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     “Pathetic!  You’re a Stark!  Stark men don’t build failures!”  A mess of copper and wires dangled from Howard’s left hand, the ever present glass of scotch sat clenched in his right.  

     Tony could feel his lips begin to tremble.  The prototype had been close, so close, another night and he would have had it finished...  he knew he could have solved… A sneer twisted his father’s face as he threw the destroyed project against the far wall before turning back to Tony.

     “Stupid. Worthless. Omega .”  Howard’s hand came up Tony hated that he couldn't hide the flinch, but instead of pain his father brushes grease stained fingers across his son’s jaw.  Hot breath, stinking of rage and whiskey, whispers across his cheek.

     “That’s all they’re good for, omegas.  Lay on their backs and take it.” Howard makes a gesture that Tony suposes must mean sex.  “Alphas rule the world and omegas...” The sneer is back and it’s so much worse than the rage.

     “So where does that leave you?”  

     He never could learn to keep his mouth shut.  Not even presenting as an omega last year had fixed that.  Howard’s eyes glint dangerously, the broken project all but forgotten behind them.  He might not be able to build a working robot but he can make Howard look at him. There’s power in that Tony thinks.  

     “If alphas rule the world and omegas take it, what do betas do?”

     The only answer is Howard’s fist splitting his lip.  From his gilt framed portrait on the wall Captain America silently watches the blood drips down Tony’s chin.

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     Tony’s fifteen and has been at MIT for almost a year.  The music is loud and the hormones floating around the frat house are strong enough to make anyone sober gag.  Luckily Tony is anything but sober. Over the course of the night he gets progressively more not sober as a tall alpha brings him cup after red cup of something that tastes like paint thinner then herds him upstairs to an empty room.

     “You want this right?  You want my nice thick cock?  Been making eyes at me across the room all night long, know you need it.”  It’s a half hearted attempt at consent, at best, but Tony nods anyway. Alphas rule and omegas take it.  No reason not to start tonight. It hurts less than Howard’s fist.

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     It’s Rhodey who finds him the next morning, hungover and trying to wash out the vomit on his shirt.  The older boy doesn't say a word, just steers Tony towards the showers then to a mcdonalds off campus.

     “You used protection right?”  Tony is clutching his coffee cup like it might run away from him and only just manages to squint at his friend.

     “Hugh?”  Rodney rolls his eyes and frowns.

     “Sex, babies, birth control.  Christ Tones, someone has given you the talk right?”

     “I… sort of…?”  Jarvis had said a few things when his cycles started and it’s not like Howard had hidden his stash of porn very well, but none of that had really been forefront in his mind last night.

     Rodney just sighed again and two days later he has an appointment with a local doctor.  The Beta woman frowned and tutted and talked at length about “self respect” and “future mate” but eventually he had walked out with a packet of pills that he was already plotting to re-synthesize and improve.  That night Tony was the one who pulled two all-too-willing alphas up stairs with him. It wasn’t like there was ever going to be a “future mate” to “respect himself” for so Tony let his jeans pool around his ankles and batted his eyelashes over his shoulder.  After all, Stark men took what they wanted.

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     It was a cold winter day and Tony was studying for his biochem final by making a list of all the mistake he could find in the textbook when the call came.  He heard the words “car accident” and “didn’t suffer” and there was probably more after that but he couldn’t really hear anything over the blood pounding in his ears.  

Thirty seven.  That’s how many errors there had been in the book.

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     The rest of MIT passed in a blur of alcohol and scientific breakthroughs.  At twenty one he took over Stark industries with the kind help of Obi. Merchant of Death.  Playboy of the world. Never turned down an alpha (or a beta, or that one time a pair of omega twins…)  Privatized war. Afghanistan happens. Obi happens. SHIELD happens.

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    “Big man in a suit of armor.  Take that off and what are you?.”  For some reason images of Howard’s workshop float through this mind.  Cap was wrong though. Take off his suit and Tony knew exactly what he was.  

     Stupid - building an empire of blood and willful dinile. Worthless - good people had died and Tony Stark still had the audacity to walk and breath and pretend he could somehow make amends. Omega - well, he supposed that the issue there wasn’t really his secondary gender; there were plenty of omegas who didn’t open their legs for any alpha who smiled at them.  Or end up with whole websites dedicated to their “escapades.” So yeah, he knew alright.

     He doesn't say any of those things though.  Why would it matter? Instead he swallows back the smell of scotch and proceeds to fly a nuke into space.  

     Cap is the first face he sees when he opens his eyes.  When his heart flutters Tony isn’t sure if it’s because his reactor is finally giving out or if it’s the way his head is being cradled in strong, muscular arms.  He hopes it's the first one.

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     He invites the Avengers to live with him.  He gives them toys, and a floor each, and state of the art training gyms.  He sets it all up and modifies Jarvis's protocols so no one can disturb him and blacks out his workshop.  

     Remember who you are.  Iron man yes, Tony Stark no.  Remember your place. Remember the blood on your hands.  Remember… no matter how much vodka he drinks he can still smell that damm scotch.

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     They fight like dogs and cats.

     “What makes you think you’re so much smarter than everybody else!  You don’t just mute your comm and go do the EXACT thing I just told you not to do!!!”

     Steve is big and loud and red in the face from shouting.  Tony wonders if Steve even remembers what he did this time, they’ve had these shouting matches at least once a week since the helicarrier.  It would be even more often but Steve hasn't yet stooped to breaking down the workshop door, so Tony can still hide away and invent until the next call-out.  

     Another part of his brain, helpfully wonders if it would be better for Cap to take him against the door or over the conference room table.  Since neither of those lines of thought are acceptable, he pushes the ever present shades higher up his nose and smirks across the table.

     “Mostly the seven PHD’s and 7,892 patents.  Oops, I forgot, it’s 7,893.” Steve splutters to a stop mid sentence, and Tony gives his best fake innocent look.  “That’s what makes me smarter than anyone else I mean. Sorry to disappoint you Capsical, but god made some of us pretty and smart.”  He winks and pushes past Steve, and maybe it’s his imagination but he almost thinks Steve is momentarily at a loss for words.  

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     It’s stupid, and pointless and, self destructive, but he can’t help it.  It had all started predictably enough. Daddy issues and, well, he had eyes and even with SHIELD grade scent blockers he had a nose, Ersing’s formula had definitely gotten the “peak of alpha perfection” thing right.  It wasn’t until later, after one too many grueling debriefs, and torn up punching bags, and JARVIS quietly suggesting that someone go up to the roof because “it might be prudent to reinforce the guardrail” that he began to see the rest of the man.

