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Empathic Responses

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The thing about Tony is, he’s heard a lot of shit over the years.

He’s heard why he shouldn’t have been left in charge of SI, why Obie should have taken the throne or at least reined him in more. He’s heard why he’s a slut, why he’s a waste of space. He’s heard vivid, graphic descriptions of what exactly his place is , and how someone ought to put him there.

He’s heard people order what feels like a death sentence to him in the calmest fucking voices.

The shittiest things to hear, though, are what people have done to avoid hearing.

Maria Stark, for instance, so doped up on pills most days that she was in a haze. That the space between reality and wherever the alpha voice sent omegas was blurred, so she’d never know either way. Never have to confront it. Never could confront anything else either, her son no more real to her than any other figment.

Or Bruce, for example. Bruce, an omega scientist who clawed through the shit and honestly, it was impressive that he got where he was. Got a military-funded project, all on his own, no fortune or family name to help him along.

The idea was to make more super soldiers, and Bruce worked through that, but, privately, he thought maybe his experiment could break whatever made him omega, whatever made his instincts compelled to go soft and pliant at the right register. Maybe what he needed was a supersoldier gene.

Well, it worked, in a certain manner. Bruce is still undeniably an omega but the Hulk isn’t, and the Hulk doesn’t like alpha voice much. People are very, very careful about using it front of Bruce.

Less careful are they about their cutting, if regular, words. Bruce takes them in stride, Tony knows, because he’s relieved those words don’t make him do anything, and that is the shittiest thing he’s ever heard.

Or Clint. Clint who lost his hearing at twenty-two, who’s a beta and doesn’t even need the benefits of that. Sure, it sucks. But Clint’s strength is his eyes and he gets by mostly fine with his hearing aids and lip-reading. He just can’t hear some registers. Including the register an alpha voice hits. Tony knows, he’s run tests.

Tony debated maiming his own ears the first time someone forced him to his knees. Clint’s was an accident. Tony had acid and a scalpel ready.

There’s no guarantee it would have even worked, but Tony had chickened out.

He’s seen others go through with it though. Seen what drives them to that point, and sees how people look at them after.

People like that are left like second-class citizens. Not quite omega anymore, not seen like omegas—whether that is a blessing or a curse—but definitely still treated like an inferior caste of people.

Omegas, basically, but now unfuckable. Uncontrollable. Their worth was in the ability to treat them like objects, and every time he thinks about it, Tony wants to throw up in his mouth a little.

Sure, they have explanations and reasons for it. Against what nature intended. God’s will. Destroying the balance between alpha and omega, tearing at the very culture that makes society work. For the omega’s best interest, because omega’s are fragile and valuable and they need an alpha, it’s for their own good. Sure, they explain it like that, but it sounds like so much horse shit that Tony’s not sure why so many people can’t hear it.

Bruce, well, when Bruce was on the run, he says no one much minded him. There are apparently places in the world where being an omega isn’t virtually a prison sentence. And even if he wasn’t in those places, well, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He had a skill that led to survival, and that beat out the desire to dominate every time. But back in the US, things were pretty miserable.

Tony had studied chemistry, had hired chemists no one else would touch. Looked for suppressants and blockers and fucking chemical cures, things that would rip away a part of himself, but alternatively give him his freedom. He’d found them, too, many of them.

The FDA had denied every one, even sometimes going so far as to fine Tony for them, and Tony still can’t tell if it’s blatant prejudice and suppression, or if it’s because the cures are legitimately dangerous. Maybe a mixture of both.

The simplest cure turned out to be JARVIS, implanted in his ear and ready to give him a violent electric shock whenever an alpha voice was nearby. Definitely not FDA approved, but Tony only ever installed it in himself, so it didn’t have to be.

Not clean. Not elegant. And, worst of all, unable to help others. But it’s the best protection Tony has.

It’s the times he doesn’t have JARVIS that are the worst.

 

In the two years since the other Avengers left him, Tony’s done his best to focus on other things.

Like that Parker kid. Peter. Sweet, hard-working Peter, who knows the world is going to rip it all away from him but desperately claws for half a chance anyways.

Tony’s debated offering him implants, like he has, but he can’t bring himself to give something to the kid that will cause pain. Besides, as experience has taught Tony plenty of times, they’re not one hundred percent reliable.

