Courage, dear heart
Peter didn't think it would actually happen, that anyone could actually close the last free omega clinic in the city, but on a hot hot day in July his friends have stopped by one by one to tell him that, even after months of campaigning against the proposed shut down, the omega clinic is no more. Which means that the nearest place Peter can go for free suppressants is New Jersey. Seriously.
Bucky and Steve get there during the afternoon lull. "I fucking fought a war for omega rights," Bucky seethes, gesticulating with his prosthetic which has been acting up lately, doesn't grip like it used to. "We went over there because they were torturing omegas. Treating them like cattle. And then I come back and my fucking boyfriend - who also, by the way, fought in that fucking war - has to go over to fucking Jersey for his fucking -"
"Peter knows all this, Buck," Steve says. "Who are you yelling at?" Steve makes a face at Peter, exasperation, desperate fondness.
Ever since he started working at Cool Beans his friend group has expanded to a bunch of ex-military types, since Cool Beans is right next to the church that hosts veterans events, PTSD clinics, self-defense, job help. Steve's a full-time councilor and Bucky and his partner Sam, both cops, volunteer frequently when they aren't patrolling the neighborhood, their muscles and squad lights earning them the nickname "avengers."
"I'm yelling at Them!" Bucky waves his prosthetic at the air. "The church types, the politicians, the dads who kick their omega sons out on the streets after their first heat." He's on a roll now. "I'm yelling at the patriarchy and the white man and every person in the army who told you that you couldn't do just as well as any alpha."
Steve pulls Bucky over to a table, mouthing a sorry at Peter. "It ain't fair," Bucky's lamenting, quieter now. "You're a decorated war vet, and this is how they treat you?"
"I'm fine, Buck. Drink your coffee. I feel like you're projecting."
"Don't psychoanalyze me, Captain..."
Peter turns back to tinkering with the coffee maker. The owner of Cool Beans told him that he could play with all the machines he wants as long as he's still able to make the coffee, and Peter's been engineering this particular machine with the hope of only having to press one button to make any drink. He thinks Ned will help him out with the coding, if he asked.
Mechanics always helps steady his breathing. He never thoughts they'd actually shut down the omega clinic. Suppressants are only given out in monthly packs. Can he really get over to Jersey once a month? Can he afford to? Will he have time?
And he's close to the end of his current suppressant pack, and close to a heat. Which isn't helping with his anxieties, or his senses. Every smell in the coffee house is too much. The coffee, of course, but also Bucky, who smells like a worried alpha, and Steve, who's trying to soothe him with his omega scent.
Thank god it's summertime. Ned has an internship at Oscorp (they'd both applied for the Stark Industries engineering internship, Peter even submitting his idea for adhesives, but SI only took two high schoolers a year and even though the odds were stacked against him Peter still felt small and hopeless when he got the form rejection letter in the mail. He hadn't even bothered applying to Oscorp, which was supposed to be equal opportunity but required people to divulge their secondary gender on the job application form which was code for "we don't hire omegas." Ned, an alpha, got in easily, which is why he has an internship and Peter is making coffee.) MJ is blogging for Slate or Jezabel or someplace else that talks a lot about feminism and pop culture. She usually uses Cool Beans as her own personal study but is covering the clinic story today and doing on-the-street interviews. So Peter's blissfully alone to try to puzzle out how to shift his schedule around to get to New Jersey and back for the next year.
Steve shepherds Bucky out the door and it's just Peter there as afternoon slowly turns to evening. A couple more regulars from the VA drop by. Natasha and Clint both ask Peter how he feels about the clinic closing, and he shrugs, and they nod. There's nothing else to say.
It's a slow day. Too hot for tourists and locals, according to Twitter, gathering at the clinic for a protest. Peter thinks about flipping the sign to 'closed' and joining them, is about to do it, when someone shoves the door open.
At first Peter doesn't react. It's still bright day outside. The guy is dirty and homeless-looking but they get that a lot, and Peter tries not to judge. The first thing that really sets Peter off is the scent. An alpha close to rut.
Peter swallows. "Um, I'm sorry, um. Sir. But we're about to close."
The alpha stares at him. "Yeah, I don't think so." The alpha sniffs. Loudly. A grin spreading across his face. "I've noticed you here before, you know. You're alone in this shop an awful lot. Business not so good?"
"I have some friends coming by," Peter tries. "You - you need to leave."
"I don't think so," the alpha says again. He flips the sign to closed, just like Peter was about to do. "Which should I do first, kid? The register, or you?"
He flips the lock on the door. Peter wonders if anyone would hear him scream. His phone vibrates with a text but as soon as it does the alpha grabs his arm.
Peter presented when he was thirteen, and Uncle Ben was the one to sign him up for omega defense classes (which is how he met Natasha, witnessing, in her classes, exactly why she was called the Black Widow). He was part of a fraction of the male population that could get pregnant. He was perversely, unbelievably desirable. He was a target. He learned.
And he acted on instinct.
The alpha wanted him to submit but when he touched Peter's arm Peter didn't submit. He didn't even think. He just. Threw.
The alpha crashes into the hard metal tables and is on his feet again before Peter can really straighten up. He grabs Peter by the throat. "Think you're powerful? Think you can pull one on me?"
He smells like the sour eggs of marshes, like cigarettes, like sulfur. Peter whines low in his throat and kicks out. The knee is the hardest bone in the body. Thank you, Natasha.
The alpha drops him and Peter scrambles to his feet, diving for the door. The alpha hauls him back and punches the side of his face, hard.
Peter kicks out again. Screams. The alpha puts a hand over his mouth and Peter bites, hard. He's acting on instinct. He doesn't remember Natasha's lessons or how to throw a punch from the shoulder and not from the wrist he's just thinking a frantic loop of no no no no no. He squirms away, gets to the door but can't get the fucking lock unstuck.
It's still day outside. He bangs against the door, hoping to attract attention. People on the street. This is his neighborhood. They look out for each other. The alpha hauls him back and hits him again.
The door shakes.
The alpha is on top of him, mouth on Peter's neck and he's whispering threats, calling Peter names that make his blood run cold, and then his hand is reaching for that soft place at the base of Peter's skull, the place that will make him limp and pliant, the bane of every omega's existence.
Peter kicks out again but the alpha is strong, full grown. The door shakes again. Peter tastes blood. His shirt is being pulled off. The hand grabs his neck.
The door shatters.
It's Sam who shot the lock of the door and Bucky who kicks it open, both aiming their service pistols at Peter who doesn't understand, feels like he's underwater. He whines. He doesn't know what he did to make Bucky so mad but he can feel the pulsing waves of the hormones and just wants to submit already, is trying to submit.
"Stay down!" Sam orders, and Peter curls in on himself trying to obey.
"Fuck, Sam, get Peter, I got this one."
Someone is touching him. Peter feels like he's been stuffed with cotton, like he's a doll with the seams being picked apart. He can't remember why he doesn't want to be touched. He can't remember why he's scared he just knows he is.
"It's okay, you're okay. I've got you. Let me clean you up. Did he hurt you anywhere else, Peter? Can you sit up?"
Peter's trying to get away, heart jackhammering. Bucky smells angry but familiar, like sand and salt and sea, but there's still that other scent, that ugly marsh scent, and it smells like pain now.
"You did so good. We saw you fight him. Nat's going to be so proud. We're so proud of you. Peter, look at me."
"I'm calling Steve."
"Does he have an alpha?"
"He hangs around with one."
"He's going into heat."
It's just words, not attached to people any more, just sound and scent. Peter feels utterly primal. He feels like he's going to be embarrassed about this later. At the word alpha he nods. He remembers alpha. "Ned," he croaks.
Ned's an alpha. Everyone is shocked to find that out, but he's the sweetest alpha Peter knows. Sam finds his number in Peter's phone and Bucky hauls the attacking alpha out into the too-bright day and Steve comes into the shop, his feet crunching over glass. "Oh, sweetheart," Steve says, all soft, and Peter hasn't cried yet but he cries at the tenderness in Steve's voice, the way he bundles Peter into his arms.
Peter knows he's going into heat, Sam and Steve both tell him. He knows but he cries more anyway. Bucky doesn't come back. Sam cleans up the space and leaves. Peter tries not to feel abandoned, tries not to cry. He knows, at this moment, that this is the reason why Oscorp doesn't hire omegas, and he hates himself for being a stereotype, for being emotional, for being so fucking vulnerable and scared.
"You're doing so well," Steve assures him. "You were brave. You fought off a rutting alpha. That was the hard part, sweetheart. This is easy."
It would be, if Ned was his real alpha. His friend is slow to get to the shop, apologizing from the moment he walks in. The protest has swelled and the subway is barely running and Tony Stark is back in town and fucking with traffic and, god, Peter, are you okay?
Peter whines, because he really is just a needy omega right now, and he hates himself, and he reaches out for Ned. And Ned takes a step back.
"Aren't you his alpha?" Steve asks. He sounds like a big brother.
"I - not really? I've always helped, like protect him with his heats, right? But - and I swear I was going to tell you Peter, like, weeks ago, but it's been so busy with the internship and now you're just bleeding and," Ned takes a deep breath. Looks like he's about to cry, too. It's been an emotional day. "I've kind of got a girlfriend?"
Peter was never in love with Ned, not in that way, and he's surprised by how much this feels like a rejection. He curls back into Steve's arms.
Steve's been patching him up, cleaning his cuts, and he holds Peter tight now even as he hisses at Ned. "Peter was just attacked and he's going into an early heat and you can't help him because you got a girlfriend two weeks ago?"
"I don't help him anyway!" Ned protests. "I just kind of - we don't - he's my friend. We aren't, you know, gay. Or I'm not."
Peter wants to disappear. He wants to go back in time and join MJ at the protest, or stay in bed and mope about the lost SI internship. Anything to not be here, in this moment.
"What do you normally do?"
"Sit in his apartment. Make sure no douchy alphas come in while he's in heat." Ned rubs the back of his neck. "Then I just. Yeah. Kind of hold him. After he's, you know. Gotten himself through the other part."
Peter didn't even know that Ned could blush like this.
Steve's rubbing soothing circles on Peter's back. "And of course the omega clinic closed down today." The clinic had shots that they could give, to stave off a heat. And safe rooms to have a heat in.
"Shouldn't we call your aunt?" Ned's looking at Peter.
He takes a deep breath, and that's a mistake. Ned's not really his alpha but he still smells good, spicey like cloves, like pie and Thanksgiving. "She's visiting her sister. She'll be back." He tries to think. "Tomorrow?"
"I'm calling her."
Peter summons all his strength and climbs off of Steve's too-comfortable lap. He can't look at the other omega, not with what he has to ask. "Do you think..." he wishes there was another way. "Do you think I could, um. Crash with you? And." He clears his throat. "Bucky?"
Something complicated passes over Steve's face. This is so not cool, but Peter can't go back to his empty apartment, not when there's just a piece of plywood between him and every alpha in the city, not without the protection of his aunt or Ned.
"Sure, sweetheart. Can you stay with Ned for a sec? I'm just going to talk to Bucky."
Ned has Aunt May's number but he sits next to Peter, knee to knee. "I'm really sorry," he says, and he sounds it.
"It's okay." Even though it's not. Peter clears his throat. "Is she nice?"
"Her name's Sienna. She's. Yeah, she's nice." Ned clears his throat. "Are you really going to spend your heat with those guys?"
"They're really nice."
"The alpha's, like, really old."
"I think he's like thirty," Peter says, although he realizes he's never asked.
Ned makes a face. "Same thing."
"I'm not going to sleep with him." Peter feels itchy and horny and impatient. He also feels really out of it. There's blood on the floor. He needs to clean up. It's only been forty minutes since everything happened but it feels like way, way longer. "They're a couple. And Steve's omega. Even you have to trust an omega."
"I don't trust anyone with you right now," Ned admits. "You look like crap. MJ is totally going to freak out."
Peter leans on Ned's shoulder. He watches Steve and Bucky through the coffee shop windows. There's more cop cars but everyone's staying back, probably because Bucky told them to. Peter's can't quite believe that he was attacked in a coffee shop, that he was almost raped at a job that's no where near the one he wants, that he's sixteen years old and the only alpha he's ever really trusted has moved on to better things.
Ned rubs his hair and it's all cloves and Peter's heart slows, just a little. "You really scared me," Ned says.
"I can't believe they're closing the clinic."
"I'm sorry the world's like this." Ned sounds weird. It's been a weird day. "I'm sorry you couldn't get the internship. Alphas are the worst."
Bucky appears at the door, and he's obviously trying to make himself smaller, hunched in on himself, rubbing the back of his neck with his good arm, eyes all sad and hopeful. "Not all of them," Peter says.
That night, after Peter promises to give a statement to the police after the heat passes, after Steve makes him drink a lot of water and have a lot of juice and set him up in the bedroom, promising they'll be right outside, that Peter will be safe, that they're not going anywhere, that they don't mind the couch, after Peter falls in and out of the mindless haze of heat, he pulls up the Stark Industries website again.
It was always a bit of a pipe dream - every one remotely interested in tech wants a job with SI, and Tony Stark is publically in favor of omega rights, his own CFO Pepper Potts one of the richest omegas in the world. But Peter imagines a life where he gets to tinker and solve problems and invent things like the phone in his hand, like the adhesive that he thinks could reduce building materials and cost, like the robots Stark surrounds himself with.
He scrolls through the job listings. He knows now is not the time, that he should be concentrating on getting through his heat as quickly as possible, but the fantasy of a life well lived is the only thing keeping him grounded right now.
It's been a long, terrible day. The alpha shouldering past him into the store. The lock being flipped. How he'd held Peter like he was a doll, like he was nothing at all.
Peter blinks at the screen. Blinks again. The job listing is definitely there. Full-time summer internship. Paid position. Needs to be filled immediately.
Personal assistant to Tony Stark.
Peter didn't even read through the rest of the requirements. His day couldn't get any worse, and maybe the fantasy of getting the job would get him through his heat. He applied, then turned over in the bed that wasn't his own that smelled like the alpha that didn't belong to him and tried, desperately, to fall asleep.
Peter gets a gun in the face and Tony hires an omega for the hell of it. Also, we meet Bruce and Pepper.
Three days later, Peter's heat breaks before dawn and he takes a shower and actually feels a bit more human. He slips into Steve and Bucky's small kitchen and opens the fridge. Not a lot to work with, but there's a dozen eggs and he finds flour in the cabinet and a small carton of milk and some blueberries. He tries to be quiet because the couple are asleep on the couch, but when he turns on the oven to pre-heat Bucky jerks to his feet, grabbing his service pistol from the coffee table and pointing it at Peter.
Peter presses his whole body against the stove, hands up. He's not in heat anymore but Bucky smells like protective alpha so Peter bares his throat, submitting.
He sees the moment Bucky recognizes him. The horror dawning on the older mans' face. "Fuck. Fuck, Peter, I'm sorry. I just - I thought I'd sense your heat break." He carefully strips his gun, hands raised. Peter swallows. "I'm sorry," Bucky says to the floor. "It's the damn war. I punch Steve, like, once a week when he wakes me up. I'm the worst."
"It's okay," Peter says. It's his instinct to defuse tension. "I should have made some more noise or something. I just wanted to make breakfast. As, like, a thank you? For letting me crash and," he eyes the gun, "and protecting me."
Bucky snorts. Steve pops his head over the couch. "Do you need help?"
"I'm calling your aunt," Bucky announces. "And she is not coming over to find two omegas slaving away in the kitchen. I am not here to reinforce stereotypes."
"I like cooking," Steve protests.
"Too damn bad. You call the aunt, I'll help."
Steve took the gun from Bucky's hand and gave his alpha a kiss, slipping into the bedroom Peter had vacated. Probably to gather the sheets. Probably didn't want another omega's scent everywhere. Peter got that.
Bucky moves slowly into the kitchen, blinking like he's still trying to wake himself up. It's six am and even New York isn't all the way awake yet. "I scared you," Bucky says. "I'm sorry."
"Really, it's okay. Thanks for letting me. You know." Peter shapes the dough into scones. "And thanks for getting rid of that alpha. I don't know what would have happened..."
"I do." Bucky doesn't elaborate, but he does put a hand in Peter's hair, the same way Ned does, sometimes. Then he starts cutting bananas and strawberries into a bowl. After a couple of silent minutes Bucky starts talking about the protests to reopen the omega clinic, and how the police force in the neighborhood was stretched thin, and then he gets into a story about Sam confronting a protester and Peter puts the scones in the oven and the air smells like sugar and flour and Bucky's salt-and-sea smell and Steve comes in and smells like sunshine and Peter realizes that, despite the gun, this is probably the best he's ever felt coming out of a heat. He feels safe.
Of course, there's another reason for his happiness, and he barely manages to contain himself until Aunt May walks through the door. If she slept at all it doesn't show. She wraps Peter in a hug that seems to go on forever, Peter melting into it. This is the one smell he was missing, Aunt May's clean beta smell of soap and mint. She touches Peter's face, which is still bruised from where the alpha hit him.
"I'm fine," he says, and, like any parent, she doesn't believe him.
But she does turn to Steve and Bucky, and from the way she addresses them it sounds like they've been talking on the phone or something. "Thank you again for looking out for him."
"Of course," Steve says. "I would hope someone would do the same for me."
Bucky bites his ear, announces he's hungry, and pulls the scones out of the oven. They're perfectly golden, delicious with the fruit and the jam Aunt May produces from the depths of her giant purse.
Now that they're all sitting Peter clears his throat. "So, um, I kind of have a favor to ask? Another one, I mean."
They're all looking at him, so Peter rushes forward. "I applied to this internship at SI - um, you know, Stark Industries. And there was no way I was going to get it, and I was in heat and kind of forgot about it, but I got this email last night. I got an interview. For today. At Stark Tower." They're still staring. Steve looks pleased. Aunt May just looks worried. "So I was wondering if I borrow some clothes? Cuz the interview's at ten and I don't think I have time to go back home."
"Peter, honey," Aunt May begins in that tone that means she's about to say something that Peter won't want to hear.