     Steven Grant Rogers, a man out of time.  Trying to live in a world he had never dreamed of, fighting a war he never asked for, grieving the loss of every person he had ever known.  Captain America, the brilliant tatiction, the man who refused to lose another man, the mother hen who snapped orders and glared at anyone trying to skip medical.  Steve, who figured out smart phones in a week and then trolled the SHIELD interns with increasingly outlandish questions for a month.

     It might have started as a stupid crush but somewhere along the line it had become something so much worse.  

     Which was why he drawled sarcastic innuendos and made sure that the only way Steve looked at him is with a combination of frustration and disgust.  He might have rewritten the laws of physics a time or two but even Tony Stark understood what is impossible.

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     “JARVIS please tell Tony that it’s his turn to pick the movie so he had better come out before Clint tries to make us watch Frozen again.  And we have Italian.”

     Somehow a year had passed since the Avengers first assembled.  Alien invasions, doom bots, three doomsday machines, and that one time that Lokie opened a portal and unleashed a horde of slime monsters on Times Square.  And in between all that things were… good?

     It shouldn’t work, they shouldn't work, but somehow Clint learned to bypass his security by working his way through the ventilation system (and Tony let him think he hadn’t noticed,) Natasha made soup with the same knifes she uses to butcher doom bots, Bruce worked in his lab for days on end and then would come pounding up the stairs (never mind there’s a perfectly good elevator right there ) to shove some new breakthrough under his nose, after a hard workout Thor would clap him on the back and thunder something about being “shield brothers” and Steve… well Steve was Steve.  

     Mandatory SHIELD bonding exercises had become movie nights.  Clint now wore a harness over his armor so Iron Man could catch him when he jumped off buildings without dislocating any joints.  Tony had made the grave tactical error of leaving some of the leftover tiramisu that he had made FOR HIMSELF THOR in the fridge, and Natasha had threatened him with dismemberment until he showed her how to make the recipe.  (Not even her scariest glare could keep the god from eating half the pan though.) Banner even had the gall to put his name down as the co-author of a paper on the application of nanotechnology for surgery in disaster zones they had worked on.  The entire team had come to watch them receive the award that Doctors Without Borders gave them.

     Even he and Steve had reached a sort of understanding.  The good captain was still hard edges and clipped orders in the field, but now he also badgered Tony into extra training “so you’re not so vulnerable without the suit.”  He yelled at him for being reckless but also left him sandwiches at his elbow and played fetch with DUM-E.

     It was… confusing.  People usually treated him worse after getting to know him not better.  Sometimes the amount that he liked it - this team, the comradery, the pranks, the after battle carb binges, all of it - made his heart clench in a way that had nothing to do with the reactor.  

     Even worse there were times, usually late at night on the second or third day of an inventing binge, when Tony’s delusional brain would start spinning impossible scenarios where Steve might actually like him back.

     He was well into hour thirty six of working on a new battery prototype when every tower security alarm started blaring at once.  

     Bucky Barns, aka the Winter Soldier, walked into the Avengers tower with a sniper rifle on his back and alarms shrieking ineffectually from every angle.  He raised his hands over his head in the universal sign for surrender but there was nothing soft about the voice that echoed through the monitors.

“WHERE IS STEVE ROGERS?”

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     “He’s all I have left.”  It had been Steve, a worried frown maring his otherwise perfect jaw, who asked if he could stay.  The only thing stupider than the flash of jealousy that spiked through Tony was just how much he wanted to reach out and smooth the frown off that beautiful face.

     Instead he made a mental note to have JARVIS make sure that Cap’s floor was refitted for a second occupant and pasted on a grin. “Any friend of Mr. Stars and Stripes has a place in the tower.”  The dawning look of joy on Steve's face almost made up for the twisting jab of pain that threatened to tear his insides out.

     If he had ever wondered if the rumors were true - that Steve and his best friend were more than “brothers-in-arms,” well there was his answer.  ( So what?   The rational part of his brain hissed back.  Bucky could have never even been born and you would still be the last person that Captain America would choose. )    

     He must have hidden his internal panic well enough though because Steve smiled like Tony had handed him the sun.

     “You’re a good man Tony.  I… we… thank you.” He reached forward and for the briefest of moments Tony held his breath and could almost imagine that Steve was going to hug him, to wrap those perfectly muscled arms around him and whisper in his ear that he was going to show him just how grateful he really was…  Instead he rested a hand on his shoulder.

     “You ok there Tony?”  The concern looked so real, Tony wanted nothing more than to believe that it is meant for him.  Instead he plastered the grin even more firmly onto his face.

     “Never better Spangles, never better.”

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     People being what they are, the history books had decided that Peggy Carter must have been an omega and Steve and Bucky were her alphas.  Because obviously if two alphas had even a whiff of more-than-platonic leanings there had to be a nice soft omega involved to keep it all wholesome and righteous.  

     Tony had snorted the first time he heard that one.  If there had ever been an omega involved it certainly hadn't been Aunt Peggy.  She had been beta through and through. A female beta who had made a career out of telling the biggest, most testosterone high, alphas in the room to sit down, shut up, and listen to her.  Howard had been terrified of her (and Tony had loved her visits.)

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     There were logistics of course.  SHIELD, the CIA, the Military, and most definitely the press, all had a lot to say about the newly resurrected Cold war ghost.  The parade of lawyers, psychologists, and dangerous looking operatives were politely (and then not so politely) turned away by a combination of Pepper and a lot of SI lawyers.

     It turns out that being the world's oldest POW does grant you some legal protection.  At least that was what Tony argued to an assembled group of US senators and Director Fury.

     “Try to lock him up and I will personally see to it that you have the public relations nightmare of your life.”

     There was a lot of grumbling and some not-so-vague threats but the smile that Steve gave him after Bucky’s case was officially dropped due to “extenuating circumstances” was more than worth it.  Then the real work began.

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     At first the ex-brainwashed assassin kept to himself.  Hardly speaking even to Steve and simply staring at everyone else.  It was somewhere between sad and deeply terrifying.

     Because Tony was Tony, of course he had been building robotic arms in his mind and itching to have a look at the original since the minute he had decided that the glaring man in front of him was only 65% likely to kill him in the imminent future.  But it was almost a month before the ex- assassin materialized in the workshop, gestured with the metal arm and muttered something that sounded like “please.”

