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Orbital Mechanics

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The fish tank had one of those ceramic divers that pumped air bubbles out in a steady stream, causing the glittery-scaled fish to dart this way and that to avoid them.  

Steve thought it was supposed to be soothing.  

Everything in here was supposed to be soothing.  The walls were painted a warm, calming tan.  The sofa was overstuffed, with two pillows plumped in each corner.  The table was wood, homey, with an array of magazines spread out on top promising recipes and weight loss and summer tans, even though it was winter now, not that California was showing signs of acknowledging that occasion.  A metal-leaved tree hung on one wall, next to black-framed degrees. The doctor’s chair---no, therapist, that’s what they called them now.  The therapist’s chair was more streamlined than the sofa, but still a cozy, muted green.  

The fish tank was the only bright thing in the room.  Everything else was shadowed in a soft, dim glow.  He wondered if Coulson had said something.  Steve didn’t look at it.  The tank.  He could hear it, of course, the gurgling susurration as the water processed through the filter, soft and churning.  

It was supposed to be soothing.

Water’s not like that, Steve thought sometimes, when the therapist sat quietly with her legs crossed and her heel swaying slightly as she waited.   He thought she knew most people didn’t like silence, wanted to fill it, ride it out on nerves and pressure, but he had kept quiet, kept still, kept low and hunched, for far longer than the SHIELD-mandated hour he had each week with her.  

The diver was in an old-fashioned dive suit.  Not old-fashioned to him, of course.  Just to everyone else.  It was quaint.  Humorous, even.  

Soothing.

“Are we done?” Steve asked, though he knew they were.  Another benefit of the serum.  Internal clock worked like Greenwich.  

“I do believe our time is up,” she responded.  She tapped her pen on her notepad.  It was blank, except for today’s date.  

“You’ll let Fury know,” Steve said.  It wasn’t a question.  She would.  A box would be checked somewhere.  The next mission would be waiting in his electronic mail box.  It looked like a mail box on the phone Coulson had given him.  He’d thought it was neat, until he saw Rumlow’s phone and realized the tiny red and blue post box was only on his, something Coulson had done in an effort to make it easier, Steve supposed.

“I already have this week’s assessment form ready to submit,” she assured him, swiping nonexistent stray hairs out of her face as she shook her head back.  “You know, Captain, I’ve never approved of this.  This arrangement with the Director.  It’s only been six months since you returned from your tour of duty.  I don’t know all the details, but I know enough.  The loss of your unit has to weigh incredibly heavily on you, Captain.  It would affect anyone.  It isn’t a weakness to need help.  I don’t care how valuable you are to SHIELD, it isn’t helping you or anyone else to put you there if you’re a risk.”

“I’m not a risk,” Steve said, voice going hard.  

“I didn’t mean just a risk to others, Captain,” she said, though she lowered her eyes from Steve’s unflinching gaze.  “All I’m saying is that…if there ever is anything you actually do want to talk about, I’m always willing to listen.   I know you’ve been through a lot.  We all just want to help you get better.”

“I’m fine,” Steve replied.  

She would tell him she understood how hard this was for him.  That was the next line. He would say that being back in the field was helping.  She would nod, tell him that was good, that he was getting back into the world.  She would send the form to Fury.  He would get his next mission.  Maybe next week, some of that would even be true.  

“My clinical assessment is that you are experiencing severe post-traumatic stress disorder coupled with moderate to severe major depressive disorder, which is not improving, but rather becoming more pronounced, likely leading to what I suspect is suicidal ideation masquerading as the kind of heroic risk-taking that is currently being rewarded and encouraged by the system that is enabling what they say they want to prevent,” she said.  “And, that’s our hour,” she said with a sigh, closing the blank notebook in her lap.   

Steve stared at her for a long moment, swallowed, then looked away.  He felt his hands curl into fists on the top of his thighs, the knuckles digging in there, and had the fleeting thought that it was dark in the cold, but it was gone before he could grab onto it.  The bubble burst, he thought, the words sounding odd and wrong in his head, and for a moment the world seeming to tip crazily on its side before everything righted itself.  

“I really would like to help,” she offered in a soft, careful voice.

“I know,” Steve replied, mouth twisting into a grimace.  He did, he supposed.  “Thank you for your time,” Steve said and started to rise.

“Just a moment, Captain, if you don’t mind,” she said quickly.  Steve held himself mid-motion, then sat back on the sofa and waited.   “I wanted to talk with you about a matter that I spoke with Director Fury about after our session last week.  A suggestion I had that I thought might help.  Hear me out, if you would.  It’s…somewhat unusual, I’ll admit, but not unheard of, by any means.  And in your situation, I think it’s something to consider.”

In the tank, over his shoulder, the little diver pumped air, and the fish avoided it, and the water ran, swishing and burbling and soothing.  He shifted slightly on the sofa.  

“I’d appreciate your expertise,” Steve said.  She smiled.  Liked hearing that.  Wanted the validation, wanted to help, probably thought they were the same thing.  

“I heard you’ve been thinking about buying a home?” she asked, though he could tell she knew the answer already.  She stood up and walked to her desk, flicking on the lamp as she sat down in the chair behind it.  Steve blinked at the sudden light, but nodded in response to her question.

“I’ve been looking,” Steve replied, surprised by her question.

“That’s good.  There is a sense of permanence about a home, I find.  It’s a big step in an Alpha’s life, that first home.  It’s a good sign that you’re thinking in that direction, Captain,” she offered with an approving smile.  Steve looked over at the fish tank for a second, then at the degrees framed on the wall behind the therapist’s head.  He knew it was a good sign.  He knew why he needed to do things that were good signs.  This was what they all wanted from him.  Needed.  So, he would do it, and then there would be another mission, and maybe somewhere in there, it could be dark again for a while, and he could breathe.  He looked at the diver again, spouting his long thread of bubbles.  There’s no air down there, he thought, and closed his eyes for a moment, before turning back to where the therapist sat in the halo of lamplight, a faint, high-pitched squeal coming from the bulb.  It would need to be changed soon.

“You are, after all, an Alpha in his prime. Young, strong, a natural leader. Exactly what an Alpha should be,” she continued, smooth, the words intended as a compliment, an opening salvo to pave the way for whatever hoop it was she wanted him to jump through.  You made me this way, Steve wanted to say, but it sounded like an accusation, and maybe it was, so he said nothing.  “Your file says you never Bonded.  That’s certainly understandable, what with your service record.  Iraq and then two tours in Afghanistan, was it?  Hardly time to find a mate in all that, I can imagine.  But, you must have thought about it.  You’re of an age when settling down might…well, look a bit more appealing than it once did.  A mate could be good for you.  Help settle you, perhaps?  We know Omegas are stabilizing influences on their Alphas, and offer Alphas an outlet for those baser urges that can cause such a problem—“

“No,” Steve cut in. “I’m not…Bonding.  No.”  His jaw clicked shut, hard.  He could feel his teeth grate together.  That was…that was insane.  Obviously.  She didn’t understand. For a moment, his memory pulled up a stack of photos, black and white, bent at the edges from being passed around, grime-covered prints on them, and he quickly shoved that thought away, where it belonged.  Bonding was for…people who weren’t him.  

“Captain, if I may speak candidly?  You come here each week and we sit, quietly, and I send a form to Fury that says you are mission ready, because that’s what Fury needs it to say.  Maybe that’s what we all need it to say, and maybe it’s worth it, in the end, but you are not adjusting.  I’ve seen returning soldiers struggle with being out of a warzone more times than I can count.  You are not getting better.  You are barely getting by,” she said, voice clipped and firm, because she had rehearsed this, but hadn’t given Steve his lines.  

“I’m fine,” Steve countered through gritted teeth.  He had to resist the urge to shift in his seat, use his bulk, throw her off this nonsense.  He could do it.  A sharp word.  The right tone.  It would stop.  She would stop.  

“I’ve read the mission reports, Captain,” she continued, her tone going low and conspiratorial, as if she was sharing a secret.  She wasn’t, but she liked the power it gave her to think she was.  “The ones that don’t get filed. I know about the incident in Algeria.  I know about the bloody punching bags.   I know you rub your leg when you’re feeling anxious, the way you’re doing now, though I don’t know why.  Those things I know.  I can guess a lot more.  I think you don’t sleep very much at all.  I think when you do, it’s either exhaustion or nightmares.  I think you take unnecessary risks that no one questions because you get the job done.  I think you know that you do this, but you can’t stop yourself.  To put it bluntly, you’re nosediving, Captain.  You’re a danger to yourself and everyone else on the mission.  Something is going to happen that you can’t take back.  Maybe not next week or next month or next year, but it will.  I think you know that, too.”

She stared at him over the rim of her glasses.  He could see his reflection in them, dim and distorted, with the soft blue of the fish tank illuminated behind him.  

“Am I wrong about any of that?” she asked softly after a long moment.  

“All the more reason not to Bond,” Steve pointed out.  His voice sounded weary to his own ears, and her face visibly softened.  An affectation.  Her heart-rate was up.  Nerves.  She didn’t like arguing with him.  Good.   She would stop soon, and he could leave and go back to his room, where no one asked questions, and he could turn the thermostat up to eighty and no one would care.  

“You haven’t formed a single, meaningful connection to anyone since you returned.  In fact, the only person you have expressed any personal interest in is in a home for dementia patients in Bethesda,” she continued, seemingly oblivious to the way Steve’s hands tightened on the arms of the chair at her words.  “As you may know, Bonding has both physical and psychological components, most of which are highly beneficial to the Alpha.   You need a link to this world, Captain.  An Omega could be that for you.  Someone to come home to, someone who will help you find your way, ease your burdens.  Take care of you.  To say that you would be a catch is an understatement.  You would have your pick of the finest Omegas out there.  And if I’m wrong, you break the Bond. No harm done.”

“I’ll think about it,” Steve said, which seemed the most expedient way to end the conversation and get out that didn’t involve breaking the damn door.  

“Good! That’s wonderful to hear.  I know it is a big step, and I’m not suggesting jumping in right away, of course,” she rushed out.  “Just think about it, is all I’m asking.  I’ve taken the liberty of having a few files put together for you to consider.  Agent Coulson was kind enough to help,” she demurred.  Steve wondered briefly, almost hysterically, what kind of form Coulson had for that, though he said nothing, just stared at the stack of folders on the doctor’s desk when her eyes fell on it.  “When you have time, look them over.  Perhaps a few will catch your eye?  They are all very beautiful, of course.  Well educated by the finest finishing schools or private tutors.  I think you’ll find several who share your passion for the arts, even.  Omegas are so accomplished these days.  They paint, they play music, cook these fantastic meals, know all the latest trends.  Why, a friend of mine’s son can throw a party together in no ti—“

“I have to go,” Steve said, standing up.  “Thank you for your time.”

“Of course,” the doctor said, clearly flustered for a moment before she regained her composure and smiled up at him.  “If I can do anything to help, just ask.”  

Steve nodded and scooped up the file folders.  They were a strange, pale mint green, with typed-out tabs noting the names and ages of the Omegas whose profiles were inside.  Done specifically for him, he assumed, instead of sent electronically because they apparently still thought the thing he missed most was the feel of paper in his hands.  His mission orders were always typed, printed out on a ream of paper with a line of holes at the edges that you could tear off in one, long pull if you were careful.  He used to do that, until he saw Coulson notice the detritus in the wastebasket one day and give it a long look before smiling his thin, wan smile up at Steve.  He shuffled the folders together and picked up the stack, turning for the door without a backwards glance.  

“Oh, Captain!  One of those, Fury added himself, though, personally, I don’t think it would be a good fit.  I had to include it, though, you understand.  I thought you would want to know,” she called out.  

“Which one?” Steve asked as he gripped a hand on the doorframe.  He could feel the wood under his fingers.  A slight heave of pressure and it would splinter.  That was true of a lot of things, he thought, though he held his tongue.  

“Anthony Stark.  Son of Howard and Maria Stark.  Bit of a troubled youth, if you listen to gossip.  He has quite the reputation, not that I put much stock in gossip, of course. I don’t know why the Director wanted him included, other than the father, Howard, does some work for SHIELD.  A favor, I suppose,” she added in a dismissive tone that clung to the gossip in a way that reminded Steve of nails on a chalkboard.  

“What’s wrong with him?” Steve asked.  He could feel a slight frown pulling at the center of his forehead.  The doctor took a deep, bracing breath, as if the trials and tribulations of this Omega weighed heavily on her.  

“By all accounts—well, except for that nonsense his parents hired some consultant to put together in that folder—he’s quite the problem child.  It’s well known in some circles why he hasn’t Bonded yet, even though he’s the only child of a fairly well-to-do family,” she said.  “Parents are likely rather desperate. Disobedient to something of a fault, I hear.  A bit of a troublemaker, really—there have been several rather unfortunate public incidents--brash to the point of rudeness and astoundingly arrogant.  No, no, now, what you need is someone calm, gentle, good-natured.  Disciplined, I think,” she suggested with a soft, certain smile and slight nod of her head.

“That…sounds about right,” Steve replied in a low murmur, looking down at the folders in his lap with a frown. He opened the first one.  A blonde woman with long hair and pale skin smattered with freckles dressed in a soft, blue skirt and smocked top that bared her shoulders smiled back at him. She was standing next to a dining table set with fine china, seemingly caught in the act of arranging a vase of flowers.  Emma, her file said.  Loves to garden, cook, knit and sing, and looks forward to being able to care for a mate of her own.  She volunteers in her church’s nursery on the weekends, under appropriate supervision, of course.  Steve closed the file, and looked back up at the therapist.

“Well, it is my job to understand my patients, Captain,” the therapist said with a knowing, pleased smile, and for a second, Steve could see her sitting in a darkened theater, watching the news reels, tapping her foot impatiently for the picture to start for real so she could see Ginger Rogers, maybe, part of the sea of quiet disapproval aimed at the man shouting at the woman sniffling when the GIs waved from the screen.  Boorish, she would have said to herself.  Probably Irish.  They were always so loud.  But, really, must she cry in public like that, when we’re all just here trying to enjoy the movie and forget for a bit?  She was one of the ones who hurried past the alley way, pretended not to see, maybe talked a bit louder to her friend to cover the noise, and told herself later that it was a shame, really, that people couldn’t just be good-natured.  It wasn’t hard, after all, was it?  

Steve looked down at the stack of folders and flipped a thumb through the tabs until he saw one labeled ‘Stark, Anthony Edward, Age 17.’  He opened the folder. A large picture was on top, showing a handsome young man in a terrible suit, standing in some sort of living room.  He was smiling, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.  Wide eyes, a dark, rich brown, and a mop of hair that someone had tried to flatten without the benefit of the Brylcreem Steve remembered.  Steve’s eyes stopped, caught on something. Narrowed.  He frowned.  Looked again.  A huff of a laugh escaped him.  

