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A King For Christmas

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Stark Mansion is behind walls.

There are walls and dogs and a rotation of European mercenaries guarding the house. Howard Stark has no shortage of enemies, not after spending four years building weapons for the triumphant North. He knows there are ex-slave owners who want to see him and his family dead, so he pays often and well for his family’s protection. The measures work. There has never been a successful attack on Stark Mansion and the stories of the survivors work as an additional deterrent to keep people out.

For Howard Stark’s omega son, it all works to keep him in .

But Tony has been studying. He knows the movements of the guards, knows where the walls are starting to crumble, knows when the dogs are fed and the last time a guard will check on them before the morning. He knows all of this. There’s a pile of blueprints of the house and grounds hidden in the slit in his mattress that he’s memorized. He’s studied and prepared for months. He won’t be any readier if he waits.

And the fate awaiting him if he stays is far worse than being torn apart by the family’s dogs.

Two Months Ago


Tony is an attractive omega. Not just because he’s lovely, although he is, despite being older than the average unmarried omega, but also because he comes with money and power as the heir to the largest guns manufacturer in the States. Tony grows up knowing that his position ensures  his marriage will be the result of a shrewd business move. He hopes  he’ll be able to grow to like his future spouse but he also knows that love will have no place in his life.

But even he could not have imagined Tiberius Stone.

Stone is a European alpha whose family owns several iron ore mines in Australia. The rumors reach Tony long before Stone himself does: rumors of cruelty to those he deems inferior, of the terrible treatment of the convicts in his mine, of the omegas left bleeding and bruised after nights with him. Tony pleads with his parents, Not him, anyone but him , but Stone is gaining a stranglehold over the sale of raw materials and Howard, who rarely denies his son anything, reluctantly agrees to a match.

As Tony waits by the docks to meet his alpha, he imagines that Tiberius will be as ugly as the stories have made his heart out to be. He imagines that he will be twisted and ruinous, perhaps scarred with burns or with a mangled arm, perhaps he has been shunned, anything that will explain his dark outlook on humanity.

Tiberius isn’t any of those things though. Tiberius is tall and handsome with hair the color of wheat fields and eyes a deep sapphire blue. Tony runs his gaze down Stone’s muscular body. There’s no denying it. Tiberius Stone is an alpha’s alpha and when he bends over Tony’s hand to brush a kiss over it and murmurs, “Absolutely lovely,” despite his forwardness, Tony can’t help but try to suppress a shiver.

Tony’s parents had extended an invitation for Tiberius to stay at the mansion during the early days of their courtship, at least until other arrangements could be made. As Tiberius settles in at Stark Mansion, the alpha is nothing but courteous over the next several days. He greets Tony each morning with a sweet kiss to the cheek, calls him pretty omega and then clever omega when he notices that Tony doesn’t like the first name. Never seems to mind that Howard and Maria give Tony the liberty to speak his mind, and only laughs good-naturedly when Tony forgets that he’s supposed to be entertaining his guest and instead spends most of the day in his workshop.

By the time Tiberius arranges a townhouse to stay in while he courts Tony, the omega is quite smitten. He leaves with a soft kiss to the corner of Tony’s mouth and a promise to call on him the next day. Tony doesn’t really believe it though. He fully expects that it’s the last time he’ll see Tiberius before the wedding.

But Tiberius surprises him by showing up at the mansion the next morning to escort him to the park. The outing is just the beginning. He takes Tony to the opera and to the museum. They go on outings to the park and long walks in the Starks’ garden. He’s the perfect gentleman, never placing his hand somewhere it might be inappropriate, never minding the presence of Tony’s chaperone, Mrs. Arbogast.

Six months into the courtship, Tiberius officially proposes, although they’ve all known it was coming, and Tony accepts. He still remembers the rumors but there seems to be no truth to them, at least not any that Tony’s seen.

They throw a party to celebrate their engagement. Tony dances the first dance with Tiberius, as is custom, and then exchanges partners with Janet van Dyne, his closest friend from childhood and another omega, who laughs at something Tiberius says as he sweeps her into a waltz. He dances two more dances with other alphas, as it isn’t considered proper to only dance with Tiberius, and then goes to dance again with his fiancé, only he can’t find Tiberius anywhere.

He excuses himself to the sides of the room, expecting that he’ll find Tiberius along the walls. They’ve attended parties together before and, while it had been unseemly to dance solely with each other, Tiberius had never danced with anyone else, choosing instead to wait at the sides of the room until he could dance with Tony again. But Tiberius isn’t there today. A small flutter goes through Tony’s heart. He hasn’t yet had any cause to believe the rumors he’d heard, but the absence of his fiancé at their own engagement party is concerning.

There’s a hot burn of shame in his chest. He’s probably overreacting. Tiberius has been nothing but good to him. Tony’s seen no evidence of truth to the rumors of cheating and brutality that followed the alpha. He should be ashamed that he’s giving credence to them now just because his fiancé isn’t in eyesight.

His gaze falls on one of the balconies and his body goes cold. There are two darkened silhouettes leaning against the railing. Tony knows both very well. One of them—the one with the broad shoulders—belongs to Tiberius. The other—with the long reddish-brown hair and the tiny stature—belongs to another alpha Tony knows well: Sunset Bain.

Tony has been engaged before, just after he turned eighteen. His first alpha had been an alpha with hair the color of Christmas gingerbread, a scent like cinnamon, and a smile that could light up a room. She’d showered Tony in gifts and honeyed words and Tony had adored her for it. But she’d been hiding her vanity and cruelty behind a pretty exterior. She had hit him only once before he broke off the engagement—facing a banishment from society for it that had only recently lifted—and he thought he’d learned his lesson. He’d thought Tiberius was different. But if he’s hanging around Sunset…

Maybe he doesn’t know , he tells himself. But his hopes aren’t enough to stop himself from sneaking closer. The balcony door is just barely cracked, devoid of anyone else around it save for Tony and the two alphas outside. He steals behind one of the heavy curtains framing the doors, hiding himself in the draping folds.

“Have you bedded him yet?” Sunset asks.

“No,” Tiberius replies, sounding disgusted. “Little chit’s playing coy.”

“Come now, he’s not that bad.”

Tiberius snorts. “You must not remember his ridiculous opinions then. Omegas shouldn’t have any opinions, let alone ones like his. Surprised his parents didn’t beat it out of him.” Tony’s heart drops into his stomach.

“You’ve seen them,” Sunset says drily. “They dote on him.”

“Well they shouldn’t. He’s stirring up trouble. An omega’s place is—”

“—behind their master. I know. You’ve said it before.”

“There’ll be none of this argumentativeness from him once he belongs to me.”

Sunset says lazily, “And just how do you plan to make him stop?”

There’s a sound like hand striking flesh then a snarl and a thud. Sunset growls, no longer playing around, “Don’t you dare raise your hand to me again.”

Tiberius sounds entirely unbothered when he says silkily, “My apologies, Miss Bain. I assumed you wanted a demonstration.”

There’s a brief pause. “Why are you out here anyway? Surely your omega must be looking for you,” Sunset says.

“As though I give a damn. I needed to get out of there. His prattling was going to drive me mad.”

“You have to live with that prattling,” Sunset points out.

“All I need,” Tiberius says darkly, “is access to the Stark fortune. And remember, no one cares what happens to a mated omega.” He chuckles. “But you’re right. He’ll be looking for me. It wouldn’t do to show my hand too early. May I escort you back to the party?”

The door opens fully. Tony scrambles deeper into the shadows of the curtains as Sunset and Tiberius pass by, chattering now about wedding plans. Tony hears them as though through a thick fog, his heart pounding dully in his chest. He’d thought he’d be safe when he got away from Sunset’s abuse. But it seems as though he  traded one abuser for another. He slides down the wall to curl up on the floor, silent tears sliding down his cheeks as he trembles.



The dogs get fed promptly at seven. At nine, when the household begins to retire, one of the guards will remove the dogs from their kennels and station one or two beneath each first-floor window and four at each door into the house. They’re meant to keep intruders from getting in but that doesn’t mean they can’t stop someone from getting out.

Tony, like Howard and Maria, was raised with the dogs. He was present for the birth of each puppy and he played with them as they grew. The dogs know his scent. They’re here to protect him. Anyone else, who doesn’t scent like his family or their handler, they’ll attack. But in the dark, when he’s just a shadow against the night, he’s not certain they’ll recognize him in time to keep from tearing him to pieces.

He’s spent every evening for the last two months in the kennel, spending time with the dogs, reinforcing his scent—and more importantly, making sure that the guards know him being there is becoming a habit.

He knows his reticence has started to get to Tiberius. Every time Tony turns the alpha down for a night out, Tiberius’ nostrils flare slightly like he can’t believe the nerve of the omega for disagreeing with him. It isn’t like they even see each other any less though. To keep from looking suspicious, Tony still accepts Tiberius’ invitations for daily outings to the park or the museum. The only thing that’s changed is their nightly outings and yet that’s enough to make Tiberius angry. It makes Tony shiver, unable to believe that he’d almost missed it.

At eight, he heads down to the kennels. By now, most of the dogs have already eaten and are now chasing each other around the kennel. The moment Tony’s scent hits their nostrils, many of them cluster around the gate, jumping up with lolling tongues and wagging tails to greet him.

“Alright,” Tony laughs delightedly. “I’m coming.”

He lets himself in and is promptly tackled by the dogs. He laughs again. It’s impossible to be worried when these wonderful faces are looking forward to seeing him. He spends the hour with them, throwing a ball for them and giving them belly rubs. At ten minutes until nine, he stands, wipes his hands on his trousers, and goes around to the water dishes, pouring a few drops of chloral hydrate in each one. Then he waits for the handler, says his good nights, and leaves.

The sedative, he knows, takes at least twenty minutes to take effect. That should be more than enough time to get the dogs out to their posts. Not all the dogs will drink the water in the kennels so Tony had gone around earlier that evening and spiked the drinking water with the sedative as well.

He goes back upstairs to his bedroom. The dogs are well-trained. When they’re on duty, they don’t bark unless there’s an intruder so it shouldn’t seem odd to the guards for the dogs to be silent. Tony double-checks his bag. He’d packed light, unsure if he would have to run for it. Tiberius shouldn’t know that he’s gone missing but if his parents realize he’s left before he’s out of the city or if the guards catch him before he makes it off the grounds, he’s sure he’ll have to run.

A few minutes after nine, he hears the handler tying the last dogs to their posts—the ones just below Tony’s window. Not for the first time, he thanks mankind’s inherent need for routine.

Then he settles down to wait.

One Month Ago


Janet says Tony’s a lucky omega.

She says it for a lot of reasons but right now Tony thinks it’s because Howard doesn’t just give him an allowance but also pays him for every single invention he comes up with. Usually, Tony promptly spends whatever money he gets—on pieces of scrap metal from the blacksmith, on pretty hats and ribbons, on pieces of candy from the grocer. Not anymore though. Now, he’s saving everything he can get his hands on. He’s never been more productive than he has in the last month, churning out plan after plan and passing it on to his father, trading it in for a few dollars. He asks for the pennies that his mother receives in change, claiming that he wants them to buy food for the birds and instead squirreling them away into his pockets. He buries money behind the loose brick in the wall behind his bed and counts it obsessively each night.

Soon he’ll have enough.

The first time Janet takes him out shopping after Tony finds out about Ty, Tony nearly buys a new bracelet before he remembers that he’s supposed to be saving up for his escape. He reluctantly sets the bracelet back, pretends that he hadn’t been looking at it as closely as he had been, and continues looking around the shop.

Janet eyes him curiously. “Is everything okay?” she asks, picking up the bracelet herself and setting it in her basket.

Tony nods. “I’m saving up for, you know—” He forces out a giggle and then lowers his voice. “For the wedding night.”

Janet squeals with laughter and Tony turns away so that she can’t see how sick with anxiety the very thought of marrying Tiberius makes him. After a moment, Janet’s laughter dies away but Tony’s now pretending to examine a ruby necklace so he misses her watching him with narrowed eyes.

Janet ends up buying the bracelet. Tony feels a small pang of sadness as he watches her hand over the money. It really had been a lovely bracelet, exactly the kind of thing Tony would have bought if he wasn’t saving up. They walk back outside arm in arm and, without him realizing it, Janet slides the bracelet off her own wrist and onto Tony’s. He looks at her with shining eyes. This is why he absolutely adores her, for her incredible kindness and the way she’s always thinking of someone else.

“Thank you,” he murmurs.

She downplays her generosity with an airy wave of her hand. “I thought maybe if I got it for you, you might tell me what’s really going on.”

Tony whips his head around to stare aghast at her. “What makes you think there’s anything going on?” he manages to say.

She reaches over with a slim finger and shuts his jaw. “Anthony Edward Stark, you and I both know that I’m making everything for your wedding night. So clearly, you’re not saving up for that.”

“You don’t know that,” Tony grumbles. “Maybe I don’t want what you’re making me.”

“Well that’s a lie,” Janet says simply. When Tony still doesn’t reply, she gives him a concerned look. “Is it really that dreadful?”

Tony looks around as surreptitiously as he can (which probably isn’t very surreptitious at all, he decides, considering that he’s unused to the world of espionage). He’s pretty sure he doesn’t see anyone who’s directly friends with Tiberius, but he also spies Mrs. Baxter, who’s an absolutely terrible gossip. He certainly doesn’t want her overhearing his plan.

He says quietly, “Not here.” Janet’s starting to look positively alarmed but she follows his lead as they stroll leisurely down the street until they’ve turned the corner. Tony glances behind them to make sure Mrs. Baxter hasn’t followed them and then walks straight into the nearest alley.

“Tony!” Janet exclaims, even as she follows him. “What’s gotten into you?”

“I—Mister Stone—” he begins and then stops helplessly. What does he tell her? That he thinks Tiberius is planning to beat him, that he might actually be planning to murder him if Tony doesn’t go along with his wishes? Does he tell her that Stone’s just marrying him for his fortune? Does he tell her he’s going to run because he’s not sure he’ll have any support after he’d already broken his engagement with Sunset?

But Janet’s quick. She seems to take it all in just from his face and nods understandingly. “You need to get out,” she says. “Probably for Europe.”

“Europe?” Tony exclaims. He’d been thinking maybe further west or up to Canada but Europe was awfully far. And, after all, Tiberius is also from Europe. Surely it’ll be easier for Tiberius to find him if Tony’s hiding in his own backyard.

“Europe,” Janet repeats firmly. “Mister Stone will underestimate you because you’re an omega. He’ll think that you’ll want to stay on the continent.”

“Janet, I don’t think I’ll have enough money for a boat before the wedding,” he admits shamefully. He’s been doing his best to save up but he’s not even sure he’ll have enough for a train ticket before the wedding. He’s been slowly building up his courage to go to Jarvis and plead with him for what little he can spare to help Tony get out of the city but he hasn’t wanted to admit just how much trouble he thinks he’s in.

“Yes you will,” Janet promises him. She purrs comfortingly. “I’m going to help you.”

And with that, she opens her purse and dumps every last dollar she has into Tony’s purse.



The guards make their rounds once every three hours, at which point they circle the grounds and then change posts. Tony supposes it keeps them awake but it does mean that he has to time his escape carefully. He watches them for two weeks, sacrificing sleep to watch, and comes to the conclusion that if he times the escape for about the two-hour point of each shift, the guards will be just tired and bored enough to miss Tony slipping by them.

Tony watches from his window as the shift changes at midnight. At two, he grabs his bag, leaves a letter to his parents on his pillow explaining what he’d discovered and his plan to travel west, and steals out into the hallway.

When Howard had designed the mansion, nearly all of the windows on the second floor had been matched with a window on the first floor. His father, knowing what an opportunity an unguarded window could be, had had the guard dogs stationed at each first-floor window. There’s only one window in the entire mansion left unguarded: a second-floor window that doesn’t have another window below it. Fortunately, that window is at the end of Tony’s hallway. Unfortunately , his father had had that wall built with as smooth a brick as he could find and mortar evened out so that the wall had no natural footholds. It does have a small ledge right outside the window and a desk in the hallway, heavy enough that Tony can secure a rope to it.

When he’d first begun planning his escape, he’d gone through a fit of furniture rearranging. His mother had been ecstatic, sure that it had been a sign of him nesting and preparing for his future home. He’d been very careful to keep himself from laughing as she went into raptures over the way he’d rearranged the upstairs hallway—including moving the desk ten feet closer to the window.

It’s not directly below the window. Tony had tried to move it there originally but his father hadn’t wanted it so close so he’d compromised on a few feet away. He shoves it closer to the window now. It screeches loudly as it moves across the floor. Tony winces, sure that the noise will bring someone running. But his parents’ bedroom is on the other side of the house and Ana and Jarvis’ room is on the first floor and none of them must be close enough to hear the noise because no one comes to investigate.

He ties the rope to the desk leg and tosses it over the side of the window. There’s a soft thud as it falls back against the wall but none of the guards are stationed close enough to hear. Tony’s sure of that at least.

Tony pulls on a pair of Jarvis’ gloves to protect his hands. He hadn’t wanted to steal them, had in fact considered sacrificing some of his precious escape money to buy another pair, but he hadn’t had much of a choice. Tony couldn’t buy a pair of the heavy gloves for himself, not when society omegas were expected to wear only the finest silks and satins, but he also had so much trouble justifying taking something that Jarvis wore without replacing them. He needs the gloves though. He’d rip up his hands on the rough rope without them.

Certain that if he delays any longer, he’ll end up meeting with the guards, he swings a leg over the windowsill and begins his descent. It’s slow going. He balances on the wall with his feet and practically walks down but he still has to be careful not to lose his grip on the rope or he’ll fall. If he’s terribly unlucky, he’ll break an ankle or worse, his leg, and then where will he be? He’ll be stuck here and Tiberius will know that he’d been trying to escape.

After what seems like ages, he finally reaches the ground. He doesn’t have anything like the clock in his bedroom with which to check the time—he sets that thought aside for later, maybe to tinker with on the ship—but he’s studied the stars enough to estimate that he still has a little over half an hour before the watch changes. Tony nods to himself and sets off across the grounds.

Three Weeks Ago


“I believe there’s still a first-class cabin on the RMS Scotia available,” the agent says.

“I’ll take it,” Tony says immediately. “How much will it be?”

The agent checks the listing. “It looks like it will be twenty-five dollars now, and the remaining fifty, one week before boarding.”

Tony nods to himself and makes a note to ask Janet to raise the price of her next commission. She’s due to have Mrs. Anderson’s dress finished in the next couple of days, which will still leave Tony a couple dollars short. But he’s pretty sure she’s getting ready to accept another commission. Hopefully, she’ll be able to charge a little extra on that one.

“What time does the ship leave?” he asks.

The agent gives him a sharp look. He hastily affects an innocent expression though Tony’s not certain he’s fooled. Either way, after a pause, the agent says, “First-class boarding is at nine in the morning. The ship leaves two hours later.”

“I assume second-class can board earlier?”

“That would be correct.”

“What time?”

The agent pauses again. Tony doesn’t even try to look innocent this time as he’s fairly certain he’s already failed. It’s clear that the agent is about to ask something. Tony hopes it’s whether or not he’s in trouble and not if he is the trouble. In desperation, he slides an extra twenty dollars across the table.

“For you,” he says, hoping that his tone conveys everything it needs to.

The agent shuts his mouth. The money disappears. And Tony makes another note to ask Janet to raise her commission price just a little bit more.

“Second-class may begin boarding at five the previous night,” the agent says.

“What happens if I show up earlier?” Tony asks.

The agent doesn’t say anything but he does look at his purse significantly. Tony nods again and makes a note to figure out which of his jewelry pieces he thinks he can part with.



Most of the wall surrounding Stark Mansion is both well-guarded and well-kept. But there’s a spot back behind the garden where the guards sometimes go to do their business if they’re stationed away from the guardhouse. The wall back there is starting to crumble, just a little. Tony isn’t certain but after listening in on the mercenaries’ conversations for two months, he thinks it might be because it’s the spot where the whores will sometimes come to tease the mercenaries. And while they can’t go outside the wall for a tumble, they can certainly bring the whores in and it’s much easier to bring someone inside if the wall is falling apart.

This, Tony thinks ruefully, is why his father shouldn’t have hired mercenaries, but he can’t complain when it works out in his favor.

He steals across the grounds as quietly as he can, darting from shadow to shadow. His luck seems to have held out with the dogs at least, as they’re silently slumbering along the edges of the house. The guards may be another matter altogether but they’re all stationed at the wall. Beyond that, Tony doubts that they’re watching the grounds at all. They’re likely watching the streets outside.

There’s a guard back there now, peeing a pattern on the wall. Tony wrinkles his nose at the thought that he’ll have to climb over that spot but there’s nothing he can do about it now. He lurks behind one of the maple trees, hoping that the shadows are deep enough and the tree wide enough to hide his figure.

The guard doesn’t seem to notice him as he finishes. He fastens up his pants and then ambles back to his post, none the wiser that Tony is there.  He waits until the man has faded out of earshot before he approaches the wall.

He stares up at it in trepidation. The problem is that, unlike when he’d been climbing out the window, he actually has no idea how to climb a wall, even one that’s falling apart. Now that he’s thinking about it, he probably should have stayed at Janet’s tonight and escaped from hers. He’d been so caught up in the romanticism of his escape that he probably hadn’t thought it through very well.

Nothing for it now , he thinks to himself. The drugged dogs, the desk moved closer to the window, the rope he’d had to leave behind—someone will figure out that he was trying to escape. He’ll never get another chance.

Tony digs one foot into one of the crumbling bits, reaches up with his opposite hand, and starts to climb.

It takes him longer than he’d like. He has to start over twice when he gets a few feet up and realizes that the next handhold is too far away for him to grasp. He tears up his hands, even through the thick gloves, and he skins his knee against the rough stone when he slips a bit, but he eventually makes it up and over the wall just before the next shift change.

He drops the last few feet to the ground and turns to face the city. He’s never had to face New York at night before, not alone and unescorted. He takes a deep breath. The only way out is through as Jarvis would say. Tony hitches his bag up higher on his shoulder and sets off into the darkened streets.

Two Days Ago


Tony is stuffing his bag back under his bed after yet another check of everything he’s packed when he hears Jarvis say, “Were you really going to leave without saying goodbye?”

He wouldn’t say that he jumps (though Jarvis probably would) but he’s certainly startled. As he extracts himself out from under the bed, he manages to slam his head against the underside of the bedframe and get his hair tangled in the siding.

“Ow,” he says plaintively.

He hears a long-suffering sigh and then slim fingers are picking through his curls, untangling them from the mattress. Tony slumps onto the floor, relaxing into the gentle touch. It reminds him of when he was younger and the old beta would brush his hair every night before bed. Jarvis hasn’t done that for a long time, not since Tony turned eight and insisted it wasn’t necessary anymore. Tony hadn’t realized how much he'd missed it. For a moment, he has to sit there and fight back tears because—for as much as he’s going to miss his parents, as much as he’ll miss Janet—he’s going to miss Jarvis the most.

Jarvis’ hand reaches back out to help pull him to his feet. He casts a critical eye over Tony’s dusty clothes and begins dusting him off briskly, nearly distracting Tony from him repeating, “Now, Master Anthony, you weren’t really planning to leave without saying goodbye, now were you?”

Tony jerks his head up to gape at him. “You knew?” he asks. There’s no use in denying it.

“The servants know everything,” Jarvis reminds him and that’s certainly true. Jarvis had always seemed to know when Tony had stolen an extra cookie or trampled through his prized garden. After a second, Jarvis’ gaze softens. “I’m glad you’re going. I told your parents not to accept Lord Stone’s suit but your father needed the mining contracts.”

“I almost fell for it,” Tony admits shamefully. That’s been the worst part of the whole ordeal, the fact that Tony, with all his brains, had fallen for Tiberius’ pretty looks and suave charms.

Almost ,” Jarvis says gently, “is not the same as did . You saw through his lies.”

Tony’s throat clicks with unshed tears. He hasn’t cried since the night he found out about Tiberius’ true nature but he’s sure that as soon as he gets away, the stress will finally overwhelm him. “I wanted to break off the engagement,” he whispers. “But after Sunset—”

Jarvis doesn’t say anything. There really isn’t anything that he can say. After Tony’s first ruined engagement, a second would ostracize him from society and quite possibly ruin his prospects. But Tony running away will just as surely put a black stain on the family’s reputation. He’s fairly certain that Howard will be able to recover but it won’t be easy. Tony had even considered staging his own kidnapping but he doesn’t want Tiberius to try to follow him.

“Ana’s family still lives in Buda,” Jarvis says eventually. “And while mine are mostly gone, there are still some people in London who remember the name Jarvis. We could send you with letters of introduction.”

“I think I’ll need to avoid England altogether,” Tony says quietly. “And if Tiberius goes looking for me, the first place he’ll start is with your family.”

Jarvis nods sadly. “Ana and I thought you would say that.” He clicks his tongue and holds his arms out for a hug. Gladly, Tony moves in, wrapping his arms tightly around the butler. “We don’t want to send you out into the world alone. It won’t be easy for an unmarried omega, even one as clever as you.”

“I thought I could find work as a tutor maybe,” Tony suggests.

“You deserve so much more than that.”

Tony smiles to himself. That’s just like Jarvis, always wanting the best for Tony. “I’ll write when I can,” he promises.

Jarvis chuckles and maybe his laugh sounds a little watery but Tony sees no reason to point it out. “No you won’t.”

No, Tony probably won’t. He’s dreadful at remembering to write letters even to his grandparents. He’ll probably keep putting off writing to Jarvis until he’s certain it will be safe, at which point he’ll have completely forgotten. But he doesn’t want to say that. He wants to hold onto the illusion that he won’t forget Jarvis and Jarvis won’t forget him. He wants to pretend that one day he’ll be able to come home again and everything will be like normal.

There’s a small clinking noise as Jarvis withdraws a leather pouch from his pocket. He presses it into Tony’s hand. “Ana and I have been saving this for you.”

“Jarvis, no,” Tony protests. “I can’t take this.” He doesn’t know what it was originally meant for but judging from the weight of it, it’s probably everything Jarvis has earned over the last month.

“Master Anthony,” Jarvis says insistently. “You’ll need to get as far as you can. Let me and Ana help.”


Jarvis brushes Tony’s curls out of his face. “We’ve helped raise you since you were barely an infant. We have no children but you are as good as. Let us help you start a new life.”

And Tony wants to protest but Jarvis is right. He does need to get as far as he can. He’s already going through money quickly just with the passage on the ship and the bribes he had to pay to the Cunard Line’s agent. He has no idea how much more he’ll have to spend before he reaches his journey’s end. He closes his hand around the pouch and whispers, “I’ll make you proud. You’ll see.”

Jarvis smiles sadly. “My darling boy, you already have.” 



The porter looks at him oddly when he boards before sunrise but ultimately doesn’t say anything. Tony doesn’t even have to use the bribe money he’d put aside in anticipation. Instead, he strolls up the gangplank and gets his bag stowed in his stateroom and spends the rest of the time waiting in his bunk until they’re just about ready to cast off. Then he makes his way back to the first-class deck.

It’s probably foolish of him. He has no idea if Tiberius will be at the dock looking for him. But he wants to be able to see his homeland one more time before he leaves it behind forever. Doesn’t he deserve that at least?

He scans the crowd watching the ship depart, looking for any sign of Tiberius or his friends. He doesn’t spot any of them but, to Tony’s immense surprise, he does catch sight of Ana and Jarvis both watching the ship anxiously. He casts one more look around the dock and then, when he thinks he’s clear, he raises his hand to wave. He’s not even certain if they’ll see him. In fact, he’s almost completely certain that they won’t. But it makes him feel better, knowing that his last glimpse of New York will be the sight of Ana and Jarvis.

And then, as the ship pulls out into the harbor, Jarvis catches sight of him. He taps his wife’s shoulder urgently before pointing at Tony. Ana’s face brightens and she blows him a kiss. Tony laughs delightedly and blows one back at her. He waves until they’re no more than tiny specks on the horizon.

Then, and only then, does Tony turn to look east—toward the sea and whatever better future awaits him.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after he leaves New York, Tony steps off the dock in Queenstown. He promptly finds a jeweler who’ll trade a bracelet he got from Tiberius for money he then uses to buy passage to Liverpool. There’s a steamer that leaves the next morning so Tony uses the rest of his money and a watch to rent a room at a nearby hotel. It’s not the nicest place he’s ever stayed at, not with the mice he can hear squeaking in the walls and the spider making a tidy web in the corner near the door. Still, it’s mostly clean and he has a view of the harbor.

He’d wanted to avoid England altogether but he supposes beggars can’t be choosers and there are no other ships leaving for destinations other than England or America for the next few weeks. Tony’s pretty sure that staying in one place for too long is far more dangerous than traveling through England so he calms his fears and settles in for the night.

From Liverpool, he takes a train to London and then another steamer to Calais. He stays in Calais for a few days while he plots his next move. He ends up traveling east into Germany and then down into Austria-Hungary for a few weeks. Tony even travels down into Italy with the short-lived dream of seeing his mother’s family.

But nowhere seems safe enough and he ends up back in the south of France. He holes up for a couple weeks in a hotel room while he pores over maps of Europe. Tony is hesitant to travel either too far east or south. The New York winters and his mother’s strict regimen has kept his skin a light golden color and he’s afraid that he’ll stand out against the locals if he travels to Africa or Asia. The last thing he wants to do is draw attention to himself. He can’t be certain that it’ll draw Tiberius to him but it certainly wouldn’t help.

He’s heading down for breakfast one morning when he hears two of the maids gossiping. This isn’t terribly unusual. The maids gossip in every hotel Tony’s stayed at. It’s been useful in helping him figure out when he needs to move on. Today though they’re gossiping about a country Tony’s never even heard of.

“Yes, that’s right,” one of them titters. “King Steven of Dacia—seen in a town in France!”

“Impossible,” the other one declares. “He never leaves that castle of his.”

“Well I heard it from James who heard it from that new stableboy and he heard it from the messenger from Toulouse and you know he never lies.”

Tony doesn’t stay for the rest of the conversation. Instead, he creeps back to his room and takes a closer look at his map. Dacia…Dacia—he’s never heard of this country, which means it must be small, and if the maids were talking about Toulouse, that must mean it’s near the border…

There it is!

He triumphantly points at it, a tiny country located just on the border between France and Spain. The Mediterranean Sea makes up its east border and there’s even a small port town, perfect for an easy escape. And if Tony, with all his learning and books, has never heard of it, there’s a good chance Tiberius wouldn’t have either.

That decides it. He’ll settle in Dacia for as long as he can, though he doubts Tiberius is even looking for him. In the nearly two months that he’s been traveling, he hasn’t heard even a whisper that Tiberius Stone lost his omega.

Tony would be offended that he’s apparently so replaceable if he wasn’t so relieved. He knows that he’s been drawing some odd looks on the steamers and trains. It doesn’t seem to be as unusual for an omega to travel alone in Europe as it had been in America but it’s still not exactly a common sight. Best to disappear entirely.

He’d known it was going to happen eventually but the money running out right at the border of Dacia is a bit of a shock. He has just enough to rent him a room for the night and purchase breakfast the next morning. He doesn’t even have enough for a carriage ride to the capital. Tony supposes he could always stay in the small border town he’s staying in but he’d really wanted to get deeper into the country. Besides, he figures it’s probably easier to disappear in a city than it is in a town.

Nothing for it. He’ll have to walk.

He’ll figure out what to do about the money situation once he reaches the capital city—he checks the map—Aynor. Surely, someone will be willing to give an unwed omega a job. Tony has experience working in a forge but he’ll accept even a more traditional job like a bakery if it’ll keep him fed and warm.

Of course, he supposes he could always sell his last necklace. He draws it out of his shirt so he can look at it. It’s an almost gaudy-looking piece with a large ruby pendant surrounded by yellow diamonds. The chain is made up of gold vines and leaves. Tony hates it, always has, but it’s a Carbonell family heirloom, given to him by his mother when he’d presented as an omega when he was thirteen. He can’t just get rid of it. It’s the only thing he has left of her.

He tucks it back inside his shirt. No, there’s a lot that he’s willing to get rid of and sell if he has to but this necklace isn’t one of them.

Aynor is the capital city of Dacia and has been since the country was founded nearly a thousand years ago. It’s a stately city with old stone houses and thatched roofs located in nearly the exact center of the country, planned that way so that no citizen would have to travel further than someone else to address their complaints to the ruler. The city is bordered to the east by a small forest and just beyond the forest sits Aynor Castle, the seat of government in Dacia for the last thousand years.

Aynor Castle is a sprawling palace, the kind that you’d hear about in fairytales. It has three floors and eight towers that extend the castle another two stories. The gardens extend out to a small lake where people take their children boating or swimming every summer. It’s the sort of castle that reflects the personality of its ruler. Each Dacian ruler has brought something special to the castle, whether it be King Pierre’s love of parties two hundred years ago or Queen Madeleina’s addition of the library three hundred years before that.

Up until the last four years, Aynor Castle, marked by the rule of King Steven and his lovely omega Queen Margaret, had been a happy, boisterous place. It had been filled with light and laughter. The castle gates were always open, always welcoming. But then the queen had passed. The king had withdrawn into himself, the gates had closed except for the rarest of occasions, and the castle had become a somber shell of what it used to be.

But sometimes, there are days—like today—that are marked with noise.

“You can’t go!” Pepper, the castle’s housekeeper, shouts. She throws herself physically in front of the great wooden doors. “What will His Majesty say?”

“I don’t care,” Madame Ogier declares. “Those little beasts have run away from me for the last time.”

“Shouldn’t you go and look for them?” Pepper all but shrieks. “What if they’ve been kidnapped? You know the price that could be put on their heads!”

Madame Ogier glares at her. “Then you should be speaking with their guard, not with me. Stand aside.”

“I can’t let you go,” Pepper says. “We need you here. We’ve gone through five governesses in the last six months. We’re running out of options.”