"Congratulations!" Bucky says, thumping Peter on the back. "I don't know if you'll fit into our stuff, kid, you're a little on the scrawny side. But so was Steve when he was your age, so maybe we still have some baby Steve stuff lying around."
"What's the internship for?" Steve asks at the same time.
"Honey," Aunt May starts again, "you've had a traumatic few days..."
Bucky's on his feet, rummaging through the closet. Peter answers Steve first, "PA to Stark himself!"
"I wouldn't have pegged Tony Stark as the assistant type," Steve muses.
Bucky sticks his head out of the closet, "hey Steve, am I crazy or did Dr. Banner mention he was working for Stark, too?"
Steve's smile grew. "You'll love Bruce, Peter."
"He and Stevey served in the medical corp together. Ooh! Call him Captain Banner when you see him. He hates it."
Peter grins into his scone. "Then I don't think I'll be doing that."
Aunt May puts a hand on Peter's arm. "Honey, I know how much you admire Tony Stark, but is today really...?"
"The position needs to be filled immediately, Aunt May. And I'm fine! My heat broke. I'm eating a healthy breakfast. I'm fine."
If he says it enough, it must be true. Bucky pulls a white button down from the back of the closet and Peter makes sure to get changed in the bathroom, where no one, not Aunt May, not Steve, not Bucky, can see the finger-shaped bruises on his hips, or the raised welt on his collarbone, the one in the shape of an alpha's mouth. He's fine. He's fine. He's fine.
Not only does Tony have to suffer through one of Bruce's medical exams - given monthly, whether he needed one or not, just because he stays up for days at a time and occasionally skips meals he gets treated like a child - but he has to sit through a dozen surely boring interviews for a damn PA that he didn't ask for. Without coffee.
"You should be cutting out caffeine entirely," Bruce points out. "This is a sign to slow down."
"It's a sign that I need to be focusing my engineering prowess on the lowest form of technology: kitchen appliances."
"Can I be in the room when you tell Pepper that you're branching into coffee makers?"
"What do I need a PA for anyway?"
Bruce is scanning him with a StarkPad, probing gently around the arc reactor in Tony's chest. "Oh, are we talking about this now?"
"I have JARVIS. He's my PA."
JARVIS's voice echoed in the small medical room: "It has been pointed out to me that I am not corporeal, sir."
"I have Dum-E."
Bruce snorts. "You complain about Dum-E and Butterfingers so much that someone thought you actually meant it. Anyway, it's a high schooler. They can get you the caffeine you require and trail after you like a puppy, you love that."
The scanner beeps. Tony looks down at the reading and grins. "Healthy as a horse, that's what they always said about me. Also, incredibly handsome certified genius." Tony winks. "Can I hire a hot assistant?"
"Will you sleep with them if they're hot"
"You are a lawsuit waiting to happen," Bruce declares. "And I have a headache."
"You might need caffeine."
Pepper sticks her head in the room. "You ready for the first one?"
"If I kill myself," Tony asks Bruce, "could you bring me back to life?"
Bruce picks up all sharp objects in the immediate area and slips out the door as a ponytailed, high-heeled girl strides in, looking purposeful and about fourteen.
Bruce startles badly, nearly dropping the knife he rescued from Tony's desk. Hands descend on his shoulders and he half-raises his arms. A low, sympathetic chuckle. "Hell, Banner, you look like me two hours ago. The kid woke me up and I stuck a gun in his face."
Bruce blinks, and one of the many lounges scattered around Stark Tower comes into view, along with the dark, scruffy face of... "Bucky! I didn't think you ever got outside Brooklyn!"
Pepper is hovering, and Bruce is nothing if not polite. "Pepper, this is Sergeant Barnes. He and his team saved my life in Kosovo."
"Captain Banner saved my life first," Bucky shrugs.
"I thought I saved Steve first?"
"Like I said," Bucky shakes Pepper's hand, "he saved my life first."
"Pleasure," Pepper's grip is firm but warm. "We're very fond of Bruce. And I've had the pleasure of meeting Captain Rogers when he was helping Bruce design Stark Medical. He's your omega?"
Bucky stiffens. "My partner," he stresses.
If anything, Pepper's smile grows. "Of course."
"Seriously, Bucky, I would have gotten over to Brooklyn eventually. What brings you to our part of town?" Bruce hurries to add, "not that it's not great to see you."
Bucky inclines his head and for the first time Bruce takes note of the kids in the room, all watching them with various levels of interest. A dozen pimply high schoolers, dressed to the nines and reeking of entitlement and alpha. Not a surprise, as even by high school the education gap between alphas and betas, let alone alphas and omegas, is staggering. Most omegas leave school by the time they're sixteen, or, if they stay, attended all-omega high schools that are basically finishing schools, teaching omegas hot to cook, clean, sew, dance, and please their alpha.
Things are changing, of course. Pepper is evidence of that, and so is Steve, but in a world dominated by betas and run by alphas, omega rights have only recently been given a voice.
Which is why Bruce is so surprised to see a nervous omega hovering nearby, clutching a resume in one hand. "Dr. Banner," the kid says, and he's all eyes and hair and long limbs and Bruce has known Tony for years and could not have created a more compelling twink in a lab. "It's an honor to meet you. You, um, must meet a lot of fans, but I just wanted to say - your suppressants are the best I've ever been on."
Bruce shoots Bucky a look, and the former Sergeant just shrugs, his lips twitching towards a smile. Pepper wasn't even trying to hide hers. Most of the time when omegas in public talked about suppressing, they did it in a whisper. And Peter wasn't talking loudly, but he wasn't lowering his voice either. He talked about suppressants as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Which is exactly why Bruce had developed them. "I think you're overestimating how many science fans I get coming up to me, kid."
"Peter. Parker. Um, Parker's my last name. You can call me Peter."
"Just call him kid," Bucky adds. "We all do."
"You're a high school student?" Bruce asks. He remembers this pattern, talking over Bucky, examining the other soldier's frequent, good finds.
"I'll be a Junior in the fall at Midtown Science and Tech."
Peter jerks his head at the other hopeful interns, all sitting, all watching, some with their phones out. Time have changed. "We all go there. It's basically a feeder school for SI. And if you ever want to meet any more admirers, Dr. Banner, you should drop by."
"I'll keep that in mind." There's a fact on the tip of Bruce's tongue and he finally places it. "Peter Parker! You're the one who sent in the idea about the adhesive."
Peter looks bashful, his whole neck flushing. "You saw that?"
"It has some design flaws, but it's pretty ingenious to base it on spider webs."
"I got that idea from you!" Bruce knows Tony's going to like this kid, his whole body lights up when he talks science. He's not faking it for a line on a resume, this is a real passion for him, a way of life. "You always say that science's best ideas were things that nature did first and better."
"A fungus saved millions of lives."
"Exactly! Do you have any idea how strong spider webs are?"
Tony's office door opens and the ponytailed girl slouches out, pouting. Tony follows behind her, standing in the doorway. His eyes dispassionately over the suits and ties and sensible skirts waiting in the chairs before gliding over to the little group. Bruce watches Tony notice Peter. The youth of him, the straight lines, the omega.
Tony, probably thirty years older than this kid, actually licks his lips before his eyes completely light up. "Is that a prosthetic arm? Is it robotic? Is it one of ours?"
Bucky tenses and Bruce, knowing that the arm is a long story (that directly involves both Bruce and Steve) jumps in. "Aren't you supposed to be finding an intern, Tony?"
"I'm a little old for you," Bucky deadpans.
"Let me guess. Sergeant Barnes, dishonorably discharged even after you received the purple heart and bronze star, not to mention multiple honors after saving the good doctor here, who I'm guessing was the one who made that arm for you. A thank you gift? Not as good as one of mine, but he tries."
"An intern, Tony," Pepper stresses.
"Fine. I choose him." Tony waves at Peter, a gesture that probably looks random to anyone except for Bruce, who knows Tony well, and knows that Tony always gets what he wants. "Can I get a look at that arm, Sergeant?"
One of the suited teenagers stands up. "Excuse me? You didn't even interview him. And he just showed up. I've been here for an hour!"
"Don't bother," one of the other teens says. She's on her feet and glaring at Peter, who meets the gaze head-on. "I bet I know I know exactly what kind of work Peter's going to do for Mr. Stark."
Peter flinches, eyes darting to Tony, who's focused entirely on Bucky's outstretched arm.
"I'm right, aren't I?" the girl calls, loudly, "You're hiring him just because he's an omega?"
Tony doesn't look at the girl when he responds. "I'm not. I'm hiring him because he sent in a brilliant idea as part of his engineering internship application and I suspect the reason we rejected him for that job is because JARVIS or Ms. Potts or both were already dreaming up this new position just for him. But to be clear," now Tony does look up, and his face is hard and stern, "I would be entirely in my rights to hire him just because he's an omega, the same way that Norman Osborn is in his rights to reject anyone he wants because they're an omega. I'm trying to right a little bit of wrong in the world and I get a smart PA in the process. Do you have a problem with that?"
The girl looks livid, and leads the clattering of heels and squeaky-footed march to the elevator and down into the real world. After the door closes after the last one, Bucky unhinges his arm and hands the whole piece over to Stark. "Just for that speech, you can play with it as long as you want."
Thank you for all the comments and kudos and subscriptions. I'm going to try to update every Monday, mostly because I need to prove to myself (and my sister) that I can finish a damn story. It won't be too long, I promise.
The inevitable misunderstanding.
The next morning, Peter gets to SI the usual way, by subway instead of cop car. He has on his own clothes and slept in his own bed and ate Thai food with Aunt May last night and except for the fact that she kept putting a hand on his cheek, rubbing her thumb in slow, soothing circles, he would say that things are getting back to normal.
If being Tony Stark's personal assistant could ever constitute as normal.
On the subway, Peter keeps going over what he learned yesterday, balancing the two takeaway coffee cups as he tries to remember every detail. How Bucky had kind of smiled as Stark shouted about the shoddy craftsmanship of his arm ("we were in a war zone," Dr. Banner said calmly, "I had to improvise.") How Stark had set the arm to scan while grilling Peter about his work habits and favorite school subjects and how he felt about SI branching into kitchen appliances. How Peter had struggled to get words out but managed to answer every question, and thought that maybe Stark even looked impressed when he handed Bucky his arm back, promising an upgrade ready in a week.
"You don't have to, Mr. Stark," Bucky said. He was in uniform and met Stark's gaze flatly, head-on. "Dr Banner's lasted me this long. Besides, that was a gift."
"So's this one," Stark said, firmly. "I never served, Sergeant, but I did see a war. How much money are we giving to veterans services, Bruce?"
"You've done a lot, Tony."
"Not enough." Stark declared. "You're one of New York's finest and you're working with one and half arms."
"I'm doing just fine," Bucky said in that alpha tone that usually allowed no argument.
Except Tony's an alpha, too, and met Bucky head-on. "Imagine what you could do with two."
Bucky got his arm back and left, though not before reminding the room, as if it was a general talking point, that the age of consent in New York state is seventeen and that wasn't relaxed for billionaire playboy philanthropists that owned half the government and most of the city.
Peter blushed but Tony just laughed, waving Bucky back out onto the street. "I like him," Tony announced.
"You would," Bruce said, looking at the hologram of Bucky's arm that was currently floating in the middle of the workroom. "He's nearly as cocky as you are."
"Why was he dishonorably discharged?" Tony addressed this question to Peter, who could only shrug. He'd never asked, and if he had he didn't think he would tell Tony Stark ten minutes after meeting him
Tony glanced at Bruce, who raised his hands in a placating gesture. "It seemed like the best compromise at the time."
"So there is a story."
"Of course there's a story, there's always a story. Look, Tony, I actually have other patients. Shocking, I know. You've already been without caffeine for twelve hours so just lay off for another day or so and the withdrawal symptoms should subside." Dr. Banner had pointed at Peter. "Don't get him coffee, that's not your job."
"That's basically exactly what a PA's job is. Coffee, dry cleaning, intercepting annoying phone calls."
Peter looked between the alpha and beta. "I - um, I'll do my best."
Dr. Banner smiled and it was shy but kind. "Of course you will, kiddo."
Now, Peter glances out the subway window and bolts out of his seat, shouldering past the suited, tied, heeled regulars, most of whom are clutching StarkPhones. He apologizes as he goes, keeping his hands aloft in the vein hope of not spilling a drop of coffee. He takes the steps two at a time, turning in a circle like some newbie because he has never had a reason to get off a subway downtown before, and he's lost all his bearings.
Luckily, Stark Tower isn't exactly something you can miss. He joins the long line of dark-suited people going through the revolving doors and then realizes he doesn't really know where to go. He backs himself into a corner so he can take out his phone, balancing one coffee in the crook of his elbow, hoping there was some kind of message.
"Excuse me, Mr. Parker."
Peter jumps, and he didn't spill the coffee the whole way here and right now at the finish line some of the boiling drink gets on the front of his shirt. Whatever, it's not like he's dressed well enough to blend in with the other suits, anyway, but this is one of his better shirts, green button-up that MJ had said once, grudgingly, looked "pretty good on him or whatever" and he didn't know if was a Peter thing or an omega thing but he filed that praise away for bad days.
He looks behind him, but there's no one there. And that voice is so familiar.
"You'll want to go to Elevator C. Mr. Stark will be with you shortly."
The voice is modulated just for him, so Peter keeps his voice down, too. "JARVIS?"
"Elevator C is to your left."
Peter looked over his other shoulder. He had heard JARVIS in Mr. Stark's lab, of course. Stark had introduced him to the AI the way he introduced him to Bruce. But Peter had assumed the intelligence to be confined to Stark's personal spaces in the tower - his quarters, his lab. Not here in the atrium with seemingly half the population of Manhattan streaming in and out of the doors.
"This is so cool," Peter said out loud. He kept his phone in his head, intending to text Ned, because Ned was the perfect person when you wanted a freak-out-with-me-about-tech buddy, but - well. Peter knew it was irrational to be mad, to feel just a little abandoned by the alpha, that he should be happy for Ned and his first real girlfriend. But he also thinks - again, irrational, but whatever - that Ned should maybe apologize. Or at least reach out first. He'd texted Peter during his heat, asking if he was okay, saying he stopped by the apartment to make sure the old guys were actually keeping their hands off, but that sort of protectiveness isn't the same as an apology.
So he gets into the elevator alone, and he slips his phone back in his pocket.
There's no mirrors in this elevator, and Peter is momentarily distracted by the sight of New York falling away at his feet. They're rising rapidly. He wonders if the tower is ever swathed in clouds. Still, he tries to fix his hair and straighten his (now stained) shirt before the doors slide open.
He's back in the lab. There's no one there.
"Mr. Stark is currently in a meeting, but has left instruction that you are to write out your formula for your proposed adhesive."
Peter looks at the veiling, even though he knows that JARVIS isn't technically above him. That he isn't, technically, anywhere. "Thanks, JARVIS. Um. Good morning."
Can an AI be amused? "Good morning, Mr. Parker."
"I, well, I tried to bring Mr. Stark a coffee. Does he like to be called Mr. Stark?"
"I'm sure that will be fine, for now."
Peter leans against the now-closed elevator doors. "Can you help me out with this stuff for a couple of days? Until I get the hang of it? I just - I really don't want to mess this up. I really want to be here. I kind of think it's where I was meant to be."
The apartment is cool and his clothes are a little damp - it's a hot summer and he ran to get here. He lets his neck rest against the cool elevator. The mark on his collarbone itches like crazy.
"Are you hurt?" JARVIS asks and Peter realizes he's been standing there for a while, rubbing at the failed bite mark and staring at the lab, wide-open, like every dream he's had all at once.
"Nah." Peter pulls his hand away. "Can I ask a kind of personal question, JARVIS?"
"You may ask anything you want. I cannot guarantee I will always answer."
"Do you have a secondary gender?"
He's afraid he offended the AI, it's quiet for so long, just the steady hum of the air conditioner, a whisper compared to the clunky window unit that still doesn't do the job in Peter's bedroom. "You don't have to answer," Peter adds, after it's been quiet for too long.
"I have no gender." The voice is different now, a woman's voice, and Peter feels like he's being put in his place. And then it switches back to JARVIS's male, faintly British accent. "But the human JARVIS on whom I was based was an omega."
Peter knows that, like he knows everything about Tony Stark's early life. He's read every magazine article, every unauthorized biography. He's even edited Stark's Wikipedia page whenever vandals think it's an easy target for trolling. He's always wondered if maybe Tony Stark being raised primarily not by his alpha parents or even his alpha guardian Obadiah but by the impeccably upright omega butler didn't influence his later career decisions, like SI's true equal opportunity hiring practices, or its unusual choice of a CFO.
"Okay," Peter says. He can't put this off forever. He drinks from the cup that spilled and puts the other cup down on a coffee table that looks more elegant than anything in Peter's apartment. The lab has several sections, one area seemingly devoted to holograms and 3-D tech, another with a large examination table and what looks like an MRI, the medical room that still displays Bucky's prosthetic arm, then there's a water room, and something with electricity - and it keeps going. A kitchen, couches, a TV tuned to a news station.
Peter feels a little weird being here alone - not even alone. He trusts JARVIS, and feels like maybe the AI might even like him, but he also knows that JARVIS is probably watching if not recording his every move. Peter feels like even his breathing is intrusive.
He opens a couple of drawers until he finds a notebook. It takes even more rummaging to find a pencil. There's a couple of StarkPads and Peter guesses that Tony probably does most of his designing digitally, but Peter thinks better on paper (probably, he's never had a StarkPad of his own to try designing on so he doesn't know for sure.) Then he flips open his phone's calculator function, takes another sip of coffee, and gets to work.
He doesn't know how long he's in the lab, he just knows he has two pages of equations and he's thinking about whether or not the adhesive should be built with a solvent to dissolve in when the elevator doors open and Tony Stark walks in. Peter ducks his head in instant submission at the waves of anger and frustration pouring off the alpha.
Stark stops short, blinking at him. "JARVIS, did I order from that service again?"
"You didn't, sir."
"Did you order an omega on my behalf?"