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     “Stevie doesn't know that I’m here.”

     One of these days Tony hoped that he would get used to living with super spies who could sneak into any room unnoticed and give poor unsuspecting engineers heart attacks, but it sure had not happened yet.

     “Crap Buckaroo, someone needs to put a bell on you or something!”  It was only as he managed to get his heart rate back under control that the words actually sunk in.  “What do ya mean Steve doesn't know? What’s going on?”

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     It had been six months since the day Bucky had slunk his way into Tony’s shop, looking for all the world like a feral cat who was sure that the trap door was about to spring shut.  

     First there had been the matter of the triggers and the brain washing.  It had taken a few SHIELD approved psychologists before one managed to stick around for more than half a session, but the lady who did was honestly almost as scary as a super soldier herself, just with more feelings and worksheets.  

     Then there was the physical damage because, even with super-healing, repeated mind wipes and flash freezes were hell on the body.  Lucky that was mostly fixed with time and copious amounts of food (Seriously, Tony had thought that Thor could eat.  He watched Bucky down nine hamburgers, two pies, approximately three mountains of french fries, and then try to steal Nat’s milkshake.  Nat, of course, had reclaimed the pilfered milkshake and darkly threatened to stab him if he tried it again. The psychologist was still working on the self destructive tendencies.)

     While all this was going on Tony (plus Bruce, and sometimes - when he and Bruce weren’t too busy glaring and sniping at each other - Stephen Strange) were all working on what to do about Bucky’s arm.  HYDRA’s tech was brutally effective. Tony could only stare at it with a kind of horrified awe. They had wired the damm thing into his spine .  The prosthetic clearly showed the wear of seventy years of repairs and improvements.  It also showed what Tony had suspected. It was causing Buck constant pain - exactly like it was designed to.

     First they had to remove it.  It took three attempts to get it done.  Bucky was adamant that we wouldn’t be sedated.

     “Won’t hurt any more that putting it on” he growled.  Unfortunately this was beside the point. Even for a surgeon of Dr. Strange’s caliber it was rather difficult to do neurosurgery on a twitching patient.  Eventually they worked out a compromise: They would use an epidural to numb him from the neck down and Steve would stay in the room the whole time.

     After they got it off the project returned to Tony.  He needed to build something that had never been done before and do it lighter, better, and stronger than was actually physically possible.  So basically a normal Tuesday.

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     “He, uhhh”  

     James Buchanan Barnes didn’t squirm .  He glowered, and stomped, and sometimes, usually after a grueling session with the therapist or when Tony had to go especially deep while trying to convince his biological nerve to mesh with the new synthetic ones, his face would turn to stone while his eyes shimmered like he was trying to remember how to cry.  (No matter how much Bucky gritted his teeth and told him to keep going Tony hated himself for doing it.) But a nervous, tongue tied, squirming Bucky… well Tony had not the faintest clue how to approach that.

     “It’s not that he doesn't want you to know, it’s just…”  

     Bucky’s hair had been a shaggy mop when he first arrived, as unwashed and rough looking as the rest of him (not that Tony had been looking or anything.)  Now the ex-assassin seemed to be growing it out.  It hung softly over his cheek bones and almost kissed his hard, sculpted shoulders…   Focus Tony, and get your mind out of the damm gutter .  The taller man sighed and squared his shoulders.

     “Look Steve wants to protect you, and hell, I would give anything to just pretend I can’t remember but,”  There’s another sigh and Bucky's hands twitch like he wants Tony to come closer then pulls himself back. “You’ve been so good to me un’ Stevie.  What with this place, and going to bat for me, and now this arm...” He gestures across the room towards the almost finished prosthetic that should give him back enough sensation and dexterity to, well, to do whatever he wanted.  “I just couldn’t take all that and not tell you.” He nods and suddenly JARVIS is projecting something onto the wall in front of him.

     It’s security footage.  The film is silent and grainy but the road is familiar and the car…  there is a ball of flame and a man in dark clothing and a mask jumps impossibly far to land on the roof of the car.

     The world tilts and time freezes.  The next thing he knows he is sitting on the floor because his legs have given out and JARVIS has stopped the footage.  Not like it matters, Tony knows the rest.

     “I’m so, so, sorry.”  The super soldier's voice is rough and distantly Tony wonders what he is supposed to say now.  Then Bucky solves the problem for him by continuing to talk.

     “I can leave, you never have to see me again, I swear. ”   Why does everything sound so quiet, like he’s underwater?  “... you’ve done so much and I had to tell you...”

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     Falling in love with Bucky had been a surprise.

     It wasn’t like it was with Steve; Tony was pretty sure that he had been hating, and loving, and wanting, that damm man since he was ten years old.  Then the real deal had burst into his life and somehow the reality was even better than the fantasy.

     With Bucky it had been long nights of working while the man sat motionless watching him with razor sharp eyes.  It had been the first time he had turned on ACDC without thinking and watched Bucky’s eyes light up.

     “It’s hard with Stevie you know.  Love that jerk, but he wants someone I’m not any more.  Maybe someone I can’t be.”

     The words were slow and halting and Tony would nod awkwardly and wish he knew what to say.  Then Tony found himself talking back.  Stupid stuff, DUM-E and U, how he failed biology when he was thirteen because he accidentally created a chemical so noxious that not only did the building have to be fumigated, the lab had to be rebuilt.

     It was slow and sweet and then one day Tony opened his eyes and realized that he loved them both.  These two alphas who were good and righteous, who made him want to be someone who could deserve their love.  He didn’t make it to the toilet before he threw up.

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     “Tony, Doll, can you hear me?”  Bucky was crouched down, he looked concerned but stayed an arms length away, probably because didn’t want to deal with a panicking omega.  

     “Did he scream?”  Confusion flashed across the other man’s face but that was alright because for the first time in a long time Tony knew exactly what he wanted to say.  

     Tony thought about his father.  A man who saw farther than anyone else and hated the rest of the world for not living up to his vision.  He thought about his mother, how she always thought that if she could just be quiet enough, small enough, good enough, then maybe Howard would remember that she was there.  He thought about spilled alcohol and silent pictures of the only person that his father had ever actually loved. A desperate giggle crept into Tony’s throat.

     “When you killed him, please tell me that he screamed.”  The laughter worked its way up his throat and into his mouth.  “Did he beg? Did he…” The laughter cuts off his words and he doubles over with it.

