You have been selected.
Steve stared at the harsh black words on the slightly-too-yellow-to-be-called-white page he held clutched in his hands. Reading it ten times hadn't made it make anymore sense at all.
You have been selected.
The subway car rattled and shook, knocking his shoulder against the tall beta beside him and earning him a reproachful look. He muttered an apology, folding the paper up and shoving it back in his bag so he could hold the metal bar between the seats to steady himself. It was too warm. Someone else's hand had just been there, leaving an invisible hand print that made him want to wipe his palm on his jeans.
The word stood out, cold and empty, somehow crueler than "chosen" or "wanted." He'd been selected. By an alpha. He'd read the letter enough times now that he almost knew it off by heart.
Congratulations! You have been selected.
That was where he always got stuck. Maybe it was the exclamation mark that stung the most, making his mental voice twist upwards in a mockery of cheery excitement. Congratulations! That meant he should be happy, right? Happy that some alpha with a boner and nowhere to shove it had flipped through an endless list of lost, desperate, begging omegas and had settled on him - for some ungodly reason. He should be happy that, despite all of his efforts, he had managed to appeal to someone, someone who was so alone, so unappealing, that they had to resort to the registry to find a mate. Not that Steve really had a leg to stand on there.
Lust wasn't on most alpha's minds when they met him. At first glance, maybe, there might be some interest. He was small, thin, angular, maybe seemed easy to handle or small enough to toss around, at first. But when anyone got close, small turned into short, thin turned into scrawny, and angular turned into jagged. Even if that wasn't enough to turn even the most open-minded alpha off, he wore a perpetual scowl that Bucky assured him yelled, "fuck off" loudly enough that no one wanted to test what would happen if they didn't. He'd been passed over - first for kickball teams in the schoolyard, then for dates as unsure teens, adjusting to new expectations, then for bonding, as pairs matched or were matched and marched off into their new adult lives.
Then he was passed over for jobs, apartments, scholarships, healthcare, and, finally, perhaps the biggest blow, the army.
This selection was the one - one - time he was counting on his innate and unshakable ability to be passed over, and it had failed him. His name had been plucked handily out of the fishbowl of fate, like Primerose fucking Everdeen being reaped - and he had no sibling to get him out of this one.
Congratulations! You have been selected.
The subway screeched to a halt with an unholy grind of brakes on time-smoothed metal and Steve braced his hand against the pole to keep from rocking into the beta beside him again. The doors chimed, then opened and people filed on. They were mostly betas, a few alphas mixed in, sharp, spicy scent tingling the back of Steve's nose, and a few bonded omegas. He kept his chin down but couldn't help flicking his eyes over each person that stepped on.
They said you never dreamed new faces, only ones you'd seen before, and Steve had to assume he couldn't draw new faces either. They were all amalgamations of faces he'd seen before, puzzle-pieced together into something pretending to be new, unique. So he figured he'd fill up his catalog as much as he could, give his dreams, and therefore his sketching pencil, as much fodder as possible. He watched people.
His ability to be passed over had always aided him here, too, allowing him the freedom to openly study those around him without getting strange looks or accidentally appearing challenging.
A slim omega with a green, felt hat sat across from him, clutching her purse in her lap. Her alpha stood nearby, leaned against the pole to use both hands to look down at his phone, and she kept sliding her eyes up to him and pursing her lips like she was finishing an argument they'd started earlier in her head - maybe more to her liking this time.
Steve traced the curve of her eyebrow with his eyes, fingers twitching almost imperceptibly in his lap as he imagined the way he would capture it on the page. She had a unique shape to her face, long but not unpleasant, her mouth small and tight and her eyes large and expressive. She was heavily made-up in a way that was clearly designed to look completely natural, three layers of primer and foundation smudging away the natural freckles that peeked up over the neckline of her blouse. Heavy mascara made her eyes look even larger, while pink blush washed back in the healthy glow the foundation had covered up.
