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Heart in Hand

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“It has been almost a year since half the world’s population disappeared and then were restored back to us within a month. It’s been almost a year since our unimaginable catastrophic lost, almost a year since we’ve gotten back our loved ones, families, friends, frienemies, annoying neighbors, that guy at work who uses all the staples and never refills, yes, you Gary, we know, it was you, and it takes a lot for us to say that we miss you.

“Ahem. Anyway, some have called the resurrection a miracle, an intervention from God, while completely failing to question why God decided half the world’s population should become litter tray material in the first place. Others have talked about mind control from the aliens who landed on earth, but that sounds like the dumbest thing to mind whammy the world into believing. I’m an expert on what aliens want, I got my degree from watching five thousand and thirty-eight sci-fi movies, and it is undeniable fact that aliens are all here to eat us, yes, you heard me. Thor, we’re on to you. Aliens don’t land on our planet and mind whammy us into imagining that half our population disappeared, come on! They’re not here to watch us run around weeping and crying just for tickles. We’re not actually that entertaining, people.

“Many more people lay all credit at the feet of several superheroes who fought not just around the world, but around the galaxy to bring our loved ones back. Mostly because the superheroes said they did all that. But they would, wouldn’t they? Anyway, today, I’m not going to dwell on what happened, any more than I already have done anyway. We’ve dwelled on this for almost a year now and it seems like we dwell on nothing else some days.

“The sudden absence of half the world’s population for a month has left its mark on us. The people have been back for longer than they have been gone, but it feels like the world is struggling to get the fuck over it. Oh, the disruption was massive, no doubt. The destruction that occurred is still being tallied up. But mainly, I think we are just emotionally traumatized by what we saw and went through. We’re not quite ready to dust ourselves off and party yet. Yes, I said that. Too soon? Too soon.

“With the upcoming Courting Week, many are hoping for a restoration to normalcy, for some kind of distraction through inane festivities and celebrations of an archaic way of viewing our gender. We have the usual suspects lining up. ABC has promised an eleventh season of The Unbonded Omega, premiering on the first day of Courting Week as usual. I guess with their abysmal success rate, with nine out of eleven couples breaking up publicly and uglily during their formal Courtships after their televised Courting Ceremonies, the network figures that they just have to try, try, try again. Scent and Showcase, this is a new one, where strangers meet for the first time in an open Courting Ceremony and demonstrate their individual talents to attract potential suitors, has gotten the studio’s green light, because what better way to spend two hours than to watch a bunch of assholes who think flapping their ears count as a talent embarrass themselves on live television.

“The nation is officially ready for a distraction. And boy, has someone really stepped up. We thought the royal family would jump in with something convenient but I think they’re out of available princes to marry off. And seriously, who really cares about royal weddings? Nothing exciting ever really happens there.

“But never fear, it’s Iron Man to the rescue! Tony Stark has announced that he will be having a live broadcast Courting Ceremony, mid-Courting Week, and he’s allowing all members of the general public to apply to be suitors. Oh my god, folks. Can you believe this? It’s like my dream come true! I don’t care what anyone says, this is the biggest event of the year. Yes, even in comparison to the apocalypse! Here’s a chance for anyone who is anyone to have a chance at bonding with Iron Man. 

“You’re hearing it here first, I’m throwing my hat into the ring. That’s right. I know what you guys are saying, what is Iron Man going to want with a dumpy middle aged British guy who looks like this? Oh? What? Okay, yes, and I’m also already married to my lovely wife, but why should that stop me? You think she doesn’t want to marry Iron Man too?”

The glass cracked in his hand. Water started dribbling out of it onto his hand and dripping onto the floor.  But Steve didn’t notice, because he couldn’t spare any attention for that; his entire focus was on the talkshow host and this latest news.

“Uh, Steve, are you okay?” Sam asked. “This probably wasn’t the best way for you to find out.”

