Tony Stark is on his fifth drink of the night when he decides to chat up the young, muscular alpha balancing a tray of champagne flutes in one hand.
“You come here often?”
Steve pauses, looking over his shoulder for a more likely conversational partner before realizing the man is addressing him. “Um… this is a grand opening, so no,” he replies, keeping his voice low and his demeanor polite, business-like. “Are you enjoying your evening, Mr. Stark?”
“It’s Tony.” Stark downs his drink – a scotch from the nearby bar – before lifting a delicate glass from Steve’s tray. “And I am now.” He takes a sip. “See anything you like?”
Steve had scoped out the gallery beforehand. The style is not quite to his taste, but it feels rather rude to say as much, so he settles on a little white lie: “I haven’t really had a chance to take a close look. How about you? Anything here strike your fancy?”
“I’m looking at it right now, handsome,” Stark replies, watching him from over the rim of his champagne flute as he takes another sip. “You want to maybe–”
“I’m working,” Steve interjects. Not that he finds the offer distasteful – Tony Stark is a wildly-attractive omega, after all – but Nat had gotten him this gig; it would reflect poorly on her if Steve were to bail for what looked to be a night of possible sexual assault, depending on the man’s level of inebriation and resulting impairment.
Stark takes the rejection in stride. “Now isn’t that a coincidence? Me too,” he states, his smile easy and charming as he explains, “I have to stick it out until the end or Pepper will have my hide. Something about this being a new gallery of the niece of some big-wig we’re in negotiations with. She’s always pimping me out to these things. Put in a little face time to make nice with potential clients, you understand–”
Not really, Steve thinks.
“But if you’re free later…” Stark trails off, giving him a meaningful stare.
“How much have you had to drink?”
The question does nothing to deter Stark. “Cute and considerate. Aren’t you the full package?”
“That’s not an answer.”
Stark lifts an arm, pulling back his sleeve to check his watch. “Okay, here’s the deal. There’s about two hours left before this thing ends. If I promise to abstain until then, will you consider letting me show you the art collection in my penthouse. I didn’t pick out any of it naturally, but Pepper’s taste is impeccable.”
Steve’s brow quirks up. “You’ll sober up?”
“Alright,” he agrees. “Meet me outside at eleven.”
“That’s when I get off.” Steve had his responsibilities and had factored in the time needed for clean up.
“Eleven it is.” Stark downs the rest of his flute, but at Steve’s flat stare, he tells him, “I meant no alcohol starting right now. This is Dom Perignon. Not the best vintage, but still. It would be a crime to let it go to waste.”
True to his word, Stark switches to sparkling water for the rest of the night. There’s a man – Mr. Stark’s chauffeur, a Happy Hogan – waiting for Steve outside after the event to escort him to the limo where Mr. Stark sits, passing the time by doing some light design work on a small screen projected from his phone. He minimizes the holo-projection just as Steve slides in beside him.
“Are you ready to see a real masterpiece?” Stark asks him as the car pulls away.
“I take it you were not impressed by West Clearing Haus.”
“A bit sterile if you ask me,” he replies honestly. “But then again, I’m not really the art buff. I mean, I collect, but the real process of curation is more Pepper’s thing – she’s my PA. Best in the business.”
They make small talk on the way to the tower. Stark assumes Steve knows about him from the various articles and think pieces on his accomplishments, and as such he seems less interested in rehashing old news. Instead he asks about Steve. Steve tells him about his upbringing as the only child of a single mother, how he is also an artist, trying to make a name for himself in the cutthroat world of fine art, an industry that seemed to value business acumen – connections and reputation – over talent. Not that Steve’s complaining; he just has to work harder, or so he insists.
“Is that what you were doing at the gallery? Networking?” Stark inquires.
Well, Steve primarily needed the money, but he replies, “Have to start somewhere, right?”
They make their way up to the penthouse suite at the top of Stark Tower via the private elevator.
“Now, most of the collection is in storage, but I display a few select pieces at home. Things that match the décor.” Stark leads Steve to the piece hanging over the mantle of his living room, a Jackson Pollock with wild strokes in muted colors that match the surrounding furniture.
Steve cants his head, observing the design choice. “Did you match the furniture to the painting or the painting to the furniture?”
Stark shrugs. “Neither, I suppose. I wanted a certain aesthetic, and my interior designer reviewed my extensive art catalogue and various fabric swatches and selected pieces that would go together. I have it redone from time to time.”