     Poor Bucky, he looked downright panicked.  Some part of his brain that is still sane knows that this is wrong.  This isn’t how you respond to finding out that you have fallen hopelessly in love with your parent’s killer.  Bucky probably expected him to cry, or get mad, not to be dealing with a full on crazy man.

     He gets his feet under him.  This is important he thinks. He closes the gap between himself and the alpha.  Allows himself to press a hand to the flesh and metal shoulder, doesn't let himself think about how warm the muscles feel under his palm.

     “That wasn’t you.  It was never you.” and then because Bucky is getting that “almost going to cry” look in his eyes again (and because Tony is a selfish, selfish, man) he adds “come on, lets get that new arm squared away.”

     He doesn't see the look of wonder in the other man’s eye.  Wonder and something that resembles hope.

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     The first time Tony found a gift on his workshop counter he assumed that it was either some sort of prank from Clint or a bribe from Pepper.  He carefully pushed open the small box and there, nestled under red paper was a ruby tie pin and matching red handkerchief. The cloth was silky smooth against his fingers.  It was a nice gift, and that was… odd. It wasn’t his birthday or even a holiday that might in any way suggest gift giving. Not that many people gave him gifts anyway, why give a gift to the man who already has everything?  

     It must have been Pepper.  They might have broken up but she did still occasionally give in to her alpha instincts and she had always loved dressing him up…  He made a mental note to ask her what she wanted… then promptly forgot about it entirely.

     Later that evening as he made his way toward the sofa (pushing Bruce out of the way, seriously that man took up more space than the Hulk sometimes) for movie night both the super soldiers gave him odd looks than morphed into strangely tense and unhappy frowns.

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     The second and third gifts were a silver pendant in the shape of a circuit board and a pair of red and gold enamel cufflinks.  This time he stormed into the kitchen demanding to know what the hell was going on. All he had gotten was a smirk from Natasha and a lewd gesture from Clint.  Neither of which were helpful in the least.

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     It had taken some dancing around and a few very awkward conversations before everyone worked out how to navigate the various gender alignments on the team.  

     Nat was an apha and she and Clint had some sort of arrangement going on.  Not many people caught on to the fact that the archer was an omega but Tony was good at catching small details, and Clint was bad at being quiet (he may or may not have invented new noise blocking technology after one particularly traumatizing incident.)  

     Thor had no secondary gender and was quite confused by the whole idea.  Tony wasn’t sure who had gotten the job of explaining the birds and the bees to their resident God but he was fervently glad that it had not been him.  

     Bruce’s alignment was… strange.  He smelled like a beta but from what Tony had been able to dig up had been an alpha before the experiment.  The Green Guy, on the other hand, seemed to exhibit pheromones from all three genders but no heat or rut cycle.  Since Bruce completely shut down at the mear suggestion researching anything related to the Other Guy (and Tony supposed he couldn’t really blame the man) there didn’t seem to be any answer forthcoming.  

     Steve was of course the best smelling alpha that Tony (and pretty much every other red blooded omega and quite a few betas) had ever encountered.  And Bucky’s alpha sent was as smoky and sharp as Steve’s was warm and strong. Some days it was all Tony could do to keep himself from curling up in one of their laps and rubbing his face… and those were exactly the kinds of thoughts he did not need.  Nobody had ever accused Tony Stark of having too much self control, but after living with the super soldier duo for this long he thought that he deserved a goddamn gold medal.

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     It wasn’t until the fourth gift that what was happening became clear.  

     Pepper had had him running from meeting to meeting all day long.  Investors, the board, a reporter who she owed a favor to. He was trying his best to be good; charming investors, calming the board, he even flirted with the reporter - at least until he until he worked out that the beta’s eyes were not on him but Pepper’s pencil skirt and perfectly neat hair.  After the interview he watched as Pepper’s hand lingered for just a fraction longer than needed as she escorted the woman out. Interesting. He knew that she didn’t have a gender preference for her partners but it had been quite a while since she had seemed interested in anyone. He made a mental note to do a background check on the reporter just to be safe.

     It was late by the time he got back to the tower and stumbled to the workshop.

     “Hey JARVIS pull up video footage of the experiment from three to four pm.”  The experiment in question was a complex chemical reaction. As the footage started up it was bubbling away promisingly but it was the flash of movement in the corner of the frame that caught his eye.

     “J can you pan up please?”

     Sure enough that was a hand that had flashed across the screen, and attached to the had was,

     “Audio J.”

     “We have to do this right Buck.  Treat him proper.” It was Cap speaking and sure enough in the background was mr. tall-dark-and-grouchy, and right now that glare was being turned on Cap.

     “He didn’t like the first ones, what makes you think…”

     Tony’s eyes snap over the desk and sure enough, there laying next to the beakers and scattered mechanical bits was one more neatly wrapped package.

     “Pause feed.”  With suddenly trembling fingers Tony pulls off the lid.  

     It’s a watch.  Not just any watch though.  It's all sleek lines and shining platinum.  Tony is a good judge of jewelry and unless he is very wrong this is custom made.  Custom made and very high end.  He picks it up and examines it from every angle.  There is no inscription, and no stones or overt decoration, but no one with eyes could miss that it belongs nestled on his wrist next to his best suits.  It is exquisite.

     Very carefully Tony lays it back down in it’s box.  

     “Did they deliver all the gifts, J?”  He doesn't really need to specify which ones.

     “Yes sir, and if I may sir…”

     “Not right now J.  Thank you though. Can you close up in here please?”

     “Yes sir.”  He swears the AI sounded almost nervous.  Welcome to the party, he thinks. With trembling legs he scoops up the box and heads for the elevator.  JARVIS doesn't even need a prompt, when the elevator doors open it’s on Steve’s floor. There are voices coming from behind the door.

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     The first time an alpha had given him a courting present it had been his second year of MIT.  Sunset Bain was tall and powerful, captain of the women’s rowing team, and heir to her own corporate fortune.  They had been flirting on and off for weeks before a package appeared in front of their dorm room. James had stumbled over it then tossed it onto his bed, complaining about all the orders of parts that Tony got.  It was a neat white jersey, number thirty-four. Tony had looked at it blankly until Jame’s laughter had broken his concentration.

     “Oh, someone has it bad for you!  Who’s the lucky alpha?” His returning blank stare must have rubbed his friend the wrong way because his next words were edged with annoyance.  “Seriously man, I know you are doing your best to sleep your way through the whole school, but you could at least give them a shot. It would do you some good to find someone who will buy you dinner first!”  Tony had nodded and two days latter had agreed to a date with her.