“Tony is holding a Courting Ceremony,” Steve said, his voice coming out strangely flat. He didn’t recognize his own tone, his mind too roiled up to pay attention to what he was actually saying.  

“Yeah, but you know that doesn’t mean much, right? He’s obviously just trying to lift everyone’s spirits. I heard it’s going to be a huge spectacle, and he’s going to try to make some money out of it for the Maria Stark Foundation. People don’t really get married these days immediately after Courting Ceremonies,” Sam pointed out.

Steve shook himself out of his daze and stepped towards the kitchen to put his leaking glass in the sink. “I know that, Sam. I’m not that out of touch.”

“You just seemed a little worked up,” Sam said warily. “A lot of these Courting Week’s reality shows and televised ceremonies are scripted. No one is going to really be expecting to enter an actual Courtship with Tony as a result of his Courting Ceremony. That would be stupid.”

“Would it?” Steve asked, turning to look at Sam.

Bucky walked into the living room, towelling his hair dry. “Hey, what’s— Uh oh.”

Sam turned with a frown. “Uh oh, what?”

“Uh oh, that’s Steve’s ‘I’m about to do something stupid’ face,” Bucky said, emphasizing his point by jabbing a finger in the direction of Steve’s set jaw and determined expression.

“But he looks like that all the time, oh yeah, I see. You got a point there,” Sam agreed.

Bucky grinned and held out a fist to Sam, who obliged him with a fist bump and a grin of his own. Steve rolled his eyes before turning his attention back to the television. Bucky and Sam only ever got along when it involved ganging up on him.

“So what stupid thing is Steve gonna do now?” Bucky asked.

“I’m not going to do anything stupid. Tony just made an announcement that he’s going to do a live publicized Courting Ceremony.”

“Uh oh,” Bucky said again.

“He’s kind of flipping out. He broke a glass over it,” Sam said with a pointed stare at Steve.

“It was just a crack,” Steve mumbled, still looking at the television.

Bucky sighed. “I think you’re gonna have to brace for the level of stupid he’s going to take this to.”

“What do you—”

“I’m going to Court him,” Steve announced. “Publicly. At the Courting Ceremony.”

“There we go,” Bucky said, clapping Steve on the shoulder before collapsing on the couch dramatically. “Always knew I could rely on you, buddy.”

# # # # # #

The thing was that Steve and Tony were fine. They were fine, completely alright. Oh sure, there had been tense moments, harsh and low arguments late into the night, but they had worked through their issues. Shouted, cried, apologized and hugged it out. It was hard to hold grudges when Tony had staggered off that plane with Nebula and nearly collapsed straight into Steve’s arms when Steve had run towards him. They had both clung to each other, obviously amazed and relieved that the other was alive.

They had worked through their past conflicts. There had been no room for discontent in the team when they had to go up against Thanos, not with the weight of half the universe on their shoulders.

So they were friends again. They were friendly with each other once more.

Steve had never hated a word as much as ‘friendly’.

They weren’t even on the same team anymore. It was decided that the Avengers were over-concentrated in one location. So Tony had taken half the team to Malibu, while Steve had stayed with half the team in New York. The plan was to regularly rotate the members of each team out so every individual would have experience working with everyone in both locations, and they had plans to change team leaders based on a schedule as well. Steve had no doubt that at some point, he would be on the same team as Tony again. 

That didn’t change the fact that Steve missed him now.

Things were better between them. They were friends again, bond reforged through loss and a shared goal.

But Steve wanted something more.

Steve had always wanted more. But he was always too afraid to take the first step, fearing rejection. The last few months, hell, the last few years, showed that there were worse things than rejection. Steve had been thinking — that was all he was doing, thinking, not moping, as Bucky described it — about the best way to make his feelings clear to Tony.

He wanted it to be perfect. He needed it to be the best demonstration of sincere interest that Tony had ever received.

Bucky called it procrastinating, but Steve called it strategizing.

And this Courting Ceremony? It was perfect.