Was she from the registry? Steve couldn't help but wonder. Maybe not. Maybe they'd met at a party, a few years ago, her alpha spotting her from across the room as little hearts burst like bubbles above his head. Her friends would have giggled, flicking looks of half-nervousness and half-jealousy at each other when he finally got the courage to ask her to dance. Maybe they fell in love, first. Maybe they even had to convince their parents to let them bond - her dowry too small to be worth much of anything, his parents having to rewrite the path they'd sketched out for him when he was still in diapers.
More likely, they'd been pushed together. Their parents had business connections or the two families wanted an alliance and they were close enough in age. That was how the story went these days, for the most part. People didn't really talk about what happened when you had no parents to set you up. People didn't really talk about the ones who weren't worth being set up with.
That was, of course, until they got a letter from the damn registry informing them that after two years of relative peace and the barely scraped off edges of prosperity, they had been chosen after all. Selected.
Steve pulled his eyes away from the bonded couple to fall back down to the scrap of yellow-white that stuck out of his bag. He'd had just enough time to relax, to get used to his government benefits, to find a job he liked that would take an unbonded omega and an apartment where he didn't have to brace a dresser against the door and borrow Bucky's baseball bat when his heat hit - feeble though it was. Enough time to take a breath - a real deep one, the kind he didn't get too many of - and settle in, thinking he was fine, off the hook, that a balance had been struck.
Signing up for the registry was a formality, the Omega Services Rep had assured him, in calming, gentle tones. Only two percent of omegas in the registry were selected for bonding and less than half a percent of those came from those on Services. But the government didn't pay out to omegas who weren't putting in the bare minimum of effort towards getting off the dole. Which, apparently, meant putting in the bare minimum of getting knotted. So you had to sign up, put your name and face (and ass, in the less-than-literal sense, though a little closer to literal than Steve would have liked) out there, with a please-fuck-me smile and a not-too-desperate bio, and maybe, someday, a white knight alpha with broad shoulders and a rose clenched between his teeth would flick past your profile and decide you were the one.
At least, that's what the registry commercials seemed to think would happen.
In actuality, alphas barely this side of financially-stable enough to qualify would trawl their way through the list, pick an omega to get their knot wet, then dump them when they got boring or cost too much money. And sure, once you were claimed, you could stay on Services if your alpha refused to support you, some omegas had even sued for alimony and won it, but for Steve, that was hardly the point. He'd made it this long without selling his body, and he didn't intend to start now.
He wanted an alpha, he did. But he wanted to bond for love. Deep down in his heart, in the place that hadn't had its edges worn down to unreadable by time, and poverty, and loss, and illness, down there was a tiny, glowing hope that even though he was scrawny and sick and scowling and broke and useless and unwantable, some alpha out there might just find it in them to love him.
But now none of that mattered because he'd been selected.
Congratulations! You've been selected. Alpha #95847872 has been assigned as your pre-bondee. A group bonding ceremony will take place on the 14th, unless other arrangements have been made by your alpha or their family. A valid bonding license must be submitted to Omega Services within 45 days of this letter or all services will be cancelled and any transferable benefits will not be applied to your alpha's package.
If there is some reason why you cannot be bonded on this date, please apply for an extension by calling 1-800-555-6827 within 7 days of receiving this letter.
National Omega Services
He didn't even know his new alpha's name. He'd learn it at the ceremony, he supposed, unless the alpha called him before then to discuss "other arrangements." The alpha had all of his info, at this point. Once he was selected, the app would have given him everything about Steve, right down to when his last heat was. Most omegas were bonded before their first. Steve had had eight - alone.
He grimaced down at the corner of the letter. Why on earth would anyone choose him? Why? It was like they'd purposefully gone out of their way to ruin things for him. Why on earth else would they do this? He wasn't attractive, he wasn't young, he had no connections, and he was so in and out of illness that it was entirely possible taking his first knot would kill him anyway. He had nothing to offer, and yet this - this person, Alpha #95847872 was taking it from him anyway.
Steve pulled the letter out again, risking smashing into the annoyed beta next time the subway slowed, and unfolded it, pressing the creases flat. Yup. It still said exactly the same thing. No one had scribbled a name or a phone number anywhere on the sheet that he hadn't noticed before, and when he ran his finger down through the envelope, it really was empty.