     Sunset was wonderful.  Brilliant, beautiful, and confident.  For the first time there was someone other than James who wanted him for more than his money or a quick fuck (although they certainly did plenty of that too.)  And all through it the gifts kept coming. Books, trinkets, and jewelry. She bought him diamond stud earrings, then when he shyly confessed that his ears weren’t pierced she had dragged him at a shop that very afternoon, laughing when he almost passed out at the sight of the needle.  More than a little ironic really, considering the amount of body-modifying surgery he sported these days. It had been a fairy tale, right up until it wasn’t.

     The rest of the story could be found easily enough in the newspapers:  A mysterious break in at Stark Industries, so clean that it seemed like it must be an inside job.  Stolen documents, and a scant year later a new corporation opening with all too familiar designs. Even Sunset’s smirk when she airily told a reporter that, “we had fun and all but, well you know, he isn’t exactly the kind of omega you marry.”  Both she and the reporter had laughed and Tony had flown to Paris that evening. The next thing he remembers is crashing a stolen Jag into the Eiffel tower.

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     “Tony! It’s good to see you!”  Steve’s tone was bright but it didn’t take a genius level IQ to know that something was up.  Behind him Tony could just make out Barnes. Well that would make this all the more efficient.

     “What is this?”  He tried to make his voice flat and hard and probably failed by a mile.

     “It’s just a little something we thought you would like Doll.”  Barns pulls Steve back and motions for Tony to come into the room.  He’s thankful that the alpha wasn’t the grabby type because that would make this all the harder.  He doesn't enter the room.

     “Why are you giving me presents?”  Now both the alphas look concerned.

     “We ah, well, it’s just that we’d like…”  Steve, “I can look a charging tank in the metaphorical eye and not blink” Rogers was blushing.  Barns rolls his eyes fondly and cuts in.

     “We’re trying to court you Doll, if you’ll have us that is.”

----------------

     Alpha pairs courting a single omega was not unheard of, even back in the forties.  There were plenty of pseudo-science about how having two alphas in a relationship was even good for society - something about more protection for the nest, and better societal bonds.  

     Personally Tony suspected that it had a lot more to do with the fact that alphas outnumber omegas and that no one really wanted to get between two possessive alphas and their property.  

     Of course, it wasn’t the forties any more.  Legally speaking omegas had the same rights as everybody else; they could get a divorse, work outside the home, even serve in the military.  Just look at him, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist, and now Iron Man - a real modern omega.

     Except that it didn’t actually change anything; at least this way he could pretend that it was his choice.  After all, he wasn’t the kind of omega you married.

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     “No?”  Bucky squinted like he didn’t understand what he just heard, and Steve’s face took on a crumpled look.

     “You heard what I said.  I’m sorry I didn’t know who the first presents came from.  I will have them returned to you as soon as possible. I’m sure that…”  He was babbling. He snapped his mouth shut and placed the box on the dresser, purposely avoiding looking at the king size bed, with it’s rumpled sheets and soft looking pillows.  Neither of the other men said a word. He turned away and the hall looked as long as a stadium.

     “I’m sorry.”  Tony was almost at the elevator before he let the words slip from his throat, pathetic and far too quiet for even a super soldier to hear.

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     Tony handled having his heart ripped out of his chest (again) with predictable restraint and poise.  After a week the avengers call in the big guns and sic Pepper on him. She took one look at the workshop, the various bottles of liquor, the smashed inventions and cars, U and DUM-E nervously flitting around, Tony all but passed out on the sofa, and shook her head.

     “Get up.  You are going to shower, brush your teeth and then tell me what in god’s name is going on.”  It is a testament to the force of nature that is Virginia Pepper Potts, that forty-five minutes later they are both sitting in his suite, drinking something that tasted like coffee and kale mixed together, and when Tony opens his mouth the whole story falls out.

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     “A word gentlemen?”  

     When he was with HYDRA Bucky had learned that the worst handlers were the ones who never seemed to get upset.  There were plenty of guys who came in barking orders and knocking him around to “prove” their dominance. But a calm voice pleasantly explaining how he had fucked up was far more likely to end in the sort of things that still gave him nightmares.  He was also convinced that, had she had ever decided to go evil, Ms. Potts could have taken over the world twice by now.

     The three of them were in the communal kitchen.  Steve had been poking dejectedly at the sandwich on his plate for over half an hour and, after the third batch of cookies had gone up in smoke, Bucky had glumly joined him at the table.

     “What can we do for you Ms. Potts?”  Usually she would scold Steve for not calling her Pepper.  When she pursed her lips and nodded instead Bucky knew they were done for.

     “Does he know about his parents?”

     “How did you kno-”

     “Yes ma’am.”  She chose to ignore Steve’s cut off protest turned to Bucky.

     “Why did you tell him?”

     “He deserved to know.” That earned an inquisitively raised eyebrow.

     “He deserved it or you felt guilty?”

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     Virginia Pepper Potts was a smart woman.  It was no fluke of luck that she had transitioned from a personal assistant, to the CEO of a multi billion dollar company with little more than a few grumbles from the board members.  After the company stock went up the next three quarters in a row even the holdouts had accepted that she knew what she was doing.

     She hadn't known though, not for sure anyway, until the (former?) assassin looked her in the eye and confirmed it.  What she had been aware of was pieced together from old gossip, a few intelligence reports that someone had paid quite a lot of money to hide, and Tony’s complete silence on anything before he attended MIT.  When you stopped being blinded by Tony’s outrageous behavior and general inability to get anywhere on time though, it wasn’t so hard to read between the lines.

     She had seen the man intoxicated enough to try to jump on the stage at Paris fashion week - naked - but she had still never heard him say anything about his parents that wasn’t a carefully scripted press release.

     Howard Stark had been by all accounts a brilliant man.  He had already built an empire by the time 1942 rolled around, and throughout the war he became involved with increasingly classified projects.  A few years after the war ended he married Maria, a slightly scandalous match for the time as she was an omega, and threw himself into the two projects that would define the rest of his life - building Stark Industries and searching for Captain America.  

     What had happened between the elder Stark and the good Captain she couldn’t speculate on but, looking at the man studiously studying his shoes in front of her, she was inclined to believe that Steve had no idea the profound impact that he had indirectly had on the object of his affections.  As her mother would say, “now this is a right mess.”

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     “It wasn’t right to let him put me up, and help with my arm, and all if he didn’t know.”  It was a good answer. She turned to the other man.

     “And you Steve, I assume you knew?”  The man swallowed once more than looked her straight in the eyes.