“Have you gotten anyone Courting gifts before?” Sam asked as they walked past yet another beautifully decked out storefront that seemed to contain nothing of any interest.

“I have, but outside of Courting Week. I never saw the point of waiting until Courting Week,” Steve said absently, stopping at the next store to stare in. Row upon row of beautifully tailored suits, and they were all useless to Steve. Tony’s closet probably cost more than the entire store put together. And Tony’s favorite well-worn T-shirt had little kittens on the front. Steve doubted that would be the kind of clothing he would find in this store.

“He’s never been to a Courting Ceremony either,” Bucky chimed in. “Said he didn’t see the point and people should be able to decide who they like without a ceremony.”

Sam marvelled, “How things have changed. You’re really messed up over Tony, aren’t you?” When Steve pretended not to hear him, Sam sighed and asked, “Did you always spend as long over each Courting gift? Because we’ve been at this for hours and you haven’t gotten a single thing.”

Bucky was rummaging in a small packet of popcorn that he had picked up from who knew where. He stopped to explain, “He was terrible at Courting gifts. He didn’t really spend any time on the gifts, just got whatever was easiest and fastest to obtain.”

“I— You know what, I wasn’t expecting that,” Sam said. “Share some of that popcorn, will ya, and tell me all about Steve Rogers the crappy Courting gifter.”

“You should get your own, asshole,” Bucky grumbled.

“Tastes nicer when it’s someone else’s,” Sam said with a grin.

Steve sighed. “Why spend time on the gifts when I knew no one was going to accept them, not with the way I looked back then? I only gave them because Bucky kept trying to get me to do double Courtships with him.”

“Sure, blame me,” Bucky said. “Hey, one person did accept your gift, which was the one gift you spent more than one minute thinking about: Peggy Carter.”

Sam gaped. “But Peggy Carter was an Alpha. Steve gave an Alpha a Courting gift? I’m surprised she didn’t see it as an insult considering how things were like back in the forties.”

“Peggy was always special,” Steve murmured.

“Yeah, she was. Only one to accept your Courting gift even though it was weird as hell,” Bucky said.

“What was it?” Sam asked out of curiosity.

“Walther PPK and a special holster,” Steve said, keeping his voice steady through the memories of her smile when she opened the neatly wrapped box, of the way her eyes lit up, of her acceptance of the gift. “She loved it.”

“Sounds like a hell of a lady to like a gift like that,” Sam said, clapping Steve on the shoulder in light reassurance.

Steve was never good at being an Alpha. Before the serum, no one had time for him, so he had no time for anyone. After the serum, there was only Peggy, and their courtship was unconventional from the start. It was short-lived as well, seeing as he crashed into the Arctic soon after he gave Peggy the Courting gift. Daniel, the guy she had bonded with afterwards, must have been one hell of an Alpha to snag her attention. 

“What about you? What amazing Courting gifts did you used to pick out for the unlucky Omegas you liked?” Bucky asked Sam. 

“Eh, I don’t swing that way.”

“ don’t?” For some reason, Bucky sounded surprised. It was strange because Bucky typically didn’t make assumptions on preferences and not every Alpha preferred Omegas, regardless of the stereotype.

“Yeah, I’ve only been with Betas and let me tell you, my Courting gifts were unparalleled. One time, I prepared this—”

Not really paying attention to Sam’s boasting, Steve moved on to the next storefront. Would Tony like glass sculptures? Some artistic glassware to display? He continued on in dissatisfaction. Maybe this art decor furniture store would have something? Some of these pieces looked sleek and modern, all clean lines and free of overly-ornate designs. They would fit right in with Tony’s various homes where the construction and in-built functionalities were always ingeniously executed with Tony’s signature touches, but the furniture usually looked like they came straight out of an interior design magazine. 

No, that was stupid. Steve wasn’t going to buy Tony furniture. One might buy pillows or blankets for nesting before the first shared heat, but you didn’t buy furniture for Courting Ceremonies. That fleeting thought about Tony’s heat and what they might do together to prepare for it was enough to make Steve squirm and feel warm under his collar. 