So that was all he had. A number and a promise that his life as he knew it was about to be over, and he had no control over which way he crashed and burned. That was it. They might - it suddenly occurred to him with a pang straight to the centre of his chest - they might not even let him see Bucky anymore, if he ever had the chance again. Following him into the army had been the perfect plan to keep them together, right up until the medical exam, and now there was no telling when Buck would be stateside again. And then… to know he was home but Steve wasn't allowed to see him...
The announcer called out Steve's station and he hastily shoved the letter back in its envelope and used the metal pole to lurch up to his feet. He passed the omega and her phone-obsessed alpha as he made his way to the doors and her eyes cut to him. But they didn't linger, just passed over him on their way somewhere else. So he still had his super power. It just hadn't worked on Alpha #95847872.
It was another four block walk to the omega library where Steve worked, and he used the time to try and clear his head. It was three weeks until the group bonding ceremony, which meant he needed to start getting his things in order. He didn't know if he'd be allowed to bring his stuff, if his alpha would let him have all his books or keep his job. Everything in his life was up in the air, from where he could go to what he could wear to how often he was expected to go head down-ass up and present like a good, little omega.
Connie was outside the library, pinning up a banner, when Steve shuffled up to the little, red brick and tinted glass building. "Hey, Steve."
"Good morning, Connie." Steve tried to keep the letter out of his voice. He didn't want his bad news to ruin everyone else's day. But he couldn't stop the rush of melancholy that flooded through him at Connie's returning smile. What if he never saw her again? What if his new alpha whisked him away from all his friends and family to hide him away as some ugly trophy on a shelf? Could he even live like that? With someone he didn't care for? And that was the best possible outcome, really. Who knew what an alpha would want with someone like him? Maybe there was something even worse than the stories Steve had heard about omegas taken off the registry.
Steve wiped both palms on his jeans and slipped through the door into the library. Brooklyn West Omega Library was one of six in New York City, a state-sponsored endeavour during the Right to Read campaign in the 1970s. The government had mostly forgotten about the little book islands, but for the omegas in the community, they were still priceless, and donation drives each spring helped make up for where the sparse grants fell short. But even now, the library was allowed to have five full-time employees, and three college-age interns on payroll at any given time, and Steve was lucky enough to get to be one of those employees.
There weren't many jobs an unbonded omega was allowed to do, especially one without any parents to find something for him, and Steve had tried them all. But the library was perfect.
Steve stepped inside and breathed in. So perfect.
Books had always been there for Steve. When he was six and he could only make it to about half his classes, with the way his chest went tight and rigid and his breath wouldn't pull all the way in, books were there, in great stacks that his mother brought home from the library, to fill in the gaps. When he was ten and his mother got sick for the first time and he had to spend hours curled in a hospital chair while she got her treatment, books painted another, better world, where he didn't have to be afraid. When he was fourteen and finally presented, later than all his classmates in a grade where he was already behind the rest of his age, books gave him a place to hide from the new way the world treated him, with prying, curious eyes and too-close, deep breaths in. By then, his mother was too far gone to understand that Steve's last hold-out hope for having some semblance of a life had failed him. He'd been hit with that rush of chili-pepper hot hormones, left shaking and gasping in bed for two days as his body rushed through his mock-heat and left no question that he was an omega. Doors that had been half-open before slammed all the way shut then, and four months later, his mother had died.
Steve walked down his favourite aisle, running his fingers along the spines of the books. The long stretch of shelves, tottering uncertainly on musty carpet held the collection of romance novels until halfway down where it became reference books. Steve loved both sets, maybe equally. The reference books had saved a mind that was trapped in a body that made it hard to learn with the other children, and the romances had saved a heart that was on the verge of giving up on the world.
There was also, at the bottom left, low enough that the flood two years ago had damaged a few of the pages, a small collection of art books, and oh how Steve loved those. He was pretty sure his were the only hands that had cracked the spines in many years, but just touching the letters of the titles was enough to get his heart racing. It was incredible what people could make with nothing more than some paint or marble or a pencil and a creative mind.