Steve thinks about all those masterpieces, things people like him would love to see in a museum or other public space, languishing in storage somewhere dark and humidity-controlled, only to be displayed sparingly at the discretion of a single man.
“Pollock’s father was an alcoholic, you know,” Stark says softly, staring at the chaotic piece, patterns repeating despite the turbulence. “Pollock thought himself a fraud, was never really sure if any of his art was actually good. He leaned heavily on his wife to tell him which, if any, of his paintings were worth showing. As his fame grew, he began drinking heavily, his life fell apart, and he crashed his car into a tree. Was ejected fifty feet and died at the scene.”
Steve gets the feeling Stark isn’t just talking about the artist. “It must have been difficult for him, living up to all those expectations,” he says diplomatically.
“Yes, but he was well-compensated, even in life, so… no complaints.”
“Except it didn’t make him happy.”
“…Right,” Stark steps away, snapping out of the moment. “The really good stuff is in the bedroom, if you’d come this way.”
Steve follows him, smiling suggestively. “You gonna show me something to really knock my socks off?”
“Among other things.” Just inside the door, Stark abruptly turns, lifting himself on his toes to press a hungry kiss to Steve’s lips. “I promised you a masterpiece,” he murmurs.
Steve dips down to capture his lips again, returning the man’s fervor as his fingers deftly undo the buttons of Stark’s shirt and slip inside, sliding it off the man’s shoulders.
“Beautiful,” he declares quietly, his eyes soft as he sweeps Stark up off his feet and carries him to the bed.
There are no more words for the rest of the night.
The lights in the unfamiliar bedroom gradually brighten, gently waking Steve from his slumber. Eyes still closed, he reaches for Tony on the other side of the bed only to find it cold and empty. The omega hadn’t seemed like an early riser; perhaps he is making breakfast?
“Good morning,” a refined, decidedly-British voice greets him. Steve startles fully awake and he sits up, looking for the source and finding none even as it continues, “It is 9:00 a.m. on a fine Sunday morning. The weather in New York is sixty-three degrees and overcast. Traffic conditions are fair with an expectation of increase around 10:26 a.m.”
It must be an automated alarm clock, set to ensure Tony didn’t sleep in. However, having now gotten up, Steve looks around the floor and in the ensuite bathroom to discover that all his clothes, oddly enough, are missing. Regardless, Steve supposes he should make his way to the kitchen to find his lover.
And so he wraps a sheet around his lower half and does just that. “Tony? Hey, Tony?” he calls out, rounding a corner to find the kitchen similarly unoccupied.
He approaches a closed door on the other side, using his free hand to tap experimentally at the controls on the door panel.
“You are not authorized to access this area,” Tony’s alarm clock informs him.
Steve holds up his hand, palm out, backing away from the panel. “Sorry, sorry.”
A woman’s voice pipes up from behind. “That’s J.A.R.V.I.S. He runs the tower.”
Steve spins to find a woman he assumes is Tony’s personal assistant standing behind him holding a couple hangers covered in plastic. Embarrassed and more than a touch self-conscious about his state of undress, Steve grips the sheet tighter, more securely around himself, and wishes he at least had his underwear on.
The woman – Ms. Potts – seems unperturbed by his presence and hastily-concealed body. She holds out the hangers. “I’ve got your clothes here. They’ve been laundered and pressed, and there’s a car waiting for you outside that will take you anywhere you’d like to go.”
Steve accepts the offering, sheepishly inquiring, “Is… uh, is Tony around?”
Ms. Potts is kind but professional. “I’m afraid Mr. Stark is otherwise engaged. Now, can I get you anything on your way out? Perhaps a muffin or a breakfast sandwich? We also have a crop of mangosteen flown in just this morning from Thailand,” she offers.
Of course. Crestfallen, Steve holds the hangers up to his chest, trying to hide his nudity both physical and emotional. He can take a hint.
“Maybe a muffin, thanks,” he mumbles.
“I’ll bag two to go while you get dressed.”
Three Years Later
Steve receives his golden ticket thirty-two days before Courting Day, a national holiday where alphas present gifts to omegas they’re interested in pursuing as a declaration of their intentions. He had landed a coveted spot, a fifteen minute appointment at 10:45 a.m. to present his courting gift to the most eligible omega in the city: Tony Stark. He had even requested and received the day off from his job at the framing shop and planned to arrive early, just in case of bad traffic, an alien invasion, or an act of God. He is not leaving anything to chance. His job didn’t pay very much, but he had cut expenses – moved in with friends, declined all social events, and shopped ads and manager’s specials for budget groceries to supplement cheap basics like rice, beans, and lentils – for the past couple years and change in order to save up enough money to get Tony something really special.
