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Steve comes to him that night, knocking on Tony’s door the same way he did the first time he saw his daughter. Unassuming, docile.  

“Are you sure about this?” he asks, so quietly it’s almost inaudible.

“It’s hurting.”

“It always hurt.”

A wilting bond constantly at the back of your mind, not quite dead but not really alive either—a wound that doesn’t bleed but never heals, like having a shard of glass constantly lodged in the skin between your ribs. You can’t pull it out.

It’s been hard to breathe for ten years.

Her.

That changes things. Because she didn’t choose this and doesn’t deserve it. They’re fathers, and they’ve let their kid reek of hurt and loss her whole life. It’s not right.

“We don’t have to get back together… like that—”

“No, I know—”

“We just need to nurture the bond and—”

“I know that. I know that.”

Tony doesn’t need to poke the bond to know that Steve feels awkward. He looks so nervous, sort of jittery. Almost as if he’s trying to make himself look smaller, which is counterintuitive at best for an Alpha.

They sit on the couch.

“So… how do we—”

“Just reach for it, Steve.”

Steve closes his eyes and Tony feels him in his mind a moment later. He closes his eyes too.

Steve’s presence isn’t foreign. It feels like an old friend coming back from a long trip, and you think, I almost forgot what you look like, and the way your voice sounds.

They pass reassurance and affection to each other. It’s familiar. Good. Easy, even.

Until it’s not.

Tony feels it first, he thinks. A trembling, like an earthquake of the mind. Something snaps, something rips apart into Tony, into Steve—he doesn’t know where he finishes and where Steve starts anymore. It’s all fragments.

Something rends every thought Tony has ever had, every thought Steve has ever had.

Tony tries to open his eyes, run away from it, but he can’t; his eyes are sewn shut. He’s forced to witness it all, to feel it through until the end.

It splits Tony’s mind in two—Steve’s guilt.

It splits Steve’s mind in two—Tony’s betrayed trust.

Ten years’ worth of it.

The pain is unbearable. Worse than having a piece of metal shoved into your chest; worse than the serum changing you from the inside out.

Tony is himself and Steve all at once; he knows that Steve is himself and Tony all at once too.

He can’t. He can’t.

He feels Steve reach for him in his mind and he responds, desperate for something to hold onto.

It’s a whirlwind. They’re undone by it, piece by piece, until there’s only a darkness they can sink into together, and it seems welcoming and inviting—anything to stop feeling like this, to stop feeling heartbroken and guilty all at once, to make Steve stop feeling like that too.

The sensation isn’t utterly novel. Tony’s always felt bad about himself, but it was something private, that he kept for himself. He never shared it with anyone, always shielded that part of his mind even from Steve when they first created the bond. But now it’s all exposed, all out in the open—there are all his mistakes, there, lined up in an orderly fashion so they can be examined and scrutinized; he can gauge how much they weigh on his heart, how much they’ve hurt Steve and Sarah. He never thought that calculating an exact quantity could disrupt him so intimately.  

On the other side of the bond—but it’s not really a side anymore, it’s all so confusing—there are Steve’s thoughts, mirroring Tony’s in many aspects, but without making an exact copy. Steve is more forgiving of himself, of his own reasons. He’s made some sort of peace with having been forced into an awful situation all those years ago, with having kept a secret out of fear, and he doesn’t hate himself for it, not anymore, at least, but the regret still burns deep into every recess of his mind.  

Then, like a wave that crashes against the rocks, it loses its momentum and quiets down.

Steve’s guilt and Tony’s grief mix together at the center of the bond. They transform into something else. The one soothes the other and vice versa; each of them acting as the cure for the other.

For a minute—but it could be an hour, a day, a year—the most baseline elements of their biology are amplified by the social stereotypes ingrained in them. Steve’s guilt slides away to reveal bitterness, because he could never get his Omega to forgive him, could never get him back, and what kind of Alpha can’t discipline his Omega into submission? Tony’s betrayed trust becomes doubt; it becomes shame and self-loathing at having rejected his Alpha for so long, because what kind of Omega doesn’t want to please their Alpha?

They get it under control, in the end. Smooth over the mess of confusing and contradicting emotions, everything they’ve been feeling in the last decade, even what’s most embarrassing and unlike them. Their love for their daughter shines at the end of the tunnel—a constant, a guiding light, the only thing that never stops making sense.

They reach some form of equilibrium.

Tony searches Steve’s body next to him on the couch. He folds to the side, against Steve, head bowed down. He hits Steve’s chest with his temple, his cheek, and Steve’s arms are around him, Steve’s nose in his neck, breathing him in to come down from the rush.

Tony feels belonging again. Inside him, something finds its place again, like the plates of his armor slotting together in that perfect way that always makes him feel like he can keep the trembling of his hands under control, if he tries hard enough.

“I knew you… but I didn’t think—”

“I had no idea you... Steve.”

“Me neither. I’m sorry—”

“No. I’m sorry. Ten years, I—”

“Shh… Just… here,” Steve says, and guides Tony’s nose into the hollow of his throat, the place where an Alpha’s scent is the strongest, the place that’s supposed to feel like the safest haven for an Omega.

It’s already a little different. It’s faint, nothing overtly obvious, but Steve already smells sweeter, already some of the wrong undertone that’s been there since he came back from Wakanda ten years ago is gone.

Steve bends to kiss Tony’s cheek, mouth soft and wet and open, hungry for Tony’s skin. Tony lets him, but soon Steve stops abruptly with the realization of how forward his gesture is.

“Sorry, I—” he says, moving away from Tony’s face, but clutching him even harder.

Tony hopes Steve will never let him go. He hasn’t hoped for that in such a long time, and wow, Tony thinks, some things really never change. Sometimes you just love hating yourself in some particular way that you manage to pick it back up right where you left off, no matter how long it’s been.

I’m old. I’m an old, useless Omega. I’ve been used up and ruined. I’ve been touched by people I wasn’t bonded to. I’m impure, a dirty old thing. I didn’t keep myself whole for my Alpha. I’m not young and I’m not thin and I’m not perfect and my skin is hard and my mind just won’t submit to his and how can he even stand to touch me when I’m—

“Hey, no—” Steve says, and god, the way it feels to have an open bond inside your head... To have someone understand everything you feel, bit by excruciating bit. But what surprises Tony now is having Steve look at that side of his mind that he always kept hidden. He can already predict Steve recoiling in horror, making up an excuse to leave, asking him to break the bond.

But Steve just stays there, hugs him a little harder, and showers him with love and acceptance. Tony sends his own back to Steve, and he whimpers softly while the emotions shoot through him, familiar and different all at once.

Steve touches Tony’s face. They separate, just a tad, just to look at each other better, but Tony still struggles to keep his eyes open, and Steve is still fighting his Alpha instinct of kissing his Omega stupid. Tony would really like to be kissed.

They wait it out, cuddled up on the couch, breathing each other in, discovering that something is shifting in their biology. The bond, freshly repaired, produces new hormones, and new hormones mean a new underlying scent that’s not Steve or Tony, but that’s Steve and Tony, that’s them, together, as a unit, as a family, as mates. The scent of their beautiful daughter, now that, too, free of that touch of wrong that characterized it for years. For all her life.

She knocks on the door. Tony recognizes the sound.

She enters the room and sees her dads on the couch and doesn’t say a word. She just goes to them, sits between them, welcomed by open arms that only want to keep her safe and happy.

Tony doesn’t know what this feels like for Sarah. Did she feel them, Steve and Tony? In her head? Is it more physical for her, more a thing of scents and protective touches than feelings? He doesn’t know.

“Hey, baby,” Steve says, pulling her close to himself and Tony, almost crushing her a bit under them, shielding her from everything that could possibly hurt her.

“Dad—” she says, and touches the dip of Tony’s throat, “I feel weird.”

“Good weird or bad weird?” Steve asks, voice soft and perfect like only your Alpha’s can be.

“Mh. Good, now. I think. Can I stay here?”

She doesn’t comment on the fact that her dads are together. On a couch. That they’re cuddling her together, which has happened only a handful of times in the past, often when one of them was hurt in some way. It was never clearly forbidden, but it was always implicitly understood that Sarah couldn’t expect her dads to do certain things that regular parents would do, unless the severity of the situation required it. Stupidly, only now Tony really sees how wrong that was, how terrible it was to do that to his own kid, that he loves more than he could ever love anything else.

Steve passes understanding through the bond, but Tony feels his regret too, his guilt. But there’s also hope. Steve has so much hope; he’s made of it.

“You have school tomorrow,” Tony says, but there’s no insistence in it.

“Just for a bit?”

“Okay.”

She falls asleep between them. Steve moves them all to Tony’s bed without a word. They sleep huddled close, the way they’re really supposed to for the first time ever.

It’s ten years late, but Steve and Tony start building their nest.

Better than never, Tony thinks before closing his eyes, with only family in his lungs.

***

Steve wakes up the next morning to the familiar sound of his daughter’s voice. She’s turned away from him, facing Tony on the other side of the bed.

“—and then it was like it was hot, but in my head, you know? Like fireworks? It was weird.”

“But it didn’t hurt, right?”

“No… And then it was gone. And then I came here and you guys… You never do that.”

“How do you feel about this, baby? Me and Dad doing that? Hugging, and—”

“You’re my dads.”

“Yes. And we love you no matter what. So much.”

She’s quiet for a while. “I thought I was sick. When I felt that thing.”

Sarah is never sick. Sarah has never been sick in her entire life, and when she’s hurt, she heals faster than she should. For his part, Tony doesn’t seem to have aged very much since having her, although he doesn’t heal any quicker than before. They never talked about it, but they’re all aware of it.

“You were scared?”

“A bit. I didn’t know what it was.”

Steve reaches out with his hand, circles Sarah’s waist to tickle her belly. She turns to laugh with him, and it’s the best sound in the world. He kisses her cheek.

“Good morning, sweetpea,” he says into her hair.

“Good morning, Dad,” she replies, laughter still in her voice.

She sounds so happy. He wants her to be this happy every day. To smell this good every day, to smell like she comes from something whole, from a bond that hasn’t been abandoned for years.

“How did you sleep?” Steve asks.

“Super good! I like it if we sleep all together. I mean, I also wanna sleep in my room. I like my room. But I like it if we sleep together. Sometimes. Can we do that?”

“We can do that,” Steve says, a smile mixing with his words.

“Are you guys gonna sleep in the same bed from now on? Like the other parents?”

Steve searches Tony’s gaze with his own. “Maybe,” he settles on. “Would you like that?”

“I think so… But why didn’t you do it before?”

“Because—” Steve starts, but Tony interrupts him.

“Because I didn’t want to,” he says, taking all the blame for himself.

“You didn’t love Dad?”

“I did,” he says, and Steve watches him swallow around the confession, too fast and natural not to leave him ashamed, afterwards. “But we had a bad fight before you were born, and I was angry at your dad for a very long time.”

“And now you’re not angry anymore?” She turns to Steve before Tony can reply. “What did you fight about?”

Steve opens his mouth a few times and then closes it. He doesn’t know what to say. How to explain it to his child. He takes a deep breath. Simple words, Rogers.

“I kept a secret from Dad. A big secret. It was about Uncle Bucky and... Dad got mad at me and Uncle Bucky, so I—”

“It was very complicated, Sarah.”

“Was it about the thing they call Civil War? But like, of the Avengers? When you guys disagreed and Uncle Rhodey got hurt in his back? We talked about it in the Little Lawyers Club.”

Right. Sarah’s interest in the law. Jen Walters is her hero for more than one reason.

“It was also about that. A bit. It was… grown-up things.”

There’s a sharp intake of air from Sarah. “You never say that!” she shouts, indignant.

“What?”

“Yeah! The other parents do it all the time. They say, I can’t tell you, you’re too little, you wouldn’t understand, blah blah blah. But you never do that! You always explain everything!”

“Oh, baby, I—”

“Why can’t you explain this?”

“I’m trying. It’s very hard... As I said, it was complicated. Many bad things happened all at once; we couldn’t keep up with them. I can’t tell you which things, Sarah, not because you wouldn’t understand, but because you would, and they’re very sad things, baby, and I don’t wanna make you sad. But just know that we were all… hurting, and…” Tony sighs. “Don’t… you don’t have to think about it,” he finishes, and Steve feels Tony’s resolve crumble in his mind, and sees Sarah’s hands shake in a way he doesn’t like.

Sarah makes a face. “But it’s fine now, right? You guys made up?” Her voice is so small and doubtful, it stomps all over Steve’s heart.

“We did,” Tony says, “but it’s a… work in progress.” He sounds unsure, and Steve feels the same. They’re trying to explain what changed last night, but it seems so confusing for Sarah. And what if they end up crashing and burning again; that would just hurt Sarah even more. They haven’t even talked about the future, or decided anything important, but their daughter is asking questions about it right now, and neither Steve nor Tony know how to answer.

“But you’re happy, now? You made up and you’re happy. Happy, like, for real?”

“We didn’t seem happy for real to you before?”

“I don’t know. Not so much. The stuff Matt said about me at school… that I smell bad… I don’t know, I’m sorry.”

“This isn’t your fault, Sarah. None of it. You hear me?”

She’s about to cry and Steve feels like jumping out of a fucking window.

“Okay, I just… I just want us to be all happy and—”

“We are going to be,” Steve says, his tone soothing while he hugs Sarah tighter. “I promise you. Do you trust me? Do you trust us?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you don’t have to worry about a thing, alright? Dad and I will sort this out. We’ll make up for good and we’ll be happy for real. And if there are any problems you can talk to us. About anything. Anything at all.”

“Okay, it’s just that… you never talked about it before, so I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about it, and…”

“I’m so sorry we made you feel like that, baby,” Tony says. “But it’s really not your fault. We love you, and you got caught into this fight between Dad and me, but it’s not your fault and you weren’t supposed to do anything to make it better for us. That’s not your job. Dad and I, we should’ve talked sooner. That’s on us. On me.”

“On us,” Steve says.

Sarah nods and hides her face against Tony’s neck, but she doesn’t cry. She breathes a little harder and deeper for a few minutes, but then she calms down and lies back between them.

“All the other kids… they smell okay.”

The question is obvious: why don’t I?

“Okay, so, you know the bonds parents have in their heads?” Tony starts, and he waits for Sarah to nod. Then he continues, “The bond is like a garden. You have to take care of it. If the parents do that, the flowers are all beautiful, and they all smell great.”

“But what happens if they don’t?”

“What happened to you, baby.”

“But… Andy’s moms aren’t together anymore and he smells just fine.”

“Because Andy’s moms went to a doctor that helped them… close the garden.”

“You can do that?”

“Yeah.”

“And you didn’t?”

“We didn’t. We just stopped taking care of the garden.”

“Why?”

Tony hesitates, and he shoots a quick, timid glance at Steve. “Maybe because we hoped that this day would arrive, baby. That we would make up at some point. That thing you felt last night, the fireworks in your head? That was me and Dad taking care of our garden again after so many years. And I’m so glad we did, but it took me too long to decide, and you… I hurt you.”

“But I’m not hurt,” Sarah says, matter-of-factly. “Dad... are you crying?”