He wasn’t going to Bond, though.  Obviously.  The last thing he needed was an Omega, and the last thing any Omega would want was someone like him.  The whole idea was crazy.

“Someone in your position certainly has no need to take someone like that on.  The last thing you need is more drama, and from everything I’ve heard, the Stark boy clearly needs someone with a firm hand to bring him to heel,” the doctor commented idly, pushing her glasses up from where they had slipped down her nose.  “I only took a cursory look through the files, but the Stafford boy is lovely, and that Taft girl?  I can’t believe she hasn’t Bonded yet.  Anyway, something to think about, Captain.  At least…perhaps consent to meeting with a few of them.  Who knows what might happen?  Maybe you’ll hit it off!”

Steve looked down the picture again.  Anthony Stark.  Steve rubbed his thumb lightly over the edge of the photo, then traced the curve of the young man’s face, a small smile tugging at his lips as he looked at the picture. Anthony.  I hope you find someone who will take care of you, Steve thought, feeling his throat click as he tried to swallow.

Calm. Gentle. Good-natured.

Disciplined.

This one isn’t quiet, Steve thought to himself, and felt his chest tighten with warmth.  Troublemaker, Steve mentally repeated, the thought almost seeming to float in his head on a bubble of a laugh.   

“What will happen to them?” Steve asked, standing up and shuffling the folders into a neat stack in his hands as he headed for the door.

“Omegas like that? Oh, they’ll all make good matches, I’m sure,” she assured him.  

“Even An---this one?  Stark?” Steve pressed, slowing as he pulled open the door.  Light flooded in almost like a physical force.  Bright, Steve thought, trying not to wince, not here, in front of her, but the word cut, still.  It was always bright.  From the moment he opened his eyes here.  Bright.  That was the first thought.  It’s so bright.  He looked down at the folders in his hand, bracing one arm on the door and turning back to the therapist, question still hanging in the air.

“Well,” she began, somewhat uncomfortably, shifting on her chair and casting a shadow against the wall behind her.  “Some Alphas prefer that kind of Omega, you know.  Bit of a challenge to it, I suppose. I’m sure there will be some Alpha out there who will want to be the one to break him in.  There always is,” she said with a shrug.  

A loud, sharp crack rent the air and the room seemed to go still.  Steve looked at his hand, which held pieces of the doorframe, then back over at the doctor.

“Sorry, I—sorry,” Steve rushed out, almost automatically as he stared with a sort of numb fascination at the splintered wood in his hand.  

“Oh!  My gosh, are you alright?” she asked with a shocked look.

“Fine,” Steve said.  “Sorry.  It just buckled.”

“Don’t worry, I’m just glad you’re okay,” she said with a shaky, tittering laugh, like she wasn’t quite sure how to process the wrongness of what she was seeing, the way the needle on a record player skips a groove and then finds the track again.  “These buildings have been spackled and patched more than my mother-in-law.  I’m sure maintenance can fix it in no time. Just toss those in the trash, would you?”

Steve nodded, and somewhat awkwardly dropped the pieces into the nearby wastebasket, then turned and walked out of the office and down the hall towards the barracks where SHIELD had given him a small apartment that he both loathed and sometimes could barely stand to leave.  At least it was quiet there.  Softer, somehow.  Less…bright. Everything here was so bright.  No one noticed, except him, of course.  No one had reason to notice.  He’d asked Coulson one day, and the man had just looked at him strangely, then found him later in the mess hall and explained something about the lightbulbs.  More wattage, he said. Everything really was brighter.   

Anthony, Steve’s mind hummed.  It was a nice name.  Some of the names now were so different, but Anthony…he liked how it sounded.  Someone would Bond with Anthony, and soon, most likely, given his age.  Hopefully, someone who would make him happy.  Alphas wanted their Omegas to be happy, right?  Someone like that probably had a line of suitors.  His parents would undoubtedly make sure they found an Alpha who would take care of him.  Someone who would appreciate that spark of spirit Steve could see so clearly in the picture.  

Or not.

It happened.  More than it should. Steve wasn’t unaware of how some Alphas treated their Omegas. He didn’t like it, of course, but he knew it happened.  The world may be a brighter place, but people hadn’t changed all that much since the forties, as it turned out.  

It didn’t matter.  It wasn’t his problem.  There wasn’t really anything for him to do, anyway.  It was up to Anthony’s parents to find a suitable mate, not that it particularly boded well that they were willing to offer him up to…whoever it was Fury told these people Steve was.

Anthony.

He didn’t want a mate.  For a lot of reasons, it wouldn’t be fair, bringing an Omega into this--whatever this was that Steve was doing now.  Life.  Was that what it was?   Two SHIELD officers skirted past him, one giving him a furtive look before quickly looking away when she caught Steve’s eye.  Life.  No war to fight.  Just the next mission.  And then the one after that and the one after that.  Steve closed his eyes.  It was so bright out here.  The folders in his hands felt heavy all of a sudden.  He should throw them away.  There was a garbage can just down the hall.  One for shredding next to it.  A blue one for recycling. That was important now.  SHIELD was committed to good environmental standards.  There had been a memo. Steve thought about it sometimes after the charges went off, when the parts of the buildings were still drifting through the air like confetti against a backdrop of black smoke, and sometimes, he thought at least it isn’t ash. Sometimes he just stopped thinking.

He didn’t do anything with the folders.  

“Headed to the briefing?” Coulson asked, holding one of those electronic tablets to his chest where he stopped across the hall from Steve.  He could give the folders to Coulson.  Tell Coulson exactly what Fury could do with his little scheme.  

He hefted the folders closer to his chest.

“Gym,” Steve replied, striding past Coulson without looking at him again.  He could feel his muscles tensing and bunching as adrenaline coursed through him.  It was a good feeling.  It was a feeling.  Something.  Hitting things, that he could do.  He could do it with his eyes closed (dark).  Fists pounding, body moving before he even thought about it, and so he wouldn’t need to think about it.  Wouldn’t need to think about anything.  He could just feel.  The way his knuckles scraped on the punching bag.  The way his shoulder lowered. The impact down his arm.  The way his feet fluttered over the mat.  How his stomach would go rigid right as his fist arced up towards the bag.  He would feel, for a little while, and then…then he wouldn’t need to later in the bright light of day.  He wouldn’t need to feel then, and it would be okay for one more day.

“Ah,” Coulson said.  “I’ll send you my notes, then.”

“Thanks,” Steve called out, not looking back, just forward.  Head down, shoulders back, soldier, we go forward.  The mantra’s voice in his head sounded like Phillips, but Phillips was dead, barking orders at God now, and Steve was here, head down, shoulders back, going forward.

It wasn’t Steve’s problem, what happened to some Omega he’d never even met.  Life was far from fair, and nothing Steve did could change that.  Besides, Anthony was young, beautiful, from a good family and, clearly, well-connected.  He would find a good match, with someone who wasn’t…with someone who could give him what he deserved. Someone who could take care of him, the way he needed.  Not someone like Steve.  That was a terrible idea.  Wasn’t that the whole point of these ridiculous therapy sessions?  That SHIELD thought Steve wasn’t adjusting.  Shellshock, they had called it, once.  It had a fancier name now, the one the therapist used, but Steve thought shellshock captured it better, the word seeming to explode in his head when he thought it, all bright and loud.  He wasn’t fit to be anyone’s Alpha.  He didn’t know what Fury had been thinking, humoring the therapist on this.  

I’m sure there will be some Alpha out there who will want to be the one to break him in.

He needed to hit something.

 

Chapter Text

It smelled like liniment. The kind his mom used to rub on his chest to help him breathe when the coughing fits got bad.  So bad the neighbors complained, and his whole body seemed to ache from the constant, back-breaking hacking, each breath harder to catch than the one before, when he was sure there was some wall he was going to hit one day when his body would just say, here.  Here, and no further.  He thought sometimes his mom thought the same thing, the way she would look at him out of the corner of her eye with such a bone-deep sadness, like the failure of Steve’s body was on her, somehow, and not some strange twist of fate or God or now, what they’d call some kind of genetic mistake, as if all his Alpha-coding got inverted, turned inside out, leaving him with a body that was a parody of what he was supposed to be.

Dr. Sloan’s.  That had been the name, Steve recalled, seeing it sitting there on the wobbly little bedside table she had painted blue when he was a baby, though long, thin strips of brown wood had long ago peeled away the paint.  Dr. Sloan’s Liniment. Amber liquid in a clear bottle with the black and white picture of a man sporting a bushy, handlebar moustache.  His memories of before the serum weren’t like now, but he could see the bottle clearly in his head, sitting there on the table by his bed, and how he hated that he would smell like that for days.  That piney, turpentine smell.  How he hated what that smell meant.  Sickness.  Weakness.  You smell like my Grandma, Rogers, he remembered a couple of the boys in the downstairs tenement would say, brushing against his shoulder as they walked past him to school, walking fast with their lungs that didn’t burn when they tried to breathe and their legs that didn’t hitch and their backs that weren’t curved and misshapen.  How he had hated them, then, in that moment. Envied and hated them.  

They were dead now, the Donoghue boys, having given up the O part of O’Donoghue along with nearly everything else when they walked through Ellis Island.  Peter and Paul, like the Apostles, good, strong, Irish Catholic boys, who had gone off to war with their Saint Christopher medallions to protect them and never come back.

“It’s a bit of a fixer-upper, I know, but it has a lot of charm.  Two bedrooms, one bath.  Nice sized rooms, actually.  Bigger than you’d think, and for California, actually what we would call downright roomy,” Allen, the realtor Coulson referred Steve to, said, drawing Steve out of his reverie, having apparently taken Steve’s silence for a judgment about the square footage.  “Built in ’53 for the officer housing at Fort Ord.  They updated all the base housing in the late sixties, and someone bought one of the cabins, moved it up here.  Kind of off the grid, but if you’re looking for privacy, this is it.  Floors are the original hardwoods.  Fireplace is original, too.  Some great, classic features,” Allen continued, pivoting in the middle of the kitchen.  

Steve looked down at the dull, yellow countertops with small, ivy-like vines tracing the edges and wondered what Allen considered classic, but held his tongue. “You have your updated appliances, and the electrical was all redone a few years ago.  A bit off the beaten track, but it gets city power, phone lines, even Wi-Fi, though that might be a bit spotty when it storms.  Great character to it. Don’t make them like they used to, am I right?” Allen asked with a light shake of his head.  Steve glanced away from the window for a moment, then back, trying to find something to say that sounded like interest.  “It would make a great little getaway, don’t you think?” Allen asked, clearing his throat a bit nervously, turning again and shoving his hands in, then out, of his pockets.  Steve was making the man fidgety, he knew.  Not on purpose, not exactly, but there was some kind of perverse pleasure in the man’s discomfort, if only because it meant Steve wasn’t the only one in the room who wasn’t sure how to react.  Maybe that was perverse, Steve reconsidered, then sighed.  

He looked back at the realtor for a moment, then turned back to look out the window above the small kitchen sink.  There was a thin stream barely managing to sluice over the rocks and down the side of the mountain by the cabin, just under the rustle of trees and chatter of birds.  He could hear it like a ringing in his ears, underneath everything else, low and deep (inside), louder than it should be.  

 “There’s a two-car garage.  And there’s the deck, of course.  Great view.  Did you see it when we drove up?  You can see the whole valley.  Really, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Allen asked, trying for chipper, but coming off a bit uncertain.

“It’s beautiful,” Steve said, since it seemed like that was what he was supposed to say.

“It is, isn’t it?  Best of California, right here, that’s what I tell people,” Allen chimed in at Steve’s response.  “The property itself is a little over four acres.  There’s even a small pond.  I’m told it’s well stocked, if you happen to enjoy fishing.  Is it just you?” Allen asked.

A brush-tailed squirrel hopped onto the top of the tarp-covered stack of firewood that sat a few feet outside the kitchen window and looked around, sniffing the air, then turned towards where Steve watched and chittered loudly at him before scampering off.  Squirrel, Steve remembered, the ringing in his ears louder now, booming and whining in an up and down cadence that made Steve want to put his hands to his head.  A shibboleth, Izzy had called it while he fixed Steve’s bike that time near Aachen, when the big one-fifty-fives were firing through the night.  Even the best trained German spies, with their careful, clipped, English accents, polished, but not too perfect, they always tripped over the pronunciation.  Squirrel.  Skworl.

notyounotyounotyounotyou

Steve’s hands curled into fists against the counter, where the little vines wound themselves along the edges.

“Just me,” Steve replied, turning towards the realtor and leaning back against the counter in front of the sink.

Allen made a small, surprised harrumphing sound, then put his hands in his pockets and rocked back a bit on his heels.  “Well…no Omega to please, that certainly makes it easy,” Allen said brightly, raising his eyebrows.  “Though, I’m sure when you do Bond, your Omega will have a great time brightening up this place.  New paint, some updated furniture, re-do the kitchen and bath, that kind of thing.  Be kind of fun for them, having a little project, you know?  They have a real knack for this kind of thing, anyway—you should see what my best friend’s cousin’s Omega did with their place.  Looks ah-mazing, and gives her something to do, since they don’t have kids, yet.  I mean, sure, she’s a bit high maintenance, but what are you going to do?” Allen shrugged, spreading his hands wide.  “What’s that saying?  Happy mate, life’s first-rate, right?”

“Right,” Steve said.  “Would you mind if I took a minute to look around?” Steve asked.  It wasn’t actually a question.  

“Of course!” Allen replied.  Steve thought he seemed relieved. “I’ll just wait out in the car.  You take your time.”

Steve watched him go, waited until the door banged into place behind him, then hefted himself off the counter and looked around.  He walked to the small living room and stood in front of the fireplace.  A clock ticked from the mantle, the only unnatural sound, and somehow louder for it.  Down the short hallway, steps creaking on the wood as he went, he found the door for the bathroom and pushed it open.  Small, but serviceable, with a shower that would barely fit him surrounded by ugly, pale green tiles that were probably what the relator was thinking about when he mentioned brightening up the place.  

A mirrored medicine cabinet hung over the white pedestal sink, and Steve caught his reflection there, then stepped forward and thumbed it open rather than look.  The shelves were empty, of course.  Once, he would have had to fill it with bottles and ointments, but now, he could put his shaving kit there, he supposed.  On the right side.  The right side was for him, the left side for…someone else.  For lotions and lipsticks and pressed powder in gilt compacts or whatever it was that Omegas used today.  He stared at the empty shelves for a moment, then slowly closed the cabinet and pulled the bathroom door closed behind him.