“There are plenty of governesses in the world.”

“But how many of them are willing to work with a royal family?” Pepper counters. Her eyes are wild, pleading. “Please, Madame Ogier. I’ll increase your wages.”

“Absolutely not.”

“You’ll be given the finest rooms.”


“Oh, let her go,” another voice calls from the top of the grand staircase. Pepper throws a glare over her shoulder at the head of the children’s guard who seems far too unconcerned that her charges have disappeared again. Although considering how often it’s happened, it really isn’t that much of a surprise.

“Mademoiselle Romanoff,” Madame Ogier sneers. “Shouldn’t you be out looking for the children?”

Natasha starts down the stairs, eyes narrowed. “You and your high and mighty ways,” she hisses. “I saw the bruises on Sarah’s arm. Fell down the stairs, was it?”

Madame Ogier goes pale but she still holds steady as she replies, “If the little brat would listen to me—”

“Hmm,” Natasha says nonchalantly. “Good riddance to you, I say.”

“No!” Pepper exclaims. “Who’ll have to take care of the children with no nanny in the castle? Me, that’s who!”

This is perhaps an unfair sentiment to express to Natasha, who generally does a fantastic job of helping whoever is the current nanny—unless, of course, they’ve run off (Pepper suspects though that Natasha is actually helping the children then). But Pepper isn’t trained to be a nanny. She’s trained to be a housekeeper and if she’s trailing after the young princes and princesses, then she’s not doing her actual job.

“Miss Potts,” Madame Ogier begins, nostrils flaring. She’s clearly starting to lose her patience.

“Maybe they’re in the gardens,” Pepper interrupts. “You know how Morgan likes the rose bushes. You don’t think she got caught in the thorns, do you? Maybe you better go and check if she’s injured.”

Madame Ogier practically growls, “They’re not in the gardens.”

“How would you know?” Natasha points out. “You didn’t go to look. You went straight upstairs and packed.”

“Yes, because this latest instance makes the fourth time in a week they’ve run off and I’ve had it! Now, stand aside.” She looks about ready to barrel right through Pepper and afterward the doors, which is perhaps what makes Natasha pick Pepper up and physically move her out of the way.

“No!” Pepper wails as the doors slam shut with a thud of finality behind the governess. She snarls at Natasha. “Thank you so very much.”

“Oh please,” Natasha says calmly. “Go put out another advertisement. I’m sure someone will need a job.”

“And will they be trained as a nanny? Or as a tutor? Will they understand the stresses these children are under? Or what about the king? Will they understand that His Majesty is grieving?” Pepper doubles checks that the doors have been locked properly and then turns toward the hallway leading to the kitchens. The first place to look for the children is always the kitchens. The cooks have a special place in their heart for the younger two (and a swat with a spoon for the older two who stole one too many cookies in their younger years).

Natasha doesn’t say anything, not that Pepper expects her to. She’s well-aware that Natasha is of the opinion that the king has grieved long enough. But then, Natasha has only lived in the castle since Sarah’s birth. She doesn’t remember watching Prince Steven and Lady Margaret orbit around each other as children. She doesn’t know about the painful flirting Pepper had witnessed or the shy smiles as Margaret had finally accepted the new king’s courtship. She doesn’t really understand how much Steven had adored his omega.

She sighs. Pepper loves the children, she really does. But oh they’re little troublemakers at the best of times. She can’t really blame them. They’re acting out in the hopes that they’ll catch their father’s attention. And to be perfectly honest, their antics are often hilarious. They’re just not nearly as funny when they’re driving off the new nanny or when they’re directed at Pepper instead.

“You’re going to help me this time,” she threatens. “None of this aiding them in disappearing or making sure they’re up too late to attend lessons.”

Natasha nods demurely. “Of course.”

Pepper casts her a sidelong glare. She doesn’t believe that innocent façade for a single second.

Natasha grew up in Russia. She grew up poor and hungry with a stepfather who beat her and a mother who didn’t care. The opulence of Dacia and its royal family means nothing to her. She doesn’t understand how the king can still be in mourning four years after his wife’s death when grief hadn’t been a luxury she could afford as a child. Natasha has been called heartless before but she thinks it’s more practicality than anything else.

But neglect is something she understands. She looks into the eyes of the young princes and princesses and sees the hunger in their eyes—for love, for affection, for whatever scrap of attention their father can give them—and understands it.

Natasha knows what it’s like to want attention, any attention at all, and so she’s never stopped herself from helping them. She knows that the most attention they get from their father is when he can pull himself from his grief long enough to be angry at them. She knows that the king would probably smile at his oldest children’s accomplishments if he ever noticed them. The youngest looks too much like their mother for His Majesty to ever look at her except in anger. She knows that the children are too loyal to each other to allow one to fail where the rest succeed and so they all invoke his wrath. She knows all of this and she wishes that they could find someone to be patient with them instead of leaving after a few weeks. She wishes their father would see the four living, beautiful children he has instead of the specter he’s lost.

So when the children come back from their day in the forest, looking around eagerly for their father, it nearly breaks her heart to tell them, “The king has not been informed of your absence.” Harley and Peter, the eldest, know better than to look disappointed. Sarah and Morgan are still too young though and their shoulders slump.

“Chin up,” she says. “It’s almost supper. Madame Ogier has left so poor Miss Potts is stuck with you.”

Harley and Sarah sport identical mischievous grins. Natasha should probably scold them for whatever trouble they’re planning but she likes it when they tease Pepper. She likes Pepper well enough but is also of the opinion that she’s far too fussy. Pepper is at her best when she’s shaken up, flustered by the tricks the children have played on her.

“Let’s get you all cleaned up,” Natasha says. “Miss Potts will be up in a few minutes to bring you down for supper.”

As she leads them upstairs, Morgan slips her hand into Natasha’s. Natasha gives her a rare, warm smile that Morgan returns. “Can’t you be our nanny?” she asks.

“Afraid not,” Natasha says gently.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m your guard, not your nanny.”

“But you could be both,” Sarah suggests, coming up on the other side to take Natasha’s other hand.

“No I couldn’t.”

“Why not?” Morgan asks again.

“Because I can’t be looking for spies if I’m busy teaching you,” Natasha replies easily. The children like the idea of spies. Ever since they heard the term last year, they’ve been pretending to be spies every time they get the chance to play. That’s how they managed to lose the nanny two nannies before Madame Ogier—by pretending she was an evil spy and tying her up on one of the parapets for the birds. Natasha had gotten to the poor nanny before anything could have happened but they’d sent her home with a letter of apology and a bad case of nerves.

The children weren’t allowed near the towers anymore.

Sarah says softly, “Oh,” and squeezes Natasha’s hand. “I like you looking for spies.” Natasha squeezes her hand back.

“Who do you think will be the new nanny?” Peter asks, bounding back down the stairs from where he’d been leading the way.

“I don’t know,” Natasha says honestly. “Miss Potts will have to put out an advertisement.”

“Maybe it’ll be someone smart,” Harley says, still disgruntled over the nanny four nannies ago who had had no business being a tutor for children as bright as these.

“Someone pretty,” Morgan chimes in.

“Someone nice,” Peter adds with a glance at Sarah’s shoulder. The bruises are covered up by the sleeves of her dress but they’re still there.

“Someone for Daddy,” Sarah says definitely.

The children are all quiet for a moment. “Yeah,” Harley agrees eventually. “Someone for Daddy.”

Supper, if the family is dining together, is held in the formal dining room. If they’re not dining together, then Harley and the other children eat in the nursery (he despises that word, he’s thirteen years old, not a baby) and Father eats…well, Harley doesn’t actually know where. His room maybe. Wherever it is, it’s not with the children and oftentimes, even when he is eating with them, it doesn’t feel like he is. The formal dining room seats over thirty people and Father sits at one end of the table and the children sit at the other end with their nanny.

Father sometimes asks them questions, sometimes snaps at them if they’ve done something particularly attention-grabbing, but mostly, he sits and reads the collection of local newspapers he receives from around the country. Miss Natasha says it’s so that he can know what’s going on in Dacia. She says it’s something that many rulers do. Harley wouldn’t know. He knows that one day he’ll be king but his father hasn’t started teaching him yet. Sometimes, Harley looks at his father with his nose buried in his newspapers and wonders if he’ll ever teach him.

Today though their father is looking at them as they enter in a neat line behind Miss Potts. His eyes narrow when he sees Miss Potts, unsurprising considering that she only ever joins them when there’s no nanny in the castle.

“Where’s Madame Ogier?” he asks quietly as they take their seats.

“Resigned this afternoon, Your Majesty,” Miss Potts says apologetically. She helps Morgan into a chair. Father glances at the two of them and then away quickly. He never looks at Morgan, Harley thinks resentfully.

“Resigned,” Father repeats. He sounds resigned as well like it’s nothing more than he was expecting. “I expect—”

“I’ve already drafted the advertisement and submitted it for tomorrow’s paper,” Miss Potts says smoothly. She’s the only one who dares to interrupt the king. Miss Potts once said it’s because she grew up with him so he’d damn well better get over it. Then she’d blushed and told the children they couldn’t repeat that word. It had, unfortunately, been Morgan’s first word.

“Of course,” Father says. He looks up at Harley. There are new lines around his eyes. He looks tired, Harley thinks. He always looks tired.

“You’ll behave better for the next one?” Father asks him.

Harley wants to ask why he’s so convinced that it was their fault Madame Ogier ran off and not that she had a family emergency. But he bites his tongue. There’s no use in asking. It’ll just devolve into an argument and make Morgan upset.

Instead, he simply says, “Yes sir,” and turns his attention to his soup.

After a moment, he feels eyes watching him. When he looks back up, he sees Father still studying him. Even from the great distance across the table, he can see the deep sadness in his eyes. Harley wants to tell his father that he can make it better. He can play with them again the way he used to. He can sing them songs, tell them stories. But it will never happen, not as long as Father can’t bear to look at Morgan.

He thinks about what Sarah had said earlier; someone for Daddy. Well, first up is finding someone who won’t beat them when they act out (someone nice, Peter had said) and then—then they can think about finding someone for their father. It hurts him a little to think about someone taking the place of their mother but…

But Harley misses seeing his father smile.

Tony had been fortunate enough to find employment in one of the inns in Aynor as a maid. His first couple of weeks hadn’t been easy—while Howard and Maria had encouraged their son’s bright intellect, they’d almost neglected the more traditional omega skills like cooking and cleaning—but he’s fairly certain he’s starting to get the hang of it now. He hasn’t dropped the clean laundry in three days and he hasn’t broken a plate in a week. His hands have never been soft as he’s spent years working with his father on his weapons but he’s getting calluses now in places he didn’t even know it was possible to get them. His muscles are always sore but it seems like the pain is starting to lessen to a more manageable level. He’s perfected the polite but firm smile he uses on the customers in the restaurant downstairs when they think an unbonded omega is easy pickings—and more importantly, he’s perfected how to twist their fingers when they ignore his no . He doesn’t exactly like his job but the innkeeper, Mister Kirby, is willing to house him as long as he works so he sets aside his pride, keeps his head down, and does the best he can.

There’s a day in late November when a stately beta woman sweeps into the inn. “I’ll be needing a room,” she says imperiously to Tony, who is the only person at the bar.

He doesn’t think there are any rooms available, but he nods and starts to turn in order to find Mister Kirby so he can talk to her.

Quick as a flash, the woman’s hand reaches out and latches onto his wrist. Tony goes cold. He knows that he could break out of her hold but he also knows that the gold necklace around her neck is real gold studded with real diamonds, which means that she can make trouble for him if he tries to make a fuss.

“I said,” she hisses, “I need a room.”

“I know,” Tony stammers out, still staring at her hand on his wrist. She’s squeezing too tight. He’ll bruise if she doesn’t let go soon. “I can’t—I need to get the—”

“And why can’t you help me?”

“I’m not—”

Then he hears the reassuring voice of Mister Kirby say, “Madame Ogier. Back so soon?”

Just as quickly as she’d grabbed him, Madame Ogier lets go. Tony stumbles backward, rubbing his wrist. She gives Mister Kirby a sickly-sweet smile. “It would take a saint to corral those beasts,” she snaps. “I will go back to my dear France where my work is appreciated. Let someone else manage the demons.”

“Those demons,” Mister Kirby says mildly, “are the king’s children. And you were warned.”

“I am not Dacian,” Madame Ogier says icily, drawing herself up. Tony assumes that, as a Frenchwoman, she sees nothing wrong with insulting the royal family.

“No, I suppose you’re not,” Mister Kirby replies, his lightly threatening tone making his response mean something very different. Tony shivers and steps further into the shadows.

Mister Kirby and Madame Ogier stare at each other for a long moment. Tony’s gotten the impression over the last month that the people of Dacia are very deeply loyal to their king and his family, which surprises him because he’s seen neither hide nor hair of the royal family. He would have thought that in a country this small, they would be at every small town festival, every celebration, even just a party at one of the nobles’ homes (although he’s not entirely certain that there is nobility in this country).

Eventually, Mister Kirby smiles blandly. It should be a concession and yet it’s clearly not, especially as he says, “We have no rooms available for let.”

Madame Ogier opens her mouth presumably to say something else ghastly. But Mister Kirby ushers her toward the door, saying, “You might try one of the other inns in town. Or perhaps just keep going.”

He shuts the door behind her with a finality that very clearly tells her not to bother coming back. “Well, there’s that trash taken care of,” he says cheerfully.

Tony giggles. He’d never heard comments like that until he’d left New York. He would never have thought of himself as sheltered back in New York but high society just didn’t make those kinds of comments. Or rather, he and Janet had but it had always been behind closed doors. You just didn’t do that where other people could hear you.

“How’s that wrist?” Mister Kirby says as he walks back to the bar.

Tony shakes it out. “Be good as new by tomorrow,” he promises.

“Glad to hear it.” And the thing is, Mister Kirby sounds entirely sincere when he says it. It’s entirely different from the catty two-faced conversations Tony grew up with. Tony knows which one he prefers. “How about we go see if Mrs. Kirby made something sweet today?”

He leads Tony into the kitchen, who ends up forgetting all about what Madame Ogier had said as soon as he spots the turron Mrs. Kirby made that morning.

Mister Kirby is a kind man, a perceptive man. He’s the sort of man who looks at a young omega fresh in from the rain, realizes that he’s running from something, and offers him a job to help him get his feet back under him. He’s the kind of man who reminds foreigners that speaking ill of their beloved, grieving king is treason even if it’s a crime that hasn’t been enforced for a hundred years.

But he’s also the kind of man who looks at Tony Carbonell and knows that he’s meant for better things (knows also that there’s no way that is Tony’s real name). That boy is too bright to be washing dishes for the rest of his life.

So when he opens the morning’s paper to see that the castle is looking for a new nanny, he casually makes sure that he drops that little tidbit in his conversation with Tony. He’s watched the omega over the weeks he’s been employed at the inn. Tony is fantastic with the children that sometimes come in and even better with their parents. He always has a sweet smile ready and a sly tongue to hide his irritation when he can’t smile. If Mister Kirby didn’t know any better, he’d say that the nanny position at the castle would be perfect for Tony. Even better, when he mentions it, the young omega immediately perks up.

“Do you think—?” he starts to ask and then bites his lip. “Not that I’m not grateful.”

“I know you are,” Mister Kirby reassures him. “And you might not get the job. But it’s probably a lot nicer being in that castle during the winter than it is being here.” He doesn’t tell him that the castle staff are probably so desperate for a nanny that they’ll take anyone who walks in.

Tony nods to himself and takes the advertisement when Mister Kirby passes it to him. He scans it over for the date and time of the interviews before sticking it in his pocket. Then, without prompting, he stands, begins clearing the breakfast dishes, and heads for the sink.

“You’ve got that boy trained well,” Mrs. Kirby says softly.

Mister Kirby nods. “Shame we’ll have to let him leave.”

Pepper’s been interviewing potential nannies all day and frankly, she’s tired of it. Most of them are easy to dismiss but there’s just enough minor nobles looking to curry favor with the king and highly recommended governesses and tutors that it becomes an all-day affair.

Part of the problem is that the king refuses to hire both a nanny for the younger children and a tutor for the older ones. Ever since the queen died, he’s kept the castle staff to a bare minimum, including the caretakers for his children. Of course, if Margaret had still been alive, she would have taken care of them herself the way she had in life. But the king had always been somewhat distant, more concerned with affairs of state. There’d been many changes when the queen had died but the king growing closer to his children had not been one of them.

All of which had led Pepper to her search for someone who can handle both young children and youths newly turned into teenagers. Those kinds of people are difficult to find, even if she wasn’t looking for someone who could handle four rowdy children. Most of the applicants are either nannies for infant babies or tutors for young adults but not both.

She rests her head in her hands as the latest applicant leaves and groans. “That bad?” Natasha asks sympathetically as she pops her head around the edge of the door.

“Dreadful,” Pepper admits. “You’d think he’d never met a child before at all. What drove him to want to work with them, I’ll never know.”

“The prestige,” Natasha suggests wisely and she’s probably not far off. The prestige of working for a king, even if it’s just taking care of his children, is a potent lure.

“What about the next one?” Pepper asks. “Does he seem like he has experience with children?”

Natasha shakes her head. “Truthfully, he seems just as sheltered as the nobles we’ve seen today.”

Pepper doesn’t feel up to dealing with another one of those. “Can’t you just send him away?” she asks.

Uncharacteristically, Natasha hesitates. After a too-long pause, Pepper looks up at her. “You can’t just dismiss him,” Natasha explains. “Jack Kirby from the inn sent him. And there’s something…different about this one.”

Pepper has yet to regret a hire Mister Kirby has sent their way. Natasha had actually been hired on Mister Kirby’s recommendation. She’s a little more reluctant to hire the caretaker of the king’s children based on the old innkeeper’s recommendation but she is at least willing to hear him out.

She nods. “Send him on in.”

The man who pushes the door open is—well, Pepper sees immediately why Natasha had called him different. He’s young, far younger than most of the other applicants, almost too young to be a nanny. He’s pretty, not like the stately and imposing applicants she’s been interviewing: all long legs and trim waist, curly brown hair and eyes too big to be allowed, a little small for a beta—and then Pepper catches a whiff of his scent, oranges and some sort of flower that she thinks might be honeysuckle.

Oh,” she murmurs. “You’re not a beta at all, are you?”

The children have never had an omega nanny before. The castle staff is comprised entirely of alphas and betas as the king doesn’t like to have omegas in the castle, not out of any sort of misplaced prejudice but because they—like so many other things—remind him of his late wife. That alone would be enough for Pepper to dismiss him but Mister Kirby had sent him. She wants to at least hear him out.

“Can you read?” she asks brusquely. Perhaps she shouldn’t have started like that but it’s been a long day and she’s not sure why Mister Kirby had sent this boy when he knows that the king doesn’t hire omegas.

The omega hesitates. Pepper sighs and starts to repeat the question but then there’s a flash of fire in his eyes. He says, “My name is Anthony Carbonell. Thank you for agreeing to see me today—and yes, I can read.”

The response takes Pepper aback, partially because she’d forgotten to ask his name and partially because she hadn’t expected that kind of fire out of someone as delicate as him. She starts to laugh after a moment because she really gets it now, gets why Natasha had wanted her to see him.

“My apologies,” she says and waves at the seat across the table. “Please, have a seat. I’m Miss Potts, the housekeeper.”

Mister Carbonell sits down gingerly, almost like he’s afraid he’ll ruin the plush upholstery with his clothes. Pepper doesn’t blame him. His clothes look like they were once fine but also like they’re the only clothes he’s had in a long time.

“Do you come with any references?” she asks.

“Only two,” Mister Carbonell says. He withdraws a letter from his pocket and passes it to her, hand lingering on the envelope as though he can’t bear to let it go. “Mr. Kirby’s and that letter from my—friend.”

Pepper notes the odd hesitation and wonders what he meant to say instead. “American?” she asks. It’s not unusual. Quite a large number of them had fled to the continent both during and after their Civil War though not many had made their way to Dacia.

“Yes ma’am,” Mister Carbonell says politely. There’s something behind his tone, something that makes Pepper think he’s not used to saying those words. She takes another look at his clothes, notes the fine stitching, flicks her gaze up to the aristocratic arch of his nose, eyes how he doesn’t even fidget under her piercing gaze. She’s never heard a posh American accent before but she’d wager everything she owns that this boy’s accent is it.

A society omega , she thinks and then wonders, What are you doing here?

She doesn’t usually like to read the references first, choosing instead to make her own impressions before she reads someone else’s, but she finds that she’s too curious for any answers the letter may give. She slides her knife through the sealing wax, lifts the letter out—heavy paper, the kind that comes from a wealthy home—and glances through it, phrases sticking out in her mind—Anthony Stark , not Carbonell; a broken engagement; fear of the alpha; and at the end, signed Edwin Jarvis . She folds the letter back up and tucks it away in her pocket.

Pepper knows about the Jarvis family. One of the younger ones had been employed at the castle for nearly a year as the children’s second nanny. Pepper hadn’t wanted to let her go either, already foreseeing that it would be the first in a long string of nannies, but the girl had insisted. She’d been the only nanny to leave with a recommendation from Pepper. The others had fled too quickly.

“This letter says you can do sums,” she says eventually. It actually says that Mister Carbonell worked for his father’s company since he was a boy, both designing and building the weapons they sold, but she figures Mr. Carbonell doesn’t need to know how impressed she is by that.

Idly, like he knows that’s not what the letter says at all, Mister Carbonell asks, “Does it? Shame, I would’ve thought Jarvis had a higher opinion of me.”

Pepper ducks her head to hide her smile. “Can you?” she asks.

“I think you know I can.”

She hums consideringly. “You said you can read. Can you write?”


“What about teaching? Will you be able to teach the children?”

“I tutored my classmates in school,” he offers.

“That’s not quite the same, is it?”

Mister Carbonell shrugs. “Depends. Are they as stupid as my classmates were?”

Pepper’s hand flies to her mouth. “I beg your pardon?” she gasps.

“The children,” Mister Carbonell says patiently, a glint of amusement in his eyes at her horror. “Are they dullards?”

“I should think not!” she says indignantly. “Any child of the king—” He raises an eyebrow. She stops, starts again. “They’re extremely clever,” she admits. “Last month, the youngest built a trebuchet to launch her mashed potatoes across the nursery. She’s only four.”

Mister Carbonell laughs delightedly, not at all concerned that Pepper’s just admitted that Morgan is a troublemaker. “I did the same for my peas when I was her age,” he confides.

She’s beginning to like Mister Carbonell more and more. In fact, the more she thinks about the king’s sad eyes when his own son had called him sir , the more she thinks that Mister Carbonell—who’d once built trebuchets for his peas—might be exactly what the castle needs.

“I just have a few more questions if you don’t mind,” she says, considerably warmer than when she’d started. “How heavy of a sleeper are you?”

“Not very,” Mister Carbonell says. “I used to keep odd hours and now I have trouble sleeping. I’ll wake up if the children are distressed or—or if someone’s trying to get in.”

“And you don’t mind that the youngest is four?”

“Why would I mind that?”

Pepper bites her lip. This is where she loses quite a few potential nannies. “Because the eldest is thirteen.”

Mister Carbonell looks shocked. She waits with bated breath for the inevitable—“Why don’t you have two different tutors?”

“His Majesty likes to keep a small household,” Pepper explains succinctly. He’ll figure the rest out soon enough.

The omega doesn’t look like he fully believes her but all he says is a doubtful, “Uh-huh.” Then, after a moment, “Are they all as intelligent as the youngest?”

Pepper doesn’t want to admit that Sarah sometimes seems as dull as a rock. She knows that it embarrasses the girl that even Morgan has surpassed her in their arithmetic lesson and more importantly, she knows how many tutors have taken it out on her for not seeming as bright as her siblings.

Instead she diplomatically says, “In their own ways.”

Mister Carbonell studies her for a long moment. She wonders if he knows what she’s not saying. “I think I could manage it,” he says eventually but he looks a little dubious. But Pepper’s been impressed by everything he’s managed to handle no matter what she throws at him. She’s willing to give him the chance to prove himself.

“One final question then, if you don’t mind and I’m sorry that this seems rather personal but you have to understand that we don’t have many omegas in the castle.” She pauses and then decides to plunge ahead. “How bad are your heats?”

To his credit, Mister Carbonell doesn’t seem surprised or offended at all. He just says, “Not bad at all. I get them every three months but they’re never more severe than a mild discomfort. I’ll still be able to teach the children and I shouldn’t distract anyone else from their work.”

“Lovely,” Pepper breathes out. “In that case, Mister Carbonell, I think you have a job.”

“I do?” Mister Carbonell asks, blinking. Then a relieved smile breaks out across his face. “Thank you.”

“When will you be able to move in?” Pepper asks.

This gives Mister Carbonell some pause and he sighs quietly as he says, “I paid for my room for the month of December already.”

Pepper understands. She wouldn’t want to waste the coin either. “Could you move in a few days before Christmas?” she asks. Ordinarily, she’d push the issue but she’s desperate, willing to try just about anything, and she doesn’t want to push him away over something as silly as a room.

“I—yes,” Mister Carbonell agrees. “I think I can manage that.”

“In the meantime, I can handle taking care of the children while you wrap up your affairs at Mister Kirby’s. We’ll see you back here on the twentieth.”

“The twentieth,” he repeats obediently.

“Mister Carbonell?” she calls as he starts to leave. “I look forward to working with you.”

He gives her an absolutely breathtaking smile and if Pepper didn’t have her heart set on someone else, she might have melted. “Call me Tony. Everyone else does.”

Chapter Text

Four Years Ago


Harley had met his first nanny three and a half years ago. His mother had passed away six months earlier. Harley knew what dead meant. He knew that his mother wasn’t coming back. He had been pretty sure Peter knew what dead meant too after all the times his brother spent eavesdropping on the servants. But Sarah had been too young to understand why their mother didn’t come to tuck her in at night anymore and Morgan definitely hadn’t known.

They had spent the first six months after their mother’s death being watched over by Morgan’s wet nurse, Paloma. Harley had figured that it was probably then that they’d gotten a taste for adventure and freedom. Watching over a newborn had required much more of her time and she hadn’t paid as much attention to the older children as she should have, leaving them free to roam the castle and the grounds (and if they were very lucky, to escape from Natasha’s watchful eye to the forest behind the castle). It hadn’t escaped Harley’s notice back then that he hadn’t seen his father in six months but he’d done his best to keep Peter and Sarah from noticing. Even then, he had known that he wouldn’t be able to shelter them forever but he could try for as long as he could.

Morgan had been about six months old when she stopped eating from the wet nurse. It had had Harley worried for a few days until Paloma had finally reassured him that it was normal for a baby Morgan’s age. He had eyed her suspiciously but she’d taken care of them for half a year and never harmed any of them so he’d been inclined to believe her.

She had taken Morgan to see their father that night; why, Harley would never know, because she had left the castle the next day.

Harley had never been accused of being a stupid child (unlike Sarah who had been called such by their fifth nanny—that one had left their employment later that afternoon, citing a bite from Harley as the cause). He knew about alphas and omegas. He had started presenting as an alpha the day he turned five when his mother had suddenly looked surprised and exclaimed how fine he smelled with his rich scent of leather and something woody that his father identified as oak.

It hadn’t been hard for Harley to connect the dots between the death of his mother and the slowly dwindling number of omega staff members in Aynor Castle. The wet nurse had been the last of them. Once she’d gone, Harley hadn’t scented another omega until Morgan started scenting of tea and roses six months ago.

Miss Potts must have known that Paloma was preparing to leave because the nurse hadn’t been gone for more than a couple of hours before the children were being introduced to the first in a long string of nannies. Harley doesn’t even remember the name of that one, only that the man had only lasted a week before leaving, claiming that the dark cloud that hung over the castle was too much for him to bear.

The next one had been Emily. Harley had liked Emily. She had had a funny accent just like his mother had—Miss Natasha had said she was from across the Channel—and she always took tea at a certain time of day. She had had sweets too that she shared with the children, little round galletas that she called biscuits. She’d never yelled when the children ran off and had, in fact, often run off with them. They’d had lessons outside on those days, sheltering in the dappled green sunlight beneath the trees. Harley had many fond memories of those days, taking their teas in the gardens, passing the tin of biscuits around, listening as she told them stories about each flower that grew there.

Over time, her peaceful nature had soothed the children until they were perfectly willing to spend their days with her instead of trying to escape their lessons. She had taught them about geography and literature and Harley’s favorite subject of all, math. Emily had never sung like their mother used to or played any of the pianos around the castle. She hadn’t been a replacement for his mother, not really, but she’d been about as close as anyone could get and it was because of her that Harley had finally been able to begin healing from his grief.

But she’d left a year later because of a family emergency.

Harley had held out hope for the third nanny only to be sorely disappointed the first time the man ordered him to open a book and begin reading about the regions of Italy. Emily hadn’t been like that. She had told them stories, had woven specific parts of the lecture in for each of the children even though they were all of differing ages. Harley had never felt like he walked away disappointed in one of her lectures. He felt like that all the time with Monsieur Bardin.

Monsieur Bardin had been fired a few months later for reasons that Harley didn’t know. None of the nannies to follow him had lasted longer than a month. Harley had started keeping a scrap of parchment under his bed counting how many nannies they’d gone through. Perhaps it was somewhat depressing of him to keep such a list, to see how many had given up, how many had left once they realized their father would never court them, how many had been driven off by the children themselves. It certainly hadn’t helped Harley any to take the list out late at night and run the tip of his finger down the list of names but he’d been unable to stop doing it, wishing that one day, someone would stay.

By the time he had turned thirteen, he had come to fully understand that no one stayed, not for the Rogers children. And when Madame Ogier finally fled too, he saw no reason that the nanny after her would be any different.



Harley likes Miss Potts in a vague, abstract kind of way. He likes that she has stories to share about his mother from when they were growing up and he likes that she never gets mad at them; annoyed, yes, reluctantly amused, all the time, but never truly mad. On the other hand, she’s the one who brings all the new nannies into the castle and she’s terribly strict and if her stories are anything to go by, she should be able to order his father into paying attention to them but she doesn’t. She just watches him with those pursed lips and then she looks at Harley and his siblings with those sad eyes and nothing ever changes.

“Mister Carbonell will be arriving late this afternoon,” Miss Potts informs them. She eyes the four siblings with that stern eye that would make Harley quiver if he were less used to it. “You will be in the nursery, dressed and clean, with smiles on your faces. There will be no frogs in Mister Carbonell’s bed, no salt in his tea, no hiding in the secret corridors and banging on the walls to scare him. Is that clear?”

“Hadn’t thought of that last one,” Harley says blithely. “But thanks for the idea.”

Miss Potts glares. “You will not . I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that we are reaching the end of our rope. Mister Carbonell is different and you will not run him off like you’ve done to the last five nannies.”

“Ooh,” Harley mocks. “Are you sweet on him?”

This time, Miss Potts’ scowl could make even the bravest of men quake in their boots. Morgan squeaks and ducks behind Sarah. Even Harley’s a little quelled. He knows that Miss Potts’ eye isn’t stuck on the new nanny. He knows that the flowers that appear outside Miss Natasha’s door every Saturday morning aren’t coming from their father’s spymaster like the guard thinks but rather from Miss Potts (Peter found that out months ago). He also knows that she knows that Miss Natasha thinks she’s being courted from the spymaster and so she’s a little sensitive about the subject.

He mutters, “Sorry.”

Her glare doesn’t turn away from him but it does lessen in its severity. “Dressed, clean, smiling. Is that clear?” she repeats sternly.

“Perfectly,” Peter says sweetly with a mischievous light in his eyes that belies his words. Harley doesn’t know how Miss Potts doesn’t ever suspect him of anything. Peter’s clearly the worst of them all.

Miss Potts eyes them all suspiciously but she nods to herself and turns to Miss Natasha. “I’ll be back before dinner,” she says pointedly. “Make sure they’re here.”

Then she sweeps imperiously out of the room, leaving behind nothing but the force of her displeasure. Uncharitably, Harley thinks it’s no wonder Miss Natasha doesn’t know Miss Potts likes her if she acts like that even when they’re alone.

He shrugs mentally though. Grown-ups’ problems aren’t his problems after all and eventually either Miss Potts will give up or Miss Natasha will figure it out. He looks at his siblings. “Peter, any ideas for this Mister Carbonell?”

“I can’t hear this,” Miss Natasha says immediately but she doesn’t leave.

“Frogs,” Peter replies promptly. “Lots of frogs.”

“Enough for the whole room!” Morgan chimes in.

Harley glances at Sarah. “It’s down to you,” he says very seriously and dramatically. “Frogs or nothing?”

Sarah hesitates. In her soul, she’s a sweeter child than the others although Peter certainly puts on a good act. There have been more than a couple times in the past where she had talked the others out of a bit of troublemaking. Sometimes, Harley appreciates it for keeping them out of trouble because somehow, she has an instinctual feel for when Miss Potts or their current nanny is in the worst sort of mood and would come down harder on their punishment. Most of the time though, he wishes she would just go along with it.

“Frogs,” Sarah eventually says.

Ordinarily, this would be enough for Harley to lead the way out the window and to the forest. But something makes him ask, “Are you sure?”

Sarah nods emphatically. “Yes.”

Harley grins as Morgan lets out a triumphant whoop. “Well then, my comrades,” he declares. “Hats and coats.”

The others rush about, grabbing coats from under their bed, hats from where they’ve been strewn about the room. It’s Harley who turns to grab his scarf from a nearby chair and hears Miss Natasha say quietly, “I think you should reconsider.”

He pauses and turns slowly to her. Most of the time, Miss Natasha doesn’t discourage them from their plans and sometimes, if they’re going out to the forest or she actually approves of it, she goes along with them. He can’t remember the last time she’d told them it was a bad idea.

“Why?” he asks.

She shrugs, a practiced, careless move that Harley recognizes because he’s affected the same thing many times while denying any part he might have had to play in stealing the cook’s cookies. It’s the kind of shrug that says she cares more than she’s letting on. “Miss Potts is right. Mister Carbonell is…different. I think you’ll like him.”