Back when Steve had still believed he might have been an alpha, he was sure he'd be a painter. He'd sketched out the rough outlines of his mother's fruit bowl with a bit of pencil on the back of a homework assignment and dreamed of selling a painting to someone rich and magnanimous who would be so pleased he'd commission enough more that Steve would never go wanting. And perhaps the other end of the shelf came into play too, when his fantasy added in that the wealthy benefactor's young son was an unbonded alpha who fell deeply, madly in love with Steve and they lived happily ever after.
Those fantasies were going up in smoke now, though. There was a chance his alpha might let him paint, if they could afford it, or at least draw. It was a common enough pastime for omegas, but to sell his paintings? No way. And to be carried off by a handsome, doting alpha on a white horse? No fucking way. Instead he was being married off in a group ceremony at city hall to a person he didn't even know the name of and that was that.
The hushed quiet of the library and the musty scent of the books calmed him, though, and he was able to fall into the rhythm of work, reshelving, indexing, and signing returns back in. The library was old-fashioned in terms of technology, several decades behind the community shared library - i.e. the alphas, betas, and bonded omegas only library - down the block, but they got by. Everything was a little slower, a little harder, but the people who came there - omegas, widows, children and teens with nowhere else to go, and betas who preferred a lowkey environment - understood and were willing to take their time in exchange for having a space just for them.
Most of the books were second-hand, donated by omegas when they bonded or their kids outgrew them. Steve knew which ones needed to be handled carefully, pages inclined to slip right out and which ones would need a new layer of tape on the spine when they were returned.
On his break, Steve settled on a stool in the back room, perched awkwardly between a stack of donated books and a large tube filled with various unused posters. He took a cheese sandwich and a carrot out of his bag and checked his phone while he chewed them slowly, taking his time with the only calories he'd get until late that evening.
200 Park Avenue. 6pm. Bring ID.
Steve stared at the text. It was from a new number, one he'd never seen before and with no history in his contacts. There was no introduction, no explanation just - this.
It had to be his new alpha, right? Who else would text him with such utter confidence in their right to boss him around? Who else could possibly have his number? He didn't hand it out very much. So this was his first interaction with the person that would run his entire life from then on. He fiddled with his phone, trying to decide what to type back. A good omega would just say "yes, alpha," and move on, but Steve couldn't get over the weirdness of it all.
Do you have a name? he finally typed out, a frisson of fear jolting through his stomach as soon as he hit send. That was too far, surely? The first thing he'd said to his alpha and it was rude. He sighed and ran a hand back through his hair.
I do. came the alpha's reply, only a few seconds later.
That was dismissive… right? His alpha was angry with him for mouthing off. It had to be that. He was pretty sure that step one in Mrs. Marjorie's Book of Omega Manners wasn't "piss off your alpha before you've even met them," but it was a thread now, sticking up in a sharp little point, and Steve had to pull it.
Can I have it? He stood there, heart in his throat, clutching his phone, while he waited for a reply.
You can have half of it, since by New York law, you're about to own half my stuff anyway.
Steve snorted. If by "own" you mean I might get it if you die, sure. Thanks for the half-name, though. I guess you already know mine.
I already know everything about you.
Well. That was ominous.
You want me to come to that address tonight at 6pm? Steve asked,
Do I need to bring anything? A hot flush of prickly anxiety crawled up Steve's spine until he was verging on full-on panic. He had mentally given himself until the group bonding date to adjust to this whole thing, but now, it seemed, his alpha wanted to meet him right away. Tonight.
… Yes. I said bring ID.
Steve huffed with frustration. Anything else?
I don't know! Whatever one might bring to something like this. I've never been selected before.
Well, I've never selected anyone before. Are you always this mouthy?
Are you always this demanding?
Steve stared in horror at his phone, his sandwich completely forgotten. How could he talk to his alpha like that? Maybe Buck was right and being twenty-two and unbonded meant Steve had forgotten all the manners he'd been taught in school. Yes, alpha, yes, alpha, yes, alpha, he repeated to himself. That was all he had to say. When his phone buzzed in his hand, he squeezed his fingers around it and closed his eyes. Why, why, why? This wasn't texting with Bucky, this was serious. He got caught up. He always got caught up.
He forced himself to peel his eyes open and look down at his phone.