     “I didn’t want to tell him.  I thought it would just hurt him.”  She acknowledged that with a nod.

     Neither of them were wrong really, there had been times when she thought that, had HYDRA not done the job already, she probably would have contacted them herself.  She had been protective of her boss long before they fell in love and their subsequent break-up had made her worry for him more rather than less. None of this was the real problem though.  No, the real issue was sitting ten floors above them hopefully not drinking anything other than gatorade.

     “Do you both really love him?”  Two pairs of eyes snapped up and two heads nodded in vehement unison.

     “He’s the best person I’ve met, he’s funny and brilliant, and he does so much…”

     “- want to take care of him and show him that he doesn't have to be alone.”

     It was kind of cute really.  They really were gone on him.  Pepper taped her fingers against her lips and weighed her next words carefully.

     “Then gentlemen I suggest you show him that respecting his decision will not impact your friendship.  Mr. Stark has rarely had reason to think the best of people, perhaps you two can prove to him that you are an exception.”  A beat of silence, “And boys, I trust that I don’t have to spell out the utter destruction that I will rain down on your heads if you hurt him.”  

     There was a flurry of “no ma’ams” and she watched as they scurried out of the kitchen with a grin.  She really did hope they could get through to her emotionally challenged former boss. Mentally she started a list of possible wedding venues; it never hurt to be prepared.   

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     Tony was pretty sure that he was going insane.  Either than or the rest of the world was.

     It had been three weeks since he had turned the wonder twins down and two since Pep had dragged him out of his workshop and threatened force his favorite coffee grower out of business if he drunk one more drop of alcohol.  For the first few days everything had gone pretty much like he expected. He had JARVIS tell him if a room was clear before he entered and he spent a lot of time in the workshop staring at the wall and very consciously not playing ACDC.  Then the first sandwich appeared.

     The first time he didn’t think too much about it.  JARVIS alerted him to someone at the door but by the time he registered it, and actually looked up from his project, there was nothing at the door except a plate with a neat sandwich and some chips, no pickle, just like he liked it.

     The next day there was a bowl of soup and the day after Steve came down with lasagna and a weirdly guilty look.  Tony probably wouldn’t have let him in but J decided to get smart and opened the door after he vaguely waved in response to the alert.  Cap asked something about how it was going and after Tony stuttered something totally incomprehensible, had smiled and left him with the food.  Tony had never heard a machine sound quite so amused as when he asked J to scan it for poison. The scan was negative, it tasted wonderful.

     After that it just kept happening.  When he told them no the absolute best case scenario that he could imagine was cold professionalism in the field and a mutual avoidance out of it.  More realistically he had expected to be kicked off the team and wake up to a slew of tabloids proclaiming that “Stark thinks he’s too good for the American Dream.”  If he was lucky, maybe Bruce would stay around for the lab the rest of the team would certainly follow their fearless leader. Instead… nothing really changed.

     The next mission he ignored Cap’s orders and got between two civilians and an explosion.  After the fight Steve had simply sighed and done his trademark, “you’re making me very sad” puppy dog eyes while walking him down to medical.  After they cleared him (nothing broken just bruised ribs and a knot on the back of his head) he wandered back to the debrief room.

     Everyone was sitting down except Bucky, who seemed to be pacing the perimeter of the room.  When he saw Tony, the alpha stopped dead his right hand twitching, and for a moment Tony thought that he was about to get hit (which was just unfair, he’d already gotten tumbled around enough for one day.)  Instead the sniper abruptly turned and stomped out of the room. Everyone else pretended not to notice.

     The first time he ventured into the kitchen at an hour that wasn’t 3am, Clint had opened his mouth only to have Thor, of all people, shoot him a look that made the archer close it again.  After that things settled more or less back into their old routines. It was bewilderingly not-awful and the whole thing made Tony want to do freefalls in the suite until his legs were shaking and his mind was too fuzzy with adrenaline to think about what it all meant.  Instead channeled his nerves into his day job. Judging by the look on Pepper’s face when he actually showed up for a meeting early , he was going to have break out the “I swear I’m not dying again” speech.

----------------

     “Sorry to, um, bother you, but, well -”  Bucky was standing across the common room from him and studiously looking everywhere but Tony.  Luckily the meaning behind this somewhat garbled sentence was immediately clear; two of the panels on his arm were caved in, and the whole left side of his body had developed a tremor.  People often claimed that Tony preferred his technological creations to real people and, whether that was accurate or not, the horror of seeing his tech in such a sorry state did go a long way to smooth over the initial awkwardness of being in the same room as Bucky.

     By the time that Bucky was seated in his workshop, and the misfiring connection that was causing the tremor had been cut, Bucky seemed less likely to just tear the whole thing off and make a run for it.  Which was about when Tony’s motormouth kicked in.

     “What in god’s name did you do to this?  Are those finger marks in the titanium plates that I specifically reinforced?”  Bucky made a noncommittal grunt that turned into a wince when Tony pried a wire out of the matrix and started methodically reattaching it to the adjoining servos.

     “I swear, if I didn’t know better I’d say you tried to get fresh with the Hulk.”  The grunt sounded a lot more guilty this time.

     “thought I could ‘least last a round”  Underneath the hair falling across his face, Tony could just make out the red stain spreading up the alpha’s cheeks.   Bucky Barns blushing?  This was too good to let go.  He pushed his chair back and spun to face the other man completely.

     “Let me get this straight.  You, you who are decidedly not green or ten feet tall, decided to go a few rounds with Hulk and Banner actually went for it?”

     “Um… well Banner kinda didn’t… I mean it was more of an impromptu training session.”  Now that was a diplomatic answer worthy of Tony himself. He spared a moment of guilt for how often he must make Pepper feel exactly like this, before pinning his still stammering patient with a decidedly unimpressed look.  

     “So what you’re saying is that you terrorized Banner into hulking out, and then took him on single handed, which as you see turned out just peachy!”

     “I had two hands at the beginning”  That did it, the whole situation was simply ridiculous, scratch that, his whole life was ridiculous , so Tony did the only thing he could think of and doubled over laughing.  He laughed until the hysterical feeling that he had somehow gotten sucked into an alternate version of reality passed and he was left with a sort of fatalistic zen.  Regardless of what dimension he was in he needed to fix the mechanical wreck in front of him. Still chuckling, Tony picked up the discarded soldering iron and got back to work.

----------------

     “You should just tell him yes. I won’t get in the way.”