Harley can’t remember the last time he’d liked a nanny. “Will we,” he replies, making it more of a statement than a question.

“It’s just a suggestion, Harley,” Miss Natasha reminds him. “I’m not going to stop you. You know I never do. I wouldn’t recommend the forest though.”

“And why’s that?” he asks, perhaps a touch ruder than he means to be. It’s just that she’s always supported them. For her to take back that support feels a little like a betrayal.

“I won’t be going with you this time,” she says simply. “I’m staying here to greet Mister Carbonell as part of your staff. I would prefer that you stay somewhere where you can be safe instead of running off into the woods.”

Harley sneers. He and the others have been taking care of each other for years. They would be fine in the woods, with or without Miss Natasha

…Even so, once he’s got them all bundled up and into the secret passage that leads them away from the castle—an old escape route, according to Miss Natasha, left over from when one of Harley’s ancestors had ruled during a time of unrest—he leads them down the fork that opens up into the gardens instead of the one in the forest. They can catch frogs at the pond on the grounds just as easily.

Tony remembers the scary red haired woman from his interview. The man on the other hand, tall and dark with a stiffness to his walk that hints at an old injury, that one’s new. He scents like the maple trees that grew around Stark Mansion and something else hot and spicy that reminds Tony of gingerbread cookies. He gives the man a tentative smile as they wait for Miss Potts. To his immense surprise, the man breaks his stern façade to smile back. Tony decides that he likes him. He melts back into the wall behind him, reassured by the smile.

Of course, that’s when Miss Potts shows up.

Tony snaps to attention, not that Miss Potts seems to notice as she strides in. She doesn’t apologize for the delay, just looks at the small bag in his hand. “Is that all you brought?” she asks.

The omega flushes. True, it’s not as much as what he would’ve carried if he’d still been Tony Stark and it’s not even as much as what he started with but the last couple months have been hard. He ducks his head and nods.

Miss Potts' expression softens. “We’ll see about an appointment with the tailor later this week,” she says, gentler this time.

Tony keeps his gaze on the floor, still slightly embarrassed by his lack of finery. After a moment, he chances a glance at Miss Potts, who hastily wipes all traces of pity from her expression and purses her lips.

She waves a hand at the red haired woman. “This is Natasha Romanova, the children’s guard.”

Tony gives her a polite nod. “Miss Romanova,” he greets her. He doubts she’d appreciate it if he bent over her hand for a kiss the way his mama taught him.

She grins. “Just Natasha,” she informs him in a thick accent, Russian, Tony guesses, going by her name.

“Natasha,” he repeats dutifully. “I can remember that.”

“And this,” Miss Potts continues, waving at the other one, “is James Rhodes, your guard.”

At that, Tony frowns. “My guard?” he asks. “Is that common here?” Is that necessary? he thinks but doesn’t say aloud.

After a second’s hesitation, Miss Potts says, “Yes.” But the pause is just long enough to convince Tony that she’s lying. His eyes narrow as he wonders why he’s being given a guard when apparently none of the other nannies were. Natasha is nodding along though in apparent agreement and she’s either a much better liar than Miss Potts or Miss Potts is telling the truth and Tony is reading too much into the pause so he lets it go.

“They’ll show you to the nursery,” Miss Potts finishes. “I apologize. I would show you myself but the cook is having a conniption over a missing pie.” She glares at Natasha, who suddenly affects a look of studied innocence. Tony hides a smile behind his hand.

As quickly as she had arrived, she’s gone, leaving Tony alone again with the two guards. “This way,” Natasha says, gesturing down a side corridor. “The nursery is on the fourth floor of the inner south tower.”

Tony makes a note of that in his mind. “Eight towers seem like a lot,” he points out. Perhaps he should’ve phrased his statement more politely but Tony had been raised to speak his mind.

“All built at different times,” Rhodes informs him. “The king has had several ancestors who liked to leave their legacy.”

“You’re American,” Tony says, slightly surprised.

Rhodes nods. “I am.” He doesn’t explain any further and Tony decides not to ask. He doesn’t have much tact but even he knows that this is a time to be tactful.

“The entire south tower is the children’s,” Natasha continues as they start up the stairs. “An area for entertaining on the bottom floor, classrooms on the second. James and I room on the third floor and, of course, the nursery above that.”

“And the fifth floor?” Tony asks quietly. He’d noticed on the walk to the castle that the four inner towers reached five stories.

Almost imperceptibly, Natasha’s walk slows. Her face is impassive, giving nothing away, but Tony suspects that he’s touched on something painfully sensitive. “It was to be a room for the older children,” she says eventually. “But they don’t use it.”

“What about Christmas?” Tony says. He’s been looking around but hasn’t spotted a single decoration. He would have thought that a castle of this size would at least have a tree but he hasn’t even seen a sprig of holly anywhere.

“The king doesn’t celebrate it.”

“And the children?”

“We celebrate what the king celebrates.”

He frowns. He’s reasonably certain that this part of the world celebrates Christmas—especially after Mister Kirby had asked for his help in hanging up garlands around the bar. Without any decorations, the castle just seems…dark. He looks around again, noting the light patches on the wall where paintings must have been taken down, the covered furniture in the rooms they pass. Something happened here, something dark and depressing. He shivers, feeling a little like he’s stepped into a gothic novel.

Tony aches to ask more but something in her face tells him it would be unwise. Instead, he lets the subject drop and after a moment, she continues, “The children take their lessons during the morning and are allowed to play in the afternoons though, as their tutor, you’re welcome to change their schedule as you see fit. Once every two weeks, you will take the children to dine with the king. Otherwise, meals are taken in the nursery.”

“They only see their father every couple of weeks?” Tony exclaims, aghast at the very thought. He had dined with his parents daily. He had loved it, loved getting to discuss the latest fashions with his mother and his work with his father. Often, Ana and Jarvis would join them, just as much of a part of the family as Tony and his parents had been.

“The king is not a cruel man,” Natasha says sharply like she thought Tony had perhaps been insinuating as much. Tony’s eyes flash as he wants to argue that there’s no way the children can be alone for so often and not have a cruel father but Natasha stops and turns to face him. “You will see that things are done differently in this castle.”

“Natasha,” Rhodes warns but Tony steps forward so that he’s toe to toe with the alpha.

“Children who never see their father, a string of nannies coming and going, and a castle that doesn’t have a single decoration up despite Christmas being in five days? There’s something clearly wrong here,” he hisses. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

“Then leave if you think you can’t handle it.”

“No. I’m not quitting before I’ve even started.”

Natasha doesn’t do anything as obvious as smiling but she seems to relax just a little as she turns back around to begin walking again. Tony trails after her, wondering if he’s passed some sort of test. He looks around again, missing the warmth and light of Mister Kirby’s inn. He used to love Christmas back in New York. It had always been his favorite time of year. He wishes he could ask for a small celebration, just for him but if the king doesn’t celebrate it, then he supposes he can’t ask either.

They stop in front of an unremarkable wooden door, notable only by its heaviness. Tony supposes this is likely for security reasons. “The children are waiting for you inside,” Rhodes says. “You’ll be dining with the king tonight so please make sure both you and the children are presentable. We’ll give you some time to get yourselves acquainted.”

Then the two guards are both gone, leaving Tony alone in front of the door.

The children are decidedly not in the nursery.

Tony takes a cursory glance around the rooms, hoping that they were maybe just hiding, finds the secret passage behind the bookshelf, and decides that he doesn’t know the castle well enough to follow it in an attempt to look for them. He remembers the hint of a smirk he’d seen on Natasha’s face as she’d been leaving and thinks that maybe this isn’t out of character for the children.

He sighs. Miss Potts had called them troublemakers during his interview and if this is only the beginning, he can scarcely imagine how much worse it will be in the future. He reminds himself to be on the lookout for any pranks that they may try to pull. He’s heard stories from patrons of Mister Kirby’s bar about the sheer number of nannies the royal children have run off. He’s certain that they’ll try to run him off as well. Bad luck for them that he’s plenty stubborn and has nowhere else to go.

He can’t quite blame them though. If he’d grown up with nannies instead of his parents, he’s sure he would have turned out worse as well. As it is, Jarvis has called him a hellion on more than one occasion though he had never flat-out failed to show up (except for the times he’d been busy working in his workshop but never on purpose).

“Right,” he says to himself and decides to explore the nursery instead.

His bag gets set by the door as he figures he’ll come back for it. The nursery is wide and expansive with four rooms—a bathroom, his bedroom (or what he assumes is his room) with a separate bathroom, and the nursery proper. There are four four-poster beds, two on either side of the room, each with its own set of drapes: midnight blue, forest green, deep red, and palest pink. The beds each have an end table, a wardrobe standing beside them, and a trunk at the foot which, when Tony opens them, hold more clothes. The room itself is light and airy with several windows and gossamer curtains. There’s a large dollhouse in one corner and a model of Aynor in another, sets of tin soldiers scattered across the floor, a couple dolls, and a large puppet theater. The bookshelves are filled with stories for all ages (and a few stories that Tony is shocked to find in a child’s bedroom and quickly steals away to his bag), as well as texts on science and math. There’s a plush rocking chair and several comfortable pillows on the floor beside a stone fireplace where Tony assumes the children like to gather.

His room, when he finally moves his bag over, is just as airy as the rest of the nursery. The furniture is painted white and while his bed isn’t nearly as grand as the children’s, it’s still nice. The view outside his window gives a lovely view of the surrounding forest and if he strains, he can just barely see the steeple of the church in Aynor.

“Well,” he murmurs, “it isn’t quite what we grew up with but it’ll do.”

He sets his bag down on the cream-colored blankets and starts removing clothes to be hung up in the wardrobe. Hopefully, the children will be back before dinner but, as he glances outside again, and spots a flash of long blonde hair darting through the trees, he doubts it.

Steve doesn’t think of himself as intentionally cruel.

He knows that the last four years have been hard on the children. Peggy’s death had been difficult for him. He had loved her so completely. She hadn’t just been the other half to his soul; she had been his whole heart. He had adored her. Losing her so soon after Morgan’s birth had just about destroyed him.

He hasn’t given his children the attention they deserve. He’s been so lost in his grief and it’s taken him so long to even start pulling himself out of it that he’s utterly neglected them. He knows—he knows—that he needs to regain their trust, needs to rebuild the fragile bond between them.

Steve misses the picnics in the park. He misses the nights they would spend gathered around the piano as Peggy banged out whatever tune came to her mind (it had never been good necessarily but it had always been fun). He misses the celebrations they would hold, opening up the castle to anyone who wanted to come, laughing as his family spun in circles on the dance floor as they held onto each other. He misses his children.

But when he looks at them, sees Harley on the cusp of manhood, sees Peter and Sarah nearly half-grown, sees Morgan as the exact image of her mother at that age, he realizes that he doesn’t know them anymore. He doesn’t know where to even start on the bridge he needs to rebuild. That gulf between them has just grown larger and larger and Steve keeps wanting to reach across only he doesn’t know how. He’s failed them; he can never make it up to them for these lost years, doesn’t know how to even begin.

He’s been lost for so long, trapped in the cycle of his grief that he fears he may never be able to make it out again. In a haze of mourning, he’d had all traces of Peggy removed from the castle: the oil paintings he’d done removed from the walls, the omega staff members dismissed with sincere apologies, the Christmas decorations taken down because how could he celebrate when he’d lost his wife only days earlier? And yet he sees her everywhere—in the glimpse of thick brown curls he spies turning a corner, the scent of tea and roses he sometimes imagines he picks up, a flash of red paint on Pepper’s lips as she laughs with one of the guards. He wants to move on but how can he when Peggy is still in every nook and cranny of the household?

The children are on their twentieth (or perhaps their twenty-first) nanny by now. Steve knows that they’re beginning to run out of options. He’ll have to send them away if they continue driving off everyone Pepper employs. He doesn’t want to do that—no, he can’t do that. If he can have nothing else, let him keep the children at home.

He waits at the table for the children and their new nanny. He hears them first, Pepper’s voice, sharp and irritated and then someone unfamiliar but low and reassuring. Then he smells them—Pepper’s pine needles, Natasha’s licorice, and surprisingly Rhodes’ maple. And then he smells something else, something fruity like oranges and sweet like the honeysuckle that grows in the gardens outside, something good.

Steve doesn’t even realize that he’s rumbling low in his throat until Bucky asks quietly, “Is everything okay?” He stops, unsure why he was rumbling until the pieces suddenly align in his mind.

“Absolutely not,” he declares loudly just as Pepper rounds the corner with a dark haired, doe-eyed omega trailing behind her. And despite what Steve had just said, he takes one look at the slim figure and fine features and immediately thinks, Exquisite.

“No,” he says again, firmly to himself. He will not betray Peggy’s memory by gaping over the first omega to come along, no matter how sweet they smell or how pretty they look.

“No?” the omega asks. Even his voice is pretty, Steve realizes in irritation.

“No,” Steve repeats. He looks at Pepper. “You know we don’t—” He stops and looks at the assembled group again. “Where are the children?”

Pepper starts to open her mouth. He holds up his hand to stop her. “I was asking the nanny.”

The omega’s eyes flash and against his will, Steve finds himself having to suppress a smile. He hates it when the nannies are too meek or scared to argue with him. “They weren’t in the nursery when I arrived,” the omega says coolly.

“So you’ve lost them?” he asks. “And, what, you didn’t think to look for them?”

The omega straightens up (still small, Steve’s brain not-so-helpfully supplies). “You’ll have to excuse me if I didn’t fancy getting lost on my first day here. Moreover, I think you’ll find that I haven’t lost them so much as they have lost me.”

“Tony—” Pepper murmurs but the omega ignores her.

“If you must know, I suspect they’re out in the gardens. It’s where I would be if I were a child that had one last day of freedom before a new nanny arrives and I’m reasonably certain I saw one of them from my window but no, I didn’t go look for them. I barely know how I got to my room, let alone how to get to the gardens and more importantly, they’re your children. I should think that you might know where they are.” the omega snaps, finishing breathless, eyes sparking in fury.

Steve gapes for less than a second, astounded at the omega’s cheek, before he pulls himself together. “Listen here. Tony, was it—”

“That’s Mister Carbonell to you.”

The room goes silent.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” Steve asks lowly, a growl in his voice. He doesn’t often like to pull rank but he will not stand for this omega mouthing off to him.

The omega scoffs. “How could I not know? You’re the king.”

“That’s right—”

“Well, you’re no king of mine,” Mister Carbonell continues as though he hadn’t stopped. “In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m American.”

And with that, he flounces back out of the room, followed after a moment by a very confused Rhodes and Natasha, both of whom seem a little overwhelmed by what had just happened. Steve doesn’t blame them. He’s overwhelmed. In fact, the only person who doesn’t seem overwhelmed is Bucky, who bends over, laughing hysterically.

“The look on your face!” he wheezes.

Steve snarls, “Glad you find it so amusing.”

“’I’m American,’” Bucky quotes back to him, doubling over in laughter again. “You’ve got your hands full with that one.”

“No I don’t,” Steve automatically protests. “He’s leaving here tonight.”

“He is not,” Pepper cuts in. “He comes very highly recommended and I won’t let him go just because he told you something you didn’t want to hear. Besides, I like him.” And then she too is gone, like the conversation is over, which, when Steve thinks about how she runs the castle, he supposes is probably true.

By the time Tony gets back to the nursery, he’s practically fuming over that self-righteous—that arrogant—that pompous—windbag ! How dare he treat him like that? Tony has every right to be there and just because he doesn’t know where the children are—on his first day no less!—doesn’t mean that he’s unfit to take care of them. He’d like to see him do any better. Tony huffs out a sigh as he climbs the last set of stairs. He would think about quitting if he thought he had anywhere else to go but other than Mister Kirby’s inn, he’s stuck. He can’t return to the states, he has no money to keep travelling, and to be perfectly honest, this tiny country that barely shows up on any maps is perfect.

And besides, he doesn’t want to leave. He hasn’t even met the children yet and he already feels like this is where he’s supposed to be. He’s sure that he’ll get along just fine with the children, after he gets over this whole thing with them not showing up for dinner. After all, he had been quite the troublemaker in his younger years—at least, according to Jarvis he had been. Their father on the other hand is more of a toss-up.

As he climbs, he starts going over how the few minutes he’d been at dinner had gone. He figures he probably overreacted. It had just been that he’d already been angered by the lack of children in the nursery and how Miss Potts had snapped at him like it had been his fault. And then to walk into the dining room and have the king’s first words be so thoroughly dismissive of him. Tony doesn’t know what the king had been planning to say before he’d stopped but he can guess based on the lack of other omegas in the castle. To be dismissed like that on his first day had been bad enough but then to have it be based not on his merit but on his gender had been flat-out humiliating. Tony won’t let anyone treat him like that, king or not.

It’s only made worse by how handsome the king is and oh he’d been handsome indeed. Tony had been courted by gorgeous alphas in the past—Sunset and Tiberius were only among the most stunning but certainly not the only ones—but none of them had been anything like the king, who had sat there with his golden hair and broad shoulders and warm chocolatey scent and those eyes—those deep blue, sad eyes.

No Tony, he tells himself firmly. You’re here to take care of the children, not their father. He doesn’t need to worry about someone who judges him based on his second gender.

There’s noise coming from behind the nursery door once he gets to the landing. Probably the wayward children then, he figures. He says goodbye to Natasha and Rhodes, uses the gleam in Natasha’s eyes as a reminder to stay on his toes, and opens the door.

The room isn’t nearly as chaotic as he’d been expecting but neither is it fully calm. None of the children have noticed him yet so he quietly closes the door and leans against it to observe them before they realize they’re being watched.

There are four of them, which Tony already knew of course but it hadn’t quite sunk in until they’re all there in front of him. The youngest—or rather, Tony assumes she’s the youngest—is sitting beside the dollhouse, giggling to herself as she dramatically soars one of the dolls into the air. Tony notes her dark brown hair and dark eyes, completely opposite from the king he’d met downstairs and figures that the girl must have gotten her coloring from her mother. For how young she is, she already scents of tea and roses. Another omega, Tony thinks, possibly the only one in the castle and his heart goes out to her that she’s all alone like this.

From there, his gaze travels to the boy sitting on one of the beds—the one with the red drapes—near the youngest, reading a book (if Tony strains, and he does, he can just barely spot Mendeleev’s periodic table). He is several years older than the girl, scents of nothing (beta , Tony thinks), but shares the same coloring as her, only his hair is thick and wavy where hers is wispy and straight.

There’s another boy—the oldest if Tony remembers Miss Potts' words correctly—sitting at a desk near the fireplace, sketching out plans for something mechanical that Tony doesn’t quite understand but certainly approves of. He looks just like his two siblings but unlike either of them, he scents like an alpha, blanketing Tony’s sensitive nose with leather and oak.

There’s one more child he knows but he doesn’t immediately spot her. Instead, he has to follow his nose (another alpha with traces of acrid ozone and woodsmoke that make Tony have to suppress a sneeze) to the window seat where he spots a mere slip of a girl. Here, he can finally see that these children are the king’s children as she has the same fair blonde hair as her father. He bets that, if she turns, he’d see bright blue eyes just like the king’s.

He decides that he’s watched long enough and so makes a curious trilling noise. Immediately, the children drop what they’re doing and turn to face him. Though they seem surprised, facades quickly fall over the faces of each child: sly grins on the faces of the oldest two, trepidation on the blonde girl, and just a cheerful brightening from the youngest. Well, he can’t have that. He wants them as off-guard as he’d been when he came in earlier. Tony concentrates on sending out a tendril of his scent into the room.

The change is instant as the scent hits them and their practiced expressions drop away to shock. “We’ve never had an omega nanny before,” the younger boy says.

“That’s not true,” the oldest one says. “Morgan’s nurse was one. You must’ve been too young to remember.”

That answers at least one of his questions then. Their mother must have died just after the youngest had been born if she had had a nurse. He feels something tugging on the hem of his pants and looks down to see that, without his noticing, the youngest has moved closer to him.

“You are our nanny, right?” she asks.

“That’s right,” he agrees. He kneels down to offer her his hand. “I’m Mister Carbonell and you must be Morgan.”

She giggles and shakes his hand.

“Do you want to introduce me to your siblings, Miss Morgan?” he continues. Hopefully, he’s made a friend in this child at least.

She doesn’t take him around the room but she does point to each of her siblings as she says, “That’s Sarah and that’s Peter and that’s Harley.”

Tony can’t quite stop himself from raising an eyebrow. Harley is an unusual name for any child, let alone a royal heir. Harley just glares him down though, refusing to say anything. Tony isn’t entirely certain what he’s already done to earn Harley’s ire but he ignores it for the time being, other than to acknowledge that that’s the one he’ll have to win over. He’s sure that the others will follow along with their oldest sibling’s assessment so he’ll have to move quickly to keep them from getting into too much trouble.

For now, he mostly ignores the children. He would have gotten to know them at dinner but they hadn’t come and frankly, he isn’t really in the mood to try and meet them now. He’ll try in the morning, when they’re all fresh-faced and hopefully, in better moods. Instead, he sits by the fireplace where someone has gotten a fire going and reads quietly until it’s time for bed. At some point, Morgan climbs into his lap, sucking her thumb. He asks her if she’d like for him to read to her but she just shakes her head and continues looking at the pictures in the book until she falls asleep.

At that point, he stands, tucks her into bed, and then announces to the other children that it’s time for bed. “Don’t we need a bath?” Sarah asks, still curled up in the window seat. The other two children groan.

“You’re not supposed to remind them,” Peter tells her. Sarah curls up tighter into herself. Tony frowns. He doesn’t like how scared she looks. No child should look like that.

“I don’t think you need a bath tonight,” he announces though he promptly reconsiders when the children look practically ecstatic.

To his surprise, they don’t put up any further fuss about bedtime, instead rushing around to change into pajamas and crawling under the sheets. The only thing that any of them make a fuss about is when he starts to return to his room without closing the drapes around their beds. He feels like pointing out that they could easily do it themselves but he closes each curtain and turns down the lights.

The room quiets quickly and Tony breathes a sigh of relief. He thought it would be worse after the way Miss Potts had acted earlier. He starts to pick his way across the darkened room, dodging toys. It’s then that he hears it—


The low croaking of a frog. He pauses, his hand on the doorknob to his room. At first, he thinks he’s imagining it but then he hears it again, just behind the door.


He throws a glance back at the beds. Surely they hadn’t—

But who else could it have been? And Miss Potts had called them troublemakers and they had run off several nannies before him that he knows of. He frowns thoughtfully, a plan starting to formulate itself in his mind. He won’t have children running all over him. He deserves better than that and besides, if he lets them get this one over him, they’ll never respect him.

He walks back to the rocking chair beside the fire, picks up his book again, and reads by the dying light of the flames until the children’s breathing evens out deep and steady. Then he stands back up, calmly opens the door to his room, and lets the frogs out into the nursery.

Chapter Text

One Week Ago


Tony awakes on the first day of the new year to a quiet nursery. He’s not terribly surprised at the silence. It’s been like that since the first day when he’d let the frogs out into the nursery.

“You’re going to pick them all up,” Tony had told the children. “And then you’re going to take them outside.”

“Right now?” Peter had whined.

“Right now.”

“But it’s still dark out.”

“You should have thought of that when you brought them inside,” Tony had said firmly. He’d sat in his chair beside the fire, thrown another log on it to keep it burning merrily, and watched as the children chased down each and every one of the frogs. There had been many; he’d been reluctantly impressed at how long it must have taken them to catch the frogs and how many trips upstairs they must have made.

“You could help, you know,” Harley had said rudely as he shoved a frog into his pocket.

Tony had thought about pointing out that the frogs had not been his fault but that, he’d decided, would be a lesson for another day. Instead, he’d just smirked and agreed, “I could,” and then remained seated.

A slow grin had spread across Harley’s face. Tony had spotted it then: the first glimmers of what looked like respect in Harley’s eyes. You’ll like me, he had thought, just you wait.

It had taken the children almost three hours to scrounge up all the frogs from the nursery and escort them outside. At the end, Tony had looked at the filthy children and the filthy nursery and decided, “Bath and then bed. We’ll take tomorrow off, I think.” The children had looked excited, far too excited for a vacation, and Tony had wondered if they’d ever gotten one before. “In fact,” he had said impulsively. “Take the whole week off. We’ll begin lessons after the new year.”

“But Mister Carbonell,” Morgan had said, tugging at his shirt. “Why so long?”

“Because I celebrate Christmas,” he’d said simply. “And Christmas is a time to reflect on what you’ve already learned, not to look forward to what’s new.”

We don’t celebrate Christmas,” Harley had said but Tony had heard the bitterness in his voice. They didn’t celebrate it anymore but they had once upon a time and Harley must have still missed it.

“I won’t make you celebrate it, but I do,” he had repeated. “And I ask that you respect my traditions, just as I respect yours.”

The children had spent most of the week either doing quiet things inside the nursery or outside in the gardens. It hadn’t given Tony much time to get to know them but he suspected that would come with time as they moved forward into the new year. He had gone with them every time they went outside though they easily left him behind as soon as the doors opened. He hadn’t minded though, knowing that eventually they would tromp back to him when they were tired and cold. He had asked the cooks to prepare each of them a cup of hot chocolate, ready for when they came back inside. That simple kindness had gone a long way toward earning him the love of both Morgan and Sarah, despite Harley and Peter both remaining somewhat aloof.

But he had decided that that was okay. He had time. They would grow to like him.



After the busyness of the last week, the new year dawns cold and clear, silent and still in the nursery. Tony yawns and stretches before standing and pulling on clothes. Judging by the quiet, the children are either already outside and hadn’t bothered to wake him up (for whatever reason, they think he’ll leave if they irritate him enough; clearly, they’ve underestimated how stubborn he is) or they’re playing in the nursery quiet enough that Tony hasn’t woken up.

As it turns out though, they’re actually still in bed. The curtains are drawn and he can hear Harley snoring behind the deep red curtains of his bed. Just in case they’ve come up with some sort of contraption to mimic sleep patterns and are actually somewhere else—where they’re not supposed to be, usually—he tweaks open the curtains of Morgan’s bed. She is in fact, still there, lying on her side, dark hair fanned out across the pillow.

He hums softly, considering what he could do next. It’s not often that he’s up before the children are. They seem to be perpetually early risers—a trait that they shared with both king and queen according to Rhodey. His smile grows as he thinks about the alpha, who, despite claiming that he only tolerates Tony, hadn’t fought at all when Tony had gotten tired of calling him Rhodes and traded it in for Rhodey instead.

He looks down again at Morgan. In her sleep, she looks like a peaceful, darling angel and not at all like the little demon who had poured salt in his coffee yesterday instead of sugar. He’d almost drunk it too, only stopping when she had been unable to suppress a giggle.

But he can’t stay mad at her. He can’t stay mad at any of them. It’s perfectly clear to him that they’re aching for attention, whatever kind they can get. He doesn’t blame them, if the disastrous meeting with their father is any indication of how their father treats them as well. If Tony had grown up that lonely, he doesn’t know what he’d have done but it probably wouldn’t have been pretty. And, well, he likes the children. Despite the problems they create for him, they’re clearly clever and he’s sure that they’re not actually as mean-spirited as they seem.

He’s almost eager to get to know them better over the coming months and he never thought he would say that. Coming to the castle, he had thought it would be like any other job: exhausting, demanding, somewhat demeaning after his idyllic childhood. Tony had been born a society omega. Taking care of other people’s children had not been a part of his projected life. He hadn’t even particularly wanted to take care of his own children though he had known that once he married, he would have to give up on his inventing to become the perfect omega for his alpha.

But he looks at Morgan sleeping in her bed, sweet and smiling, and feels something soft and warm stirring in his heart. He casts another quick glance around the room, taking in the muted scents of content, sleeping children.

Well, there’s no need for them to get to lessons just yet, is there?

“Mister Carbonell?” Peter asks. His hand is slightly raised like he’s not sure if it’s okay to just ask a question. Tony silently curses anyone who made them think they couldn’t ask questions. Janet’s parents had always been firm believers in children being seen, not heard, which had made the times she spent at Tony’s home so much more special as the Starks didn’t care what she had to say as long as it was intelligent.

“You don’t need to raise your hand,” he says. “There’s only four of you, I think I can keep up.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Harley and Morgan exchange identical mischievous grins. “That’s not an invitation for you to try,” he says firmly to the two of them, waiting until they give reluctant nods before he turns back to Peter. “What was your question?”

“Where are the books?” he asks.

“Ah,” Tony says understandingly. The classroom is devoid of any school books at the moment, only a slate on each desk and a collection of the well-worn novels from the nursery. “We’re not going to be learning anything today. I wanted to get a feel for where each of you are at in your schooling.”

“Didn’t Madame Ogier leave you an explanation?” Harley asks.

She hadn’t actually but Tony wouldn’t use it even if she did. He remembers the feel of her fingers digging into his wrist and shudders. “That’s her interpretation of your skill levels. I want to make my own opinions.”

The children look surprised, which is surprising in and of itself to Tony. Had no one else taken the time to learn what these children are like? He sees Peter looking surreptitiously toward Sarah and remembers what Miss Potts had said about past nannies thinking she isn’t as intelligent as her siblings.

“Everyone has their strengths,” he says aloud, careful not to look at Sarah. He doesn’t want her to think that he’s pitying her. “I want to know what each of yours are.”

Peter frowns. “What are we supposed to do while you’re quizzing us?”

Tony shrugs. “You can read if you want. Or, it’s a beautiful day, as long as you took Natasha with you, I don’t see why you couldn’t go outside as long as you send the next person in when I ask.”

“You would…let us go outside?” Sarah asks slowly.

“Yes,” Tony says just as slowly, voice lilting up into a question at the end. “As long as you behave yourselves, it shouldn’t be a problem. But keep in mind that if you abuse this privilege, I’ll have to punish you.”

Harley, who had started to look cautiously optimistic, glares. “You’ll hit us, you mean,” he says flatly.

Tony looks at him in complete horror. “No,” he says emphatically. “I don’t hit you for disobedience. I’ll never do that. I meant you wouldn’t be able to go outside for a couple days maybe.” He pauses, certain that he doesn’t want to ask but equally certain that he needs to. “Have you been hit in the past?”

None of the children answer but the way they all shift toward Sarah is more than enough of an answer for him. There’s the stink of omega distress wafting from Morgan, of alpha protectiveness from Harley. He trills comfortingly in an attempt to calm them down. It only partially works; both Morgan and Harley’s scent go a little muted but they’re still present.

“Right,” he says quietly. “I’m sure you don’t believe me right now so you can use Natasha as my promise to you. If I ever lay a hand on any of you, you have every right to go to Natasha and tell her I attacked you.”

To his surprise, that assurance seems to work as all four children relax just the tiniest amount. He gives them each a warm smile, heartened by their acceptance, and calls up Harley to test him. The other three children stay in the room, Peter and Sarah both grabbing books. Morgan crawls into Peter’s lap so he can read to her. It goes to confirm his suspicion that Harley is the leader of their small group. What Harley does, the others do as well.

Harley is, as Miss Potts had told him, far beyond his years in both math and science. Tony had already decided not to simply quiz the children. Instead, he lets Harley talk about his interests and what he knows about them, lets him show him the schematics he’s drawn up for improvements that can be made to the infrastructure around the kingdom, lets him jabber on about math and engineering. And from all of that, he extrapolates. He figures that Harley could probably stand to learn a little more about biology and maybe a little chemistry. Certainly, as the future king, he needs a firmer background in history and politics and maybe a little literature as well. Tony considers etiquette classes but ends up deciding that he probably shouldn’t push those at first, maybe save them for once he’s a little more established. He thanks Harley for being willing to give up his free time, earning himself a rare smile, and then sends the boy off.

“I expect to see you in the nursery at dinner,” Tony tells him and Harley nods, scenting pleased.

“Can I take Morgan outside with me?” he asks.

“If she comes back for her quiz.”

He doesn’t pay any attention to Harley and Morgan disappearing out the door though he does notice that Sarah stays behind. Instead, he focuses on questioning Peter. The beta has the foundation in biology and chemistry that his brother lacks and is nearly as strong in engineering and math. He’s not as well-read though and Tony makes a note to work on that during his time in the castle. The history and politics are just as lacking in Peter as they are in Harley but he doesn’t think that’s nearly as important for a second son who will never be able to assume the throne. Peter does seem well-versed in etiquette however and Tony wonders if they had been taught but the lessons simply hadn’t taken hold in Harley.

He dismisses Peter who promptly follows his brother and sister. “Oh and Peter!” Tony calls. “Could you send Morgan up?” He has a suspicion that Sarah isn’t going to want to go outside once she’s finished.

Peter waves a hand as he disappears, which isn’t really a confirmation but Tony chooses to take it as one anyway.

Talking to Sarah is…different. It’s a little like pulling teeth, not least because it’s clear that she has internalized every bad word that each tutor has ever said either to or about her, which just about breaks his heart. He knows that she isn’t as stupid as her past tutors have made her seem but he just can’t seem to get it through to her that he believes she’s capable of more. Eventually, he figures out that she has a pretty strong grasp on the literature in the nursery but that’s as far as he gets. When Morgan appears in the doorway, he dismisses Sarah and watches her leave with a heavy heart.

He’ll get through to her eventually. He has to.

Morgan, on the other hand, is more than pleased to overshare everything. She babbles about everything that comes to mind, from the birds she saw outside to an improvement she thinks she can make to Harley’s latest schematic to the new book Sarah is reading. He ends up deciding to begin with a basic curriculum similar to the one his tutors used with him and making adjustments to it as needed.

Once Morgan is gone, he collapses back into his chair. Four children all with very different skill sets and needs. It would be a nightmare if he weren’t so excited about the challenge.

He peeks out the window to see Harley and Peter chasing each other while Sarah sits under a tree to read and Morgan digs for worms, all under Natasha’s watchful eye. “Don’t you worry,” he promises them, feeling a sort of kinship with these children who are much too smart for their own good. “I’m going to take care of you.”