Peter clears his throat, because there's absolutely not recognition on Stark's face even though they talked for hours yesterday. "I'm Peter? Peter Parker?" He hates how his voice goes up at the end, like a question. He clears his throat again. "Your new personal assistant?" Damnit! Another question.
"Is that what they're calling it nowadays?" And, yeah, Stark's eyes are drinking in every inch of Peter, who feels like he's on display, a piece of meat, a particular chocolate. Not all the way human.
"You hired me yesterday?"
"I think I would have remembered you." Stark spies the coffee and actually literally moans. "Oh thank god. Is that coffee?" He's picking it up before Peter can answer, making a face. "Cold coffee."
"It was warm when I came in. To be your intern. This morning."
Stark shakes his head and Peter's heart is in his throat. Was this really all just a wonderful dream? "Meetings this morning and rut scheduled for the next three days which is why the service sent you even though I definitely said I don't need to pay for omega services."
"You don't," Peter assures Stark. Hastening to add: "I mean, I'm sure you don't. Sir. Mr. Stark. But I'm not from omega services."
Tony Stark scrubs a hand over his face, brow furrowed like he's trying to work out a math problem. "Okay. You going to show me what you got?"
He collapses into the chair on the other side of the coffee table, face lowering and Peter follows his gaze. The papers! Of course, his adhesive. Peter's heart, which had started racing at the idea that maybe Stark didn't know who he was, slowed back down. He grabs the papers off the table, squaring away the edges. He thinks this plan is even better than the one he sent in with his internship application, it allows for both a permanent and temporary solution for the adhesive, complete with a proposed dissolving agent. He notices an error in one of his formulas and takes the pencil out from behind his ear. By the time he turns back around, a robot is teetering over to Stark, handing him a drink.
"Um," Peter begins, eloquent as ever, "it's not quite finished, but..."
Stark doesn't reach for the proffered papers. "This is a really strange strip tease."
Peter tenses. There it is again, now that he's within touching distance of Stark. The scent of an alpha in the early stages of rut. "I...don't think..."
"Look, kid, you're tempting as hell, and I'm usually into the whole innocent virgin act. Believe me, any other day I'd go through the whole dance. Dinner and a show, you know. But I've been dealing with some monumental stupidity and I'm just looking for a good fuck."
Peter doesn't know when he crosses his arms over his chest, backing away a little. "I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding."
"I know, like I said, I'm not usually like this." Stark pours another finger of whiskey. Tips it back, then reaches for the collar of his shirt. "We won't be disturbed for a day or so, unless the city catches fire or there's another alien invasion. Even then I've told Pepper to try to stall." He pulls his shirt off in a swift motion and Peter just sees biceps, sweat, tan skin, the rippling ripped body of an alpha, and Peter's a teenager, and even half-scared he gets half-hard automatically at the sight of his childhood hero just standing there. Waiting. For him.
But this is getting so, so weird. "Mr. Stark, um, sir, really, I don't think -"
Stark let's out a long breath, rolling his eyes. "Drop it, kid. I can smell you from here, you know. I know exactly how much you want me."
Nothing makes Peter angrier faster than other people, usually alphas, claiming they knew anything about him, or what he wanted. And the anger snaps him from his indecision. He backs up further, looking around the room. He wishes JARVIS had a body. He wishes Bruce or Pepper or anyone would come in, explain, better than Peter was doing, exactly what Peter was here for, and where, exactly, the perimeters of his job description extended.
Stark grabs his wrist. It's an unthinking touch, hot and needy but not violent. Peter can't help himself. He wrenches his hand away, flinching, scrambling away until the coffee table is between him and Mr. Stark.
"Hey. Hey! What's your deal, kid?"
"Mr. Parker," JARVIS murmurs, "perhaps it would be best for you to leave."
Except Tony is saying stay.
He wavers at the heady smell of pheromones. At the sight of Tony Stark spreading his legs wide in the chair, his eyes the dark, wide irises of an alpha with his eyes on the prize. It would be easier, far easier, to follow his instincts, to submit, to do what hundreds of omegas would kill to do. Stark was a well-known playboy but those same gossip columns that derided him for being easy praised him with insider information. Generous, said people who knew. Well-endowed. Knows how to use his tongue and his hands, knows how to use everything. And Peter's only human, only sixteen.
"Stay," Stark purrs.
"Mr. Parker," JARVIS warns.
Peter swallows. Remembers that girl from yesterday, that girl he's seen around Midtown, frowning in the hallways. How she'd implied that Peter only gotten the job because he was an omega. And Peter was pretty sure, after yesterday, that that wasn't true. That he'd impressed Stark somehow. And maybe he had, and he'd gotten the signals monumentally wrong.
The thought that he'd been hired for sex makes Peter's skin crawl enough to straighten up, even under the heavy press of pheromones.
Stark seems to take his squared shoulders as a sign of escalation because he smiles. "That's the ticket, kid. Show me what you've got."
Peter's body sings with the pull of an alpha. He feels like a puppet, and Stark is pulling the strings. Worse, he feels like a fly, happily caught in a web. Sex wouldn't be so bad. He could put SI on his resume. It would open so many doors. He'd just gotten through and doesn't know if it's residual, this itch under his skin that Tony Stark promises to scratch.
"Good boy," Stark praises.
He might have gone through with it but for those words.
Peter takes three deliberate steps back. JARVIS already has the elevator doors open for him. "I hope you feel better."
"What kind of service is this?"
Peter pauses halfway through the elevator doors. Tony Stark, billionaire extraordinaire, looks extraordinarily human with his red-rimmed eyes and pale skin. "The Parker service, sir."
He presses the close door button on Tony's next words. He's afraid, eager, yearning, terrified, at the prospect of it being another command to stay. He couldn't refuse it twice. He's not sure he would want to.
In which the misunderstanding is understood.
JARVIS deposits Peter, not in the lobby of Stark Industries, but outside on the street. The elevator beeps a little as the doors close, and Peter likes to imagine that the beeping is sad, wistful, as if that could make up for being mistaken for a prostitute and kicked out into an alleyway.
He digs his phone out of his pocket, his hands so clammy he nearly drops the device as soon as it's in his fingers. Then the screen doesn't recognize his touch, as if Peter is less than human. He doesn't know who he wants to call anyway. He's already told everyone important about the internship - Bucky and Steve, Ned and MJ, Aunt May. They'd all been so happy for him - that so soon after what was undeniably the worst day of his life he was able to pick himself up again.
And he's not so sure he can replicate that, can just pretend everything is fine this time around. Tony Stark, the man he's idolized since he was old enough to take apart his first computer, had propositioned Peter - had assumed he wouldn't, couldn't say no - and - Peter hadn't thought of this until this minute, standing among the trash cans and brick - and perhaps he's only hired Peter, all of yesterday, because he'd assumed that an omega would have certain compatibilities that a beta or alpha candidate lacked.
Personal assistant to Tony Stark. He should have known.
He expects the first feelings that washed over him; anger, frustration, the familiar companions to being treated as less than his whole life, the assumption that the poor little omega would always be good for one thing and one thing only. He doesn't expect the frighteningly strong shame, humiliation, embarrassment. This is not like an alpha shoving his way into the coffee shop. This is an alpha, standing in the clouds above the city at the center of the world, assuming that Peter was already his. If the alpha at the coffee shop had been violent, Stark was something else. Entitled.
And just like that he knows he can't call Aunt May, who would go into protective mother bear mode, or Ned, who would bluster in that endearing alpha way of his, looking to fix things. Peter had to prove that, just this once, he could fix things himself.
The elevator behind him blended seamlessly into the rest of the building. His foray into the upper echelons of society was at an end. Okay. He can - it's not ideal, but he can deal with this. He's been in worse scrapes before. Nothing happened, he reminds himself, firmly. He shouldn't feel dirty or ashamed. It was nothing. A miscommunication. He couldn't do that job and now he needs to move on.
Even if moving on is another step backwards.
He finally decides on a number to call. Presses the phone against his ear and starts to walk towards the crowded street, losing himself in the crowd. "Hello, Clint? This is Peter. Um. Parker. I was wondering if you've replaced me at Cool Beans yet. Yeah I - I'm sorry about the short notice. I just. Yes. Yes, sir. I can start as soon as possible."
You'd think that in the civilized world of 2018 that alphas wouldn't be slaves to their bodily functions anymore. Surely someone out there had to be working on a way to cut down on the more annoying, sticky aspects of a rut.
Tony knows that his calendar's already clear for the next three days, that the world isn't expecting him to do anything other than tinker and jack off as his body yearns desperately for someone to breed. But he hates the feeling of enforced solitude. Just because he doesn't always want to leave his lab doesn't mean he wants to be locked inside.
He thinks, again, about the tempting omega he'd come home to the day before yesterday. His rut had started in the early morning and he'd insisted on going to just a few more meetings to assure potential buyers that, yes, of course there was a new StarkPhone coming out in November, but in the meantime what did they think about this cool new element he invented from scratch? He'd felt itchy and on edge for most of the meeting, glad, not for the first time, for holograms so that he wouldn't be accidentally wafting pheromones over the richest families in the country. In the end it was Pepper who steered him towards the elevator, insisting that she could handle this. Honestly, Tony. I do it every month.
And then the boy had just. Been there. Standing in front of the coffee table in a striped button up and dark wash jeans, hand in his already messy brown hair at the sight of Tony walking through the door. And Tony was pretty sure that he'd stopped ordering from the omega service around the same time he made Pepper CFO, after her silent disapproval began to outweigh the benefits of A) sex and B) a shorter rut. But he'd had lapses before, moments of weakness, and this boy - just a boy, that barely-legal look - looked so like the ones that used to come from the service, but missing that veneer of comfortable confidence, and Tony was taken instantly by the packaged, innocent look.
Even now he can't quite figure out what he'd said to make the boy leave in such a rush. Tony had had exactly three people walk out on him. One when he was nineteen, very drunk, and had vomited all over her. The second was Pepper, after a half-serious pass that made Tony cringe to remember. And the third was this kid.
He'd spent the day getting over the initial onslaught of rut, ordering JARVIS to not interrupt him for anything short of catastrophe after the third time the AI tried to interrupt the serious business of brooding. Now that he's more than halfway through the rut - which, again, ugh, humans should be more civilized than this mess by now - he's getting bored.
That boredom makes him wander into his lab, where a metal arm is waiting for him on the workbench. It looks like one of the older versions of a prosthesis he produces through Stark Medical, and he tinkers with it for a while before giving up on the patched-up, outdated circuitry and 3D printing a lighter weight version to the exact measurements. He can't quite remember how he ended up with this project, but he knows enough about prostheses to get the measurements accurate and knows enough about himself to guess that he'd been preparing a rut project to keep him busy during his bi-monthly imprisonment.
It works, for a while. Time slips away differently when he'd concentrating on something like a project, and it's only during the slow moments, wiring, soldering, that his mind has time to wander back to that boy and his crestfallen expression as Tony settled into his chair. And then he has to take a break.
He's most of the way through Unidentified Arm 2.0 when the elevator doors glide open. "JARVIS, what did I tell you about surprises?"
The AI doesn't respond, mostly, Tony assumes, out of petulance for being told not to disturb him. Tony wonders about the social implications of apologizing to a non-corporeal lifeform.
"I promise I am here only in the professional capacity," Bruce swears. "And to steal some more of those protein bars you had lying around yesterday."
"You need a raise. And a girlfriend, so you can stop worrying about me."
"You'll always be my work wife, Tony," Bruce promises. "Now get up on that table and say ah."
"Waste of time," Tony shrugs. "It's been normal, this time."
"Forgive me if I don't take your word."
Tony had been having abnormal ruts for a year now, off and on. Sometimes they were normal, the horniness, the drive, but lately he'd been developing a fever and, two months ago, had woken up in a hospital bed surrounded by Pepper and Bruce, who had been summoned by JARVIS with the news that Tony had a fever of 103 and had lost consciousness. For three days.
It happened sometimes, Bruce said. By middle age, most alphas stopped having predictable ruts, and would stop rutting altogether by sixty. It was menopause. Heat flashes, discomfort, frustration. Still, something to keep an eye on.
"I'm not that old," Tony says to Bruce, who rolls his eyes. Tony thinks of the boy again. How old had he been? At the time Tony had thought twenty, twenty-three, one of those post-grad omegas scrounging a living in the big city. But the more he turned the memory over the less sure he became. Those big eyes. The way the voice cracked. Was the service hiring teenagers now?
The thought disturbed him enough to say, "What do you know about the Menagerie?"
Tony watches as Bruce takes a long minute to process the question - what exactly Tony was asking about, and the fact that he was asking him, Bruce, of all people. "That it's exclusive?" Bruce rubs the back of his neck. "No offence, Tony, but if you want someone to get you with a service I'd ask JARVIS."
"I'm thinking more of some professional digging." At Bruce's still-blank stare, Tony sighs. "Look, the Menagerie helped me out a lot in my...younger and more vulnerable years. Wipe that judgmental look off. Betas don't understand-"
"Please refrain from saying what I can and cannot possibly understand."
"Okay, whatever, judge away. But they sent a kid over earlier today and I'm not even sure he was legal, and I'm thinking maybe we can do some kind of undercover sting thing."
"Your lawyers will love that." But Bruce's brow is all scrunched up. "How 'not legal' are we talking?"
"Hard to tell with omegas, isn't it? I don't know. He was young. And I know I'm getting old, okay, but I know an eighteen year old when I see one, and that kid was not -"
"What did he look like?"
"Does it matter? The law doesn't fall more on his side if he looks -"
But now Bruce is looking around the workroom, as if Tony had hidden something and it was his job to find it. "Did you order from the Menagerie?"
"No! Not for years. But I guess they thought they could -"
"Did Peter come by on Tuesday?"
Bruce is on his feet, and Tony takes that as a cue to button up his shirt. "You told Peter, your new assistant, to stop by two days ago to get him started on a project to work on."
"I employ thirty thousand people, Bruce, you're going to have to be more specific."
Bruce pinches the bridge of his nose. "How can you not - okay, I took gender awareness and six human phys classes, I know alphas have memory lapses in rut, but you have to remember meeting Peter. Three days ago? You had to interview a bunch of candidates for the new internship position?"
"We don't hire interns."
"But OsCorp does and the powers that be wanted you to get in on the game. Get some good PR and pick out the best high schoolers instead of letting them all go to Osborn. Christ, Tony, I was standing right next to you. Came in with Bucky? The guy who's arm you've been working on?"
And it all slams back, all of it, at once, the room full of eager, teenage alphas. The appealing sight of a fidgety omega, the one who, Bruce remembered, had sent in a prototype idea of an adhesive...thing. How excited the kid got when he talked science, as they pulled apart a vet's arm together for a couple of comfortable hours in the afternoon.
The kid who absolutely, positively was the same person who stood in the middle of his living room, torn, conflicted, scared, before finally running out.
"What did you do?" Bruce demands, clear across the room and looking a little green, eyes still darting as if this could all be a wild, terrible prank.
Tony desperately wants to reassure him. Nothing, he's done nothing. But he'd wanted to. He'd tried to. He was an older man, a powerful man, and alpha, and he hadn't been coaxing, hadn't been gentle or kind. He'd demanded. Had gotten frustrated when refused.
He gets to his feet. He isn't technically out of rut for another eight hours at least but he can't imagine staying in this apartment any longer. He'd scared a kid. He'd hired an omega, and turned around and demanded something more. At best, he'd taken advantage of the situation.
"Where are you going?" Bruce demands.
Tony doesn't even bother answering. He's a playboy, sure, but at his core he's an inventor. And sometimes an inventor makes mistakes. But he also, always, damn well tries to fix them.
Peter has to choose between his safe(r) life at the coffee shop and the great unknown of SI. Aka an entire chapter of Bucky, Sam, and Clint being overprotective.
Peter's been back at Cool Beans for a little over twenty-four hours before and he remembers, vividly, exactly why he wanted to leave this job for the holy grail of the SI internship. Clint's a nice enough boss, a man who runs half the meetings for the veterans next door, who takes Peter's abrupt departure and subsequent return in stride, jerking his head at the cash register when Peter shows up early for his first shift back, not even talking to him until after the morning rush, where several people tell Peter that they're happy he's back.
"You all right, Pete?" Clint grunts. He's sitting at the counter, pay book and receipts in front of him, pencil behind one ear.
"Don't yes sir me. You get attacked in my shop, you quit, and you come back. In the span of a week. You're giving me whiplash just looking at you."
"Imagine living it," Peter grumbles, mostly to himself. He makes Clint a coffee and pumps in some hazelnut flavor, which Clint will deny liking until he's blue in the face.
Another customer comes in. The door's been repaired, Peter notices, from where Sam shot it to get in after the alpha attacked. Everything looks good as new, except the clinic down the street is still closed, and Peter was nearly raped, and Tony Stark thought that Peter had been hired for sex. Whiplash indeed. Peter makes himself some tea. His throat is sore. He's been trying to think of a way to admit to Aunt May that he's lost the internship, and wonders how long he can hold up under her "How was your day?" habit.
He just feels so...betrayed. Used. Young. Dirty. He feels every inch an omega, and hates Tony Stark for making him feel this way, and wishes, deeply, that he didn't admire Stark so damn much, didn't truly think that Stark would save the world from itself, wishes it was anyone else - that alpha from the other day - anyone else to put him so squarely in his place.
Clint adds up receipts and during a strange mid-morning rush helps out behind the counter. They don't talk, except for Clint's pointed sighs at Peter's playlist playing over Cool Beans's sound system. Peter kind of loves Clint that morning, for not demanding all the answers. He keeps trying to rehearse answers for Aunt May that won't have her marching up to Stark Tower, all righteous, motherly fury.
"I didn't know Stark was operating out of coffee shops now," a too-familiar voice says in time with the bell jingling a new arrival.
Peter has a machine's guts open on the counter, and looks up from under his hair even though he doesn't really have to. He'd know Bucky's voice anywhere. "Not quite."
"Are you a paying customer today, Sergeant?" Clint grunts.
"Am I ever?" Bucky's not deterred by the deflection, too well trained for that. "Seriously, Pete, is Stark not paying you well enough? Is he paying you at all? I thought it was a full-time position over there."