So he gives Peter all the chances he can. An internship, a real one and a cover one. Gives Peter everything he needs to be a superhero and everything he needs to be a scientist. Keeps an eye on the aunt, who is shockingly tolerant. Then again, she’s a beta. Still, it bears watching.

Then he starts up the internship program for real. Gives a whole section of the September Foundation to helping out omega kids, a big fuck you to the world. Let them spew their bile. Let him give these kids a chance. SI has a long history—some of it more public than others—of helping omegas. But Tony takes some sort of pride in giving this chance to kids who are sometimes still going through puberty, who are just finding out how truly awful the world can be, and who now have hope.

Tony’s majority shareholder of SI and no one can stop him from doing things like this, not when he has the CEO as an ally. That accident—that happy little fluke—has made all the difference in his life, and Tony fully intends to pay it forward.

He’s a futurist, after all, and he can’t bare a future as bleak as the present.

So, sure. He focuses on the Accords and their ramifications and what they mean for heroes like him and the others. He has to, lest he want to be screwed over. After all, two different committee members tried to slip in clauses about omegas needing permission from their mates in order to fight with the Avengers so far.

But he keeps his fingers in many pies. Revolutionizing modern technology. Charity work and activist work. Peter.

His own brain, and how its failed him, time and time again.

 

When Tony was eleven, Howard had put him on his knees in the corner. “Think about what you’ve done,” he hissed, and Tony had been unable to do anything else.

Maria had cried, and Howard had told her to “stop that racket” and, immediately it had stopped. Just like that. Done, on his command, in a voice that sent painful shivers down Tony’s spine even when it wasn’t meant for him.

Tony chanced turning his head out of the corner to catch a glimpse of his mother. She was silent, her face still wet with tears but no new ones falling. She was in the room but not really there, eyes spacey and attention drifting.

Even as young as he was, Tony could smell it. Could smell the anguish on the tears and the righteousness pouring out of his father’s very pores.

Tony was still busy thinking about what he’d done. He was supposed to be seen and not heard. He was definitely not supposed to announce that his father’s idea would fail, then say “I told you so” when it did. He definitely was not supposed to say such things in front of an audience.

He’d pissed off his father, and that had earned him this treatment.

“Get up and go to your room,” Howard had snarled, still in that same awful voice. “Don’t let me see you for the rest of the day.”

Tony scampered, mind focused on that one thing only. Up, out of the room. Hiding away.

Waiting for the shakes of that awful voice to leave him. Waiting for the feeling of fingers prodding at his brain, picking up and moving his limbs without his consent, to abate.

 

Two years, two months, four days. Not that Tony’s counted.

“You’re…pardoning them,” Tony says, flatly. Not a question. The room feels heavy and tense in a way that makes Tony’s spine straighten.

“We feel it’s time, and ultimately, you cannot deny that the superhero community is a little…lackluster,” the representative sneers. Tony fights to remain impassive. “We need the additional support.”

“Rogers will disappoint you,” Tony says evenly. “I make no promises for the others. I won’t be responsible for this mess.”

“Omega Stark,” one says, and Tony tenses at the stiff, antiquated, belittling form of address. Feels the condescension hit him like a wall. “No one expects you to be responsible for anything. You can step back, let the weight of this team off your shoulders.”

Tony should argue that, in all technicality, he and Rhodey are co-leading—the council would have hardly allowed it any other way, and Tony didn’t fight because Rhodey, unlike so many other options, is more than certainly qualified—but he doesn’t. “This team has run more efficiently under my watch than any other,” he says. “All data will show that.”

“Yes, but…it must be such a strain. Surely you’d appreciate the break.”

It’s not a break if he doesn’t elect into it, Tony doesn’t say. They won’t listen anyways.

 

When Tony was sixteen, Howard Stark had sold him.

Tony was almost done MIT, a feat in and of itself, but no one had been able to deny he had Stark brilliance. He’d be useful as a pet inventor, but ultimately that’s all he was. A pet, meant to be trotted out on command but never given any real control.

Howard had found an alpha who was amenable to that, who was amenable to managing both Tony and the company the way Howard envisioned. The papers were signed.

Tony was not consulted once.