Tony’s been working with the children for two weeks when he’s woken by a loud crack of thunder. He jolts awake, startled out of a dream in which Tiberius had been chasing him around Stark Mansion’s ballroom, slightly disoriented by the unfamiliar bed and room until he realizes that he’s safe in the castle. At first, he’s not sure why he woke and then there’s a blinding flash followed by a sharp crack of thunder. It’s then that he realizes he can hear rain pouring down outside.

Cheered, he darts to the window to watch the rain come down. It’s still dark out and it’s so dark inside the room, he can just barely make out the shape of the rain striking the pond outside.

He likes storms, always has. They’re the perfect excuse to either stay in his workshop all day or to find Jarvis and curl up beside him with a book and a cup of coffee. He likes watching the rain come down and the thunder roar, the lightning illuminating the world with its fury. There hasn’t been a storm like this since before he left New York—a few summer gales, yes, but nothing like this. He stands there for a few minutes, watching the storm rage outside, before he hears a tiny whimper.

Oh god, the children. He’d forgotten all about them. He doesn’t think that he was ever scared of thunderstorms as a child but he knows it’s a common fear. He grabs his dressing gown from the bedpost and throws it on but before he can run out to the nursery, there’s another crack of thunder. The door is thrown open and Morgan runs inside.

She stops dead in the middle of the room and looks at Tony putting his dressing gown on. Heedless of the gown half on, Tony kneels down. “What’s wrong, Miss Morgan?” he asks gently.

“Can I—” she begins. Then there’s another flash of lightning. Morgan whimpers and dives for the bed, scrambling up the side and under the covers by the time the thunder sounds.

“Oh,” Tony murmurs. He hides a smile as he takes the dressing gown back off. He climbs up onto the bed beside her and shoves his cold feet under the blankets and into her side. She squeaks and wiggles her way back out. Tony catches her up in a hug and cuddles her close on his lap. She giggles, settling in as Tony grabs one of the books from his nightstand and opens it.

“I think,” he says softly, “that we were right at the part where Mister Darcy asks Elizabeth to marry him. Does that sound right?”

Morgan nods. She’s probably a little young to be listening to Pride and Prejudice but she’s an omega, just like Elizabeth Bennet, and he wants her to know now that she has options. She doesn’t need to be bound to her biology. And besides, he doesn’t think she’s really paying that much attention to the story as she is to Tony reading it to her.

Before he can get more than a few sentences into the story, there’s another crack of thunder. Morgan all but dives for the blankets and then there’s the pitter patter of tiny feet just as Sarah and Peter appear in the doorway.

“I suppose you two were scared as well,” Tony says dryly. Both of them look like they’re going to disagree but he holds out a hand to them to join him and Morgan. Peter takes it eagerly, climbing up to settle into his side. Sarah, who still seems wary of Tony, instead sits at the end of the bed, nearly on top of the lump that is Morgan, who jolts and climbs back out so she can sit on Tony’s lap again.

“Now all we have to do is wait for Harley,” he tells them.

Peter scoffs. “You won’t see Harley in here. He’s too old.”

There’s another crash of thunder, the sound of an unmanly shriek, and then Harley appears in the doorway just as his siblings had. Tony quirks an eyebrow at him. “You weren’t scared at all, were you?” he says.

Harley shakes his head decisively. “Nope. I just wanted to make sure no one else was.”

“Uh huh,” Tony says doubtfully but he decides not to mention the shriek. He just waits for Harley to join him on his other side before he opens the book and begins to read. He has to pause a couple times to dry Morgan’s tears as she gets scared each time there’s another flash of lightning but the other children quiet down easily enough.

Sarah drops off to sleep first, slumping against Tony’s legs. He shifts uncomfortably as Sarah is rather thin and boney and her shoulders are digging into his ankles. This bed isn’t big enough for five people, he decides. But he doesn’t want to complain, not when they’re opening up to him for the first time.

Harley is next, bored to tears by the romance. Just you wait, Tony thinks , you’re going to find a lovely little omega and they’re going to make your heart beat faster. And then he thinks about Tiberius and wonders if he had ever felt that way about Tony or if it had always been an act to get Tony’s money. It hadn’t been an act for Tony. He had enjoyed Tiberius’ attentions, had looked forward to seeing him when he would come courting. Even after he had found out about Tiberius’ plans, his heart had given a traitorous little flutter each time he heard his name mentioned all the way up until he started his employment at the castle. Tony refuses to be ashamed about that. It had been nice to feel wanted after the disaster that had been his engagement to Sunset. But Tiberius—had Tiberius ever wanted him at all?

There’s a tug on his sleeve. He looks at the two children still awake, shakes himself out of his maudlin thoughts, and smiles. “I’m sorry. Lost my train of thought. Where were we?”

Peter takes a little longer to fall asleep as he actually enjoys the story but it’s very late at night and he too drops off eventually and then it’s just Tony and Morgan. He’s almost surprised that Morgan hasn’t fallen asleep yet but he supposes that almost makes sense when he thinks about how scared she still is.

“Mister Carbonell?” Morgan asks after another flash of lightning. “Why does the sky do that?”

This is probably one of those instances when he shouldn’t say anything because she’s so young but he figures that if she’s old enough to be scared, then she’s old enough to understand why she’s scared. So he settles down a little more and tells her about lightning and the way they make holes in the sky and as he talks, he notices the fear in her eyes leaving as she understands. Then her eyes start to droop and by the time there’s more lightning, she’s asleep.

The end of January takes a turn for the warm, surprising for the season but Tony figures that it’ll turn cold again soon enough. In the meantime, the weather outside is practically balmy and it’s a pain trying to keep the children on track. They keep looking out the window instead of at their books and getting distracted when they’re supposed to be working on math problems and eventually Tony just gives up.

“Books down, please,” he tells them. The children give each other confused looks but slowly put their things away. “Come on, get up. We’re going to have lessons outside today.”

“Outside?” Harley repeats suspiciously like he thinks it’s a trap. Tony hides a sigh. Two steps forward and one step back with this family.

“Outside,” he confirms. “It’s a beautiful day. No reason we can’t spend it outside. We can talk about seasonal plants maybe, discuss hibernation. We’ll ask the cook for a nice picnic lunch, maybe even dinner.”

“A picnic?” Peter asks. There’s something very wistful in his tone and Tony hesitates.

“Have you never had one before?” Tony asks, pretending to busy himself so that the children don’t think he’s actually listening intently. He’s noticed that they’re more willing to share things with him if they think he’s not paying attention though, he thinks bitterly, it’s probably not so much as they’re willing as they let things slip and he wants to hurt everyone who hurt them in the past.

“We used to,” Harley says quietly. “When Momma was…when she would take us.”

Oh. That’s—that’s different then isn’t it, Tony figures. He wonders if their father had gone with them or if he had always been as distant as he is during their dinners. He thinks maybe that the king—Steven, he’s come to learn though he always just calls him the king in his head—is trying to make up for the years he’d lost but it’s clear that he’s failing. On the one hand, Tony wants to help him because he hates the idea that these children will grow up completely without a father but on the other hand, he still remembers the utter horror in the king’s eyes when he had first seen Tony.

“Do you not want a picnic?” he asks lightly, trying to make it sound like he doesn’t care one way or the other. In a way, he doesn’t. But he doesn’t want to make the children uncomfortable so he won’t push if they decide not to. He’s never lost someone close to him the way the children have but he imagines that it would be difficult to go back to doing things he used to do with his loved one.

There’s a quick, whispered conversation between the children and then Harley says, “No, we want one.” He breaks into a wicked grin. “If we sneak out past Miss Natasha, we can stay out longer.”

There’s something that they’re supposed to be doing that night but Tony can’t think of what it is. Besides, he figures if it’s really important, either Natasha or Miss Potts will come looking for them. So he nods and says, “Sounds like fun,” before letting them lead him down the secret passage behind his desk.

The cook is kind enough to send them with a lovely checkered blanket that reminds Tony of picnics with his own parents and Janet and a basket filled with cold sandwiches, grapes, and a jug of horchata. He suspects that she might have hidden cookies at the very bottom of the basket as well but he figures that’s something he’ll let the children discover on their own.

They settle in the garden, near the pond. According to Peter, it doesn’t get cold enough for the pond to fully freeze most years but it’s not warm enough for them to go swimming—not that that stops Morgan who makes a break for the water as soon as Tony takes his eyes off of her. He sprints after her, catches her around the middle, and hauls her back to the blanket.

“I will not be yelled at by your father for letting you catch pneumonia,” he tells her sternly once she’s happily chomping away on a sandwich.

“Father wouldn’t care,” Harley mutters sullenly. Right, that’s a touchy topic.

“Natasha then. She’ll yell at me too and she’s much scarier,” he says, shivering a bit for emphasis, and that gets a laugh out of them. He grins along with them, putting on a good show like his mother had taught him, but there’s no heart in it. He wants too badly to be able to tell them that their father loves them, that he would care if Morgan got pneumonia. But Tony’s met the king twice now and both times he had failed to impress. He doesn’t want to tell the children something that isn’t true and at the moment, he simply cannot tell them that their father loves them.

He busies himself with giving the children the rest of the food and then, once they’re all fed and watered, starts to tell them about seasonal plants and how some plants only bloom in the summer and some in the winter.

Steve doesn’t like to lie to himself. He finds it to be unproductive at best and downright cruel at worst. He doesn’t like to lie so he faces the hard truths that he’s failed his children, that his beloved wife is dead, that he is lost and doesn’t know how to find himself again. He knows that the truth is he’s unfairly relied on other people to raise his children while he grieved. He doesn’t tell himself pretty words about his first meeting with the new nanny because that had obviously gone so well .

God above but it hadn’t gone well.

Even now, more than a month later, he’s not sure how it had gone so wrong so quickly. Mister Carbonell’s sweet scent had hit home, overwhelming but not overcloying, and it had resonated deep in his soul in a way he’d been afraid of since Peggy had died. He had sworn to himself as he laid her in the ground, no more omegas and he’d kept to that since then. He—or rather Pepper—had dismissed the omega staff members. Twice a year he went on an extended business trip out of the castle to a town where no one knew him and he could find someone to satisfy his rut but it had never been an omega, always either a beta or on a couple memorable occasions, an alpha woman. But not an omega, never that.

But then there had been Mister Carbonell and Steve’s alpha had cried out yes, that one. In his ruthless attempt to squash that emotion back down, he’d insulted the omega—pretty omega, he remembered—and then it had just kept getting worse because that pretty omega had mouthed off to him and Steve had wanted even as he’d snapped back for losing the children within hours of his appointment and that—that was unfair. He knows that it had been unfair to ask Mister Carbonell to manage something nearly two dozen nannies had tried and failed to do. But he had been caught so off-guard and it had been such an old, familiar argument. He’d lashed out without thinking.

Any other nanny would have quivered before the face of his anger—and many had. He had half-expected the small, slight omega to quit but he hadn’t. He had stood his ground and snapped back and stormed out in a cloud of righteous fury.

And it just hadn’t gotten any better.

They had met again at their second dinner and Steve had made a comment about Peter’s table manners, nothing different than anything he’d said before but Mister Carbonell had taken offense at it, had snapped back about him lacking the right to say anything if he barely even saw the children anyway. And Steve—already knowing that he is failing his children—hadn’t exactly taken Mister Carbonell’s rebuke well. The dinner had been a tense affair, full of snippy comments and passive-aggressive remarks until finally Mister Carbonell had shoved his chair away from the table and left.

In hindsight, Steve probably would’ve gotten over it faster if it hadn’t been for the children promptly getting up and leaving as well.

But he had had to sit there and watch as his children chose their nanny over him and he—he had driven them to that point, had driven them away and oh god but he had never felt like more of a failure.

He’s sitting at the table alone now, waiting for the children to come down (and, he supposes, for Mister Carbonell too but he won’t admit that). And he waits.

And he waits some more.

And he waits just a little longer after that.

And he’s just starting to stand so he can go find either Mister Carbonell or Miss Potts when Natasha walks into the room. Steve slowly sits back down, fully expecting the children to walk in behind her. But they don’t. It’s just Natasha and Rhodes.

“Where are the children?” he asks, voice dangerously low. If they’ve run off—if Mister Carbonell has already given up—

“I don’t know,” Natasha replies, sounding as bored as she always does. “They’ve run off, Your Majesty.”

Steve slumps back in his seat. Of course they have. Of course they’re missing. He doesn’t know why he had expected anything different. It’s what they’ve been doing for years. He asks, “And where is Mister Carbonell?” expecting to hear that he’s quit the employment.

But, to his surprise, Natasha smiles. “Run off with them.”

He sits there and eats his dinner in silence, the way he does every other day, and he stews. How dare Mister Carbonell take the children from the castle? Doesn’t he know that they have dinner? Doesn’t he know that there could be all manner of evil men in the woods? And—and yes, he supposes it does make for a nice change from the days when the children would run off and the nanny would just throw their hands up in the air and quit but—but—Steve’s thoughts splutter to a halt as he hears the children clattering by. He rises to his feet as they spill into the dining room, chattering about the day they’ve had, and he doesn’t even know why he’s angry except that—that—

If they were going to finally take an adult with them on their adventure, why couldn’t they have taken Steve instead?

“Dinner is over,” he says harshly—too harshly but it’s too late to reel the words back in and he knows that he’s being too hard on them, only hadn’t they known that he was scared? He’s always terrified when they escape the castle, scared that it’ll be the last time he ever sees them. He knows that Harley doesn’t remember it but he’ll never be able to forget the day Harley had been two and toddled off from his nurse, right into the arms of a waiting chambermaid who saw her opportunity and took it, fleeing with Harley into the woods. It had been three days of sleepless nights before Bucky had deposited Harley back into Peggy’s arms and Steve had sworn never to let anything happen to his children but then Peggy had died and everything had fallen apart.

Mister Carbonell comes into the room after the children and says quietly, “They’re hungry.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve seethes. “Dinner was served two hours ago. If they’re still hungry, they can beg food off the cook.” He doesn’t know why he’s saying these things, other than he was scared and now he’s angry because clearly everything’s alright and he’s always angry when the children aren’t back for dinner but usually they go straight to their room and he’s had time to cool off before the next time he sees them. He doesn’t get that this time. He gets the children standing in front of him and he’s so furious but he doesn’t want to direct his anger at them—never at them—so he glares at Mister Carbonell.

And Mister Carbonell glares right back at him. “Children,” he says. “Go on upstairs. See if Natasha can find you anything to eat.”

“But—” Harley begins.

Now, Harlan,” Steve grits out. He doesn’t bring out Harley’s full name very often, only when he’s truly angry, and he sees that register across Harley’s face..

Harley ushers his siblings out the door, muttering, “Come on.” He pauses in the doorway to throw one last worried look at Mister Carbonell—and it burns that it’s the nanny Harley’s worried for—and a glare at his father before he follows them.

“They’re just children,” Mister Carbonell begins before Steve can even open his mouth. “They deserve to eat.”

“I’m sure the cook will have leftovers for them,” Steve replies waspishly, “but dinner was hours ago. They need to learn that they are expected to be present at meals.”

“Then blame me, not them. I was the one who told them we could take lessons outside today.” Mister Carbonell sounds far too calm for the rage that’s still swirling in Steve’s stomach.

“And about that,” Steve growls. “How could you have possibly thought that was a good idea? Why wasn’t Natasha with you? It’s dangerous out there—the children could have been taken.”

Mister Carbonell gapes at him, fury tinging his sweet scent sharp. “We were in the garden. I’m sorry that I didn’t think we needed a guard behind the castle walls.”

“They’re royalty! It’s a dangerous world for them and you need to learn that they have different needs than other children.”

Mister Carbonell straightens. “I know they have different needs,” he hisses. “But don’t you dare tell me that you know what’s best for them when—when—” He stops, clearly searching for something to say. For a brief moment, Steve feels smug that he’s stumped the omega, that he’s clearly in the right here. Then Mister Carbonell’s eyes clear and he continues, “When Morgan’s presented for a year and you haven’t even bothered to find someone who can teach her about her orientation.”

Steve stares at him. “Morgan—Morgan presented?” he whispers, horrified by the fact that he hadn’t even known.

That brings Mister Carbonell to a screeching halt in the middle of his rant. “You didn’t even know?” he asks and now his scent is roiling in a mess of anger and disgust.

“I—I—” he flounders.

“Harley said she presented last year. Omega, since you clearly haven’t bothered to scent her.”

Steve doesn’t know what to say other than, “What does she scent like?”

“Tea,” Mister Carbonell says simply. “And roses. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a four-year-old to comfort.” He turns on his heel and stalks away and Steve—Steve sinks back into his chair.

Tea and roses, just like Peggy. No wonder he hadn’t known. He’d been catching whiffs of it around the castle for—yes, now that he’s thinking about it, a year. But he’d thought it to be all in his mind, that he had been imagining it, too desperate to have his wife back for it to be anything else.

He’d never even once considered that it could be his daughter.

Chapter Text

February is shockingly balmy. The days are starting to lengthen as winter begins to melt away into spring. The sun is warm on Tony’s face and the earliest flowers are starting to bloom. Tony had grown up with New York winters, lasting long into March and April, always cold and windy. It’s all too common for the weather to act like winter is leaving for a couple days, only to turn cold again, bringing illness and misery with it. The early spring at the castle, however, doesn’t seem to be like that as the children start moving their winter clothes into the rooms upstairs, bringing light linens and cottons back down with them. It’s both surprising and lovely, a perfect welcome to Dacia’s seasons. Tony can’t help but love it even as he wonders if it’ll last or if it will be like New York and they’ll experience another cold spell before spring truly arrives.

He asks Natasha once if she thinks the weather will hold. She smiles understandingly at him. “Different from America?” she asks with a knowing gleam in her eyes.

He nods. “We didn’t have anything like this.”

“It was the same for me too, coming from Russia to this. I thought it was a trap at first.”

“What, that the weather was playing tricks on you?” Tony teases. He smiles at her and bumps her shoulder companionably. Only a few short weeks ago, he would have been too scared to do this but he’s coming to understand how Natasha works, how she puts on a tough outer exterior to hide the softness deep inside.

Natasha smiles as well but it quickly fades as she glances at the four children quietly eating their breakfast. “Or the children,” she admits, voice low so they don’t hear her. He furrows his brow, surprised at her statement. “They were worse back then, resentful that they had been abandoned and yet hopeful that the right sort of tricks would bring their father back to them. It was a dangerous combination, one that seemed more malicious than spirited.”

“They’re still like that,” he points out.

“Not like it was back then. Back then, they weren’t driving off nannies so much as everyone else. There’s a reason the castle is run on minimal staff and it’s not just because the king dismissed most of them. Back then, they would have absolutely told me to put away my winter clothes just so they could see me take ill when the weather turned bad.”

For a little bit, they’re quiet as they watch the children. Tony can’t imagine the four children acting as mean-spirited as Natasha accuses them of once being. True, they had acted out when he’d first arrived but nothing like what she talks about. What he had experienced had been…manageable. He doesn’t think he could have handled them if their mother had just passed. Even with them not acting as bad as they could have been, he had still taken several weeks to warm up to them. The same had gone for the children; it had only been after the thunderstorm that they’d spent in Tony’s bed that they had started to like him.

“But you’re good for them, I think,” Natasha continues eventually. “You like them and they see that so they love you in return.”

“They’re good children,” Tony says honestly. “They’ve just had a bad time of it, that’s all.”

“I’m glad you see that. Too many people haven’t.”

Sarah looks up from her breakfast. Tony quirks a small smile at her, hiding a sigh when she doesn’t return it. Out of the four children, Sarah is the hardest one to win over. He suspects that he can probably guess why, judging by Natasha’s comments about the cruelty of the past nannies and how protective her siblings seem to be of her. But it doesn’t make it any easier when even Harley, who Tony has thought would be the child whose affection would be hardest won, smiles at him.

“Mister Carbonell?” she asks. “What are we learning today?”

Tony thinks about it for a minute. He’s found that the easiest way to teach four children of differing ages and skill sets is to center each day’s lesson around a single topic. He lets the older two teach the younger ones, which ensures that Peter and Harley actually truly know it and haven’t just memorized it. They had spent the last couple days on literature and he supposes they’re probably due for a math lesson. He looks out the window again. The children, much to his dismay, are early risers and so the sun is just barely beginning to show over the tops of the trees. It looks like it’ll be another beautiful day.

He should give them a math lesson…

He doesn’t want to. They can always learn math tomorrow.

“Why don’t we go outside?” he suggests. “We’ll talk about water.”

Morgan and Peter both look excited but Harley wrinkles his nose. “Why would we talk about that? We know what water is,” he says.

“We can always stay inside,” Tony says innocently. “We can talk about fractions instead.”

Harley promptly jumps up from his seat, grabbing for his coat. “Water sounds good.”

Tony exchanges a dry look with Natasha, who seems to be hiding the same amused grin that he is. He’s not surprised they want to go outside. They haven’t tried it since the disastrous dinner they’d missed with the king. He’s been waiting to suggest another picnic until the last one was on the edges of their memories and he’s sure that now is a good time.

He feels a small tug on his sleeve and looks down, expecting to see Morgan. It’s not. Morgan is with her brothers, pulling on her coat. It’s actually Sarah who’s tugging at him. He crouches down so he can look her in the eyes, something that his parents and the Jarvises had always done with him that had always made him feel respected and listened to.

“What’s the matter?” he asks quietly so that her siblings can’t hear. To her credit, Natasha moves from his side and goes to distract the others, making sure that Sarah has peace if she’s embarrassed by her request.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” she asks, barely louder than a whisper. “Daddy was really mad last time.”

“He was just scared,” Tony tells her, praying that he’s not telling her a lie. For all his own blinding anger that night, he had seen the fear in the king’s eyes when they had come through the door even though he had hidden it well with harsh words and bluster. “I didn’t think to bring Natasha with us and he was scared that one of you might have gotten hurt. But it’s okay because she’s going to come with us this time so he doesn’t have to be afraid.”

Sarah quirks her head, frowning a little. “He was scared?” she asks disbelievingly.

Tony nods solemnly. “Very, I’ll bet. I would be scared too if you four ran away from me.”

“Oh. Okay.” Seemingly content, she joins the others to grab her coat. Tony watches her, feeling like he might have made a small breakthrough with her though he isn’t entirely certain why.

He stands back up and claps his hands together. “Alright, then!” he says cheerfully. “Let’s head down to the schoolroom, grab our books, and go outside!”

Tony has always had trouble sleeping, ever since he was a little boy. No one had ever been able to figure out why, not his parents or the doctors they sent for, certainly not Tony himself. When he had been younger, Jarvis had made him a cup of chamomile tea before sending him back to bed, an old remedy that he had brought with him from England. It had worked about half the time. The other half, Tony had lain in bed with his eyes closed and pretended the next morning that it had worked. As he had gotten older and began working in his father’s workshop, he’d drunk the tea less and less, choosing instead to solve his sleep problems by focusing on the latest rifle or bullet. He hadn’t gotten any more sleep but he had been productive and he figures that had been a decent tradeoff.

These days, he doesn’t have a workshop. He could go downstairs to ask for tea from the cooks. They always seem to have a night shift, which makes Tony wonder if he’s not the only person unable to sleep. He doesn’t like to do that though. Instead, he prefers to leave the children in the capable hands of Natasha and set out to wander the castle.

With the children around, he doesn’t usually get to explore as he’s too busy taking care of them and giving them their lessons. The children, of course, also bring him on whatever small adventures they want to go on for the day but those are almost always outside or within the secret passages behind the walls. He doesn’t actually get to see his new home like that. He doesn’t mind it, too delighted that the children trust him enough to bring him along instead of simply running off. But he does wish that he could explore the castle halls sometimes.

He had asked the children once, at the beginning of January, if they would be willing to show him around. Harley had looked at him mistrustfully and told him, “Why would we do that? Father doesn’t like to see us.” He hadn’t asked again.

So now Tony just waits about an hour after the children have fallen asleep. Usually, by that time, he can already tell if it’ll be another sleepless night for him or if he’ll be able to fall asleep reasonably quickly. If he doesn’t think he’ll be able to sleep, he gets up and walks through the nursery, opens the door just enough so he can slip through, and joins Natasha and Rhodey on guard.

“One of those nights?” Rhodey asks.

“Unfortunately,” he replies. He looks between the two of them. “Don’t you two ever sleep?” It’s perhaps an unfair question but they always seem to be the ones on guard, no matter the time of day, and that has him worried about whether they’re too tired for this.

“If you’re holding lessons inside, we post a different guard outside the schoolroom,” Rhodey assures him.

Natasha adds, “The children prefer routine so we try to make sure we’re here as often as possible.”

“Would you prefer that I do less classes outside?”

“It’s fine, Tony,” Rhodey promises. “Lessons are just the easiest time to catch up on sleep, not the only.”

Tony nods absently, accepting their assurance. He doesn’t need to press the issue; he trusts that they’re telling him the truth. “Can you watch them for a few hours?” he asks.

“Of course,” Natasha says with a slight incline of her head. She slips back into the room silently, little more than a ghost for all the noise she makes.

“Do you want company tonight?” Rhodey asks him.

Sometimes, Tony says yes. Those are the nights when they’ll find a small, out of the way room and they’ll talk and talk and talk. Tony would never make the mistake of comparing Rhodey to Janet because they’re not even the slightest bit similar but Rhodey has quickly become as close to him as Janet had been. Tony appreciates that. The first few weeks in the castle had been very lonely, as the children had disliked him and Natasha hadn’t fully trusted him with the children’s care and the way he had so antagonized the king had earned him Miss Potts’ wrath as well. Rhodey had been a godsend for him, convincing him that he should stay and offering him companionship in that trying time.

But tonight, he isn’t in the mood for a conversation. He just wants to wander so he thanks him for his offer but gently turns him down and sets off down the stairs. Rhodey stays behind, guarding the door.

Tony would never presume to know all of the castle’s secrets. Aynor Castle, Sarah had once told him, is older than his entire country. He could travel its halls for his entire life and not discover even half of what it hides. Still, he’s at least reasonably certain that he could figure out how to get back to the nursery so he lets himself walk further than he has in the past which is, of course, when he finds himself lost down an unfamiliar corridor.

He turns around in a circle, eyeing the silk-covered portraits on the wall warily, reminded slightly of a crypt. In the daylight, he’s certain that the paintings would be much less creepy but at the moment, in this dark hallway, with just barely enough light to see the people behind the black silk looking down on him, it makes him shiver.

“They creep you out too, huh?” someone behind him asks.

Tony jumps about a foot in the air.

“Sorry!” the person exclaims. Tony whirls around to see the king standing there, arms outstretched apologetically as though he were going to try to steady him.

“Don’t do that,” he demands, pressing a hand to his chest to calm his racing heart.

“Sorry,” the king says again. “I thought you saw me when you walked by.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“I can see that now.”

Tony looks at him curiously. The quiet tone of the last sentence wholly belies everything that he’s experienced of the king so far. “What are you doing down here?” he asks. “If you’re scared of them too.”

The king nods at the portrait he’s standing in front of. “Talking to her.”

Tony frowns, hand twitching toward the silk. The king shrugs. “Go ahead. You’ll find out eventually.”

He lifts a corner of the silk, just enough to see the plaque that reads Queen Margaret Elizabeth Carter Rogers, 1834-1864. “Oh,” he murmurs.

The king smiles ruefully. “You understand now. She’s worth coming down here.”

“You must have really loved her,” Tony comments regretfully, half wishing that he could find a romance like that. He’d thought—both with Sunset and Tiberius—that he had found it but it had all turned out to be false.

“I did,” the king agrees softly. Tony, having heard stories about how much his grief still shrouds the king, wonders if he even knows that he had referred to her in the past tense. After a moment, the king clears his throat. “Not really the sort of place for someone like you though.”

It’s not really a question and it’s almost rude but the king sounds exhausted and in the low light of the moon, Tony can see the deep shadows under his eyes, so he dismisses his affront. “Couldn’t sleep,” he says.

“Ah,” the king says understandably. “I’ve had plenty of those nights myself. So you thought you’d explore?”

“Not much time for it with your children. They’re a full-time job.”

The king is silent, mulling that over. Then he asks, almost hopefully, “Are they?”

It’s another one of those moments where Tony could yell at him for not knowing what his own children are like. But there’s something about the moonlight and the late hour and the way the king looks so tired that stays his words. Instead, he says, “You could find out.”

He huffs derisively. “I don’t think they want much to do with me,” he comments and he nearly sounds hurt. More than anything else, it’s that hurt that convinces Tony he’s doing the right thing.

“They do,” Tony assures him. “They just don’t know how to reach out to you. So you must do it for them.”

“How?” the king asks plaintively. “I don’t know where to begin. I didn’t even know Morgan presented.”

“Why don’t you start with her then? Morgan’s still young. All she wants right now is for you to love her.”

“I do!”

As gentle as he can, Tony points out, “She doesn’t know that right now.” He gives him an encouraging smile. “But I think you do care about them so…I’ll help you.”

He probably shouldn’t laugh at how much the king resembles a puppy dog with his hopeful blue eyes and pitiful, “You will?” but he does anyway. It’s adorable.

“I will.” He takes the liberty of reaching out to pat him on the shoulder before stepping away. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to try to make my way back to the nursery.”

The king offers, “I could show you.”

Tony waves him off. “I have to figure it out sometime. Now seems like a good time. Have a good night, Your Majesty.”

“You too—and thank you."

Lavenders blue dilly dilly

Lavenders green

When I am king dilly dilly

You shall be queen

Tony sings softly as he sits on the edge of Morgan’s bed. Gently, he repeatedly draws the tip of his finger down her nose, lulling her to sleep with the soft words and soothing touch. Harley, he knows, had dropped right off to sleep as soon as he started turning out the lights but Peter and Sarah are both peering out from behind their bed curtains, watching with wide eyes. He had overheard two of the maids gossiping about the lack of music in the castle. It had been something that he’d noticed a few times, something that he had missed, but he hadn’t thought to connect it to the queen’s death. He’d started singing after that, sweet lullabies and happy little working songs among others, noticing immediately how it seemed to bring the children closer to him. This one is among his personal favorites as it had been one that Ana used to sing to him to get him to sleep when his mother couldn’t.

Who told you so dilly dilly

Who told you so?

T’was my own heart dilly dilly

That told me so

Morgan’s eyes are starting to droop closed and he chances another look around the room. Peter looks almost as asleep as Morgan does but Sarah is still watching him, wide awake. He figures he’ll get up and sing to her next, just as soon as he’s tucked Morgan in and made sure that Peter won’t fall off the bed.

Call up your men dilly dilly

Set them to work

Some to the plow dilly dilly

Some to the fork

Morgan is sound asleep by now so he carefully lifts her from his lap and sets her head on the pillows. He makes sure that her nightgown isn’t bunched oddly beneath her—he’s never met anyone as sensitive to discomfort when asleep as Morgan is—and then lifts the blankets over her. He trills quietly and, in her sleep, she lets out an answering purr. Content that she’ll be alright, he turns his attention to Peter, who is indeed starting to droop off the edge of the bed.

Some to make hay dilly dilly

Some to cut corn

While you and I dilly dilly

Keep ourselves warm

He lifts Peter back up onto the bed, strokes his hair a couple times to make sure he falls asleep, and then tucks him in as well. Finally, he turns his attention to Sarah, who’s still looking at him with her big blue eyes, looking more like her father than any of the other children.

Lavenders green dilly dilly

Lavenders blue

If you love me dilly dilly

I will love you

“Do you mind?” he whispers and when she shakes her head, he climbs into the bed beside her. Tony raises up his arm just a little bit, enough to suggest. Sarah hesitates for only a moment before curling up beside him, tucking herself under his arm. He looks away to hide his pleased smile.

Let the birds sing dilly dilly

And the lambs play

We shall be safe dilly dilly

Out of harm’s way

The door creaks open a few inches and he looks up sharply, intending to hush whoever is disturbing them, but it’s just Natasha, watching them with an enraptured expression on her face. He quirks his head at her but she motions for him to keep singing and then at Sarah. When he looks back down, Sarah is nearly asleep.

I love to dance dilly dilly

I love to sing

When I am queen dilly dilly

You’ll be my king

The door opens another few inches and Rhodey sticks his head, just above Natasha’s. He looks just as pleasantly surprised as she had. Tony isn’t sure why his lullaby today is drawing their attention but he’s too busy focused on tucking Sarah into her blankets to worry about either of them. He trills at her, soothed by her nearly subvocal growl, and closes the curtains around her after placing a soft kiss on her forehead. He retreats to the door as he sings the last stanza, joining Rhodey and Natasha.

Who told me so dilly dilly

Who told me so?

I told myself dilly dilly

I told me so

“What?” he whispers as he shuts the door behind them, throwing one last look at the darkened room.

“I didn’t know you could sing,” Natasha breathes.

“Of course I can. It’s a lullaby; it’s not like they’re hard.”

Rhodey shakes his head. “There hasn’t been any music in the castle for four years.”

Much to Tony’s surprise, Natasha reaches out to hug him. “Oh are we doing this now?” he mutters.

“Silly omega,” Natasha says fondly. “Of course we are.”

Morgan likes to make flower crowns. Tony doesn’t know where she managed to find flowers in the middle of February but she seems to have found quite a few. They’re scattered around her, divided into neat little piles of pinks and blues and greens. Sarah and Natasha are both already wearing one—Sarah with blues and purples and Natasha with pink and orange flowers that clash horribly with her hair. When Morgan had first started working on Natasha’s, Peter had tried to point out the poor color scheme but had promptly been stopped when Sarah all but tackled him. Tony had broken up the fight, slipped the girl an extra cookie, and then had a long talk with Peter about harmless fun.

All in a day’s work.

Tony is sitting still for a flower crown of his own now, one with blue, red, and white flowers that reminds him a little of the American flag.