Peter blushes furiously at the idea of Tony Stark, and how much he was or wasn't paying Peter for his services. "It didn't work out." He glances at Bucky, who's flexing his not-quite-working prosthetic. "I'm sorry, Buck. I forgot about your arm. I could - I could ask -"
Bucky holds up a hand, halting the words. "What do you mean it didn't work out? You seemed pretty hired three days ago. Science-geeking it up."
Peter bends over the machine again. The screwdriver wavers in his grip. He mumbles something about the job market.
"Is this some alpha supremacy shit?" Bucky won't back off. Clint glances up at those words. He's a beta, but he lives in a world with alpha supremacy, too. He knows the layers of protection put in place to uphold what should be illegal hiring practices. "I didn't get that vibe, but he sure fits the bill. An alpha who thinks the whole world should bend to him."
"Don't, Bucky, it's fine - really -"
The door bell jingles again and Sam Wilson walks in, smile dropping at the sight of Peter tense behind the counter. "I thought you were moving up in the world, kid."
"Hey," Clint protests, mildly.
"Not that I don't appreciate this old dump, Barton..."
"Alpha supremacist," Bucky fills Sam in.
Peter scrapes a wrist across his eyes. It had been such a long week. He needs to get over to Jersey some time soon to refill his suppressants. He needs to sleep, and not think of Tony Stark's face when he thought Peter was there to sleep with him. He needs to forget the tight fist of desire he had felt for an alpha, that alpha, the alpha that had been offering everything, and money besides. "It's not like that," Peter protests. "It was just - a misunderstanding."
Sam's expression hardens. "Did he put his hands on you?"
Something must have flickered across Peter's face because Sam presses forward. "Because I know that Tony Stark probably thinks he's above the law in this city, but he's not. We can protect you, Peter. Me and Buck - Clint - Natasha - Steve -"
"You can't protect me from every alpha, Sam," Peter points out. "We kind of disproved that theory last week." He looked up at the older men, who looked back at him with varying expressions of pity. "It's fine. I'm used to it."
"Aw, hell kid," Sam begins.
"I know it's not easy -" Bucky says at the same time.
Peter just ducks back down over his work. He blinks quickly, trying not to think of going home to Aunt May, who last night had gotten three types of take-out they couldn't afford as celebration of Peter's new job that no longer existed. He tried not to think of school in the fall, of the hundreds of the most gifted students in New York coming back from internships in LA and China, working for companies like Apple and OsCorp and, yes, Stark Industries, buzzing about MIT and Harvard and a world that seemed ripe for the taking, and Peter, who got all As and changed in a different section of the locker room so as not to "overly arouse and antagonize" the alphas (school words, not his) - Peter will have been here, in the peeling paint of the coffee shop, his options amounting to menial labor or, apparently, prostitution.
He knows the men mean well, but he kind of just wants to be alone today, wants to imagine, for a little while longer, a life in which doors might open for him. He'd settle for a window, even.
A black hand pushes hair behind Peter's ear. "His loss," Sam whispers, and Peter really does think he's about to cry.
"How bout a couple of coffees?" Bucky suggests gruffly. "And make one for yourself, with all that cream and shit. You're skinny."
Peter squares his shoulders, leans, just a little, into the comforting warmth of Sam's hand, and then backs over to the coffee grounds waiting next to the machine. MJ will be by later, full of bluster and activism, ready to change the world with her beat up laptop. Aunt May will understand, will be on his side. And he has Bucky and Sam and Clint, has Steve, has the rest of the VA, has Ned, when he's not busy with his new girlfriend. It's a smaller life, but it's the only life he's ever had, and, perhaps, it's still more than he deserves.
He's almost convinced himself, almost has the coffees ready, almost gotten through this hard part of the morning, when the bell in the doorway jingles one more time.
It's an alpha, the remains of rut pheromones lingering around him. It's an alpha, but Peter doesn't even have to look up before he's identified this particular alpha, from the smell, from the way both Bucky and Sam stiffen, the way Clint gets to his feet, the way the whole shop seems suddenly prepared for a fight.
Peter swallows. Puts the coffees down before they can vibrate out of his shaking hands. "Hi - um, hello Mr. Stark."
"You've got a lot of nerve," Sam begins.
"Peter Parker," Tony says, his voice smooth and untroubled by the heightened scents in the small cafe. "Rising Junior at Midtown High, applied for SI's engineering internship two weeks ago and applied to be my personal assistant four days ago, because Bruce Banner insisted I needed one of those. I hired you because of the idea of soluble adhesives that you submitted with your application." Only then does he seem to notice the other men in the room. He lowers his voice, but his next words are still clear. "You're a very talented teenager, not a prostitute."
"Not a - what?"
"Not now, Bucky," Peter snaps. This is between him and Tony. He wipes his hands on his jeans and then puts them behind his back. They're still shaking. "I thought you made my position with SI pretty clear. Sir."
"You've got to read between the lines a little, kid. Pepper will be the first one to tell you I'm not exactly clear about much." Tony Stark takes off his sunglasses, wiping them absently on the hem on his shirt, which probably costs more than Peter's laptop, a single shirt, perhaps, more expensive than the small apartment he lives in with Aunt May. "She'll also tell you I don't often apologize."
"She's right," Peter snarks before he can help himself.
"I am sorry." Stark is talking, now, to all the men in the small cafe. "I don't like to blame alpha instincts, it sounds too much like an excuse, but there you are. I wasn't in my right mind. I jumped to the wrong conclusions."
"Do I look like a prostitute?" Peter asks, because it's all he's been thinking about. "Or is it just. You know. The omega thing."
Clint's not even pretending to look at the book anymore. "Kid..."
"No, really. Mr. Stark. Clint. Sam? Do I look -" Peter gestures at his body, the compact promise of it, the parts that are all starting to add up, finally, his too-big head suddenly fitting on broad shoulders, his legs catching up with his feet. He knows that in recent months what was once the gawky, awkward body of tweenagehood had started to shift, cellularly, into something appealing. Pretty. He is not, he knows, a hot guy, or even a handsome one. A girl in his art class at school told him that he was pretty, and that's the only word that seems to fit. Older men have started paying attention to him, and the omega part of Peter preens even as the rest of him flushes, embarrassed, scared.
And that's the crux of it. Shows all over Peter's face. Tony Stark, inventor, billionaire, world-turner, had scared him.
Tony is not a good man. He knows he has sins to atone for. But he doesn't like scaring people, doesn't like that he scared Peter, who, despite the bloom and blush of this new body, is still so much a child.
"You're a smart kid," Tony says. "Come back and work with me."
"Why?" Peter challenges. "Are you afraid I'll sue?"
Tony closes his eyes, briefly. This is why he never hired interns. He doesn't know what to say to a teenager with so many hard and fast opinions, a teenager whose world was still so vehemently black and white. He doesn't like to bully children. He remembers, all too well, being a child, and being bullied. "I'm afraid you'll waste your potential."
"I like it here," Peter's voice is quiet. "I know where I stand, here."
"Yeah, kiddo, cuz this is rock bottom."
"If I go back and work with you," Peter begins, "I want it to be only part time. So I can still be here this summer."
Clint's trying to hide a smile and it's not really working.
"Why?" Tony honestly can't see why anyone would choose this crumbling building over his glass skyscrapers.
Peter fidgets, and Bucky speaks for him. He'd been holding his tongue, very politely, during the exchange, but he can hold it no longer. "So we can keep an eye on him. And I'm warning you, Stark, you hurt this kid again? You'll have the police force to contend with."
"And most of Brooklyn," Clint chips in, eyes narrowed.
"And Queens," Sam adds.
Tony's watching Bucky's metal arm gesticulate a moment behind the biological one. He really needs to spend more time on Stark Medical, do another overhaul of the mechanics, actually listen when Bruce talks about what the division needs. He nods. "Sure, we'll work out hours that work for you." He pauses, then adds. "I don't care if you sue me. Well, I do care. Mostly because, no matter how good your case is - and JARVIS got our whole little exchange on film, so it would be pretty solid - almost no judge will rule against a rutting alpha. You'd be in the right, though. You know it and I know it." He lowers his voice, as if it was just the two of them in the room and not a crowd of three other men, all wanting to rip his limbs off. "I'm sorry for scaring you."
Peter opens his mouth. Closes it. Finally says. "Just going to put it out there, I'm expecting a really good recommendation letter from this."
"If you're as good as your application promised, I'll do everything in my power to make sure there's a place for you in whatever college you choose. As long as that college is MIT."
Peter blushes, his eyes skittering back down to the floor. "They're an alpha supremacist university. All the good ones are."
"And I'm one of their biggest donors." Tony shrugs, a practiced motion of feigned nonchalance. "I know we started the summer off on the wrong foot, Pete. That's all on me. Every paper and their blog knows that I don't want an intern, but now that you're here you bet your ass I'll make this summer work for you. You just need to decide how much you want it."
The bell over the door rings again. Peter is wearing his uniform t-shirt and a nametag, but there's so much potential in the small omega that he's practically vibrating with it.
Clint turns back to his books. Bucky and Sam flex their arms a little more but their radio is crackling with voices and they leave, too. Peter puts the machine he was working on back on a counter. For a long minute, as Peter talks to the pair of frat-ish beta customers that walked in, Tony wonders if he had been forgotten.
Then, as Peter turns to start making the drinks, he says, softly, "Okay."
At first Tony wasn't sure he was being spoken to. But Peter's all earnest expression, hair falling in front of his eyes that are locked right on Tony. "Okay," Tony agrees, and it feels like a promise, that moment, their eyes meeting across the scarred and puckered counter.
Then Clint clears his throat, and Peter goes back to work.
Chapter 6: Part 2
Time jump! Two months later, Tony finds a way to both improve Peter's life and force him to sleepover. So. Win-win?
"We are what we believe we are."
"You can't stay here," a bored female voice rings out.
Peter jumps back to his feet. He'd only just sat down. "Sorry. Sorry!"
"Whatever." The voice belongs to a young beta janitor, dressed in inconspicuous black in the middle of a shiny, polished lobby. "I know it's hot, man, but you gotta keep moving."
Peter flushes. He'd just wanted to check his messages, because sometimes Mr. Stark asks him to grab duct tape, or donuts, and he doesn't want to get up to the blissful cool of the workshop only to be sent back down into the fires of hell. "Really sorry, I'll just -"
"Follow me," the janitor girl says, pushing the trash can in front of her.
Peter was tossing his backpack over his shoulder, but at the girl's order he stops. He doesn't have to obey betas, doesn't even really have to obey alphas. He wants to go out the way he came, slip back into the hot smack of the July sidewalk. The grip on his backpack becomes sweaty. He looks around, hoping to catch the eye of an omega before he's led off wherever this beta wants him to go. He feels suddenly sick, and hates that he knows he feels this way because of that alpha, that awful alpha two months ago. "I - I can just leave. I'm going, okay?"
The beta girl touches his arm, and when Peter looks at her he sees that her expression wasn't hard an fierce at all. "There's a door in the back. I can't believe an unmated omega got past the doorman, but it's not going to happen a second time. Just go out back, okay? And try to stay away from alpha-only buildings."
There's so much Peter wants to say to that, but he swallows it all down. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, okay."
He hurries down the street to the looming glass of Stark Tower, rising from the pavement like an exclamation point to dwarf the skyline. By the time he steps into the precisely cooled elevator, he's dripping with sweat again and nearly drops his phone through his slick fingers.
"Are you quite alright?" JARVIS asks. They're rising quickly.
"Fine! I'm fine. Damnit! I forgot coffee." For Mr. Stark and for himself. The day's already off to an amazing start. Peter finally gets his phone unlocked and drops a pin on his map app, labeling the building that kicked him out a no-go zone. He already has clusters of similar red pins across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens. Soon, there's going to be no where to go.
He stuffs his phone back in his pockets, runs a hand through his hair, and tries to look indispensable and breezy - whatever that expression is - when JARVIS spits him out into Mr. Stark's workshop. But when the doors part it's not Mr. Stark who's standing in the middle of the workshop. "Dr. Banner!" Peter nearly yells.
The doctor gives him a little half-wave.
"What am I, chopped liver?" Bucky Barnes grumbles. He's sitting, bored, on a stool, his metal arm missing. Steve is there, too, wandering around the room. Peter can tell, from the expression on his face that he's barely restraining himself from picking up the various contraptions, toys, and tools.
"Hi Buck. 'Lo, Steve." Steve barely nods, eyes wide and staring at a 3D holographic model of a human eye. Mr. Stark's been trying to fix blindness.
It's a little like working with a mischievous, benevolent god. Fix blindness. Just another Tuesday. In fact, Peter's starting to think, since working for SI, that anything was possible with enough money, time, and coffee. It also helped if you were an alpha, but Mr. Stark's been pretty adamant that even deep-seated prejudice could be overcome if you were just smart enough.
Dr. Banner beckons and Peter nearly trips over his own feet in his eagerness to be near the older man. Mr. Stark is great and all, but he mostly mentors Peter by, well, letting him hang around, giving orders. Dr. Banner talks Peter through things, asks him questions, listens when he answers. Half the time Peter is still not quite sure what he's doing in Stark Tower, but whenever Dr. Banner around he always knows exactly where he's supposed to be. "Do you see what I'm doing here?"
"You took out the pneumatic hinges? What's moving the - magnets? Woah! Seriously? Wouldn't it create a magnetic field? Wait, no, it's polarized. And so light!"
"I feel like a guinea pig," Bucky says to no one. "Even guinea pigs have ears, you know."
Peter's too busy looking over the place where the arm attaches to Bucky's body. "Why make it so easy to remove?"
"Cleaning. Maintenance." But Dr. Banner is smiling too much for it to just be that. "Also, Tony and I were talking, and we thought that with a new baby in the house Bucky might want to feel with two hands."
There's another arm on the table. How had Peter not noticed it before? Like someone had unscrewed their arm and forgotten to put it back on, the new prosthetic looks so flesh and blood that Peter has to bend down and look at the couplings to make sure it's not filled with actual arteries. "Nerve simulators? Wouldn't that hurt?"
"That's what we're working on today."
"I've had worse," Bucky says, mostly to himself.
Then Peter straightens up. "A new baby in the house?" He repeats. He looks at Steve, who has one hand self-consciously cupping his still completely flat stomach. "Oh my god! You guys! It's going to be, like, the prettiest baby in the world!"
Steve laughs, and when Peter runs over to give him a hug he hugs back, hard. "I'll be happy with ten fingers and toes, but pretty is good, too."
Peter looks down at Steve's stomach as if he could see inside. "How far along...?"
"Ten weeks or so. I thought I had the flu, and then I skipped a heat. Oh, Peter, don't blush, it's only natural. Bucky dragged me down here as soon as I told him."
"I am not a medical doctor," Dr. Banner reminds the room.
Bucky is looking at Steve with an expression of such fierce fondness that Peter feels like he's back in their apartment again, looking at the space they created just for the two of them. It's Steve who tells Bruce, lightly, "but you have all the best toys. Look at this!"
Steve goes over to one of the holographic displays and presses a couple of buttons, and a picture comes up, a 3D rendering of an ultrasound. "Bruce says it's still too early to tell if it's a boy or a girl, but I'm just happy there's only one in there. Twins run in Bucky's family."
"Next time," Bucky promises.
"I don't think that's how twins work," Peter says. He's only half listening. He taps the hologram to enlarge it. There's the steady pulse of a beating heart and, below it, the fainter, faster thrum of a baby's. "This is - it's incredible. Congratulations, Steve. Bucky. Really, I'm." He blinks. He didn't know he would feel like this. "I'm so happy for you."
And he is happy. He knows he has to text MJ, who has been betting on a Barnes-Rogers baby for months, and who will immediately start a betting pool, taking in wagers for everything from sex (different than gender! she would point out, before launching into a lecture with the bewildered dads about letting a baby grow up without gender conformity) to birth date to hair color to secondary gender. Peter's happy, but he also feels a completely unexpected pang. He's fifteen. He should not be this jealous over someone else's baby.
Bucky winces only a little when the nerve endings of the new arms attach, and as Dr. Banner takes notes and adjusts settings Peter asks Steve all kinds of questions. Will he have to leave the force? Does he need help painting the nursery? Will he have a baby shower? Is he thinking of names yet? Peter suggests, shyly, Benjamin, and Steve says that he's trying not to get ahead of himself, that there's still a lot that could go wrong but Steve is so healthy and young and strong and - yes - glowing that Peter waves this fear aside. He knows that male omegas, especially, had trouble carrying to term, but Steve would do everything right, eat all his greens, sleep eight hours. Bucky would make sure of it.
"I feel like the next six months are just going to be this same conversation over and over again," Steve sighs, but he's smiling, of course. He keeps one hand, protectively, over his stomach. "Bucky's already trying to force me into a convent."
"Am not. Jesus! Bruce, fuck that hurts." Bucky's shaking out the prosthetic which doesn't look like a prosthetic at all, just another limb. "Cool. Can you give me a few tattoos?"
"I heart Steve," Peter teases.
"I hate Steve, more like," Bucky grumbles. But he catches Peter's eye. "I don't need to tell you not to go spreading the news around, right? I mean, those little friends of yours are okay..."
"You know their names are MJ and Ned, you just -"
"And Clint already knows," Bucky barrels over him. "But...you know...people get jealous."
Jealous isn't the right word. Pregnant male omegas had a habit of disappearing, or winding up in a ditch, targets of violence and lust. But Steve is strong and fast and dangerous in his own right, a soldier. Peter shrugs, to appease the older man. "Yeah, of course."
"Don't worry about it," Steve mutters. "About forty people know already."
"Forty-one," a different voice says. Peter tries not to jump as Mr. Stark steps out of the elevator, shedding his suit and tie and handing them over to the various robots that cluster around him like needy children. He always undergoes a transformation in the workshop, becoming less the CEO on tv and more the inventor fiddling around in their parent's basement. Or penthouse.