“No, no,” Tony says, sniffing loudly with his nose and wiping at his face. “I’m fine, I’m—”

“Okay,” Steve says, with his deepest and kindest Alpha voice. “We’re okay.” He sends all the love he can muster across the bond, and he sees Tony relax. He reaches past Sarah to hug him too, and they stay like that for a few minutes, basking in their new scent of family, until all the emotions quiet down, and Sarah even smiles.

“Come on,” Steve says then, with only a hint of his serious Alpha voice, the one Sarah doesn’t disobey. “You’re gonna be late for school.”

Sarah gets up, still a bit reluctantly, but she leaves to go wash up and get dressed in her room.

“I’m sorry,” Tony starts, “that was…”

“No, it’s… It’s gonna be hard for her, we knew this. Hey. We did okay.”

“Did we?”

“I hope so. But, Tony… You shouldn’t try to take all the blame. We made this mess together, and that’s how we should fix it.”

Tony nods, but he still looks uncertain.

Steve’s instinct keeps kicking in. He hasn’t felt it this sharply since before Sarah was born. The need to make it all better for Tony, to feel him as part of himself.

“Just give it some time. Sarah, too.”

Tony’s eyebrows are still knitted together when he shifts closer to Steve, planting his face on his chest. He lifts his head a bit and sniffs Steve’s throat; tries to go for inconspicuous and fails.

“What do you need? Tell me,” Steve murmurs in Tony’s ear.

Tony doesn’t reply, but Steve feels him in his head just a moment later, reaching out, still cautious but sweet, affectionate.

It feels so good. Steve’s mind is flooded with Tony’s admiration for him, by the sense of security Tony feels thanks to Steve, a sensation that Tony passes back to him in a loop. There’s love, there’s respect. There’s pleasure.

Family, Steve thinks. Mate. Bond. Mine. His.

Tony kisses him. It’s just a peck on Steve’s lips, barely there at all, gone as soon as it started. But a shiver goes through Steve, head to toe, and an ache settles into his muscles, across his back.

Sarah comes back to kiss them goodbye. Peter takes her to school most days; it’s on the way to his day job in the city. Tony fixes her hair in a ponytail and pushes her undershirt inside the waist of her jeans.

Steve zips her coat up and takes a minute to hug her tight. She smells better; Tony must have already noticed too. He’s surprised the change is so rapid. He holds her for too long; he doesn’t want to let her go, but he has to. He blows a raspberry in her neck and makes her laugh and screech, and she says, “Now you’re making me late, Dad!” so Steve lifts his hands as an apology. She leaves, still smiling, while Peter calls for her to hurry up from downstairs, or they won’t have enough time to stop for breakfast.

Steve stretches back down on the bed and meets Tony’s eyes, meets him in his mind.

He feels so heavy. He’s aching all over. Deep inside him, where his muscles are wrapped up around his bones, there’s something painful. It twists in his guts, ravels his insides in an sickly way.

Worry must slip from him and into the bond, because Tony asks, “Are you alright? You don’t look so good.”

“Thank you,” Steve tries to joke, but his voice is strained and rough and very, very deep.

“I’m serious.”

God, Tony smells like heaven. Steve wants to lick him, into him, he wants to feel his slick on his ton—

No, no. He needs to calm down. They’re not there yet; they have to take it slow. They may never get back there.

He wants to bend Tony over and fuck into him and—

No. No.

“It’s just this thing with the bond, I think,” he says, but Tony’s face is still full of concern. For the rest, though, Tony seems perfectly fine, even better than usual.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. You mind if I take a nap? Couple of hours, tops. I don’t feel like getting up yet.”

“Sure, uh… no problem. I’m gonna take a shower.”

It really hits him soon after, while Tony is in the bathroom. Steve should have realized sooner. But it’s been so long—

Uneasiness pools low in his belly, settles there like a stone. He feels alert, aware of his surroundings, but in an overwhelming way. All of a sudden, the room is too bright; the sound of the open shower coming from the bathroom is too loud.

Too many things. All of them hammering into Steve’s brain.

He feels like he weighs so much he could make a hole in the Earth. He feels his muscles spasming, contracting painfully without him instructing them to. He feels weak. He’s sweating; he’s cold and hot at the same time. His mind is slipping away from him, his control faltering.

His cock is now heavy in his underwear, so hard it hurts. He can’t stand the clothes on his skin anymore, and he tries to strip, but his hands are clumsy and ungainly, clammy, and he can’t grab the fabric. His strength is gone.

He feels angry. He feels focused only on one thing. He needs to let this energy out before it explodes. There’s only one way. He swallows at the thought, because he still knows it’s wrong.

Tony comes out of the bathroom. He’s towelling off his hair, another towel snug around his hips. Low. So damn low.

He hasn’t seen Tony like this in a long time. The sight, now, fills him with an awful sense of dread, soon replaced by a need he can’t hope to keep restrained. He needs to have, to mark, to keep, to make Tony his. He needs to rip that stupid towel away and bury his face into—

Oh, god.

It should feel good, but it’s not just an attraction. It’s a craving, driven into him by a survival instinct that maybe made sense for cavemen who needed to perpetuate the species, but not for him anymore, not for anyone living now, and yet it’s still there and he hates it.

He doesn’t want to hurt Tony.

Tony scrunches up his nose. His eyes suddenly dilate, and surprise colors his expression. “Hey, you smell of… Wow, uh… Steve, is something wr—”

“Call… call—”

Looking at his own bite on Tony’s shoulder is the last straw. Steve sees red.

One of his last coherent thoughts is that he’s pissed off—or glad?— that Tony just showered. That he stripped away all the things that make him, him. That make him Steve’s. Like this, Steve can’t find Tony’s scent in the air. Tony scrubbed himself clean. There’s no slick dripping out of him, opening his body up, smoothing the way in for Steve. There’s no—

“Tony. Call Natasha. Right now,” he says, in a last-ditch effort at consciousness. “Please. Take the suit and leave.”

“What, the suit, what, why? Why? What’s happening?”

“Tony, I’m so sorry.”

“What’s going on, just—”

“I’m going into a rut.”

***

Tony lands in front of Natasha and Bucky’s Brooklyn apartment building and waits for the suit to retreat from over his body, waving a hand at a couple of kids passing by when they smile and point at him.

He’s tired all of a sudden, but he knows it’s the bond—it’s how Steve feels. He tries to send reassurance back, but nothing changes. His mind is clouded with Steve’s distress.

He wishes he could do more. Steve doesn’t deserve this, to be betrayed by his body in such a way. The serum made him healthy, but when it comes to Alpha issues, it feels like it makes most things worse—Steve’s ruts have always been longer and stronger than normal, and he could never take suppressants. Granted, he hasn’t had a rut for the past ten years, but now it seems like he’s going to have to deal with them again, and Tony can’t help but be worried about that.

He just wants Steve to be okay. For Steve’s own sake, for Sarah’s. For himself.   

He enters the building while an old lady is exiting the front door, and he’s quick up the stairs. He rings the bell and Nat opens the door a minute later. Clearly, she was still asleep.

“Sorry to bother you guys,” Tony says while Bucky comes into the room from the corridor. He’s rubbing at his eyes with his hand. “Steve has a problem. He needs you, Nat.”

“What kind of problem?” Bucky asks, concerned, and Tony fears this brand of jealousy will never leave him. Even though Bucky’s a Beta, and Steve isn’t attracted to Betas. Even though Bucky is bonded and married with Natasha.

“Ah, we—god, this is embarrassing—he’s going into a rut, and… it’s quite bad.”

“Shit,” Nat says.

“I don’t know what to do. He said to call you and told me to leave and then he passed out.”

“Come on in, Tony,” Bucky says, and guides him in the kitchen. He starts the coffee.

“He said to call me? Just that?” Nat asks.

“Yeah, I… you’re the only Alpha he’s ever listened to.”

Natasha is thoughtful for a moment. “Tony, Steve hasn’t had a rut in a very long time,” she says, in a very kind voice.

“I know.”

“Last time was in Wakanda, right after you fought, and… it was awful without you there. He was so aggressive. Barely himself.”

“So what did you do?”

“T’Challa got a couple of his doctors on the issue, and they were able to formulate a sedative strong enough for Steve. Each time he went into a rut we would inject him, but we were also putting his life at risk. His biology is so unique that predicting how he’d respond was almost impossible. But he accepted it.”

“Did it help?”

“Yeah. He became manageable. High-strung, on edge, but not violent. It numbed him down. And then—”

“Then?”

“Then we came back. And he saw Sarah for the first time. It made him so happy, despite everything. So his body… elaborated the loss. He adjusted.”

“His body convinced itself that I was dead. That’s not elaborating—”

“Tony, he was heartbroken. Out of his mind with grief. Whatever made him move on, I’m glad he found it.”

“Glad?”

“Tony, you… you don’t get it. It was horrific. We had to restrain him in Wakanda, he was—”

“I know—”

“You don’t, I’m telling you. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Tony thinks it over for a few minutes.

“It’s because of the bond.”

“The bond?”

“It must be. After Siberia, I closed the bond off to him,” Tony says, and he has a distinct impression that Bucky and Natasha both already knew this. He ignores it. “Guess that’s when he realized I wouldn’t take him back. And why his ruts got so bad.”

“So what’s different now?”

“We… the bond, you know, we tended to it. Last night.”

“Tony—”

“So maybe that—”

“You forgave him,” Bucky says, suddenly. It’s not a question.

“It’s… complicated. But, yeah. I suppose I did.”

Bucky reaches out to rest a hand on his shoulder. Tony simply looks at it. Bucky has never touched him.

Natasha sighs. “I’m going to get dressed,” she says, trying not to smile, and she leaves the room.

Bucky drags in a deep breath, and takes his hand away. He pours a cup of coffee for Tony and one for himself. He hides his face into it for a moment, gearing up to say something. Tony can already guess what it is.

“I’m sorry about Siberia.”

There it is.

“You don’t need to—”

“I didn’t know how to say it, back then. You seemed like you didn’t want to hear it. Then we had to save the universe, and after that... we slipped into this, uh, sort of, um, acquaintancesh—”

“You can say friendship.”

Friendship, but… I never said it. That I’m sorry. So I’m saying it now. I’m sorry.”

Tony scoffs, amused at Bucky’s tone but also still a bit bitter for all the things he wishes had gone in another way. “I’m sorry, too. It was… it was fucked up, and that’s…”

“We didn’t know. Steve… he had no idea you were pregnant.”

“I know. I was taking pills. I didn’t want to keep it from him, but I… I didn’t want him to go through that pain, in case I couldn’t… I was forty-six, I mean, why would he even want me at all is beyond me, or have a kid—”

“Tony,” Bucky says, his eyes going a little wide in surprise, “you know Steve loves you, right?”

“I—”

“Just the way you are. He loves you just the way you are.”

Tony is silent for a minute. “Thank you for saying that.” He huffs out a breath, and the muscles around his heart distend into something that feels close to freedom.

***

Steve managed to undress. He’s naked now, lying stomach down on Tony’s bed, trying to breathe in the scent he left on his pillow, and fucking into his hand and into the mattress with a desperation he’s never felt so keenly in his life.

He passed out at some point, thank god, and he came to about twenty minutes ago with still a bit of consciousness to spare. That’s gonna change soon, he knows. It’s creeping up on him—slow but steady.

His dick hurts so much. His skin is on fire; he wants to peel it off his bones. He’s in so much pain, and it’s only the beginning of the rut.

Fuck. He’s not supposed to feel this bad. But it’s been ten years, and his bondmate doesn’t want him, not in this way at least. Steve doesn’t know exactly what that means; he and Tony have always been an exception to the rule. But he can easily guess where this will take him, and he doesn’t have a long road ahead of him.

The only bits of hope come from Tony’s presence in his mind. It isn’t constant; it comes and goes, but it’s soothing when it’s there. At least he’s not completely alone. At least Tony is willing to help him in one way, if not the other. The rejection isn’t so total.

Of course, he doesn’t want to force Tony, or guilt-trip him into offering his body to Steve. Of course not. Steve is still himself enough for the rational part of his mind to know that. But he’s selfishly happy that he’ll be able to feel Tony in his mind while he drifts away. That’s something. More than he ever hoped for since their fight, really.

Steve is only distantly aware that someone has come into the room. It’s the smell that hits him: there’s another Alpha here.

His heart pounds in his chest and fear strikes him. He won’t allow them to take Tony, Tony is his and his only, forever, he’s his Alpha and no one else can—

“Steve? It’s Nat. God, it reeks in here. Ugh.”

“Where’s—” He tries to get up but fails.

“Lie down,” Nat says, with her Alpha voice, and Steve wants to rise up to the challenge, but he can’t. He’s too tired. “Tony’s safe,” she says, and that gives Steve a small amount of peace.

He hears a few whirring noises, in rapid succession. Tony’s nanotech.

“What are you—”

“The room is reinforced now. It recognizes your biosignature. You can’t leave.”

So. It’s happening. It’s gonna happen. There’s nothing to do.

Alright, Steve thinks, an acute sense of calm chilling him deep to his bones. Alright.

It’s been a good life. He has a lot of regrets, but it’s been good, too. He saved the world. He helped people. He’s Sarah’s father, and that’s worth everything.

“I’ve lost my strength,” he manages to say. Reinforcing the room isn’t necessary; he can’t even get up.

“It’s just the start. You know that. You’re gonna be strong again soon.”

Right. He forgot about that. He’s not thinking straight; thinking is very hard right now.

“Here, I brought you your toys.”

“Don’t… don’t want toys—”

There’s no point. He’ll just wait until it’s over.

“I know what you want. You’ll have to make do.”

He knows he can’t have Tony; there’s no need to remind him. Tony doesn’t want him like that. They mended the bond only last night. If they had had more time, maybe Tony would have been willing to at least… But no. It’s too soon. He won’t ask Tony to do something like that.

He can’t believe he managed to screw it all up again.

Natasha makes him roll over, and the air hits his skin, bringing him more pain. She makes him sit up and places a glass between his lips. He drinks some of the water and the contrast with the cold liquid makes him realize just how warm he is. Natasha places something cold on his forehead, and he opens his eyes.

He’s still clutching his dick. He’s not usually shy about his body, and Nat has seen him like this before, but he still feels mortified that he’s putting his friend through this.

“Is it like it was in Wakanda? All those years ago?”

Steve shakes his head, and a broken sob makes its way past his lips. “It’s so much worse.”

Because now the bond is there, starting to flourish again. So it’s even more unnatural that he can’t have his mate.

“Try using the toys, Steve. We’ll figure something out in the meantime.”

In the meantime? There’s no meantime. There’s just the wait.

Steve never expected to go out like this. He always thought he’d die in the field, Iron Man by his side. Maybe not as a result of some grand heroic gesture—he’s been careful with those since Sarah was born, they both have—but still in battle. Not whimpering in a bed damp with his own sweat and come.

The only other option he has… but no, he can’t ask his friends to live with his blood on their hands.

“I’m losing control. Nat… promise me you’ll keep him safe. Restrain me, knock me out, anything.”