Lol. Yeah. I'm assured that it's endearing in person, Tony had sent back.
Sorry. Steve typed out, pressing each letter with a little too much force. I was rude.
Feel free to be rude, but don't be late. I have a meeting right after.
Steve's fingers hovered over the "y" key. Yes, alpha. It shouldn't be that hard to say. It didn't matter that he'd been imagining saying it for the first time to the love of his life and not some stranger he had nothing but half a name for and a series of rather shocking texts. He'd never say it to anyone else again - unless his alpha turned out to be seventy years old and Steve got another kick at the can in just a short while. He didn't sound old, though. So he should just say it now, show that he knew his place, even though he was too old and too rough to be worth taking. He should be grateful, really, that anyone managed to want him at all, even if he still didn't know why.
I won't. He managed instead, followed by, Thank you. Though he wasn't entirely sure what he was thanking him for. Not calling him an insolent brat and threatening to wash his mouth out with soap, he supposed. Or maybe to take his phone away. Maybe he was going to take his phone away, anyway. All the wind dropped out of Steve's sails on one thick gust and he crumpled on his stool, eyes hot and stinging. He'd had it all figured out. He was so sure he had it all figured out. He had a place to live, a job, he was paying his own rent and buying his own food. All he'd needed was enough extra support to buy his hideously overpriced inhalers and his heart medication, and he was okay. But the trade-off…
Steve startled up from where he'd curled over his phone and sucked in a sharp breath, blinking wildly to clear the pricks of hot tears from the corners of his eyes. "Yes?"
"Sorry, I just -" Connie bit her lip. "The computer system went down again and no one can remember how to reset it."
Steve sniffed again, determined not to cry, and straightened up on the stool. "Alright. I'll be right there."
"Thanks." Connie slipped out again.
Steve took a moment to sit with his eyes closed and breath deeply, then slid off his stool and went out to the main floor. The computer system crashed all the time, but no matter how many times Steve wrote out the instructions for resetting it, it always seemed to go wrong.
Connie was copying signouts into the old binder when Steve shuffled behind the desk next to her. He shot what he hoped was a pleasant smile to the visitor then set to work. Most of his approach to the dusty, old desktop was just patience, accepting that each click needed a full minute to register when it got overwhelmed. He worked his way through closing the program and restarting the computer, then starting it up again and restoring all the right settings. It took almost ten minutes, but when it was done, he touched Connie gently on the back. "All done."
Steve let her get back to signing out books and escaped to the back shelves. The rest of the day was basically a write-off. Every book he shelved seemed to find a way to remind him that he was marching to his doom that night. Every smile from every visitor seemed laced with pity that made his skin crawl.
At four, he packed up his things and said goodnight to the team, trying to sound as normal as possible. He knew, logically, that it would be his last shift, but he held out hope that maybe when Tony met him that night, he'd change his mind and cancel the bonding. He didn't even know if you could cancel bondings, but if the alpha initiated it, why not? It was probably the kind of thing that happened all the time, just no one ever talked about it.
Steve went home and took a shower. He carefully combed his hair away from his face, plucked the edges of his unruly eyebrows and dabbed on a little makeup to try and give his cheeks a hint of colour and his eyes some depth. He stepped back and looked in the mirror.
He couldn't see an omega anyone would want. He tried to force the corners of his lips into a welcoming smile, but it just looked like a grimace. Besides, he didn't want Tony to want him. Maybe there had been something in his picture, in the lighting, that made Tony think he was making a good choice, but once he saw him in person, he'd march Steve right back out of his house and leave him to live his life. Leave him to find an alpha who actually loved him for him, instead of a mail-order knot.
Steve pulled on his nicest slacks, winching in the too-loose waist with his only belt. He put on two undershirts to try and hide the way his ribs stuck out and his shoulders pinched in, then layered on a light blue button-down. His ma had always said blue brought out his eyes. He didn't have a jacket that wasn't filled with holes and leaking down, so he went without, even knowing he'd be freezing on the subway right into the city.