Bucky tenses and Steve shifts to place his body between Peter and Mr. Stark, which is a little ridiculous. Peter forgave Mr. Stark for their...miscommunication...weeks ago, but the Bucky and Steve are more wary, less apt to forgive. When Peter called them out on this Steve just sighed and said that Peter would understand when eh was older, which was a bullshit cop out and also infuriating. Sometimes, though, Peter wonders if Steve and Bucky hadn't managed to somehow figure out the full story, even though there was no way in hell that Peter was the one to tell them.
"Oh, stand down, soldiers, I'm on your side. Congratulations on your new spawn, and all that." Stark stares up at the 3D ultrasound and snorts. "Here, I even got you presents."
Peter jumps forward a little at the idea of presents. Even after only two months with Mr. Stark, he knows the older man has a tendency to tinker with one-of-a-kind things that were often the absolute coolest. He also likes to give stuff away, either because he doesn't need the prototype after coming up with something better or out off some other need to impress people, as if the only thing he had to give the world were his inventions, not himself.
"Bruce has been trying to get me to take more of an interest in Stark Medical for years, so you two get to be my guinea pigs." Mr. Stark holds up a syringe. "Nano-tech. A little old-fashioned, I know, but you two are seriously the most codependent couple I've ever seen."
"What's it do?" Bucky asks.
"Keeps an eye on his vitals, his location, the state of the fetus - sorry, baby - which can be accessed either by you -" Mr. Stark lobs a beeper-sized device at Bucky, who catches it deftly, "or by Bruce, who is apparently your primary physician."
"I honestly don't know what I did to deserve this," Bruce grouses.
Peter's peering over Bucky's shoulder at the beeper. It has a smooth, blank screen. "No read-outs," Peter says.
"Well, duh, I haven't injected him yet." Mr. Stark holds up the syringe. "I promise this hurts me more than it does you."
Bucky suddenly growls, on his feet and in front of his omega. Stark's unsurprised, standing there with injection in hand. "This is only part one of two, so if you want to go all alpha, do it now."
Bruce looks like he's trying desperately to not fade into the background, but it's hard for non-alphas when there's a showdown like this, or even the possibility of a showdown. Peter is used to it, goes to school with almost all alphas and no one butts heads more than hormonal teenagers who feel like they have something to prove. He knows that Bruce could probably hold his own if push came to shove - the doctor was battle-tested, and there was no more alpha-centric world than the military - but he was out of practice. Peter isn't. He clears his throat. "Part one of two?"
"You're up next, Underoos. Come on, Captain, mothers first."
Steve looks unamused, but tells Bucky to stand down. "You know you've been thinking about putting a tracker in me, anyway. You've been threatening since Kosovo."
"What about Peter?" Bucky asks, folding his arms over his chest. He's shifted so he's standing in front of Peter, too. He really needs to find himself an alpha, if only to make the alphas in his life feel less of a need to protect him. "You putting a tracker in him, too?"
"I wish," Stark mutters. "A pinch, Captain Rogers. There. No, there's probably something in the books about stalking a minor. This little beaut was my idea, Stark Medical's first real new innovation in, oh, five years? But don't worry, I'm a lousy chemist, I've had it all checked out. I just need a little guinea pig."
"This is the strangest internship," Peter says, to no one.
"I thought we agreed that actual guinea pigs would be the guinea pigs?" Bruce says at the same time.
"Turns out, you can't actual figure out which guinea pigs are omegas. Or if there even are omega guinea pigs." Stark raises his hands in surrender as Bruce, Steve, and Bucky all begin speaking at once. "It's safe! I promise it's safe. Though for completely unrelated reasons, you should probably stay in the tower for at least twenty-four hours of observation. Don't worry I already squared it with your aunt. I think I'm starting to grow on her."
Peter blinks. Glances at the 3D ultrasound, then at the shot in Stark's hand. He can think only about babies, and though he's pretty sure - almost entirely sure - he's not pregnant, he does have a flash of the alpha at the beginning of summer, and what almost happened, and he feels a wave of dread, like the bottom has dropped out of his world.
Before he can get more worked up, Stark says, blithely, "Suppressant." He's holding something small and plastic, the size of a match. "First implant on the market. FDA's still stalled on approval, but I've got some free samples. Totally safe, Bruce can vouch for me. One implant lasts five years." His gaze is steady on Peter. "I'm working on reopening the omega clinic in Brooklyn, kid, I really, am, but this is our stop-gap method, okay?"
Peter is sure that his mouth is literally hanging open. He's made the trek to Jersey twice already for his monthly supply of suppressants that work both to prevent pregnancy and stifle the supposedly dangerous omega pheromones he produces automatically, but it's a long commute, and a long line at the clinic, and it's a target, too, for political protests, for attempted attacks. A couple of omegas had already been beaten up just for, you know, being omegas and waiting in line. MJ had gone with him the first time, and Aunt May the second, making a trip out of it, she said, spending the evening afterwards at the Paramus Mall pretending they had the ability to afford anything in the storefronts. But he'd felt like a burden both times, and resolved, this month, to go alone.
Everyone is looking at Peter, who's looking at the matchstick like it might just be his salvation. And why not? Just because he doesn't have an alpha now doesn't mean he won't have one when he's sixteen, or eighteen, and he won't have to worry about being another omega dropout stereotype, and should the worst happen, should he be attacked...
He swallows. "It's safe?"
"I promise," Mr. Stark says. "I'll even let the doc with the good hands to it. A little shot to numb the area, and then it's implanted in your upper arm. You'll be able to feel it, but it's completely safe. We haven't done a lot of trials on male omegas, but female betas and omegas with a similar device even stop experiencing heats."
Hope flares hot and fast at the sound of that. No more heats means he won't have to miss school two or three days a month. Means he won't have to worry about an alpha bursting through his door, mad with lust. Means he can walk around, a little less afraid.
"Okay," he says, and then clears his throat because it came out like a squeak. "Okay. Yes. Please."
Mr. Stark hands the implants to Bruce, grinning. "I love a good sleepover."
Tony and Peter have an honest talk about Reality and Expectations.
Peter lingered in the doorway to the kitchen, one hand, still damp from a shower, clasped around his StarkPhone. He'd texted Ned and MJ about the Rogers-Barnes baby and there was currently a contest of the most likely/stupidest baby names in their group chat. He'd called Aunt May, told her he was staying late at his internship, that Stark Tower had more bedrooms than most buildings had doors, that he would be home in the morning, that of course he'd call.
But now his phone is silent and Bucky and Steve are long gone and Dr. Banner has disappeared to a different floor on the tower, or perhaps to a different building entirely - Peter doesn't actually know how many people live here - and it's full dark and Peter's changed into his spare set of clothes after a shower in the most luxurious bathroom he'd ever stepped foot in and he no longer knows what to do with himself.
Mr. Stark is in his lab, and Peter knows that he should join him, that they can pass the hours that Peter's supposed to be under observation for this new suppressant side by side, electronics between them, Mr. Stark's music a steady hum in the background, building stuff that might leave the world better than they'd found it. Peter knows he should go down and try to help, but he'd gotten out of the shower and remembered, suddenly, how hungry he really was.
And this kitchen - professional chefs probably had wet dreams about such stove tops. Several small bots hummed across the shiny surfaces and there was evidence over other robotics throughout the kitchen. Peter was sure, weeks ago, that he had officially gotten over the sheer amount of wealth. But he's struck, again, by how much he doesn't belong here. A poor omega from Brooklyn doesn't get nice things.
"If you require assistance," JARVIS begins...
"No! I mean - I got this. I just." Peter laughs, helplessly. He's hungry but has no idea where to start. Doesn't know if he wants eggs and toast or a chicken pot pie or yogurt or a roast beef sandwich or an apple, has no clue except that he's hungry and knows that every single appliance in this kitchen is worth more than his life, and he wonders again why in the world Tony Stark, eccentric billionaire, spent fifteen years making bigger and badder weapons and then pivoted to curing blindness, helping omegas, helping him, Peter.
Aunt May has told him over and over this summer to never sniff a gift fish, that even if it seems too good to be true he needs to take this time and this opportunity to get, at the very least, a kick-ass recommendation letter.
Peter doesn't have the heart to tell her that, even two months in, even in the sweat-soaked end of July, school already looming on the horizon, he's still not quite sure what he's doing here. Ned can describe the algorithms and codes he's using at OsCorp, and MJ seems on her way to taking over the handful of blogs she's contributing to, but Peter just shows up on Tony Stark's doorstep, asks a few questions, and leaves.
Never sniff a gift fish, he reminds himself, and tentatively opens the refrigerator, blinking at the dazzling array of foods while his bare toes wiggle on the tile floor.
Bruce keeps telling him that if he's going to meddle this far into Stark Medical he should really think about actually going to medical school, but Tony's still pretty sure he can glean most of the relevant information from books and the free lectures online, so he listens to a Johns Hopkins doc talk about the main components of the human eye as he tries again to cure blindness.
This whole summer, since he bought that closed-down omega clinic in Brooklyn and started the arduous process of privatizing omega health care, he's been weirdly into the human body. For most of his life it's been the fast cars, the most destructive bombs, the tallest skyscrapers, but recently he's been more interested in flesh and blood, like a change of heart.
There's a point in the night where he goes to reach for another tool and it just...doesn't come. "Butterfingers?"
"I've taken the liberty of switching off all non-essential systems for the evening."
Tony gazes at the ceiling, even though he's usually the first to lecture that JARVIS doesn't exist in the ceiling. That he's everywhere, and nowhere. "This right here is the reason people don't like the idea of artificial intelligence."
"Have a good night, sir."
Which is how Tony was essentially pushed out of his workshop. It was nearing midnight, the windows of the tower lit by the thousands of lights of New York City. For a moment he just stopped and stared, feeling the familiar pull for the hustle and the crowds. He had loved the city at night, most of his life spent slipping down sidewalks, neon overhead, running down crowded streets and crowing at the docks, slipping off into dingy corners of clubs and sitting like a king in the VIP sections, alphas and omegas alike vying for his attention. He lived off of the energy, the sex and unpredictability, the drugs and lust and booze, the pounding of his own heart and the sweat on someone else's skin.
And he still feels that pull. He's older but not dead yet. There just seems to be too much effort to the whole charade. He used to love the nighttime for its momentary quality, fun and light as a flickering candle. But his body wants him to be settled. He's getting too old for one night stands. He wants to wake up with someone in his bed, someone who will stay for breakfast.
He's afraid he's waited too long. That he'll never be able to tell, now, whether someone was there for him or his damnable money.
Most nights it doesn't bother him. He'll sit down with Bruce and talk about saving the world. He'll sit down with Pepper and flirt and volley, wine and dine, feeling sated and happy even without sex at the end. Most nights he's completely fine, thank you very much.
But some nights, on those nights when he had a happy couple in his apartment, staring in awe at the mass of cells projected large in the living room. He hadn't even known he'd wanted that until he saw the soft looks on the men's faces, the people made, magically, into parents. A life that had previously revolved only around each other suddenly shifting orbit.
He pulls himself away from the window and towards the kitchen, where a light is on, where a boy sits at the long, polished table, a bowl of cereal and a gallon of milk sweating huge drops onto the polished wood.
Tony rolls his eyes up. Imagines JARVIS sitting smug. The AI is about as subtle as the butler he was based off of was. "Hey, kid."
To his credit, Peter only jumps a little bit, knuckle knowing into the edge of the bowl, but he catches it before it can go flying. Still, a few drops make their way onto the table, and Tony catches the kid's wince. Peter. Not kid. He'd sworn weeks ago that if he was going to be working next to this kid (damnit) then he was going to be professional. Using names. Wearing clothes. Starting with the bare minimum but apparently he was even incapable of that.
"Sorry," Peter mutters, mopping up the small mess with the side of a sleeve.
"I feel like kitchen tables are there to be spilled on. And to be honest I haven't spilled much. It's been on my to-do list, you're doing me a favor."
Peter glances at him. Tony knows he talks fast, rapid-fire jokes. A highly paid therapist ten years ago told him it was an avoidance tactic and then asked about his relationship with his father, so Tony had never gone back there, but avoidance it might well be, or nervous tic. Same thing, Bruce would say, and then suggest he lay off the coffee and start meditating.
"I didn't know if I was supposed to - I just got hungry."
"Of course you did. You're a weed. Teenagers are weeds. You grow and you eat stuff and not many people like you but sometimes weeds are actually beneficial. Or beautiful." He tilts his head at the kid, who definitely looks amused now. "Where was I going with this?"
"I really don't know, Mr. Stark."
Peter blushes and it's damn pretty but Tony's not a horny alpha all the time. He can control himself. He's in a position of power over this kid. He already got an earful from the aunt about having the kid stay at his apartment, and only swearing that Pepper not to mention JARVIS would be in the building the whole time made Aunt May (feisty beta, not his type but...) stand down. "My uncle sort of drilled the whole respectfulness thing into me."
"No." Peter splays open his hands. "He was just a good man." A long pause. The was heavy in the space. Tony knew too many good men who could be spoken of only in past tense. He didn't know what he was supposed to do, when good men kept dying and he kept living here, on top of the world. "A really good man."
Tony heads over to the coffee pot. It's one of his and Peter's projects, one of the only things that makes the lab feel not tense at all. The roasting beans. The steam. Makes it feel like home. He still hasn't gotten it down to one button but they're damn close. He programs in a latte for the hell of it. "So...uncle?"
Peter raises his glass of milk half-heartedly. "Just a couple of orphans here."
He has a milk mustache. Tony feels a pang. He remembers being newly orphaned. Remembers the dire predictions that SI wouldn't last the year with him at the helm, an unruly teenager. And when it did last a year and make money besides, when it lasted five years and started branching elsewhere - well, that was all put down to Obadiah, as if Tony wouldn't want to honor his parents' legacy by doing some good in the world. As if everyone just expected him to be a selfish prick forever.
Tony takes a sip of coffee. Way too hot. Maybe they could program for that, too?
"It was really cool," Peter says, seemingly out of nowhere. "What you did for Steve and Bucky."
The cluster of cells, beating too fast, a baby's heartbeat. "Everyone deserves to pick up their kid with two hands."
"I meant - the tracker."
"Oh. That's way easier. Those two are insanely co-dependent. Maybe a baby will help? Who knows? What do I know?"
He was talking too fast again. He could hear Bruce screaming, his internal monologue always sounding vaguely like Bruce: No caffeine!
"Do you have a picture?"
Peter clears his throat. It's late. The kid should probably be in bed. Kids have bedtimes, right? Instead he sits and watches Tony pour himself a bowl of Cheerios, and then pours more in his own bowl. "The baby. Do you have a picture?"
The hologram appears over the kitchen table, and Peter makes a sound, an animalistic sound. Like the cry of a dove. A sighing, mournful, dawn sound. He's learned about the lab, watching Tony work, working himself. He taps the air and the gently revolving picture stops. Spreads his fingers to enlarge. The heartbeat. The shaking blob.
"It looks like a Teddy Graham."
"I've been told they look slightly more human when they're done baking."
Peter scrubs his face on his sleeve. "Jeeze. Sorry, I must look like such an omega right now."
There's so many sad things in that sentence, Tony could unpack it for days. Instead he just says: "it's only you and me here, kid."
Peter stares at the picture for a little while, and Tony stares at Peter.
"It's not like I want a baby," Peter says, shoveling another spoonful of Cheerios into his mouth. "At least not right now. Not like I have an alpha or anything. And I want to do other things. Have a life for myself, like you've been saying. Even though I'm an omega. Go to MIT. Maybe help an important alpha one day. Be like Pepper - she's our new idol, by the way. MJ is dying for an interview."
"I'm sure she can spare a few minutes for the fans."
Peter smiles tentatively. Waves a spoon at the hologram. "But then I see something like this, and it's like that whole life? College and a good job and a career and doing good things and fighting for omega rights and proving that I can be just as good as an alpha? All of it. Out the window." He shrugs. "Maybe they're right. Maybe omegas are just supposed to be breeders."
He doesn't sound sad. Just contemplative, like when Tony lobs questions at him, makes him rethink a problem.
Peter needs an hour with Pepper. A week. A year. Needs to see an omega run things with fierce tenderness, with skill, with passion. "What about Steve?" Tony asks. Throwing another question into the blender. This is how they spend their days, questioning each other until they come up with a solution that works. Peter gets this process. Likes it. Thrives in it. OsCorp's loss, Tony's gain.
Peter smiles at the bouncing cells of a baby. "What about him?"
"Is he just supposed to be bred? Home for his alpha, cooking and cleaning? Nesting? No job and a smile on his face?"
Peter tilts his head. His processing face. Then he laughs, a full-bellied sound. "What? No! Just - no. Bucky would go mental. Steve would go mental." He runs a hand through his hair. Points his spoon at Tony. "I see what you're doing, Mr. Stark. False analogy. I thought you went to fancy private schools."
"Never had time for debate."
"Me neither. I've only got time for Academic Decathlon and the coffee shop. But being friends with MJ is like being in debate." He glances at the hologram again. Then at Tony. "You know, it would be easier to convince me I was useful if I knew what I was doing here."
"You're my intern. I dazzle, you get dazzled."
Tony squints at Peter. Takes him in. Really takes him in. "I told you at the beginning, Pete. I'm going to make this summer work for you. If it's not working, we try something else. If you need to meet the top ten most successful omegas in the world to get some sense of perspective, we do that. If you want to keep helping me branch into kitchen appliances..."
"I thought Pepper didn't approve of StarkHome?"
"Bruce thinks your adhesive has medical implications. He wants to help you write a paper about it. Present it at a conference. You're a scientist, kid, but until you start thinking of yourself as a scientist first and an omega second or third or tenth? You're not going to be able to compete with those alphas. You just aren't. I guarantee that alphas do not think of their privilege as often as you are aware of your disadvantage. It's one of those sad facts of life."
Peter tilts his head. Thinking face. Tony sort of hates himself for noticing so much about his teenage intern, but there you are. "I know that the injection you gave me was a suppressant prototype."
"Yeah, I thought you might figure that out. How'd you do it?"
"Had a hunch. Drew some blood. Dr. Banner's been showing me a lot of cool things in StarkMed."
"He's trying to steal you into medical school."
"Job security. Omegas make good nurses."
Tony sighs. "It's like you're not even listening to me."