She hesitates. “Okay. Okay, I will,” she says in the end.

“Tell him I loved him, okay? I love him. And Sarah. More than—”

“Steve. Use the toys. I’ll be back later.”

“Could you… could you bring me a pen and some, some paper?”

“A pen and some paper?”

“Sketchbook. In my room.”

“Alright. Rest now. I’ll bring it to you. It’s gonna be okay.”

She’s lying. They both know it.

“Thank you.”

She nods, and then leaves.

Steve is still fisting his erection. God, it hurts so much. He doesn’t want to use the toys, but the thought of his knot swelling up with only his hand around it makes the bottom drop out of his stomach.

He drags the box of Alpha toys closer. He doesn’t have many, just a few basic things. He doesn’t use them all that often, what with the fact that he doesn’t have ruts anymore. But once in a while, the mood strikes. Or after some bad mission, when he needs to unwind and stop thinking for a while. Or when by some fortunate chance he happens to stand too close to Tony and catch a whiff of his sweat.

He picks up the lube and squeezes some into the silicone Omega channel. His hands are shaking, his vision is blurry, and sitting up takes an unspeakable effort. But the moment he fucks into the toy, he lets out a groan of relief. It’s finally what he needs. This tight pressure around his dick finally feels right, in a way his hand could never do. It’s still fake, and Tony’s body isn’t attached to the thing, and it’s not even comparable at all to how it would feel to sink into Tony’s heat, the heady fragrance of his slick flooding Steve’s nostrils and mouth and brain.

He whines at the thought, the memory of going through a rut with Tony there with him and willing still fresh in his mind as though he did it just yesterday.

But it’s been ten years. Ten years since that last time. They didn’t do it many times, they weren’t together for long before everything went up in flames, but those few times, oh, those few times. The memory has kept him sane all along, but it won’t be enough now.

He keeps the toy still and pounds into it again and again, until he comes and his knot starts stretching the silicone. He has two hours stuck into this thing to look forward to now, and it would be tragicomic if it didn’t feel so utterly devastating.

The cherry on top is the Alpha part of him loathing himself for wasting his own semen like this. Logic hits him, and he feels guilty on so many levels, because it doesn’t work like that, that’s not the goal of sex or knotting, that’s not the sole reason why he wants Tony by his side, and Tony couldn’t bear another child in any case. Tony doesn’t even want to… But even if he did... even if he did, they couldn’t have another child and that’s fine, it’s not Tony’s fault, it’s no one’s fault, he just wants…

He wants to be with Tony, to feel his love in his mind. He wants Tony’s hands on his skin. He wants to be a father again. And again and again and again and again. He wants to be okay, but he can only hope to retain enough presence of mind to be able to say goodbye to Tony and Sarah, before wasting away in this room.

One last goodbye. Kissing his daughter’s hair one last time, watching her smile. Telling her she’s smart and perfect and beautiful, and to keep her eyes sharp. To be brave, always. To stand up for what’s right, like his mom taught Steve a century ago.

And then talking with Tony one last time, hearing the sound of his voice. Closing his eyes and just listening to him ramble about his most recent project, or something funny Sarah told him, or the latest bullshit from the board of directors.

He just wants to be able to hug them both, and tell them he loves them one last time.

He knows it won’t happen.

His dick keeps spurting load after load of thick come into the toy, each time bringing awful spasms to his abdominal muscles, his pelvis, his thighs. There’s no pleasure at all in this. It’s an orgasm that feels like a knife through the guts.

He passes out, from exhaustion and pain, still trying to chase after Tony’s scent on the pillows.

***

They regroup in the kitchen. Natasha has a grim look on her face.

“So?” Tony asks, “How is he?”

Tony is so worried, but he tries to keep it under control because he can’t let any of it make it past to Steve’s side of the bond. The only things that he can perceive from there are already just fear and sorrow, and he can’t add his own to it. He wants to help Steve, not make it worse.

“It’s… it’s bad.”

Natasha sags down on one of the barstools. She takes the smoothie Tony passes her over the counter. “Thank you,” she says, before placing the straw between her lips.

Bucky watches her, curious and anxious. She seems to think briefly about something, then she stops drinking and fiddles with the edge of the glass.

“I assume he slept in your room last night. Since he’s in your bed and not his. Is that right?”

“Yeah. We mended the bond, and then Sarah came into the room… She fell asleep so he just… stayed.”

The silence is tense.

“You were right, Tony. Mending the bond triggered this. Plus, you finally made your nest. It’s only normal that he’d want to… well, expand the family. Technically.”

“Nat,” Bucky says, his voice neutral and even, “would you mind quitting this cryptic Alpha shit and telling us exactly what’s going on?”

She takes his hand in hers and squeezes it. Tony watches them look at each other for a moment without speaking, while something is obviously being shared across their bond.

“It’s a rut. The worst he’s ever had. Possibly the worst anyone’s ever had.”

“What do we do? Get that sedative from Wakanda? Or at least the formula, we can synthesize it—”

“I don’t think it’d be enough this time.”

“What—”

“It’s too strong. Tony, he’s… he hasn’t had a rut in ten years and the one he’s having now… he’s getting the backlog all at once. I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”

“So we’re just giving up?”

“What would you have me do, Tony? I don’t know how to fix this any more than you do.”

“There’s gotta be a way—”

“I don’t think he’d want, uh… But desperate times… Maybe we could get, uh…” Bucky swallows, “a sex worker. A professional, you know, to…”

Tony stomach flips at the suggestion. Well, he supposes they could. Steve sent him away, so he clearly doesn’t want Tony’s help. Which is fine. Obviously. Totally fine. Understandable, even. Who would want Tony? Who could desire a fifty-six-year-old Omega, bond or not? The mere idea is just laughable, honestly.

“We could,” Nat says, interrupting Tony’s train of thought, “but I don’t think Steve would—”

“He’s not morally against it. Sex work, I mean. He’s not against it.”

“I know that, James, but I don’t think it would ease the rut in any case. This isn’t about sex. It’s about the bond.”

Tony’s head snaps up.

“Well, I—”

“You don’t have to, Tony. If you don’t want to, we’ll find another way, even though…”

“Even though?”

“Even though the only thing that makes sense would be for him to have sex with his bondmate. And if he doesn’t… I think… Tony, I think this could kill him. I think Steve is dying.”

The words echo in Tony’s mind. Dying? That… that doesn’t make any sense. No one dies for a rut. It can get bad, and sure Steve is somewhat special but… dying?

“Dying?” he asks.

“Tony, listen. What I felt in there, the way he smells… If you don’t help him, he’s going to die.”

“I—”

“But, as I said. You don’t have to. If you don’t want to have sex with him, especially like this, then you just don’t do it. It’s your body, you get to decide. No one would blame you. But I thought you should know what could happen. You have a child with him; you deserve to know.”

“Wait. What makes you think I don’t want to—”

“You gave me the tech to reinforce the room, I thought—”

“Nat—”

“Shit. Sorry. Okay.”

“But does he… does he want me, though? Because I don’t think he… He sent me away, he—”

“Tony. You’re an idiot. I love you, you’re my friend, but you’re an idiot. Of course Steve wants you. Why do you think—”

“I was starting to think he was willing to die before having sex with—”

“Oh, bozhe moi.”

There’s a long pause. Natasha seems to be thinking about what to say next, but she’s displeased about it.

“Tony, I want you to think this over very well. It will change your relationship with Steve, profoundly and quickly. I want you not to rush into things. I want you not to regret whatever you decide to do in the end.”

“I’m not gonna regret saving his life, Nat.”

“I know. But there’s more at play than just that. You’re not just consenting to sex. You’re consenting to repairing the bond in full. You’d be mates.”

“I know that. And you know what I think? That the one drawing the short straw here is Steve. He’s out of his mind with want and need, and I just go to him like, yeah let’s fuck for days. How’s that consent, Nat? When his only other option is dying?”

“For what it’s worth, Tony, he’s ready. He’d die. He told me to tell you and Sarah that he—”

Tony scoffs, disgust rising in his throat. “I’m not listening to this.”

“Tony,” Bucky says. He’s been speaking so little this whole time, and even now his voice doesn’t sound all that confident. “What you decided to do ten years ago… it was within your rights. I know it’s frowned upon, and rare, especially from the Omega, but… I’ve always thought that’s bullshit. You wanna leave someone, you’re free to do so regardless of how you present.”

“Thank you,” Tony says, but he knows there’s more.

“But I want you to know that Steve… I’ve held him while he cried himself sick for you—me, Sam, Nat, we all have. A lot of times. It never went away, it never got any easier for him.” He sighs, shaking his head because he’s unsatisfied with the way he’s explaining this. “What I mean is… don’t think, Tony, not even for a minute, that there was ever a point in the past ten years where Steve wouldn’t have taken you back in a heartbeat if you agreed to it. Or that he wouldn’t do it now, or in the future. He’d always want you. He never stopped loving you.”

Tony is quiet for a moment. When he speaks, his voice is low and shaky. “And you think I have?”

Bucky’s eyes widen. “You… God, Tony.”

Silence stretches between the three of them again, while they take a minute to appreciate the disheartening sadness of the situation. Tony looks down at the floor. He knows he has no real reason for it, but he feels ashamed. Exposed, bad. He removes his jacket and his vest. He loosens his tie. He doesn’t even know why he dressed so formally today. He rolls up the sleeves of his shirt. It’s too warm in the kitchen, but Nat and Bucky seem fine.

He feels a sharp jolt of pain at the sides of his chest, above his ribs. He tries to relax his muscles, keep his shoulders down, straighten his posture. He takes a couple of deep breaths and it goes away.

That was strange.

He still feels so warm. Is he coming down with a fever? Just what he needs right now, dammit.

“The rut is going to turn violent pretty soon, Tony,” Nat says with her kindest voice. “If you want to speak to him, you should probably do it now.”

“Right,” he says. “Alright.”

***

The only thing Steve can feel right now is pain.

It’s everywhere. It clouds Tony’s presence in his mind, mutes the bond and brings him into a state of abject misery.

He feels like he doesn’t have enough skin to cover all of himself. Every inch of it feels as if it has been scrubbed raw, like it’s burning—it prickles unpleasantly, it itches.

He can barely move. His muscles seize up every time he tries, giving him shocks of white-hot pain that make tears well up in his eyes. He can usually stand physical hurt pretty well, but this is beyond everything he’s ever had to tolerate.

He feels every single beat of his heart. It makes him so uncomfortable, being so aware of the blood rushing through his veins, the way it pulses in his neck, in his head.

His bones ache. He feels hot all over except there, at the deepest of himself. There, it’s like he’s in the ice again, frozen. It’s like someone is hitting him with a hammer and shattering his bones into pieces.

His dick has softened. It slipped out of the toy leaving a trail of come so thick it’s easy to guess how sick he is. There’s even blood in it, just a bit.

It will be brief, this respite. The next wave of the rut will be stronger, he’ll be less able to think. The succeeding one, he already knows, will be the one where he’ll lose it all the way.

He holds his dick at the base, just above the place where the knot forms. It hurts so fucking much he can’t even breathe. He pushes back into the toy—at least he’ll get some pressure around it, he figures—but it feels so bad. It’s disgusting. His come is lukewarm inside the channel, the silicone is so fake. There’s no warmth, and it only smells like plastic.

He hates this. He hates every second of this.

He falls asleep. He’s thankful for how exhausted he is, for every minute of unconsciousness.

He thinks he feels Natasha’s hands on him at some point, she puts a fresh wet cloth on his forehead.

“Sleep for a little while, Steve,” she tells him. “It’s gonna be alright soon. You’re gonna be alright. Don’t worry.”

He’s gonna be alright. He’s going to die, and then there’ll be no more pain.

He sleeps.

He wakes up with his dick so hard he can’t even touch it. He forces it back into the toy channel and fucks into it so violently he can feel the bed shake with it. After only a few gut-wrenching thrusts, he screams his orgasm into the pillow, throat sore and aching, and his knot swells again while he comes.

It’s more than unsatisfying; it seems to be doing him more bad than good, but he regains a small amount of clarity. He opens his eyes and sees his sketchbook and a pen on Tony’s bedside table. He stretches over to pick them up, opens the book with shaky hands, but he can’t draw anything. He tries a few lines but he can’t even see what he’s doing; everything is trembling and imperfect.

He just writes in the end, in wonky and uneven letters that barely resemble his usually neat handwriting.

Tony,

I wish I could spare you this pain. But I know you won’t let it bring you down. You have so many things to accomplish yet. Your love has been a gift, even though I didn’t make it last.

Yours,

Steve

And then,

Sarah,

You’ve been the greatest joy of my life. You made me better in every way. I’m proud of you and I always will be. Remember me if you can. Keep your heart kind and your mind sharp. I love you,

Dad

The pen slips from his fingers.

His mind fractures; the pieces are scattered away like leaves in the wind.

He can’t keep his eyes open.

He knows he won’t be himself when he wakes up again; he’s barely himself now.

He doesn’t have the strength to do anything about it. Even if he could.

He sees Tony, suddenly. He even smells him. His mind is playing sick tricks on him, but Steve finds himself grateful for this. It won’t feel so lonely, dying.

“What’s this?” he hears Tony muttering. “Goddammit, Steve.”

Tony—this imaginary Tony that Steve must be hallucinating—touches him. He brushes a hand through Steve’s hair and Steve leans into it. It feels so real.

Tony makes him sit up and drink some water. He’s careful because Steve is still knotting the toy. He wants to cover his lap with the sheets, but then he remembers there’s no way this is real. No way.

His face is being pressed into skin. He breathes in and things go quiet.

Tony.

Tony, he’s—

He’s here. He’s really here.

Steve tries to push away so he can look at him, but he fails.

“You there?” Tony asks.

“Y—Yeah.”

“Listen to me, listen… You’re not gonna die, alright? I’m not gonna let you die, I promise. The minute the next wave hits I’ll be here, I’m gonna help you. But I need you to agree. I need you to say it with words.”

“Mmh—”

Steve just wants to touch him. Words? Nah, fuck words. He just wants to touch, to lick between Tony’s legs until the pounding in his head stops. He tries to grab him, but Tony’s stronger than Steve right now.

He’s in Steve’s mind, Tony, trying to guide him to reason, but thinking is such hard work, and Steve is so tired, so tired of everything that isn’t Tony sitting on his face or his lap, he’s not picky.

Tony strokes his hair with his hand; he strokes Steve’s soul with his.

Calm down, it seems to tell him, and maybe Tony is really saying it. “Calm down, sunshine. I’m here now. You’re all right.”

Sunshine.

It’s like a code word, giving Steve access to a memory he’s locked away and never looked at for a very long time, because even just remembering was too much after he’d lost it all.

Their first date. Steve had been so nervous that night, the secret he was keeping from Tony scratching at the back of his mind like nails on a chalkboard. And Tony, instead, so happy that Steve had said yes when he had asked him out, his eyes so big and his smile so warm.

Tony had kissed him in the elevator. Steve had his hands in his pockets, and he was starting to feel awkward, unsure about how to end the date. But Tony turned, went up on his tiptoes, fisted the lapels of Steve’s leather jacket and waited for Steve to bend his head and meet him halfway. He cupped Tony’s face with his hand as the elevator dinged open to the workshop floor.