“You know,” he comments, “when I was your age and I was making flower crowns for my friends, I didn’t build the entire crown around my victim’s—I mean, model’s—head.” He winces as her latest stem threads his hair with it, yanking on his head cruelly.

“That doesn’t sound si—scient—” she observes.

“Scientific,” he supplies. He looks at Natasha. She looks serene now but he knows it’s a lie. He saw her wincing just as much when it was her turn. “Maybe not,” he tells the guard confidentially, “but it definitely hurt less.”

Natasha, the traitor, just snickers and says, “You big baby.” Behind her, Rhodes smirks as he watches the boys play in the pond during their break from their math lesson.

Tony makes sure the children aren’t watching before he very maturely sticks his tongue out at the guard.

“I saw that!” Morgan crows and promptly sticks her own tongue out at him.


“You’re right,” he scrambles to say. “I did do that but we don’t do that. Only Miss Natasha gets to do that.”

“But you did.”

“Yep and so now I owe her…” He thinks about what he could give her. He could say he’ll give her a coin but he’s saving all of his wages in case he has to run again and there isn’t much else of value that he would be willing to give up.

“A cookie,” Natasha finishes.

“Exactly, a—a cookie?” He doesn’t want to give her a cookie. Cook’s pastries are legendary in the castle and she only ever makes them for the children (and Tony because she likes him).

 Natasha nods firmly, giving him a pointed look. “A cookie.”

“A cookie,” he agrees glumly and hands his over. He’s just starting to convince himself that it’s fine, that he’ll wheedle another one from Cook later, when he hears a familiar voice.

“—might be nice to hire a gardener again. Peggy used to love the roses. I’ll admit, I miss seeing them too.”

“Very good, Your Majesty.”

A moment later, the king and Pepper come into sight as they round the garden wall. From this distance, Tony can’t quite see what the king is doing but he seems to be searching for something, stopping only when his gaze lands on the children. They come a little closer and Tony can see now the heartbreak and hope warring on the king’s face.

“Miss Morgan,” Tony murmurs, motioning the girl closer. He takes the flower crown off his head, wincing again as it pulls at his hair, and hands it to her. “Why don’t you go give this to your father?”

She cocks her head. “Why?”

“Because I think it might be a nice present. I’m sure he’ll love it.”

“He will?”


He gives her a tiny shove in the direction of the king, propelling her forward. She gives him another doubtful look but dutifully walks over to the two and tugs on the king’s coat. The king bends down so he can better talk to her; Tony approves silently. Morgan doesn’t get offended like Harley does when someone talks down to her but he knows she doesn’t really like it.

“Mister Carbonell said I should give this to you,” Morgan says, holding out her flower crown. She’s still clutching it tight like she’s afraid that her father will take the crown and throw it on the ground, which makes Tony wonder if someone’s done that to her before. He doesn’t think it’s something the king would have done but maybe one of the past nannies?

The king glances over at them and Tony gives him a minute nod. Immediately, the king breaks out into a breathtaking smile, gingerly taking the crown between his hands. “Thank you,” he breathes. He settles it onto his head and then poses for Morgan, who giggles. “How do I look?”

“Pretty, Daddy,” Morgan says earnestly.

The king turns to Pepper. “What about you, Miss Potts? What do you think?”

“Very good, Sire,” Pepper tells him, just solemnly enough that everyone knows she’s teasing him.

“And you, Mister Carbonell?” the king asks, turning that beautiful smile on Tony, and Tony’s breath catches in his throat. He doesn’t know where the low stirrings of attraction in his stomach are coming from when all they’ve done is argue but oh how gorgeous the king looks when he smiles.

Tony tells him honestly, “Perfect.” From the way the king’s smile turns small and knowing, Tony understands that he knows he hadn’t just been talking about how the crown looks.

The king kneels back down next to Morgan, heedless of the mud smearing on his pants. “May I hug you?” he asks.

Morgan rocks back and forth for a moment, looking at him like she’s wondering if it’s a joke. The king starts to pull away, looking slightly disappointed, and it’s then that she throws herself forward, wrapping her little arms around the king’s neck, and dragging him down. The two nearly overbalance—Pepper even steps forward to catch them—but then the king rights them. He holds on tight to Morgan, squeezing her tight like he never wants to let her go.

“Had a talk with the king, did you?” Natasha mutters out of the corner of her mouth.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony denies, deciding that he doesn’t need the praise when the king had already known that he was doing wrong by the children. All Tony had done had been to give him the courage to try. “Maybe he’s had a change of heart.”

Steve can’t stop thinking about Morgan, about the way she had giggled when she had given him that flower crown, about how she had hugged him so tight, and about their dinner later that same night when she gets up from her place at the other end of the table and carries her plate over to him.

“Daddy, can I eat with you?” she asks sweetly.

Steve is surprised but not enough so that he refuses. Morgan beams up at him and then crawls into his lap so that she can eat dinner with him. He had never been so honored by his children before. He shifts his plate off to the side so that she can set hers down without worrying about it tipping off the edge of the table and then shifts her so that she can sit comfortably with his arms bracing her on either side.

It’s nice—wonderful, even—easily one of the best moments of Steve’s life. He leans down under the guise of scooping up his vegetables so he can subtly inhale her light scent of tea and roses. As she grows, he knows her scent will start changing with her moods but for now, she scents the same at all times. With it being so soon after her presentation, it’s still a very delicate scent that will strengthen with time, light enough that it’s no wonder he’d thought it had been his imagination, that he’d thought it had been Peggy—who had shared the same scent—haunting him. He sees her in every inch of this castle. Why wouldn’t he have imagined her in his daughter?

But Morgan is clearly her own person and as he sits there holding her, he’s able to sniff the minute differences in their scents. Peggy had leaned more heavily toward the roses, unsurprising as they had been her favorite flower, but Morgan’s scent favors the tea, so much so that Steve can easily determine that it’s the chamomile tea he sometimes favors before bed, something that he had never been able to do with his queen.

He looks up about halfway through the dinner to see Mister Carbonell watching them with a little pleased smile tugging at the corners of his lips. It’s a good look on the young omega and such a very nice change from being yelled at, both of which are thoughts that completely startle Steve. He’d recognized before that Mister Carbonell is a very pretty omega, prettier still in his anger, even when it’s turned on to Steve, but that smug expression, that hint of confidence, turns him into nothing less than utterly stunning.

Well then, he thinks to himself, feeling an old, familiar pang of guilt at the thought of finding another omega even somewhat attractive. Peggy had told him once, long before her unexpected passing during Morgan’s birth, that she wanted him to find someone else who made him happy in the event of her passing. He had agreed, figuring that it would never be anything more than an unnecessary platitude. Then Morgan had come and Peggy had been lost to him and the first time he’d thought about finding another queen, he’d nearly been sick. He had never entertained the thought again.

The vague stirrings of attraction that he’s beginning to feel toward Mister Carbonell are new and unfamiliar and he’s not sure how he feels about that. On the one hand, he knows that it’s what Peggy had wanted him to do. On the other hand…

On the other hand, he had adored her.

He finds the children in the library, sorting through the books. “Daddy!” Morgan shrieks, throwing her book down and running to him, arms outstretched. Steve is a little surprised that it had taken so short a time for Morgan to forgive him but he isn’t going to turn down a hug so he catches her up in his arms, lifting her high into the air. Besides, he remembers what Mister Carbonell had said about her being young. Maybe this is what that means, that she’s more willing to forgive because she doesn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been so distant.

At that thought, he chances a glance at his  three other children. They’re studiously ignoring him and Morgan though Peter isn’t quite quick enough to turn his head before Steve sees him looking in their direction. He sees it then on their faces, the familiar old resentment, yes, but also the bitter jealousy and beneath it all, the longing for his affection. He’s going to do better by them, he decides. He swears it, even if he has to swallow his pride and ask Mister Carbonell for help. How is it, he wonders, that none of the other nannies had been able to draw his attention to his failings like Mister Carbonell has?

With that, he sets Morgan back down. “What are you four up to today?” he asks.

His question is directed at all of them but it’s Morgan who chirps, “Mister Carbonell is letting us get books!”

Steve hasn’t interacted with a child Morgan’s age since before Morgan had been born but he remembers at least the basics of it. “That sounds very nice of him. Where is Mister Carbonell?”

Morgan just shrugs. “That way,” Harley says sullenly, pointing toward the windows. “He said he wanted to find new school books for us.”

Whether Harley is upset because he has to talk to his father or because Mister Carbonell is getting them schoolbooks is anyone’s guess. Steve almost wants to ask but Harley is still glaring at him and he can’t manage to muster up the courage at the moment. He just turns and walks down the aisles, looking for the nanny.

The library is huge and the children are long since out of earshot by the time he finds the omega on a rickety ladder. He knocks lightly on the shelf and asks, “Are you busy?”

To his dismay, Mister Carbonell startles, losing his grip on both the ladder and the shelf. He topples backward with a squeak and it’s only Steve’s quick thinking that allows him to move fast enough to catch the omega before he hits the ground.

“Sorry,” he says, shifting his grip so that Mister Carbonell is more comfortable with one arm supporting his back and one cradling his knees. “I seem to keep frightening you.” His own words are little more than a gasp, frightened himself by the vivid image he can still picture of his children’s favorite nanny falling through the air.

“You seem to keep apologizing too,” Mister Carbonell breathes, slowly loosening the death grip he has on Steve’s shirt.

“Sorry,” Steve says automatically. “Do you think you can stand?”

Mister Carbonell lifts one hand and examines it critically as it shakes. “Probably not,” he admits.

“That’s okay. I can support you,” Steve assures him. There’s a small voice in the back of his mind that tells him this is more than okay, points out how perfectly the little omega fits in his arms. He pointedly does not give that thought any undeserved attention. Superficial attraction to the first omega he’s seen in years is to be expected. Anything else feels like a betrayal of Peggy’s memory.

“I do owe you an apology though,” he continues after a moment. Mister Carbonell blinks up at him. Steve is arrested by those terribly long eyelashes. He shakes his head so he can clear away the cobwebs. “I shouldn’t have startled you.”

Mister Carbonell shrugs as best he can while he’s being held. “I can’t blame you for that. That ladder was rickety. I probably shouldn’t have been up there.”

Steve eyes the ladder dispassionately. It does look old and possibly rotten in some places. He’d wonder how it got missed but the library is almost three hundred years old. It isn’t really that much of a surprise that no one has noticed. “Why were you up there?” he asks. If it had been him, he would have gone to get another ladder.

To his surprise, Mister Carbonell bites his lip, looking guilty. “I tried but I couldn’t move any of the other ladders and I really needed that book on star maps.” He gestures up above them where Steve can spot a book pulled halfway out of the row.

“It hadn’t occurred to me you wouldn’t be able to move the ladders,” he says, gaze traveling down Mister Carbonell’s slim form.

Mister Carbonell scowls. “I’m not weak!” he huffs.

Steve blinks, brow furrowing. “I didn’t think you were,” he denies. It isn’t fully a lie. Holding the nanny like this, he can feel the corded muscles in his arms, note that there’s not a hint of fat on that trim body. Even so, it isn’t unusual for omegas to be weaker than their alpha counterparts and he supposes that that’s what he had been thinking.

“I guess I owe you another apology. I’ll get someone in here to clean out the rot.”

“And the mold,” Mister Carbonell adds hastily.

“And the mold,” he agrees. When had he let the castle come to so much ruin? He doesn’t think he’d been that deep in his grief but had he missed more than he’d thought?

“I owe you my gratitude as well,” he continues, deciding to worry about what he’s missed later. “For your help with Morgan.”

Mister Carbonell waves him off. “She just wants to know that she’s loved.”

“Still, Mister Carbonell,” he insists. “It means a lot to me. Thank you.”

For a moment, Mister Carbonell doesn’t say anything. Then he opens his mouth. “Tony.”

“What?” Steve’s brow wrinkles.

“Call me Tony.”

Steve can’t stop the smile that spreads over his face. He knows that he still has to reconcile with his other three children but this—this feels like a victory he’d never thought he would win. “Tony,” he repeats, liking the way it feels in his mouth. Tony’s cheeks flush, making Steve absently wonder if it’s too hot in the library. “Call me Steve.”

Tony’s flush deepens. “Steve.”

“Do you see that?” Peter hisses from around the corner.

“Of course we see it,” Harley hisses back. “How could we not?”

He can’t decide if he wants to be angry or not. He misses his mother dearly but he’s known for a very long time now that he wants his father to be happy, even if he hasn’t done much for them over the last few years. And Mister Carbonell is a good man and Harley likes him a lot. But—but Father has only just started to make things up to Morgan. He’s still having trouble with the other children and—and it seems like Mister Carbonell is forgiving him awfully fast.

And Harley doesn’t want to lose another nanny again.

But Morgan’s watching them, absolutely enraptured, stars in her eyes. “Maybe they’ll get married,” she whispers ecstatically.

Harley makes a gross face. He’s never going to get married, not as long as he lives. Omegas are gross. He’s going to grow up and live with his siblings forever and it’ll be perfect. He turns to the other two, expecting that they’ll back him up. But Peter looks thoughtful and Sarah is nodding along with Morgan’s words.

This,” she says decisively, “is someone for Daddy.”

Harley looks at the two adults again. He doesn’t really see it but Sarah takes so long to trust, has been burned so often. She’s gotten good at picking out the worthwhile people, the ones like Miss Natasha who’ll love them. If she thinks Mister Carbonell is a good pick for their father…

Father is sinking to the floor now, still holding onto Mister Carbonell. “I could probably stand on my own,” Mister Carbonell whispers.

“Are you sure you want to risk it?” Father whispers right back. Harley wonders if Father even knows that his grip has tightened on Mister Carbonell.

Harley hums thoughtfully. Maybe…

“They’ll need help,” he decides.

The other three look at him. “They will?” Peter asks.

“Course. Grownups are useless at this kind of thing.” He rubs his hands together, thinking of all the things they can do to help their father’s budding romance.

“Do you think Miss Natasha will help?” Sarah asks.

He scoffs. “Miss Natasha doesn’t even know Miss Potts is the one leaving her flowers. She’ll be as useless as Father and Mister Carbonell. No, it’s up to us.”

Chapter Text

Pepper remembers as a little girl that it had always been impossible to find Prince Steve without his sketchbook. The prince had grown up small and sickly, often confined to his bed. For a while, his parents had tried getting him books to read but that had never worked. Steve had hated reading about all the adventures that he couldn’t go on. It had taken years of him chafing at his confinement, both Peggy and Pepper being conscripted to listen to his complaints, before his mother accidentally left her sketchbook in his room. Pepper hadn’t been there that day but Peggy had and she had told Pepper later of Steve flipping through the book, studying his mother’s drawings, and then asking for a pencil.

“Ten minutes,” Peggy had said. “He’d only needed ten minutes and he had this amazing drawing of me. Look how pretty he made me.” She had shyly shown it to Pepper, almost blushing. Pepper had known then that her two friends were destined for each other though she hadn’t said anything. She’d figured that they could figure it out for themselves.

From that point on, Steve had always been seen with his sketchbook, usually already open as he worked on drawing whatever had recently caught his attention, which was most often Peggy but sometimes it was Pepper or his parents or the castle. Even once his childhood illnesses had passed and he had been able to leave his bed, he kept the sketchbook on him.

The first time he’d ever put it down had been the day Peggy had passed.

Steve had torn out his last drawing—one of Peggy glowing in her pregnancy, laughing at something he hadn’t bothered to draw. Pepper is fairly certain Peggy had been laughing at something Peter was doing. She would never know now. She had never gotten the chance to ask Steve about it before Peggy died and, to the best of Steve’s knowledge, that drawing had gone out with the trash. Pepper had saved it though. She had seen it sitting in the waste surrounded by potato peelings and rescued it, knowing that one day, Steve would be ready to see it again and would regret his haste in throwing it out. It sits in a drawer now, slightly stained from its time in the trash and still smelling faintly of potatoes, no matter how much perfume she spritzes over it.

She had never once thought that she would see Steve drawing again.

But as she comes into the library to tell him that the southern farmers have arrived and are demanding an audience with him, she finds him sitting in an armchair. His old sketchbook is sitting open on his lap, pencil flying over the page. She hadn’t known he even still had it, she had thought that it had either gotten thrown out years ago or gone up into the attic with the rest of Peggy’s belongings.

He keeps looking up at something that Pepper can’t see with the bookshelves in the way, which tells her that he’s working with a reference and not from his memory. Good. She had often worried that he would one day return to art, only to draw his late wife over and over and over again, which certainly could not have been good for him. While her fear had yet to come true, it hadn’t stopped her from worrying it might someday.

She slides off her shoes, holding them loosely in her hands as she sneaks over the hardwood floors. She can’t really say why she doesn’t want Steve to know that she’s there other than that she’s afraid of shattering the suspended peace of the moment. As she gets closer, she begins to hear the children chattering a few rows over. She thinks that she understands it then. Steve must be drawing the children as they play.

Pepper draws up right behind him and peeks around the corner. Sure enough, from their vantage point, the children are right in sight. Morgan and Sarah are both reading books while Harley and Peter arm wrestle with each other, giggling like mad each time one of them manages to move the other’s arm even slightly, which of course loosens their grip so that the other one can gain an advantage. Tony is sitting at a table nearby, looking over a stack of papers though he glances up every couple of minutes as though he’s assuring himself that the children haven’t gotten into any trouble even though he’s sitting right there. Pepper inhales subtly, taking in the happy scents rolling off of Morgan and Harley and the quieter contentment coming from Tony and Sarah. It’s a picturesque sight that Pepper can’t blame the king for wanting to commit to paper.

But when she looks down at his sketchbook, she sees no sign of the children anywhere on the page. Instead, Steve is sketching Tony, presumably at an earlier point in the day because the sketch of Tony is smiling indulgently, likely at the children. The omega isn’t smiling now though he still looks fond so she can only guess that the children must have been up to some antic earlier. She looks again at the drawing, sketched out in exquisite detail. Steve must have been working on this for some time.

She silently retreats back to the door, mulling the scene over in her mind. It’s been hard not to notice the hints of attraction between the king and Tony though she hadn’t thought their feelings had grown any deeper than attraction. Most of the time, they barely even act like friends though she knows that Tony is helping Steve reconcile with the children. She’s still not certain that there’s anything more than attraction there but… Her mind strays back to that drawing as she slips her shoes back on. There may not be anything more between those two just yet but soon, she thinks, soon there will be.

She smiles to herself. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if their king fell in love with the nanny. But that guilt—her smile slips away—that lingering guilt that Steve seems to still be holding onto about how he thinks he should have done something more, even though there was nothing else he could have done. That guilt could cause a problem and she can only hope that Steve—or Tony, for that matter—doesn’t get hurt because of it.

Pepper walks back in, shoes clacking on the wood floors. Immediately, Steve closes the sketchbook and turns to face her, only a slight blush on his face. “Is that your old sketchbook?” she asks curiously, wondering what he’ll tell her.

“Uh yes,” Steve says, looking down at the book like he isn’t sure how it got into his hands. “Thought it might be nice to go through the old pictures.”

And that might have been true when he’d first gotten it out but that certainly hadn’t been what he was doing when she walked in. She doesn’t bother calling him out on it though. Some things are meant to be private.

“Something I can help you with?” Steve asks.

She sighs and passes him the papers she’d been given. “The southern farmers are back, demanding an audience.”

Steve groans. “I’ve told them to change the crop rotation, and sent them to my advisors. There’s nothing more I can do for them.”

“I know,” Pepper agrees. “But they’re not listening. They seem to think that you’re purposely giving them bad advice.”

The king stands—and it is the king now; the hints of the father Pepper had seen when she first saw him are gone now—and tucks the sketchbook into the cushions of the chair. “Why would I do something like that?” he mutters as he joins her. “They provide a significant portion of the castle’s food. I’d be sabotaging myself.” 

He doesn’t seem to expect an answer though so Pepper doesn’t give him one, instead providing a listening ear as he rants all the way to the bedroom where she leaves him so he can change into something more befitting of an audience.

“Sarah, I don’t understand,” Tony says quietly. He casts a surreptitious look at the other three children in the schoolroom. Peter and Harley are both quick to turn their nosy faces away. Morgan is a little bit slower. Tony angles himself so that he’s mostly shielding Sarah from their view and crouches down so he seems less intimidating. “You were perfectly happy with the history lesson this morning.”

Sarah blinks down at her book, angrily pushing back tears. Tony wishes he could help her, wishes that she would tell him what’s wrong instead of clamming up. He wishes he were better and knew how to reach her rather than resorting to tossing out wild guesses and hoping she reacts to one of them.

“Is it the lesson?” he asks. “Am I not teaching it well enough?”

“You’re teaching it fine,” she mutters.

“Then is it the subject material? I thought you said you liked learning about the history of the common people. I can find you a different book if you like,” he offers desperately. He doesn’t want her to start crying and he’s afraid that’s the direction they’re heading in. If she starts crying, he’ll feel like he’s failed her. He had promised these children he would take care of them, sworn to himself that he wouldn’t fail them, but look where he is now.

“The subject’s fine,” she says. Tony can see those tears starting to well up in her eyes.

“So what is it, Sarah dear?” he asks. He starts to trill, hoping that he can calm her down. Instead, it sets her off.

“I don’t know!” she snaps, finally frustrated enough to yell. Tony leans back, surprised by the roiling scent of anger emanating from her. Sarah almost never gets emotional enough to scent that strongly. “You keep explaining it to me but it’s not staying! It never stays! I don’t know why it’s so easy for Harley and Peter, and even Morgan, to learn it but I’m too stupid to!”

“Whoa,” Tony says soothingly. “Who said anything about stupid?”

Sarah sneers, the ugly expression twisting her sweet little face. “You didn’t have to. I know you were thinking it. Everyone thinks it. I’m not as good as my brothers and sister and I don’t want people to tell me that anymore!”

She looks around at them all again, lets out a little shriek of anger, and then stomps from the room. Tony is left stunned on the floor. “What just happened?” he asks, not really to anyone in particular.

Even so, Harley says quietly, “You asked her to give you the date the Merchant’s Guild was started.”

“Yes, and?”

“And Sarah’s not too good at memorizing.”

Tony stops picking up Sarah’s things. “Wait,” he says slowly. “That’s it? Sarah has problems memorizing things and everyone just decided she was stupid? No one thought to see if she could learn the material a different way?”

“Like what?” Morgan asks curiously.

“Like—like—like how I had to learn. My parents taught me not by asking me to memorize anything but by letting me do instead.”

Harley sets aside his book, intrigued. “How does that work?”

Tony walks back to the front of the classroom, leaning back on the desk while he thinks. “Harley,” he says eventually. “If I put a schematic of a water wheel in front of you, do you think by the end of the day, you could draw me another perfect schematic?”

“Of course,” Harley says scornfully. “Why don’t you give me something hard?”

“It’s hard for other people, like me and, I suspect, your sister,” Tony points out mildly. It’s not meant to be a reproach but Harley mutters an apology anyway. Tony hides his smile. Even that apology is more than what he used to get out of the teenager. “If I were learning about water wheels, I needed to have a model in front of me. I needed to be able to take it apart, learn how each component fit in my hand, and then I could draw a schematic but not before that.”

“But we had a tutor who tried to teach us like that and Sarah still had trouble,” Harley argues.

Tony shrugs. “Then it’s something else. But your sister is intelligent. I just need to figure out how she learns.”

The children give each other excited looks, which makes Tony wonder if anyone had bothered to take the time to figure out how each child best learned. It makes him hurt a little inside as even he, who has been priding himself on doing a better job taking care of the children, hadn’t done it. He’d just assumed that Sarah was like her siblings, capable of memorizing things easily. Well, he’d failed her once but he wouldn’t do so again.

Usually, on sleepless nights, Steve goes to the hallway where his wife’s portrait hangs, covered because he can no longer bear to look at it, look at her painted with loving brushstrokes. The portrait had been done soon after their marriage and Steve, like many alphas, had been possessive to the point of not wanting the artist his mother had commissioned to even look at his omega. Unlike other alphas though, Steve had had the artistic talent to do the portrait himself. His mother had called it her favorite of all the portraits in that hallway because of how clearly the love between alpha and omega had shown through, from Peggy’s adoring expression to the colors that Steve had taken painstaking hours to choose so that he would best represent his beloved wife’s beauty.

Peggy had always been there in life and now, after her death, going to that hallway and talking through his troubles feels almost like she’s still there. It’s not quite the same of course. The portrait can’t talk back to him and Peggy had never had any problems at all with making her feelings known. But it’s better than nothing, even if he still doesn’t feel ready to uncover her portrait. He and Peggy had been young when he’d ascended the throne after his father passed, barely out of their teens and only married for a year. Her portrait shows her young still, full of life and smiling. He doesn’t know if he can look at that when all too often, he can remember what she looked like after her death: cold and still, all the light gone from her eyes.

Still though, talking to her portrait often helps him calm down enough to sleep. That night though, he finds his steps leading him toward the library with the idea of looking for a book. He’d overheard Tony and Jim talking about Tony reading the children part of a story each night before bed. Steve is curious to know if the story will be able to help him sleep and he knows they have multiple copies in the library so that’s where he goes when, after two hours of tossing and turning, he gives up and gets up.

He enters the library, surprised to find that the lamps are already lit. “Hello?” he calls but he doesn’t get an answer. He should probably turn around and find a guard but honestly, what kind of assassin enters a library first and then turns on the lamps? Still though, he pulls out the dagger from his belt and continues further.

A few rows in, he starts hearing a quiet snoring right around the same time he feels a slight draft. Well, whoever it is must have opened a window and then laid down for a nap, which definitely does not sound like a burglar or assassin. He sheathes the dagger and keeps walking. It’s then that he smells the softest hint of oranges and honeysuckle and realizes who it is.


He rounds another corner to find Tony curled up in one of the window seats, window open, nearly half a dozen books scattered around him. He probably fell asleep while he was reading. It would be an adorable, peaceful sight if it hadn’t been for the fact that even all the way down at the end of the aisle, Steve can see that Tony is shivering.

“Oh,” he mouths to himself. He doesn’t want to have to wake Tony up. They’ve run into each other on several sleepless nights so he knows Tony has trouble sleeping. And he knows that when people wake him up in odd locations, he never manages to go back to sleep, but he also knows it has to happen. Tony can’t sleep down here without a blanket and Steve just doesn’t feel comfortable carrying him up to the nursery.

He crouches down next to Tony and gently shakes his shoulder. After a moment, Tony blinks blearily, slowly opening his eyes. They’re still a little unfocused, which Steve assumes is why Tony asks, in a small voice, “Tiberius?”

Steve can’t explain the pang that goes through his heart at Tony calling him by someone else’s name. He shakes his head and says, “No. It’s—it’s Steve.” He wonders if it would possibly be worth getting yelled at and then continues, “Sorry to disappoint.”

Tony yawns and stretches. “Not a disappointment,” he assures him sleepily. “What time is it?”



“Shouldn’t you be upstairs?”

“Was trying to figure out how to help Sarah learn better.” Tony gestures at the books around him.

Steve’s brows furrow. “Learn better?”

“I think some of your past nannies have told her she’s stupid because she isn’t capable of the memorization your other children are. But she’s not. I just need to figure out how she learns.”

If it hadn’t been so late, Steve probably would have been a little excited at the prospect of a similarity between him and Sarah. He also probably would have been a lot angrier though at hearing that Tony suspected his daughter had been made to feel less. As it is though, he just says, “I was like that when I was her age.”

“Really?” Tony asks. He raises his arms above his head, stretching again. His shirt rises up a little, revealing a small sliver of toned, olive skin.

Steve’s brain stutters to a halt for a moment before it picks back up. “Uh…yes,” he says, dragging his gaze back to Tony’s face. “I taught myself to get better at it on my father’s recommendation. He said a king should be able to memorize and recite facts at the drop of a hat. But it didn’t come naturally to me.”

“How did you learn then?”

“Through art,” Steve tells him. “I found that I do better when I have a visual representation.”

Tony hums thoughtfully. “Through art.”

“Sarah,” he begins during their next lesson. He lays a map of Europe down in front of her, the names of each country crossed out. “Could you label this for me?”

She glares up at him. “I already told you, I can’t memorize things.”

“Alright,” Tony says agreeably. He’s reasonably certain, from what Steve’s told him, that she probably can label the countries but perhaps he should start with an easier task. “Then if I ask you to go to the board and draw me a map of England, do you think you could do that for me?”

Her glare now is a little more confused than angry and she takes the piece of chalk from him slowly. The other children stop what they’re doing to watch, not even bothering to go back to their work when Tony growls at them. He can understand their interest. If Janet had spent her entire life being told that she was stupid, only for someone to say that she just needed to learn in a different manner and then tested her, he probably would have wanted to watch too. Even so, he doesn’t want Sarah to feel pressured and by the way her shoulders hunch as she starts to draw, she probably does.

“Hey,” he says quietly, moving to the board beside her. “There’s no punishment if it comes out wrong. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I just want to help.”

He thinks that it says something that Sarah doesn’t look as unconvinced as she might have three months ago, instead nodding firmly and turning back to the chalkboard to begin drawing. Maybe he’s finally managing to get through to her that he won’t hurt her, would do just about anything to keep from hurting her.

Much to his delight, Sarah, as it turns out, is just as good an artist as her father is. Steve had shown him some of his old work last night, lighting up with pleasure each time Tony cooed over the exquisite detail in the artwork. Steve’s art had been amazing, more suited to a master of the craft than a king who treated it like a hobby, albeit a passionate one. Sarah, it seems, is like her father in more ways than just her appearance, as her hand sketches out the minute details in the coastline of the island nation. He wonders when she finds the time to draw, how often she’s been drawing rather than reading like Tony had always thought.

“Incredible,” Tony murmurs. Sarah turns to him quizzically and he motions at the chalkboard again. “No, keep going. I want to see this.”

She finishes labelling the cities with tiny dots and the neatest penmanship Tony’s ever seen and then turns back to him. “Was this okay?” she asks anxiously, crossing her arms and hunching in on herself. Another habit she got from her father, Tony notes absently.

“Sarah dear,” he tells her, “this is perfect.”

When she smiles, Sarah’s smile could light up the entire castle.

Morgan has taken to sitting in Steve’s lap during dinner. Steve is thrilled with the whole concept, even if he would prefer Morgan to be seated beside him since it would make eating easier for the both of them. He never complains though; the one time he mentions it to Tony, the nanny just shrugs and tells him that she does that to everyone she likes.

“You should see her during storytime,” Tony says. “You ever try turning pages when sticky hands keep reaching out for the book? It’s a nightmare.”

Steve laughs and lets the subject drop. It’s not like it’s truly a hardship for him. He would rather have her sitting in his lap than on the other side of the table, the way the other children still do. He’s tried reaching out to them a few times, tried asking Harley his thoughts on dinner or Sarah what she had learned in class that week but his other three children haven’t responded. They’re older, he supposes. They remember what life had been like before their mother had died. They remember him coming to the nursery to play with them and organizing elaborate birthday parties, calling them away from their lessons for picnics and trips to the city. Well, maybe Sarah doesn’t remember that; she’d still been a toddler, but he can’t say for certain what she remembers. She’s been so withdrawn and quiet these last few years.

“You have to give them time,” Pepper had told him when he had complained to her. He probably should have gone to Tony to ask what was going on in the minds of his oldest children but he hadn’t wanted to hear that he wasn’t doing enough. “They’ve spent so long alone. They’re understandably wary of this change, wondering if it’s just Tony who made you see differently, if it’ll all stop once he leaves.”

“It wasn’t,” Steve had said. “I’ve known for a long time I wasn’t being a good father to them. I hadn’t known how to change. That’s all that Tony did: show me how.”

“They’ll figure it out eventually. You keep doing what you’re doing and eventually they’ll see how much they mean to you.”

Morgan is currently sitting in his lap, cheerfully telling him about the cat she’d seen in the barn this morning. At the far end of the table, his other three children are eating in silence despite Tony’s attempts at drawing them out. Steve isn’t surprised they’re not talking. They must be wondering what they did for him to ask for a meal sooner than their scheduled dinner next week.

They haven’t done anything, of course. He had gone to Tony earlier that week and asked for dinners more often than every couple of weeks. Tony had pursed his lips, making Steve wonder what he was thinking—if he thought it wasn’t often enough or if it was too much—but he had eventually said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

Now, with the children eyeing him suspiciously, he wishes he knew what Tony had said to them. Had he even mentioned that it’s because Steve wants to see them more often?

“What do you think?” Morgan asks, breaking into his thoughts.

He tries to remember what she’d said but he can’t quite recall everything. Something about lunch, maybe?

“I think a picnic would be nice,” Tony speaks up. Steve gives him a grateful look. Tony winks at him.

 “Like the ones you used to have with Momma,” Morgan continues blithely, seemingly not noticing Steve’s momentary panic. “With tea and sandwiches and chicken.”

“How did you hear about those?” Steve asks her.

“Harley told me.”

Steve looks down the table at his son, who seems to have been watching them intently though he immediately scowls down at his plate as soon as Steve’s head starts to turn in that direction. Steve smiles to himself. Maybe he’s making more progress than he’d thought.

“I would love a picnic,” he tells Morgan honestly. “How about tomorrow?”

To his shock, it’s not just Morgan who cheers when he agrees and when he looks down the table, he sees all three of his older children giving each other excited smiles and whispering amongst themselves. He raises his gaze to Tony, who smiles approvingly at him, mouthing the words, “Good job.”

“I’m sending you south,” Steve tells Bucky and Clint. “I’m concerned about the way the farmers acted when they were last here.”

“They won’t take kindly to a soldier amongst them,” Bucky points out.

Steve nods in agreement but continues, “You’re not there as a soldier. You’re there as the sons of farmers. I hope that the reason they won’t listen to either mine or the Minister of Agriculture’s recommendations is because we’re both born noble. I know that you’ll just tell them the same things we’ve been telling them this whole time but maybe it will come better from you.”


“At the very least, I’ll have someone I trust there to keep an eye on things and to give me an honest report when I ask for one.”