Peter sighs right back. "I don't know what you want from me, Mr. Stark."
Tony thinks about it. He'd like a lot of things from this kid genius in the too-big Batman shirt, the one that was a little too much like looking a mirror, backwards, if Tony had ever been polite or humble or gracious or all the good things this kid was. But even more than what he wants from Peter are the things he wants for him. Simply: any future he wants.
"I want you to trust me, kiddo. And until you can do that, I want you to fake it til you make it."
Sorry for being MIA all summer. Thank you for everyone who continued to read and like and comment on this story, even though I am the worst and can never follow through with long projects. I will try my best.
Anyway, this is for Amanda. It's sort of annoying that you had to go back to the South. Your cat keeps trying to kill herself without you.
Tony and Bruce look to their new intern to be the new face of a Stark ad campaign. Also, Tony plans for the future.
"I am not going to help you sleep with your fifteen year old intern!" Bruce lifts his glass. Green tea, not coffee, as he's pointed out to Tony oh, about a dozen times now. "Also, can I just say..."
"You cannot say 'I told you so' it's the most predictable 'I told you so' like, ever. Yes, we all knew that Tony Stark was going to sleep with his teenaged intern. You know, this is probably exactly what Norman Osborn wanted." Tony's been up for more hours before eight AM than most people log all day, so he thinks he's justified being a little jittery. "Except can I just point out that A. You know that the world was thinking female so do I at least get points for being hip with the gender expectations?"
"Okay. Well. Then, B. I don't actually want to sleep with Peter. I just want to make his life better. That's what's actually causing this..." he gestures vaguely at himself. They're about three quarters of the way through the summer and he woke up (this morning? yesterday morning?) suddenly remembering that Peter has to go back to school, and he'll lose, very soon, the not-prostitute lab assistant he's kind of looking forward to seeing every day.
Bruce frowns in the way that means Tony's acting pathetic. "I'm not actually a therapist."
"If you were, could you imagine the billables on just me?"
"I try not to actively picture how many millions my friendship with you is costing."
"The food's pretty great though. Also I'm kind of trying to save the world on a daily basis."
Bruce looks out the window at the Manhattan skyline. "I could have won a Nobel Prize."
"Something. Anything. Instead I'm here with you planning a statutory rape."
"You're looking at this all wrong. I'm trying to get you to give me advice so I don't actually freak Peter out and have the entire NYPD turn against me not to mention that grumpy cat coffee manager of his."
Bruce scrubs a hand over his face. Holds up a hand, pinky out. "Swear you're not going to hurt this kid?"
"Easy. Swear." Tony hooks his little finger around Bruce's. Sometimes it really is that easy.
"So Peter is..."
Tony's pacing. "Omega, but we've got him on suppressants, so he shouldn't have to worry about starting a family for at least five years. He's also brilliant, obviously, if it weren't for that omega thing there's be companies clamoring for him. As it is I think he's a shoo in for SI after he graduates MIT."
"...fifteen," Bruce finishes. He's definitely smiling.
"Yeah. That too. What, you don't think he's a shoo in for Stark Industries?"
"As you kind of run the joint, I think we may be able to find a place for him."
Tony holds up a hand, mimes writing with a pencil and a holographic notepad appears in front of him. JARVIS has been silent this entire conversation but Tony suspects that every suspicious word is getting relayed to a certain Ms. Potts who is currently giving Peter Parker aka the Object of His Affections a tour of SII - Stark Industries Infrastructure - where they're actively trying to hire omega contractors for their bigger, decades-long contracts for dams, bridges, roadways.
"We've got to make sure it doesn't look like he's sleeping his way to the top."
"He's an omega, Tone, he's going to get that anyway."
"I hate this world."
"If you do jump into a relationship, and he stays here during the school year, he should be reporting to someone who's not you. Billionaire-playboy-philanthropist relationships are one thing. Boss-employee or -intern relationships are just..."
"Skeevy? Taking advantage? You read my mind. We need to diversify the chain of command. That's why you get Peter starting September 1st. Teach him medicine. Recruit him for medicine. I don't care. You get him. Don't let him near any alpha that's hotter than me. Or any alpha in general."
Now Bruce isn't even trying to hide his smile. "Does Peter get a say in any of this?"
"Nope. He's young and impressionable. We're doing what's best from him. And also what's not going to get me beat up. Remember what I said about grumpy cat coffee manager?"
"That guy really freaked you out huh?"
Tony just shrugs. He's not actually writing anything down so he dismisses the mid-air notepad and opens a data read-out from Stark Med. "How's the new suppressant?"
"How's it working? It works fine. It's an adjustment to Depo-Provera, the birth control shot. I wouldn't use it for primary pregnancy prevention, because that should always be in conjunction with a condom, but as a heat suppressant to manage signs and symptoms it should last three to five years. Obviously we can exact that number with a larger sample size."
"You don't sound excited. Is this not exciting?"
Bruce rubs his forehead. "It's nothing new. We've had this technology for a generation. The FDA won't approve patents for long-term suppressing. It's all alpha elitist bullshit and crap 1950s precedent. The lawyers are good but we need a face for change."
"Has done enough. And she's been thinking seriously about children, so she doesn't exactly want to be the face of birth control at the moment."
Tony looks at the stats. They're in beta testing for the suppressant - which is how Peter got the shot before it got to the market - but with the closure of the last clinic in the five boroughs he knows, everyone knows, that the first person to put out a long-term (not solution, a solution would mean a societal change...) stop-gap to the problem would be a very rich man.
Luckily he's already a very rich man. Sometimes that works to his advantage.
"Before I met Peter," Bruce says, slowly, "I would have mentioned that I know a very photogenic alpha/omega couple from Brooklyn."
"Who are currently spawning."
"I would like to branch into the idea of suppressants that aren't birth control. That work to mask the hormonal differences between omegas and betas. It could help to get omegas more places. They don't have to worry about being jumped one week out of every month."
"But until then..."
"Well, after I met Peter..." Bruce jerks his head at Tony. "I mean, you're the one spending all this time with him. He's smart, he's attending one of the best high schools in the city despite all the odds stacked against him. Omega and orphan with an aunt living paycheck to paycheck. Goes to work at a coffee shop that serves mostly veterans two days a week, spends the rest in a laboratory few omegas have gone before."
"And he's cute."
Bruce makes a face. Tony knows he's not happy, even with the measures that they're putting in place, that tony would pursue a kid so much younger than him. Age of consent for omegas in New York was a ridiculously low thirteen, a hold over from when omegas were little more than bargaining chips between families, so none of it was illegal. For a rich playboy alpha, it wasn't even unique. But Bruce couldn't help his gut instinct response of child when he looked at Peter's hair falling in front of his face, his blush and stammer, the way he lit up in a lab and submitted naturally, quietly, to authority, the better to protect himself.
"You'll ask him?" Bruce asks. "Warn him what marketing really looks like. Long days in the studio. So many people touching him. It'll be uncomfortable."
"I'll be there," Tony says. "It won't be a problem."
Peter, unsurprisingly, says yes. He's nodding before Tony's even finished with his pitch. "That's a bad habit of agreeing that you've got there, Pete." Tony resists the urge to ruffle the kid's hair, just barely. "Never agree until you hear the fine print."
"Dr. Banner's suppressants are the best I've ever been on. This shot? Lifechanger. Really. I'm due for a heat in a couple of days and usually I'd have skeevy creeps on the subway getting too close, you know?" Tony doesn't know. Like he'd told Peter, alphas rarely think about their privilege the same way that omegas think about their disadvantage. He'd been attacked on the subway once, as a child, for being the child of an important man, and then he was promptly banned from slumming it on the tracks and given a driver.
Peter's still talking. "This time? Nothing. Ned asked me if anything was wrong. I think he has my heat cycle on his phone, which is kind of cute but also a little creepy? Anyway, he was like 'your heat's coming up?' and I'm like 'yeah dude I got it under control' and he's like 'I can't even tell' and I'm like 'bam! new suppressants!' and also we were hanging out with his new girlfriend who's all hacker chick and skater and into cool music so whatever, she's not terrible, and she's an omega too and she can't really afford to get into Jersey and I was like 'well I'll see what I can do.' So like, maybe one day Dr. Banner could like set up a free clinic? Downtown? Man, that would be awesome."
It's more words than Peter usually says in a day, and Tony feels like he's crushing the kid's little bubble when he reminds the teen that the suppressants he's on are beta-test only.
Peter shrugs. Smiles, blindingly. "Yeah, but after the ad campaign that's going to change, right?"
"So you'd do it? Be the face of Stark Suppressants?"
"I feel like perhaps Dr. Banner's name should be on it," Peter says, grinning behind his hair. "Though I like the alliteration."
"See! That's what I keep telling Pep. She's not a fan of alliteration."
"She probably has better taste than me," Peter says. Sheepishly. Everything about this kid is sheepish. "I don't mind being a face. I don't know if, you know, this beautiful face can sell anything...but...."
Tony thinks carefully about his hand placement before putting a hand on Peter's shoulder. "I promise not to let you look stupid."
Peter turns his face upward, eyes wide like Tony had just read his mind. But Tony remembers being a teenager and going to photoshoot after photoshoot and being terribly, self-consciously awkward. He was young, and convinced beyond all reason that he was doing everything wrong. Making everyone, including himself, look stupid.
Thank you for all the support for this story, even after all these months. I finally know where the story's going to I hope to get back to regular updates.
Also this is for Amanda to prove I can finish something.
Peter does the photoshoot for the new suppressant and a new complication arises.
Stark Industries has long since set up its own marketing team. Photographers and studios they use for everything from new StarkPhones to marketing their line of electric vehicles to sewage infrastructure. Tony likes marketing, knows the game well, considers himself an engineer first, an ad man second, and a scientist third (all these things above alpha. Like he told Peter: make other identities a priority and the world will start to see you for who you want to be seen as.)
Tony told Peter to be at the minimalist, white-walled loft at eight in the morning, but Tony made sure to show up uncharacteristically early. "Early" meaning "at all" because even though some people in the advertising department were used to working with Tony Stark on a regular basis, photographers and their harried assistants almost never interacted with the man whose net worth was approaching the trillions.
The girl at the front desk, nursing a cup of coffee and looking distinctly rumpled in that night-out twenty-something way, literally spit out her drink at the sight of him. "Mr. Stark! Oh my god! Is - is Cole - I mean, is Mr. Langford - I mean, are you? Expected?" She looks around a wildly. "I don't know if Cole is even here yet - I mean, Mr. Langford!" The girl runs her fingers through her hair. She's an omega. She spills her coffee again, apparently having forgotten that she was holding it at all. "Damnit! I mean - Jesus, I'm sorry."
Tony is trying to suppress his laughter, not wanting the girl to think he's laughing at her, even though he kind of is. For the past thirty years he's been followed around by a gamut of press that amounted to professional stalkers, and he was fairly certain that none of them admired him anymore, just found him tyrannical, or narcissistic, or entitled. He'd resisted having an intern for so long that, until Peter, he'd completely disengaged from the younger generation entirely. That was obviously a mistake. They're so much fun, and look at him like he's already saved the world.
"Cole should know I'm here," Tony says, righting the girl's cup for her. He's very aware that they're the only two people in the lobby, and that this girl is perhaps twenty-three, and that she's giving off waves of embarrassed and excited omega hormones and he's a powerful alpha, and though there had been times in his life - times he's not proud of - when he would have taken advantage of those things, now he just backs up a few steps. "My friend Peter is coming in for the shoot in about ten minutes. Can you take care of him for me?"
"Yes!" The girl squeals, then coughs, obviously trying to keep her emotions under control. "I mean - yes sir. You can count on me. Becky. Is my name."
Tony resists the urge to pat the girl's head. He needs more young people in his life. It's like being around puppies. "Keep up the good work Becky."
She glows, calls up to the studio, leads him over to the elevator. "Can I just say? I'm really excited about these new suppressants. I can't believe that Stark Industries would put out something so awesome just for omegas."
She's not squealing anymore. She's whispering. People tend to whisper about heats and suppressants. "I hope the market agrees with you," Tony says, which is probably too honest.
He thinks about how there are kids toys made just for omegas, dolls and kitchen sets, beauty supplies, make up. How professions like hair dresser and interior designer and preschool teacher and prostitute are considered just for omegas. And how little space is made for omegas in the professional world. Professional sports claim that omegas would be a distraction in the locker room. Workplaces claim that omegas will just quit once they get pregnant. Entire buildings in New York won't allow omegas in the door unaccompanied because they're an unnecessary risk, as if the omegas themselves were attacking people, rather than being attacked.
He thinks about how he never thought of this before Peter, even while he promoted Pepper and did his best to hire qualified omegas, few though there were. What he was doing before was a show of equality, as much to spite his long-dead alpha-supremacist father as to help anyone.
He thinks about Peter, so young and already so scared, already preparing for a life where he has to accept less than his alpha and beta friends. He wonders if it's all too little, too late.
Cole Brady is a long-limbed black man with the same sense of style as every photographer Tony's ever worked with - that is, seemingly shapeless black and white clothes that make him look more like a cubist painting than a person. He's also a beta. While there are a handful of omega supermodels, there are no omega photographers, so Tony fell back on a friend.
"Look what the cat dragged in!" Cole yells from across the room. There's already so much going on, teams of people setting up several spaces on long pieces of single-colored paper, Michael Jackson blasting over loudspeakers, food set up on a long table and no one touching it, everyone young and tight-bellied and beautiful. "Tony, when are you going to let me take your picture again?"
Cole is about ten years older than Tony, making him, at sixty (looking forty) the grandfather of the fashion world. He was twenty-five when he first photographed Tony Stark, sixteen and angry and newly orphaned, overwhelmed in a world that expected so little of him. It was Cole who was the first person to portray him the way he would portray a CEO: powerful, young, charismatic, optimistic. He was on the cover of TIME magazine. He still has that cover. It was the first time Tony realized a photograph could show him exactly who he wanted to be.
Since then, he's made sure to keep an eye on Cole's career as well as his own. When the (black, beta) photographer accused a (white, alpha) director of attempted assault two years before, it was Tony who spoke up about his own experiences with assault, ranging from being touched inappropriately by female reporters when he was a teenager to being cornered in the men's room by very rich men. It can happen to alphas, Tony emphasized. It can happen to anyone.
A passing intern admired his suit, and Tony preened a little. No one ever told him they liked his clothes. Bruce didn't care and Pepper didn't want to feed his ego and even little Peter thought that everything Tony had was just the nicest, so why comment on any of it? But it was nice to be complimented in a way that wasn't asking for anything in return. Tony had so few people in his life that wanted absolutely nothing from him.
Cole sat backwards in a chair and they chatted as the sun glinted off the skyscrapers, as people came over with tea and coffee, as they waited for the show to begin. They talked about the suppressant campaign (Cole was a big fan, had been married to his omega boyfriend for the five years it's been legal and unofficially married for thirty years before that) and the two big photoshoots with Peter, the face of he young omega, and the several other omegas coming in today, and then next week with and Steve and Bucky, the pregnant couple. They talked about buying beach houses and where to get a decent cup of coffee. They talked about the young kids and how fucking smart they all were.
And then Peter walked in. And Tony tried not to stare too hard.
The thing is: he knows that the kid is a kid, knows that his infatuation, while legal, is morally reprehensible as long as Tony has direct control over Peter's position within SI. He understands that Peter is young and brilliant and scared and trying to do the right thing. He knows that he could be the kid's father. But despite all this knowing Peter looks amazing in the carefully rehearsed light of the studio, shrugging off the first intern who tries to pry him towards hair and makeup, craning his neck, looking for...
Peter smiles when he sees Tony seeing him.
"Mr. Stark!" Peter raises his arms, holding a cardboard coffee-pot-to-go, the kind that soccer moms bring to weekend games. "I brought coffee!"
Tony hovers, savoring the hot, rich coffee while all of Peter's best features are accented. Peter keeps demurring. The coffee was from Clint, the clothes, slightly nicer than his usual ensemble, courtesy of Michelle's older brother, and when one of the makeup artists compliments Peter's skin, the kid just blushes: "I think I have my mom's skin?"
"But you've taken care of it beautifully," the makeup artist says with such earnestness that Peter flushes and, eventually, nods.
There's a lull in the chaos as the other three models come in. All omegas, two professional models and one compact black girl who had become the face of the US Olympics for her fantastic gymnastic abilities. All three look far more comfortable in the room than Peter does, though they all seem a bit wary when the discussion of the shoot begins. Becoming the public faces of such a controversial product will not be an easy burden. Tony thinks the gymnast probably understands - she received hate online for being an unmated omega in an alpha-centered world - but he hopes that Peter can rise to the challenge.
It takes everything Tony has to go back over to Cole, to start up another conversation of their glory days and mutual friends. To let Peter swim on his own.
And swim he does. The same genetic affectations that make omegas vulnerable make them socially attractive - charisma, charm, an ability to diffuse awkward or escalating situations, a tendency to smooth over silences. To see the four omegas work the room of betas and alphas makes Tony wonder, not for the first time, how the hell omegas don't rule the world yet. There are places on earth, mostly those still rooted in tribal structures - Native cultures - that put omegas and women at the top of the hierarchy. And watching the omegas put everyone at ease, Tony completely understands.
With one ear he's listening to Cole set up his first shot. With the other, he's listening to the omegas swap stories. They all want to know why they were chosen.
The models, a stunning, dark-skinned Asian girl and a muscular, curly-haired boy who could be Spanish or Italian, have similar stories of pushy or handsy art directors, of sexual harassment and assault, of being barred from modeling in entire countries, entire continents, because of their secondary gender. The boy talks about moving from playing soccer to being picked up by an agent and basically bought from his family. The girl talks about the pressure to lose weight, to sleep with people, to find an alpha, to submit.
That's what all the stories boil down to. The Olympian warns the others about the online hate that has already started to boil up. Peter glosses over his assault in the coffee shop this summer in favor of talking robotics, engineering, physics, but all four of them have the same story. The world has told them to submit, or be punished for their insubordination.