His best friend Bucky thinks he’s an idiot wasting both his time and money. Where gentle hints failed, he had resorted to unmitigated honesty and told him as much.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Steve replies sarcastically, feeling put-out at his friend’s rather blunt assessment of his chances. “You really know how to make a fella feel special.”
“This isn’t about you. You’re an amazing guy with a lot of great qualities, and one day, you’re going to make some lucky omega out there real happy. I just don’t think that omega is gonna be Stark. Nothing against you, but the man has always struck me as…” Bucky looks up and rolls his hand, possibly trying to think of a word that wasn’t promiscuous, faithless, or something equally derogatory.
“Watch it, Buck.”
The man gives him with a flat stare. “I was going to say fickle. Fickle isn’t a huge character flaw; it just is,” he says before segueing into the meat of the matter. “Anyways, you’ve heard the stories. Every Courting Day, Stark gets dozens of gifts, and he donates every single one to orphans or battered omega shelters.”
“Both very worthy causes.”
“And obvious statements. He has enough cash to fully fund both without resorting to donating random courting gifts. He’s broadcasting loud and clear that he’s never going to settle down with anyone. Not that I blame him. Hell, if I was an omega with his fat bank account, I’d do the same.”
Uncomfortable with the unspoken insinuation that perhaps Tony’s vast wealth underlies his interest, Steve rubs the back of his neck. “I’m not doing this for his money. We had–”
But Bucky doesn’t want to hear it. Again. “Yes, yes… Spare me the story, Stevie. I’ve heard it half a dozen times already. You shared a magical evening five years ago–”
“And you’ve been hung up on him ever since,” he finishes.
Steve blushes. “You weren’t there, Bucky. He was– It was special, all right? We had a genuine connection.”
“Ah yes, who could forget the timeless love story, the endless romance, how you pulled up in that limo the morning after. Alone. And then he proceeded to never call you again,” he deadpans. “The stuff of fairy tales, really.”
Sometimes Steve hates how much of a little shit his friend can be.
“I didn’t have a chance to give him my number,” he protests. “I thought… well, his personal assistant was right there, and I was already holding her up by sleeping in, and– and–”
“And you had stars in your eyes, cotton in your skull, and were trying to be conscientious of her time. I get it,” Bucky continues, waving off Steve’s explanation. “But that sort of proves my point: Whatever you shared meant more to you than to him.”
“I’ll just have to make a better impression this time. I have an appointment.”
“From a long-shot lottery. Can you imagine that? A lottery allowing the average schmuck the chance to be rejected in person by the Tony Stark. How very democratic of him. A real patriot, he is. You must be so pleased.”
Steve bristles at the sarcastic censure, the disparagement of Tony’s character. “He just… there’s a lot of interested parties, and he doesn’t really have time to meet with all of us,” he explains. He knows how it sounds: A lottery for an opportunity to present one’s courting gift face-to-face to the richest, most desirable omega in the country? It would be an exercise in extreme arrogance had it not been needed for the seventh year running.
But Bucky remains unimpressed. “Mm hm… and when he drops you after, do you think you could find it in your heart to call it a day and move on? Maybe find someone a little more receptive to your attentions?” Really, Steve would be hard pressed to find someone less so, in Bucky’s opinion. “Nat’s got a few candidates in mind. Friends and coworkers. I’ve met them. They’re attractive, nice, interesting…”
Steve doesn’t dignify the suggestion with a response.
So Bucky simply rolls his eyes. “What am I saying? Of course you won’t. I didn’t just meet you yesterday.” He sighs. “Okay, so did you decide what Stark will be donating to a worthy cause on your behalf? Because that’s what’s going to happen to any gift you give him.”
Steve narrows his eyes, but he pulls out his phone nonetheless, scrolling through the photos until he finds the prospective gift. “I was thinking of getting him this,” he says, showing Bucky the watch he had carefully researched over the past month before final selection. It isn’t as flashy as other options, but it’s sturdy and has a lot of character. Substance over style.
Bucky whistles at the price tag. “You’re going to keep the lights on at the local omega shelter for a good couple weeks.”
“Don’t be a dick,” Steve snaps, putting his phone away.