“Do you think it will come to a rebellion?” Clint asks.

Steve groans and sinks into a chair as he runs his hand over his face. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. But they have valid concerns. The crops are failing, the drought has lingered for too long, and unfortunately, the farmers haven’t listened to advice because they believe themselves to know best. Men in those situations start looking for someone to blame.”

“And their king is an easy target,” Bucky finishes. He sits across from Steve and reaches out to squeeze Steve’s hand comfortingly.

“They see me as someone who offers meaningless platitudes and gives advice when I have no practical experience to speak of. They don’t know the sleepless nights I’ve spent in the library looking for a solution, the hours I’ve given to my council in the hopes one of them would know something I don’t.”

“You’re doing the best you can,” Bucky assures him.

“I know,” Steve says quietly. “But my people are dying and there is nothing more I can do. I hope we don’t come to a rebellion but I believe it’s time to start preparing for one. If I send you there, I know that you’ll be able to take care of yourself.”

There’s a soft knock on the door. Steve raises his voice to call, “Come in!”

Tony pokes his head around the door, looking between the three curiously. “The children are ready whenever you are.”

“Wonderful,” Steve says. He looks back at his spymaster and bodyguard. “I’m relying on the two of you. Please be careful.”

Clint and Bucky both nod as they stand and leave, slipping past Tony, who watches them go. “Anything I should be worried about?” he asks lightly.

“Not at the moment,” Steve tells him. He doesn’t want to sound patronizing but there really isn’t anything for him to unnecessarily stress over at the moment. Perhaps in another month but not for right now. “They’re ready, you said?”

“Already in the garden.” Tony watches as Steve shrugs on his coat. “If I might make a suggestion, it’s turned out that Sarah is quite the artist. You might consider talking with her about that.”

Steve promptly turns around and rifles through the old sketchbooks on his shelf until he finds the one he’s looking for. “I would love to do that.”

Tony pours the tea into Morgan’s cup with far more grace and poise than Steve had been expecting. It’s a motion more befitting to someone who grew up knowing that this would be what the rest of their life rather than someone like Tony, who easily discusses mechanics with Harley and chemistry with Peter and has work-roughened hands.

“My parents,” Tony begins, catching Steve’s confusion, “supported me working for my father’s business but we always knew that the alpha I would one day wed might, in all likelihood, order me to stop.”

“You would listen to them?” Steve asks, not believing it for one second.

Tony grins at him, even as he pours Sarah’s cup without even looking. “Depended on the alpha.”

He finishes pouring the tea and begins setting out small plates. Steve helps him pass out the sandwiches—sliced turkey and provolone with a light vinaigrette—and slices of apples.

“What’s this for?” Steve asks, spying the cake at the bottom of the basket.

“It’s my birthday,” Tony replies absently as he hands each child a napkin. “Cook thought it might be a nice surprise.”

Steve stares at him long enough that Tony looks up in surprise. “What?” the omega asks.

“You didn’t say,” Steve comments, feeling guilty. He’s been so busy wrapped up in his own problems that he’s never thought to ask Tony how old he is or where he’s from and what brought him to the continent. He doesn’t even know how Tony ended up as a nanny. Steve had just accepted that he’d been a godsend in this dark period.

Tony says mildly, “You never asked.” There’s no censure to it but Steve feels the sting anyway.

“How old are you now?”

The smile on Tony’s face reminds him of the wolf he’d once seen in the woods and he suddenly thinks he’s made a mistake. “Why, Your Majesty, don’t you know better than to ask an omega their age?” Tony asks, affecting a drawl to his voice that Steve figures is an American joke though he doesn’t understand it himself. After an expectant moment, Tony shrugs and continues, “Twenty-four.”

“So young,” Steve murmurs, feeling guiltier still. Tony shouldn’t be here, cooped up and tending to Steve’s children. He should be out exploring the world, learning new things…falling in love.

Tony looks pensive, almost sad. “Old enough,” he replies, just as quietly as Steve. Steve wonders if he’s missed something again.

“Anyway,” Tony says suddenly, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “This isn’t a day to be worried. This is a day for celebration.”

“And are we celebrating?” Steve asks, going along with the topic change.

The omega nods decisively. “We’re celebrating my birthday and the fact that it’s a beautiful day and that we managed to drag you from the castle.”

Steve gasps. “Mister Carbonell,” he says overdramatically. “Was I set up?”

“Yes!” Morgan chimes in.

“Mister Carbonell said it would be good for you,” Peter agrees.

He could be angry. He’d had important things to do today. But on the other hand, his children had contrived a way to get him to spend time with them that hadn’t involved angering their nanny or causing damage to the castle. How could he be angry about that?

“He’s right about that,” Steve tells them, not aware how tense they had been until they breathe out a collective sigh of relief, relaxing further into the grass. “Thank you for inviting me to your picnic.”

As the lunch progresses, Harley, Peter, and Tony split off into their own little group to discuss something that they’re inventing in the schoolroom. It goes right over Steve’s head and he figures that as long as Natasha and Jim don’t look concerned, he has nothing to worry about. Morgan goes off to chase butterflies, followed by Natasha. Sarah stays where she is but brings out a small notebook and begins writing—or Steve thinks, remembering what Tony had said earlier—drawing.

“Excuse me,” he tells Jim politely and scoots closer to his daughter. Sure enough, she’s working on a quick, very pretty, stylized sketch of Morgan running around the garden.

“That’s very good,” he murmurs.

Sarah jumps and slams the book closed. Steve doesn’t sigh but it’s a near thing. He supposes he probably shouldn’t have startled her.

“You know,” he tries again. “I used to draw. In fact, I brought this because I wanted to show it to you.”

He brings his own sketchbook from inside his coat and passes it to her. “What is it?” she asks, running her hand over the embossed cover.

Steve smiles encouragingly. “Why don’t you open it and find out?”

Slowly, almost wondrously, Sarah opens the sketchbook. The first page is a detailed picture of Peggy, drawn on the first day of their marriage. In fact, all the drawings in this book are of Peggy, chosen specifically by Steve to show Sarah.

“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Steve says quietly. It hurts to talk about her even now but he pushes through anyway. “We had just gotten married. I was always an early riser but your mother, she was awake even earlier than I was. She said she wasn’t much like the average omega but she could at least make sure my breakfast was ready and waiting for me. I tried once to tell her it wasn’t something that I needed. She slapped the back of my head and told me it was something she wanted to do and I would damn well stop complaining.”

Sarah giggles and Steve smiles at her. He nods at Tony. “Reminds me a little of your nanny honestly.”

His daughter follows his gaze. “He is rather good at that, isn’t he?” she asks thoughtfully.

“Yes,” Steve agrees emphatically, thinking of their argument that first day. “That morning, I woke up alone. Bit of a surprise for newlyweds so I looked around and there your mother was, sitting in the window in that nightgown, watching the sun rise over the forest, the most beautiful thing I thought I would ever see.” He gazes down at the page, lost in memories. He remembers the way she had scented back then, her light scent intertwining with his heavier one, the mark of a bonded couple. It had sent thrills of happiness through him each time he scented her.

“Your mother was incredible,” Steve continues as he turns the page to the next drawing. “She always used to wear her hair up like this, except when she slept. Then she would let it all down. It felt like being let in on a secret.”

A few more pages—the early days of them as a newly bonded couple, her coronation outfit in all its finery, and then Steve stops, tracing his finger over the barely there swell of Peggy’s belly. “She was so excited for Harley. We both were. We spent months designing the nursery, arguing over the name—I won with Harlan but your mother insisted on a good, Christian name for his middle name—”

“Zacharias,” Sarah finishes.

“Zacharias,” Steve agrees. He makes a face and she giggles again. “Terrible, isn’t it?”

Sarah outright laughs at that one, drawing the attention of Tony and the boys. He waves them off. The three slowly go back to their discussion but not without a few suspicious looks that set off Sarah’s laughs again.

“Then we had Peter,” he continues once they stop laughing, flipping to the drawing he’d done of Peggy standing with Harley’s hand on her stomach. “And she was just as excited about him.” He turns another couple of pages to Peggy resting both hands on her stomach. “And then there was you. Our first girl and you know, we hadn’t even prepared a girl’s name, too caught up in the two boys that we had. We just assumed we’d have another boy. But then you were born, hair white as snow, and it was obvious: Sarah Margaret, for your grandmother and your mother. You were such a joy to us and I—I have regretted every day letting you go, not watching you as you grew up.”

He carefully reaches out to hold onto her hand, watching for any sign that this isn’t something she wants. “I can only hope you’ll find it in your heart to one day forgive me.”

Sarah looks at him with big solemn eyes that reminds him of his mother. Then she reaches for her notebook and opens it back up, holding it out to him. “This is Morgan running around the room without any clothes on because she didn’t want to take a bath.”

Steve, honored and deeply touched, looks at the picture and promptly bursts out laughing.

Chapter Text

“Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Secret Rogers Society, King Harlan Rogers presiding,” Harley says solemnly. “Please rise for the recitation of our pledge.”

Morgan leans over to Peter and whispers, “What does ‘restation’ mean?”

“Recitation,” Peter whispers back. “It means we have to say our pledge.”

“Oh.” She thinks about that for a moment. “I don’t know it though.”

Peter shrugs. “That’s okay. None of us do, ‘cept Harley. Just kinda mumble along.”

Morgan giggles and obediently mumbles nonsense under her breath as Harley leads them in their pledge. They only recently started the society last month for the purposes of getting Daddy to marry Mister Carbonell so the pledge is a lot of flowery language that she’s pretty sure Harley found in a book from the library. She’s not even sure that he actually knows what any of it means but it sounds good and important so nobody makes a fuss about it. Besides, having a secret society and a pledge makes them sound like they’re the spies Miss Natasha is always talking about and Morgan likes that idea. She likes that they’re spying on Daddy and Mister Carbonell even if it’s for a good reason and not a bad one like Miss Natasha talks about.

“First order of business,” Harley says after they’ve all sat back down. “It is the birthday of one of our own. Sarah, happy birthday. I snuck down to the kitchens this morning at great risk to myself to steal cookies from Cook so here they are.”

He passes out some of Cook’s famous cinnamon sugar cookies to everyone before continuing, “Next on the agenda—”

“Hey, Harley,” Peter interrupts. “When do I get to be king?”

“Never,” Harley says dismissively. “Betas don’t get to be king.”

“That’s not fair!”

Harley talks over him. “Next! We need to talk about—”

“What about me?” Sarah says. “I’m not a beta. Can I be king?”

“’Course you can’t. You’re just a girl. Only boys get to be king.”

“But that means just you get to be king,” Sarah points out. “And Peter’s right. That’s not fair. Everybody should get a turn to be king.”

“Well you can’t,” Harley argues. “Because there’s a rule that says there’s only one king and that’s me so you can’t be it.”

Morgan protests, “That’s not a rule. You made that up!”

“It is too a rule!”

Peter, who is now pouting, says sulkily, “You’re just saying that so you don’t have to share like Mister Carbonell says.”

“What does Mister Carbonell say?”

The four children freeze and slowly turn toward the doorway. Mister Carbonell is standing there, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised. “Come on, what do I say?” he prompts again. “Don’t keep me waiting. I gave you a day off for Sarah’s birthday and instead of behaving, I find you four arguing again, which makes me very cross. So who’s going to tell me what’s going on?”

Morgan scuffs her toe along the nursery floor. “Harley won’t let anybody else be king,” she says eventually. She doesn’t like it when Mister Carbonell is upset with them. He doesn’t ever get angry like some of their old nannies did but he does get disappointed and sometimes, Morgan thinks that’s a lot worse.

“King of what?” Mister Carbonell asks.

“Of our—“ Peter starts to say.

“Harlan Zacharias Rogers, don’t you dare pinch your brother,” Mister Carbonell says dangerously.

Harley freezes. Peter glares at him and says in a rush, “Of our secret society.”

Mister Carbonell looks down. To the others, he probably looks upset but Morgan is little and she can look up just enough to see his face twitch in a small smile. Bolstered, she says, “You say we have to share.”

“That’s right, I do.” Mister Carbonell gives Harley a regretful look. “Sorry, Harley. You’re going to need to let someone else have a turn being king of your secret society.”

“But I’m going to be king!” Harley bursts out. “Shouldn’t I be the one getting the practice?”

Mister Carbonell looks a little taken aback, then a little saddened. “You’re right,” he agrees. “You should be learning. But right now, your siblings would like a turn. You can go back to being king after they’ve all gotten a chance.”

“Fine,” Harley snarls. “I guess Peter can be king then.”

Morgan can see in Peter’s eyes that he wants to refuse now that Harley’s reacted so poorly but she gently nudges him. “Peter,” she says urgently. “You have to tell Mister Carbonell to leave. It’s a secret siety.”

Society , Morgan,” Peter corrects. He gives Mister Carbonell, who looks like he’s trying to suppress a laugh, a stern look. “You have to leave.”

“Got it,” Mister Carbonell replies, holding up his hands apologetically. “I’ll leave you four to it.” He pauses in the doorway, glancing at the cookies in their hands. “And please stop stealing cookies from Cook. She’s already making a cake for tonight.”

“She is?” Morgan gasps, too distracted by the thought of cake to remember to hide her cookie and deny its existence like they usually do.

“Oops,” Mister Carbonell mutters and ducks out of sight.

As soon as Mister Carbonell is back in his room, Peter says, “Next order of business: proof that Daddy and Mister Carbonell like each other. Who wants to go first?”

“I do!” Sarah says excitedly. “Daddy’s been giving me art lessons sometimes during our breaks and I saw in his book yesterday that he has lots of pictures of Mister Carbonell.”

Morgan and Peter clap approvingly. Harley is sulking in his seat.

“Mister Carbonell got a book for Daddy when we were in the library,” Morgan says.

“Was it the science one?” Sarah asks. “I saw it in his room yesterday. He really liked it. There were a lot of bookmarks.”

“I overheard Miss Potts tell Miss Natasha that Father smiles more around Mister Carbonell,” Harley offers despite his still-sullen look. “Actually, he smiles a lot more now than he has in four years.”

They’re all quiet for a moment. Then Sarah says, “I wish we could have made Daddy smile more.”

“We were pretty beastly,” Harley points out but it’s quiet and it sounds like an argument he’s had with himself before.

Nobody else argues with him though. They had had some awful nannies in the past but several of the others hadn’t deserved the treatment the Rogers children had subjected them to in the name of getting their father’s attention.

“Do you ever wonder,” Peter begins hesitantly, “if we’d been better behaved, if we could’ve gotten his attention that way instead?”

Harley doesn’t say anything. Morgan can read his expression though. He wonders about that all the time.

“Right then,” Peter continues eventually once it becomes obvious that Harley isn’t going to answer. “If we’re all in agreement that Mister Carbonell and our father do like each other, does anyone have any ideas on how to get them together?”

Two days later, Tony feels a tug on his sleeve and looks down to see, as he expected, Morgan peering up at him. “Hello, Miss Morgan,” he says cheerfully, kneeling down to greet her. “I was just coming to join you all. Why aren’t you outside with your siblings?”

“Harley wanted me to grab a game from the closet and I went to get it but there was a really big spider in there and I got scared,” she says in a rush.

“A spider,” Tony says with a shudder. “Why didn’t you get Peter? He likes spiders.”

“But Mister Carbonell,” she whines, pulling on his sleeve. “It’s really big.”

“…How big?”

She holds her hands apart several inches. “This much.”

Tony shudders again. “Are you sure I have to be the one to go kill it?” he asks. He hates spiders, hates how they move, hates how they lurk everywhere. They’re absolutely awful and he would like nothing more than to let Peter take care of it. But if it’s as big as Morgan is claiming, he doesn’t want Peter to get hurt trying to catch it. He doesn’t know how to tell if spiders are venomous or not but surely such a big spider could hurt a small child like Peter.

“I asked Peter and he said it was too big for him.”

Peter said that?” Tony asks doubtfully. He’s known Peter for almost four months now and he’s never once seen Peter meet a spider he didn’t love.

“Yes!” Morgan says exasperatedly. “You have to hurry! We can’t let it get away.”

Tony sighs and lets Morgan tug him down the stairs. He’s still not sure why he’s so necessary to take care of this spider but he has an understanding with the children. They haven’t tried to play a nasty trick on him since that thing with the frogs on his first day in the castle. He trusts them. If they’re saying that there’s a terrifying spider in one of the closets then he feels he owes it to them to believe them.

Peter is waiting outside one of the downstairs closets. He’s dancing on his toes anxiously and that, more than anything else, convinces Tony that something is seriously wrong.

“Pete,” Steve calls from inside the closet. Tony frowns. What on earth is the king doing there? “Are you sure there’s something in here?”

“Positive!” Peter calls back. He sees Morgan and Tony joining them and grins relievedly. “Mister Carbonell is here to help you.”

He grabs hold of Tony’s arm, yanks open the door, and all but shoves him through the doorway. Tony stumbles into Steve’s arms, caught off balance, and only manages to not fall because of Steve’s quick reaction. The door slams shut behind them, the lock turning with a loud snick.

“Peter!” Tony shouts. “Why is the door locked?”

“We’ll unlock it as soon as the spider’s dead,” Peter calls back. It sounds like he’s trying to be reassuring. Tony is not reassured. “We don’t want it getting away.”

He turns to Steve. In the low lighting, it looks like he’s trying to hide a smile but Tony doesn’t feel like laughing at the moment. “Please tell me you’ve had some luck finding that spider,” he all but begs.

Steve shakes his head. “Sorry. Truth be told.” He stops and glances at the door before lowering his voice. “Truth be told, I’m not so certain it’s still in here.”

“Oh,” Tony squeaks. He’s not entirely sure that the spider no longer being in the closet is actually better in any way. If it’s truly as large as Morgan claims and if it’s out wandering the castle…absolutely not. He looks around the darkened cupboard again. The room smells damp and a little musty, the only light coming from the keyhole. It’s the perfect place for a monstrous spider to hide in.

“What is it that the children needed from in here anyway?” he asks.

Steve holds up something that looks sort of like a flat bat. “Cricket, I think. It’s the only game in here.”

Tony is only tangentially familiar with the sport, having heard about it from Tiberius, who had played when he still lived in England. Tony had always heard that polo is more of a gentleman’s sport than cricket but he supposes that cricket is probably easier for a group of young children to play.

“What do you think?” Steve asks. “Should we tell them that the spider escaped at some point and hope they’ll let us out?”

Tony slumps back against the wall. “That’s probably our best option,” he admits.

“Peter,” Steve calls, voice low and disapproving.

Something stirs next to Tony’s ear.

Something strokes his shoulder with one long leg and then climbs up into his hair.

“Steve,” he whispers, absolutely petrified. “Steve, I think I found it.”

Steve turns, eyes going wide as soon as he sees him. “Yep,” he agrees. “You did. Just—just hold still.”

“Where am I going to go?” Tony hisses. His knees are shaking. Steve is slowly raising the bat, which scares him almost more than the spider does. He can feel the weight of the bug in his hair—it’s heavy and awful and he thinks it might be tangled in the strands, which makes everything so much worse.

“Please,” he whimpers.

Steve says again, “Hold still.” Then he swings the bat forward and he must have the best aim of all time because it doesn’t even rustle Tony’s hair but he hears a dull thud as it connects with the spider and then a sickening splat as the spider is smashed into the wall. Tony’s knees give out and he drops to the floor. Steve immediately drops the bat so he can gather Tony into his arms.

“You’re okay, right?” he asks frantically, fingers carding through Tony’s hair though whether he’s searching for blood or spider is anyone’s guess.

The way he’s being held is absolutely inappropriate. Tony is an unwed omega so far below Steve’s station it’s hilarious. Steve shouldn’t even be touching him, let alone holding him. It would be the scandal of the year if they were back home. And yet…and yet it feels amazing and he can’t stop himself from leaning into the touch. It’s just a simple comfort but he can’t remember the last time anyone touched him like this. Even Janet, always so eager for a hug, has never brushed his hair like this.

“I’m okay,” he says, trilling softly when Steve doesn’t stop his frantic search. “You didn’t get me. I just really don’t like spiders.”

Steve nods, eyeing the spot on the wall where the spider is flattened. “I’m not so fond of them myself anymore.”

“Next time,” Tony says, “we tell the children to take care of it themselves.”

Steve looks at the latest letter from Clint and Bucky and sighs heavily, scrubbing his hand over his face. Bucky’s letter is full of worrying comments: about the drought conditions, about the thoughts of the farmers, about the stockpiles of pitchforks and torches that he’s found. Steve doesn’t want to march on the farmers. They’re his people and he knows that they’re rightfully worried. But they’re also hungry and hungry people caught in the midst of events they can’t control start looking for someone to blame. Steve is, as he’s noted before, an easy target. He sits here in his castle with his fine clothes and the food on his table, food that comes from his own farms in the north of Dacia rather than from the drought-stricken southern region. He must look like a tyrant to them, unfeeling and apathetic, offering advice that comes from the newest research rather than the tried and true traditional methods.

He can see why they’re angry despite everything he’s tried to do for them. But he can’t let them march on the castle. His children are here. Steve would do anything to protect them.

He sighs again and stands, intent on heading back to the library. He’s been through all of the books in there multiple times, hoping for an answer that he could give the farmers. Nothing has stood out to him. But still. Maybe there’s something he overlooked. Maybe something in a work of fiction instead of one of the works on agriculture.

To his surprise, Tony is opening one of the doors when he turns the corner. “Mister Carbonell,” he says as he draws closer.

Tony jumps and looks over his shoulder. “Your Majesty,” he says with a little bow more befitting of a noble than the deep bows the peasantry give him. Steve finds himself wondering once again at Tony’s past that he would feel secure enough to greet him in such a way.

Rather than commenting on it, he says, “Didn’t I ask you to call me Steve?” He doesn’t often have to remind Tony to call him by his first name despite it being an uncommon liberty not usually taken in other nations. Had they been anywhere else, they would never call each other by their first names at this point in their acquaintance. But this is Dacia and Steve has never stood on ceremony. Tony is taking care of his children. Allowing him to drop the formalities is the least he can do.

Tony smiles crookedly. “You called me Mister Carbonell first,” he reminds him.

“I did,” Steve says ruefully. “I apologize. My mind is…not where it should be.”

“Anything I can help with?” Tony asks. He opens the library door wide enough for Steve to pass through.

“Unfortunately, I think I may be past the point of help,” Steve says as he leads them to one of the windows. This one is his favorite of the library windows as there’s just enough of a break in the trees outside of the castle for him to see the thousands of stars scattered across the night sky.

He sits down on the window seat, resting his back against the wall. Tony sits down across from him, tucking one knee under his chin. The seat is long enough that even with Steve’s legs stretched out in front of him, there’s still about a foot’s worth of space between him and the nanny. Tony turns his face to the window, gazing out at the night. It’s a full moon tonight, the silvery light filtering in through the window, illuminating Tony’s face in a way that reminds him just how young the nanny is.

He wonders, not for the first time, what drove Tony to his castle. Tony is an American omega, clearly part of high society if his manners and education are anything to base his suspicions on. And just as clearly, he’s running from something, as there are no records of an Anthony Carbonell in American society, or at least, none that Steve has found.

What brought you here?

In other parts of Europe and even parts of Dacia, society omegas like Tony would have traveled the continent for a few years, accompanied by an older omega of course. Peggy had never done something like that as she and Steve had already been wedded by that point. But her sister, only a few years younger, had. To the best of his knowledge, she had never actually returned from her tour though she sends letters to her family every Christmas, reassuring them that she’s doing okay, and just as many letters to Steve every summer, asking after him. He wonders where Sharon is now, what had caused her to leave her family, if something had driven her away like Tony had clearly been.

“May I ask you a question?” he asks. Tony turns from the window and the way the shadows dance upon his lovely face makes Steve’s fingers itch for a pencil.

“You just did,” Tony teases.

Steve doesn’t rise to the bait. “Another one then.”

“Of course.”

“Last month, when I found you sleeping here, you called me Tiberius.”

He doesn’t think that the shadows on the omega’s face now are from the moonlight. Tony glances away from him, into the darkened library.

“I didn’t hear a question there.”

“Who is he?” Steve asks. “He must have been someone important to remember him as you woke.”

Tony is young, over a decade younger than Steve, but he looks older than his years as he looks back at Steve. Tiberius is someone who hurt him then, a thought that is confirmed when Tony softly says, “A friend. I thought.”

The omega stands back up and gives Steve a tight smile. “Good night, Your Majesty.”

Steve is left alone to his thoughts, more concerned now than he had been when he’d entered the library.

A few days after his conversation with Steve, Tony is working on the lessons for the next week when Harley finds him early on a Saturday morning. He had given the children the day off, figuring that Natasha could watch them for a few hours while he got his work done, and they had promptly decided on playing in the secret passages that apparently lurk within the castle walls. Tony’s been itching to explore them himself but he hasn’t wanted to do so without a guide. Aynor Castle is large. He imagines it would be easy to get lost in the hidden passages.

“Is there something I can help you with?” he asks.

Harley gives him a pathetic look and Tony bites back a sigh. That look always precludes an attempt to appeal to his sympathy because the children got into some sort of trouble. It hasn’t worked on him yet but he’s sure there’s always a first.

“You know how Peter likes to get himself into small spaces?” Harley asks.

Oh dear.

Tony does know. Peter is practically one of the spiders he so admires with the way he climbs the walls and watches everything with big, innocent eyes that don’t fool Tony for a second. He’s long thought that Peter is likely to get himself into a space he can’t get himself back out of.

“Let me guess,” he says dryly. “Peter is stuck.”

Harley nods. “Did you know that cause we’re connected?” he asks. Tony frowns. This supposed connection between the two of them is something that Harley has recently started talking about. He’s fairly certain it’s because they’re both engineers, which he wouldn’t mind so much if Harley hadn’t used it in an attempt to treat Tony like an older brother instead of a figure of authority so he’s been trying to put a stop to it. It hasn’t worked yet.

“Did you try to get him out?” Tony asks instead of responding to Harley’s inane question.

“’Course we did,” Harley says indignantly. “But he’s stuck real good.”

Tony doesn’t even bother correcting his grammar as he stands and follows him to the formal dining room, apparently the closest entrance to wherever Peter is. Steve is already there, waiting patiently with Morgan and Sarah beside a small crack in the wall.

“Why is he here?” Tony hisses, thinking of the way Steve had asked him about Tiberius the other night.

“He’s stronger than you are,” Harley says like he thinks Tony is acting crazy. “He’s here to pull Peter out.”

“Then why am I here?”

“In case Peter got scared.”

He’s not sure if he should be offended that Harley doesn’t think he’s strong enough to pull Peter out on his own or flattered that he thinks Tony is enough to calm Peter down. It doesn’t matter though as they’re standing now beside Steve and the girls.

“Your Majesty,” he says demurely, still embarrassed by the way he had acted that night. For heaven’s sake, it hadn’t been like Steve could have known Tiberius is a sore spot. He shouldn’t have gotten so defensive.

Steve says hesitantly, “Mister Carbonell.” Tony hides a wince.

The children are looking curiously between the two of them and Tony clears his throat. “Where’s Peter stuck?” he asks.

“First hallway on the right, about halfway down,” Harley says.

Steve frowns at the three of them. “You’re not going to show us?”

“Uh,” Harley dithers, having clearly not anticipated such a question. Eventually he decides on, “Nope!” and shoves the two inside before closing the secret door.

Tony spins to face Steve and puts his hands on his hips. “Your children are up to trouble,” he accuses. He’s not sure what kind of trouble they’re up to but it seems very obvious to him that they want the adults out of the way for whatever mischief they’re planning. Peter probably isn’t even stuck.

Steve scratches the back of his neck. “I would apologize but I’m so relieved they’re including me that I can’t bring myself to care.” And, well, Tony can’t blame him for that.

“Do you think we should at least try to look for Peter?” he asks.

“We can do that,” Steve agrees. He leads the way down the corridor, more familiar with it than Tony is. “I haven’t been down here since I was a boy.”

“Really?” Tony asks curiously.

“Bucky and I used to explore. I stopped when—” Steve stops. It’s dark in the corridor but there’s enough light from small slits in the wall that Tony can see the sorrowed expression on his face. “Peggy was too proper to want to come down here.”

Tony isn’t really sure what to say to that. Should he apologize? Should he change the subject?

It doesn’t seem to matter though as Steve shakes his head a little and then says, “I’m sorry for whatever I said to offend you the other night.”

He sighs. So they’re talking about this then. He should probably be glad for this opportunity. He doesn’t want Steve to think he misstepped, after all. But Tony has always been terrible at confrontations. Confrontations had been an area fraught with politics, or at least they had been in the society Tony had grown up in. He’s always been too blunt, too quick to take the blame on himself, to be any good at handling them.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he says. “You couldn’t have known Tiberius would be a difficult subject for me.”

“Still. I never wanted you to get hurt,” Steve replies and lets the subject drop.

They come to the area where Peter is supposedly stuck, only to find that the corridor is completely empty. Tony peers into the gloom further down the passage. “We could keep looking,” he offers doubtfully. “But I’ll bet he’s with the others, having a laugh at our expense.”

“Quite possibly,” Steve agrees. He hesitates. “Are you busy today?”

Tony thinks about the lessons he’d left upstairs. “No.”

“Then would you be willing to accompany me on a tour around the secret passages of Aynor Castle?” Steve asks. “I noticed you looked excited when you came into the room.”

He had noticed that? Really? Tony starts to say yes and then bites his lip. “Are you busy?” he asks instead.

“I’m sure my council believes so,” Steve says unconcernedly. “But I would rather show you around.”

No one, other than Janet, has ever been willing to give up their duties—their responsibilities—for Tony. He fights back a blush and nods. “I’d love to.”

Towards the end of the month, Steve holds a session where he invites his citizens to present their problems to him. Often, there is nothing that he can do at that moment as he’s often given problems that require more than a couple minutes to solve. But he always makes sure to address his people by name and to refer them to one of his advisors to explain their problem in greater detail so that he can discuss it with his council later. It’s a process that mostly works and it has historical basis over the centuries his family has ruled.

This last year or so has been difficult as he’s had to deal with the drought in the southern region and the complaints of the farmers. They haven’t sent anyone this month though, which almost has Steve more worried than if they had sent the same delegation that they have for the past year. While he knows that there’s nothing more he can do for them, the fact that they’re no longer attending the court session means they’ve given up entirely.

He leans over to Lord Fury and whispers, “Get a messenger to Barton. I want to know why the farmers stayed back this month.”

The lord looks as taciturn as always but Steve has always been excellent at reading people. He can read in the tense line of his shoulders that he’s just as worried as Steve is. Fury nods silently and Steve turns back to the citizen in front of him, reassured that the situation will be taken care of.

Steve has always opened these sessions up to the public to observe. When he first became king, nearly fifteen years ago, the sessions had been attended by immense crowds that would fill the throne room, stretch out the door, and down the hill. After Peggy had died, attendance had tapered off. He still gets the same number of requests as he’s always received but the number of observers has dwindled to rarely more than a dozen. When the drought had first started, attendance picked back up but as the rains continued to stay away and the crop yield didn’t improve, people had once again stopped coming.

He wonders, sometimes, what had been so special about Peggy, why everyone had come when she had been alive. He knows that his grief had changed many things but he had tried to keep it from affecting how he treated his people. She had rarely interacted with the requesters, choosing instead to sit beside Steve in silent support. And yet the people had come until the day she died.

There seems to be more people on this day than there have been in months past. The numbers are still small, barely filling the throne room, but it’s enough to be  noticeable. He wonders again what has changed about his behavior that his citizens feel comfortable appearing before him again.

The door at the back of the room opens just enough to let a group of five people slip through. Idly, Steve glances up from the person bowing in front of him to the new arrivals. Four children and an adult he notes and glances back down. Interesting group but not enough to hold his interest—at least, not until his brain puts together the outlines with the identities. He immediately looks back up as he realizes that those are his children.

Tony lifts his hand in a tiny wave, clearly realizing that Steve has recognized them. He can’t help his small frown as he wonders if his own family has come to lay a complaint at his feet. But Tony smiles reassuringly and then kneels down beside the children, talking to them in a low voice that Steve can’t make out at this distance. He looks like he’s instructing them though. A moment later, Pepper joins them. Steve sees her gesture at one of the benches along the wall for people who have complaints. Tony shakes his head, explains something to her, and Pepper nods her understanding. She crouches beside the children as well, Tony moving aside to make room for her.

Steve slowly gives his attention back to the citizen, curious to know what has brought his family to the throne room on this day but unworried. Tony is watching over them—and he’s finding more and more that Tony is easy to trust.

Tony can’t find Sarah.

He’s been all over the castle, all over the grounds, and through each of the secret passages (and oh how glad he is that he let Steve drag him away from his duties two weeks ago to give him that tour now). Sarah is nowhere to be found. He drags his hands through his hair as he bursts back into the schoolroom.

“Have you found her?” Pepper asks worriedly. The other three children crowd around him to look up at him with identical hopeful expressions.

Tony shakes his head. As one, the children’s expressions fall. “You have no idea what might have set her off?” he asks them. He’s asked this question a couple times already and each time, they’ve shaken their heads. They do so this time as well and Tony sighs, only barely managing to bite back a groan.

Pepper reels back, face twisting in disgust and anguish. Tony can’t smell his own scent but he’s fairly certain that whatever he smells like, it can’t be good judging by her face and the way her scent is roiling with fear.

“I’ve sent Natasha and Rhodey to the woods. None of the guards saw anything and none of them are missing or asleep so I hope—” He stops in the middle of his sentence as there’s a spike of terror from Morgan. Tony drops to his knees to gather the girl up into a hug, purring comfortingly until her scent evens back out. He’s still uneasy and worried but he can at least make the children feel better.

“Can you keep watching them?” Tony asks.

Pepper nods firmly. “Of course I can,” she says imperiously and he believes her. Pepper’s talents may be best directed towards administrative duties but he fully believes she can do anything she sets her mind to.