The bedrooms were pretty much as Allen had described them, one slightly bigger than the other, and each with a small closet lined in cedar.  The furniture was chunky, wooden and slightly off, like the pieces were made by the same person, but years apart.  The bedroom walls were bare, though someone had left a truly hideous painting of a wagon wheel leaning against a stump on the wall in the hallway.  Steve looked at it for a moment, then shook his head and huffed out a low laugh, wondering if someone had purchased it on a humorous whim or if it had simply come with the cabin and no one had the courage to risk whatever release of dark energy was sure to follow its removal.  

He liked it well enough.  As well as he liked anything these days.  The cabin, with its cursed painting, empty medicine cabinet and well-stocked pond.  It was…not SHIELD, with its brightly-lit corridors and sleek screens filled with information and the pills they kept wanting him to take that didn’t do anything, though he took them and gave the little paper cup back to the doctor each time with a smile that seemed to make the doctor feel better.  Everything about this place was the opposite of SHIELD.  Inverted, Steve thought, feeling his gut clench.  

As he sat down, the sofa cushion was lumpy and let out a puff of air and dust motes into the sun-filtered light that seeped through the window.   He reached up and fingered the fringe that edged the plaid blanket that hung over the back of the sofa.  The mantle clock ticked resolutely on.  Shadows fell in lines across the room, as the light found its way through the slats of the blinds.  Steve thought it looked a bit like bars. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the curve of the sofa.

Hey there, you,” the voice said, soft and gentle.  Steve felt something, a shudder or rivulet of some kind of feeling run through him, deep and warm and pleasant.  Familiar now, though he couldn’t stave off the fissure of shame that snaked a cold path down his spine. He ignored it.  “This is nice up here.  Peaceful.  I told you I’d like it.  So different from that room at SHIELD, don’t you think.  Homey.  Do you like it?” the voice asked.  “It’s okay.  You don’t have to talk.  I can talk for both of us.  That’s fine.  Omegas like to talk, after all.  Here, let me get the lights.  There.  That’s better, isn’t it?  Of course, it is.  Natural light is best, right?  That’s what the magazines say.  Natural light. Conserve energy, all that.  I think that’s better.

“Yes,” Steve sighed, feeling his throat tighten.  He opened his eyes.  “That’s better.” It did seem darker now. That was crazy, but it did.  He felt himself relax. He turned his head against the back of the sofa and looked at the space next to him.  He could almost see him sitting there, the way Steve used to be able to almost see his mother’s grief like a shadow he didn’t quite want to see past.  Rumpled suit, hair starting to fray and curl against whatever attempt had been made to tame it, wide, brown eyes and a full, generous mouth that was curving into a smile.  A real one, not the one in the picture, the one that said fuck you better than his hand gesture had.  No, this one was soft and a little tremulous, one side quirking up just a bit more.  

Kind of dreary all the way up here, though.  Just you and the squirrels,” Anthony added, canting his head to one side as he had in the picture.  “Skworls.  Did I say that right?  No, don’t answer.  You don’t need to think about that.  It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? That was a long time ago, and you’re here now.  With me.  I should brighten this place up, shouldn’t I?  Be nice to have a project.”

“You should,” Steve whispered dully, then looked down at his hands, swallowed, and scrubbed his face.  

To be fair, it was this kind of thing that probably made SHIELD insist on the therapist.

I’ll need a few things. When you get back.  You’ll have to help.  I can’t exactly do this all by myself, you know,” Anthony admonished lightly, then reached out and ran a hand through Steve’s hair, light and gentle, and God, so good, Steve wanted to lean into the phantom feeling, chase it until he could find whatever that was.  Warmth, soft and soothing, and not the brittle, stinging pinpricks of brightness that came with not being cold anymore.  

“I can’t do this,” Steve husked out, feeling his jaw tighten until his teeth hurt.

Sure, you can,” Anthony urged.  “It’s easy.  Happy mate, life’s first-rate.”

Steve closed his eyes again.  It was easier to go mad without staring at it in the light of day, he supposed.  In Steve’s mind, the fantasy-Anthony leaned over and curled around him, all limbs and soft warmth, burying his head into Steve’s neck.  He could almost feel the heat of breath there, making the skin just below Steve’s jaw prickle.  “I could make you happy, too.  It would be okay, if you were happy.  That’s what’s supposed to happen.  Omegas make their Alphas happy.  Everyone knows that.  It would be okay, then,” Anthony whispered across Steve’s skin as he spread his hand over Steve’s chest, the words echoing in Steve’s head with drumbeat.  “It would be okay, if it was because of me.”

Steve jumped at the hesitant knock, pushing himself off the sofa and looking around, heart pumping hard against his ribs, trying to contain the feeling of being caught.  Shame, bright and cold, burst in his chest.  He wondered, not for the first time, when he had let this get so far.  That first night, looking at Anthony’s file, it had seemed fairly normal to think about him.  To wonder.  To imagine.  Even, to imagine what Anthony would say.  How he would act.  What he would think of Steve. Somewhere, along the line, it had become easy to let himself imagine how Anthony would look.  How he would smile.  What it would feel like if Anthony touched him.  Not sexually, of course. It would be wrong to think of Anthony, an Omega who didn’t belong to him, in that kind of way.  So, he didn’t.  

He didn’t.

You could, if I was yours,” Anthony pointed out.  Steve looked over and imagined him sitting curled up on the sofa with the blanket around him.  “It would be okay, then.”

You’re not mine.

I could be,” Anthony said, leaning his head over the back of the sofa and giving Steve a sloe-eyed look from underneath the long lashes that Steve remembered from his picture.

Steve ran a hand through his hair and let out a long, jittery breath.  “Be right there,” he called out.  

“No problem, just checking,” Allen’s muffled voice came back through the door.  

Steve sucked in a deep, bracing breath and put his hands to his hips, letting his chin sink down to his chest, then glanced around again.  

This was crazy.  He had to stop this.  It wasn’t healthy.  He knew that.  Telling himself again as he stood here halfway between the cabin’s living area and the kitchen with the clock ticking the seconds off worked about as well as it had the past couple of weeks, when his mind would conjure the image of Anthony from his picture, dangling his visage in the forefront of Steve’s mind like bait on a hook.  Steve knew the hook was there, all sharp-pointed teeth, but he couldn’t quite make himself look away.  He should, though.  God knew, he should look away.  It wasn’t about what he wanted.  It was about doing what was right, and bringing some Omega into this shell of a life he had carefully carved out for himself was the height of selfishness and probably a recipe for disaster, no matter what SHIELD said.  

He ran his hand over his mouth, cupping his chin as if he could draw the lump out of his throat, but it held there, bobbing up and down as he blinked back a sudden burning sting at the corners of his eyes.  He had to stop this. Stop thinking about this.  About him.  Anthony.  Anthony, who was proud and defiant and brave and who was going to be Bonded to someone who would break him in.  Steve could feel his hands balling into fists at his sides, the sudden straining of muscles that came with ready alertness, and the surge of…something…that seemed to happen whenever he thought about that eventuality.  

It wasn’t his concern. Some strange Omega he’d seen a picture of in a stack of files…the boy’s fate wasn’t in Steve’s hands.  It belonged to his parents, who would surely find a suitable match for him.  Someone who would take care of him, the way he should be cared for, not someone who could barely manage to get through a day without retreating to some half-baked fantasy life.  It wasn’t his concern.  It wasn’t, and if it was, he would be better than the type of person who pulled someone into whatever this life was only in the hopes of pulling himself out of it.  That wasn’t fair or right or anything other than self-serving, Steve told himself firmly, failing, again, to quite make the admonition stick.   

And if he sometimes thought of Anthony, well, that really wasn’t so strange, was it?  Alphas fantasized about Omegas all the time, he told himself, remembering the stack of pictures one of the GIs had picked up in Paris that had been traded around until the edges were worn down, doe-eyed Omegas in scraps of silk and lace, draped in pearls and little else.  It wasn’t unusual, an Alpha’s thoughts straying to an Omega from time to time.  No one had to know.   

He was fairly sure the SHIELD therapist would disagree with that assessment, but there was no way Steve was telling her that he couldn’t get this one Omega out of his head, not when she had all but stamped Anthony’s file with a giant, red 4F, Steve thought with a slight frown. She didn’t need to know.  No one did.   It was private.  For him.  Just something that helped, sometimes, to think of Anthony, to hear Anthony’s voice in his head, to see him, standing there in his pale suit with fire in his eyes.  

If I was yours, it wouldn’t be strange at all for you to think of me,” Anthony argued mildly.  “You could think of me and talk to me and see me whenever you wanted.  For real.  It wouldn’t be strange then, if I helped.”

“You’re not,” Steve said. “You’re not—” he broke off.  Choked back the word.  He couldn’t say it.  It was true, of course, but he didn’t want to speak it out loud, like saying it was pulling the sheet off the mirror.  He couldn’t do it.  Not yet.

Not yours?  Are you sure? You could make me happy,” Anthony’s voice, or what Steve thought of as his voice, a little higher than Steve’s own and lilting a bit with a kind sort of humor, echoed in his head.  “Better than they could.  Those others,” Anthony said with a derisive, harrumphing snort.  “I’d be happy, and you would have done that.  Each day, you could do that.  That would be something, huh?  Remember how you used to try to make your mom smile at least once a day?  She worked so hard, and it was always rough on her, so you’d draw her something—remember when you drew that naughty cartoon and she laughed so hard she cried?--or maybe you heard a joke on the wireless, something to make her laugh.  It could be like that.  You could make me happy.  That’s something good, right?  Making someone happy?  You could do that.  Do something good here. Something good, each day.”

“SHIELD is—it’s doing good. Helping,” Steve replied flatly into the quiet void of the kitchen.  Outside the window, the squirrel was back, turning an acorn over and over between its claws, like it was trying to decide whether to have it today or save it for later.  

You could make me happy.  You could do that.  Do something good here. Something good, each day,” Anthony repeated in Steve’s head.  When Steve closed his eyes, he saw Anthony smile next to him and reach for his hand. He could almost feel the slim fingers weaving their way into his own, warm and solid, giving Steve’s hand a light squeeze.  

I can’t, Steve thought, though this time, he didn’t let the words slip out.  No Omega would want this.  This place that reeked of dreariness and isolation and age.  Oldness.  Datedness.  Not even a fixer-upper, really, because some things--some things you couldn’t change.  No matter how hard you tried, how much you wanted to, it wouldn’t change anything.  It would be selfish in a way that Steve didn’t like to think he could be to ask anyone to take this on.  He couldn’t subject someone to this.  

Come on, I’m not some shrinking violet.  You know that. You saw my picture. I could handle it,” Anthony said, coming to stand next to him in a way that made Steve want to reach out.  One thing with having a perfect memory—it rendered nervous breakdowns with complete accuracy, Steve would give it that.

Steve gave his head a shake, then headed for the door.  Allen waited by the car with a phone to his ear, which he quickly turned off and dropped in his pocket as Steve approached.  

“Well?  What’d you think?  Pretty special, huh?” Allen asked.

It’s so different from SHIELD.  Away.  I’ll bet at night, with just the stars, it would be so dark.  That would be nice.  Quiet, too.  Not too quiet, of course. Not the deep quiet. Not with me here,” the Anthony figment in Steve’s head promised, a smile in his voice.  

“I’ll take it,” Steve said with a nod, then headed for the car, opened the door and climbed inside while Allen stumbled over some kind of response and quickly dug out his keys and got them under way.  

Steve spent most of the ride back to SHIELD staring out the car’s window while Allen chattered on about interest rates and something to do with points.  Steve had money now.  More than he ever imagined having, that was for sure.  Back pay. Hostile Fire pay.  Per diems.  And, apparently, the Army had decided that his time in the ice qualified as some kind of prisoner of war status, which meant he progressed in rank the whole time.  Seventy years of promotions without doing a damn thing.  Must be the US military, Steve thought with a sigh, though said nothing as Allen droned on about the closing.  Technically, that gave him the pay of modern-day four-star general, though, as he’d told Coulson, he was a bit attached to the moniker of Captain, whatever his pay stub might say.  

Coulson was waiting when they arrived back at SHIELD.  He made some quick small talk with Allen, then waved him off, turning back to Steve as they walked up the steps to the doors marked by SHIELD’s emblem and a “No Unauthorized Visitors” sign etched into the glass.

“So, congratulations are in order, I hear,” Coulson remarked.

“What?” Steve barked sharply, swiveling his head to the side.  

“On the cabin.  Home ownership. American dream.  All that,” Coulson replied, giving Steve a quizzical look.  

“Oh.  Right,” Steve said as they passed the guard desk and headed for the bank of elevators.  “Yeah.” Steve looked up, as he always did, and scanned the painting of Peggy that hung in the lobby as they passed by.  It was Peggy a little older than he remembered her, though still as fiercely beautiful.   

“She was quite the lady,” Coulson observed, glancing over his shoulder and following Steve’s gaze as they slowed to wait for the next lift.  “I always wanted to meet her, but never had the privilege.  You know, if you wanted, I could arrange for you to vi--”

“Is there a mission?” Steve asked, dragging his gaze back to where his muted reflection hung on the closed elevator doors.  He had to resist the urge to press the button again.  

“You’re technically not considered active duty just—” Coulson started.  

“Is. There.  A. Mission?” Steve asked again, punctuating each word carefully, but with enough force that it cut Coulson off.

Coulson regarded him for a long moment, then looked down at his phone, though Steve knew that Coulson already knew the answer.  

“Ouadda,” Coulson said finally, looking up at Steve.  

                                                       *****************************************************************************************

Steve leaned his head against the hull of the airplane, feeling the familiar thrum of its engines ghost through his skin.  His hands were clenched around the cowl, the half-moons of his nails and whorls of his fingers dark where they peeked through the ends of his gloves.  He could still taste blood in his mouth, though he had long healed, like some kind of memory of it clinging to his tongue.  

“Hey,” Natasha said, sidling up next to him in one of the paratrooper seats.  “Sometimes—these things, they go south, Steve.  You know that.  There was nothing we could do.  Can’t save everyone.  I wish we could, but, that isn’t how this works.”

“I know that,” Steve acknowledged in a rough, scraping voice. He squinted up at the lights that ran in a track through the interior of the C-130’s cabin.  Bright. It had been bright out there, too, but the blood had dripped into his eyes, tinting his vision with red, and he hadn’t noticed the brightness after that.  “I’m not—I know what war looks like, Nat.  This?  This thing we were doing today?  That wasn’t war.  That was—I don’t know what that was.  What were we even doing there?  Rescuing hostages who had been dead for days?  None of the strike team had med kits.  Not the real ones. Not the ones we use to treat people and not just patch ourselves up with bullets flying overhead.  They knew.  We didn’t save anybody, Nat.  We just put it off another day.”

She tilted her head to the side, narrowed her eyes and regarded him.  “Sometimes that’s what we do,” Natasha replied with a cold sort of equanimity.   Her voice was barely a whisper over the hum of the engines, though Steve had no trouble hearing her.  “Sometimes, that’s the best thing we can do,” she shrugged.  “These things are complicated. It’s not like it was, Steve.  We don’t get to fight Nazis. Most of the time, it isn’t so clear who the bad guys are.  Not anymore. We do the best we can.”