Steve forced himself to stop thinking about that, otherwise things would get very awkward fast. He couldn’t believe he had considered furniture as an appropriate Courting gift. 

Why was this so hard? What could Steve buy Tony, one of the richest men in the world?

“Can you even afford some of this shit?” Bucky asked, sounding disdainful as he eyed a footstool in the storefront’s display. “How much are they, I don’t see a price tag.”

“Which means they cost too much already,” Sam muttered, grabbing another handful of Bucky’s popcorn.

Steve sighed. “You’re not wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t have started on the high end of town.”

While Steve had received a large sum for his backpay, being on the run after the Accords had eaten into that. They weren’t penniless or hungry, but he didn’t exactly have a lot of spare cash to throw around. 

Tony still funded the Avengers but it wasn’t like Steve was going to dip into the Avengers funds for a Courting gift for Tony

Bucky interrupted Steve’s morose thoughts. “What? You want to start looking for a Courting gift for a billionaire from Dollar Tree instead?”

“Why do you know about Dollar Tree?” Sam asked, sounding amazed. “Steve doesn’t know about Dollar Tree and you were like a Winter Robot for years.”

Steve would protest except Sam was right, he had no idea what Dollar Tree was. For the most part, Steve was very well-versed with the modern world, but there were some minor references that he didn’t get. From context, Dollar Tree was probably a place where he could buy gifts for cheap. Either that, or it was a tree consisting of dollars. He would find out through Google later.

“They let the Winter Soldier out to run missions so I remember some things. A lot of useless late night television programs. And you know I shook off the brainwashing fast. I’m just that quick,” Bucky said with a smirk.

“That’s what she said.”

Steve ignored their little scuffle and moved on to the next store. It was a scent shop called “Scentology”, with an elegant sign upfront promoting their “Special Courting Gifts” and smaller text about their bestseller “Crimson and Gold”. It seemed likely that the store was trying to sell to the hopefuls who would be attending Tony’s Courting Ceremony and there really was no reason for Steve to believe that a company trying to cash in on Tony’s event would be of any help…but he was curious.

He walked into the shop and looked at the prominent display on a stand right by the entrance. On a deep blue velvet cushion was a delicate round bottle encased in finely wrought red metalwork, the bottle containing a clear gold liquid. There was a smaller tester bottle beside the cushion and he picked that up to spray a little of the scent into the air.

The smell of roses and sunflowers permeated the space and filled Steve’s lungs. It was sweet and delicate and nothing at all like Tony. He had no idea why this was called Crimson & Gold.

“Can I help you, sir?” an assistant offered, dressed in a gray cashmere sweater and dark slacks. His name badge said ‘Lee’ and he smelled like an Omega. “This is our current bestseller and a real hit among the Omegas right now.”

Steve nodded stiffly, not even able to imagine Tony wearing a scent like this. “Thanks, but it’s not really what I was looking for.”

“Oh, do you have something in mind? We have a lot of new Courting promotions going on right now. We have the Prince & Princess line, the Earth series, and also our own personalized Scentears.”

Steve frowned. “Scentears?”

“It’s the latest fashion, an idea we’ve picked up from the Wakandans, although they don’t call it Scentears,” Lee said with genuine excitement. He started explaining to Steve, “The original Wakandan earrings are made from a special Jabari wood imbued with scents, but obviously we’ve no access to such special wood. What we do here instead is make these earrings with tiny little globes that sit behind the lobes. The little globes contain scents, to better enhance those sweet spots behind our ears. We have a whole range of beautiful earrings and you can customize the scents you want to better suit the person you’re courting.”

Lee had bustled Steve over to another counter with a range of fine gold and silver earrings, each with little globes on the backs. Steve felt a little overwhelmed looking down at almost fifty pairs of different earrings.