"Have any of you tried the suppressant?" Peter asks, and the other three shake their heads. Until the FDA approval comes through - the sort of legal wrangling Tony leaves entirely up to his lawyers - the suppressant itself is in testing.
"It's wonderful," Peter assures them. "It could change everything."
"And Mr. Stark made it?" The Asian girl asks. She has a nearly-English accent. "For you?"
Peter's blush travels all up his arms and his eyes dart over to Tony, who's waiting for the glance. Winks.
All the omegas laugh, and every alpha in the room turns at the sound.
"All right!" Cole calls, clapping his hands together. "Places, darlings!"
The day is filled with music and food and clothes that don't zip up all the way. Cole keeps the mood light and playful. He's made a living out of working with young people, knows how to coax them to the best picture possible without moving too far outside their comfort zones. He is also a master of lighting different skin tones, seems to have fun placing pale Peter next to the dark-skinned Olympian. After this first cycle of the ad campaign, Cole and Tony are already talking about the range of diversity they want to photograph.
The girls are put in dresses, then in suits, then in every day high school chic. The boys are shuttled from suits to athletic ware to everything in between. Tony, in trying not to stare at Peter, stares at the soccer-playing omega, who's own wink is a little too practiced to be pure.
The day is well on its way to being a success. They break for lunch and Peter introduces the omegas to Tony, who eats with them and learns a little about what it's like to be a gold-medal winning gymnast, and a top-tier runaway model, and he tells his own stories of success and failure in the lab, and slings his arm over Peter's shoulder, and says, truthfully, that getting a PA was one of the best decisions he's ever made.
Cole lets his second-in-command take over the last shots of the day. Aging as he is, Cole's trying to train the next generation. This guy is a young alpha, black and from the same neighborhood as Cole, with constantly darting eyes. He has the talent but none of Cole's grace or graciousness.
Or at least that's what Tony hears from several sources who were in the room at the time. Tony had gone to find an unused room so he could finish a conversation with the marketing team about both the newest launch from Stark Med, and, as a sort of birthday-present, joke, gift to Peter, the very quiet launch of a new line of coffee makers from SI's new home-goods line.
He's gone for maybe an hour when he first feels it. The tug in his lower abdomen that tells him something is not right.
He'll piece together the full story later. How Jabard, Cole's second-in-command, had come on a little strong, ordering and occasionally manhandling the omegas in place. Nothing out of ordinary for their line of business. A hand to the elbow. An adjustment of the back. How Jabard had gotten frustrated with Peter's mumbling incomprehension of one of his orders and grabbed Peter's wrist and pulled.
It's a move people did every day. Parents to disobedient children. Boyfriends to girlfriends.
And it freaks Peter out.
The clench of Tony's gut leads him back to the studio. To Peter trying to smile, to be the kind of professional he never wanted to be, rubbing his wrist - unbruised, not even red - between every shot.
"Peter! Peter! Peter!" The photographer finally growls out an alpha command, and Peter's eyes snap up, his whole posture relaxing in direct response to the command. Submitting. Pliant.
Cole sees Tony in time to jump between the CEO and the photographer. "Jabard! Take a minute!"
Jabard and his clutch of assistants look up. "But this is the shot!"
"You're lucky you don't get shot!" Tony growls.
"Mr. Stark..." Peter begins. His eyes are wide, mouth soft and troubled. Still, he manages a smile. "I'm fine."
Tony turns to Cole. "Is this the kind of set you're running now?"
"Jabard," Cole says warningly. He holds up a hand to Tony. "You stand down, son. All alphas, out. Five minute breather. Omegas, to me."
Tony thinks about defying that order. It's been a good long while since anyone other than Bruce has presumed to order him around. But in the end, catching sight of the worried and shaken omegas, none of whom are quite meeting his eye, he turns on his heel and leaves. There's a small gathering of alphas out in the hallway. Jabard, the photographer, a scattering of female assistants. Most of those on set had been betas.
Jabard shifts uncomfortably. He opens his mouth.
"Don't apologize to me," Tony snaps. "Apologize to Peter."
"I wasn't going to apologize," Jabard mutters.
Tony snorts. Wishes he could see Peter. There's another tug in his gut, a pull in Peter's direction. He'd thought a phantom pain before, but this twist is insistent and instinctual, like a rut, like an alpha instinct. He'd never felt anything like it.
And, ten minutes later when the tensions have dissipated and they're all let back into the room - Tony staying this time, just watching, just in cast - that same twist relaxes at the sight of Peter, alive and whole. At the sight of his smile.
He doesn't analyze it while he's in the room, doesn't dare think about what this new twisting yearning could mean for the teenager in his life. He doesn't want to be another complication for Peter, another unwanted advance. He wants to make things easier for the boy, not more complicated.
And finding out your boss has somehow, inadvertently, bonded with you? Pretty much the definition of complicated.
Chapter 10: Bonded
In which Tony confronts Peter about the bond and falls into some sort of love.
"I don't see why you insist on dumping this all on me," Bruce says in a tone very close to a whine. The beta is usually the unruffled, unflappable one in the small Stark Industries trio, Pepper the poised and confident jet-setting omega, Tony every alpha's nightmare. "You know, I'm actually considering going back to school to get a psychology degree."
"Because apparently you think I already have one and I like to actually be qualified." Bruce rubs his temples. "I need a drink. I never need a drink. You're driving me into an early, pickled grave."
"You're not my psychologist, you're my moral compass. Angel on my shoulder. Jiminy Cricket. So. What should I do?"
"I still can't condone a relationship with a fifteen year old. Peter cannot be trusted, in this situation, to give consent without feeling coerced."
"Yeah, okay, I reached that conclusion a month ago. What should I tell him about the bond?"
Bruce leans back in the ergonomic chair that Tony designed when he was thirteen and bored and left alone in his father's office for too long. It still holds up, one of his better early improvements on design that eventually led to original invention.
They're waiting for Pepper, who got caught up in a meeting. They're supposed to be having lunch and not talking about business which means that they will have lunch, argue more about the new direction of StarkMed, Pepper will snidely bring up coffee makers, Tony will pretend to be chagrined and actually be a little proud of how the unexpected unplanned launch has left them with thirty thousand back orders, Bruce will announce that he wrote a prestigious paper with important people in time that none of them really has, they will toast, Tony flirt with both of them, because it makes Bruce blush and Pepper preen. You know. A Tuesday.
"There's two interesting things here," Bruce muses. He really should be a psychologist, he's worked Tony through enough of these messes. "One, obviously this is more about clearing your conscience than doing anything for Peter, which is indication number one that you should keep it to yourself."
"Get to the 'but.'"
Bruce glares. "But as far as I know, bonds always work both ways. If you felt something, really felt something, all evidence says that Peter did, too."
"He was pretty freaked out. I think it was a little overwhelming."
"What, the national campaign photo shoot you dropped him in the middle of? The dozens of assistants helping him put his pants on? What part of that could possibly be overwhelming."
"Sarcasm is not a good look for you."
"I don't really know how to emphasize this any more than I already have, Tony: why don't you just go talk to Peter?"
Because he'd just been planning out how to keep the kid around longer, as his intern, get him the job and life he deserved, help him break as many barriers as he could with Tony Stark by his side - he'd just decided that he wanted to use his influence as a force for good in the world, when this bond happened and threw all his carefully laid plans out the window.
And what was he supposed to say? Hey, kid, I know I'm old enough to be your father and I know you've been working for me all summer and I know that one of the first times I ever met you I thought you were a prostitute but, hey, on top of all that, I think you may be my inadvertent bond mate.
Tony is going to say all this to Bruce - who he really should be paying some sort of hourly rate - when, like they were in some sort of comic book, that terrible timing, Peter's voice floats around the corner. "Talk to Peter about what?"
Bruce smiles. Bruce is probably getting a kick out of this whole damn thing. He shoots a pointedly raised eyebrow at Tony and claps Peter on the shoulder. "Come talk to me before you leave, Pete, I want to go over those genome sequences again."
"Did I do them wrong?" Peter asks, all puppy dog eyes.
"Not wrong. Just. Not entirely correct."
Peter shuffles under the gentle rebuke. "You know, I've never been great with bio-chem. I always pictured myself an engineer." He looks at Tony with a sort of the sort of helpless expression most often seen on wide-eyed damsels, and damn if it doesn't pull at every fiber of the alpha.
"Diversification is good for you," Bruce grunts. "Builds character." They're all lucky betas are more level-headed than the rest of them. The world would go up in smoke without them. "Plus if you want to patent that adhesive as a bandaging technology you could save millions of lives."
Peter blinks. "Oh, is that all?"
"Biology is where it's at kid, I'm telling you. It's the study of life. And, at least for me, it's the pursuit of a better quality of life for all." Bruce rubs the back of his neck. He always does when he starts philosophizing. "Anyway, come see me about those genomes. And remember, it's never too early to start publishing."
Peter cocks his head at Bruce as he walks out the door. "You know, Mr. Stark. I thought I was on top of everything. I'm signed up for the SATs and doing my extracurriculars. I thought I was a pretty above-average fifteen-year-old. But Dr. Banner has a way of making me feel like I don't know anything."
"He has that affect on people. The problem is that he's actually a genius. So he knows he's smarter than everybody else, he just usually doesn't rub it in your face." Tony gestures to his lab. "I'm many things - genius is one of them - but at least I let everyone know it. More honest that way."
He realizes too late that perhaps talking about honesty at this moment is not the most tactful way to go.
Tony clears his throat. He doesn't know how to have this conversation. The problem was that he doesn't know what he wants from Peter, other than the kid always being within arm's reach, preferably swaddled in bubble wrap. Of course Peter's attractive, and the fact that he's a fertile young omega occasionally wreaks havoc on Tony's alpha senses, but the more time Tony spends with him the more he realizes that Peter's also still so much a child. While the idea of sex with Peter is appealing in the abstract, every time the kid appears in front of him Tony doesn't feel the instinct to mate, just the overwhelming urge to protect.
He doesn't say any of this, of course, and the silence stretches on, Peter shuffling his feet and opening his mouth, only to shut it again.
Oh. Good. Maybe Peter can start this conversation. Maybe they can talk about school and sprockets and never mention the maybe-bond between them. "Spit it out, kiddo."
Peter seems to be turning over words in his mouth. He finally said: "it's been a weird few days, Mr. Stark."
"Tony," he corrected absent-mindedly. Something in Peter's tone, though, made Tony take notice. "Why? You been getting flak about the photoshoot? I know some of the ads are already running on YouTube."
"No! I mean - okay, yeah, people noticed that, but Ned, like, walks me to classes, and MJ's pretty scary, so no one's said anything, you know, worse than usual. They all already knew I was an omega, anyway. Someone in the neighborhood saw though, and that's been a little weird..." Peter trails off, then waves the thought away. "But, okay, that's not the point."
"It's a little the point," Tony said, that protective instinct rearing its head. "Your friend has to walk you to class?"
Peter seems to collapse in on himself. "I mean, I guess he doesn't have to. We just haven't tried to see, you know, what would happen if, you know. He doesn't." He adds, quickly, "Not that it's bad, usually. Just. Names."
"I been called plenty of names, kid. And even if they don't kill you I'm not entirely convinced it makes you stronger to be insulted. Especially at school."
"It's just high school. It's just. Going to high school as an omega." Peter isn't quite meeting Tony's eyes, but he does, literally, shake it off. "But I actually have something else to...report?" Peter shakes his head, as if mad at himself. "I'm sorry, I just don't know where to start."
Tony could let him muddle through this, but every part of Peter's body language screams that whatever he's trying to say might line up with what Tony is trying to say. "Did something else happen at the photoshoot?" Tony asks gently. He sits. He gestures to Peter to sit. This might be something that's better sitting down.
(what is this? an agreement? a proposal? will Tony have to ask Peter's aunt for permission? she'll kill him. and if she doesn't kill him, there's a certain cop who will definitely, one hundred percent kill him.)
(it's not my fault. it's biology. some - force in the universe - wants us to be together)
(he's a child. he's a child. he's a child)
Peter looks at him from under those bangs and nods.
"It feels like a - like a tugging. Like - I've never felt one before. But there's movies, you know? And books and articles and I was reading everything and I'm not sure, like at all, but it feels like..."
"A bond." Tony nods. He feels a little sick with the force of the moment, out-of-body and incredibly present. "Yeah. I felt that, too."
He can barely bring himself to look in Peter's eyes in that moment. He's afraid of what he'll find there - revulsion, fear. But Peter knocks his knee against Tony's knee. "Okay," the kid says. "That's good. Okay."
"That's good?" Tony repeats, hollowly.
He still can't look at Peter's eyes. He watches the kid's mouth. How it flashes smiles. He has expressive lips. "I was sort of afraid I was the only one who felt it. That I was defective. Or that I'd bonded with someone I'd hate."
"So this isn't the worst-case scenario?" Tony asks. "I'm flattered."
Peter laughs and the sound moves inside Tony's chest like a balm.
"Look," Tony says. "I want you to know that - I understand that I'm old enough to be your father. I don't want - you don't owe me anything. There's ways to get rid of a bond, you know. Weird Eastern hoodoo or something, I don't know, Bruce was talking about it."
"You want to get rid of the bond?"
Now Tony has to look in the kid's eyes. And what he sees there isn't hatred. It's hurt. Tony's mouth works: "Peter, you could do so much better than me."
Peter looks at the floor. He's blinking, hard. "Can't you at least give me a chance?"
His voice so small. Tony goes against all the ground rules he set himself and wraps the kid in a hug. When his palm touches the bare skin of Peter's neck it feels like a firework, and if there was any question about the bond that's gone as they embrace. Every fiber of Tony's being rings true. Yes. Yes. This is what he's always needed.
"You don't want to be saddled with some old guy, Peter. You have - you have such an amazing life in front of you. And I'd love to help you with it. This internship, me wanting you to succeed? That doesn't go away, no matter what you decide to do about the bond. You still have a job. I still want to help you get to wherever you're going. This bond is just - it's extra."
"What if I want to do something with the bond?" Peter asks. "What if I want -"
The doors to the lab opens and Bruce runs in. The moment is broken so suddenly that Tony can only look up, mouth hanging partway open. There's an alarm going off outside the lab. JARVIS reading off statistics, rapid-fire. "Didn't you hear the alarm?" Bruce, disheveled, looking between the two of them.
"It's muted in the lab," Tony says. "Why?"
Bruce points to the ceiling where JARVIS is sounding increasingly distraught. "Blood pressure dropping, respiratory distress, blood loss, coordinates being relayed now -"
"What is he - JARVIS? Who are you talking about?"
JARVIS says: "Captain Rogers."
At the same time, Peter practically moans: "Steve."
In which Steve doesn't start the fight, but Bucky finishes it.
Tony hustles Peter into a car that can technically go three hundred miles an hour but, in New York traffic, even with JARVIS plotting the route to include not-exactly-legal sidestreets, they still seem to crawl across town.
Peter has his phone pressed to his ear. "Are you with him now? Where's Clint? What?!"
Tony had been arguing with JARVIS about bridges versus tunnels but he looks up at Peter's yelp. That bond thing? Yeah, it's definitely still there, a roiling feeling in his belly that mirrors Peter's distress. "What's happening?"
Peter scrambles with the phone - Stark prototype, hasn't hit the market yet, Tony had argued with him for weeks before he'd actually accept it - and punches both speaker phone and the video chat feature. "Alright, MJ, Mr. Stark is here, too, so you need to slow down."
"Clint went with Sergeant Barnes down to the police station," MJ sounds out of breath. "He was - I've never seen an alpha fight like that, Peter. I never thought I'd see Sergeant Barnes - "
"What about Steve?" Peter interjects.
MJ's face takes up the screen. She's juggling her phone under her ear, laptop in front of her, typing something. Tony vaguely remembers Peter saying that she was a blogger. Vlogger. Something. "He's at the VA. It was the closest medical facility. Natasha's there, but they kicked me out. Even though I was the one who saw - who found - "
She breaks off in a distressed whimper and Peter clucks automatically, the omega instinct to soothe even as Tony's gut clenches - the alpha instinct to fight something, anything, the world. "What happened?" Tony asks again.
The image on the phone jumps and Tony realizes that MJ is sitting down, setting her laptop on the sidewalk, back against a brick building. Cool Beans, the coffee shop Peter still works at a couple hours a week. The place they'd first met. It seems to be a locus for trouble.
"I thought you were working here after school, Pete. So I thought I'd do my homework and make you feed me free coffee."
"It's not supposed to be free," Peter says, his tone still gentle.
"But before I could get there I heard this fight, and I could sense that it was alphas, a whole, like, gang of alphas, and one omega in distress." MJ swipes a hand over her face, taking a deep, shuddering breath.
Tony knows how she feels. Betas don't have the extreme instincts of either alphas or omegas, but they had a muted version of both. They were the world's moderators, and if there was an out of control alpha, they could help to soothe. If there was an omega in deep distress - well, a beta would want to save them.
"I should have tried to help, but there were so many alphas and I -"
"You did the right thing," Tony says, firmly, "you could have easily become a victim, too."
"Well," MJ says in a tone that means she doesn't believe him, not a word, "I thought I'd go to the VA, see if Natasha or Steve were there, but before I could go even a block I saw this squad car just blasting down the street, just - so fast. And I didn't even think. I jumped in front of it."
"I needed to get their attention! And it slows down, but before I can say anything Sergeant Barnes and his partner, the beta -"
"Maybe Steve called them, or they were nearby, but they must have known what was happening because Bucky ran over to the alley and just - and Sam, he took like three seconds to make sure I was okay and he told me to sit in the squad car and lock the doors but I wasn't just going to wait and watch. So I ran down to Cool Beans and - "
"MJ," Peter asks, his tone forced calm. They were getting close to Queens. They'd be there in minutes. "How's Steve?"
MJ bangs her head against the brick wall behind her, tears dripping down her cheeks. The only thing keeping Peter from freaking out is the display Tony taps on the car windshield, the one that shows Bucky's vital signs, Steve's vital signs, the baby's -
"He lost the baby," MJ whispers. Peter can only stare at the display, the place where the quickening heartbeat used to be. "We're pretty sure that's why he was attacked. He lost the baby."