200 Park Avenue was SI Tower, home to the largest tech company in the world. It loomed up over Grand Central Station, which at least meant it was easy to get to. It was an odd place to meet, though. There were no living quarters in the massive office building, which meant the mysterious Tony had to work there. But that also meant that other people would be there, which was a small comfort. If Tony was abusing the system to get unbonded omegas delivered to his door so he could force them to do whatever he wanted, it would be odd to invite him to a busy office building to have his wicked way.
Then again, maybe at six in the evening, most people would have gone home. Steve shoved his hand in his pocket and found the pepper spray keychain attached to his apartment key. He marched out of the station and down the street to the front lobby of SI Tower. He'd learned when he turned twenty and still wasn't bonded that the best way to navigate the city as an unmatched omega was to walk like you were an alpha without a care in the world. He rarely got bothered, either because his fake confidence helped him pass as something he wasn't, or because he was so small and sickly looking, that all he inspired in people was disgust or pity.
The front lobby of the tower was enormous, a great arching ceiling curving over his head like he was an ant under a canoe. A huge, abstract painting hung behind the reception desk and Steve was impressed to see a piece by Lainey Archer, a relatively unknown but brilliant omega artist. Steve was very fond of her work, but he'd only seen this piece in books, never in person. He stopped for a moment, staring, and the lone receptionist cleared her throat.
Steve startled and checked the time on his phone. 5:55PM. Not late. He approached the desk.
"Good evening," the receptionist said politely, managing not to curl her lip at Steve's shabby appearance. "How can I help you?"
Steve suddenly realized that he didn't really have much to go on. What should he say? "I have an appointment tonight," he tried. With Tony sounded so weirdly vague, and he shouldn't be calling his new alpha by his first name like that anyway. But he didn't know his last name. "I'm Steve Rogers?" He hovered, hoping he wouldn't have to add, From the registry, and sure enough, the beta's eyebrows rose and she dropped his eyes down to her computer screen for a moment.
"Oh, yes. Of course. Mr. Rogers. Do you have ID with you?"
Steve dug around in his pockets. He had his wallet with his ID card as well as the selection letter, just in case. But he handed his card over and she glanced at it for a moment then handed it back.
"Thank you. If you could take a seat, someone will be right with you." She gestured behind him, and Steve found a tasteful arc of sleek, black leather chairs gathered around a miraculously fingerprint-free glass table. A screen on the wall played footage of SI's most recent product launches.
Steve sat down, clutching his phone between his hands. He focused on keeping his leg from jiggling up and down. Every anxiety he'd ever had about alphas flooded to the surface again. What if Tony hated him? What if Tony liked him too much? What if Tony kept him away from his friends, hit him, yelled at him? What if he couldn't take his knot and Tony dumped him back on the street with nothing?
The clock clicked over to 5:59 and Steve startled up to the click of stiletto heels on the sleek tile floor. A tall woman in a white suit with her bright orange hair pulled back into a perfectly sleek ponytail was making her way across the lobby towards him. "Mr. Rogers?"
Steve jerked to his feet. "Yes. That's me." He held out his hand and she took it for a moment, squeezed lightly then released it. She was an alpha, but her eyes didn't rake down over Steve like most alpha's did.
"I'm Virginia Potts. Mr. Stark's personal assistant. He asked me to show you up."
Steve froze, every frail muscle in his body seizing with sudden fear. Stark. Tony Stark. It had never occurred to him that his new alpha could possibly be the owner of Stark Industries. It made no sense. No sense at all. Why wouldn't Tony Stark be able to find an omega himself. What use did he have for the registry? And even more so, for someone like Steve?
"E-excuse me?" he managed to stutter out.
Miss Potts' head tilted to the side, but she gave nothing else away in her cool, collected expression. "Are you alright?"
"Yes. Sorry." Steve shoved his phone in his back pocket and nodded. "I'm just a little nervous."
"It's okay," she offered kindly. "Nothing to worry about. I know Tony can come off a little… brash at first. But he's a wonderful boss and friend. You'll be fine."
Steve nodded again and tried to clear his throat but it stayed rough and scratchy. Miss Potts led the way to an elevator and swiped the keycard clipped to her belt. The doors closed and the elevator hummed to life, bringing them up ever higher.