“No, I’m serious. They’re going to be very grateful for your generous donation via Stark,” he continues, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops. “Do you think they give him something for his philanthropy, like a plaque maybe, or his name on a free clinic that offers STD testing?” He looks over, clocking Steve’s sour expression. “What? It’s an honest question.”
“Nat deserves a plaque for putting up with you,” Steve grumbles instead, musing, “Maybe I’ll have one made for her.”
“Ooh, can you make it an engraved platter instead?” Bucky asks. “We need something nice to serve Stark for when he comes over for afternoon tea or whatever fancy bullshit the rich are into these days. You know, after you convince him to be yours with a watch he can buy a million of and still be a billionaire.”
“Funny. Did you take ‘don’t be a dick’ as a challenge, or…”
“You’re saying it wasn’t?”
Steve closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You can be a real jerk sometimes, you know that?”
Bucky shrugs. “Look, Stevie, it’s your money. If you want to throw it into the money pit that is pursuing the one and only Tony Stark, then that’s your business. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up,” he clasps Steve’s shoulder, giving it a friendly squeeze. “You may be a punk, but you’re my punk, and I don’t enjoy seeing you get hurt. Just… be optimistic if you want, but if things don’t quite work out, if he can’t see what a catch you are, then it’s his loss, you know.”
Steve supposes that’s fair. “…Thanks, Buck.”
“Don’t mention it.” He pats his shoulder before letting it fall to his side. “Now about your outfit…”
Nat is a touch more sensitive to Steve’s dreams (farfetched though they may be), or perhaps she is simply more tactful, not having the lifelong friendship with Steve that would invite a more honest opinion.
“We should go out to celebrate,” she suggests. “It’s a long time coming.”
Steve mentally calculates his bank account, specifically how much he still has to save up to afford the watch, and determines it would not be prudent to do so. “There’s no need,” he tells her. “He hasn’t said yes yet.”
“Nonsense, Steve. We’ll take you out, Bucky and I. Our treat.”
Steve feels awkward going out and not splitting the costs, but Nat insists with Bucky practically strong-arming him into it. It had been months since they had hung out outside the apartment, and Steve could use some fun, if only to soften the blow of rejection later or so his friends assume.
They take him to Kick Axe Throwing, an urban hatchet bar in Brooklyn that Bucky’s construction buddies had recommended.
“How did you get so good at this?” Steve asks, when Natasha manages to throw another bullseye. She walks up to retrieve her axe just as Bucky reaches their table with a fresh round of beers.
“Would you believe I grew up in a Russian circus?”
Steve sits down. “Bucky said your mother was a banker.”
“Accountant,” the man in question corrects him as Nat sidles up next to her alpha. “Lovely woman. Can’t speak a lick of English.”
“My mother adores him. They trade recipes every time we visit Moscow. I have no idea how, considering they can’t understand each other.”
“You don’t need a common language to understand what makes a good borscht.”
Nat rolls her eyes fondly.
They make a good pair, the love between them only growing since their bonding ceremony two years prior. Steve can only hope that he and Tony will get along just as well, once they get to know each other better.
“So tell me, Steve, what is it about Stark that you like the most?” she asks, her tone more curious than anything.
“He’s– he’s different than what you see in the magazines and press releases,” Steve begins, sliding his fingertips through the condensation on his beer. “That’s all a show, smoke and mirrors, you know, but the real Tony… he’s smart. And funny. And genuinely wanted to know more about me. He also seemed… well, he seemed a little lonely, too. Like he needs someone, and – I don’t know – I think I could be that someone for him.” How could he explain the way Tony had looked at him in the dim light of his bedroom; how he had clung to him so sweetly, so desperately, like he needed something real, an anchor, and that had been Steve, if only for a night? It had touched something in Steve, awakened his innate protectiveness, and he had just known this omega was the one for him.
“Seems like a lot to get from a one-night stand,” Bucky mutters, only to be lightly kicked by Nat.
“That’s very sweet, Steve,” she says. “I hope he feels the same, but… just know, whatever happens, Bucky and I will be there for you.”
Steve knows when he’s being handled, but he supposes it is hard to be supportive in such matters. Steve didn’t blame them; they hadn’t been there that night.
Nat offers a toast to Steve’s future happiness. They all drink before Bucky challenges Steve to a friendly contest of axe-throwing prowess (already knowing he didn’t stand a chance against Nat). Loser has to wash dishes for the next month.
Steve wins but barely, fueled by his aversion to the chore, and Bucky grumbles, bemoaning his poor luck.