He stands and heads for the door. “I’m going to go see the king,” he says. It’s the only thing he can think of that he hasn’t tried yet.

Pepper winces. “He’s in a council meeting.”

“He’ll want to know,” Tony argues. Perhaps the old Steve wouldn’t have cared but this one, who has tried so hard to rebuild his relationships with his children, would certainly want to know what’s going on. “Unless you have any other ideas about where she might be?”

“No,” she admits. “I know that when Sarah was younger, she used to have a place that she liked to hide in but I don’t know where it is.”

It’s the first that he’s heard of it, which is incredibly frustrating but he tries not to get angry. Tensions are running high already and they’re all stressed. It can be easy to forget something like that. Tony glances at Harley and Peter. “What about you two? Do you know where it is?”

They both shake their heads. “Sorry,” Harley offers. “I remember Mother knew where it was but she never told anyone to the best of my knowledge.”

“Right,” Tony breathes, breath starting to come a little faster. He can’t lose Sarah. He just can’t . He has come to adore these children over the last four months. He can’t bear to lose any of them but especially not Sarah, who’s only just starting to believe in herself, to shake off the years she’s spent trampled beneath the heels of her tutors. He can’t lose her.

He hears a quiet rumbling and it takes him a moment to realize that Harley is hugging him and trying to emulate the soothing rumble he’s heard his father make. It doesn’t work quite the same as if it were Steve or even Pepper doing it but it’s one of his children doing it and so he forces himself to calm.

“You’re going to find her,” Harley says, gazing up at him with trusting eyes. “You will.” And he says it so firmly that Tony can’t help but believe him.

“I will,” he promises and turns to find Steve.

Steve is, just as Pepper had said, in a council meeting. Tony is nearly stopped when he tries to enter the room but he must be letting off a greater scent of distress than he realized because the doors are flung open and Steve stalks out into the hallway.

“Tony, what’s wrong?” he says urgently.

“I can’t find Sarah.”

The hallway explodes into chaos.

“What happened?” Steve demands. He throws a look over his shoulder at the guards. “What are you doing standing there? You should be searching.”

“There’s a search party being organized by Sergeant Wilson,” Tony adds. “He can direct you.”

“Tony,” Steve says again as the guards disappear down the hall and the Lords begin organizing their own search. “What happened?”

“An argument, I think,” Tony says. “Harley accidentally ripped one of her drawings yesterday. They hadn’t made up when they went to bed last night and she was gone when we woke up. I checked the passages, the gardens, everywhere I could think to look in the castle. Natasha and Rhodey are searching the forest.”

“Who’s with Harley, Peter, and Morgan?”

“Pepper is. I came to find you.”

Steve sets off down the hall, looking determined. Tony scurries after him, all but running to keep up with him. He remembers what Harley had said, that the queen used to know where Sarah would hide when she was upset. He wonders if Steve also knows where she might be.

“You did the right thing,” Steve says as they walk. “But I wish you’d come to me sooner.”

“I didn’t think she would be this hard to find.”

“It’s a big castle. Easy for a small child to hide.”

That’s true but Tony hadn’t wanted to bring the whole castle to a panic. He himself hadn’t even started panicking until he’d searched both the gardens and the castle and even then, he’d only alerted Natasha and Rhodey to start searching the forest while he went through the hidden passages. It had only been after that he had told Pepper and the other servants.

He doesn’t bother telling Steve that though. It’s clear that Steve is worried but trying not to panic just yet. If Tony had been in his place, he would have been a lot harsher on the nanny who had lost his beloved child.

“Harley said there was a place she used to hide that only Queen Margaret knew about,” he says instead.

“There is,” Steve agrees. “But Peggy wasn’t the only one who knew about it.”

He leads them to a room that Tony recognizes from the day of the picnic—Steve’s bedroom. That day, Tony hadn’t really looked around the room and he doesn’t really have the time to do so either but he does note that the furniture, while simpler than the children’s furniture and even Tony’s, is expensively made. He runs a hand over one of the chairs: sturdy, well-made, well-loved.

“One of my ancestors had a secret prison built below the castle, separate from the dungeons,” Steve says, running his hand over the books on the shelves. “It was meant for traitors to the crown, to make them disappear without publicly killing them. Only one way in and one way out: through this wall.” He pulls on one of the books and the bookshelf swings open to reveal a dark, gaping hole in the wall. “We don’t like to talk about it; it wasn’t really a shining point in our history. My mother wanted to have the prison caved in but the architects told her it could destabilize the foundations. Sarah found it years ago.”

He takes one of the torches from the wall and starts down the steps. Tony follows him, nearly slipping on the slick stairs. “Watch your step,” Steve says unnecessarily.

If it had been any other circumstance, Tony would have made a snarky comment. As it is, he’s too worried and too busy listening for Sarah to care. The stairs get steeper as they go down, the floor slicker, and the corridor darker. They must be several stories below the castle by now and Tony can see why it would have been the perfect place to hide traitors. The very air is stifling and it feels as though something is watching him. If he had been trapped down here, he would have lost all hope, gone mad with the isolation. He’s not even sure he’ll be able to make it back out without leaning heavily on the king. He can’t imagine why Sarah would want to hide here.

About halfway down, he catches a whiff of her scent, the acrid woodsmoke and ozone just barely drifting across his nose. “She’s here,” he says.

In the flickering light of the torch, he sees Steve nod. “I smell her too.”

They come to the bottom of the stairs, turn a corner, and there she is, sitting on the floor with a couple sandwich crusts scattered around her. A rat is nibbling on one of the crusts and Tony only just barely manages not to scream.

Sarah,” Steve breathes. Sarah looks up, scrambles to her feet, and throws herself into her father’s arms. Tony takes the torch from him before he drops it though he feels like dropping it as well so he can hold onto the girl. “Don’t you ever do that again.”

“I’m sorry,” she sobs. “I couldn’t open the door.”

“It’s okay,” Steve says shakily, sinking to the floor so he can better hold her. “You’re okay. I’ve got you, Sarah. You’re okay.”

Chapter Text

“Mister Carbonell?”

“Yes, Miss Morgan?”

“Will you tell me a bedtime story?”

Tony pauses in turning down the lights. “A bedtime story?” he asks doubtfully. The kids have been absolute menaces today, little terrors who couldn’t manage to sit still for longer than a couple minutes. He knows that they’re just kids and so he shouldn’t get mad at them but that didn’t mean it hadn’t been exhausting, chasing them all over the castle.

She nods eagerly, sitting up in bed, hands clasped together on her lap. “And then I’ll go right to sleep,” she promises.

“Okay,” Tony says slowly. “Uh—once upon a time there was a little girl named Maguna and she went to bed. The end.”

Morgan gapes at him. “Mister Carbonell, that’s not a story!” she protests.

“Sure it is. It’s my favorite story.” And at the moment, it is. Usually, when the children ask him for a bedtime story, he reads them something from whatever book they’re working through but they finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yesterday and he hasn’t yet had a chance to pick out a new book. He’d intended on doing so today when he took them to the library and then the children escaped from him this morning and the chase hadn’t ended until an hour or so before dinner. Right now, he’s exhausted and a little frustrated and so he thinks he can be excused from coming up with an amazing story on the spot.

“Go to sleep,” he tells her.

She pouts, crossing her arms and sticking her lower lip out. “Mister Carbonell,” she whines, drawing out his name until it’s at least three syllables longer than it should be. He raises an unimpressed eyebrow. “You have to tell me a good story.”

“Oh do I,” he says flatly.

“Yes,” she says with a nod. “Because I’m a princess and you have to do what I say.”

Both of his eyebrows shoot up. “And just who told you that?”

“The maid.”

Tony hums thoughtfully to himself. With the castle slowly coming out of the haze of grief, Pepper has been making staffing changes, including a new maid to clean the children’s bedroom. Tony hadn’t been too impressed with her when she had arrived a few weeks ago, finding her too subservient to work with the willful children, but she did her work well enough so he hadn’t complained. If, however, he finds out that she’s the one who told the children it was okay to act out because they’re royalty, he will definitely have words with Pepper about her staffing decisions.

“I don’t have to do anything and we’ll be discussing abuse of your privilege tomorrow.” He sighs, unable to resist those big eyes of hers. “Are you sure you don’t just want a lullaby?”

She says firmly, “A story. We get a lullaby every night.”

He glances at the other three children who are all watching the two eagerly. “And do you want a story as well?”

Harley nods.

Sarah says, “A true story.”

“A story about you,” Peter finishes. Tony wonders if they planned this.

“Alright,” he says finally and grins when the children cheer. “A story about me, huh.”

“About when you came to the castle,” Morgan offers.

Tony goes still. “When…I came to the castle?” he asks. He hasn’t thought about that in ages, tries actively not to. He doesn’t like thinking about Tiberius if he can avoid it. For all he knows, Tiberius has found himself a new omega—or he could still be searching for Tony. The very thought makes him shudder.

“Are you sure you want to hear that one?” he asks. Morgan nods and he sighs again. He settles onto the bed beside her and scoops her into his lap. “Very well.”

Motioning for the other children to join them, he begins, “Come in close. Lean in because I’m only going to tell this story once.” He waits until they’re all settled on Morgan’s bed—Sarah and Peter pressed up on either side of him and Harley at the foot of the bed—to continue. “Once upon a time, there was a young, rich omega. This omega was a lot like his peers because he was pretty, or so he’d always been told, and he was vivacious, the life of every party he went to. But he was also smart and so he worked for his father’s company, which made him not much like other omegas at all.

“This omega had been hurt before by an alpha who hid her cruelty behind pretty words so he was careful. But he wasn’t careful enough. He met an alpha who had a terrible reputation, but he was kind to the omega and he was sweet and he was handsome, and the omega fell very much in love with him. Then one night, he overheard the alpha talking about all the ways he would mistreat the omega once they were married. He planned to take him from his father’s company and hide him away to make sure that no one would ever see the omega again. The omega would never be allowed to work again and worst of all, this alpha didn’t see a problem with hitting the omega if he misbehaved.

“So the omega ran away. He ran all the way across the ocean where he stumbled upon a tiny country that doesn’t show up on most maps. And then he found a castle that was so sad and a family that was grieving and four little children in need of someone to love them. The omega wasn’t sure if he could be that person but he knew that he wanted to try so he asked to be the one to take care of the children.”

“And he was told yes?” Morgan asks.

“He was told yes,” Tony agrees with a little nod. “And he’s lived there ever since.”

“Is he happy?” Harley asks. There’s an odd expression on his face, one that Tony had sort of expected to see. He, more than the other three children, would be mature enough to understand what Tony is speaking of.

Tony smiles reassuringly at him. “He’s happy.”

Steve sighs deeply, reading over the latest news from Clint.

“Your Majesty?” Sam asks from beside him.

Steve passes him the letter. “The farmers prepare for war. Clint thinks they’ll be ready to march on the castle in another two weeks,” he says quietly, burying his head in his hands. He’d known it would come to this, had been preparing for it for months, but he had hoped it wouldn’t anyway.

Sam reads over the letter, frowning. Steve knows that Sam has been sympathetic to the farmers’ plights. He knows that Sam thinks that there’s more he should have been doing though Steve is at a loss as to what. It’s made Sam a valuable ally in this instance as he can offer Steve suggestions and share what he is thinking. But Sam is also loyal to a fault and he knows that he’ll be able to count on his aid when they march. “Shall I send word to the lords?”

“I think that might be best. Tell them to bring what men they can. We march in a week.”

He doesn’t speak to Tony about anything other than the children very often. But in the last week, Tony has made it known to the king that he thinks Steve is making a mistake. Tony agrees with Sam, that Steve should have done more. It’s an argument that they’ve been having for days, every time they see each other. Even so, his disapproval doesn’t stop him from bringing the children downstairs to watch him leave.

“I don’t know what else you think I could have done,” he murmurs as Tony approaches. The children are still a few feet behind them. He wonders if they’re afraid of him in his armor and that’s why they won’t come any closer.

“You could have sent them food.”

“From the castle stores?” Steve asks. “And risk starving the people here?”

Tony frowns. “I’m sure you had extras. You would be foolish not to.”

“And if the drought had spread north? What then? The castle would starve, as would Aynor City nearby. Do you think I didn’t consider that option?”

“But it didn’t spread,” Tony argues. His eyes are flashing a bewitching shade of brown and Steve finds that he cannot look away. “And your people suffered for it. Is it any wonder that they’re angry now?”

“It’s no wonder,” Steve says. Tony looks up, startled. “Did you think I didn’t care?”

“I knew you cared but—”

“Tony,” he murmurs. “I don’t want to fight with you. I considered every possible option and either it was turned away or I and my council didn’t think it wise. I didn’t make these decisions alone. I hate that it’s led to this—I wish to God that we could have found another way—but I’ve been left no other option.”

The omega looks exhausted. “I can’t watch anyone else march to war,” he whispers.

Steve abruptly remembers that Tony comes from a nation war-torn, a bloody civil war where brother fought brother. How many friends and family members had Tony lost during those years? Tony so rarely speaks of his past, so rarely shows that he’s bothered by events that happen outside the castle, that Steve sometimes forgets the omega hasn’t lived in the castle his entire life. But in all likelihood, the omega has seen more of war than Steve can ever imagine.

“Just…just remember mercy has a longer arm than a swift sword,” Tony says. He pats Steve’s breast pocket gently. There’s something in the pocket now, something that hadn’t been there before, that makes Steve curious about how he might have missed it being put there. Tony smiles at it. “Look at it once you’re on the road.”

“I will,” Steve promises and pats the pocket as well.

Abruptly, Tony turns and motions the children over. They come readily now as though they’d never hesitated. Perhaps, Steve figures, Tony had asked for a private moment with him. He gives each of them a hug, promises them he’ll be back soon.

“Before you even have time to miss me,” he swears.

“But I miss you now,” Morgan whines.

Tony clicks his tongue disapprovingly. “Miss Morgan, what did we say about whining?”

She sulks, “To not to.”

Steve throws Tony an amused glance. The omega shrugs. Clearly, there’s something there that Steve isn’t understanding, some lesson that they must have recently had as Morgan has only in the last month started whining about things she doesn’t like.

Tony gives him a hug as well as soon as the children step back. “You have to come back,” he says softly. “Harley doesn’t know how to rule.”

It’s an abrupt reminder of how much farther he still has to go to make up for his years of neglect and he knows he must look startled. Tony hasn’t reminded him of his failings in almost two months but…but he’s not wrong and when he looks at Harley, he sees the alarm lurking beneath the boy’s calm façade.

“I’ll get on that,” he promises.

Tony steps back to join the children, Morgan climbing up into his arms. They’re the last thing Steve sees before he rounds the bend, his children and their nanny lined up in a picturesque tableau, belied only by the worried looks on their faces.

Once the army has moved out entirely, he reaches for whatever Tony dropped into his pocket. There are two items: a note and a folded square of fabric. The note simply reads Mercy. The fabric square, when he unfolds it, is actually a handkerchief, embroidered with AES in the corner. He doesn’t know what the initials stand for but when he raises the handkerchief to his nose and inhales, he catches Tony’s orange and honeysuckle scent.

“What’s that?” Sam asks as he rides up beside him.

“A gift from Tony.”

Sam leans over to look at it and wrinkles his nose. “Why would he give you that?”

Steve doesn’t know.

“Why did I give him that?” Tony mutters.

“What did you give Father?” Harley asks curiously.

Tony shakes his head. “Nothing important.” He motions back towards the stairs. “Come on; you’ve got lessons.”

“Oh Mister Carbonell, we couldn’t possibly be expected to learn anything today,” Sarah says fretfully. He considers her for a long moment as she continues to watch the door, long since closed behind the king and his soldiers. The other children are watching it as well as though if they wish hard enough, Steve will return in an instant instead of weeks or even months from now.

“Very well,” he agrees. “We can take today off but only if you’ll agree to sit with me in the nursery and do quiet activities.”

The children don’t make a single sound, not a cheer or even excited murmurings, which has him rather more worried than if they had been overly excited. It convinces him that they’re not up to any sort of mischief more than any sweet words they could have come up.

He starts herding them toward the tower, pausing as he passes Pepper. “Natasha, can you escort the children back to the nursery?” he asks. “I need to ask Miss Potts a question.”

Natasha nods and guides the children upstairs. As they go, he hears Morgan ask quietly, “Miss Natasha, is Daddy going to be okay?”

The guard smiles reassuringly at her and says, “Of course he will,” but Tony can see the worried look in her eyes.

“Is there a reason the staff is so concerned over a small farmer’s uprising?” he asks Pepper as soon as the children are out of earshot.

Pepper sighs and glances at where the children have disappeared like she’s making sure they’ve gone. “The king used to spar daily with his guards, Barnes and Wilson. That’s changed since the queen died. He hasn’t exactly let himself go to seed but neither is he in the best form he could be. He may be facing simple farmers but they’re angry and—and Steve isn’t one to let others do the fighting for him.”

“Ah,” Tony says understandably. “I suppose the children will need more looking after than usual then.”

“Probably,” she says with a rueful little smile. He turns to go and she stops him with a hand to his arm. “Tony, with the king not in residence, the queen passed, and Harley not yet an adult, you, as the highest-ranking omega, are in charge of the castle.”

“Ah,” Tony says again, a little overwhelmed. He thinks about the plans his father used to have for the mansion’s protection. “In that case, lock the doors. If the farmers somehow make it past the army, we need to be ready for them.”

He doesn’t think it’ll happen but—just in case.

They’re a week into Steve’s departure when Tony feels the first cramp at breakfast. He’s been expecting something like this for a while but he wishes the timing had been better. It’s not uncommon for stressed omegas to skip a heat. He had actually missed two—one while he was on the run and one soon after his arrival at the castle—which had worried him slightly more than only missing one. If it hadn’t been for the fact that there’s absolutely zero chance of it happening, he might have thought he was pregnant but he’d never once shared a bed with Tiberius so it’s more likely that the stress had suppressed his heat even if missing two heats is somewhat concerning. He’s not surprised—and a little grateful honestly—that it’s finally catching up.

“Natasha,” he says softly after the first wave of cramps has passed. “Does the castle have a heat room?”

She thinks about it. “It’s doubtful,” she finally says. “But there are guest rooms. I thought your heats aren’t usually bad.”

“They aren’t but I’ve missed the last couple.”

“I understand. When do you think it’ll come on?”

He thinks about how bad the cramps are currently and how it compares to heats of the past. “Tomorrow.”

“I’ll get someone to air out the room for you.”

By the time the room is finally ready, his cramps are much worse. It’s definitely going to be a bad heat, unsurprising since he’s missed two. He prepares a set of lesson plans for Natasha to go over with the children.

“I should only miss three days,” he says even as she’s shoving him into his room. “But just in case, I’ve prepared a whole week for you.”

“Got it,” she says. As she closes the door, he hears her tell the children, “Who wants cookies?”

He rests his forehead against the closed door and groans, certain that the children are going to learn absolutely nothing while he’s in heat. Well, he figures, there’s nothing he can do about that so there’s no sense in crying over spilled milk. He turns to the room and starts putting together his nest.

His heats had never been bad but he’d always had the luxury of riding his heats out instead of having to work through them, which he had very much taken advantage of. The summer after he presented, his mother had shown him her dedicated heat nest, full of gauzy fabrics and beautifully embroidered blankets and then helped him put his own nest together. His nest back at the mansion had been a thing of beauty with many soft blankets and plush pillows, dresses from his mother and Janet to remind him of home, and—during his courtship with Tiberius—shirts from his alpha.

He doesn’t have anything like that at the castle. Oh, there are plenty of soft blankets and several fluffy pillows but they scent like the laundry instead of home. The most he has are a few gifts from the children—clothes they’d grown out of, Morgan’s second favorite stuffed animal that she’d shyly given to him that morning, Sarah’s newly filled sketchbook—and the sheets from his own room. Oddly, Harley gives him another sketchbook right before Natasha pushes him into the room.

When he raises it to his nose, he inhales Steve’s familiar scent of chocolate and coffee. “What does that child think he’s doing?” Tony mutters. Even so, it’s a small comfort and he stuffs it under one of the pillows. His skin is starting to prickle with sweat and he grimaces as he takes one last look at the nest. It’s not perfect, it feels more like the generic heat rooms available to the public, but it’s all he has.

Nesting done, he turns his attention to the last item Natasha had given him early that morning before the children woke—a glass dildo with a thick knot at the base. He had raised horrified eyes to hers when she’d handed it to him, saying, “Please tell me you at least washed this before you gave it to me.”

Natasha had blanched and practically yelped, “It’s not mine! I went down to the city last night and got it for you.”

Tony had never been the usual omega, with painful and debilitating heats, but he’d been downright weepy as he’d cooed and said, “That’s really nice of you.”

“I’m always nice. Now, get the children up so we can have breakfast and get you into your room. You’re starting to stink.”

He turns it over in his hands and smiles. It really had been very nice of her to purchase it for him. He hadn’t been looking forward to trying to get through what’s clearly going to be a bad heat with just his fingers, especially as the cramps can only be abated through a knot. Natasha had clearly chosen it with him in mind as it’s painted a deep red with gold etchings that he suspects will probably feel fantastic on his rim. Feeling overheated, he tosses it onto one of the pillows and strips down before crawling into the nest.

He probably has the chance for one round before his full heat hits. It’s not necessary of course, but he’s always found that an early orgasm takes the edge off the first wave.

Tony rolls around, covers the nest in his scent—Morgan’s toy will definitely have to be washed by the end of this—and then feels around for the dildo, making sure it’s in easy reach. Once he’s placed it on the pillow beside him, he reaches down and strokes his fingers over his hole.

He isn’t really producing slick yet like he will be in a couple hours but he runs the tip of his finger around the rim of his hole, petting it gently, and sighs as his body starts to relax and loosen. Another couple minutes and on his next pass, his finger slips inside easily. Tony has always been impatient, wanting results quickly, but he likes to be pampered in bed so he stays gentle and soft and easy, waiting until he gets wet enough to push his finger in all the way. He thrusts a few times, feeling himself loosening as he gets wetter, teasing at the edge of his prostate to coax his heat along.

When he feels ready, he grabs the dildo and runs the tip over and around his hole, coating it in his slick. On a whim, he brings it up to his mouth and licks it, curious to find out what his own slick tastes like. It’s neither good nor bad, a little sweet like an omega’s slick should be but not enough so that he feels any desire to taste it again.

He brings the dildo back down to his hole and relaxes as he pushes it inside. It’s a little on the small side, compared to some of the other toys he’s played with in the past but those had all stayed in New York and this had been a gift so he decides it would be ungrateful to complain. He pushes it in further until the knot rests just outside his rim. The toy is big enough to reach his prostate and he moans as he shifts and it presses on that bundle of nerves.

I hope no one else can hear me.

Tony relaxes deeper into the pillows, picturing a generic alpha in his mind as he pulls the dildo out, whining as the etchings drag in interesting ways on his rim. He thrusts it back in, arching up into the pleasure-pain as his body accepts something it isn’t completely ready for. The room is starting to stink with heat scent, orange and honeysuckle becoming almost cloyingly sweet. The heady combination threatens to send him into a daze and he arches up into another thrust as his stomach cramps.

“Please,” he whimpers. The alpha he’s imagining starts to solidify at the edges, becoming less hazy. His hand moves faster, thrusting the dildo in harder. He pictures blond hair, blue eyes.

No,” he gasps out, tightening in fear. “Not him.”

But the alpha doesn’t have a cruel, cold smirk like Tiberius had those last couple weeks or even the sickly-sweet one he’d had when they had first met. His smile is gentle and kind, his eyes a little sad. Tony still can’t fully place the face with a name but he knows that this alpha isn’t like the others and he relaxes again.

This alpha would treat him right, he knows it like he knows his own name, and he slows his pace, rocking his hips down into the dildo. The alpha is becoming clearer by the minute and Tony just knows—he knows—that the alpha would hold his hips down, keep him still as he ground his hips. He mimics the motion with the toy as best as he can, whining as his body lights up, sending pleasure sluicing through every inch of him.

“Please,” he says again and the alpha shushes him. He subsides into another desperate whine. The knot is pressing at the edge of his hole, catching on his rim. Tony cries out as he starts to push it in, imagining how the alpha would tease him with it, pushing in only to pull it back out.

“Don’t tease.”

And he hears it, clear as day, “Okay, sweetheart.”

He arches up one last time as the knot catches in his wet, loose hole, and his body seizes as he comes untouched, spilling across his stomach.

Steve!” he cries out. The king smiles at him, kisses his forehead, and disappears, leaving Tony panting while he comes down from his high.

“Well,” he says, realizing what he’d just done. “That happened.”

He gives Harley back Steve’s sketchbook as soon as he leaves the room three days later. “In the future,” he admonishes, “please refrain from giving an in-heat omega an item from a strange alpha.”

“But Father isn’t a strange alpha,” Harley argues. “And Miss Natasha said you needed things to remind you of home.”

“Be that as it may, we omegas tend to be very sensitive when we’re in heat. I could have reacted poorly to an alpha’s scent and it would have been very awkward for all of us. More importantly, however, you didn’t ask your father’s permission before giving me his sketchbook.” He thinks about asking Harley to sniff the book and then decides against it. Harley’s a young alpha who is either at the stage of popping a knot at even a slight breeze or about to reach that stage. He’s never thought to ask before and now that’s sounding like a massive oversight on his part. Tony doesn’t want Harley to have that reaction to his heat scent, not least because it will make things difficult for the both of them.

“That book is drenched in my scent now,” he says instead. “Which is a rude thing to do to anyone, let alone your father. When you replace the book, you’ll be leaving it with a note explaining what you did.”

“You took it though,” Harley says sullenly, tucking the book into his jacket.

“I did,” Tony agrees. “Because I was in heat and that compromises my judgment. You can expect that I will also be apologizing to your father when he returns.”

He turns to Morgan, effectively ending Harley’s admonishment. “Miss Morgan, it was very sweet of you to give me your second favorite toy. I’d recommend you don’t do that again though because I used it for my nest and now it needs to be washed. I don’t want you to be upset when you won’t be able to have it for another couple of days so please don’t do that the next time I’m in heat.”

Morgan, at least, seems to take her scolding cheerfully as she shrugs and chirps, “Okay!”

“And where’s Peter?” he asks as he starts back toward the tower. He needs a bath, maybe two based on how greasy his hair feels as he runs his hand through it.

“He’s upstairs,” Sarah says. “He said he wasn’t feeling well.”

“Hmm.” That’s concerning. He’s been lucky so far, that none of the children have gotten sick yet. He doubts that his luck will hold much longer. They’re probably due for a cold making its way around the nursery. Even so, he would hate to have to tell Steve once he got back that in addition to getting his heat scent all over his sketchbook, his son is ill.

Morgan slips her hand into his and beams a toothy grin up at him. He’s exhausted and sweaty and sore, and more than a little concerned about how many times he pictured Steve during his heat, but he still can’t resist smiling back at her.

When they get back up to the nursery, Peter isn’t in his bed at all. In fact, he isn’t even in the nursery.

Sarah opens the secret passage behind the nursery but Peter isn’t hiding back there either, not that Tony had really thought he would be. Animals may hide when they’re sick or injured but Peter isn’t an animal.

Natasha pulls him aside. “Peter has been quiet ever since your heat started,” she says. “Sarah thinks it’s illness but it’s not.”

“So what about my heat has him upset?” Tony asks, catching onto what she’s trying to tell him.

“Peter was six when the queen passed away. He has some memories of her but not many and Steve, as you know, hasn’t had much to do with the children in the years since then. Peter is the only beta child of an alpha and an omega. Harley hasn’t had his first rut yet and none of the alpha nannies were here long enough to go through one either. For all intents and purposes, he grew up with other betas. I think this might be the first moment he’s ever realized that he’s different from the rest of his family.”

“So you think he may just need some time to himself?”

Natasha doesn’t reply, looking as worried as Tony feels. He hopes it’ll be fine but somehow he’s pretty certain it won’t be.

It isn’t fine.

In the following weeks, Peter is skittish around him, often spending time by himself instead of with Tony or even with the other children. Tony asks Natasha to follow him. He knows that the boy wants to be on his own but he still needs a guard, especially with a possible war brewing. It’s a problem that will certainly need to be addressed soon but at the moment, he can’t take the time to focus on Peter when Pepper has reassured him that Peter will work through his problems and Tony has three other children he needs to watch over and a castle to take care of. 

When Pepper had told him that he, as the most senior omega, was in charge of the castle, he had thought that that would mean preparing for a siege, not that he would need to be reading reports from the surrounding farms and the city and making sure the castle continues to run smoothly in the king’s absence. He complains about it to Pepper once.

“I agree,” she says. “But it’s tradition and as Steve didn’t appoint anyone else to the task, that makes you the current regent.”

“I can’t just appoint you regent instead?”

“Unfortunately, no.”

It seems silly, seeing as how it’s usually Pepper’s job to keep the castle running. She still continues to help him, knowing that Tony has no experience managing his own household.

“Shouldn’t this be the steward’s job?” he asks on a different occasion.

“It should,” she agrees. “But the last steward was dismissed soon after Queen Margaret’s passing. We were already decreasing the amount of staff. Steve didn’t see a reason to hire anyone new for the position and instead expanded my duties. He was kind enough to increase my pay with the new responsibilities so I never saw a reason to complain.”

He receives word a few days after that that the army will be returning soon. “Thank you, Redwing,” he murmurs, stroking the bird’s feathers as he reads over the message. “Rhodey, can you run down to the kitchen and grab something for Redwing before we send him back?”

“Is it from Father?” Harley asks eagerly.

“It is. He says he should be home soon.”

Harley whoops loud enough that Tony would shush him if he weren’t so relieved as well. “Did you hear that? Father’s coming home soon.”

Soon is apparently the next day when Steve strides into the dining hall in the middle of breakfast, followed by Barnes, Barton, and Wilson. “Where are my children?” he shouts, laughing as he’s nearly bowled over by the four children.

“Oh I’ve missed you all,” he murmurs, burying his face in Morgan’s hair. “Were you all good for Mister Carbonell?”

“Not in the slightest,” Tony says wryly, flushing when Steve’s intense gaze lands on him. The children are protesting their innocence but it fades to the background as the king looks at him. He remembers his imagined Steve calling him sweetheart during his heat and his flush deepens.

“Thank you for taking care of them,” Steve says. He gets to his feet, moving Morgan aside so he can shake Tony’s hand.

“That would be what you pay me for.”

“I know.” Steve inclines his head to the side. “But still. Thank you. I do appreciate it.”

Tony looks away to try to hide his pleased smile. He shouldn’t let the king affect him like this. He’s better than that—and he swore after Tiberius, he would never let himself be caught by an alpha’s pretty smile again.

“I’m sorry we don’t have breakfast for you. We didn’t realize you were so close,” he says hastily, trying to make up for his awkwardness.

We didn’t realize we were so close,” Steve says, cupping the back of his neck ruefully. “I guess I haven’t been out of the castle as much as I should have if I no longer remember the surrounding area.”

Tony laughs. “If you’ll wait, I’ll see if Cook can scrounge you up some oatmeal.”

“That would be…wonderful, thank you.” Steve catches his hand as he starts to go, eager to escape Steve’s piercing blue eyes. “And thank you for your advice. We didn’t even have to fight. Once we got there, it turned out the farmers were willing to talk instead of risking their own and their families lives. We worked out a deal. For as long as the drought lasts, I’ll send them food from my own stores as long as they travel to the nearby countries to trade for replacements. I’ll even send them tradesmen from Aynor to teach them.”

Tony lays his other hand over Steve’s. “That’s fantastic,” he says truthfully. He doesn’t want to say that he’s proud because that’s entirely the wrong word when he had little to do with the outcome. But he’s—pleased, perhaps. He feels his face start to heat again as Steve’s thumb moves idly over the inside of his wrist.

“I’ll go get your breakfast,” he says quickly, tugging his hand away, and makes his escape.

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t want to say that things are awkward between him and Tony because the omega is working very hard to make sure that they’re not. But something is definitely different now. Something happened while he was in the south that now makes Tony flush every time they look at each other. He already knows that Tony had spent three days in heat, using one of the unused guest rooms as a heat room.

“He didn’t use his bedroom?” he asks Pepper, finally getting the details from those three days almost three weeks later.

Pepper shakes her head. “He didn’t want to disturb the children. The walls are thin in the nursery so the nanny can hear any problems.”

Steve appreciates his thoughtfulness in preserving his children’s innocence just a little while longer but he does wish that he hadn’t left them unattended for so long.

He suspects that Pepper is capable of reading minds because she smiles wryly and says, “They weren’t alone. He left Natasha to keep an eye on them.”

“Did she actually do that?” he asks pointedly. He remembers the years that Natasha has been with them and how she has often helped them elude their minders.

“Yes. She respects Tony…and I think she’s a little afraid of him as well.”

“Afraid?” Steve repeats incredulously, thinking of the small, slight omega with a ready laugh and an adorable smile. “Of Tony?”

Pepper laughs. “Not many people would be willing to argue against a king on their first day, not even Natasha. He impressed her that day and as we all know, Natasha isn’t easily impressed.”

Her voice turns wistful at the end and Steve remembers that she’s been in love with the red haired guard since the day Natasha herself came to the castle. “She still hasn’t figured it out then?” he asks gently.

Pepper sighs. “It’s Natasha. She’s observant. If she hasn’t figured out that I’m the one sending her flowers by now, it’s because she doesn’t want to know.”

Steve doesn’t think that’s true but he doesn’t want to push if she doesn’t want to hear it. Right now, he thinks that this is something she doesn’t want to hear. But he does decide that the next time he sees Clint, he’s going to ask the beta to tell Natasha that he isn’t the one leaving flowers in her room. He can’t make Pepper be plain about her feelings but he can at least give Natasha a nudge in the right direction.

