf of the Admissions Committee, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…

Tony blinked.  Read the sentence again.  Checked the name on the top of the letter.  Tried to swallow, but his throat was closed, and he ended up choking out a wet, hacking breath.

“Feel a bit more like Hagrid, really,” Coulson offered after a beat of silence.  He crossed his hands together in front of him and leaned his elbows on top of the table, nodding at the letter in Tony’s hands. 

“How…this…it isn’t…this isn’t possible,” Tony stammered when air finally filled his lungs in an almost painful burst.  “It isn’t allowed.  Omegas can’t…”

“As I understand it, Captain Rogers called in a favor with the President,” Coulson said.

“Steve knows the President of MIT?” Tony asked, reading the letter again in case the words had rearranged themselves somehow.

“Ah…no.  The, ah--the President of the United States,” Coulson corrected almost gently.  “Who called the Governor of Massachusetts. Who called the President of MIT.  Who was persuaded that a pilot program for Omegas, starting with you, was an excellent idea.  Congratulations.”

“Wh—what?” Tony stuttered, staring at Coulson.  “The President?  The President-President?  Of the United States.  Of America. The country.  This country.  The Pres---,” he broke off, shaking his head.  “You know, why am I even surprised anymore?  He wants me to do this?  Steve, I mean. Not the President.  Steve, he…he wants me to…to go to MIT?” Tony asked, digging each word out when they didn’t want to come. 

 “They have a lot of programs that he believes you would excel in,” Coulson replied.  “I know he wanted to deliver the news himself, but this current mission is…a bit uncertain.  Timing-wise, I mean.  And the acceptance deadline is coming up in a few weeks.  Plus, I think he was…excited.  For you to know.”

“Oh,” Tony said flatly.  He was surprised at how steady his voice sounded.  Just verifying information.  Clarifying things.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.  This isn’t the panic attack you’re looking for, he thought with a giddy sort of hysteria trilling beneath the surface of his skin.  He was surprised he wasn’t shaking with it.  “So, he…really wants me to do this, huh?  That’s…I mean, wow, right?  That’s…great.  Great.  Really.  MIT.  Who’d have thought?”

Coulson studied him across the table, then leaned back in his seat and looked down at his hands, where they were joined in front of him. 

“I think Captain Rogers believed—or maybe hoped—that you would be…pleased,” Coulson said, giving Tony a measuring look.

“I am!” Tony burst out.  “I’m pleased.  Like, super-pleased.  Crazy-pleased.  Why wouldn’t I be?  First Omega to go to MIT.  Probably a big honor, huh?  This is me. Totally and completely pleased.”

“It’s okay to be nervous, Tony.  I get that.  This is a big deal.  I think you’re smart enough to understand why.  It’s a lot of pressure on you.  Probably too much, to be honest.  If you don’t want to do it, I’m sure something else can be arr—“ Coulson started.

“NO!” Tony broke in with a near-shout.  “No.  Sorry.  No, I want to.  I do.  You’re right.  Just nerves.  Big change.  I never thought…I just…it never really occurred to me,” Tony continued, sucking in a shaky breath.  “MIT.  Wow.  Just…wow.  Kind of…kind of an adjustment, you know?  I just need some time. To process.”

“Of course,” Coulson said, giving Tony a long look before pushing up from the table.  “I should be getting back to SHIELD.  This—I know it’s a shock. 

“I should be getting back to SHIELD and leave you to it.  There’s a link in the letter to an Admissions packet with all kinds of information.  Some of it won’t apply to you, of course, and there will be some…adjustments, I guess you’d call it. Chaperones, when you’re attending class.  And you’ll have to live off-campus. No Alpha lab partners.  They’ll give you some flexibility on, ah, working around your—your cycle.  That kind of thing.  I’m sure Captain Rogers will talk you through the specific arrangements when he gets back,” Coulson said quickly, shifting a bit in his seat with obvious discomfort.  “Tony…are you sure you’re okay?” Coulson pressed with a frown after Tony didn’t respond.

“Huh?” Tony mumbled, then looked up from the letter.  “Oh, no.  No.  I mean, yes.  Yes, I’m—good.  I’m good.  Thanks for…thanks for coming up.  With the letter and all,” he finished, tipping the letter in Coulson’s direction.  “I’m sure you have tons of other stuff to do, so.”

“Tony…” Coulson began, brows drawing together in deep lines.  “It isn’t any of my business.  But, if I may…if even half the stuff I’ve heard about you is true, you’re going to do great.  I’m not saying it will be easy.  And I’m sure you’re…overwhelmed right now.  Just…give it some thought, okay?  This could be a great opportunity for you.  For a lot of reasons.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what…that’s what I’m doing,” Tony insisted.  “Thinking.”  The words felt heavy.  Everything felt heavy. The room. The walls.  Coulson.  The letter.  It was all too much, pressing in, pushing down on the center of his chest, flattening his heart.  This is why they call it flatlining, he thought, feeling a laugh that wasn’t about anything funny well up from somewhere deep inside. 

“Alright.  Good,” Coulson replied carefully.  “I’ll just see myself out.”