“Is that what we’re doing?  The best we can?” Steve barked at her, then slammed his mouth shut into a thin line.  “Sorry.  I didn’t mean—it isn’t you.”

“Well, if anyone gets to give the ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ speech, I guess it would be you,” Natasha chided mildly, seeming more amused than offended.  “You don’t have to do this, you know,” she offered, voice low this time, meant only for Steve.  “Any of this.  Me, I…I guess I need to balance some things out, you know?  What I did before.  Who I was.  I can’t make that go away, but this—at least I can try to even things out a little, I suppose.  I don’t know if that’s how it works,” she said, turning to look away for a moment.  “It probably isn’t.  But, I have to try, right?  You, though…”

“I’m a soldier.  What else would I do other than this?” Steve asked with a huff of laughter, meaning it rhetorically, but it came out like more a plea.

“I don’t know. What makes you happy?” she asked.  

Anthony leaned his head against Steve’s shoulder, looked up at him and covered Steve’s hand where it clutched the cowl.  In Steve’s head, he could see Anthony’s thumb brushing back and forth over the leather, across the knuckles, and wanted to tell him to stop, there was blood, too much blood, but he didn’t.  It felt good.  Soothing.  Even if it wasn’t real.  It was stupid and pathetic, Steve knew, but it worked, oddly enough, even while he hated himself a bit more for needing it.  “It’s okay.  It isn’t yours.  It’s okay, what you did.  Keeping us safe.  Keeping me safe.  It’s okay,” Anthony assured him.  Warmth bloomed in Steve’s chest.  It was a lie, but sometimes, soldiers needed the lie.  Sometimes, that was the only way to keep going.  He thought it might be called compromise.

“I don’t know,” Steve said after the weight against his shoulder disappeared and the phantom fingers trailed away.  

“Well, think about it,” Natasha said.  “This isn’t all there is, Steve. And this…it can be too much, this life, if that’s all you have.  I think you know what I mean.”

“Fury tell you to say that?” Steve retorted with a caustic bite to it.  He was tired of the whole thing.  Coulson, the doctors, the therapist, Fury, the team.  Everything was a manipulation.

“Fury tells me to say a lot of things,” Natasha replied obliquely, then gave him a quick, mercurial half-smile that pursed her lips and stood up.  Steve watched her walk away, back to where Clint piloted the transport, probably, though he saw her give him a long look over her shoulder before she ducked out of sight.  

She’s right, you know,” Anthony whispered into his ear. “You should think about what makes you happy.  Probably not me, not now, anyway.  I’m probably Bonded to someone else.  What do you think that doctor meant, ‘break me in’?

Steve shut his eyes and tried to let the steady susurration of the engines drown out the klaxon in his head. He didn’t want to think about that.  Hell, he didn’t want to think about Anthony at all, except he couldn’t seem to stop, like those women who would come by the clinic where his mom worked, thin and glassy-eyed, looking for a stopper-full of cough syrup or maybe laudanum, if they could get it.  I’m sorry, Steve thought, a stab of anguish punching the words into his gut.   He was failing (falling) at all of this, and somehow, Anthony, or the idea of him, anyway, had become tied up with everything in his head.  Maybe because the therapist had thrown the idea of Bonding out like some kind of lifeline, a magic pill to fix whatever was ailing him like the old tonic ads used to promise.  Whatever the reason, Steve had grabbed on and held, and he thought it might be the only thing keeping him here.

I’m sorry, Steve thought again.  I wish it could be different. I wish I could be different.

Can’t save everyone,” Anthony said from somewhere in the back of Steve’s mind.  

Steve grimaced and leaned his head back against the plane’s bulkhead, thumping lightly against the metal as if he could dislodge the idea.  He could feel his heart pounding in his chest.  He couldn’t save everyone, he knew that.  Nat was right about that.  Anthony certainly wasn’t his to save, and what was it to say that Anthony even needed saving?  Or that Steve was even able to offer that kind of solace? It wasn’t fair to Anthony to even think of it.  Anthony deserved an Alpha who could take care of him, not someone who was only at home in this world when he could drench his hands in blood, who only felt alive when he was hand in hand with death.  Steve’s world was no place for an Omega.  There was nothing here, except the next mission, and the one after that, in some endless line that ends with a white cross.

It could end with something else,” Anthony suggested, flexing soft fingers over the back of Steve’s hand again.

There’s blood there, Steve warned.  

I don’t mind,” Anthony replied.

“Hey, Cap, you okay there?” Rumlow asked, slowing to a halt as he wound his way through the plane’s cabin eating some kind of power bar that Steve had tried and found that it tasted like chocolate covered tree bark, as far as Steve could tell.  

“Fine,” Steve replied, raising his voice enough to be heard over the engines.  

“You know,” Rumlow started, somewhat hesitant.  “Me and a couple of the guys, we thought we’d maybe go blow off some steam when we get back.  There’s a place I know where you can, ah, get some action, you know?”  Rumlow looked over his shoulder, as if checking to see who might be listening, though the rest of the strike team was occupied either sleeping or playing cards, though Rollins had his phone in his hand, which probably meant he was playing that candy game he was obsessed with.  “They got tables.  Craps, poker, whatever your poison.  High stakes.  Some, ah, options for taking the edge off, too, if you know what I mean.  Off the grid kind of stuff.  Nothing that’s going to get you booted if Coulson finds out, just some, ah, options for, you know, strictly medicinal purposes, that kind of thing,” Rumlow said, warming a bit to the idea as Steve said nothing.  “Good place.  Clean.  They got a couple of O’s, all tested and shit.  Good looking.  Young, too, not some used up things your knot slides right out of.  Real classy kind of thing.”

“Sounds like,” Steve replied, feeling his chest tighten.  

“Yeah, exactly!” Rumlow added.  “Real nice.  You could use a bit of fun, right?  Hell, Cap, I hardly ever see you leave SHIELD.  It would be good for you. Get out, let loose a bit, you know? Live a little, man.  God knows, you could use it. No offense.”

“None taken,” Steve said flatly.  “Think I’ll have to pass, though.”

“Coulson and Fury keeping you on a short leash, huh?” Rumlow remarked.   “Look, Cap, just because those two have sticks up their assess, doesn’t mean you have to hop-to every time they say jump, see?  I mean, you could come glue feathers to your head and insist we call you Tweety, and Coulson would probably offer to help you molt, you know?” he laughed.   “Just saying, you got a long rope, there, Cap.  Might as well use it.”

“I’ve got some reports to finish,” Steve said after a long beat of silence, though he held Rumlow’s gaze until the other man looked away, shifting his feet and bouncing slightly on his heels.  

“Reports?” Rumlow chuckled, glancing back at Steve.  “You really are sticking with this whole Boy Scout thing, huh?  Guess it’s kind of a lot, having to be all perfect all the time.  No wonder you’re so wound up, Cap.  Fuck, anyone would be. You sure got Fury’s panties in a twist, though, I’ll tell you that.  Heard they want you to Bond.  Fury and Coulson got a whole line of eager O’s.  Always wanted one.  Unclaimed like that?  Damn,” he said again, shaking his head a bit and making a low, whistling noise that Steve thought was meant to be appreciation, though it didn’t sound particularly appreciative.  “Maybe one day, right?  A few promotions and who knows?  Make an honest Alpha out of me, eh?  Stranger things have happened, “ Rumlow said with a slight shrug.  “Where the hell did Coulson even find the time to put that together like he’s some God-damned SHIELD e-Harmony?” Rumlow asked with a low laugh, raising his eyebrows in question.  

“I don’t know how they put the list together,” Steve replied.  He didn’t.  He probably should be curious.  He probably should be a lot of things.  He didn’t know, though, how the Omegas were selected, except that Fury had put Anthony’s file in there.  A favor to Anthony’s father, maybe.  Or something else.  Of course, it was. Everything was.  Nothing was real, except the way his boots hit the ground on the dropzone or the way his knuckles ached for a few minutes when they were done and all that was left was the clean-up.  That was real.  That, he could feel, at least.  This whole damn charade was a manipulation, so why not the list, too?  Maybe Anthony was part of it.  Maybe, if he met Steve, he would laugh at the audacity of Steve even thinking about him like that.  Maybe this was all just a ruse to get Steve to want it, so he would be better, try harder, do more, like Rumlow said.  

“Don’t suppose I could get him to put a list like that together for me.  Guess that’s reserved for you.  Wouldn’t mind taking a look at it, though,” Rumlow suggested.  His voice was mild, almost conspiratorial, as if they were sharing a joke, only Steve didn’t know the punchline.  Or, maybe Steve was the punchline, he didn’t know.  

“It’s classified,” Steve said.  He wasn’t sure of that, but he was sure he wasn’t going to give the files to Rumlow to look at under any circumstances.   

“Yeah, I suppose it would be,” Rumlow shrugged, mouth twisting a bit as if in distaste.  “You going to do it? Why not, right?  I mean, having an Omega waiting for you at home every night, that’s gotta be nice.  Damn,” Rumlow continued, making a mmmphing-grunt sound and biting his lip.  “Some hot, tight little piece ready and waiting when all this shit is done for the day.  Living the dream, man, living the dream. I don’t know what you’re waiting for.  And with SHIELD serving them to you on some silver platter?  Hell, I’d be all over that.  If it doesn’t work, you just break the Bond and boom!” Rumlow said, clapping his hands together to punctuate the word.  “Free again.  But, at least you get to enjoy yourself for a while first, huh?”

Bet he knows what it means to break me in,” Anthony said, circling around where Rumlow stood, regarding the man with a considering look before turning his gaze back to Steve.  “What do you think?  Do you think he does?  I think he does.

“Stop,” Steve ordered in a sharp, whip-cracked tone.  Rumlow flinched.  Steve found he liked that. He wasn’t sure who he was talking to.  Probably himself.  The Anthony who haunted him, with his pasted-on smile and terrible suit and small act of defiance that said more than either of those, was gone, and Rumlow was staring at him, wide-eyed.

“Sorry, sorry, whoa there, Cap,” Rumlow said quickly, holding his hands out in front of him and taking a step back.  “Didn’t mean to get too personal or something. Geez.  You’re going to—ah—you’re kind of pulling the plane apart, there, Cap,” he warned, nodding down at where Steve’s hand had wrapped around the metal seat and was peeling it from its base with a whining, popping noise that was drawing looks from the other strike team members. “Maybe you want to not do that, huh?  Didn’t mean to strike a nerve.  Just making conversation.”

“Don’t talk about him like that,” Steve snapped. He frowned, then forced his hand to release the seat.  Rumlow wasn’t, of course, talking about anyone in particular.  Just making conversation.  Locker room talk. That was what they called it these days, apparently, as if the location made it acceptable.  Like it could be said here, between Alphas, and left here, never making its way outside.  

“Didn’t know you were already Bonded,” Rumlow offered in a placating voice, looking down and away.  “Sorry, man.  Congrats, though.  That’s great, really.  Hey, who’s the lucky O?  Anyone I’d know?  Must be a helluva Omega, huh?”

Say it,” Anthony urged with a sigh as he leaned against Steve’s side.  

I can’t, Steve pleaded.  I can’t.  I’m sorry.  I’ll mess it up.  You don’t want this.  Me.  I’m—I can’t do this.  I can’t.  Any of this.  It’s wrong and selfish and---I shouldn’t want this.  You.  I should be better than this.  But, God help me, I do. I want this.  You, I want you.  You’re all I think about, and I know it isn’t real.  I’m not so far gone that I don’t know that, but I think, sometimes, the idea of you might be the only thing keeping me here, like some kind of tether, because everything else is back there.  You’re the only thing that’s here.  

Then let me be here.  For real. Say it,” Anthony repeated.  “You want to.  It would be okay.  I could help.  I could make you happy.  It would be okay, if you were happy because of me. That would be okay, then, even if they are all dead.  There could be something other than war that you were good at.  You could be good at making me happy.  You could do that, every day, and that would be something good, right?  Balance, right?  All of this, everything you’re good at, everything you’re made for, it could be okay, if you took care of me, too.  You’re an Alpha.  You’re made for taking care of your Omega, too.  You could do that, and it would be something good, making me happy.”

Steve raked his hand through his hair and closed his eyes for a moment, then lifted his gaze to Rumlow, who was looking at him with a confused sort of expectation.  Starting to worry people, Rogers, Steve thought grimly.  That’s what this was all about in the first place, wasn’t it?  He was worrying them. They needed a soldier, but they didn’t want him to need a war.  Not like this.  So, they offered him something else to need and like a drowning man, he couldn’t help but reach for that pocket of air, even if it gave him just one more breath.  Like a diver, Steve thought, and felt his throat click dryly as he tried to swallow back the words.  

Say it,” Anthony said.  “Please.  For me.  It’s okay, if it’s for me.”

“Anthony Stark,” Steve replied.

“Stark?  As in Stark Industries?  Nice,” Rumlow said, nodding his head and raising his eyebrows.  “Think I remember hearing Stark had an Omega son he’d trot out at some of the fancy shindigs they throw.  What’s he like?  Little on the old side for Bonding, though, isn’t he? Guess he must be pretty hot, huh? Come on, spill, Cap.  Let a guy live vicariously.”

“He’s…” Steve started, frowning, though he wasn’t quite sure why, except he didn’t want to give any piece of Anthony to this man, not even a description.  Rumlow would take it and turn it into something for Rumlow, something that took something away from Anthony in a way that Steve didn’t quite understand, but knew in his gut and despised with a vehemence that probably shouldn’t have surprised him at this point, but it did.  None of Anthony belonged to Rumlow, not even that much.  Steve stood up and walked forward, slowing just as he was in front of Rumlow and looked down.  

“He’s mine.”

 

Chapter Text

“Stark?” Fury barked with a sort of incredulous twist to the word.  “You want Stark,” he repeated in a carefully neutral tone when he caught Steve’s expression.  The Director leaned across his desk, picked up the edges of the file in front of him and glanced down at it, almost as if he would find some other name there if he glared at it hard enough.  

Steve had the file memorized. He wondered which part Fury was reading.  Page three, halfway down, it said that Anthony loved to read and was passionate about music.  Page four, he often spent his time helping the family’s butler with various tasks, like preparing dinner for the family or tidying the house.  Page seven explained that he was in excellent health and gave a few statistics, height, weight and a fairly unremarkable medical history. Broken arm from falling out of a tree seemed to be the worst of it.

“I’d like to ask his parents for permission to Court him,” Steve said, repeating his earlier words.  

Fury raised his gaze from the file—page five, education, where a series of tutors attested to Anthony’s mastery of the basic courses--and gave Steve a long, considering look, then leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his chin with one hand.  