     Tony had just put the finishing touches on Bucky’s arm and was reattaching the outer plates when Bucky’s voice broke the silence of the shop.

     “I mean it.  It’s been good of you, everything you’ve done for me, and I know I didn't have any right to go courting you, not with the blood on my hands.  But fuck, Stevie he loves you something fierce and he’ll treat you right…” Bucky finally looked away from the patch of floor he had been studying and Tony was slightly horrified to see tears streaking down the former assassin's cheeks.

     “Just think about it please?  You deserve the best and Steve’s as good as it gets.”

     The last panel slid into place with a quiet click and then there was silence in the workshop.  By the time that Tony looked up from the screwdriver he was white knuckling, Bucky had slipped silently out the door.

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     Steve looked at the clock and frowned, it was two am and Tony still hadn’t gotten back to the tower.  Well, technically he could have bypassed the communal floor and gone straight to his room, but Steve knew the man too well to put much stock in that explanation.  Tony was nothing if not predictable - drag him out of his shop and put him in a tux for the night and he would invariably come up with some fascinating new idea that he absolutely had to start tinkering with the moment he got home.  Steve had been dragged along to enough charity functions and “political fundraisers” (or as he privately called them, ass kissing duty) that he knew the drill by heart. A month ago he had hoped that it would be himself and Bucky escorting Tony to these obligations, but that’s all they were now, just dreams.   

     Worried about the wear and tear he was putting on the carpet Steve made himself walk to the massive set of windows and stare down at the city below.  The view was breathtaking.

     New York city had changed so much since the days when he and Bucky would hitch rides on street cars and brush the milk man’s horse for a peppermint apiece.  People always expected him to hate it. To rant against the frivolity of modern life or something. Instead he found it soothing. Proof that something could change so much yet still endure.  

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     It was three am before Happy pulled into the tower garage.  Tony was exhausted, too many people, too much posing for cameras, and far, far, to many sharks all sizing each other up for blood.  On top of all that he’d had an idea for how he could shave three seconds off the targeting time for his repulsor blasts and Pepper simply would not let him leave early to work on it.  All-in-all a miserable evening.

     He nodded in response to Happy’s “goodnight sir.” and plodded toward the elevator.  If he was lucky he could get a couple of hours of work in before anyone else was awake to bother him.  With this thought firmly in his head he headed towards the common floor towards aiming for the coffee pot before he went back down stairs - only to stop dead as his eyes adjusted well enough to the semi darkness to realize that he was not alone.  

     Standing in the darkened room, backlight by the window, Steve looked like sketch torn from one of Michelangelo’s notebooks.  Dim light played over his frame, accentuating every muscle and perfect line, coyly hinting at the power underneath. His shoulders were bowed, the kind of tired look he got after an exhausting fight, and something jabbed at Tony’s heart.  Before he could second guess himself he swaggered across the room and flopped down on one of the couches.

     “Long night contemplating the nature of existence Capsical?”  To his credit, Steve didn’t startle, although with his super hearing he probably heard the limo when it pulled in.

     “Just thinking things through.”  The voice sounded so defeated that part of Tony wondered if he shouldn’t just retreat now, before he could make it worse.  Before he could get his feet working though Steve kept talking.

     “I wanted to apologize - .”

     “What?  Mr. “I’m right because my jaw is so square” admits that he’s wrong?  Can I get a tape of this to play the next time you yell at me?” Damm his compulsion to open his mouth at the worst possible times!  Surprisingly a small smile played at the corner of Steve’s mouth before he grew serious again.

     “It’s been almost three years since I woke up you know and I don’t say this enough but thank you.  I don’t know where I would be without you taking me in, taking all of us in really.” A pause, “For me it was just a few minutes between crashing the plane and waking up here.  Sometimes I still think I’m going to see Peggy or one of the old guys coming around the corner, you know?” He whispers it like it’s a confession, some dark secret that he’s ashamed of.  “And, well somewhere along the way I forgot that it hasn't been five minutes for everyone.”

     The confusion on Tony’s face was real.  Of all the ways he expected this to go, this retrospection wasn’t one of them.

     “I can see now what an awkward position I put you in, falling… um, trying to court you.  I mean Christ!” Steve is up out of his chair and pacing now, lips twisted in a grimace, “I’m seventy years old, I knew your dad, hell, for all I know your dad told you about me!”  

     This was the most swear words he had ever heard Cap use and it was honestly a bit scary.  Plus, well, he wasn’t going to touch the whole “dad told you about me” thing with a ten foot poll.

     “And that’s just the start of it.  I had the gall to call myself the leader of the Avengers, to ask you all to follow me, and then start chasing you around like a schoolboy in his first rut!  What I mean to say is, I’m sorry and I hope you can forgive me.” Steve slumped back down into a chair across from Tony and buried his face in his hands. For probably the first time in his life Tony Stark was confronted with the realization that he had absolutely no idea what to say.

     The silence lasted for a long time.  Finally Steve got up and walked toward the elevators, only turning back when he was almost out of the room.

     “Look maybe I’m getting this all wrong but, I mean, just because I made a mess of things… if you and Bucky and I was in the way...  Well I don’t know two people who I’d be happier to see find happiness. He’s a good man Tony, and he would do anything for you.”

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     Somehow Tony did not make it down to his workshop that night.  Instead he sat in the living room long after Steve left, staring at nothing, and desperately trying to make sense of the last few weeks.  It was five am before he texted Pepper that he was sick with “I don’t want to” and skipping his meetings for the day.  Then he staggered to his room and fell into a dreamless sleep.
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     It was noon before Tony woke up.  Feeling surprisingly rested and with the promise of a day of freedom ahead of him, it wasn’t long before he was out of bed and into his favorite t-shirt and jeans, then down to the garage.  Nothing beat flying, but today he wanted to feel the wind in his face.

     Hours later the city had given way to rolling hills and cloudless blue sky.  Mile by mile the Porsche ate up the road and roared through the corners. Driving had always come naturally to him.  When he was eight Howard had announced that he was plenty old enough to learn to drive. The “lesson” had involved a lot of bourbon on Howard’s part and Tony, feet barely touching the pedals, trying desperately to keep the Cadillac on the driveway and out of the rose garden.  When they had made the long loop around the property and parked back in front of the garage Howard had clapped him on the shoulder and announced loudly that he was, “not bad, not bad at all.” Jarvis had made sure that the scrapes and missing side mirror were fixed before Howard sobered up enough to notice.