This is what happened:
Bucky's in the squad car with Sam and they're talking about strollers because Bucky can't seem to stop shopping for this little monster that's going to invade his life and he can't even act upset and macho about it because Steve glows, he fucking glows. They went to that photoshoot to be the new faces of Stark Suppressants or whatever the egomaniac is calling them and Bucky was on edge the whole time, the room full of alphas, all of them complimenting Bucky on how beautiful his omega looks while pregnant.
Bucky had to count to ten, actually count to ten, to stop himself from tearing the alpha's throat out. They were working on a campaign to get equal healthcare access to omegas and the douche is going around calling Steve - brilliant, war hero, actual saint Steve - "Bucky's omega."
Steve had laughed it off, of course, his cheeks rouged, his eyes too-blue, and Bucky had asked the photographer if he could get a copy of those pictures because Steve had every eye in the room on him, beautiful all the way through.
So anyway, Bucky's in the squad car and Sam's throwing out dumbass names to call the kid. Rhubarb. Agamemnon. Bucky keeps shooting them down when his hand suddenly goes hot, so hot he lets go of the steering wheel and stares at it.
His hand going hot? Not a big deal, he has a cybernetic arm after all. But this was his other hand. The flesh-and-bone one, the one with the ring...
He taps the ring in a way he hadn't done since Stark's lab when the man bequeathed them this technology. And then he turns the car around.
This is what happened:
Steve's walking one of the vets to the subway, because they just had a rough session and sometimes being out in the fresh air not talking about wars makes people feel a bit more human. He leaves the guy at the steps of the station and watches him descend down to the platform, thinking again about how, without Bucky's steady, focused rage and determination, he'd probably be as lost as most of the ex-soldiers he sees.
He puts a hand, mindlessly, to his belly. An unconscious gesture of protection. He is proud of his service. He does not want this life for his child. He thinks: I'll talk to Bucky about it, about guiding our kid so it grows up to be a rock star or biologist or dog trainer as long as it doesn't grow up expecting to shoot a weapon at another human being.
He turns into an alpha. "Sorry," he says to the other man, smiling and trying to slip to the side.
The alpha moves, too, blocking his path. "Omegas should watch where they're going."
Steve keeps his head down. He's dealt with this his whole life. In the military. Med school. Sometimes the confrontation is worth it - Bucky would say the confrontation is always worth it - and sometimes it's best to scoot on by. "You're right. Sorry."
He feels another alpha come up behind him. Boxing him in. "Sorry what?" the new man demands.
Steve would have kept his head down except for that, the follow up that alphas always seem to tack on, expecting every omega and even betas to address them as Alpha. But Steve already has an Alpha, and it's sure not these assholes.
He side-steps again, nimble. And then a third alpha steps up.
"Hey, ain't you that pretty boy I been seeing on all the busses?"
He turns, realizing, quickly, that he's surrounded. That the group of alphas is moving, and he's moving with them, off the sunny street and into - how cliche - a dingy alley.
The voices are all male, all alpha, Steve tries to size them up. He could fight, he knows how to fight, can more than hold his own, but antagonizing them doesn't seem like a safe move. Not for him. Not for the baby.
"The one on the busses?" Another voice pipes up, low and angry. "You mean the pregnant bitch?"
A hand on his shirt. Steve smacks it away. A hand reaches for his shirt and he dodges. And then it's too many hands, from too many directions. He throws a punch. He screams, and a hand is slapped over his mouth. He bites down. Screams again. A hand over his throat. He's wrestled onto the concrete, loses his footing. His shirt rips. His arms go only to his stomach, he's not even showing, the smallest of bumps that Steve swears wasn't there before. He closes his arms over himself.
They kick his face. His hands. His stomach. They hate that he's pregnant. Hate that he's someone else's. Hate that he's on billboards, a lowly omega, one who obviously doesn't know his place.
This is what happened:
Bucky runs into the alley. There's six men, all alphas. One is holding the tattered remains of Steve's shirt. Another is pulling Steve's jeans down to his knees. One has an arm around Steve's throat. The love of his life, the strongest man he knows, is twitching, scrabbling, face turning red with the effort.
Bucky forgets that he has a gun, forgets that he's the rule of law, that Sam's here as backup, that it's a crowded New York City street. He roars, and it's an ancient sound, a fog horn from the deep. It's a sound that means 'take your fucking hands off my omega.'
The men don't react quickly enough.
Sam is ten steps behind him. By the time he catches up, most of the attacking alphas are fleeing. One is locked in a fight with Bucky.
And one is lying in the alley next to a mostly-naked Steve. Dead.
Peter's out of the car before it rolls o a stop. He pulls MJ into his arms and rocks the girl as she clutches him. She's not crying anymore. Her eyes are shiny, angry, dry.
"Pete?" Mr. Stark - Tony - Peter's going to have to start calling him Tony or this could get real awkward, real fast - "I'm going down to the station. See what a little Stark Influence can tell me."
"They were attacking Steve - Sergeant Barnes shouldn't -" MJ begins.
"The law is on the side of an alpha defending his omega. And Barnes is a cop, I'm sure they're not going to throw the book at him." Tony keeps looking at the entrance to the VA, as if he can tell what's going on inside by looking hard enough. "How's Steve?"
MJ shrugs, her grip loosening on Peter's shirt. "I don't know. They're only letting omegas see him."
Peter stands up.
"Be careful," Tony warns.
"Just get Bucky out of jail." Peter says. "He's probably tearing the walls down trying to get to Steve."
Tony catches Peter's gaze. "We're going to continue our conversation later, okay? After this is all sorted."
Peter has so much to say to that, but MJ is typing furiously, swiping at her face, and the car window is rolling itself up, and they all have jobs to do.
Peter has a job to do.
In which feelings are felt and Peter ends up in Tony's bed.
They put Bucky in a cell.
it wasn't his precinct, though Captain Coulson did come down in person to sit with him, to see what happened, and Bucky didn't know he was going to break down until the Captain was right in front of him, hand on his knee. "You need to get me out, sir," Bucky pleaded in gasping breaths. "Steve...my omega..."
"I know, Sergeant. We're getting it all sorted."
"Sorted?" That sobered him up some. He swiped at his nose with the corner of a sleeve. "I killed someone, sir. Brings my grand total up to four. What sort of life am I living, that I have to kill four people to get through it?"
Captain Coulson was quiet for a long time. This is one of the things Bucky most admired about the man - the gift of his silences. "I suppose this is what they mean by protect and serve. Sergeant. Bucky. You were protecting your mate."
But Bucky was shaking his head. He'd thought through that part well enough, and didn't regret saving Steve, of course he didn't. But. But. "But I protected him like an alpha. I was following my instincts. I must have looked like a monster, just like the alpha who attacked him."
Another long silence. The Captain scrubbed a hand over his face. He was also an alpha. Almost everyone at the precinct was, though there had been a concerted push in recent years to try to recruit qualified omegas. It was hard when the pool was so damn small. Qualified omegas were pushed out of high school, or bullied until they dropped out of college, or harassed by law enforcement so much they would never pursue a career in blue.
Bucky waited out the silence, and finally the Captain spoke again. "Whatever is swirling through your head, Sergeant, I want you to push all that down until you see Steve again. Try to remind yourself that part of this, maybe even the largest part, is hormonal. Your mate was attacked. The alpha in you needs to be next to him. So don't go condemning yourself until you've had a good long chat with your mate."
Despite Captain Coulson's best efforts, though, and the fire power that was Tony Stark blazing, checkbook drawn, into the precinct, Bucky's processing took hours, most of the evening shift. When the door finally slid open, Captain Coulson was there on the other side. Tony Stark was there, along with Dr. Banner (who gave Bucky the gentlest of hugs). Bucky, though, had eyes only for Sam.
It's hard to explain police partnerships to those who have never been privvy to that special relationship. Other than Steve, Sam was the person Bucky trusted most on earth. He spent more hours sitting arm's length from Sam than he cared to tabulate, shared more hoagies and beers than he could ever count. He knew all about Sam's dating life (a bisexual beta in Brooklyn had a lot of options, and Sam liked to explore) and Sam knew all about Bucky and Steve, their joint childhoods, their joint tours of service. He waited in the hospital waiting room for eighteen hours after Sam was shot in the line a year ago. Sam invited Bucky and Steve, who rather lacked in the family department, to every holiday function. Sam was his partner, and his family.
"He's fine," Sam said as soon as Bucky's gaze locked with his. "Two bruised ribs and a fractured wrist. Poor guy's gonna have to go through this recovery without his drawing pad."
"He'll hate that," Bucky said, not really listening. He was within arm's length of Sam now. The precinct was quiet, the officers that were around for the graveyard shift hanging on the fringes, too star-struck or scared by Stark to interfere.
Finally Sam broke his gaze. Looked down. "There's something else."
"I know about the baby."
When Sam looked up his eyes were wet. "You do?"
Captain Coulson had thought he was breaking the news several hours ago, but Bucky had known ever since he pulled the alpha off his mate, since the ring flared hot on his hand, since the twisting knot formed in his stomach. He'd known since it happened, the same way he'd known they were pregnant when they were still in bed, wrapped up around each other.
Bucky nodded, and Sam gripped him tight, or maybe Bucky fell against him. "I'm sorry," Sam murmured, lips to his ear. He hadn't shaved. No one had shaved. They were stubble to stubble. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Bucky lowered his head to Sam's shoulders and stared, dry-eyed, at the neon-filled night.
TPeter and Steve and MJ had got to the tower first, Steve transferred from the VA hospital into Dr. Banner's medical care. There wasn't much for Bruce to do. Clean him up. Give him a stiff drink. Clint and Natasha showed up, too, and busied themselves in the kitchen. Clint made coffee, of course, and Natasha produced a plate of cheese and veg and sandwiches, little things to place in Steve's hand as he mechanically ate.
Steve himself? He had a thousand yard stare. He nodded or shook his head in response to all the doctor's questions. He didn't say a word.
Ned walked into the main part of SI, wandering around until JARVIS took pity on him and directed him to the correct elevator. "It's on the news," Ned declared when he walked in, thrusting his phone under Peter's nose. "The VA. Cool Beans. I heard the coffee shop and I thought it was you again."
The young alpha was shaking, scared, and Clint pushed a coffee into his hand and Peter kissed him on the cheek and MJ bluntly filled him in.
No one seemed able to leave, even though it was obvious there was nothing more to be done. The baby was gone. Steve, it seemed, was gone, too. Dr. Banner walked into the living room, looking a little green, and said that he was going to see what was happening at the police station.
"Too many cooks..." Clint warned.
Bruce was already pulling on a different shirt, a button down without blood stains. "I hear you, but I can't be here."
Clint and Natasha busied themselves with making a huge dinner, murmuring in the kitchen while glancing at the teenagers in the living room. They weren't exactly subtle, they were definitely sticking around to make sure the teens didn't, like combust from PTSD or something.
Ned ignored their hovering, though he did eat a piece of everything the cooks put in front of him. "So, like, they had an omega doctor at the hospital and everything?"
"I mean, mostly it's because the VA treats a lot of omegas who've been hurt by alphas before. They keep them out of certain wings to give the patients a sense of safety." The words are out of Peter's mouth before he really registers what he's saying. A lot of omegas hurt by alphas. Like Steve. Like Peter. Like every omega he knows.
He shook the thought away, trying to think of something, anything to talk about that wasn't that terrible hour next to Steve. Steve, whose face was still dirty and scraped from where it was pushed into the ground, hysterical as the doctors worked to find a heartbeat, any heartbeat. And then...when they couldn't find anything, when they knew the baby was dead, how Steve had completely shut down. The doctors said they wanted to remove the fetus before it could cause any damage. Steve nodded, maybe not even noticing, as Peter did, how the doctor's had stopped calling it a baby and started calling it a collection of cells.
Peter stayed through the procedure.
The smell of sauce simmering almost made him forget the smell of that room. Almost.
MJ reached for her cup of coffee (getting weaker as the night goes on. Clint brews coffee the way a sommelier pairs wine. A different flavor and strength for every occasion) and her hand shook. Spilled the liquid onto her lap.
"Oh, MJ..." Peter began.
MJ swiped listlessly at the wet spots. "I never minded being a beta until today." She said it the way someone might comment on the weather.
"I wouldn't have been able to fight those guys," Ned declared. "And Steve wouldn't have wanted you to get hurt."
"I couldn't even try! I was outmatched before I could even try!"
Natasha stuck her head in the living room. Her face was unreadable as she stared at MJ. Then she walked over and knelt next to the girl. "Here. It will make you feel better."
She produced three shiny spoons, each heaped with chocolate-studded cookie dough.
The teenagers ate. They ate, and they waited, and they watched as Steve watched the world out the window.
It didn't make them feel better.
The tower was full. Everyone was spending the night. Dr. Banner was sharing a bed with Clint and Natasha, who had made enough food to feed every intern in SI and promised breakfast, too. Ned and MJ were on the couch, heads pointed towards each other, having fallen asleep mid-conversation. Sam was upright in a chair, cleaning his gun as he murmured to Captain Coulson and JARVIS. Steve and Bucky...Steve and Bucky...
As the night had worn on and Steve still didn't say a word, the teenagers had all begun to get nervous. MJ brought him slices of pepper and carrot, brought him coffee that got cold on the table. Peter covered him with a blanket. Ned, a young alpha distressed to see an omega in such distress, tried to coax him into a nap, nearly in tears because he wanted to comfort the omega so badly, and because he knew that a touch from an unfamiliar alpha was the last thing the man needed. Clint and Natasha tried to reassure them but the teens had all been sure that something had snapped inside of Steve. That something had broken.
And then the door opened, and Bucky had Steve in his arms.
There were no words between them. Steve keened, a high half-screen, half-whine, and he rested his head against Bucky's chest as the alpha bundled him onto the nearest couch, patting him, nuzzling him. Hands everywhere. Mouths everywhere. It wasn't sex, not anything like it - all the clothes stayed on, and Peter was pretty sure that both parties weren't supposed to be in tears while fucking -but it was the purest form of connection that Peter had ever seen.
Ned was wiping tears from his face, and had wrapped an arm around Peter's shoulders. They used to be something to each other, used to help each other out when their hormones got too out of whack. They were best friends, and an alpha and omega to boot. Of course they'd help each other out.
But as Peter looked at the couple he knew that it wasn't Ned's arm that he needed.
Peter slipped into Tony's room sometime before dawn.
"Hey, kiddo, I know we were in the middle of an awfully big discussion before everything happened, but I'm hoping we could table that until tomorrow." Tony was just stripping out of his suit, suppressing a yawn with the back of his hand.
Peter's heart thudded. He closed the door behind him.
Tony had stopped with his undershirt half pulled over his head, but when Peter sat on the bed he slowly peeled the rest of it off.
Peter didn't move. He stared at the hard angles of Tony's stomach. At the harsh lines of scars from an open heart surgery. There were actually a lot of scars, more than Peter would have expected from a moneyed alpha.
There was so much he didn't know about Tony.
About his mate.
Peter scooted up to the top of the bed, suddenly self-conscious about how he was dressed - an old middle school t-shirt that Peter was pretty sure used to be Ned's and boxers. Nothing...appropriate. Nothing sexy.
He hesitated, then reached for the hem of his own shirt.
"Not tonight, kiddo." Tony's voice harsh as a door slam.
Peter's hands stilled.
"Now, I don't mean not ever. Remember that conversation? We really do need to have one of those. Several, probably, and in the presence of, you know, your aunt. Maybe Bruce. A licensed therapist. A psychic to tell us how this whole thing is going to end up. I don't want to diminish your - what was Bruce saying? - I don't want to diminish your agency, kiddo, but you are fifteen, and this needs to be a conversation."
"The age of consent for omegas..."
"Nuh uh, I don't care what the law says. We are doing this right, and the night after your friends get attacked by an alpha? Not right."
Peter wilted. "I just thought...what happened to Steve was horrible. Is so..." he squeezed his eyes shut. "I can't even imagine it. Losing a baby. But then Bucky came in and, Mr. Stark - Tony - you didn't see Steve before. I thought he was gone. His head, I mean, his mind. He was just staring out the window, but then Bucky came in and it was like he made Steve whole. Because he did. That's what a bond does, right? It makes you whole."
"You're already a whole person, Peter. You don't need a smelly old alpha to be whole."
Tony wasn't getting on the bed. Wasn't even taking off his pants. For all that he said that he wasn't going to treat Peter like a kid he sure seemed to have his kid gloves on.
"What if I want one?" Peter demanded. "Not because having an alpha means more protection, or easier heats, or having a place or whatever. Not because I'm an omega and I'm supposed to be mated. What if I want this bond because I want you?"
Tony looked so sincerely baffled that Peter felt a surge of rather grown-up fondness. "But...why?"
"You're smart. You make mistakes but then you try your best to apologize and make things better. You care about me and my friends and my life. You want to make the world easier, and fairer." Peter shrugged. "That's all I know so far. But I bet there's a whole lot of other reasons to want you. Tony."
Shaking his head a little, Tony finally pulled down his suit pants. Just regular boxers beneath. He crawled up on the bed next to Peter but didn't even touch him. "Speech like that gets you a night in the bed, kiddo. But nothing's happening here, okay? I'm tired as hell, you're still a child, and there's at least three trained assassins on the other side of that door."
"You're forgetting Natasha."
"I most certainly am not forgetting Natasha, she was the first assassin I thought of."
"Then you're forgetting Captain Coulson."
"Mr. Agent Agent? Definitely a desk jockey."
"You should ask him about Budapest sometime."
"Okay, you name the top three assassins in the tower right now. Go."
Peter shrugged. He scooted a little bit so that his head was sort of kind of on Tony's shoulder. "Natasha, for sure. Then probably Bucky because he already killed someone today."
"Ouch, we don't joke about that, kid."
"Sorry. Um. And MJ."
"I don't know. She has that whole scary girl thing."
Tony sighed, his hand somehow in Peter's hair. Not that he minded, like, at all. "And that's reason number two thousand why I'm way, way too old for you, kiddo."
But Peter didn't hear him. He had already fallen asleep on his bondmate's shoulder.