“Why Stark? If you don’t mind my asking,” Fury said, his voice slow.  Cautious. But, the words jabbed at Steve, probably because he couldn’t think of an answer that made sense.  Or, one that he wanted to give, anyway.

I can’t stop thinking about him.  He’s everywhere, but not here, and if I can make that one thing right, maybe it will be easier to be here. I can take care of him.  I can do that, each day, and that can be the thing that I do when I get up in the morning, and the thing that I’ve done when I lay down at night, and maybe that will be enough.

And sometimes, when all of that sounded meaningless, because he’s mine.

The thought made his skin heat with a prickly, tingling sensation a bit like feeling returning to a sleeping limb.  He wasn’t truly cold, he knew that. SHIELD kept everything a steady temperature and the serum did the rest. But then, he’d think about Anthony, and it would make him so warm, all over, driving away this phantom coldness.  

Nothing about that was an explanation Steve wanted to give, so he kept silent under Fury’s steady gaze.  Something about the way Fury asked the question made Steve bristle, though. The feigned nonchalance of it, maybe, Steve thought.  As if everything since he’d woken up wasn’t some kind of orchestrated maneuver. The world needs you, Captain.  Maybe now more than ever .  That’s what Fury had said all those months ago when they still had to put an IV into his arm every morning because he had trouble actually swallowing liquid.  Steve had heard the lie wrapped up inside those easy-to-believe words, but he’d nodded because they put a shield in his hands, and that was the only thing that had felt right since he opened his eyes.

“Didn’t you put his file in the stack for me to consider?” Steve asked pointedly.  “Sir,” he added, as an afterthought.

“A favor for…an old friend,” Fury said, his voice dropping on the last.  The father, Steve thought, the one who makes weapons. Steve had seen some of them in action, the Stark Industries logo on one side because even death had a place for an advertisement these days.  “To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect you would agree to any of this, let alone pick the Stark boy. Didn’t think he’d be your type.”

“Why? What’s wrong with him?” Steve asked, anger vibrating to the surface so quickly, he could taste it on his tongue, where his teeth gnashed at the words. He willed himself to calm down, though he thought Fury could see the effort, and it bothered him, giving that away, one more breadcrumb for Fury to follow.

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” Fury said in a placating tone.  “Good family. Howard—the father—he’s in the weapons business, as I’m sure you know. Small company, but they make some decent stuff, or so I’m told. He’s got some pull, a few connections in D.C., but…” he continued, spreading his hands wide.  “Can’t say I know much about the boy. I’ve only met him a few times.”

“So, what’s the issue?” Steve asked.

“Just rumors, I guess. Stuff you hear.  That sort of thing,” Fury replied with a low shrug, dangling that out there for Steve to reach.

“What sort of thing?” Steve pressed.  He tried to keep his voice steady. It took some effort.  As always, when it came to this kind of wordplay, the conversations that hid inside others, he found himself off-kilter.  He could feel his hands curl into fists around the chair handles. Fury’s eye glanced down surreptitiously, catching the motion, and Steve forced himself to relax.  

If he broke Fury’s chair, he suspected someone might say he wasn’t ready to meet Anthony. That he needed more time.  Punching bags, that was okay, he’d learned. Good, even. Terrorists, or whatever word they were using for the other guys this time, that was okay, too.  The kind of violence and anger that was stamped with approval. He was good at it. They told him they were going to give him another medal after the last mission.  He declined. Such a good man, they said. So humble.

Steve privately thought if someone tried to pin another medal on him, he’d come apart at the seams, like some kind of ragdoll with too many holes and tears from use.  He didn’t say that, of course. No one wanted to hear that.

“Well,” Fury started, drawing out the word and bringing Steve’s attention back to the present.  “Just that he’s a bit, I don’t know…I guess you’d call it high-spirited ,” Fury offered, like he had just now thought of the phrase.  “That keep you from coming across this desk at me?” Fury asked with a knowing huff of a laugh.  He gave Steve a long, speculative look, then his voice softened. “Look, I’m sure most of it is just Alphas jawing at each other. They get shot down, Omega’s a tease, right?  Omega won’t give them the time of day? Stuck up. Omega smarts off, maybe shows an Alpha or five up in front of the brass, let’s say, Omega’s a know-it-all. Can’t win, right? The Stark boy, he’s rubbed a few Alphas the wrong way. They get their panties all in a wad, so they talk.  Probably make a lot more of it than it was. You know how it is,” he finished, leaning back in his chair and regarding Steve across his desk.

“Maybe that’s how it is, but it doesn’t sound much like how it should be,” Steve replied.  It came out sounding tired. “Whatever people have said,” Steve stopped, drawing in a shaky breath.  People talked about Anthony. Said things about him. Wrong things, Steve wanted to protest, though he didn’t actually know that.  It felt wrong though, all of it. Fury’s calm acceptance, his easy explanation, it all felt wrong.  Steve wondered if maybe he was the thing that was wrong. “Whatever they’ve said about him, I don’t care.  I would still like to ask to Court him formally.”

“How sure are you about Stark?” Fury asked, eye narrowing on Steve.  

“I’m sure,” Steve replied. He’s mine, Steve thought to himself, feeling it warm him, as it always did.

“Alright,” Fury agreed, brow pulling together as if considering Steve’s request.  “Reason I ask is…well, truth is, I’ve heard that the parents might be interested in something a little more…permanent. Given the situation.  All the talk, true or not, it doesn’t help, and someone like you being interested…well, I imagine they might be willing to agree to a bit more than just Courting.  Might insist on it, in fact.”

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

Fury steepled his fingers, giving Steve a long look, then pushed himself away from his desk and stood up, walking over to the wide bank of windows that made up the corner of his office.  

“See,” Fury started, glancing over his shoulder at Steve, “the thing is, the longer these rumors are out there, the harder it is to find him a mate, and Howard, he’s got a pretty solid idea of what he wants out of this whole Bonding thing.”

“Connections,” Steve guessed.  Weapons company. Small, but good stuff.  

“Right.  And Howard trots him out whenever there’s some opportunity to mingle with the stars-and-bars types.  Except the boy keeps pissing off every Alpha who gets within ten feet of him,” Fury said, turning towards Steve.  Steve had to bite down on his cheek to keep from smiling. He could imagine that pretty easily—had imagined it--but he liked hearing it confirmed.  Good, Steve thought firmly. They should stay away from Anthony. “I don’t know if Howard’s going to want to chance a long Courtship. For a lot of reasons, but mostly because if you were to back out, the hit to the boy’s reputation would make any future prospects fairly dim, at least by the standards the Starks set, you get my meaning?”

“I wouldn’t back out,” Steve insisted. “We could shorten the Courtship, I suppose,” Steve offered, his frown growing deeper.  The idea was appealing for a lot of reasons, he had to admit. Less opportunity for Steve to screw things up, for one.

“I don’t just mean a shortened Courtship.  I mean, I think they’d be willing to agree to a Bond,” Fury said.  “Not just willing. Eager, I suspect.”

“A Bond?” Steve repeated in surprise.  “We haven’t even met. He doesn’t know anything about me.”  He doesn’t know anything about me. It was a terrible, grasping thought that filled his head, and Steve wanted to push it away.  He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know enough to say no. No Courting. No waiting for Anthony to realize there was something wrong.  He could be mine, just like that, and he wouldn’t even have to know…any of it. He could just be mine.

It was wrong.  Steve knew it in his bones.  This whole thing that Fury was suggesting, it felt wrong.  Off. Shortly after he came out of the ice, he’d dreamed that he had woken up hundreds of years in the future, and no one wanted to tell him, so they’d pretended and he’d pretended, but he’d known.  The whole time, he’d known he didn’t belong, and then finally, someone said it. He’d looked down in his dream and he’d been wearing his uniform, dripping wet and cold with a puddle slowly growing around his feet.  He remembered shaking for hours after, unable to stop, curled in a ball on the floor because the bed was so soft and insubstantial, the irrational certainty that he would fall through it, be sucked down into some other place, dark and cold, hadn’t let him crawl back into it until nearly morning, and then, only because he refused to let himself give in to that kind of fear.

Anthony deserved to be Courted, just like any Omega.  More. He didn’t deserve an Alpha who wanted to skip over that part and hide him away from the world in some derelict cabin that was barely fit for habitation that possessed the sole redeeming quality of being not here.  Not here. The words beat like a drum under his ribs. Not here. He wanted Anthony to be not here with him, and that part didn’t make sense, but the desperate need to be away from this world kept slamming into a wall of abject terror at the idea of being alone again, of waking up and being alone each day, just him and the rest of the world gone.  The rest of the world not here. That he might wake up one day and find that was true again. But, if he looked over and Anthony was there, then he would know it wasn’t true. He wasn’t the only one left.

“True, and it’s pretty unusual these days, I’ll admit, but it still happens,” Fury shrugged, coming around to lean a hip on his desk just in front of Steve and pulling Steve out of his reverie. “The boy’s getting old for a Bonding.  He’ll be having his first Heat soon enough, I would imagine, if he hasn’t already and they’re just not saying anything,” Fury continued, making Steve’s eyes snap up at the seemingly casual mention.

A Heat.  The thought sent a heady haze through his mind, drowning out whatever it was Fury was saying.  A Heat. It was a warm thought, too, but a different kind of warmth that flooded through him, coiling low in his belly.  Anthony would need him. For days, Steve would be needed to care for his mate, and that would be all that was asked of him.  Just to take care of Anthony. That would be what he would do, just that. Nothing else would matter for those few days. It wouldn’t matter that there was so much evil in the world, like they had cut off the head of some monster and then let it bleed out its poisoned blood into the ground and waters until they ran red with it. It wouldn’t matter that they forgave the unforgivable in the name of progress or that everything good men and women had died to protect had somehow been put back on the table. It wouldn’t matter that all they had sacrificed, those endless fields of cold, white crosses, all of that was a lesson no one wanted to remember when the same questions were asked of them again.  It wouldn’t matter that it was a zero-sum game, not in those days, when it would be just him and Anthony, and all that was required of him was to take care of his mate.

None of that would matter. For a few days.  None of it would matter.

“Truth be told, his parents have put out feelers. That’s why his file ended up on my desk, in fact,” Fury added, picking up the folder again and opening it to the page where Anthony’s photograph was clipped to a medical information sheet.

Steve wondered what Fury saw when he looked at the photo.  Did he see a beautiful Omega, maybe a little rumpled, a little less put together than some, but standard fare, no more remarkable than any other? Or did Fury see what Steve saw?  He had memorized the picture by now. The slight jut of Anthony’s chin. The way his hair wasn’t quite parted evenly, like someone had tried to get it into some modicum of cooperation and then Anthony had maybe shaken his head to loosen it in some small act of defiance.  How his eyes were wide and mutinous over a too-bright smile.

Steve resisted the urge to grab the folder back. Tear the picture out of Fury’s hands.  He wanted to hoard it to himself, keep it safe, the way he wanted to keep Anthony’s name out of Rumlow’s mouth.  It didn’t make sense. Fury wasn’t Rumlow. But, it was something he could do today, something good, keeping Anthony from being scrutinized like he was something on display.

He didn’t tear it out of Fury’s hands.  He wanted to. But, he didn’t. He thought that might be frowned on.  

“A Bond,” Steve said, trying out the word in his mind as he said it.  It was a warm thought, too, he noticed, warm and glowing with a soft, hazy sort of incandescence in his mind, and wondered when he had started to classify thoughts and words that way.  “Just like that.”

“Well, there would be some negotiations and all that, but basically, yes,” Fury acknowledged with a nod.  “Normally, of course, I wouldn’t even mention it, but with your, ah…situation. I thought there might be some advantages, you could say, to a Bonding without all the usual formalities.”

Advantages. Because Steve would have an Omega, and SHIELD could check that box off, or whatever it was they thought they were accomplishing with this.  

“Look, Cap,” Fury began, “I’ve seen how you are.  I’ve read the reports. I know plenty about PTSD or shellshock or whatever they’re calling it these days, but you…there’s not a person alive who has been through what you’ve been through, and we’re all, we’re…out of our depth on his one, truth be told.  No one wants to be the guy who lost the world’s only super-soldier on his watch, okay?”

“I’m fine,” Steve said automatically.

“Yeah.  So I’ve heard. You know, back in my day, Special Forces wouldn’t even take an Unbonded Alpha? Messes with their heads, all of this and no Omega,” Fury said, raising his eyebrows until his forehead crinkled beneath the bald plate of his head.  “Captain, everyone we’ve talked to thinks a Bond will help. Settle you down a bit. Give you a real connection here, not just another mission. I wouldn’t have let Dr. Samson suggest it in the first place if I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

“You really think the Starks will agree to a Bond?” Steve asked.

“I do,” Fury said, pushing himself off the edge of the desk and going back around to his chair.  “Howard Stark will take one look at all that shiny chest metal in the room and would cut off his own arm to have a son-in-law who garners that much interest from the brass, trust me.”

“You won’t tell his parents who I am?” Steve asked, frowning.  

“Howard will realize there’s more to this thing than some random Army Captain deciding to Bond.  Believe it or not, I’m not in the habit of personally negotiating Bonding contracts,” Fury replied, giving Steve a sharp look under his brow.  “Shocking, I know. But, to answer your question, no. Your identity is still highly classified. I’m sure you understand why,” he added, eyes narrowing.  

“I know about keeping the government’s secrets, Director.  But, surely, Anthony would have to know before agreeing to the Bonding,” Steve said. “Otherwise—"

“Captain,” Fury cut in, “ask yourself if you think, if you really think, that the world is ready to know that people like you exist.  Oh, sure, they know about Captain America. Every school kid does. They put you in the pages of comics and on lunchboxes, turned you into some kind of legend, and they did such a good job, people forgot.  And you know why? Because they didn’t want to remember that there were people out there with abilities they couldn’t possibly match. That there are powers we are only beginning to understand. You think the public wants to hear about that kind of thing?  They want…frozen yogurt and a Starbucks on every corner, and to not think about someone like you and what else might be out there.”  

“I can’t ask him to Bond with me without knowing—” Steve protested.

“They wanted to put you in a lab,” Fury cut in, making Steve pull up short and stare across the desk at him in surprise.  “When we found you. Stick you in a lab until they could figure out that serum that only seems to work on you. That was the plan.  Then you woke up, of course. Complicated things, as you can imagine. But, don’t think that idea is exactly what you’d call off the table.”

“What are you suggesting?” Steve asked in a careful tone, trying not to bark the words out through gritted teeth.

“Just that what was necessary—heroic, even--when we were fighting a world war against a threat we’d never seen before is maybe not as welcomed by some now that it’s peacetime,” Fury said, lips curling a bit on the last word. “There are a lot of people who aren’t so sure we need you running around out here. A lot of powerful people.  They think you’re more of a liability than anything else. Or, they say that. I think they’re just afraid. Someone like you, you could upset the applecart, as my grandpa used to say. And these people, they like their applecarts just the way they are. You get my drift?”