By sheer force of luck, Howard had died five months before the mating was to be sealed. Technically, the paperwork wasn’t legally binding. It was illegal to sell people, after all. It was just an agreement between an alpha parent and future alpha, that Tony would be turned over the day after he turned eighteen. Plain and simple.

With Howard dead, there was no one to force Tony to honor it.

Obadiah could have, maybe. He was a beta but a domineering one, and the de facto person in charge of Tony after his parents died, because the world thought Tony needed someone in charge of him. At the time, Tony took the fact that he didn’t force the issue as a sign of compassion. Now, of course, he sees it more clearly. Obadiah would have lost control if he’d forced the mating, the last thing he wanted.

Howard’s will had stipulated that control of the company and the fortune would pass to Tony. In reality, this would have given control to Tony’s alpha mate. At five months shy of being mated, though, Tony was left with everything.

The media had a field day.

They expected him to give over the company to Obadiah, or else get mated quick. They expected him to buckle under the pressure. They expected him to cry pretty on TV.

Tony left the company to run under his strict instructions for four years, while he played inventor. JARVIS was born, someone to help him protect himself from an alpha’s influence.

And then he took the reins, and did not surrender them until he gave Pepper the title of CEO. Even then, everyone knew it was still his company, even if people pretend otherwise.

Tony Stark. Genius, billionaire, omega, philanthropist. Superhero.

 

“So they’re just…bringing them back?” Peter asks incredulously, putting down the web shooter he’s been fiddling with. “Even after what he did to you?” The air is heavy with Peter’s disgust, and Tony struggles not to add to it.

Tony sighs. “Peter, what he did to me…if they even knew about it, they’d…”

“See it as the right thing to do,” Peter says glumly.

“Yeah,” Tony says gently. He hates showing these things to the kid. Peter comes from a generation that gives Tony hope. His friends—mostly betas—are shockingly tolerant, shockingly liberal. Maybe when everyone Tony’s age dies off, the world will change.

He doesn’t count on it, though. Power corrupts too easily.

“They’re pretty awful,” Peter says.

“Oh, yeah,” Tony agrees. He swallows. “How’s the web-shooter working?”

“Good.” Peter pauses for a moment. “Mr. Stark. Some people…a criminal tried to alpha voice a girl in an alley last week. I broke it up, but it hit me pretty hard. It wasn’t even directed at me.”

Tony freezes. He’s been afraid of this. Peter, going through puberty, becoming more sensitive to these things. And he has super hearing anyways, ten times more sensitive than a normal omega, who’s to say what that will do to him?

“I…I’ll find you a solution,” Tony promises. Rash, he thinks, but he can’t take it back. Won’t. Peter won’t deal with this. Won’t know what it’s like, to go under like that.

“How?”

Tony doesn’t know. He could install Karen directly into Peter’s ears, like FRIDAY is installed in his. Let her shock the shit out of the kid every time an alpha gets above themselves. But it’s so…distasteful.

And not one hundred percent effective, he bitterly reminds himself.

“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “Listen, kid. When the old Avengers come back, you have to make yourself scarce, okay? At the very least until we figure out this little problem. Too many alphas who see no problem with their voice.”

Peter frowns mulishly, so Tony turns pleading eyes on him. “ Please ,” he says. “Don’t make me watch them get you by accident.”

“What about you?” Peter demands.

Tony shrugs. “I’ve made it this far.”

It’s not an answer. Not a good one, at any rate.

 

The Avengers are set to show up in four days. Tony has to be ready.

Rhodey absolutely refuses to help Tony prepare, not after the first time where he almost pukes watching what it does to Tony. Tony can smell his distress, thick and cloying and filling the entire wing, so Tony lets him go. Tony can’t ask him for more. Rhodey’s a good man.

So he listens to recorded alpha voices, not quite as potent as the real thing but good enough. There’s a reason alpha stalkers love to leave voice mails, after all. And FRIDAY shocks him each and every time, helping him come out of it.

Rhodey shakes his head. “You’re going to kill yourself, Tones,” he says, when Tony insists FRIDAY run the tape again, teeth gritted.

“Better than them doing it for me,” he says.

“I’d kill them,” Rhodey says, fierce and violent, and Tony snorts.