“Goodnight, sunshine,” Tony had said against Steve’s mouth, walking backwards into the hallway.

“Goodnight,” Steve had answered, a little breathless, feeling himself blush.

And now.

“I need you to say it, Steve,” Tony insists, but Steve doesn’t know what Tony wants him to say, what is it, whatever, it doesn’t matter, just, just—skin tongue slick fuck knot hole bond bite mate mine—

“Hey, hey, none of that, come on… stay with me just one minute,” Tony says, and a sense of quiet takes over Steve’s mind through the bond.

Steve opens his eyes, blinks a few times and tries to look at Tony. “What…” he starts, but he can’t finish.

“Steve, listen to me. You know you’re going to die if you don’t… you know it, right?”

Steve nods. His head is being held up by Tony’s hands—he hadn’t noticed that.

“I don’t want to force you into anything. But if you want it, if you really want, uh, me, I’m… I’m here. For you.”

Steve struggles to understand, because Tony can’t be saying what Steve thinks he’s saying.

“You,” he says, “you okay with me… us…”

“Yeah. Yeah, sunshine, I’m okay with it. More than okay, you understand? I’m not gonna let you die.”

“But you… You don’t, you don’t have to… do this…”

“Sure, it’s not the most ideal timing. I agree. But you need this, and I’m here for you. Maybe it’s actually better this way. God knows how much time we would’ve wasted dancing around this thing if left to our own devices.”

“Don’t wanna... force you—”

“You aren’t.”

“But—”

“At all. But I need your consent, Steve. I know you’re not feeling well right now but I need you to say that you want this and I need to feel that you mean it.”

“Okay—”

“So I’m gonna ask you. Do you want to have sex with me? And be together as bondmates?”

The words bounce inside Steve’s mind. Does he want that? Of course he wants that, he’s been wanting it for years—

“Think about it, Steve. Just for a minute, try to really think about it.”

“I don’t need—”

“Please, Steve. Just a little effort. I know it’s a lot, but... it’s important.”

The blocks of Steve’s personality shift into his head. He squeezes his eyes shut, and then opens them again, trying to clear his thoughts to make room for the one thing he needs to focus on right now.

He takes a few deep, regular breaths; he exhales through his mouth and feels his heart slow down to an acceptable rate.

Tony’s presence, both physical and not, grounds Steve in reality.

“Yeah,” he says, slowly, using the bond to communicate the truth of his words to Tony, “I, I do. I want you. If… if you’ll have me.”

Steve’s eyes feel so heavy.

“I will. I want you. Steve. My consent… you have it. When you wake up again I don’t know if you… but it’s okay. Anything you need to do, you have my permission. Throughout the whole rut. Alright?”

“You… Mine… mine too,” Steve slurs, and then he blacks out again.

***

Bucky and Natasha wait with him for Steve to wake up. It makes sense since they don’t know how violent Steve will be when he’s conscious again, but it makes Tony uneasy. There’s a voice in his heart telling him that this should stay between him and Steve.

In the end, Tony knows he has the final say, and he accepts their friends’ presence. He can see that it’s uncomfortable for them, though. Natasha is jittery—spending so much time in a room with another Alpha who’s going through such a powerful rut must be hell for her. Bucky keeps scrunching up his nose and making a disgusted face. It makes Tony smile. To him, Steve smells beautiful.

For his part, Tony isn’t relaxed either. He hasn’t stripped down and he hasn’t changed into a robe, even though he still feels too warm. He removes his tie and undoes a few buttons on his shirt, but nothing more.

Steve wakes up slowly. Tony notices his breathing quickening, his muscles spasming with renewed strength. He’s always liked how strong Steve was, how he’d hold Tony down and leave bruises on him during every rut—the only times when Steve lost his cool just enough, got just a bit rougher, thought just a bit more about taking instead of giving. Tony loved it—a show put on just for him, Steve Rogers falling apart with a need only Tony could fulfill. It made him feel wanted. Important. Maybe he wasn’t so useless and worthless if Steve needed him like that for a few days every month.

Steve pushes himself up onto his hands. He groans.

The moment Steve turns to look at him, the moment their eyes meet, Tony knows that there’s very little of Steve in the body on his bed. Or, yes, Steve is there, but he’s buried deep under something else.

Whatever it is, Tony stares back at it with no fear.

He should’ve been more careful, he realizes when it’s already too late.

It happens in less than a second. If anyone will ask Tony to tell them how this went, he won’t be able to say. One moment he was standing there, close to the side of the bed. A moment later he thinks that he’s grateful for the high quality of the carpet in his room, since he’s being shoved face-first into it by the heavy, naked, sweaty body of his Alpha.

Fuck.

Bucky and Nat are both shouting things that Tony can’t really understand right now. He’s not paying attention.

A jolt of fear goes through him, now. Steve just literally jumped his bones.

A predator chasing its prey. It’s such a primordial instinct. Such a primitive thing.

Nah, he’s just fooling himself. Alpha/Omega dynamics are still so often like that at their core, even though masked under the veil of good social norms, tradition, duty, biology. Otherwise, Tony wouldn’t have had to build a web of Omega shelters across the world, to allow unmated Omegas to go through their heats without Alphas breaking into their homes and—  

“Tony, holy shit, are you alright?”

It’s Bucky. Steve growls at him.

“Fuck you, Steve, shut the fuck—I’m not gonna steal him from you! I’m bonded! Look!” He grabs the collar of his henley to show him Natasha’s bite. It’s higher than usual, almost on the curve of his neck, to avoid the scar where the metal arm is connected to his body. But while Tony notices, Steve seems to barely look at him, and he growls again to keep Bucky away. “I’m married! I’m just trying to… Have you lost your fucking mind!”

“He has, I think,” Tony jokes. “I think you guys should leave. Unless you wanna… watch…”

“Hell, no,” Bucky says, but he looks concerned. He exchanges a worried look with Natasha.

“We’ll leave,” she says, “but only if you’re really sure about this, Tony.”

“I told you I am.”

“Yes. Just…”

She cares about him. About the both of them. She wants Tony to be safe.

Steve moves on top of him, adjusting his grip. His dick is as hard as a rock, and Tony feels a weird tickle in his ass, a buzzing under his skin.

“I’m okay. I’m okay. Promise. I’ll call if I… He won’t hurt me,” he says.

“No,” Nat says, “I don’t think he will.”

Steve growls again and then whines, still pressing Tony against the floor, keeping him still, grinding his hips against Tony’s ass now and then, but nothing more.

Tony imagines his hand touching the bond inside his mind. He finds Steve. He’s scared, more than anything else. There’s something shouting at him in his mind, alarms going off, and he’s fighting them with all his might. The compulsion is impossibly strong, but he’s so afraid of hurting Tony.

“I really think you guys should leave,” he says.

“Alright. Alright. Call through FRIDAY if you—”

“Yeah. Yeah.”

The moment they’re alone in the room, Steve rips Tony’s clothes away, and the skin-on-skin contact, so sudden and unexpected, makes all of Tony’s nerve endings catch fire. Steve’s skin is so hot; he’s burning up from the inside.

Tony doesn’t have time to appreciate it or to worry about what will happen next.

The blunt tip of Steve’s cock makes its way past Tony’s rim, and then... there, it’s happening. He’s being fucked into the floor.

He was prepared for it to hurt, to burn, for his insides to resist with how dry he is, but… no. His body opens up to Steve like a flower, like these past ten years it had been waiting just for this and only for this. He’s so wet that he can feel the slick trickling out of him now that Steve has breached him, and his muscles readjust to welcome Steve into him. There are fireworks in his mind, overwhelming waves of love and want and need and family and mine.

Tony has never felt this good. Not in ten years, not before, not ever.

But there’s a part of Tony’s mind that never stops thinking. There’s a part of him that never stops with the self-sabotage, with the manipulation. You do it for half your life, it becomes a habit. Habits are hard to kill, old ones especially.

This part of his mind is rational and cold, precise like a bullet, and so far away from the bond that links him to Steve.

He feels shitty, but he needs to do it. Once he knows this, then everything… everything will be different. Easier.

Steve fucks into him slowly, it’s more painful than anything for him so early on, but it also gives him relief. That much is clear from the way he sighs and moans on top of Tony, like a starving man being fed for the first time in ten years.

“Steve,” he tries.

Nothing.

“Steve,” he tries again.

Steve grunts.

Good enough.

“If I said that I’ve changed my mind… if I asked you… if I asked you to stop. Would you?”

Steve lets out a fragile, shaky keen that sounds like Tony, but not quite.

“Would you?” Tony insists, and he is officially the shittiest human ever. But he needs to know. After the way Steve tackled him to the ground, he needs to know.

He twists on his torso to look at Steve’s face, red and sweaty, features contorted in pain.

“I… I would,” he chokes out. He kneels, folds over, and slips out of Tony.

He doesn’t say, I’m gonna die, he doesn’t say, It will kill me, and he doesn’t say, But you said, “Anything you need to do.” He doesn’t say anything except I would, and then he curls up on himself waiting for the unsatisfied rut to finish him.

There’s no betrayal coming from Steve’s end of the bond. No recrimination, no hate. There’s just quiet acceptance, a calm and personal grief. A goodbye, an It’s not your fault.

“Steve.”

Steve whines in response, and Tony wants to kick his own ass.

But now he knows. He knows what Steve would do for him. What he would give up.

“I haven’t changed my mind.”

Steve looks up at him, confused, fisting his cock as hard as he can to keep the pain at bay.

“C’mon. Fuck me. C’mon, sunshine.”

And then Tony thinks that he might as well use all the weapons in his I’m-a-terrible-human-being arsenal for this, so he balances himself against the floor, sticks his ass out, and presents himself for Steve’s taking. He makes himself as irresistible as any Omega can be for their Alpha, even though Tony is old and not as appealing as he once was—which never was much to begin with, considering Omega beauty standards.

But Steve says, “Sure?” with a strained voice and that’s when Tony knows that he could play this trick a thousand times, he could take hope away from Steve and then give it back a thousand times, and Steve would never force him into anything.

He’s rough, exhausted, barely keeping it together from pain, out of his own mind with need and arousal because fucking Tony right now is a matter of survival, and yet if Tony said No, Steve wouldn’t touch him.

He’d die. But he wouldn’t touch him.

“I’m sure,” Tony says, wiggling his butt in the air. “I’m just a jerk. I’m sorry. Now knot me. Come on.”

Steve plunges back into him all in one go, and Tony is suddenly filled up with just Steve, and his mind is a hurricane of relief and love and something quiet that falls on them both like a blanket.

Steve groans and whimpers, out of breath, sweat making his skin stick to Tony’s. A squelching noise fills the room every time Steve thrusts into Tony’s body, and Tony wonders where all that slick is coming from.

Tony, he… he doesn’t really masturbate. He doesn’t feel the need, especially since his heats are gone. Just sometimes, every few months, he wakes up hard and he takes care of it quickly, in the bathroom. Sometimes he doesn’t even need to do anything at all, his erection flagging before he can even free it from his underwear. But he never feels wet, he never feels open.

Except now he is.

But that’s how the bond works, he supposes. It helps you be what you need to be, what your mate needs you to be, for the bond itself to prosper.

Steve is fucking into him faster now, harder; the slick easing the way in and out, the knot already starting to swell inside Tony even before Steve comes, and the slap of Steve’s thighs against Tony’s ass is obscene and pornographic and mind-bogglingly poetic.

Tony’s nose is buried into the carpet and he’s struggling to breathe. He coughs, just once, and Steve lifts him up and moves him into a more comfortable position.

“T—thanks,” Tony chokes out, and he’s suddenly aware of how empty his mouth is. He wishes Steve would knot his mouth. They did it once, and he cried and choked on it, and his face ached for days afterwards. It was so good.

Steve slumps over above Tony, falls on him gracelessly, forcing Tony’s hips back on the floor. He covers Tony’s body with his own, resting an elbow on the side of Tony’s head. Tony feels him do something with his other hand, touch the place between them where they become one thing, slip a couple of fingers into Tony and rub against his dick, stretching Tony out, reaching past the knot and then deep inside him.

Tony cries out in surprise while his body shakes as much as Steve allows it to. He can’t possibly take Steve’s fingers on top of the half-formed knot; it’s starting to hurt and the stretch is too much, so much more than what Tony can tolerate right now. Steve grunts and takes his fingers out of Tony’s hole, bringing his hand in front of Tony’s face and just waiting, his forefinger and middle finger glistening with Tony’s slick all over them.

Steve doesn’t say, Lick, he doesn’t say, I know you want this, he doesn’t say, Do it. Tony moves his head, opens his mouth, and swallows Steve’s fingers, tasting himself on them and Steve underneath it all and he wonders how has he lived without this for ten years?

Barely. Sadly. Aching with the loss.

The bond flares. Steve’s end of it is a litany of mine mine mine, and he fucks into Tony again, desperate and unable to really control his movements or his strength, until he can’t hold himself up anymore. He crushes Tony to the floor, a hand splayed out over Tony’s shoulder blades, and Tony distantly registers that now he really can’t breathe—he’s pinned in place, mouth full of Steve’s fingers.

But Steve gasps, unexpectedly, and even though it sounds more like the final rattle of a dying man, he eases off of Tony. He groans again, tortured and agonizing, and takes his fingers out of Tony’s mouth.

Steve tries to speak, but all that comes out of his mouth is an aborted shout.

“Yeah. Please.”

Tony feels the knot grow inside him to full girth, effectively locking Steve inside him, and he whimpers one more time. He had forgotten Steve was so huge, especially when he’s like this.

There’s a crack in his soul. Trying to hold off Steve’s rage is taking its toll on him; it threatens to split him open right in the middle. But there’s no one else that can do this, no one else is up to this task. Only Tony, and the thought comforts him for a brief moment.

A supernova explodes in his mind, and then there’s only the pleasure-pain of Steve biting down on his shoulder, fitting his teeth over the mark he left there all those years ago—the first time they bonded, the first time he knotted Tony—the mark that never faded, not ever, not after all that time, like their love for each other didn’t fade, despite the guilt, the betrayal, and the abandoned bond.

A bite mark that doesn’t fade. That only happens when the Alpha is dead. If the bond is neglected or broken then the mark isn’t renewed, and eventually it goes away. But Tony’s never went away. It’s his own version of what happened to Steve’s ruts.

Steve rolls him to the side, pressing himself against Tony’s back, caressing his hip and making him shiver. He nibbles at his neck, then, and Tony turns his head to kiss him—just a brush of lips, chaste and heartbreaking. Steve tastes like tears, and Tony knows not all of them were shed out of relief.

Steve pulls away and rubs Tony’s lips with his fingers, caresses his chin and his neck. Steve’s hand brushes over Tony’s chest then, over his soft belly that never quite went back to being toned after he had Sarah. Finally, Steve’s hand curls around Tony’s erection, hanging hard and painful between his thighs.