Perhaps sensing his complete indecision, Lee offered, “Or you could focus on customizing a special perfume instead. The Scentears aren’t necessarily a trend everyone is interested in, but who doesn’t like a nice customized perfume, am I right? What scents do you think the person you’re Courting might be interested in?”

“Um, he likes the scent of grass?” Steve said, thinking about Tony’s green smoothies which he drank constantly and always tasted like grass to Steve.

Lee nodded, head bobbing as he swooped to another counter and drew out a small vial from an intimidating array of vials. “That’s a very good summer scent, here, smell some of this.”

By this point, Bucky and Sam had wandered into the scent store as well, still obnoxiously munching on their popcorn. They drifted over to Steve’s side.

After Lee sprayed a little of the scent into the air, Steve took a sniff and immediately shook his head. “No, it’s…not exactly that.” It did smell like freshly mowed grass, but it didn’t smell like the green drinks Tony was always pouring from the blender.

“You can also mix different scents to get the perfect fit,” Lee said with a bright offer. “What other scents does this person like?”

“Coffee,” Steve said immediately, thinking of how Tony could be lured into the communal kitchen with freshly brewed coffee, even when he was half-asleep and barely coherent. Maybe especially when he was in that state.

Lee said hesitantly, “That’s unusual, but we do have that in stock. I’m not sure if grass and coffee will go together though—”

“And cheeseburgers,” Steve continued, also thinking about how Tony hovered when he had some meat patties for cheeseburgers on a grill.

“…grass, coffee and cheeseburgers?” Lee said with narrowed eyes. “Is this a joke?”

At this point, Bucky and Sam laughed so hard that they almost spilled popcorn across the pristine floor, and all three of them got shooed out of the store as a result.

“You’re not helping,” Steve said through gritted teeth at the two of them.

“It’s better that we got kicked out then,” Bucky said between chuckles. “Otherwise who knows what horrible scent you would have made for Tony.”

Sam suggested, “Coffee, the smell of petrol from a fancy car, expensive aftershave, oh yeah, that’s the sexy stuff.”

Steve ignored them as he moodily continued his walk down the row of stores. That had been a complete wash. Scents were a very popular gift for Omegas, but it didn’t seem quite right for Tony.

His eyes landed on a lingerie store. Maybe Tony would prefer something racy for a Courting gift. No, not for Tony, because then that would be a present for Steve instead. Steve tried not to have thoughts about Tony in lingerie because he was in public and he didn’t need to explain why he was suddenly sending out possessive and aroused pheromones.

But what if Steve got lingerie for himself? Something lacy, in red and gold colours. Maybe it would be bold enough to catch Tony’s attention?

Steve shook his head, trying to clear his mind. It would be much too forward a move for someone he wasn’t in a Courtship with. And it would give off the wrong impression that he was only after Tony for sex.

Tony did make a joke about slinky leather catsuits that superheroes and villains always wore in the movies and how come no one in real life did that. Maybe Steve should get a slinky leather catsuit, with a plunging neckline to show off his muscles, and present himself in it as a present for Tony…

Okay, his ideas were getting wildly stupid. Steve knew he was falling into a spiral of desperation when he started considering superheroing in tight leather catsuits as a Courting gift. That would only be a gift for the press.

Nothing he got was going to be good enough for Tony. Clothes, jewellery, decoration. There wasn’t anything Tony couldn’t buy himself and buy better. That wasn’t even including what other suitors would get him. The others would be going all out to impress him and would probably take the gifts to a whole new level of lavishness.

It was for Tony after all. Who wouldn’t want to win his attention?

“Let’s go home,” Steve said.

Bucky and Sam stopped their bickering.

“Don’t tell me you’re giving up already?” Bucky asked, sounding a little worried for the first time that day.

“No.” Steve shook his head, giving Bucky a determined look. “It’s time to regroup and come up with a different strategy.”

“Why can’t you just ask the guy out like every other normal Alpha?” Sam grumbled.

Steve ignored him and walked off, mind already churning through the plans he had.