“There’s two super soldiers on that team, sugar-bug,” Tony says. “And you’re in a wheelchair.”

It’s harsh but true. Rhodey spends the majority of his time in the chair. Even with the braces, walking is a slow, cumbersome process. Tony’s working on improving it, but it’s slow-going.

Some parts of Tony think, selfishly, Rhodey would be an ideal mate. The most tolerant alpha Tony’s ever met, never once used his voice on Tony. Not even when he’s frustrated. Not even when Tony’s being stupid but won’t back down.

Rhodey wouldn’t let other people force him to do things. As his mate, Tony would naturally respond more to Rhodey’s voice than any other, anyways, and he’d be…free.

Except they wouldn’t be. Tony loves Rhodey, but he loves playing with Rhodey’s niece while his mother calls them both “her boys.” He’s called Rhodey brother for too many years to make anything work now.

Rhodey was a godsend at MIT, and, even though Tony’s absolutely sure the military sent Rhodey back to him thinking he’d be the one to tame the irascible weapon’s inventor, he’s been a godsend in all those years too.

It’s a brotherhood Tony wouldn’t give up, not for anything.

And anyways, Tony’s thought that before and been wrong . Thought the right partner, the right alpha, could be a certain kind of freedom, and look how that worked out.

“I’d still kill them,” Rhodey mutters mulishly. “Repulsor their asses.”

Tony smiles softly, feeling the honesty of Rhodey’s words. Super-soldiers or not, outnumbered or not, Rhodey will defend him. “I’m lucky to have you.”

Rhodey blinks. “Tony Stark? Showing emotion? Are pigs flying?”

“Shut up,” Tony mumbles. “I just…I’m lucky. The one alpha in the world who won’t abuse it.”

“I can’t be the only one,” Rhodey says.

Tony thinks to the very long list he’s met. “You try the hardest,” he says.

He’s met other alphas who find the voice distasteful. But every single one—including Rhodey, sometimes—takes the benefits of their position without a second thought.

Tony swallows, then clasps Rhodey on the shoulder. “You won’t have to kill them,” he says. “Because I’ll be ready.”

 

The day before the Avengers are set to return, Tony strides into a charity gala, dressed to the nines and ready to drop a six-figure check.

Of course, he’s already dropped significantly more behind the scenes. This is his gala, after all. No one else would think to hold society galas for omega welfare.

Tony wears his shirt collar casually unbuttoned, a provocative display that shows his unbitten neck. The mating gland is defenseless, sure, except these days, Tony never truly is defenseless. And it sends a message.

His neck has been unmarked for over forty years. Let people stare. He’s not ashamed.

He’s drinking sparkling cider and listening to FRIDAY list off guests and their donations in his ears—mostly rich people in desperate need to be seen as compassionate, or else hangers-on looking for any party, any way to claw their way into the right circles. Tony snorts. Whatever this is, it isn’t the right circles.

When he throws events like this, he couches them in moderate, soft language. Helping abused omegas get back on their feet. Helping single omegas with kids put food on the table, send their kids to school, whatever. No mention of liberation or cutting-edge science in suppressants or legal fees for omegas who manage to kill alphas in self-defense. No mention of education programs for omegas desperately looking to have marketable skills so they can be self-sufficient.

Tony pastes on his press smile and pumps hands, sniffs out their distaste for him and fucking revels in it. Let them hate him. Let them give him their money anyways.

He wonders where Pepper is. He’s going to ask her to send another check on his behalf.

Tony bares his teeth when he sees rich society jerks walking around with their omegas. Tony has nothing against relationships. Really, he doesn’t. He’s even seen a couple healthy ones, during his lifetime. But when the omega looks at the floor and trails behind the alpha like a kicked puppy, Tony’s hackles raise.

In the past, Tony’s tried talking to the omegas instead of their alphas, but sometimes it made the poor omegas panic. Now, Tony tries avoidance as much as possible.

“Want to dance?”

Tony nearly drops his champagne flute, saves it by the barest skin of his teeth. “Romanoff,” he says, turning to find the redhead in a stunning black dress, arms bare and slit up to her thigh. “What a surprise. I thought you were still not my problem until tomorrow at noon.”

“I’m hardly a problem, Tony,” she says, smiling and stepping closer. “And besides, I was under the impression you weren’t in charge anymore.”