Tony hisses—he feels so sensitive and exposed and like he’s wearing his own skin inside-out. He’s hot, sweaty, and there’s an uncomfortable sting behind his navel that Steve’s cock can just barely relieve.

Steve’s hand moves fast on him, so fast that Tony is a mess in mere minutes.

“Steve,” he sighs, right before he’s about to come, and then Steve does something that Tony really didn’t expect.

He stops jacking Tony off. He splays out his hand and uses the palm to trap Tony’s dick against his belly. He covers it fully, from head to hilt, and presses down on it, hard. He fucks into Tony one last time from behind, as much as the knot lets him without it being dangerous, and just enough to push against that one spot inside Tony that makes him see the stars. He stretches his hand just enough to roll the pads of his fingers into Tony’s balls, and past them, over his perineum.

Tony clenches around Steve and the knot pulses inside him, Steve spilling another wave of his release into him. Tony comes so hard his vision whitens with it, and he’s not so sure he doesn’t lose consciousness for a couple of seconds.

Then, breath ragged and voice hoarse, Tony says, “You remembered. I can’t believe you—”

“I remember what you like,” Steve replies, sounding a little more like himself, but his speech is still slurred. “Been thinkin’ ‘bout it for ten years.”

Steve, thinking about how Tony likes to be brought to the very edge of his orgasm and then feeling like it’s being denied to him—and that, just there, that little voice that says, you can’t, that’s what makes Tony come. I can, painted over his skin in translucent stripes of ecstasy.

They rest, then, for as long as the knot latches them together, which is a very long time. Tony can’t say how much, but when Steve can finally slip out of him the winter sun is already starting to set.

But it doesn’t last more than a few minutes.

Steve helps Tony lie down on the bed. He takes a towel from the bathroom and sits down next to Tony, almost smiling, shy and ashamed, carefully cleaning him up. “I’m leaking everywhere,” Tony has the time to say before the smile dies on Steve’s face. His pupils dilate and he bares his teeth with his effort to endure the pain, the fury of the rut. He’s already hard.

Tony sends a quick yes through the bond and Steve rolls him over, and again keeps him still with a hand between his shoulder blades—as though Tony is going anywhere, but Steve is all Alpha instinct now—and fucks into him without much preamble.

Tony wants to scream. He’s a terrible Omega, he’s always been, and he rebels against Steve holding him down, not because he doesn’t want to be but because he likes to be a challenge, he likes to push at Steve’s buttons and play with fire. But he’s also oversensitive and overstimulated in a deeply unsettling way, and his consent doesn’t change the fact that everything is too much, too much, too fucking much, and his legs jerk with all the things he’s feeling; he can’t control them. Steve keeps them still with his own, growls his in his ear to coerce him into submission, and pounds into him again and again.

Tony reaches for Steve across the bond, but he can’t find him now. It’s not that Steve is cutting him off, quite the contrary, but he’s not really himself. He’s slipping away, or something is separating them. A wall, a fence. Tony tries, tentatively, to connect with him, but what comes back in response is just physical need and nothing else. For a minute, there’s no love, no care, no affection.

There’s just static.

Tony feels incredibly alone.

He closes his eyes and tries not to think about it. It’s just the rut. Steve will be back to his own self soon, and Tony needs to help him on the way there, because he promised, because he loves Steve and he promised.

Steve’s thrusts grow faster. It’s all gonna be over in a minute, and Tony isn’t exactly glad about it; he doesn’t really want it to stop—he just wishes he didn’t feel so hopelessly alone.

Steve comes, and Tony can barely feel it. The knot stretches him and his dick twinges, but he doesn’t get anywhere near even half-hard.

He just wants Steve.

There are a few, interminable minutes of stillness. Steve’s been quietly catching his breath, lying on top of Tony, crushing him onto the bed.

Tony reaches for his hand, and Steve grabs it, twining their fingers together while he says, “I’m sorry I… I didn’t—”

Tony lets out a sob before he can do anything to stop it, and then he just lies there, horrified with himself. What if Steve thinks—

“Where did you go?” he asks, and he tries so hard to keep his voice even, but he can’t quite pull it off.

“Nowhere. I don’t know,” Steve says. “It was—”

It was awful, being alone.

“It was,” Steve agrees. “There was just... nothing. I couldn’t feel you.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, and he knows he’s about to cry. If Steve doesn’t do anything in the next three seconds, Tony’s going to—

There.

It’s like taking off your wet clothes after being out in the rain. Like someone wrapping a warm blanket around your shoulders, pushing a cup of coffee in your hand. It’s like sitting together in front of a fire while the storm rages outside.

Steve.

Steve. Love. Family. Mate. Bond. Mine, mine, mine. Steve.

“I don’t know what happened. It… it scared me,” Steve says. It felt just as bad to him as it did to Tony.

Tony twists around to look at Steve, and there’s a wild glint in his eyes, something impulsive and ruthless that he’s desperately trying to reign in. Tony reaches up with his arm, and there’s a bit of fumbling until Steve can press his face into Tony’s neck and Tony can do the same to him while still maintaining a comfortable position for knotting. It’s difficult, but they manage.

“What do you think happened?”

“I don’t know. It’s the rut, I suppose. Makes me feel… dangerous. Distant.”

Alpha, then, but in the worst way. In all those ways Steve has always refused.

“I don’t wanna be like that,” Steve says, quietly, and his worry is palpable through the bond. Tony can even smell it on him—the fear, the misery, the hopelessness.

“You aren’t.”

“I need you. You’re a part of me. I need you. My mate.”

“Yeah. Yeah, don’t worry. We’re gonna get through this together, just… just don’t slip away from me.”

Steve nods and kisses the hollow of his throat, soft and gentle. “You, too.”

They fall asleep in a tangle of limbs.

***

Steve wakes up in the darkness, except for the moonlight streaming into the room from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

He doesn’t care.

He’s in pain. His cock hurts. His head hurts. His skin hurts.

He can’t think. He tries, strains himself, but he can’t.

There’s only the bond in his mind, shining like a sun, and he’s grateful that he can find it so easily now. It was terrifying, before. Being alone, after Tony had been in his head again—

Too much thinking.

No thinking, just—

Just—

“Steve?”

He wants to answer. Wants to ask, Can I? He wants to say, Please, to say—

But instead he just—

“Here, here,” he hears Tony say, and then he’s pressing a slick finger against Steve’s mouth, and Steve licks it clean and wants more, more, more of that, exactly, exactly—

Steve wants to scream, he—

Oh, god.

Everything stops. Everything stops hurting the minute he’s buried deep into Tony.

Tony’s on top of him, moving, and Steve holds his hips to steady him and just lies there and takes it, until his head starts working again and he can form a thought.

The only thought he has is that he loves Tony. Always, forever.

Tony bends down to brush his lips against Steve’s, and in a moment of clarity Steve thinks that even if this doesn’t work, even if the rut ends up killing him anyway, it doesn’t matter. If Tony is with him until the end, then Steve is gonna be okay. He just wants Tony close.

Tony breaks their close-mouthed kiss and pushes himself back up. He resumes rocking his hips against Steve’s and his scent is everywhere.

“Fas—” Steve tries to say, but talking seems out of the question at the moment. Tony must get what he means anyway though, because he speeds up and—

Oh god, oh god, oh god—

Steve doesn’t have control over his body, but he feels his back arch up off the mattress; he feels a spark of electricity shake him from head to toe; he feels something warm and beautiful take over his mind.

His orgasm hits him in waves, powerful waves of white-hot light that caress over his skin and make him calmer, and he’s able to breathe again, and think again.

He opens his eyes and sees Tony riding up against his barely-there knot the last few times, until slipping past the swell becomes too painful and he has to stop. His breathing is harsh and shallow, his dick hard and neglected.

Steve looks at him and thinks that he must be an angel, illuminated by the pale light of the moon.

“You want to—“ Tony says, waving a hand at his own lap.

“No,” Steve finds the voice to say, “I wanna watch while you do it.”

Tony looks at him and shakes his head—fond and amused, but also something else that Steve can’t quite understand at the moment, even through the bond.

Steve lifts his knees behind Tony, so he can lean back against his thighs. A warm ache settles into Steve’s bones, and his knot trembles as he releases another load of come inside Tony. Steve presses up into him, pushes him down so the knot is sheathed a bit deeper in his body, and the skin of Tony’s hole closes up around the very base of Steve’s cock, under the knot. Tony shakes and hisses and says, “Goddammit,” under his breath.

His hand closes around his dick and he moans, loud but somewhat restrained. Steve encourages him with his mind, sits back, and watches as Tony gives pleasure to himself.

Steve doesn’t know what Tony has been doing these past ten years. How often he would masturbate, or how. If he even felt the need all that often. But before, while they were together, Steve always loved watching Tony jack off on top of him, and he would ask him to do it often.

He doesn’t know exactly why, though. There was always something wistful and lonely in Tony’s eyes, especially before they bonded, but even after. Every time Tony would say, an old Omega like me, the light in his eyes would dim, something in his smile would falter and fall—as though each time he was piercing himself with the needle of the harshest self-judgement.

“You like, mmh… you like this. Watching,” Tony says.

“I like everything about you,” Steve replies, and he sits up to wrap his arms around Tony, brush his cheek against his chest. He licks Tony’s scars there, then moves slowly towards a nipple—he nips at it and Tony shudders and Steve doesn’t think about the picture of Tony pregnant and covered in bruises.

“Wanna feel you clench around my knot,” Steve says, surprising even himself. He doesn’t think of himself as a dirty talk kind of Alpha, but Tony brings so many new things out of him. It’s amazing.

“Wanna feel you come all over me… taste you…”

“Fuck, Steve—”

“Yeah—”

Steve reaches down to roll Tony’s balls between his fingers.

“St—”

“I love you so much it hurts.”

Steve didn’t mean to say that.

There’s a moment of silence, a terrifying moment of silence, and then Tony nods and kisses his cheek.

“I don’t know how I survived all these years without you,” Steve continues. Only Sarah kept them sane, really.

Tony brings a hand to his chest. Me too, he means to say.

He’s pumping his cock hard and fast now; he’s about to come. Steve can’t wait.

“You’re so beautiful. My Omega. Beautiful.”

It’s what pushes Tony past the edge.

He closes his eyes and tilts his head backward, mouth open around a shout that could be Steve’s name. He comes in thick spurts of white that hit Steve’s chest and slowly roll down to his stomach.

It’s such a gorgeous sight that Steve’s dick pulses more come into Tony, and he wonders if it would gush out of him, if the knot wasn’t there to keep it in.

Steve scoops up some of Tony’s come with his fingers and brings them to his mouth. He licks them clean while Tony stares at him, the remnants of his orgasm still clouding his mind, and a smile blossoms on his lips.

It’s not a very Alpha thing to do, traditionally. It’s considered somewhat wrong. It’s supposed to be the other way around and only the other way around, according to some messed up rule of submission.

Bullshit, Steve thinks.

“God, you taste like heaven.”

Tony smiles, but it’s a counterfeited smile; it doesn’t reach his eyes even though it’s trying to. Steve doesn’t call him out on it. Tony smiles that smile and says, “Shut up,” in the sweetest way, and then he rests his forehead against Steve’s.

***

Tony gets out of bed just before dawn, while Steve is still asleep.

He’s not feeling very well. His head is fuzzy, his limbs are heavy. There’s a dull ache in his thighs. He can only explain it with all the sex he’s been having, but he remembers it started before that.

Maybe he’s really coming down with the flu or something.

He goes into the bathroom to clean up before wearing an old pair of sweatpants and tiptoeing downstairs, into the kitchen. He sets a few things on a tray. Juice, bread, jam, cookies, chips. A few protein bars. Water.

The moment Tony gets back to his room, he realizes that he should’ve thought this through. He should’ve thought about not leaving his Alpha alone during a rut. Without telling him that he was leaving, or when he would get back.

Tony drops the tray to the ground, and is grateful that all the food and drinks were packaged.

Steve slams the door shut and then presses Tony up against it face-first, grinding his erection against Tony’s clothed ass. Tony already feels wet.

“Jesus… Jesus Christ,” Tony says, wincing.

Steve shoves Tony’s pants down just enough to push into him, and he begins to fuck Tony in hard thrusts made harsher by the slow and punishing rhythm he sets to inflict them. It’s like being punched, and every time Steve pounds into him Tony feels it reach so fucking deep into his body, he feels every thrust in the back of his damn throat. It’s amazing.

“Where were you,” Steve asks, and he’s struggling to make it sound like a question.

“Kitchen,” Tony says, “I brought food. Should’ve said something. Sorry.”

He knows better than to challenge Steve now. He’s not afraid, but he also isn’t mean.

“I woke up… and you weren’t… there,” Steve says, words timed by the slap of his skin against Tony’s.

“Sorry. I know. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t… leave me… again.”

“No. No, I won’t.”

Steve bites his shoulder and fucks him harder, fucks him faster, fucks him up, and then Tony knows what that means and his mind just goes fuck, no.

“Steve, don’t… shit, don’t knot me here.”

Steve doesn’t seem to be even listening at all.

“Steve! Do not knot me here, do you understand—”

Not standing against a door. That’s gonna be the worst.

But it’s too late.

Steve comes, the knot swells, and that’s it. They’re locked together. Standing up. Against a fucking door.

For two hours because Steve is a super soldier who has super ruts and super knots that last two fucking hours.

“Steve, you damn idiot,” Tony says, but without cruelty in it. He’s just tired, really, and his legs hurt, and he can’t hold himself up for so long.

Steve kisses the side of his neck and then picks him up with no effort at all. He walks to the bed with Tony impaled on his cock like it’s nothing. He sits down first, then adjusts them into a lying position.

Tony is the little spoon like this and it… hell, it feels so nice.

Steve laughs. “You really think I’m an idiot, don’t you?”

“Sorry. For a moment there I really… And I never know how present you are when you… You seem kinda out of it at times.”

There’s a very long silence. Tony thinks Steve must have fallen asleep, but then he speaks, and his voice is mangled with tears.

“I can’t remember the first time,” he whispers.

“What?”

“I can’t… I keep thinking about it and I… Just… there’s nothing.”

“How do you mean? Sunshine, please don’t cry.”

Tony reaches back to grab Steve’s hand and bring it forward. He kisses his fingers.

He touches the bond in his mind and he feels all of Steve’s anguish. He showers him with love to encourage him to talk.

“I remember you coming in here. Telling me I had your permission to—” a sob cuts him off, but he sighs and continues. “Then I got my knot in you and I’m jacking you off on the floor. I have no idea what happened in between.”

Shit.

Tony kisses Steve’s hand again. He feels like You tackled me to the ground and snarled at your best friend and the minute we were alone you started fucking me but I’m an asshole so I manipulated you into stopping to see if you’d take me without my consent but good news! Turns out you’d rather die than hurt me isn’t something Steve might want to hear right now.

And yet, he can’t lie. He can’t keep it to himself. Steve… he needs to know. So Tony tells him.

He hates the way his voice sounds, he hates how many turns of phrase he has to use to put the whole thing in the mildest tones he can think of; he hates that he can’t look at Steve right now or do anything to soothe him.