“Sorry, Nat,” he says. “It looks like you must suffer my hands being extra pruney for the near future.”
“However will I survive,” she states, her voice flat.
“A true travesty, my love,” he drapes an arm across her shoulders, pulling her close to plant a kiss on her temple, the plain gold band on his left ring finger glinting in warm light. “We definitely are living in the darkest timeline.”
Bucky doesn’t know how prophetic his words will prove to be until three weeks later, when he is struck by a car while crossing the street and sustains a severe crush injury to his left arm. Reconstruction isn’t an option, and so they must amputate almost to the shoulder.
Nat had been devastated when she called to inform Steve, who rushed over to the hospital while Bucky was still in the OR. Steve had never seen her cry before. He had simply held her, rubbing her back until she calmed down, and then he sat with her, waiting for news from the surgeon. Ultimately, the operation is a success (or as much as can be said in such situations), and when Bucky wakes, both Nat and Steve are by his side. At first, he doesn’t understand what is happening, how he got there, why his bonding ring is on a chain around Nat’s neck, but then he tries to reach for her, and finds he cannot.
What happens next… There’s shouting and anger and despair. Steve holds his weakened friend steady so he can’t hurt himself, can’t pull out his IV, while Nat presses the button for nurse assistance. They restrain him then as Steve practically carries Nat out himself.
It’s a few hours before they can see him again, and when they re-enter, Steve feels like he’s encroaching on something very private.
“You should leave me,” Bucky is telling Nat, his voice very small and very hoarse, diminished and subdued.
But Nat is not having it. She leans in, caressing his cheek. His bonding ring hangs from her neck against the bandages on his chest. “No, мое солнышко,” she whispers. “I love you.”
“I can’t work like this. I– I can’t take care of you anymore like a real alpha should. You’re young; you can find someone else, someone better. You deserve better. I’ll only be a burden.”
Steve edges towards the door, awkwardly slipping out to give them space, but he hears Nat say, “There’s no one better,” her tone edging on harsh before softening. “There’s more to caretaking than financial considerations. I need you and no one else. It’s okay to not be okay right now, but we’ll look after each other, alright мое солнышко?”
Steve returns an hour later with some sandwiches from the cafeteria. Bucky is sleeping so Nat steps away to eat.
“How is he doing?”
“As expected,” she replies, picking at the sandwich and chewing mechanically. “The doctors say he’ll heal physically. Emotionally… it’s a long road.”
“We’ll get there.”
She hums. “They say they can fit him for a prosthetic after the swelling goes down a little.” She pulls out a brochure of different models and points to one. It’s one of the cheaper models that she had circled, mostly cosmetic with very little in the way of functionality. “We’re going with this one.”
It’s a private decision between Nat and Bucky, but Steve can’t help but point out, “It’s a good choice, more realistic overall, but wouldn’t the one with the split-hook be better? I know it doesn’t quite look like a hand, but he’ll be able to learn to use it more maybe?”
“It’s also twice as expensive. Insurance covers 80% of the cost, but…” She frowns, closing the brochure. “Maybe in a couple years, we’ll revisit the issue.”
“Will insurance cover the cost of a second arm in a couple years?”
Nat doesn’t answer, which is answer enough.
“Get the better prosthetic. I’ll cover the difference,” Steve says.
That shocks her. “Steve, you can’t–”
“I have the money, and I want to.”
“But haven’t you been saving for… well, it’s in nine days.”
“Bucky’s right,” Steve finally admits, looking down as he rubs the back of his neck. “My chances of success aren’t– they aren’t great, and I was okay with that before, but Bucky has a real chance of recovery, of– of being able to use his arm again. I’d rather spend the money on that than on failing to impress an omega who’s way out of my league.”
Nat embraces him then. “Don’t you ever think that. You are in a league of your own, and if Stark can’t see that… well then, he’s not quite the genius people make him out to be.”
Steve only hugs her back, not knowing what to say.
Bucky is more upset about the development. “You really shouldn’t have, Stevie.”
“Not you, too,” Steve replies. Nat had gone home to shower, leaving the two of them alone.
“Insurance companies move slow. There might be time yet for you to get a refund.”
“That’s not happening, Buck, so drop it.”
Bucky shifts uncomfortably in his hospital bed, so Steve stands to re-adjust his pillow. “I just… I never wanted to be the reason you lost your shot,” he says miserably.