Tony ignores that. “If you’re not my problem, then go bug whoever’s problem you are,” he says dismissively. Romanoff always smells so neutral, and Tony hates it. Sometimes, he can peak past her walls, although some of those times it’s her letting him get away with it. Right now, it’s like a stone wall for his senses, leaving him to stare at the red-headed assassin who he hasn’t seen in two years.

“I haven’t seen you in years,” she murmurs, echoing his thoughts. “Let’s catch up.”

She’s a beta, Tony knows that, but the predatory glint to her eyes makes him wish FRIDAY would shock him anyways.

They’re making a scene. Tony debates if he minds, figures he doesn’t want one over this at his own gala. Self-consciously double-checks for his watch gauntlet on his wrist. “Let’s dance,” he agrees.

She tries to lead, and Tony manhandles their positions until it’s reversed. She lets him, she has to to avoid a scene, but Tony doesn’t much care because he’s leading. She knows the steps, anyways.

“We’ve missed you.”

“You’ve never missed anyone in your life,” Tony shoots back. “That’s not how you’re made, Black Widow.”

It’s cutting and below the belt—Natasha is as human as the rest of them, more so than some, even, and she has feelings and connections—but Tony doesn’t care. She’s in his space. His defenses are up.

“Charming as ever.”

“What do you want?”

“To clear the air. Steve wants to talk.”

“My personal assistant makes my appointments. I think I’m about eight months out right now. Rogers can call him during business hours.”

“Tony.”

“Romanoff.”

She sighs, careful and artificed. “I don’t understand why you’re so reluctant.”

“Do you? Your memory must be short, then.”

“He saved his friend. You can’t fault him for that. It’s been years.”

“About that friend,” Tony asks, spinning them carefully away from the nearest couple. “How long did you know?”

She has the decency to not feign ignorance. “As long as Steve did.”

“You two always share everything,” Tony acknowledges. “And you never share anything.”

He’s seething with anger, his skin bristling and his chest aching with it. Maria Stark, with a hand around her throat. Howard Stark, finally made weak, with his face punched in, over and over and over.

“I’m done playing along with your little games,” he says, abruptly ending the dance. “How you got here early, I don’t care. Go back. Take your pardon. And when they force me to take you bunch in again, have the good grace to leave me the fuck alone.” He drops her hands, feeling like he’s dirtied them. “If you excuse me. I see Pepper.”

Pepper is a godsend of a find.

A beta in a position typically held by an alpha, Tony thinks some level of her gets him. Sure, not to the same extent—no one can verbally force her to do anything with just a word, and the board had practically cried in relief to see a beta again after so long under the helm of an “unstable” omega—but still.

She lets him pull her into a dance. “Have I mentioned how good you look?” He asks.

She chuckles. “You bought the dress, Tony.”

“I have good taste.”

“Was that Romanoff?” She asks, clearly having been paying attention. “I can get security.”

“Don’t bother,” Tony says. “She’ll be gone in a minute, as always.”

“What did she want?”

“To clear the air ,” Tony says with a sniff. Pepper spins them away from another couple and it’s only then that Tony realizes she’s leading. Oh, well. It doesn’t matter.

“What does that look like?” Pepper asks.

“Mostly, me accepting my place beneath their boots,” Tony says mulishly. He sighs. “They’re going to make me take them back.”

“Nobody can make you—” Pepper cuts off abruptly. Of course they can.

Tony smiles, twisted. “They won’t do it like that,” he says. “But they’ll make me. Because I’m a homemaker, right? I was born for it. And they’ll hand the leader job back to Rogers, and soon enough that’s all I’ll be. Their walking, talking, weapons-building, home-providing wallet.” Tony pauses. “Only without the talking, probably, if they have their way.”

“Is…Barnes coming back?” Pepper asks hesitantly.

“Of course he is,” Tony says bitterly. “Like Rogers would travel without his best bosom buddy.”

They take another turn around the floor, a new song starting. Pepper steers deftly. “Johnson dropped fifty grand,” she offers, a distraction.

“I want to add another half a million,” Tony says. “Make it a nice, round number.”

“That’ll draw attention. The kind we can’t afford.”