"The top three floors are Mr. Stark's private floors," she explained. "You'll be given a keycard, but you'll also have additional access via bioscan. JARVIS will help you learn which floors you're allowed on and which you're not. You'll also have to sign your visitors in and out." She shot him a look and Steve tried not to look as terrified as he felt. "He has to worry about intellectual property security, I'm sure you understand."
Steve didn't understand anything that was happening. It seemed impossible that someone as rich, handsome, and well-connected as Tony Stark would use the registry for anything other than under-the-table omega abuse, but his assistant was talking as if he would be staying long-term. Then again, maybe Tony would want him for a week, or even a month, just long enough for his services to expire, then he'd dump him back on the street, used up and utterly fucked. He glanced at her while she was looking away. She looked kind enough, smile lines creasing the corners of her eyes, but maybe she didn't care. Maybe he was one in a long line of omegas from the registry she'd introduced then put out with the trash the next morning.
Steve chewed his bottom lip, stomach twisting with acid. He couldn't take a knotting tonight, he just couldn't. He wasn't ready. He didn't know what to expect or what he should do or say or -
"Mr. Rogers?" Miss Potts was standing in the now open elevator doors, hand out to keep them from closing again. Steve stumbled out after her.
His hands were sweating and the bile in his empty stomach kept threatening the back of his throat. Miss Potts led him confidently through an extravagantly beautiful great room, past an enormous kitchen, and to a set of back stairs that wound down to an opaque glass door. She swiped her card and pushed the door open without knocking, Steve trotting to keep up with her.
"Tony!" she shouted, startling him. "Your omega is here! Please tell me you're wearing pants."
"Pep!" came a voice from underneath a machine that while technically a car didn't look like any car Steve had ever been close enough to touch before. It was all sleek curves and dark glass. There was a scrape then the rumble of wheels and Tony rolled out from under the car on a dolly. He had green tinted goggles on, a Black Sabbath t-shirt filled with holes, and ratty jeans. He ignored Steve entirely, reaching his hand out for Pepper who helped him to his feet. "Pep, I think it's the air filter causing the problem."
"I'm very happy for you, Tony. Steven is here."
Tony peered around Miss Potts, peeling his goggles off to stare at him. "Huh." His gaze cut up and down Steve like an x-ray and Steve resisted the urge to squirm under his attention. If he wasn't what Tony wanted, maybe he'd just let him go. He didn't care about his services anymore, he just wanted to leave. "Okay."
"Tony," Miss Potts chastised. She turned around and walked back over to Steve, patting him lightly on the shoulder as she made her way to the door. "Don't let him frighten you, Steven, he's a teddy bear." She disappeared through the door which closed with the snick of an electric lock engaging. He was stuck in here with Tony. Alone.
Tony had turned away from him though, fiddling with something on his massive desk. Steve stood with his hands twisted together behind his back, waiting to be spoken to. There was a loud clang and Tony swore softly. Steve had the distinct feeling he'd been forgotten, and he wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not.
But then Tony rounded on him suddenly, spinning around and locking his electric gaze to Steve's. "Steven Grant Rogers. Born Brooklyn, July fourth, nineteen eighty-six."
"Yes, A-" Steve stuttered around the word, knowing he should say Alpha, but still unable to get the word through his lips. "Yes, sir," he settled on.
"So, Steven, what's your favourite food?"
"Your favourite food."
Steve opened and closed his mouth, at a loss.
"You do eat food, don't you?"
"Occasionally," he bit back before he could stop himself. "Maybe, um, cake?"
"It's - yeah, it's special, you know. I don't - um -" Steve shuffled in the face of Tony's wealth. There was no way he'd understand something like this. He'd probably been expecting an answer like "caviar" or "oysters." "I don't get to eat things like cake very often so it feels special."
"Jesus," Tony breathed, and Steve flinched.
"Don't be sorry. I'm - uh -" Tony looked around like the workshop somehow held answers. He appeared to deflate. "Look, this isn't going to be a traditional bonding. There's not really much point in us bothering to get to know each other."
Steve braced himself for the worst.
"You're barely going to see me."
He blinked. "What?"