“This isn’t on you. It’s not your fault. None of this is.” Steve squeezes his good shoulder. “We’re going to help you through this, Nat and I, because we love you.” But when Bucky still looks discomfited, Steve adds, “Besides, when Stark says yes, I’m counting on you to give the greatest best man speech of all time. I expect tears. Great, big manful tears.”
Bucky chuckles. “Alright, alright. Stark says yes, and I’ll sock away a cut onion in my sleeve.” He looks to his left at the stump where his arm used to be. “I’m sure I’ll have the space for it.”
Steve’s smile is wobbly when Bucky turns back to look up at him. “Don’t you start now. Otherwise, you’ll get me going, and he hasn’t even said yes yet.”
Steve lies down on his bed, staring at the ceiling. Between welcoming Bucky home from the hospital and trying to maintain their apartment by himself to relieve Nat of any chores so she can concentrate on her alpha’s recovery, Steve hadn’t thought about what he was going to do about Tony for almost a week, and now he has two days before Courting Day and no money for a gift, much less one that would impress such a sought-after omega. It’s his day off, but he could possibly ask for a small advance from his boss – Old Man Phillips may be a crotchety asshole, but he likes Steve and knows he is reliable enough to pay him back – but Steve had been saving up little by little for over two years. He needs money for rent, utilities, food; he can’t appreciably garnish his paycheck enough to pay the man back in a reasonable time frame.
Steve glances over at his leather art portfolio. He used to get so much joy out of painting, back before he decided to seriously pursue Tony. It had been one of the more-difficult sacrifices he had to make when he ran out of cobalt blue and cadmium yellow and realized he couldn’t afford to replace either of them or many of the more expensive hues in his kit. It had been over a year since he so much as painted, switching to more affordable charcoal and pencil sketches in his obsessive quest to cut costs. In fact, his last paintings had been of–
He sits up and goes around his room, pulling canvasses from the back of the closet, from under his bed and behind his dresser, selecting the ones dealing with his most recent muse and stacking them up against the wall while laying his favorites across the top of his bed, examining each with a critical eye. He holds his favorite aloft – a tasteful painting of Tony Stark, his eyes soft and bright as he rests in naturalistic repose, his clothing loosened and a certain flirtatious fondness in his gaze. It’s how Tony had looked that night when it had been just the two of them, absent the polish and bravado that characterized his public appearances. He protects the front with silicone release paper then carefully wraps it in glassine paper before covering the entire piece with a blanket secured by tape for transport to the framing shop.
“I’m a little light on cash at the moment, but I promise to pay you back, Mr. Phillips,” Steve begs, having hauled his painting into the shop five minutes before closing. “I’ll frame it myself, off-hours of course, and I’ll even close up tonight.”
Phillips tips his chin, indicating the covered painting Steve had hauled in. “That a last-minute courting gift you got under your arm, son?”
“Yeah,” Steve admits. “My original plan kind of went sideways and… well, this here is my Hail Mary; so can I please borrow some framing materials? It’s been three years coming, and I just want to get him something nice.”
“He must be real special.”
Phillips shrugs. “Just be sure lock up after you’re done, and pay back the cost of materials when you can. I know you’re good for it.”
“Thank you, sir,” Steve maneuvers around him to place his piece on the counter.
Mr. Phillips tosses him the keys. “We close in three minutes, you hear?”
“Alright, and thanks again.”
“See you tomorrow, son.”
The day of, Steve gets dressed in his best suit with a crisp new shirt and tie that Nat helped him pick out. He had shaved and spent a good twenty minutes styling his hair just so, parted on the right with the front swept up and back.
“You look good,” Nat had declared when he did his turn in the living room.
“Yeah,” Bucky adds. “If I was single, an omega, and didn’t know you my entire life, I’d say yes.”
“That’s a lot of qualifications there,” Steve deadpans.
“You know what I’m saying, Stevie. Just… no matter what happens, you’re the best alpha I know. Stark would be an idiot to let you slip from his grasp.”
Nat lightly bats his good arm and gives him a look before turning to Steve. “You’ll be fine, and we’ll see you in a couple hours.”
Steve arrives with plenty of time to spare. Lugging the painting now wrapped in bubble-wrap and brown paper, he checks in to the main desk, rides the elevator up to the appropriate floor in the office building section of the Tower, and settles down in the waiting room with other prospective alphas. They barely spare him a glance as he sits, returning instead to regard the others in the group. Each sits up straight, practically fluffing up their chests, trying to project an aura of dominance and virility, a trademark of alpha posturing. Steve can’t help but note how impeccably dressed they are, their suits clearly custom-tailored to fit their frames with some even applying a subtle layer of mascara and brow filler to make their eyes really pop.