“Why would they think I’m a threat?” Steve asked.  “I’m fighting for my country, same as before.”

“Is that what you’re doing?” Fury asked, eyeing Steve with his disconcertingly constant gaze.  “What you did before?”

“I—” Steve started, then broke off, grinding down the words.  The truth was, he didn’t know what he was doing. Going forward.  Head down, shoulders back. That was it. Momentum. That was all there was some days.  “I never liked bullies. Didn’t much matter what flag they hid behind. All I ever wanted to do was protect people who needed it.  I like to think I’m doing that here. Sir.”

Fury let out a long breath, then leaned back in his seat and regarded Steve across his desk.  “And you don’t see why there are people who think you might be a threat to their way of life?” he harrumphed lightly.  “Look, all I’m saying is that your Omega lets slip at some garden party one day that he’s Bonded to Captain America, and we have a national security incident, okay?  You’ve kept a low profile, played by the rules, been a good soldier…and everyone’s willing to look the other way and let you be. Thanks, from a grateful nation and all that,” Fury continued, ignoring Steve’s grimace.  “But, suddenly, Captain America— the Captain America—he’s real and he’s back and he wants, what, us to be better ?  Wants thing to change?  Maybe people start listening to you.  Not everyone. But, maybe enough to tip the scales.  There are people who won’t just sit around and let that happen, Captain.  Ross for one. You think he’s just given up on his little Special Projects idea?  But, there are others.”

“You think they’d come after me?  Let them try,” Steve replied, voice hard.

“Oh, they don’t come after you like that,” Fury scoffed.  “Can’t just punch your way out of politics, Captain. Look, let me ask you this.  What would a real doctor, one who wasn’t, let’s say ‘sympathetic’ to your situation, say about your fitness for duty, Captain?” Fury asked.  “That’s what I thought. How about all that stuff you and your Commandos did during the War, how’s that going to look to these fresh, young eyes?” Fury pressed.  

Steve looked away for a moment, then back at Fury.  “We compromised, yes, but—"

“You don’t know the ways these people can come at you, Captain.  Trust me. And if they can’t get at you, maybe it’s your Omega who’s the bad influence, huh?  How about that? All these rumors about him, all that talk—where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?--and now Bonded to Captain America.  Maybe it’s this Omega who’s the probl— whoa .  Whoa there, Captain, stand down,” Fury implored, slowly raising his hands.

Steve could feel his body vibrating with anger, fear, wrongness, that gunmetal, coppery taste in the back of his throat that always tasted like seawater when he swallowed.  He was standing, though he didn’t remember getting up. His fists were clenched tight, white-knuckled, though Steve could feel the blood pounding through his temple, a shuddering-throbbing sound that drowned out Fury’s voice to a dull pinprick.  The room swayed in his vision, a red-hued tableau that Steve hated with a blinding intensity for a moment.

“Who are these people?” Steve demanded.  He kept his voice slow, controlled, sliding over the words carefully.  “Ross? Who else? Who would—"

“People with power they don’t want to give up, let’s call them,” Fury interjected, raising his eyebrows until his forehead furrowed.   “People who don’t want some figurehead in a flag out there stirring the pot because he thought the world would have learned by now.”

“I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me,” Steve ground out.

“You have,” Fury acknowledged with a slight nod. “And exactly how close are you to telling me, telling SHIELD and the rest of whoever wants to try to put some reins on you to go pound sand, huh?” he asked. “Sit down.  Please. I’m not your enemy, Captain,” Fury said in an urgent, frustrated tone. His voice sounded louder, no longer a tinny whisper Steve could barely hear. The pulsing throb in his head had lessened somewhat, though he couldn’t quite make himself relax his fists. Fight, flight, it was always a fight, he thought, then tried to focus on what Fury was saying.  Finally, Steve sat back down and watched the line of tension ease out of Fury’s shoulders. He noticed the man’s hand slide out from under his desk. Smart man, Steve thought grimly.

“I know you don’t quite believe that, but it’s true.  We want the same thing here,” Fury continued. “Look, yes, things have changed since you went down in the ice.  Or maybe they haven’t changed enough, I don’t know, but what I’m saying is that protecting your identity isn’t just about a national security secret.  It’s about protecting you, too. You want a life outside all of this? Where you and Stark get to be left alone? Then who you are stays strictly need to know .  And he doesn’t need to know.  Not now. One day, sure, when you know more about him. When things have settled down a bit and the brass isn’t so damn jumpy about you. We’ll talk about it when the time comes,” Fury continued.  

Steve could hear the lie, but didn’t challenge it.  They wouldn’t talk about it. The time wouldn’t come.  His secret was valuable to Fury in some unfathomable way.  Part of some chess match Fury was playing where Steve was a piece to move around, and Anthony… Anthony probably didn’t even register as a pawn.

He wanted Anthony.  He wanted to be left alone. He wanted a life outside of all of this.  It wasn’t fair to Anthony. None of this was. I’ll take care of him, Steve told himself. It won’t matter.  I’ll make it not matter. All of this, it doesn’t have to ever touch him.

Steve thought he could hear the lie there, too, but didn’t challenge it.

“Look, Captain,” Fury said in a voice that Steve thought sounded almost regretful.  “We have to take the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. That’s the only way any of this works. It’s not perfect.  Far from it. But, it’s what we have. Is it worth protecting? Do we save more than we lose? I think we do. You’ve been here long enough to decide for yourself, I suppose.  The world’s changing, Captain. Faster than I can keep up with. There are threats out there that are outpacing what I can throw back at them, and I think you know a bit about what I mean.  I’ve read the reports of what you say happened on the Valkyrie,” Fury reminded him.

“I know what I saw,” Steve bit out wearily.  

“And I’m saying I believe you. I’d like to think that means you understand what’s at stake here. What we’re up against.  You may not like all of our methods,” Fury acknowledged. “Hell, I don’t, and they’re my methods.  But, we need you.  The world needs you.  Now, it’s damn near past time for you to get with that program, Cap.  You want Stark and your little cabin or whatever? Fine. The world’s going to give you that, because we need you.  You get my drift?”

Head down, eyes forward, Steve thought.  Play by the rules, their rules, and he could have whatever he wanted. Fury was good, Steve would give him that.  He made it almost seem like a choice.

“What will you tell them, then?” Steve asked finally.  It wasn’t a yes, but he supposed it might as well have been.  

“Enough.  That you’ve successfully completed a highly-classified experimental program. Thus, the high-level interest.  That you’re well-connected. Going places. All that. Like I said, it will be fairly obvious when you have me and a few of the Pentagon’s finest showing up to discuss the matter of your Bonding,” Fury pointed out with a slight grimace of distaste. “Howard’s a lot of things, but he isn’t stupid. He’ll put a lot of pieces together.”

“I want to meet him. Anthony,” Steve said. “Before anything is official. I want to meet him.”

“Of course,” Fury agreed with a nod. “I’m sure some kind of introduction can be arranged. A dinner party, or something along those lines.  Howard would probably love to show you off to his Board members.”

“Not a dinner party.  Not his parents or the Board or anyone else. Just him,” Steve said.  

Fury made a surprised sound in the back of his throat, then pursed his lips.  “Well, I suppose his parents could be persuaded to agree to some kind of pre-Bonding meeting under the circumstances.  That is what this is, right Captain? Assuming his parents consent, which they will with what will probably be just barely the minimum acceptable show of protest, you want to Bond with Stark?  And by you, I mean Steve Rogers, not Captain America.”

This was it, Steve realized. The moment where he could say no.  He needed more time. This was all happening too quickly. He’d planned a Courtship, not a Bonding, after all.  He didn’t even know Anthony, not really, and Anthony knew absolutely nothing of him. Even if Anthony agreed, he wouldn’t really be able to understand what he was agreeing to.  He wouldn’t know all the reasons why he should say no to this whole arrangement. Why Steve was the last person he should pick to be with.

Anthony deserved someone who didn’t bring a lifetime’s worth of baggage with him. Someone who could get through the day without resorting to bullshit fantasies because those were the only times he could let himself feel anything, when he knew it wasn’t real.  Someone who didn’t wake up screaming at night, choking on water so cold it froze his throat. Anthony needed someone who could take care of him, and Steve could barely take care of himself. He knew that.

Anthony needed someone else.

Someone else.

Someone to break him in .

It was a selfish thought disguising itself as selflessness.  Help Anthony, protect Anthony, save him, take care of him, all of those reasons, all of those excuses, Steve thought derisively…who was he really wanting to save here?  Anthony didn’t need him. Steve wasn’t reading between some nonexistent lines hiding in Anthony’s files. He was seeing what he wanted to see, because he wanted something—anything—that wasn’t this bright, loud world run by Alphas who hadn’t learned anything, where it was the man who carried a shield who was the threat.  

“I want to meet him,” Steve repeated.  “If he agrees, then…yes,” Steve said, feeling the air go out of him in a whoosh, making his chest tight.  

It was the coward’s way out, leaving it up to Anthony, as if that could possibly absolve Steve of whatever guilt he bore for the deception.  Steve swallowed thickly and felt a pit of hot, roiling nervousness open up in his stomach. What if Anthony refused him? After all, if Anthony said yes, he would be choosing Steve Rogers, and that was something no one had ever done before, not like that.  What if Anthony saw through all of this and realized the best thing he could do was get as far away from Steve as possible? Or laughed at Steve for even thinking that he could possibly be a suitable mate?

“I’ll have Coulson make the arrangements, then,” Fury said.  It had the air of a dismissal. He held Anthony’s file out in front of him until Steve took it, carefully reshuffling the pages and fixing the photo where it had come loose.  He caught Fury studying him, and shoved the file under his arm.

“Thank you,” Steve replied, turning to go.  

“Captain,” Fury called out as Steve walked towards the office door, making Steve slow his pace to a halt.  “For the record, I actually think it’s a good match. Agent Romanov met him a couple of times when she was undercover at SI as part of our…vetting process, you might say, for potential new contractors.  She was impressed, and if you know her, that’s saying something.”

Steve wondered if it was Natasha who had suggested Anthony for him to consider.  A favor for an old friend, that’s what Fury had said about putting the file into the stack the doctor had given Steve. Steve had assumed Fury meant the father, but with Fury, anything was possible. He knew Nat and Fury went back a number of years, but he hadn’t really considered her someone who would intercede like that, though he supposed he didn’t really know her all that well.  If it was even possible to know her all that well.

“I’ll talk to her,” Steve replied.  

“Good luck with that,” Fury muttered under his breath, then went to tapping at the keys on his screen while blue images appeared on the far wall.

Steve made his way back to his room, where a stack of reports awaited him.  He thought the paperwork was Coulson’s doing, as if Coulson thought what was truly trying Steve’s mind about the future was the advent of electronic documents.  Still, he went through the reports and forms, and the familiarity of the routine was, he could admit, something that allowed him to get lost in the task.

Someone brought him dinner on a silver tray with the different options separated by raised lines.  He ate because his body needed it. The quiet had a different quality when you were eating alone than when you were just alone, Steve thought to himself as he chewed. The television was on, though muted, and a scrolling bar of news ran along the bottom telling him about gas attacks, a celebrity divorce, a shooting, and a big bank being fined for something Steve didn’t understand, though he remembered his mom asking for a loan one time while he sat stiffly in the chair beside her in a too-big suit jacket and shoes stuffed with newspapers, trying desperately not to start coughing.  He’d pinched his cheeks before they went in to get rid of the pallor, but by the look the bank officer gave him, it didn’t exactly give him the bloom of health. He couldn’t remember what the man looked like. It was odd, those old memories that were hazy and flawed, but easier to look at sometimes, softer and muted as they were.

She’d been low on funds to cover his treatments. He remembered that.  They hadn’t gotten the loan. He’d still gotten the treatments, though.  She had taken night shifts in the TB ward for the extra pay. That particular loan had come due about a year later.  She’d told him she would be fine, but the handkerchief she kept constantly tucked in her pocket was stained with dark, red circles, though Steve had let himself believe her anyway.  

He wasn’t sure if it was comforting that human greed remained a constant this past seventy years or not.    

Steve switched the television off, brushed his teeth and washed his face, then stared at himself in the small bathroom mirror for a long moment.  He should’ve told Fury no. He never should’ve agreed to this in the first place. A Bond wasn’t going to magically fix any of this. He knew that.  He should call Fury back and tell him that he’d changed his mind.

He didn’t do any of that, just turned off the light and sat down on the edge of his bed.  Anthony’s file was on his desk, but he’d put Anthony’s picture on the bedside table, next to a clock with bright, chunky numbers glowing blue and telling him it was barely twenty-two hundred hours, though he didn’t really need the clock for that.  Side effect of the serum. He always knew exactly how much more of the day was left to get through.

Eight o’clock on the dot.  Don’t you dare be late. Understood?

He was only late that once.

I’ll say yes ,” Anthony announced, sitting down on the bed next to Steve.  He was warm, Steve could almost swear he felt it, though it was the words as much as anything. They were warm words.  Thoughts. Whatever. It didn’t matter. None of it was real.

You shouldn’t ,” Steve thought.  

You’ll take care of me ,” Anthony told him.  

You don’t know that ,” Steve’s mind replied.  

You don’t know that ,” Anthony repeated.  “ I know you will.  And I’ll take care of you.  That’s how it works. We won’t be alone anymore .”

I’m fine,” Steve thought, the words coming to mind by rote.  

I’m fine, too. Is that all there is?” Anthony asked.

Steve had no answer for that.  He looked back over at the bedside table where Anthony’s picture glowed with an eerie blue phosphorescent light from the digital clock.   He remembered hunting for plumes of light like that just off the coast of France, where German submarines sometimes disturbed the bioluminescent plankton and gave away their positions. He remembered giving the orders to send those men to a watery grave and wondering what it must be like for them as the water poured in.  How terrified they must have been to see it and not be able to do anything about it. Knowing that they were a few breaths away from their last. Tossing the pillow to the floor, Steve lay down flat on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

Would Anthony--the real Anthony, not the echo of loneliness who lived in his head—be excited at the prospect of a potential mate?  Anxious and uncertain, of course, but would he look in a file and find Steve’s picture and imagine a version of Steve in his head who was charming and attentive?  Who made him laugh? Who made him feel cherished and safe and beautiful and said all the right things? Steve frowned into the darkness. What if Anthony was imagining someone like that, someone Steve could never be?  

What if Anthony didn’t want him? What if Steve was a disappointment? And he would be, wouldn’t he, because he couldn’t be those things that an Omega like Anthony must want.  Need. Deserve. He should call Fury, tell him it was off.

The clock counted up. Fourteen minutes past twenty-two hundred hours.