“You wanna know who can’t afford things?” Tony asks. “‘Cause it ain’t me. It’s omegas trying to get legal counsel. Food in their kids’ bellies. Job skills.” He lowers his voice. “Documentation.”

Pepper winces. “Tony,” she says warningly, the tension around them rising.

Tony’s always been so immensely glad Pepper isn’t an alpha. For the obvious reasons, yes, but also…Pepper is domineering. Tony thinks she would have learned control, would have learned restraint like Rhodey, because she’s a good fucking person, but…

Her voice. She doesn’t have an alpha voice and thank god for it. Some days, Tony feels like he can hear the implication of it anyways.

Tony, being Tony, doesn’t shut up on command. Not even for Pepper.

“Some of it will get channeled back through SI anyways,” Tony says. “We do job training.”

They also hire scientists looking into various chemical, biological, and technological options to improve omega’s lives. Tony doesn’t mention it.

“Whatever you want, Tony,” she sighs. The song ends, and she backs away from him, press smile in place. “Romanoff is gone.”

“And you’re too busy for another dance, huh?”

Pepper’s smile softens. “We can’t be the only people dropping checks. Let’s go make this happen.”

Tony nods his head, jerky, snapped back out of their little bubble. “Lead the way, Ms. Potts,” he says, gesturing grandly.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want…”

Tony sighs. “Kid, I’ve told you. It’s not safe for you here.”

“Then it’s not safe for you,” Peter says stubbornly. “Please, Mr. Stark. I can…I have these powers, I can lift a truck, please let me—“

“You know full well lifting a truck will do jack shit,” Tony says bluntly. He doesn’t want to scare the kid but he needs to. “Peter, what are you going to do if Captain America orders you to take your mask off, huh?”

“Punch him in the balls,” Peter says mulishly.

Tony has to laugh, but he sobers quick. “You don’t actually think that would be effective, do you?”

The hologram shrugs. “It would make me feel better.”

Peter’s so young, and he lives with a beta aunt, had lived with his beta uncle, a happy liberal beta couple trying to raise this omega kid and keep him safe. He’s never been fully hit with the voice, probably. “Peter, you wouldn’t…you would be handing him the mask in two seconds, smiling and ready to obey whatever he asks next. You can’t fight your way out. Not even if you can lift a truck.”

Peter’s eyes are full of the righteous indignation of seventeen year olds. “It’s not fucking fair.”

“No,” Tony agrees easily. Better Peter know the truth now. “It’s not. Never has been. I don’t know why nature decided to fuck us over, but it’s not fucking fair.”

Peter’s silent for a minute. “Mr. Stark…you have to get out of there.”

“No,” Tony says. The words come easily but they come heavy, too, laden with a well-thought through burden. “Because if I leave, it means they won.”

“And if…If Captain America hurts you again?”

Tony swallows heavily. “I guess I have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

 

Rhodey and Tony eat dinner, the last night the compound can be considered a safe place for Tony. “Peter told me to leave today,” Tony says between bites of pizza. “Begged me, practically.”

“Oh, yeah?” Rhodey says, voice carefully neutral. That’s part of what Tony likes about him. He’ll let Tony spin it all before he puts his two cents in.

“I’ve thought about it, you know. Private island, fully stocked lab, telling the world to fuck off. Or at least not subjecting myself to…this.”

“But…”

“But then they’ve won,” Tony says. “And not just Captain Fucking America and his sidekicks. Everyone. Those assholes in the council who say I can’t lead or even be a superhero. The public.” Tony swallows. “My father. I don’t give a fuck about this team anymore, Rhodey,” he admits. “I’d go solo again in a heartbeat. Probably be better for my health.”

“But…” Rhodey says again, patient.

“But then they’d win,” Tony says. “Then they’d know I can’t handle it.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” Rhodey says fiercely. “We’ll start our own superhero team. You, me, the kid, Vision. Anyone else we can get.”

“And who would lead?” Tony asks.

Rhodey sits there. “We could,” he says stubbornly. “Together. It’s been working out so far.”

“Because they believe you’re the one pulling the strings,” Tony says. “And that’s kinda the problem here.”

Rhodey sighs. “No last-minute resignations from the team, huh?”

Tony shakes his head. “Not from me.”

“Me either, then,” Rhodey says. “Someone has to be here to watch your back.”