One is holding a dark green box with a tiny crown at one end that Steve recognizes as a pricey Rolex, while another holds a brand new set of keys to a custom-built Audi he boasts is already parked in Stark’s personal garage.
“…and I told my secretary that this is a gift for the Tony Stark,” a third is bragging. “I want him to step out of the beach house onto sand. He can’t walk down a block to reach the ocean like a middle-class chump. Nothing but the best for an omega of such refined tastes will do–”
“Mr. Whitney? Mr. Aldous Whitney?” Ms. Potts calls out as she reviews her StarkPad. “Mr. Stark will see you now.”
The alpha with the beach house graces the others with a smug smile. “Wish me luck, gentlemen,” he says before swanning over to Ms. Potts who leads him to the conference room.
Steve’s confidence wavers. If this is the caliber of his competitors… he looks down at his suit, an off-the-rack number that now seems a little low-class when compared to present company. His best dress shoes, which he had buffed to a shine, are almost embarrassingly worn, and his tie is nice but clearly made of polyester, not the silk that the others sport. Even their trimmings are better: gold and bejeweled cufflinks with matching tie clips, expensive watches, and thick gold class rings advertising their Ivy-League educations. Steve feels small, diminished and self-conscious in his cheap suit holding a homemade gift.
He can’t do this.
And so when Pepper returns, Steve walks up to her to hand over his gift. “Can you make sure Tony gets this?” he asks, a touch sheepish, especially now that he has drawn the attention of everyone in the room.
“Rogers,” he replies, his self-confidence further eroding, withering to a husk when she fails to recognize him.
“Mr. Rogers,” she confirms after checking the list. “You still have a half-hour before your appointment. Are you certain you don’t want to wait?”
“That’s okay. I… um, I’ve got to go. Please give this to Tony?” he pleads yet again, holding out the wrapped painting. It’s insignificant, paltry compared to what the others are already offering, but he had made it for Tony. He wanted him to have it, even if it wasn’t up to his lofty standards.
She accepts the package. “Of course, Mr. Rogers.”
When Steve returns home early, Nat and Bucky know immediately that it did not go well. Bucky hands him a beer, grabs a soda for himself (something that won’t interfere with his pain medications) and invites him up to the roof where they relax on lawn chairs amidst the small rooftop community garden.
“I couldn’t do it, Bucky,” Steve admits. “Everyone was dressed so much nicer, and they had these expensive gifts… One guy bought Tony a beach house directly on the sand. A beach house! I mean, who does that?”
“Rich assholes with money to burn?”
“You tried to tell me, but–” Steve chokes up, disguising it by taking a sip of his beer.
“But nothing, Stevie,” Bucky says rather forcefully, reaching down to place his soda on the concrete between them, grimacing at the motion. “You put a lot of heart into your gift. I can guarantee that not one of those alphas tried harder than you.” He gives Steve’s shoulder a comforting pat with his good arm. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“It’s alright. I’m going to be okay.” Who is he to complain to Bucky of all people? He had just lost an impossible pipe dream, was simply coming to the realization that he never had a chance with an omega who was never going to be his, while Bucky–
Bucky frowns. “You know, it’s okay to not be okay for a spell, or so people smarter than me are always saying.”
Steve only hums at that, observing the bees darting amongst the fragrant basil blossoms.
With moderate trepidation, Steve reads the news every day for a week following his disastrous (non)showing, paying special attention to the society pages where the engagements of more notable individuals are announced. There is little chance of the worst coming to pass – Tony Stark famously rejects all proposals almost reflexively – but Steve braces himself nonetheless. However, when nothing surfaces, he feels conflicted. He will never regret giving the money to Bucky for a functional arm and would do it again in a heartbeat, and yet…
On the one hand, Tony is technically still available, but on the other, he had received so many nice gifts – many of which Steve could never afford even if he worked two jobs, lived in a halfway house, and ate ramen for the rest of his life – and had rejected each and every single one as insufficient. Realistically, Steve supposes his chances with the fickle omega are the same as anyone else’s, which is to say practically nil.
He closes his browser, buries his face in his hands, and groans.