Steve cries, silent and still. Tony feels his tears on his skin. Steve’s pain is beyond words. Tony can sense it with his mind: he’s mortified, humiliated, disgusted with himself, and above all sad, but also relieved that he didn’t hurt Tony. Which is exactly how Tony feels about it, too.

Still, Steve’s distress is so acute that his knot shrinks and he’s able to pull out of Tony earlier than expected.

Tony feels very empty. And he would spare a moment to mourn the loss of Steve inside him if he wasn’t glad that he can nudge Steve to lie on his back now, climb on top of him, and, for the first time in ten years, kiss him—caress Steve’s tongue with his own, remember the way he tastes.

Steve slides a hand to the nape of Tony’s neck, strokes the short hair there and kisses him back.

“You’re a good Alpha,” he whispers against Steve’s mouth when the kiss ends, “and you’re a good man.”

They lie there for a while, sharing more kisses with their mouths and their minds, trading love across the bond.

“I just wish I remembered the moment, you know,” Steve says, quiet and pensive, while Tony is resting his head on his chest and cataloguing every beat of his heart. “The moment we became one again, after ten years. With all the things I wish I could forget… My mind has a sick sense of irony.”

“But you remember the second time? When the bond was—”

“Yeah. Maybe my memories got lost in that void. I don’t know, sweetheart.”

“Maybe you’ll remember. Let the dust settle, and maybe...”

“Yeah,” Steve says, but he sounds doubtful, “maybe.”

Tony kisses him again and pats his chest. “Let’s eat something, alright? That’ll make things better,” Tony says, and Steve doesn’t reply, but he nods and lets Tony get up from the bed.

***

Steve wakes up hard.

He turns his head and sees that Tony is still asleep, lying on his stomach on the bed.

Steve rolls over onto him. He checks that he’s open and wet with his fingers, then enters him while licking Tony’s slick from his hand.

Fuck, the way he tastes. Sweet and warm and light. Metallic. The way Steve imagines the stars would taste.  

Tony’s still asleep.

Steve remembers Tony telling him, years ago, how much he liked this. The deep level of trust and intimacy something like this requires, Tony got a kick out of it. Out of being allowed to let it all go for a little while, and be nothing—not Tony Stark, not Iron Man, no one. He could just be a body. A well-loved body for someone to use and worship and draw pleasure from. For Steve.

Steve remembers Tony saying, An old Omega like me, waking up full of Alpha cock? Nothing beats that, as though it was a gift, but he couldn’t think of a single reason why someone like Steve would want to give it to him.

Guilt still strikes Steve, but then it echoes in his mind, Tony’s voice saying, Anything you need to do.

He pushes a couple of fingers into Tony again, stretching the rim around his own dick and reaching deeper inside him. He licks the glimmering slick off his hand.

Holy shit.

Holy shit, Tony.

He quickens the rhythm of his thrusts, hiding his face in the crook of Tony’s neck and breathing in his perfect scent. It’s impossible to describe. It’s exactly like Tony’s slick, but as a scent.

It’s home. His mate. Family. Safe. The sky, the stars.

Tony stirs underneath him, but Steve relentlessly keeps going. He looks at the side of Tony’s face while he opens his eyes and blinks a few times. A little smile surges up to his lips.

“Good morning,” he says, and Steve doesn’t reply except with a grunt and a caress through the bond.

Tony props himself up with his arms, and turns to kiss Steve, slow and sweet. He plays with Steve’s tongue, sucks on it, maybe he tastes himself there. The thought makes Steve’s head spin.

Tony breaks the kiss and his mouth stays open in a silent shout of pleasure. He turns his head away then, lowering it on his chest.

“Harder, sunshine,” he says. “Harder.”

And Steve can’t deny him anything, least of all this. So harder it is.

When they’re stuck together and the initial edge of the knot has worn off, Steve opens his eyes and notices that it’s the middle of the day.

“Tony… where’s Sarah?” he asks.

“Nowhere near here, don’t worry. Pretty much everyone has left. She’s staying with Bucky and Nat. Not exactly close to school, I know, but Pepper has one of her hell weeks, so.”

“I made everyone leave?”

We did, if anything. Steve. This isn’t your fault.”

“But—”

“It’s on the both of us. We should’ve checked in with a doctor and ask what to expect, instead of just doing it on our own.”

“We were reckless.”

“We were heartbroken.”

Steve sighs deeply. “Do you regr—”

“No!” Tony turns to look at him, twists an arm around to brush a hand over Steve’s face. “Never.”

Steve waits a long time before speaking again, turning his thoughts in his head over and over.

“I fear there’ll be second-thoughts. That we did it only thinking about her, and not us. Because it’s about us, too. It’s our bond, and if it doesn’t work—”

“You think that in ten years I never, even once, thought about it? We always knew what our bond was doing to her, abandoned like that. How many people do you know that didn’t stay bonded after having a kid? Or that split without breaking the bond properly?”

Yeah, it’s more than rare. Like they explained to Sarah, people always have a doctor break the bond, so they don’t suffer and their children don’t suffer, too. That way the separation is safe. But Steve and Tony didn’t do that. They kept the bond and simply ignored it. And they all paid the price, Sarah included.

“How could we do this to her, Tony? We knew. And we—”

“I don’t know. I guess we really always hoped that Siberia would not be the end. For us.”

The words shake Steve down to his core. Hearing Tony say that to Sarah was one thing, but having him say it again now, so seriously...

“I did. I always hoped you’d—”

“I always hoped I could forgive you. Someday. Seeing that it was affecting Sarah in ways I hadn’t thought of… it convinced me.”

“I still feel so guilty.”

“Me too.”

“I keep thinking—”

“That we should’ve broken the bond, but then if we had we wouldn’t be here now, and—”

“You wonder, was it worth it? All this pain.”

“Yeah. But I think about her, and… she’s a happy kid. She is. She’s healthy, she—”

“Oh Tony, don’t cry, sweetheart.”

“Ten years, Steve. We need to… how can we make it up to her?”

“We’ll figure it out. With her. We love her. We made a mistake, a terrible mistake. She’ll forgive us.”

“You think?”

“I hope. I’ll always hope. You and her are my whole world. I’ll never lose hope when it comes to you two.”

Steve kisses Tony’s temple. He passes regard and support to him through the bond, and Tony is grateful in response.

They taught Sarah to be strong and kind.

Steve just hopes she’ll reserve some of that kindness for her stupid parents.

***

When Tony wakes up next, he feels empty and terrified, cold and alone. There’s nothing inside him. Steve isn’t next to him in bed.

His skin is burning up, but he feels cold all the same.

What the fuck is happening to him?

He needs—

Thinking.

He can’t think, but he needs to—

He needs a huge knot shoved into him, he needs Steve splitting him open, he—

He can’t breathe.

There’s something in him, an awful sensation in his lower abdomen, like ten invisible knives have been planted and twisted into him. His legs weigh so much he can’t even move them.

Suddenly, Steve appears next to him, seemingly out of thin air. Where were you, he wants to ask; he wants to beg Steve to never leave him alone again, just like Steve did earlier to him.

“I’m here, I’m here, sweetheart. I’m not… I went to the bathroom, I’m sorry.”

Steve sounds more like himself. His voice is still low and scratchy, like sandpaper on wood, but he seems better after each wave of the rut comes and passes.

“I need—” he hears himself say, and he has no idea how he wanted to finish the sentence.

“I’ve got you,” Steve says.

Tony feels awful and he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t know how to fix it and he needs to fix it because he needs to be okay for Steve, he needs to guide Steve through the other side of his rut but he’s feeling so bad all of a sudden, so empty, why is he so goddamn empty—

“I’ve got you,” Steve says again, in his ear this time, in his head.

He feels Steve lift him up by the hips and manhandle him; he feels his legs being spread open around Steve’s hips, Steve’s hands fumbling between them, and then—

Steve fucks up into him a few times and the whole universe goes still as Tony catches his breath as though he just ran a marathon instead of being asleep. The pounding in his head stops, the terrible sensation twisting his guts slowly ebbs away, and there’s only the perfection of Steve being inside him, of Steve kissing his chest and his neck, of Steve stroking his mind and his dick and all the pain and discomfort transforming into pleasure and peace and—

“Whatever you need,” Steve whispers, pressing the words into Tony’s skin like a secret, “I’m here for you, too. Whatever you need, I—”

Tony kisses him, deep and unashamed, his tongue meeting Steve’s in the most familiar way. Steve chokes out a muffled sob and Tony starts bouncing on his cock in earnest, setting up a punitive rhythm that makes the bed squeak under their weight, and—

There’s so much slick, how can there be—

“So wet for me,” Steve says, and it drives Tony crazy. It wrecks him. “My Omega. My perfect Omega. The other half of myself.”

Tony opens his eyes for a moment to see Steve staring at him, wholeheartedly rapt, like he’s watching the best thing he’s ever seen in his entire existence, like he’s thinking that nothing ever could be better than Tony—

A rush of love floods Tony’s mind from the bond, so strong his eyes prickle with tears.

He wants to shake his head but he can’t. Any form of control over his body is a thing of the past.

“So perfect that you went into heat because I needed you to be.” Steve’s voice is like honey filling Tony up, the sweetest thing.

“You hadn’t realized yet, had you? Here, taste yourself,” Steve continues, and pushes two fingers inside Tony to coat them in slick and press them against Tony’s lips.

“Open up,” he says, for the sake of watching Tony obey with no hesitation, and Tony sucks on Steve’s fingers and tastes himself and... yes. He tastes unmistakably like Omega in heat.

The knowledge weighs on him at first, then it blazes through him and leaves him ashamed, needy, overwhelmed, and beyond incapable of keeping it together, of being decent and demure and worthy of an Alpha such as Steve.

“Shh, I don’t wanna feel you think—” Steve starts, but then stops, and grimaces to himself. “Sorry,” he says, and tries to smile, “soothing your insecurities with Alpha orders isn’t gonna cut it.”

Still, it’s what a lot of Alphas do. But not Steve. Never Steve.

“Just… look down at yourself for a moment, please?” he asks, so gentle Tony wants to cry, and he looks at himself and he sees—

His body, too muscly and full for an Omega. He’s never been petite or thin. Sure, he’s short enough, there’s that at least, but the rest of his body could never match up, especially not after he became Iron Man and needed strength to pilot the armor. Still, his belly isn’t exactly toned, and he has stretch marks around his navel and scars over his heart, and his skin isn’t soft and unblemished—it’s rough and coarse, with burns and scrapes and bruises and scratches.

His cock is hard in Steve’s hand. Steve moves his fingers up and down Tony’s shaft, slow and lovely, and Tony winces and twitches to keep from screaming.

“I needed you wet and hungry for my knot and your body just did it. You went into heat after ten years because your Alpha needed you in heat. Think about that, Tony. How perfect is that? How amazing?”

The words are like flames on Tony’s skin, and like a soothing balm at the same time. He’s so ashamed. All of him, every single thing that makes him who he is, every embarrassing detail, every horrific secret—it’s all out in the open for Steve to watch and examine. Nothing is hidden.

“You think I could get you pregnant again, hm? Would you do it, Tony? Would you have another child with me?”

It’s just… it’s just words, Tony knows. Steve doesn’t mean them. He knows Tony can’t have another child.

It’s okay, it’s not Tony’s fault. It’s just his age; he can’t do anything about his age.

“Look at your belly. Would you, Tony? Look. It’s already full of my come. I can give you more. Fill you up until you can’t take another drop.”

God. Jesus fuck—

“And then we’d make another baby. I want a girl that looks like you this time. We’d name her Maria.”

He would. God, he would have another child with Steve. If he only could, he’d give Steve… he’d—

It’d be—

“You could breastfeed her this time around, too. We’d be the happiest family. Me, you, Sarah, and Maria. Perfect.”

He can’t. He’s too old to have another child.

He doesn’t even know how he can possibly be in heat.

“You were made for me, Tony. And I was made for you. You, and only you. No one else. Since the moment I met you, I knew I was yours. Forever.”

Steve touches his face and thrusts up into him. Tony realizes only then that he has stopped moving. God. He can’t even do the one thing he’s supposedly biologically programmed to do.

Steve’s hand slides from Tony’s cheek to his chest, and then over his ribs. He’s being held in place while Steve fucks him and jerks him off at the same time, and he’s about to come and Steve is still talking and everything is just too much and Tony doesn’t know what to do except stay still and take it.

He’s so useless.

“You’re not. You’re amazing. You feel so good; you feel incredible. You’re so wet. My perfect Omega. I’m never gonna leave you. Now that I got you back… I’m never… never…”

Steve seems speechless for a moment, his breathing quick and shallow.

“I never stopped loving you. Never, not even for a second. Even when you didn’t want me. I still loved you. I was still yours.”

Steve says it in a murmur, as if it’s something he shouldn’t say.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, “for what I did to you. To our family. I felt so… so angry at you, but… I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Steve goes very still. He dips his head low and presses his forehead against Tony’s chest. Tony wonders if he’s listening to his heartbeat. Steve exhales heavily, his hot breath grazing the skin of Tony’s stomach.

Maybe Steve is mustering up the strength to reject Tony’s apology. To shoulder all the fault, because he made the mistake and he’s the one who should pay for it. Maybe he even thinks that ten years aren’t enough. Ten years of the most lonely hell that could ever exist, Sarah the only thing that kept them both anchored to reality throughout it all.

But maybe, just maybe, just for once—

“Thank you,” Steve says, his voice thick with tears. He lifts his head to look at Tony and sure enough, his face is wet.

Tony searches for him with his mind. He finds regret and an underlying sense of guilt that will probably take a while to get rid of, but there’s also relief and acceptance. Steve is accepting Tony’s apology. Steve is accepting that maybe he didn’t deserve all that. Not ten years of it, anyway.

“I love you,” Tony says. “I love you too. I always, mh—” Steve has started moving again, fucking up into him with more decision, moving his hand on Tony’s dick just the way Tony likes it, quick and tight, and…

“I always loved you,” Tony says, and he comes all over Steve’s chest, and he feels Steve come and his knot stretch him out not a moment later.

“Perfect… perfect for me,” Tony hears him whisper; he’s saying other things but Tony can’t make them out. Steve rests his hips on the mattress and Tony feels reckless enough to ride up his dick a couple of times—at first Steve’s knot is still small enough that it catches at Tony’s rim just right, but then the edge of pain becomes sharper, and then it just hurts, and Tony isn’t stopping, Tony can’t, and it’s so—

Steve makes him stop. He pushes his hands down on Tony’s shoulders so their hips are locked together and his knot is slotted in its proper place inside Tony.

“It’s alright,” Steve says. “No more of it. No more punishment. Only… only us.”

Tony wipes the tears away from his face and kisses him.

***

Three more days pass and nothing changes.

They wake up. They fuck. They fall asleep again.

Sometimes they eat.

They clean up quickly, limiting everything to the necessary body parts. They can’t really do anything more with both their brains going fuck fuck fuck fuck every few hours.

Tony seems to be in distress pretty much all the time Steve isn’t inside him. He’s burning hot and can barely move. And Steve, for his part, isn’t doing much better. His knots still last two hours; there’s been no gradual decrease.