"I have a… problem that only bonding can solve. But I don't have -" he waved his hand dismissively "- time and stuff. So you don't have to worry about me. I just need you to live here, play the perfect omega in public, and the rest of the time you can do whatever you want."
"Oh." Steve didn't know what else to say to that. "Okay...."
"I'll have movers sent to your place to pack up all your stuff. If you just give me a minute, I'll - uh - actually - J, can you ask Pepper to show Steven his rooms?"
"Pardon?" Tony turned to him again and Steve wished he hadn't said anything.
"Sorry, sir. I go by Steve. Not Steven. If you don't mind."
"Ah. Okay. Steve. J, change the announcement, too. Steve Rogers. Oh, and call me Tony. None of that 'sir' and 'alpha' nonsense."
Steve couldn't tell when Tony was talking to him and when he was talking to… someone else? Someone called J. Then the room talked back.
"Yes, sir," it said, immediately belying Tony's latest request, so Steve supposed it had been directed at him, "I've changed the announcement. Miss Potts, however, regrets to inform you that she's otherwise engaged."
"God dammit," Tony hissed at the ceiling, hands on hips, and Steve planted his feet and fought the urge to flinch away from his anger. "Okay, fine. Okay. Okay. Right." He stared at his desk for a moment. "Come with me." He marched off for the door, and Steve tripped over his feet running after him.
Tony led the way back up the stairs, through the great room again, and up another set of stairs. He turned left down the hall and pushed open a door at the end. It was a massive bedroom with a king bed in the middle. It was simple, almost everything in soft cream and grey, but perfectly clean and crisp. Steve shoved his hands in his pockets so he wouldn't fiddle. This room was so bland and personality-less. What did that say about Tony?
"This is your room," Tony said, gesturing vaguely at it. "I didn't know how to decorate it so I left it simple. You can change anything you want. There's a sitting room attached through that door, for -" he paused. "I don't know. Whatever omegas do in their sitting rooms. And the other door is your bathroom. If there's anything you need that you don't have, just ask J. Your stuff should be here by bedtime."
Tony turned back to Steve, startled, almost like he'd forgotten he was there. "What what?"
"My stuff - tonight? You want me to move in tonight?"
"Right now. Our bonding announcement is going out in one hour. Can't have my bonded omega living alone in another borough. Why? Did you have plans?"
"I'm - No…" Steve stared at the room. This was too fast. "Where's your room?"
Tony quirked an eyebrow at him. "Other end of the hall."
"Okay." Steve's eyes were starting to prick with heat that he was struggling to swallow back. "Okay. And - uh - who's J?"
"Oh. JARVIS. He's the AI that runs the tower - and my entire life. He's listening to everything all the time so if you need anything just ask for it out loud and he'll take care of it. Anything else?" Tony glanced at his phone and frowned.
"Do you - do I need to - um - make you breakfast in the morning…?"
Tony blinked at him. "No… I don't really… eat breakfast, anyway. Just - just do whatever you want, Steve. That's it." He gave a half-shrug.
"Okay," Steve choked out. He dropped damp eyes to the carpet.
"Okay…" Tony echoed. "I - uh - have a meeting."
"Right. Of course. You said that."
"J, will let the movers up. Just tell them where you want everything to go."
Tony hovered for a moment, awkwardness thick enough between them that Steve was choking on it.
"Well. Bye." Tony disappeared, his feet padding down the hall as he hustled off towards the stairs.
Steve stood there in the doorway of his new, white bedroom for a long time, trying to choke back tears that he knew were inevitable. Tony didn't care, didn't want him, would just own him like an object, a princess trapped in the top of this damn tower, with his own pristine bedroom and abandoned heart. No one would ever have the chance to love him, and he'd never have a chance to fall in love. If Tony ever had him, it would be purely physical, nothing more. Maybe that was his problem that only bonding could solve, the need for an on-demand, warm sleeve for his knot.
Steve shivered and wrapped his arms around himself as the first tear fell to the impeccable cream carpet under his feet. Unable to muss up the perfectly made bed, Steve walked through the door Tony had told him was the bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub, dropped his face in his hands, and cried.