It was acceptable to be in the gym at five in the morning.  Showed dedication. Four was too early, he’d learned. Four concerned people.  They asked if he was getting enough sleep. If anything was wrong.

He stared at the ceiling.  Bent over and picked the pillow up off the floor and held it.  It was warm and smelled like cotton and what the detergent said was a spring rain, though Steve remembered the spring rains in Brooklyn smelling like the wharf. He closed his eyes.

You should sleep ,” Anthony said, curling up next to him.

Can’t ,” Steve mentally replied.  

Why not? ” Anthony asked.

I keep waking myself up.  Just in case ,” Steve thought after a moment. It was one of those cold thoughts, but it was easier to think it here, in the dark, when it was just him and the idea of someone else.  “Or I dream.  And that’s…not good ,” he added.

At first, they’d given him some kind of medicine they said would help.  It didn’t, though he did sleep for long enough to dream, and that had ended with eight white-clad SHIELD orderlies trying to calm him down while a doctor pumped some kind of tranquilizer into his arm.  They stopped giving him the medication. So, now, it was short bursts of rest followed by waking abruptly, heart slamming against his ribs, gulping down air and trying not to panic.

Don’t really need it, anyway ,” Steve added. That was true to some degree.  He wasn’t sure to what degree, though he supposed he would eventually find out.  The doctors said lack of sleep over time could decrease mental function. Steve told them he slept fine.  

That’s okay.  I’ll sleep. You could stay awake and keep an eye out. That would be okay, then ,” Anthony suggested.

Yes ,” Steve agreed. “I can do that .”  It was sixteen past now.  He didn’t need to look at the clock.

He didn’t sleep.  It was okay.

The next few weeks were filled with missions, pre-mission strategizing, post-mission debriefing, training and what Steve assumed was pretty much anything and everything designed to keep him busy.  He didn’t ask where Fury was with the negotiations with the Starks, and Fury didn’t offer any updates. Steve wondered when appearing not to care became healthier. He thought he might not be particularly great at it, but no one questioned him on it. People here were very good at not asking questions they didn’t want answers for.

Steve meant to ask Natasha about what impressed her about Anthony, like Fury suggested.  Instead, he asked if she thought Anthony would say yes, then immediately wanted to take back the question. It felt like he was revealing something, though he wasn’t quite sure what.  She always put him on edge, though, like he was exposed in some way he couldn’t fully understand. He knew it was part of her job, assessing people, and part of who she had to be to stay alive in this kind of business, but it still got under his skin.  Say squirrel, he wanted to tell her sometimes, but he thought there were probably other shibboleths that were used these days, and he wouldn’t know them.

So, he’d asked, almost by accident, though it was the answer he really wanted to know.  Natasha had just looked at him from her perch on one of the benches in gym where she’d been ostensibly watching the training exercises for Coulson and told Steve rather cryptically that she thought he would say yes for the same reason Steve had agreed to this whole thing.  Why, Steve had asked. Because the alternative is that nothing changes, she had said, leaving Steve to stare after her as she walked away, tapping at something on her tablet’s screen.

That was nearly a week ago. It was the last time Steve mentioned anything about the Bonding to anyone, until Coulson told him the negotiations were complete and Anthony would be coming to meet Steve here at SHIELD, an unfortunate necessity given that Steve had a mission in the works that had required far too much planning to delay.  Steve would have far preferred Anthony’s home or someplace a bit more neutral than a SHIELD conference room for their introduction, but under the circumstances, it couldn’t be helped, he supposed. Privately, he wondered if this was part of some machination he couldn’t quite see, like so much of what went on under Fury’s purview, though he didn’t object.  He was probably destined to make a fool out of himself no matter what, but at least here, he had something of his feet under him. Everything was familiar by now. He wasn’t going to spend an hour watching people heat food in minutes in what he’d learned was called the ‘microwave,’ or ask the money machine in the wall to give him money like it was some kind of magic lamp.  That had been embarrassing.

Not that there weren’t plenty of ways he could manage to humiliate himself in front of Anthony, all of which he felt like he’d gone over in minute detail ever since Coulson’s pronouncement.  

All those scenarios seemed to leap to his mind as he stared at himself in the mirror, wondering what Anthony would think when he saw Steve in person for the first time. The dress uniform was probably too much.  He should have gone with something more casual, but he didn’t have much to choose from, and, well…he wanted to make a good impression. He’d pinned most of the medals on. Some stayed in the drawer in their little satin-lined boxes that made Steve think of rows of coffins. Sometimes, when the government didn’t know what to do with the terrible things it asked soldiers to do, it gave them medals, Steve had learned a long time ago.  He thought it might be more true now. A lot of them were new. Bright, shiny apologies for things no one wanted to talk about anymore. He left those.

“Hello Mr. Stark, I’m Captain Rogers,” Steve said to his reflection.  He cleared his throat and stood tall again, adjusting his jacket in the mirror.   Too formal, he thought.

“Hi Anthony, I’m Steve.”  Too casual. Overly familiar. Presumed too much. They hadn’t even been officially introduced.

“I’m Captain Rogers. Thank you for coming today. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  Sounded rehearsed.

“I’m Steve Rogers.  Captain Steve Rogers, I mean.  Hello. Thank you for considering me to be your Alpha.  I would like that. Very much. To be that. If you did want that—” Steve broke off.  “You’re going to screw this up,” Steve told his reflection, who seemed to agree by the look on his face.   He swiped a hand over his mouth, then grimaced, looking away from the mirror.

Anthony would be here soon.  Here. For real. Coulson texted Steve almost an hour ago that they were on their way, Anthony and his parents.  They’d agreed to the Bonding. The Starks. Fury had finally shared that much with Steve, delivering the news personally late one night while he still smelled of cigars and brandy.  Fury said the parents were pleased. He didn’t say anything about whether Anthony was pleased. Steve had stood there in the doorway of his room, hoping for some kind of report on Anthony’s reaction, but Fury had just gone over a few of the details, then left with a brusque nod.  Steve had broken down and asked Coulson a few days later. His father says he’s very excited. That’s what Coulson had said. Steve had smiled, and said that was good, and thanked Coulson. He didn’t know why he didn’t think it was good.

But still, Anthony would be here, in the same room with Steve.  Maybe his parents demanded it. Probably. They were pleased, after all.  Fury said so. Fury, who was silent on Anthony’s reaction, had said his parents were pleased.  What if Anthony only agreed to this in order to please his parents? The thought made Steve’s stomach turn over with a bounce of nervousness.  Anthony wouldn’t agree to a Bond with a virtual stranger just to make his parents happy. Surely.

He should have insisted on a Courtship. Even back in Steve’s day, a Bonding without a Courtship was frowned upon.  It usually meant either the couple was very, very rich or they’d, well, gotten to know each other a bit too much. That’s how his mother put it in her own delicate way when Steve was little.  Those two were too friendly with each other, she’d say. It had taken an embarrassing number of years for Steve to understand what she meant. Bucky had really taken the Mickey out of him for that one, Steve remembered with a wistful, deprecating smile.

“Too friendly!  Only you, Stevie.  Yeah, they got a touch too friendly, see,” Bucky grinned.  “And now, they’ve got a nice, little bundle of friendship on the way.”

Steve swallowed past a suddenly dry throat, feeling something warm heat its way through his belly.  If Anthony said yes…if they Bonded…he blinked and wiped a hand over his brow. He didn’t need to be thinking about that. Not now.

He thought it would be wonderful, though. If he thought about it.   Which he didn’t. But, if he did, he would think it would be wonderful.  They’d brought Omegas to him during the war sometimes. The war had been long, and the able-bodied Alphas were off fighting, for the most part.  Now, they have medications, apparently. That was what one of the Strike Team mentioned letting his Omega use. But then…he remembered how much they had needed him.  Shy at first. Embarrassed, but desperate enough to agree. Then less shy. Steve had liked that, watching them grow needy and demanding with it as they cycled through their Heat, then soft and pliant under him.  It felt good to take care of them, of course, and he’d liked it, but they’d belonged to someone else or no one at all, but not him, and they both always knew that. It was different. He knew it, and they knew it. It hadn’t meant anything, not really.  Just a fleeting moment of pleasure in between horrors.

But, Anthony would be his. His Omega.  His mate. Taking care of him would be like…he didn’t know.  Different, Steve thought. More real. He thought. Hoped. Too friendly, Steve remembered, then huffed out a small laugh.  Too friendly. He knew, now, how his mom meant it, and why Bucky had laughed, but it was a warm thought that bubbled inside his chest right behind his heart.  Too friendly. It sounded nice, having that with someone.

Steve sighed and shook his head. He needed to stop thinking about that or he was going to end up late to his own introduction.  He looked in the mirror again. For a moment, he wished it was his other uniform. Hard to say no to Captain America, right? Captain America was a hero.  A good man. The perfect Alpha, they had told him a long time ago when he was signing papers releasing the government from any liability if they killed him.  Later, after Erskine was dead, they told him it worked. Later, after so many were dead that he’d long ago lost count, Steve would think that the government had a very different definition of the perfect Alpha than what had been in his own head when he’d signed those papers.

For some reason, his old war bonds speech popped into his head.  He had been good at that, selling an idea, an image. He had been good at that, at least until he got in front of an audience who knew a lot more about what he was selling than he did.  Something about the thought made him frown, though he wasn’t sure why, and then his phone buzzed, and Steve forgot to breathe.

He’s here , Coulson’s text read.

He turned away from the mirror and surveyed the empty room.  His bed was made. The corners of the blanket were neatly tucked in with a pristine edge.  The dishes were put away. Nothing sat on top of his dresser or the kitchen counter, except a coffee pot that was fancier than most of the planes he’d flown in the war and toaster he didn’t use.  It was loud when the toast popped up, he’d found on his first try, but then he hadn’t wanted to ask for a different one and be forced to explain why, so it just sat there. It was almost time for his meeting.  He didn’t have to look at the clock to know, but Anthony’s picture was still there, so he walked over and picked it up by the edges.

It was the last time he would have this Anthony.  The one who came with warm thoughts and wasn’t afraid when Steve told him things and probably would have gotten them a new toaster and said it was because he didn’t like this one, then not even said anything about it to Steve.  Like it was no big deal. There would only be the real Anthony, who hadn’t been pleased and was probably here because his parents insisted. Who probably wanted an Alpha who didn’t care that the toaster was too loud or the bed too soft or who needed the shower to be scalding in order to be able to step into it.  

Steve sighed and tucked the picture into the drawer in the table by the bed, then headed for the door.  He stopped with his hand on the knob and turned to look around the room again. It didn’t look like anyone lived here, Steve thought, with a frisson of cold that wound its way through his gut.  Steve thought there might be some truth to that.

Conference Room B was one of those that was set up with a long table for meetings.  Steve wasn’t sure anyone ever actually had meetings in here, but it had that ubiquitous blandness that most conference rooms carried.  Black leather chairs circled an oblong table. A credenza to one side held a number of canned drinks, a single-cup coffee maker that made the same terrible, watered down brew as the one in Steve’s room, except in flavors that Steve was fairly sure did nothing to improve the taste, and bottled water chilling in a bucket of ice.  A bank of tall windows took up the entire far wall. The view was nice enough, though everything sort of faded to striations of tan in the distance. It was too bright in the room, like everywhere else. The lightbulbs are different now, Steve reminded himself, though he didn’t think that was really what it was.

He sat down in one of the big, black chairs and waited. The tabletop was polished to a high gloss, reflecting bright circles of the overhead lights like strange, glowing eyes.  Frowning, he got up and walked over to stand in front of one of the tall windows, clasping his hand behind his back. The stance always soothed him. It was still an attention position, but stand at ease could be executed from this position, and standing like this, it always made him think that could be what was next, even if it almost never was.  At ease. That could be what was next.

I’ll miss this.  It was easy, just this,”  Anthony said. Steve could see him reflected in the glass, sitting in the chair Steve had just vacated.

I’ll miss it, too ,” Steve admitted to himself.

It wasn’t enough, though. Close. But not enough.  You know that ,” Anthony said.

I don’t know anything ,” Steve thought.

You know me ,” Anthony replied.  

I don’t. Not really ,” Steve silently responded.  He kept his eyes on the ridge of mountains in front of him.  At night, out here, away from the city lights, it looked a bit to Steve like if you walked up to the top of that farthest mountain, you could reach up and touch one of the low-hanging stars.  Not really, of course. That was impossible. It was one of those other things Steve liked to think about that weren’t real, though.

You will, ” Anthony insisted, as if the distinction didn’t matter.  “I know you .”

No.  You really don’t ,” Steve thought.

I will. If you let me.  I will. Isn’t that why you picked me? ” Anthony asked.

Why do you pick me ?” Steve wondered, and he supposed that was the question he’d wanted to ask since he’d first laid eyes on Anthony’s file.  Anthony smiled a soft, gentle smile. He supposed the shade of Anthony who told him what he wanted to hear didn’t have any answer because Steve didn’t.  

It’s time ,” Anthony said.  Steve knew that, of course.  He could hear Coulson’s voice in the hall outside.  

“I can’t do this ,” Steve thought with a rush of panic.  “I can’t. It’s wrong, it’s--I--I don’t have any idea how to do this.  God, I can’t. I can’t do this. I’m going to screw it up. You don’t deserve this. Me. Whatever’s left of me. I don’t---I don’t know how to do this.”  

I’ll show you how.  Just be there .”

We’ll have the band play something slow, Steve thought, holding back a choked-off sob. He closed his eyes, then slowly opened them again.  He looked at the glass. The windows just held empty chairs and round orbs of fluorescent lights superimposed over the afternoon sky.

Behind him, Steve heard the conference room door open.  He turned, slowly, and found himself face to face with Anthony.  The real Anthony.

Mine , Steve thought, and the word raced through him, fierce and burning, like a stab of heat down the length of his spine, pushing everything else away.  He wanted to grab Anthony, take him away somewhere, tuck him away from the world and keep him safe and let him be Steve’s, and let Steve be his. His pulse throbbed in his temple, fast, pounding through his ears, then ebbing to a slow, steady beat.  Sweat beaded his brow. He could feel his whole body warm, flush with a pounding, dizzying insistence.

Yours.  Please. Yours. I am yours , Steve thought, and this time, the thought blazed through his body like wildfire under his skin.

I didn’t know it was like this, Steve thought, somewhat dazedly, blinking as he watched Anthony step into the room and grip the back of one of the conference room chairs.  Had it all been just a few seconds? It didn’t seem possible. He’d thought he had known, because he had wanted Anthony, wanted someone, anyway, and it had been easy enough to make Anthony that someone, so he had thought he understood what it meant to want to be someone’s Alpha.  But this was…he was off-center with the force it, the driving need to move worlds for Anthony, to see him happy, to take care of him, protect him, belong to him. Erskine had warned him, all those years ago, hadn’t he? Had it been a warning? It seemed like a promise now. Prophecy.  He didn’t know.