He’s always had long ruts. The average is three days, but his are longer—five days, sometimes even a week.

An average Alpha at the peak of their rut can knot their Omega for, what, thirty minutes? Forty, in some cases. Of course for Steve it’s different.

He’s always been different. Since the serum Steve doesn’t fit into standards anymore, which is fine by him. But there was still consistency, before. He knew what to expect from a rut after the first few months after Project Rebirth. And after he bonded with Tony, it got better: Mated Alphas are always quieter, calmer. They’re in a steady relationship. Their ruts lose urgency to become an occasion for intimacy, a demonstration of love and affection. They’re shorter, less intense, meant to renew and confirm an already existing bond, meant to increase the chances of procreating, if that’s the couple’s inclination.

But this? He doesn’t know what to make of this.

This is a special rut. He got that since the beginning. He’s never felt like this. The need, how much he craves Tony, the lust—they are unprecedented. Hell, he was about to die if he didn’t have Tony. To die.

But it’s been five days now of regular (amazing, mind-blowing) sex with his Omega and his knots haven’t changed at all, and he still wakes up dizzy and hurting all over until he pushes into Tony and can breathe again.

He’s worried. He doesn’t know how long it will last.

He tries to tell himself that until they reach a full week of this with no changes there’s no reason to panic, but—

What if it lasts longer than a week? What if it lasts ten days? Two weeks? A month?

What if it never goes away?

What if—

“Would you stop worrying,” Tony slurs, still half asleep. “And just fuck me.”

Yes, sir.

***

At some point, they even manage to change the sheets and take an actual shower. Tony is pretty impressed with it.

However, they decide to forgo shower sex. No one likes knotting with the added risk of slipping on wet tiles. When they fall back into bed their hair is still dripping, but they don’t have time to even notice.

Tony’s room is full of light, and the gold in Steve’s hair shines with it. He seems like an angel.

Tony has lost track of time. He doesn’t really know what day it is. He knows Sarah is okay though; Bucky and Nat text him regular updates.

He just hopes there hasn’t been an alien invasion while he’s been in bed with Steve.

Steve pushes his finger past Tony’s rim, and Tony moans and arches up off the bed with the sensation. He kisses Steve, languid and sensual, plays with his tongue and bites on his lips.

“Knot my mouth,” he breathes out, barely conscious that he’s saying it all.

“W—What… Tony, are… are you sure?”

“Yes. Very.”

“But… your heat… Don’t you need it in your—”

“I need it where I want it. And I want it in my mouth.”

Steve worries at his bottom lip with his teeth, lost in thought for a moment. “Are you really sure, Tony? It still lasts two hours.”

“I’m sure. Why so much doubt, Steve? We did it once, back when—”

“Yes, and we never did it again,” Steve protests. “Your jaw ached for days,” he adds, lower, touching Tony’s face as though he can stroke away an old wound and make sure it won’t happen again. He’s such a sweet Alpha.

“I really, really want it, Steve. Please.”

Steve takes his fingers out of Tony and gingerly licks them clean. Tony watches him, and the way Steve does it, how natural he is about it, how normal it all seems, gives him a little pang of regret for all the time they wasted, just below his heart.

“Alright,” Steve says, and kisses him. He tastes like Tony and like all the best things in the world—like being safe, loved.

Steve looks at him, still doubtful. “You sure you’re gonna be okay without... I mean, two hours is a long time to spend empty during a heat, and you could need—”

“I need you to knot my mouth.”

“Yeah, but what if—”

“I need you to knot my mouth,” Tony repeats, and Steve looks at him and says Alright with a shaky voice.

“So, how do you want to—”

“Here—”

Tony sits up against the headboard, adjusting a pillow behind his back. He instructs Steve to straddle his hips, kneeling so that his crotch lines up with Tony’s face.

“You sure you can stay like this for two hours?”

“I can stay like this for two days,” Steve replies softly, his big hand sliding in Tony’s hair.

“Okay,” Tony says, and sighs. He’s very excited about this. A bit nervous, but definitely thrilled. He likes the idea so much. He knows it’s impractical and it can be really dangerous, but… he loves it.

“Okay, go slow in the beginning. Then you can pick up the pace. I’ll squeeze your thigh or something. If something’s wrong I’ll, uh… I’ll pinch you.”

“Alright.”

“If you ask me a question I’ll blink once for yes and twice for no.”

“Got it.”

Tony relaxes his throat. He takes some time to work his cheeks and his tongue so he gets his mouth nice and wet for Steve.

He takes a few deep breaths. His heart is racing, but in a good way. He looks at Steve’s cock—big, hard, red. It’s beautiful. Tony stares at the skin at the base that’s gonna fill up soon and form a knot and lock Steve inside his mouth, and he thinks that he must be crazy to want something like this. Maybe he is. Crazy with how much he loves Steve, with how much he wants to please him.

He opens his mouth and he lets Steve push past his lips. He’s very careful about it, slow, considerate. He holds himself at the base to keep from shaking when he’s welcomed into the wet heat of Tony’s mouth, and Tony can feel Steve’s other hand delicately caress the side of his stretched out lips, the bulge in his cheek, the side of his head.

Tony breathes through his nose and he has to squeeze his own dick so he doesn’t come immediately.

It feels… God, there are no words to say how utterly perfect it is. It’s magnificent.

With his nose so close to Steve’s cock he can smell him so clearly that his eyes well up with it. These are pure, unadulterated Alpha pheromones, straight from the source. But it’s not just that. They’re rut pheromones. And again, it’s not just that.

It’s whole.

Steve smells whole. Like he did ten years ago. Even better, maybe.

He smells like a dream. Like a paradise, like…

Steve starts moving into him, slow at first, just like Tony asked. Tony reaches out to him with his mind and he feels Steve already there, waiting for him.

There’s so much love. And so much regret.

Tony squeezes Steve’s thigh. As agreed, Steve speeds up his thrusts, and Tony closes his eyes and lets himself go, lets saliva dribble down the corners of his mouth and on his chin, lets himself be a thing—a mouth to be fucked instead of a person.

He feels like he isn’t real for a few minutes, like he’s disappearing into nothing, but it’s not scary. It feels great. Everything unnecessary about him is being peeled away, and only his essence remains, ready to blend with Steve’s through this thing they’re doing—this act of love-making that suddenly seems like the most important brick in what they’re rebuilding.

His soul, interweaving with Steve’s.

“Tony, I’m—”

Tony blinks once, and Steve comes down his throat while the knot at the base of his dick swells up just behind the arch of Tony’s teeth.

It takes Tony back to reality, suddenly and abruptly, a bit unkindly, but not unpleasantly.

Tony swallows, and he breathes through his nose, and he adjusts his mouth on Steve. He loosens up his jaw, relaxes his neck and his shoulders. He can do this.

It’s not exactly pleasurable to him, not in the way it is for Steve. It’s not like being fucked, but there’s an aspect to it—the intimacy, the trust, the conviction it takes to be willing to do something so tiring and risky and potentially painful—that makes it seem as though it’s more than what it is.

He pokes at his last thought for a moment and he’s not sure it’s his thought and not Steve’s. It feels too kind and amazed to be something Tony thought about himself, but he doesn’t really know. There’s so much going on.

Steve’s thumb is drawing small circles over Tony’s cheek. He must love feeling himself through the stretched out skin of Tony’s face, especially around the knot.

“You...  are…”

Steve is trying to speak, but it’s hard for him right now, Tony can tell. He brushes a hand over the side of his thigh in reassurance and Steve bends his head to look at him and the second their eyes meet Steve shakes, and his dick pulses inside Tony’s mouth, and he spends himself into Tony’s throat for a second time.

Tony swallows, but it’s a lot, and it catches behind his tongue and—

Fuck, he really needs to cough and he can’t and—

He stifles it down, someway, somehow. There are tears in his eyes for the effort and Steve’s gaze now is panicked and worried.

“Are you alright? Tony, I’m sorry—”

Tony blinks once. He doesn’t know how to soothe Steve, though. He’s fine. Really.

He caresses Steve’s thigh in long strokes, up and down, up and down, until Steve notices and he relaxes against him.

“I’ll warn you next time,” he says, and Tony doesn’t really need him to, but he doesn’t know how to tell him and it can’t hurt anyway, can it?

Time passes, even though Tony can’t keep track of it except for the amount of semen Steve releases into him (it’s getting less and less) and how often he does it (less and less, too).

But there’s a prickling sensation unfolding in his guts. It goes from fastidious to annoying, from annoying to insistent, from insistent to bordering on painful.

Dammit. Steve was right.

He stuffs two fingers into his ass, three when it’s clear two aren’t doing the trick.

Steve looks down at him curiously when he feels him moving, and Tony closes his eyes and shakes his head as minutely as possible, then sends something serene across the bond.

He takes his other hand away from Steve’s thigh and he shoves more fingers into himself, and—

Well, it’s not enough—it’s not Steve—but it does take the edge off of his heat. He brushes the pad of his thumb along the space inside himself where Steve’s knot should be, and he doesn’t know if that makes things more bearable or if it just makes him more aware of how empty he is.

But it’s okay. He’ll resist. It’ll be enough; he just needs to focus on something else, and—

One of his wrists hurts from the position, so he takes those fingers out of himself, and now he’s just there—mouth knotted, four fingers in his own ass, and his other hand soaked with his slick and he…

He’s not really thinking when he pushes his fingers in the cleft of Steve’s ass and finds his rim, massaging it until it loosens up underneath the pressure.

Steve gasps, but he doesn’t do anything else. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t move. He’s so good. So careful.

“Fuck,” Tony thinks he hears Steve whisper. “Yeah. Yeah, do it,” he says, and Tony does it.

Steve groans when Tony’s fingers make their way past the first ring of muscle. He swears under his breath and he comes, again, while he clutches Tony’s shoulder as a warning. His thighs shudder and he pushes back against Tony’s hand, just a little bit, mindful of the fact that he’s still knotting Tony’s face. But Tony feels him riding his fingers, rolling his hips to take them deeper; he hears Steve moan his name and come apart above him.

Bliss floods Tony’s mind and he comes, too, all over his abdomen.

And for a moment, oh, for a moment everything is just perfect. There’s a warm sun shining in Tony’s mind, and the whole world feels just right.

But it only lasts a moment. When he comes down from the rush, he comes down hard.

His jaw aches. All of a sudden, he notices the pain, and it’s unbearable. He wants to scream, but he can’t.

His hand hurts. His fingers aren’t enough and everything inside him burns.

He can’t move and there are tears in his eyes, threatening to fall down his cheeks, and he’s struggling to keep from crying because it wouldn’t be out of release or effort now, it would be just out of pain.

It’s everywhere, the pain, but mostly in his head—now it’s dark and cold. The sun is gone. Steve is there; Tony can feel him, but the darkness takes over everything and—

It’s him, the darkness. He’s the shadow.

He needs this to end. He pinches the skin of Steve’s leg.

“Tony, Tony, hey—”

Steve is trying to… but he can’t, he can’t relax, God, he’s so—

Why can’t Tony be just a normal Omega; why can’t he be just… thin and cute and… and enjoy the right things and not want his Alpha to knot his mouth, and not want to fuck his Alpha with his fingers and maybe even his dick, why can’t he just… why can’t he just be submissive and good for Steve and—

And stop thinking the exact same things he used to think ten years ago, effectively proving to himself how he wasted a good part of his life being mad at Steve and hurting their daughter and learning absolutely nothing from it.

He’s an idiot. He’s an idiot and he ruins everything and everyone he touches. He’s like a poison to Steve and to Sarah.

He’s the worst. The worst Omega. The worst father.

He doesn’t—

He can’t—

Pain is like a vise around his face and his heart and his soul.

It works in cruel waves, because it’s so intense that he almost doesn’t even feel it anymore. His brain can’t process such a staggering amount of hurt, so for a second it’s as though it isn’t there at all. But then Tony catches up with it, and it all comes back—lancinating, excruciating.

But he—

He deserves it, let’s face it.

Maybe it’s just what he has to bear to atone for all the things he put Sarah and Steve through.

“Tony, wait, wait—”

Steve’s voice sounds terrified.

That’s all Tony’s good at—hurting Steve.

Steve takes his cock out of Tony’s mouth. He does it gently, with attention, but there’s also an urgency to it—it needs to be done as quickly as possible but without causing more damage.

Tony’s mouth is distressingly empty, but he can’t close it immediately. His muscles are stuck, his jaw locked in position.

Finally, Tony cries, and to add to the humiliation there’s saliva running down his chin and he can’t control it. He can’t do anything, even wiping his own mouth feels like too much work and everything is just—

Just pain.

After a few endless minutes, he manages to close his mouth. He shuts his eyes too so he doesn’t have to look at Steve, and he wishes it worked the other way around too, like babies think it works—that if you can’t see someone, then that someone can’t see you either.

He wishes he could be somewhere else, alone.

He wonders how Steve could pull out of his mouth. Maybe his mind got so fucked up that it fucked with Steve’s arousal too.

Tony tries to speak, to say that he’s sorry, maybe, but he can’t.

“Shh,” Steve whispers, close to him but without touching him, “It’s alright, Tony. Sweetheart, it’s alright.”

Steve’s voice… he’s crying too. Tony made him cry.

“Tony, uh, listen to—” His Alpha voice, there, just for a second. Then gone again. Gentle, normal Steve voice. “I can feel from the bond that you don’t want me to touch you, so I’m… but if you need me to… Anything at all, Tony, I’m here. I’m here, sweetheart.”

And Tony wants not to be selfish. But he’s in pain, and he needs this, even if he doesn’t deserve it, and he can’t do it for himself.

“Love… me…” he says, struggling to push the words past his numb lips.

“Always, Tony. Always,” Steve says, and with the words Tony feels it in his mind too, how much Steve loves him. It illuminates the darkness, the dark clouds of Tony’s worst thoughts, and it makes space for a little warmth and quiet, and Tony feels reordered, repaired, pieced back together.

Steve doesn’t need to ask if he can touch Tony now. He simply knows that he can, and he does, and Tony thinks that it’s good, to be held like this by your Alpha even if you aren’t a worthy Omega.

“Of course you are,” Steve says while he strokes his jaw.

“Mmh.”

“Let’s get some sleep now, alright? We’ll talk later.”

Tony nods, and he lies down on the bed, wiping his hand on the clean sheets. He tucks his face against Steve’s chest while Steve’s arms go around his back.

“No, I—”

There’s nothing inside him, and Tony could swear all that emptiness is going to swallow him whole if he doesn’t fill it in the next second.

He fumbles with his hands between his legs. It’s slippery and too warm and his fingers, again, are not enough. He pushes them inside himself but relief, just like the afterglow of his orgasm, only lasts a minute.

Tony feels empty. Empty and hot and there’s slick everywhere—the sheets are wet with it.

“Steve, I need you to… please, I’m…”

“Tony, no, we… Let’s just rest—”

“I can’t—”

“I’m not even hard right now—”

“Aren’t you in a rut?”

“You were crying just now. Sorry for being a decent person and—”

“It was supposed to be biological, last time I checked—”

“Not when my Omega feels like shit about himself—”

“Don’t poke inside my mind!”

