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Paint My Spirit Gold

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Tony is fourteen when he has his first heat. As is traditional, he is sequestered to his room—the first is always the mildest, a taste of what is to come, and it is seen as sacred as it's the time a young omega will learn what their heats will be like—and only his mother enters to bring him water and food.

And as is traditional, when he emerges, he is gifted both his first piece of omega jewelry and his Chest: his father has selected a bracelet from the family collection, a simple gold chain that his great-great grandfather had given to his great-great grandmother during their courtship and had been handed down to each Stark omega; the Chest his mother gives him while they sit out on the balcony, Tony soaking up the sunlight, and while he'd always expected the traditional wooden box with drawers and cubbies, what she's chosen is metal and sleek.

“Wow.”

Maria strokes a hand over his cheek. “I think we both know that wooden Chests are not your style. And, anyway, you leave for MIT in a few months and I remember dorm life.”

Tony smiles at her and leans into the caress, bracelet slipping along his wrist as he flicks it back and forth, and when night falls, they are joined by Howard who settles onto one of the chairs at Maria's side.

Later, it is one of the last good memories he has of them, that day and night, those moments with his parents proud, because when he goes off to MIT, he discovers that other tenement of an underage omega's life: having to introduce all potential partners to his parents, having to receive his father's permission.

Rhodey has always held that if Tony had taken a step back, if, in his sixteen year old haze—the time when he finally stopped being solely interested in his work and took notice of the men and women around him—that he'd have seen what Howard was doing.

But with each rejection of a possible partner, Tony grew angry and their relationship degraded; Maria was careful to hide from Tony that his father's alcoholism had deepened and spent any break that Tony was home making sure to keep Howard in a state of controlled intoxication. She also took care to hide the bruises, the fallout from the rare times she physically needed to protect Howard from himself. It took a toll on her relationship with him as well.

By the time Tony graduated, his degrees in hand, she barely knew the names of any of his friends, didn't know what he did when he was with them. He also, by then, had come of age and only from the mouths of others, did she know that Tony had cultivated a reputation of promiscuity.

They don't get the chance to talk about it, but if they had, well, she would have understood that Tony had taken his sexual and legal freedom from their traditional household as an experience that Tony did both to find acceptance with those around him and to fight against his father's belief that he wasn't worthy of a proper partner. Tony, on the other hand, would have learned that his father hadn't deemed Tony unworthy, but that Howard hadn't felt any of the Alphas Tony brought around were good enough.

For two years, they dance around the destruction of their family: Tony works for SI and barely sleeps at home, only spare nights spent in the presence of Howard, a man now haunted heavily by past ghosts and guilt. Maria holds everything together enough that no one in their proximity has an inkling as to what happens in their home.

But that can't last forever and the night they die, it's said by some witnesses that they'd been screaming at each other in the car, their voices carried by the wind and only a few words heard clearly, but enough to make sense that they were arguing about their son.

That day, the Chest and the family bracelet within are buried in the back of his closet where they lay forgotten; Tony falls into his new life, ignoring the friends who try to help and diving headfirst into the life of a playboy.

Which, in some ways, being a slut—hey, he knows what he is—is easier than the life he could have had.

When his courting time had ended without a single piece of jewelry to add to the Chest, he'd mourned for it as his mind had ever so helpfully reminded him of his mother's collection, the bracelets, necklaces, belly chains, anklets, and earrings, the pieces she'd told him had come from her partners before his father. How he'd enjoyed playing with them when he was a small child, unaware of what they meant but lulled in by the shine and the sparkle, and later, when he thought of how he might look in all dressed up.

But eventually, he stopped caring, stopped wishing. He no longer has suitors, only people whom fill his bed when convenient, and that distinction comes with the understanding that he will receive no jewelry. Oh, he has the collection his mother had left him locked up in some vault somewhere, they're just not meant for Tony to wear: prominent families like his was are meant to keep heirloom pieces, things that they can hand down to children and grandchildren as First Gifts; he learns to accept that he will never be one of those prettily dressed omegas with the day jewelry and the heat jewelry.

Pepper frowns at him one morning, her favorite necklace hanging primly between her collarbones and the matching bracelets neatly wrapped around slim wrists. (Happy is a good man and Tony finds reasons to pay him extra if only because he knows that money goes right back to Pepper.) She almost kind of maybe half-wishes she hadn't told him he should wear something extra to the gala next week.

“Tony, you dated some of those guys in college for weeks before you took them to your father,” she says.

“And it was college. No one gives courting gifts to other people in college.” It's a lie, they both know it: college is the period most people gather the whimsical, too-easily-broken things that they often cherish.

She cocks her head at him, “Tony...”

“Look, they were traditional. Dad had to give approval first and I mean the first couple of people had plans to meet him, get approval, and go buy me jewelry right then and there or were saving up for something, but after Dad started turning them all down... no one even tried. What's the point?” He swallows around the sudden, unwanted lump in his throat. “Doesn't matter anymore anyway. So, Miss Potts, where are we with the board?”

It is the one and only conversation they ever have on the topic, yet Pepper never forgets it. Should she ever talk about it, she would explain that this is the reason she reacts so angrily to Tony's overnight bed guests—they reinforce his own thought that he is not good enough for the things he deserves.

Then the Avengers happen.