We don’t know how the serum will affect Bonding.  No one’s ever done it, of course.

What do you think will happen?

The serum makes everything in you greater. Stronger.  What do I think will happen? Eh, who am I to say such things?

Anthony, Steve thought, saying the name over and over in his mind.  It was such a strong, pure thought, warm and bright, like tipping his head at the sun, not the harsh kind of brightness that lived in here.  He almost said it out loud, then caught himself. The picture Steve had so carefully memorized, the image he’d created in his mind, none of it came close to being in the same room with the real Anthony, who seemed to radiate a sort of vibrating energy that Steve couldn’t quite tear his gaze away from, even though he knew it wasn’t proper.  

He didn’t belong to Anthony yet, but he wanted to, oh, God, did he want to.  It was Anthony who had leapt off the picture and into real life, but Steve could almost feel himself solidifying, like if he looked down at his hands, he would be able to see them lose a translucency he knew wasn’t really there.  He could see it happening in his head, though, the dull numbness fading and the feeling of being present in a way he hadn’t been before sending prickles of warmth over his skin. Like waking from a dream, he thought, though he didn’t dream like this.  He thought it would be nice, though, to dream like this.

“Um…hi,” Anthony said.  Steve realized he was still staring. Anthony would think he was ill-mannered.  He dragged his gaze away, to some point just over Anthony’s shoulder, but he couldn’t hold it there. He wanted to soak up everything about Anthony, the way he looked, how he spoke, how he moved, what he would look like when he smiled or laughed or frowned, Steve wanted to bask in all of it.

“Hello,” Steve managed to get out, though his voice sounded barely recognizable, like it hadn’t been in use for a very long time.  He started forward, holding out his hands to—what? He wasn’t sure, but he forced them to his sides and caught himself, drawing to a halt.  “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,” Steve stammered, then forced himself to stop speaking and take a breath.  He drew in a gulp of air, and it warmed his chest, much to his surprise. I’ll say his name, Steve thought. I’ll say his name, and this will all be real. He could feel the flush grow across his skin at the thought.  You are mine, and I am yours, and that’s how we’ll know.  “Ah…may I call you Anthony?”

“Tony. Only my mom calls me Anthony.  I hate it,” Anthony— Tony —said.

Tony. It was perfect, Steve thought.  Beautiful and perfect and given to him to say.  A shibboleth, Steve thought. The good kind. I didn’t know those existed.

“Tony, then.  My mom always called me Steven, at least when I was in for it. Which was a lot of the time,” Steve told him, mouth twisting into a grimace.  He shouldn’t have said that. Why would he say that?  Tony would think he had been a troublemaker. Granted, that wasn’t without some merit, Steve could acknowledge.

“Troublemaker, huh?”  Tony asked in a light, teasing tone, as if he had been reading Steve’s thoughts. Steve let out a bark of surprised, nervous laughter before he could help himself, then felt himself let out a relieved breath of air.  

“Sometimes.  Guess I always knew where to look for it, that’s for sure,” Steve admitted.  “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.” 

Tony had asked him for something.  A small thrill jolted through Steve.  It wasn’t much, but it was a start. He walked over to the credenza and picked up a bottle of water that was chilling in a silver bucket, then walked around the edge of the table to stand as close as he dared to Tony.  The urge to reach out and touch him was nearly overwhelming. Just to know what he felt like, that would be amazing, Steve thought.

“Would you like to sit down?” Steve asked.  He should’ve already asked that, he realized, swallowing hard.   

“Why not?” Tony replied with something of an overly cheery tone.  He swiped the bottle out of Steve’s hands and sat down. Steve stared dumbly at him for a moment.  He should have pulled the chair out for Tony. That was the polite thing to do. He was messing this up.  He could tell. Tony was barely looking at him now, his shoulders set with tension. He doesn’t want to be here, Steve thought.  He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want me.

“So,” Tony said, giving Steve a quick glance as he fiddled with the water bottle. Steve pulled out the chair next to him and sat down.  

Right.  He was supposed to talk.  Convince Tony this was a good idea.  Steve had imagined this moment over and over in his mind, played out all kinds of scenarios, but he hadn’t known, then, what it would feel like. He hadn’t known that Tony’s happiness would be this strange, brittle, breakable thing that held Steve’s own.

“So.  Um.  Right.  So, like I said, thank you for coming here today,” Steve began.  He suddenly remembered standing up on stage, looking out over the remainder of the 107th, trying and floundering and seeing himself for what he was for the first time in a long time.  “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.”

Steve tried not to wince.  Compatible?

He wanted to say, please, I would be yours, if you’d let me.  I think I might be good at that. I think I know, now, what they meant.  I could come back to you, I think. When I don’t know where I’m going except forward, I would come back to you.

He didn’t say that, of course.  It was crazy. No one said those things to someone they’d just met.

“Do you like macramé?” Tony asked.  

The word was unfamiliar.  Foreign-sounding, though he had never heard it. Something…something he should know how to do, he wondered, trying not to squirm with discomfort.  He could…learn macramé, whatever it was, he supposed. If Tony liked it. Looking at the way Tony was scrunching his face and holding his mouth tight, Steve wasn’t sure Tony liked it.

“No?” Steve guessed, frowning.

“Me neither.  There.  See?  We’re compatible ,” Tony spat out.

Oh.  There was a joke in there somewhere, truth and lies all twisted up together, something Steve didn’t get.  That happened a lot these days, though he was better now at playing it off. Still, it stung, sharp and brutal, somewhere in his chest where a star was supposed to be to hear it from Tony.  

He looked down at the top of the table where the reflection of the lights above blotted out his own.  Better not mention the thing with the toaster, he thought. The words had a wild, slanted feel to them.  He had the strange sensation that he was disappearing. There was a fancy word for it now that the doctor had told him one day when she’d asked if he felt more himself when he was in the uniform.  He’d laughed and said that was who he was, and her little diver had bubbled some more, and Steve remembered the way the uniform clung to his frozen skin so badly they’d had to slowly heat him up while he lay there on the table until they could peel it off, like the ice didn’t want to let him go.  

Tony didn’t want him.

“Ah.  I see,” Steve said slowly.    He did. He saw. He didn’t want to, but he’d never been good at looking away.  “So, this, ah.  This whole thing isn’t really your idea, I take it?”

“Does it matter?” Tony demanded.  He crunched the water bottle in his hand, and Steve hunched his shoulders to cover a flinch at the sound.  “Look, either you want to do this, or you don’t.  I’m sure How—my father already told you about me, so.” 

Of course.  That made sense.  The rumors and whatever talk it was that had his parents so concerned. Tony may not want Steve, but he probably figured, like his parents had, that this was the best of whatever limited options he had.  Steve wondered what Tony wanted. What he really wanted. He tried to imagine it in his head, but no image would come, just a dark blankness that filled his head. His chest hurt. He sucked in a gulp of cold air. He’d forgotten to breathe again.

“Director Fury thinks this will be good for me.  Help me acclimate.  Your Dad, he—he said you were excited.  About this.  Not really sure what you get out of it though,” Steve admitted.  He knew how selfish this whole thing was. He knew it, and he couldn’t say it, couldn’t tell Tony why he should run for the hills, and he knew an excuse when he heard one.  But, if Tony wanted this, really wanted it, for his own reasons, even if they weren’t the reasons Steve would have liked, then…then that would…that would be okay, Steve told himself.  If Tony wanted this, even if he didn’t want Steve. If he wanted this, that would be okay.

“What I get out of it? I get--” Tony started in a sharp, abrupt tone, then stopped and stared down at the table in front of him.  Steve waited.  “It would be an honor to be your Omega, Captain,” Tony said in a flat voice. 

For a second, Steve didn’t think he had heard Tony correctly.  The words were stiff, rote, like Tony was reading from some script.  Wrong. Tony didn’t want him. Not really. He wasn’t excited. Whatever his reason for agreeing, it wasn’t because he wanted this.   Maybe he thought Steve was his best option given the rumors that he must surely be aware of. Maybe his parents had pressured him into agreeing.  Maybe a lot of things. A feeling of hollowness seeped through Steve, cold and empty. He couldn’t move. He looked down at his hands where they were clenched into fists, rubbing against the tops of his thighs.  

In all his imaginings, he had never thought about Anthony—Tony—saying yes without really meaning it.  A yes of obligation, then. Desperation. A yes of last resort. A yes because there was nothing else left. That’s what this was.  

What had Natasha said?  That Tony would say yes for the same reason Steve agreed.  

Steve supposed that was true.

“Wow. That must’ve hurt to get out,” Steve said finally with a small, frustrated sigh to keep the bitterness at bay.  He eyed Tony, who was looking between Steve and the water bottle clutched in his hands.

“I don’t know what you mean,” Tony replied.  “I—I do want to do this.  Really.” 

Truth in a lie, Steve thought, but that was what this whole world was.  Truth in a lie. He looked over towards the wall of windows, where the sun was slowly dropping towards the horizon.   

“Do you even remotely want to be my Omega?” Steve asked. He held his breath, waiting for Tony’s reply. His chest stung with it, a cold sort of pulling sensation, but he was afraid if he let it out, it would taste like seawater in his throat. The doctor said, after everything, that was normal.  The doctor said he should Bond. That it would help him. Give him a connection. Truth in a lie, Steve thought.

“I—I don’t want to  not  be your Omega,” Tony said, then sent the bottle cap he’d been playing with skittering across the tabletop like a stone across water.

Tony didn’t want him.  That much was clear. But, Steve was apparently a better option than whatever it was Tony wanted to leave behind.  Maybe there was more to the damaged reputation than Steve knew. Maybe the situation was more dire than even Fury had realized.  Steve didn’t know or care. Tony had agreed, and that was enough. Tony was his. He was Tony’s. Steve let himself breathe.

“Okay,” Steve said, finally letting his breath out.  His throat didn’t fill with a taste that wasn’t there.  He felt himself go loose, boneless with relief. He was shaking, he realized.  There was a distant buzzing sound in his ears, like the whine of an engine. Relief, he supposed.  He was dizzy with it. He needed to move. Head down, shoulders back, eyes forward. Go. Pushing away from the table, he stood up and adjusted the jacket of his uniform to give himself something to do with his hands.  

“Okay?” Tony asked, staring at Steve with his mouth agape as Steve stood up. “So, that’s it.  Just like that.  We’re…you’re…and I’m…”

“Bonded,” Steve said.   It was supposed to be a warm word.  He’d thought it would be.

He needed to go.  

But, Tony was still looking at him, almost expectantly, with an air of—of disappointment or distress or…something, Steve realized.  Oh. Right. Steve hadn’t given him a ring. There was supposed to be a ring. Why hadn’t he gotten a ring? He’d thought about it, but then…then it would have been there if Tony said no, and so he just…hadn’t. But now, he had nothing, and Tony—Tony should have something.   He’d be gone, Steve remembered suddenly. The mission. There was a final strategy session in just under an hour, then wheels up. He’d be gone, and Tony wouldn’t have anything, and no one would know that Tony was his.

They needed to know that.

The thought pounded through his head.  They needed to know that Tony was his. It was important, though Steve couldn’t say why, exactly, or even who they were—everyone, he supposed--but the thought itched under his skin, making the back of his heck crawl with unease.  He patted at his pockets and for a moment, considered one of his medals, then remembered he did have something he could use, at least until he got Tony a proper ring. He opened the collar of his jacket, watching Tony’s eyes go momentarily wide as Steve dug his dog tags out from under his shirt.  

“I have to go away for a few days.  I’m sorry.  I know the timing—the timing’s bad. Take these,” Steve urged, holding out the chain in the space between them.  “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…just go back home?” Tony asked, reaching out and taking the chain.  Tony held the chain in his hand, turning the tags over and studying them. Steve felt his stomach clench, then relax once the chain was settled in place.  A burst of pleasure filled him. The tags looked good in Tony’s hand. Like they belonged. I belong there, Steve thought, and it was a different kind of warm, the kind that made his mouth go dry.  He swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat and looked down at Tony.

“If that’s what you want. I thought you might be more comfortable with your folks,” Steve offered.  Tony was still clutching at his dog tags, rubbing his thumb across the silver plate of metal where it was stamped with Steve’s name.  Steve’s eyes tracked the movement.  He liked that, Tony touching something that was his. It was almost like Tony touching him, in a way. Close enough. All of this was close enough. Maybe that was what he got.  An almost. A close enough. He could be okay with that, he thought. He always had been. “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.

“Okay,” Steve said.  Wormholes? He didn’t know what that meant.  Maybe it was like with the macramé. A test in a language Steve didn’t understand.  “Really?  Um, well,” he continued, trying to remember what he was supposed to be saying. Tony was still toying with the dog tags, holding them up just below his mouth and peering down at the letters.  Steve felt a hot rush of heat warm his skin, then settle low, and he realized he was half hard. He adjusted his jacket, drawing Tony’s eyes to him, and that was—not helping, Steve decided.

“Ah—I--I don’t have that, but there’s Internet,” Steve rushed on.  “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. Got an empty garage up there you can store whatever you want in.”

“Empty garage?” Tony repeated, eyes lighting up as his gaze darted up to Steve.  Beautiful, Steve thought. He’s beautiful like that.  

“Um, sure.   Yeah, um, all yours, if you want it. I don’t really have a lot of stuff.  Yet.  I mean, I was. I will.  Maybe you can make a list or something,” Steve suggested.  The dull-eyed, glazed look was gone from Tony’s face, and replaced by a bright-eyed gleam that was subtly belligerent, like he was getting away with something. He looks like his picture, Steve thought, and almost grinned at the familiarity of the look.

“Carbon fiber reinforced polymer,” Tony said.  Steve didn’t know exactly what that was, but the words were familiar enough.  

“I was thinking sofa, but, I’ll put it on the list,” Steve agreed, pulling a small spiral notebook out of his pocket.  He wanted to write it down exactly, so Coulson could find whatever it was and get it to Tony, who had asked Steve for something.  “So, ah, Coulson.  He’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 was staring up at him, mouth opening and closing like he wanted to say more, though he didn’t, just spread the chain apart and let Steve’s dog tags fall over his head where they hung down to the center of his chest.  Steve tried to swallow. He watched Tony wrap one hand around them, holding them there in his fist. It was almost like his own skin was heating up like the metal inside Tony’s hand. Close enough, close enough. The thought was warm and candle-bright, flickering across his mind like a chant.

“Do you want this?” Tony asked abruptly, staring up at him with a hard look.  “Me.  To be your Omega, I mean.”

I think it might be the only thing I want, Steve thought.

“I don’t want you to  not  be my Omega.  Looks like we’re compatible, after all,” Steve said.  

The words were cold.