     Tony shook his head and pushed aside the thoughts, today was too sunny a day for old memories.  Besides he had enough problems in the here and now. Bucky and Steve wanted him. That much was clear.  It was everything else that didn’t make sense.

     They had gone through the trouble of courting him like a 40’s omega.  Proving that they could take care of him, granted it was by bringing him sandwiches and bullying him into eating dinner with the team but in retrospect the intent was clear enough, then the gifts to show interest, and finally backing off and waiting for him to come to them.  It was all picture perfect. Any proper omega would be swooning in their arms by now.

     Except why?  The 1940’s script was clear, two alphas wanted an omega to complete the white picket fence picture.  But they had to know that he was never going to be that .  More to the point he was nothing that two gorgeous national heroes, not to mention truly good men should even want .

     Which came back around to the why ?  Why be interested?  Why bother court him?  Why accept his rejection and even apologize like they were the ones who were wrong?  

     Tony was aware that he was good looking.  Even with the scars and the arc reactor, maybe they had just gotten tired of all that testosterone and decided that he was available and ostensibly willing.  But then why bother with the whole courting thing? It wasn’t like he was known for saying no.

     Wich just left one other possibility - maybe they really though they loved him.  

     As soon as the thought formed in his head he knew it was the right answer.  This was Steve they were talking about here, of course he would want to be the perfect gentleman.  Bucky for his part might sass his fellow septuagenarian about being old fashion, but he had the same need to take care of the people he cared about.  Sometimes his methods were a tad enthusiastic , for example the time he put a bullet in a handcuffed goon because the guy had given Clint a split lip, but it still made sense that they would want to woo him properly.

     Except Tony didn’t do love.  He’d tried before; for Sunset, for Justin, for Pepper, and it always ended the same way.  He always did something; a sarcastic comment, missed dinner, forgotten promise, something that would be the last straw.  Then they would give him the look .  

     The specific look of disgust that meant the person was wondering how they had even managed to put up with him for this long.  Which was why he had said no in the first place. They were too good for him, and he was too desperate for their love, for it to end in anything but a broken heart.  And, as someone who was something of an authority on the subject, Tony really didn’t think he could survive his heart being ripped out of his chest again.

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     It was dark out by the time he got back to the tower.  This time he bypassed the common floor entirely and made his way straight to his workshop.

     “Lock it down J.  I think it’s time to do some science!”

     “Bit late for that Stark.”  Natasha swung down from on top of the shelves with the grace that made people think “gymnast,” and completely miss the dagger between her fingers.  Today though, instead of knife there was a smile and the wrench that he thought he had lost months ago.

     “It was behind the shelves, you really should make a robot that can sweep.”  He didn’t care what her SHIELD file said, Tony still wasn’t convinced that Nat wasn’t a mind reader.”  

     “Well technically that’s DUM-E’s job but…”  At the sound of his name the little robot perked up and rolled over to his father.  Tony fondly patted the bot’s head and quirked an eyebrow at the redhead who was now perched in the middle of his workbench.  “And what brings you to my humble abode?”

     She smirked right back.  “I don’t know, why are you terrorizing every cop from here to New Jersey with your hell-on-wheels routine?”

     He clutched at his heart with mock offence.  “Hey I’ll have you know that at no time did I go above thirty miles over the speed limit!  I was practically a saint!”

     She shakes her head fondly and scoots over far enough to let him pull up the schematics and a mass of wires that would hopefully become the next greatest thing in Stark tech.

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     The minutes blur and flow, if he just adjusted the output here and use the extra power there , he had almost forgotten about her totally when Nattasha’s voice breaks through the haze of science.

     “I’m a godmother you know.”  Her voice is quiet and solemn, far too serious to be a joke or a lie, even though her words go against everything he had ever known of her.

     “Who?”  She just looks at him, giving him time to work it out… “Clint has children?”  She has the proud look of a teacher who’s pupil has gotten the answer right.

     “Technically he’s their uncle, and don’t give me that look, he gave me permission to tell you.  “Anything to get them to stop moping” were his exact words I believe.” Tony’s pretty sure that his mouth is hanging open.  Clint had a family and never mentioned it? The Black Widow had a family and had mentioned it?  “Two of them by the way, a boy and a girl, and no I’m not going to tell you their names.  You’ll have to ask Clint of you want to know.”

     She pauses then takes a deep breath and keeps talking.  “It’s no secret that Clint and I go way back. Us fucking was never the problem, work enough jobs together and that just kind of happens, but when I went against direct orders and went back to save his ass… Well that’s not suposed to happen.  So I ran. Burned everything and went underground.” 

     Tony wonders what it says about him that listening to an infamous assassin spill her guts while tossing a dagger from hand to hand like a fidget toy seems like a comparatively normal day.

     “What brought you back?”

     She shrugs, “I got a bite on an old contact, then there was an address in a dead drop, one that only he should have known about.”

     “So you decided that it was a trap and checked it out from a sniper’s scope?”  Tony ventures.

     “Almost, I got my hands on satellite footage.  Witch, let me tell you, was not easy in those days!”

     “Truly the dark ages,” he deadpans back.

     “And what I found was a nice little farm house with a security system that put the pentagon to shame and two kids playing with Uncle Clint.”

     “How long did it take you to say hello?”

     “Three weeks before I got within a hundred miles of the place, another two before I actually knocked on the door.”

     “Was it worth it?”

     “No.”  The word broke harshly over her tongue.  “Nothing is “worth it.” It just is .  We just are .  And sometimes we make a decision to care anyway.”  

     She tosses the knife with enough force to send it spinning toward the ceiling, “The older one is nine, last time we visited I taught him how to pick a lock while his mom rolled her eyes.  The younger one is six, she loves climbing trees with her Aunty Nat.”

     The knife reaches its zenith.  “If something happens to them, if it happens because of me , I don’t think… well there isn’t much point after that is there?”  

     She catches the knife.  “But knocking on that door made me human in a way that no amount of wiping red out of my ledger could ever have.”

     She slides off the bench and turns to face Tony fully.  “I know that you’re terrified, and you’re telling yourself that you aren’t good enough, and that it’s just going to end in heartache and whatever else that brain of yours can come up with.  But take it from me, pretending that you don't care won’t stop the pain, and the only thing that even begins to balance that pain is the love.”

     She places the dagger on the table between them.  He’s seen her kill with that knife. He’s seen her make soup with that knife.

     “Take me upstairs J”  

     "Yes Sir."  AI’s shouldn’t be able to sound that happy.