The doorbell rings. Nat had taken Bucky to the doctor where he is being fitted with his new prosthetic, a split-hook device that he must learn to operate to carry out every day tasks, leaving Steve alone. He lurches up, his step heavy as he goes to answer the door. Perhaps it’s the daily living aids Nat had ordered for Bucky to help him be more independent. Delivery people don’t usually come to their unit, but maybe Steve has to sign for them.
He opens the door, surprised to find Tony Stark in the flesh.
“Steve Rogers, right?” he drawls as Steve unconsciously takes a step back, allowing the man to slip in uninvited. “West Clearing Haus opening. About three years back. You were wearing that dorky bowtie number that was so popular that night.”
Steve blinks, surprised the man remembers the circumstances of their first meeting, much less his actual name. “I was working as a server. That was the uniform.” He hastily shuts the door.
Tony snaps his fingers. “Right, that makes more sense. After a few, I thought there was a dress code people were too polite to tell me about, you know, like showing up at a toga party wearing black tie. Embarrassing, even if no one is willing to point out your faux pas.”
“You remember me?”
“I remember a lot of people. It helps when they think you don’t though. Less expectation, I suppose,” Tony explains, but he is not looking at Steve anymore, fiddling with his phone instead.
“Why are you–”
Tony turns the screen around displaying security footage of Steve and Ms. Potts. “That’s you handing over a large, unwieldy painting wrapped in brown paper to Pepper?” he says, looking directly at Steve to gauge his reaction. “It’s either you or your identical twin, anyway, and if I remember correctly – which I always do – you have no siblings. Anyway, the alpha in question left without so much as a hello, didn’t even leave his calling card. A bit rude if you ask me.”
Now Steve is annoyed. It is bad enough that his gift was subpar, now Tony is reprimanding the delivery? Why did it matter when he likely chucked it in the dumpster afterwards, not even worth the bother of donation? He crosses his arms. “So you came here to what? Reprimand me for my lack of manners?”
Tony frowns. “I’m sorry if I’ve been unclear. I came here because I liked your painting.” His finger scrolls across, revealing a proper photo of the painting in question, now hung in what Steve recognizes as Tony’s bedroom. “You’re the artist, right? Great use of color, and you got my good side. I donated everything else, but this?” He taps the screen for emphasis. “This one I’m keeping.”
Steve is flabbergasted. “You liked it?” he asks, the tiniest flicker of hope in his voice.
“Yeah,” Tony replies, pocketing his phone. “I generate a lot of interest on Courting Day – That’s not a brag; it’s a fact – but most alphas show up with expensive gifts they have their secretaries pick out as if their powers of delegation are supposed to impress me. But really, if I wanted a Lambo, I’d buy one myself, and I’d spring for cupholders, too. You can never have enough cupholders,” he rambles on before circling back. “Point is I don’t need or want an alpha who has little to offer outside of grand demonstrations of financial security. But your painting… it took actual effort and more than a little skill. It… it intrigued me, I suppose is the word.”
“Wait… so let me get this straight. You’re saying yes?”
“It’s a maybe. You have my attention. Give me your phone.” He grabs Steve’s phone – an ancient smartphone with no password – from the counter, typing in his number with the rather cheeky contact name ‘You know who I am.’ “And now you have my personal cell, too. I don’t give that out to everyone, just so you know. I’d like to see what else you got.”
Steve should plan an evening out, where he can save up to wine and dine the omega in style, but then again, this is Tony Stark. He didn’t come to Steve’s shared apartment because he thinks Steve can give him the high life.
So instead, he offers, “Well… I’m not doing anything right now, but–” He looks away and cups his hands, running the thumb of one over the first knuckle of the other, uncertain how to broach his less-than-stellar finances. He can’t exactly take care of Tony in the way in which he is accustomed, but from what Tony had said, that didn’t really seem to matter to him. He recalls Bucky and Nat in his hospital room, how she had said there was more to the bond than what an alpha could provide in the material sense. “I, um… I don’t have a lot of money. I’m not going to insult your intelligence and pretend otherwise, but there’s a diner down the street that serves a decent cheeseburger, if you haven’t had lunch yet and don’t mind the ambience,” he offers, his tone hopeful.
“Sounds lovely,” Tony accepts, with not even a hint of jest.
Steve is elated. “I just have to get my jacket, and uh… thanks for giving me a chance, Mr. Stark.”
“Call me Tony.”
“Alright… Tony,” Steve says, gracing him with a dazzling smile.
Tony puts on his shades, pulling them down a bit to look over the top at Steve. “Oh, you’re a dangerous one, Steve; I can tell,” he says, “I think I’m going to like you.”