“I didn’t have to.”

“I can’t have this discussion right now.”

“Fine!” Steve clamps his mouth shut an instant after the word comes out, filling the room with how loud it is. Steve is always so careful about the way he speaks. He rarely needs to raise his voice to be listened to, and he never does it with Tony or Sarah or any of his friends.

Tony watches him swallow. “Sorry. I’m sorry. Fine. Just… just give me a minute.”

Steve strokes himself quickly. The sound of skin rubbing against skin is unpleasantly squalid in the tense silence that’s filling the room now. Tony just lies there staring at the ceiling and he wishes that he never existed. That he was never born.

Steve rolls over onto him then, heavy and dejected, and fucks into him without saying a word, without even looking at Tony, but this time it’s not out of mindless arousal. It’s awkward and miserable and sordid and Steve tries to go along with it anyway, he really tries. He kisses Tony and stares in his eyes while he caresses his hair, and he tries to share something with him through the bond. But then he shakes his head and sighs and says, “I’m sorry, I can’t,” and he pulls out and sits on the edge of the bed and Tony wants to die.

“Steve—”

“I know you need it, alright? I know, and I’m trying, I’m—”

He sighs and he turns away from Tony and he lifts a fist up to his face. Frustration radiates off of him while he seems to look for a way to discharge this awful energy but can’t find any. The only thing Tony can think about is that he wants Steve to fuck him into the mattress right now.

“The things you were thinking earlier… about yourself… I’m sorry, Tony, I can’t shake them off so quickly, I—”

“I just—”

“I felt them so sharply this time. I always knew you… But this was...” He shakes his head, full of disbelief and dumbfounded surprise.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t… There’s no need to apologize. I just want to make sure you’re okay before we—”

“I am.”

“You don’t look like you are.”

“I will be. If you fuck me, I’ll… It’ll be better, I know it, I just know it.”

“Tony, don’t—”

“I can get you hard. I bet I can, I’ll—”

Tony wants to vomit, hearing himself speak.

“That’s not really what this is about.”

Tony’s voice is very tiny. “You… you don’t want me anymore?”

Steve exhales and presses a hand on his forehead. “Goddammit, Tony, what’s wrong with you.”

So many things. So many things are wrong with me, Steve. Everything. Every single thing.

He can’t reply with that, but a noise betrays him. It comes from a place that’s hurting deep in his chest, in front of his heart, right where the reactor used to cut him open.

“Fuck,” Steve says, and it’s all regret and remorse. “I’m sorry, Tony. Nothing’s wrong with you, I’m sorry. I’m frustrated, and… It’s no excuse, I’m sorry.”

“I—”

Steve crawls on the bed to lie back down next to Tony. He draws him close, kisses his hair.

“Of course I want you. Of course I love you. I just wish you didn’t… that you could see yourself with my eyes. And I know you need me to be your Alpha now, but maybe this is what… Ugh, I can’t… I just… You were crying. I can’t pretend that didn’t happen.”

“I wish you did, though.”

“Tony, I… I’m scared. It scares me when I hear you being self-deprecating, but you always play it off as a joke, and… I never felt like I had the right to tell you anything about it, after what happened. But now I… I felt it in my own mind. And it frightened me.”

“It’s the way I am. Take it or leave it.”

“There are other options.”

“Not for me.”

“That’s bullshit. There are doctors, there are—”

“Doctors that can be bought. Doctors who keep records. Records that can be stolen and made public against my will. I can’t risk something like that.”

“There are solutions to that, Tony, don’t tell me you haven’t already thought of them. I know it’s hard, but—”

“I can’t talk about this anymore,” Tony says, and he gets up, even though he’s not so sure his legs are going to sustain his weight. He staggers onto his feet and into the bathroom, every step a struggle against his heat. He feels slick trickle down the inside of his thighs and his skin crawls.

The trick works even faster than he thought. No Alpha in the middle of a rut can resist the image of their Omega walking away from them. It’s just not a thing they can do, no matter how nice they are.

Steve presses him up against the cold tiles of the bathroom and he grinds his hips against Tony’s ass. He’s half-hard already and Tony smirks at that.

Steve growls, pushing Tony’s face against the wall. God, just fuck me, Tony thinks. Just fuck me so hard that I forget I hate myself.

“Don’t walk away from me, Tony,” Steve says, Alpha voice deep and domineering.

“Come on. I know you need it just as much as I do.”

“This isn’t over.”

“Whatever. Later.”

Steve grabs his hips and keeps him still as he lines himself up and thrusts into him. He lets out a grunt of relief, and Tony would snicker at how well his little game worked out but he can only let out a shout.

Steve fucks him roughly and brutally, and Tony’s dick is trapped between his body and the tiles, and his skin is sticking to the wall and he—

Steve is fucking him so deep, it would hurt if Tony didn’t need it so bad, if he didn’t need more. Each thrust is so hard that Tony feels it in his guts, in his stomach, and yet it’s barely enough.

He wants Steve’s knot, right now. It doesn’t matter if they’re standing up and uncomfortable, he just needs it, he’s losing his mind.

Steve clasps a hand against Tony’s mouth. He can’t make a sound, and he doesn’t know what Steve is up to, but he’s not scared. Steve’s end of the bond is cool and determined, with nothing threatening for Tony.

Then, Steve speaks.

“The only person I love more than you is our daughter. Nothing else comes even close. I can’t just watch you suffer in silence. No more punishment, we agreed.”

Steve pours all his love into Tony’s mind.

He takes him back to bed, then, and knots him there for two hours, and they don’t fall asleep, and Steve tells him that he loves him so many times that Tony loses count. But the words, even though worn out and overused, never lose their meaning. Each time is like the first—it’s what’s so special about those three words in particular.

And after that, of course, Tony doesn’t suddenly love himself. He isn’t magically healed. But he doesn’t think about the way he sees himself for a while, and he feels grounded again, centered; he finds his balance again. And for the time being, that’s enough.

***

Steve wakes up with alarms going off in his head. Fuck fuck fuck fuck.

It was a brief truce, brought on by Tony’s distress, but now the rut is back to full force.

Steve is starting to despair over whether or not it will ever go away.

His dick is hard, and he needs to fuck Tony, but he wills himself to ignore it. There’s something else attracting him, luring him, and he goes, willing and gullible as the young hero at the beginning of old stories.

He kicks the sheet off and stretches out between Tony’s legs, stomach down. He nudges Tony’s thighs apart and he drags his hips down.

That’s when Tony wakes up.

“Wha—” he says, and then, when Steve presses his face against his ass and his tongue inside his hole, “Holy fucking shit… Holy—”

And then, he laughs.

It’s genuine too, because there’s joy glimmering across the bond, so much joy, and it’s so brilliant, and Steve wonders why he can’t keep Tony like this always, why he can’t make him this happy all the time. He sure wishes he could.

Steve lifts his head. His face is wet from his nose to his chin, and he feels smug about it, but he blushes too, just a little, because Tony looks at him like he wants to kiss him and lick his mouth clean and that’s—

That’s an interesting thought.

“Feeling better?” he asks, and Tony laughs again, but he doesn’t reply, and Steve lets it go for now.

He resumes licking into Tony, less careful now, bolder. He runs his tongue all around the ridged muscles just past the entrance, where Steve’s knot fits.

But the most amazing thing, what really fills Steve’s mind to the brim and drives him crazy, is the way Tony tastes. The scent of his skin, of his slick. It’s metallic and intense, strong. Like the stars, Steve thinks again, but any true term of comparison falls short, because it’s so good that nothing can match it. Whatever it is, though, it’s now made sweeter by the heat.

It’s that last detail that really sends Steve into overdrive now. He was just talking the other day (yesterday? The day before? He has no idea) but now the idea of Tony being pregnant again, of having another kid makes his head spin with how much he wants it.

He’d do it right this time. He’d be right by Tony’s side throughout the whole thing. He’d be there for the birth, and all the days after that. He’d be careful about Sarah’s feelings, though. He’d love them both the same, he’s sure of it. But being there for Tony this time, the way he wasn’t ten years ago, would ease some part of his conscience that still stings when he thinks about his failings as an Alpha and as a father. And usually Steve wouldn’t consider something like that as a priority of his, but he’s not perfect. He’s not perfect and he wants that wound to heal, if at all possible.

But he needs to remind himself that it’s unlikely Tony will actually be able to have another child. Sure, he went into heat, and he could even maybe get pregnant, but bringing it to term, actually having the kid? That’s another thing. So many things could go wrong, and Steve’s hang-ups may never be eased up.

He can accept that. He needs to.

“Why’d you stop?” Tony says, and it takes Steve’s mind away from his train of thought.

“Nevermind,” he replies, and goes back to licking into Tony.

Steve’s dick protests the lack of pressure with a jolt of pain, but he forces it at the back of his awareness with a small struggle.

“God, Tony… The way you taste, it’s… I want to… I don’t know, bathe in it, it’s… It’s amazing, you’re amazing, I—”

He fucks Tony with his fingers while he speaks, and he feels Tony shake around him with more laughter. He doesn’t know what’s got into him, but as long as he’s happy, he’s not going to question it.

“I’m glad to see you in a good mood,” he says, and he regrets it for a moment when he sees that Tony isn’t laughing anymore. But then his breathing grows labored and faster, his moans louder, and, well, Steve is okay with this. He sucks Tony’s cock into his mouth, keeps pumping his fingers into him, and he massages his balls with his other hand until Tony comes in his mouth, and it tastes like his slick, but more, more concentrated, more powerful, even, and Steve doesn’t want to taste anything else for the rest of his life.

Tony clenches around Steve’s fingers and groans, and Steve is kicked into action. Feeling empty right after coming is what triggered Tony’s bad thoughts before, and Steve isn’t about to let that happen again. He crawls up Tony’s body and pushes into him, sure of himself, reveling in the contented sigh of relief Tony lets out, in the placid satiation emitted by his side of the bond.

Tony opens his eyes and looks at Steve, and Steve looks down at him while he fucks him slow and languorous, just by rolling his hips, without putting his thighs nor his knees into the motion at all. Tony takes Steve’s head into his hands, caresses the sides of his neck, his thumbs stroking Steve’s cheeks, still wet with Tony’s slick.

Tony kisses him, and he licks into Steve’s mouth without shame.

Then, still cupping Steve’s face like the most precious thing, he says, “I love you. I may not love myself, but I love you. So much.”

“I know,” Steve says while he comes and his knot swells, locking his semen inside Tony. He kisses Tony again and then hides his face into Tony’s neck, breathing in his Omega pheromones as if he could live off of those alone. “I know.”

***

The knot lasts one hour and almost a half.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that it’s Tony’s slick that’s doing the trick of making the rut slow down.

“So I guess the, um, cure, is you eating me out as much as possible. And then please fuck me too because I kind of still need that,” Tony tells him.

“Well,” Steve replies with a wicked smirk, “there are worse things.”

Yes, Tony thinks, his mind treacherously taking the joke too seriously. There are.

***

Steve drags Tony onto his lap, but facing the other way from him. He guides Tony to sit on his cock and frames his hips with his hands while Tony rides him.

Tony’s back looks beautiful in the dim light of the early evening, just after sunset. His skin is smooth and tanned, and his scent still makes Steve dizzy.

It took another couple of days, but they are at the end of the rut. Steve’s knots last barely an hour now. They’re going to be back to normal soon, and a part of Steve can’t wait for that to happen, so that his new life with Tony can start, so that he can see his daughter again, and his friends, too.

Steve presses his chest against Tony’s back and bites his shoulder softly, lazily. He watches as Tony looks down at himself and cups his dick out of the way with one hand. Steve feels him reaching down with the other, beyond his balls and to his rim, to the point where Steve is buried into him, to gather some of his slick in his hand.

Then he reaches even lower, and presses his wet fingers inside Steve’s ass.

Steve shudders. He curses. He says, “You’re going to be the death of me.”

Later, when they’re lying down on their side waiting for the knot to subside, Steve touches Tony’s abdomen and starts whispering in his ear.

“When this is done… we’re gonna find you a therapist. Someone we can trust. Someone you like. We’ll have them come here, bodyscan them before they set foot in the compound every time. Have them sign a contract they won’t want to breach. They’re gonna keep their records about you here, on your personal server. And you’re gonna work on this. We are, together.”

Tony doesn’t reply, but Steve knows he heard him.

“What’re you thinking about?”

“I’m thinking that I’m not worth all this work,” Tony says, bitter melancholy laced into his voice, “which I guess just proves your point. That I need… help.”

“I say you are. Worth it, I mean.”

“You’re biased.”

“No. I’m in love.”

***

When it’s over, they need to work on the bond again. The rut, the heat, the hormones, they messed it all up. The equilibrium they reached the very first night, when they nurtured it for the first time in a decade, has been disrupted.

It’s tiring work. It requires a painstaking level of attention that Tony, admittedly, doesn’t always have the patience for. He wants to do it, but it always leaves him feeling exposed and nervous, a human live wire ready to crackle and snap at the first occasion. Steve is irritated but eager; he keeps his cool better than Tony and helps him focus on the ultimate goal of this effort when Tony feels like giving up.

Steve keeps hoping to remember, eventually, the first time he got to make love to Tony after ten years, but he never does. When Tony tells him that he should stop thinking about it, Steve replies, “It doesn’t matter if it never happens. I just need to keep believing it’s possible,” and Tony smiles and takes Steve’s hand in his.

And at the end of it all, while Tony lies in bed with Steve, Sarah curled up between them smelling of love instead of heartbreak, he gets what Steve meant.

You can’t lose hope when it comes to how much you love your family and the things that love can make you do.

***

Steve feels it one morning, as soon as he wakes up. He has no clue what’s different from last night, except a few hours of sleep, but he doesn’t really know how these things work. It’s complex stuff.

He turns to look over at Tony, still deeply asleep, his breathing even and peaceful.

Tony’s scent has shifted. It’s changed.

Steve draws closer to him, slides down on the bed to line up his face with Tony’s belly. He lifts his t-shirt and ignores Tony grumbling about being woken up too early by his handsy Alpha.

Steve presses his ear against Tony’s lower abdomen, and he listens really, really hard.

There.

A heartbeat.

***

They name her Maria.

She has dark hair and dark eyes and the first thing Tony thinks when he sees her is I hope she’s nothing like me on the inside.

She smells good. And now Sarah does too, and there’s no trace, anywhere, that she ever didn’t. Not even in her eyes.

***

“No more excuses, Tony,” Steve says.

He wanted to wait after Maria was born to look for a therapist, and Steve agreed not to put too much pressure on Tony all at once. But now he knows it’s time to give Tony that little push he sometimes needs when something he must do for himself terrifies him.

“No more excuses,” Tony echoes, nodding his head and tucking his nose against the hollow of Steve’s throat, right where the smell of home is more powerful than anywhere else.

***

“So, how did it go? How do you feel?” Steve asks him after his first session with his therapist.

“I feel like I’m the slowest runner in all the world,” Tony replies, thoughtful and honest. “But... I’m just gonna keep running.”