“If—if Steve…” Tony began, twisting in his seat to track Coulson’s progress to the door.  He swallowed, choking on the name when it came with a sharp pain in his chest attached to it.  “You said they went dark.  I mean, that happens, right?  That’s not…it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong,” Tony repeated, waiting for Coulson’s affirmative nod.  “But, like, just…if he checks in or, I don’t know.  If you hear something…”

“You’ll be the first to know,” Coulson promised.  “I’m sure he’s fine, Tony.  They have to go dark for any number of reasons.  There are protocols for this.  It isn’t something to worry about.  Captain Rogers can take care of himself. I promise.”

“Yeah.  Right.  Sure.  Thanks,” Tony said, dropping his head to stare at the letter in his hands again.  “He’ll be fine, right?  He’s Steve.  He’s always fine.”

“Tony,” Coulson said, one hand on the doorknob.  “It will be alright.”  Tony wasn’t sure whether Coulson was talking about Steve or MIT or Tony’s attempt to outdo NIMH, so he just nodded and watched Coulson shut the door.  A few moments later, he heard the SUV’s engine start up and the tires crunch across the gravel as Coulson left. 

Numb.  The absence of feeling.  He wasn’t upset.  Upset would be something, and this…this was nothing.  He looked down at the letter, sitting up in tri-fold on the table.  MIT.  Steve wanted him to go to MIT.  This was amazing.  Unheard of.  Fantastic.  Wonderful.

He thought he might start sobbing.

Door Number Two was everything he had never dreamed of wanting.

A burst of hysterical laughter rent the air, almost startling him.  It took him a second to realize he had made that kind of sound.  This was what Steve wanted to tell him.  MIT.  Steve was sending him to college.  To learn.  To get better.  Because that would help the company.  The company.  God, of course.  Of course.  Probably needed to make it clear before Tony did something even more rash than throw himself at him in the middle of his parents’ driveway while playing Frogger with an ambulance and Black Hawk Down. 

It honestly hurt more because he’d known.  Deep down, he had known. 

Not that he could blame Steve for responding when an Omega practically jumps him.  Who wouldn’t at least kiss back, right?  For a minute, anyway.  Before Steve stopped.  Right.  Because Steve had stopped.  That was the part Tony’s mind hadn’t wanted to remember, in the hazy midst of replaying over and over again the way Steve’s mouth felt, the touch of his hands, the way his eyes had roamed over Tony like a caress.  At least, that was how it had felt to Tony.  How much of that had he projected onto Steve? 

Apparently, a lot.

Steve had stopped.

Steve wanted him to go to MIT. 

Steve was sending him away. 

His breath hitched.  A shudder wracked through him.  He put his elbows on the table with the letter between them and looked down at it, letting his head fall into the cradle of his hands.  Wasn’t it wonderful, getting everything you never thought you could have?  Stars and robots.  Freedom and acceptance.  They burned the false Maria, his mind supplied.  He thought she might have been relieved. 

Why did it hurt so much to let go of something you never really had in the first place? 

Steve was a good man.  Kind.  He had been good to Tony.  Tony, of course, having little experience with that, had turned kindness and attention into a grand, romantic fantasy.  He could see it now.  Clarity might have come a bit late, but when it finally came, skulking in the back of his brain, it opened its suitcase and set up shop, offering a carpetbag full of recrimination and loathing that kept pouring out, Mary Poppins-style. 

It had always been about the company.  Hadn’t he known that?  How many times did he need to be told the same thing over and over?  Letting him have his robots and his gadgets.  His garage.  Caltech.  SHIELD.  The Army Science Board.  Getting Howard and Obie to back off.  If you were going to take over a weapons company, probably helped to have someone around who could build weapons, Tony guessed. 

There were fat, wet drops on the letter, one next to his name, one by the sentence inviting him to Campus Preview Weekend, coming up April seventh, it told him in a smear of bolded words.  Coulson was right. That was coming up in, what?  Less than two weeks.  He should get a move on.  Get going.  Get away. 

He swiped the heel of his hand across his eyes and sat back in the chair.  Fine.  Fine, so Steve wanted him to go to MIT.  Learn how to do this stuff for real.  No more playing around in his garage.  He could do that.   If that was what Steve wanted, he could give that to Steve.  He wanted it, too.  Didn’t he?  He thought he did.  Had.  Had he wanted this?  It was a bit like wanting to fly and then finding out that you could, you could fly, but you could only fly and keep flying and never, ever stop.  God, it was all so messed up in his head. 

He got up and walked over to the sofa and sat down, staring at the blank, black screen of the television where his reflection gazed back at him, blurred and distorted, which somehow seemed about right.  He pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked down at the screen. No messages.  Of course not.  Opening his contacts, he hit the number at the top and waited, feeling his stomach clench as it rang. 

“Hello,” Jarvis said, sounding a bit out of breath.  “Tony? Are you there?” Jarvis asked after a moment of silence. 

“He’s sending me away,” Tony burst out.  His face scrunched up at the words and his shoulders hunched with huge, heaving sobs.  It hadn’t quite hit him until he said it out loud. 

“What is this?  Tony?” Jarvis replied.  Tony could hear the frown in his voice.   It made it worse and better, though he didn’t know how that could quite work.