Although, now that he comes to think about it, he’s not entirely certain that Clint knows Natasha is even getting flowers. Clint is an excellent spymaster, able to pick up on things that no one else could, but he’s dreadful when it comes to seeing things happening right underneath his nose or else he would know that Bucky has been courting him for the last six months. But the beta has been oblivious the entire time, which has caused much consternation in Bucky and a lot of amusement in Steve and Sam.

He sighs, wondering when his court became the setting for one of Miss Austen’s novels.

As he leaves Pepper, Bucky falls into place beside him. “Did you talk to Harley about your sketchbook?” the brunet asks.

Steve groans, “Don’t remind me.”

He’s still furious with the boy for taking one of his books without permission and giving it to Tony for his heat. He has no idea what had made Harley think that that was an acceptable thing to do but he had sternly admonished him for his poor lack of judgment. Much to his surprise, Tony had been quiet for the entire lecture, not once speaking up in Harley’s defense. It had made him wonder if Tony had been furious too—or if that had been the cause of Tony’s embarrassment.

“He claimed Natasha said omegas need things that remind them of home during their heat,” he says. It’s true enough. But why Harley had gone for his sketchbook and not something else is beyond him. “I’ll never be able to use the damn thing again.”

“Not at all?”

“Unfortunately, no. It’s drenched in Tony’s scent.”

Bucky inclines his head as he says thoughtfully, “Might not be such a bad thing. It’s not like Tony’s scent is terrible.” He laughs. “Down, boy. No need to growl at me.”

Steve stops, surprised at his growl. He hadn’t realized he was making any sound, much less a possessive growl. “My apologies. I don’t know what set me off like that.”

Bucky’s eyes widen in disbelief. “You don’t?”

“Something you’d like to share with the rest of us?”

“You have the scent of an in-heat omega trapped in your room, can barely walk in there without smelling him, and you’re wondering why you’re growling at me?”

Steve wrinkles his nose. “But it’s Tony.

“Yep,” Bucky agrees. “It’s Tony.” There’s something in his eyes that tells Steve he should understand what he’s talking about but truthfully, he has no idea.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Bucky clasps him on the shoulder patronizingly. “You’ll figure it out eventually.”

Steve frowns. “You know, you’re rather smug for someone who can’t even manage to catch a beta.”

“And you’re dumb-witted for someone who’s been bonded to an omega before,” Bucky scoffs.

It hits Steve then what Bucky is talking about. “No,” he says. “No. Tony and I—we aren’t like that.”

“You’re not, are you,” Bucky says flatly.

“No. We’re—we’re friends, or I like to think so at least.”

“Are you now,” Bucky says disbelievingly. It isn’t a question. “Is that what those late nights in the library are all about?”

Steve flushes a dark red that he knows looks rather ugly on his pale face. “Does everyone in the castle think that?”

Bucky shrugs. “Just about.”

No,” he says emphatically. Then, for more emphasis, “No. We’re meeting to talk about the children. He’s giving me advice on how to talk to them, how to make up for the last four years. We’re not—absolutely not. That would be—no. I had Peggy. Have you forgotten about her?”

Bucky sighs and then smiles sympathetically. “Of course I haven’t. I remember when you were pining after her, convinced that she would never look at an alpha who looked like you. But Peggy died, Steve. She died four years ago and you still act like it happened yesterday.”

“I loved her,” Steve says quietly.

“I know. But she never wanted you to live alone and that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re wasting away in this castle because you’re too afraid of finding someone else, of letting go of the past.”

“Maybe so,” Steve allows. He doesn’t really think that he’s wasting away like everyone seems to think he is, but it’s an old argument that they’ll never really let go of. “But Tony isn’t the answer.”

The thing is, once Bucky points it out, Steve can’t stop thinking about it. He can’t stop thinking about spirited, intelligent, lovely Tony and wondering what he might look like sitting beside him at dinner. On his arm at a party. In his bed, stretched out and mewling and beautiful.

And he shouldn’t. Tony is nearly fifteen years younger than him. Tony is running from something, something that brought him all the way across the ocean and halfway across the continent. Tony’s name isn’t even Anthony Carbonell. Steve had checked months ago and there’s no record of an Anthony Carbonell living anywhere near New York.

There’s no good reason he should be thinking about taking the omega into his arms, slanting his mouth over his, and kissing those sweet, pink lips until they’re glistening and bitten red. No reason why he should be imagining laying Tony out on silk sheets and seeing how he writhes, how his hands clutch futilely at slippery silk. No reason why he wants to kiss his way down the graceful arch of Tony’s back, over those plump cheeks, before licking across his wet hole as Tony cries for him. No reason why he wants to flip him onto his back and slide into him, feeling the omega scratch his back as his legs tighten around Steve’s waist as he’s fucked hard and well, as Tony sobs for his knot while Steve teases it at his rim until he finally takes pity on his omega and pushes it inside, locking them together as he spills in him.

There’s even less good reason for why he wants just as badly to hold his hand, take him out into the gardens under the moonlight and gather him close as they rock to the strains of music drifting from the ballroom while Steve whispers soft words of adoration in his ear.

No reason except—

He realizes he’s holding his sketchbook in his hands, breathing in the heady scent of oranges and honeysuckle. It’s still strong even weeks after Tony’s heat, a powerful and dizzying aphrodisiac. He wonders if Tony spilled across it, if his slick is marked across the pages. Did Tony open the book? See himself drawn on page after page after page? Because this is the book that Harley saw fit to bring him. Not the ones filled with Peggy. Not the ones with his children or the landscapes or the portraits of the other staff members. No, Harley brought him the one with Tony, who Steve has been drawing since he first realized how intriguing the omega was.

Tony hadn’t turned it away. He had been compromised by his oncoming heat but Steve remembers from the heats he had shared with Peggy that if he had been disgusted by it, Tony would have refused the gift. But he’d taken it into his heat room with him, had laid it in his nest. Had it reminded him of home? Of Steve? Of his alpha?

He raises it to his nose and inhales deeply. Deep inside, there’s a twinge of guilt, reminding him that Tony had felt dreadful about using his book like this, which means that Steve should certainly feel worse about using it now. But Tony’s scent is strong, filling his nose, intertwining with his own scent beneath it in an intoxicating blend that has him reaching for the ties on his breeches.

He pulls out his cock, picturing Tony lying beneath him, on his back so that Steve can see his pretty doe eyes. He thinks of kneeling over him, feeding him his cock while Tony whimpers and whines, of thrusting into that wet heat, pulling out before he can come. In his mind’s eye, Tony looks wrecked, lips swollen, heaving for breath. His hand speeds up. Steve imagines moving down his body until his cock is sliding between Tony’s thighs. He positions himself at the rim of the omega’s hole and slides in in one long push. Tony tosses his head back into the pillows, hands by his head, as he cries out Steve’s name. Steve holds himself up with one hand by Tony’s shoulder, the other seeking out one of Tony’s hands, threading their fingers together so they’re holding onto each other as he thrusts.

When he comes, only a few short strokes later, spurting across the cover of his sketchbook, it’s to the picture of Tony blinking up at him, smiling and sated and sleepy, as Tony’s scent fills his nostrils.

It’s then that he realizes that there’s no good reason for why he’s picturing Tony like this—except his rut.

“Pepper,” he says quietly. “I’m leaving you in charge instead of Tony while I’m gone.”

Pepper looks worried but she nods. “Are you sure you should be leaving at a time like this?”

He doesn’t really know what she means but he doesn’t have the time to worry about it at the moment. His rut is getting closer with every passing moment and Steve would like to be in town by the time it hits. They have rut rooms in some of the inns, just as they have heat rooms, rooms where he can wait out his rut with toys and an omega, if he wants. Steve never wants the omega, hasn’t wanted one since Peggy passed. He doesn’t want the toys either. He’s never sure if they’ve been properly cleaned since their last use and it would be awkward to ask. Sometimes, he brings his own toys but this time, he has just his sketchbook. He would feel bad about it, about using Tony’s scent in this way, but the book is already ruined, streaked with his spend. Guilty as he feels, he figures he might as well keep using it since it clearly works. He’ll apologize to Tony once he comes back.

“I’ll be back in a few days,” he assures her. “Barely enough time for you to notice I’m gone.”

“You’ve scarcely returned from the last trip and you haven’t said goodbye to the children.”

“I can’t delay any longer. I barely had enough time to call for you.”

He doesn’t say that he doesn’t think he can handle seeing Tony at this time. In heat or not, it had been Tony’s scent that had brought him to a stronger climax than any he’s experienced in years. On the edge of his rut, a strong one by the feel of it, he doesn’t want to have to worry about holding back from claiming the young omega in front of him.

“The children will be fine,” he says eventually. “I’m sure they won’t even notice that I’m gone.”

“They’ve been hanging off of you ever since you came back. I think they’ll notice.”

True but if he admits that, then he’ll never leave.

“Goodbye, Pepper,” he says pointedly. “I’ll see you when I return.”

She waves to him, the door remaining open as he heads down the trail. It’s dark out, night having fallen hours earlier while he made preparations for his absence, and he has to watch his step to keep from falling. Right as he rounds the bend in the trail that’ll take him through the forest and to the city, he catches a hint of oranges and honeysuckle, tinged with heartbreak. He shivers, wrapping the cloak tighter around himself.

“It’s the book,” he tells himself firmly. “That’s what you’re smelling.”

And as for the heartbreak? He tells himself he’s imagining it.

“Where is Steve going?” Tony asks as soon as the door closes. Apparently, he’s startled Pepper who jumps nearly a foot in the air. She spins to face him.

“Where did you come from?” she demands.

“I couldn’t sleep. Where is Steve going?”

“His Majesty is spending a few days away from the castle.”

Tony stared incredulously at her. “After he just returned? What about the children? They’ve seen him every day since he got back. What am I going to tell them?”

“Tell them what we always tell them during a rut,” she orders and then she stops. “Oh, they wouldn’t know, would they? Steve hasn’t spent enough time with them for them to know about his ruts.”

“Know what?” Tony asks curiously.

Pepper sighs and walks over to join him. “Since the Queen passed, Steve’s ruts have gotten worse. It’s not uncommon in grieving alphas, though usually the alphas are able to move past it.”

“But not Steve.”

“No. His grief was great enough that his ruts have stayed as bad as they were right after she died. He doesn’t want the children to know how awful they are so he always has his ruts in the city where he won’t disturb anyone.”

“The city?”

“Some of the…inns, shall we say, have rut rooms where an alpha can wait out their time.”

He suspects he knows what she’s trying to hide from him with her word usage. “Inns?” he asks pointedly. He appreciates her kindness but he isn’t really that naïve, especially after his time spent traveling alone, unaccompanied by the older beta he should have had with him as his companion.

Pepper looks blandly back at him. “Yes, inns.”

Tony shakes his head but doesn’t argue the point any further.

“They often have heat rooms as well,” Pepper continues. “We would have offered one to you but with a possible war…”

“I understand,” he assures her. He’s not angry about it. How can he be when it’s a decision he would have made as well had he been informed?

He thinks about Steve spending his rut alone in a cold, impersonal room and his heart breaks just a little. It’s not the same for omegas. Heat rooms for omegas are like smaller nests. They’re still impersonal but they’re designed for comfort and coziness. Tony, of course, has never spent a heat in one but Janet had—her very first one—and she had come back full of glowing praise for the room. But Steve won’t have any of that. Nesting isn’t an instinct for alphas so their rooms would need none of those homey touches that make a nest so special.

“Poor Steve,” he murmurs. Pepper nods in apparent agreement. “Pepper, I was planning on asking the king but he’s not here. I heard him say that you’re head of the castle until he returns, yes?”

“What do you need?”

“I wanted to take the children on an outing to the city tomorrow.”

It’s something that he’s been thinking about for a little while. The children really don’t have the chance to get out that much, other than their escapes to the gardens and surrounding forest. He thinks it would be good for them to get to see the actual world, see how people outside the castle interact with each other. It would be good for the people too, he thinks, a chance for them to get to see their young princes and princesses.

“I would bring Natasha and Rhodey. It isn’t like we would be alone,” he says, quick to reassure Pepper that it’ll be perfectly safe. “I just think it’s something the children need, Harley especially. He’s growing up so quickly. Someday he’s going to rule this nation and I’m worried that he won’t be ready.”

Pepper looks hesitant but she eventually nods. “But be back by supper. I don’t want to have to send anyone out to look for you.”

The children are thrilled to have an outing. According to Harley, trips to the city had been common before their mother had passed. He only vaguely remembers them though, as does Peter, and Sarah hadn’t been old enough to go on them at all.

They chatter in the carriage the entire way down to the city, eagerly discussing their plans and what they hope to see and purchase, what food they’ll eat. Tony watches them with a fond smile, knowing that Aynor will surpass their wildest dreams. He stops the carriage before they can enter the city proper and orders the children out. “I think we’ll walk for the rest of the day,” he tells them as he helps little Morgan down from the carriage.

The children seem just as thrilled with this idea as they have with everything else. “But don’t run off,” he warns them. “We don’t want to make things difficult for Natasha and Rhodey.”

They all turn and look at Rhodey and Natasha following a safe distance back, dressed in plain clothes, rather than the castle livery. Morgan waves cheerily and Natasha flutters her fingers in response.

He leads them around, showing them the market and letting them haggle for small trinkets they can take back to the castle. Morgan, of course, charms everyone she meets, which is no less than what Tony had expected but Peter is nearly as popular, much to his surprise. Peter’s been so quiet in the weeks following Tony’s heat that he had half-thought that would continue on their outing. For lunch, he takes them to Mister Kirby’s so they can see the old innkeeper, who is absolutely delighted to see Tony again.

“You’re flourishing, my boy,” Mister Kirby says fondly, patting Tony’s cheek. “Look at you, dressed in these nice clothes and glowing with your children. You have to tell me which young alpha has caught your eye.”

“Caught…my eye?” Tony repeats hesitantly.

“Yes, yes. Don’t tell me you don’t know. No omega looks like you unless they’re in love.”

“Oh,” Tony says faintly, nearly falling back into his chair. He hadn’t known actually. But now that the idea is in his head, it makes sense. The way he glows with pride every time Steve tells him he’s doing a good job with the children, how he feels pinned down beneath his intense gaze. For heaven’s sake, he had pictured Steve all throughout his heat and it had never once even occurred to him that there was a reason for it!

He’s in love.

He thinks again of Steve in that rut room, thinks of Janet telling him that they had offered her the use of an alpha for her heat. It isn’t too far of a stretch to imagine that Steve had been offered an omega for his rut. Part of him thinks that Steve would be too noble to accept an omega like that but—but why else would he choose to take his ruts in the city? Pepper had said he didn’t want to disturb the children but it’s a big castle! Surely there must have been somewhere he could have gone to hide. No, there had to be another reason why he took his ruts in the city and the only reason Tony can think of is if he’s inviting another omega to his bed.

Dismayed, he says again, “Oh.”

“Welcome to this month’s meeting of the Secret Rogers Society, Queen Sarah Margaret Rogers presiding,” Sarah intones. “Please rise for the recitation of our most sacred pledge.”

There’s a soft scraping of chairs and Sarah glances anxiously at the door to the secret passage. They’re hiding right behind the walls of the nursery so there’s no guarantee that Mister Carbonell, asleep in the next room over, won’t be able to hear them. They had tested it earlier that evening with Harley hiding behind the wall and shouting at the top of his lungs. Not only had everyone else heard him but it had brought Mister Carbonell over from his room to investigate. He had put a stop to their test before they’d had a chance to find out if softer noises were also audible from the nursery.

“Do you think he heard that?” Morgan whispers.

“Course not,” Harley whispers back but Sarah sees him throw his own glance at the door.

“The secret pledge,” she reminds them after a moment when they’ve all been standing there and Mister Carbonell hasn’t arrived.

“This is the sacred pledge of the Secret Rogers Society,” they all say though Morgan stumbles over the words. She’s only four; it can’t really be helped. “We swear to do our utmost best to help Father and Mister Carbonell find love with each other so that Mister Carbonell can be our new mother and Father will smile again.”

Sarah thinks to herself that they’ve already fulfilled one part of that pledge. Daddy has been smiling much more over the last few months though she thinks it’s because of them more than it is Mister Carbonell. She wants to see him smile about Mister Carbonell, the way she sometimes remembers him smiling about their mother. It’s one of the only memories she has of her mother, of being carried on her mother’s hip as Harley and Peter dash into the council room ahead of her, disturbing Daddy from his meeting. But Daddy hadn’t minded. He’d caught them up into his arms, laughing over their antics before turning to their mother with a soft, glowing smile. Sarah loves that memory to pieces. Its corners are worn and tattered in her mind like an old book with as many times as she turns to it.

“We swear to do as much mischief as we can in the name of helping their romance along. We will perform hijinks and pranks, and will be troublemakers of the highest degree.

“We so swear these things.”

They finish at different times. It’s a long pledge and they haven’t quite gotten the hang of saying it together but then they’ve only had a couple meetings. She’s sure that by the time Daddy has finally professed his love for their nanny, they’ll be able to say their pledge perfectly.

“You may all be seated,” she says. There’s another scrape of chairs as the other three sit and she winces again. Hopefully, Mister Carbonell didn’t hear that either.

“Once again, I would like to thank King Harlan Rogers for agreeing to our demands that our society be a democracy like America and therefore we can all take turns being king,” she continues after a moment. Harley harrumphs but that’s to be expected. He hadn’t willingly accepted their demands. It hadn’t been until Peter had threatened they would make their own secret society without Harley, where everyone could be king because that’s what democracy means according to Mister Carbonell, that Harley had agreed to let this society be a democratic one.

“Now onto past events. We have not caused much mischief these last two months.”

“But that’s because Daddy was gone,” Morgan points out.

Sarah agrees, “True. And then Mister Carbonell was in his time. I would like to congratulate Harley on his quick thinking in giving Daddy’s notebook to Mister Carbonell for his time. No matter what Mister Carbonell says, Miss Natasha said that omegas need things that remind them of home during their time and that’s the best thing we could bring him from Daddy.”

“I heard Miss Natasha talking to Mister Carbonell,” Peter pipes up. “She asked him what he thought of the book and he said it was nice!”

Morgan looks excited but Sarah frowns doubtfully. That doesn’t sound like Mister Carbonell to Sarah though, he’s much more likely to hide how he feels about things than to be open about them.

“Did he say it like that or did he sound ashamed?” Harley asks.

Sarah gestures at him. “Yeah, there’s a difference.”

Peter thinks about it and then his shoulders slump. “He sounded ashamed but I don’t know why. Daddy’s scent makes me feel better when I’m upset so it should have made Mister Carbonell feel better too.”

“Mister Carbonell isn’t you,” Sarah says. “He likes different things than you do.”

“Yeah like mathematics,” Peter says, sticking his tongue out. “Gross.”

“So Mister Carbonell liked having Father’s scent nearby but he was ashamed of it,” Harley says thoughtfully. “You know, I overheard the maids talking about Mister Carbonell and Father the other day. They said it wasn’t right that Mister Carbonell is so familiar with Father, that he’s getting ideas above his station.”

Sarah wrinkles her nose. “What does that mean?”

“I think it means,” Harley says slowly, “that nannies aren’t supposed to be friends with kings.”

“But that’s silly,” Peter protests. “Daddy’s always been friends with the servants. He grew up with Miss Potts. They’re friends.”

“Right,” Harley says. “But Mister Carbonell didn’t grow up here. He’s from America and they’re much worse in America. They don’t have servants there. They have slaves and Father says slaves are a mistreatment of other humans.”

They sit there in solemn silence. None of them have heard much about the lives of American slaves other than a few things that they’ve heard as rumor. Miss Natasha has told them never to ask Mister Rhodes, the only American they know other than Mister Carbonell, because of the bad memories it might bring up. They like Mister Rhodes—he’s funny and nice and a little bit snarky—so they don’t raise a fuss about it.

“Do you think that’s why Mister Carbonell doesn’t love Daddy?” Peter asks eventually.

Harley crosses his arms. “I think he does. But he’s not ready to admit it.”

“So we’ll have to make him admit it,” Morgan says.

Harley nods. “But we’ll need to be careful about it, more subtle than the sketchbook was. No more mischief.”

“No more mischief,” Sarah agrees and the other two echo her.

The month passes by quickly. Steve returns from his rut to a castle that is running just as smoothly as it had been when he left it. Tony continues to realize that yes, the feelings he has for Steve are indeed deeper than that of mere friendship like he had originally hoped. Rationalizing it to himself as an attempt to see the bad in Steve, he continues to push the children and their father closer together, arranging days for them to spend the whole day with each other. The children are delighted by this change in routine, both because they get to spend more time with their father who is turning back into the loving man Harley remembers from his younger days and because they take it as a sign that Mister Carbonell is indeed interested in their father.

To their credit, they aren’t wrong. Tony does have feelings for the king and that is precisely why he knows Steve can never know how Tony feels about him. Steve isn’t just Steve. He’s King Steven of Dacia, coming from a long line of beloved rulers. He is beloved himself, even more so after the mercy he extended toward the treasonous farmers. Steve may be an artist and a good father but he is also a strong alpha and once a loving husband. That most of all.

Anyone with eyes can see that the king still very much loves his wife, that he will probably always love her. Tony can’t compete with that. He wouldn’t even want to. Everything he’s heard about the queen has been about how spirited she had been, how strong, how loving and good. Pepper tells him with a fond smile that she had been deeply invested in what was right, not what was legal. Rhodey tells him with a look of respect in his eyes that Tony’s never seen before that the queen had been an excellent fighter, not because she knew how to use a sword or a gun but because she knew how to use everything in reaching distance, including rocks, sand, and on one memorable occasion, another guard’s belt. The children tell him how much she had loved them, how she had played with them and taught them, how she had spent every night in the nursery, singing them to sleep.

Tony isn’t like that at all. He’s an excellent tutor and a half-decent nanny—the children would and have disagreed with him but Tony thinks that if they’d ever had even a single other good nanny, they would see that he isn’t that miraculous at all—but he has nothing on a mother’s touch. He doesn’t even know how to get Peter to start talking to him again. He isn’t a good fighter though he’s very talented with a gun—his father had firmly believed that Tony needed to understand how to use the weapons he built. He can be grumpy and short-tempered and proud, none of which are terms that have been used to describe the deceased queen. He’s had two failed engagements, which likely speaks to his poor judgment, not an attractive quality in a queen. He’s an engineer by heart though he hasn’t had the opportunity to build anything in months outside of toys with the children. He’s not a leader and that’s exactly what Steve needs by his side: someone who can rule with him.

Tony can’t be that for him. So why should he entertain his ridiculous fantasies?

Steve is…conflicted.

The problem is he loves his wife, right? He had sworn to be faithful to her until death do they part and death had indeed parted them but Steve had still remained faithful. He loves her still and no matter what she had wished for him, finding someone else feels like a betrayal of that love for her and the marriage vows he took over fifteen years ago. He hasn’t accepted anyone else into his bed, though there have been offers every time he’s gone into the city for his rut. He hasn’t even really looked at anyone else.

But then there’s Tony.

Steve isn’t blind. He knows that Tony is attractive. He’s known that since the first time he saw the omega in the formal dining room. But it’s always been something that has dwelled in the back of his mind. It’s not something that he’s thought about other than an occasional acknowledgement when he’s working on a sketch or when the sun catches Tony’s hair just right. It hadn’t meant anything—that is, until his rut.

He’s had one other rut since Tony came to the castle—back when he had still been struggling to reconcile with the children. He had gone through it in the city and it had passed just like all the other ones had since he started spending them alone: he’d thought of Peggy. It was Peggy’s face he saw behind his eyelids when he came, her scent that he imagined when he stroked himself, her voice urging him on.

This rut hadn’t been like that.

This one had been filled with thoughts of Tony, of imagining what Tony would look like in his bed, how his scent would spike with lust, how his voice would sound when he begged for Steve to fill him. He had thought of Peggy only once, in a rare lucid moment towards the end of his rut when he had been overcome with guilt as he stroked himself, imagining that the callouses on his hand were Tony’s instead. He had heard her then, reminding him that he had promised her he would find someone else. His head, clouded with lust, had been so dazed that he had let her reminder assuage his guilt but now that he is himself again, he can’t help but feel that guilt again.

He had promised, he had vowed before the church and God and a host of people that he would remain true to his queen and he has done so until this week. But now he can barely stand to look at Tony without that reminder, that he had violated the sanctity of his marriage and worse, violated Tony’s innocence with his lecherous thoughts.

So of course, now is when Tony pushes for the children to be spending ever increasing amounts of time with him, Tony right on their heels.

He sits there, surrounded by his children, unable to tear his eyes away from Tony, who is intelligent and kind and so very lovely in his youth. He feels like a dirty old man, sullying their friendship with his want, his want that he shouldn’t have because he had already had his fairy tale romance. He had had thirty years with Peggy as they had grown up and fallen in love. He doesn’t know which is worse—that his thoughts are beginning to turn from his wife whom he has loved for so long or that his thoughts are beginning to turn toward his friend.

And it is friendship. It can never be anything but friendship for reasons beyond Steve’s past marriage. Tony is young. He has decades ahead of him, decades that should be spent falling in love with someone who is not fifteen years older than him, raising children as lovely as he himself is. And Steve—Steve had ruined all hopes of a romantic relationship when he had proven himself to be such a horrible father when Tony had first arrived. He knows that he has improved but that first impression could not be undone and he is sure that it would always be in the back of Tony’s mind, that fear that Steve would ruin things all over again.

No, Steve must be content with what he has: a close friendship with the minder of his children and the slowly fading memories of his long-dead queen.

Pepper places an envelope beside Steve at breakfast one morning toward the end of the month. He pauses, his fork halfway to his mouth. “What’s this?” he asks.

“You know perfectly well what this is,” Pepper says sharply. “Don’t play coy.”

And he does know. He recognizes the swoopy handwriting and the crest stamped on the front. He runs the tips of his fingers delicately over the two wolves embossed on the crest. Lady Carter only sends him a letter twice a year. Frankly, it’s two times too many as he has always disliked hearing from his wife’s sister, but it’s the only way he can see his queen’s family crest without having to go searching through the library for the book of crests so his responses are never overly harsh.

“Tell Lady Carter there will be no ball this year,” he says, handing the letter back to Pepper unopened. It’s their usual exchange when Lady Carter sends letters and he expects that it’ll go much the same way.

But then Tony asks, “Ball?”

Steve looks down the table at him. “Yes. It’s my birthday next month and it used to be a tradition to hold a ball then.”

“I didn’t know it was your birthday,” Tony comments.

“On your country’s Independence Day if I remember my history correctly.”

Tony looks intrigued. “And you used to hold a ball? But that sounds like fun! We should have one,” he says, a delighted smile spreading across his face.

“No,” Steve says firmly. “Absolu—”

“I remember those!” Harley exclaims. “You used to let me and Peter attend for a couple hours. Do you remember, Peter? Mother used to order the cooks to make those sandwiches you liked so much.”

“We’re not having—”

“Why not?” Tony cuts in. “They’re so much fun and if you don’t want to plan it, I’d be more than willing to.”

“Oh and you know much about planning balls, do you?” Steve asks.

Tony’s chin juts out stubbornly. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. I’ve planned quite a few balls in my day.”

It’s the first confirmation Steve’s ever officially received that Tony comes from high society. It’s something that he’s long suspected but Tony has kept so close-lipped about his past that he had given it up as a lost cause and resigned himself to guesswork and conjecture.

“It’ll be fun,” Tony reiterates. “And it’ll be good practice for the children.”


“Yes, practice. They’re growing up and soon Harley will start receiving requests to attend presentation balls. I believe Princess Isabella recently presented as an omega,” he says, sipping his coffee demurely.

“Princess Isabella is four years older than Harley,” Steve says through gritted teeth. He refuses to entertain the thought of his little boy growing up and entertaining thoughts of omegas.

 “Harley is the crown prince of Dacia,” Tony counters. “He is certainly a catch for any princess, older than him or not.”

The boy in question looks disgusted by the thought of the omega princess, something which Steve wants to encourage. His son should be allowed to hold onto his innocence a little while longer, not be pushed into a lengthy betrothal before he’s even had his first rut.

“Harley doesn’t need to be worrying about such things yet,” he insists.

Tony inclines his head. “I agree. But the fact remains that the invitations will soon start arriving for him and he needs to be ready. There’s only so much I can teach him without practical experience.”

Steve is quiet, mulling the idea over in his mind. He doesn’t want to hold a ball and especially not at Lady Carter’s bequeath. But Harley does need the experience and as much as he would like to keep Harley young and innocent forever, the last four years have certainly proven that his children are growing up almost before he can blink.

“Your Majesty?” Pepper prompts. “Should I start preparing the invitations?”

He gives Tony a severe expression. “Planning this won’t interfere with your regular duties, will it?”

It’s clear from Tony’s delighted expression that he knows he’s won. “I’ll turn it into a lesson for Morgan. Is that a yes?”

Somehow, he’s certain that he’ll regret this. “Yes.”

Chapter Text

Steve wakes to the distant sound of piano music. At first, he thinks he’s dreamed it as it’s so faint he has to strain to hear it, but he keeps hearing it so he steps out into the hallway. It grows louder, not by much, but just enough that he’s certain that the music is indeed real. He glances at Bucky stationed by his door, head cocked to the side so he can listen.

“You hear it too?” he asks.

Bucky nods. “Where’s it coming from?” he asks. “Thought you had all the pianos removed from the castle.”

He had, the music too difficult to hear and not think of Peggy, who had loved playing the piano though she hadn’t been very good at it. He had offered several times to bring in professional pianists to play for them so that the music at least sounded decent but Peggy had always laughed at him.

“It isn’t hearing the music that I love,” she had said. “It’s the experience of playing.” And then she’d hit a discordant chord and Steve had winced, leaving soon after.

There’s still one piano in the castle in a room that’s been locked for four years. He has no idea how Tony—for that’s who he believes to be playing—got in though he isn’t surprised. He believes Tony could do anything if he put his mind to it. He sighs and sets off down the corridor, Bucky following at a respectful distance as he makes his way down to the solarium.

He remembers the last time he had been down here. It had been exactly one year after Peggy’s passing. She had always loved the solarium with its glass roof and lush greenery. She’d liked to look out the windows at the sun. Peggy’s family originally came from England. While her parents had settled in Dacia, she had still spent her summers there with her grandparents until the year she turned thirteen and presented as an omega, at which point her parents had decided to send her and her younger sister to live with their grandparents while they attended a finishing school. They had passed the time with letters but it had been the last time he would see her until she returned during her sixteenth year, when he had realized that at some point, he had fallen deeply in love with her.

Steve had had the solarium built as a wedding present to her, a place where she could always sit in the sun so unlike the rain of England without the oppressive heat of the summer. It had quickly become her favorite room in the castle and when she’d passed, he’d had her favorite piano moved into the room. He had eventually locked the room up after the first anniversary of her death but until that time, he had visited nearly every night, sitting at the piano and running his hands over the keys. Steve had never played but sometimes he had imagined that he could hear Peggy playing, her ghost haunting him during those sleepless nights.

She’s not haunting him now though. Tony, if it is Tony, is too talented to be Peggy, who couldn’t go more than a few bars without missing a note, and he doubts that his wife would have ever played the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Even to her dying day, she had still called America “the colonies.”

The solarium door is standing open, the music floating out of it. He walks inside on silent feet, leaving Bucky at the door. Tony is in fact the one sitting at the piano, having moved on from marching songs to a waltz. His fingers dance elegantly over the keys, capturing Steve’s attention with their grace. Tony looks up for a brief moment when Steve moves closer before shifting on the bench so that Steve can sit beside him.

Steve takes the invitation, Tony returning his full attention to the piece. “I didn’t know it was still in tune,” he says softly, afraid of breaking the still peace.

“It wasn’t,” Tony replies just as quietly. “I had the tuner brought in yesterday.”

“I didn’t hear anything about that.”

“I didn’t have to ask you. I asked Pepper.”

Steve nods slowly, taking the information in. “How did you know this was down here?”

Tony continues playing, absently saying, “The children’s kite got caught in a tree. When I climbed it to get it out, I spotted the glass roof. Simple math told me where in the castle it was located but you can imagine my surprise when I arrived at the room to find it locked.”

“Is Pepper the one who unlocked it for you?” Steve asks dryly.

“No. I picked the lock.” He smiles faintly. “The wife of my family’s butler taught me many skills. Lockpicking was one of them.”

Steve is stunned silent, first at the easy admission that Tony knows how to pick locks but also at the reveal that his family is wealthy enough to have a butler. Tony doesn’t freely give away information about his family—but that’s not really true now, is it, he amends. Tony’s given quite a lot of information over the last few months, enough so that he thinks he could probably figure out what Tony’s real name is though he won’t betray the trust Tony has given him.

“Did she teach you how to play as well?” he asks.

“No, that would be my mother. She believed I needed to be as accomplished in the domestic arts as I am in the engineering and math my father taught me.” Steve’s surprise must show on his face because Tony glances up and then continues, “What’s that face for? Of course I have a mother. Did you think I came out of thin air?”

Steve will possibly never know what possesses him to say, “You arrived just when I needed you the most. You saved my relationship with my children. Is it any wonder I thought you might be an angel?”

Tony’s hands still on the piano but only for a moment before he resumes playing. Steve wonders if Tony even really paused or if he had imagined it.

“You mustn’t say things like that,” Tony whispers. “People might think you mean them.”

He finishes his song as Steve searches for something to say and stands. “It’s late, probably after midnight. You should go back to bed; it’ll probably be a late evening.” Before Steve quite knows what’s happening, Tony leans back down and kisses his cheek. “Happy birthday, Your Majesty.”

Tony bows and leaves, nodding slightly at Bucky as he slips through the door. Steve stares after him, slowly raising one hand to his cheek.

Tony has four excitable children bouncing around him, Sarah and Morgan both in lovely dresses he’d had commissioned the day Steve agreed to the ball and Harley and Peter in suits that they’d already had. He had tried to get the boys in new outfits as well but they had protested and when he’d brought it up to Steve, the king had shrugged and told him that he wouldn’t insist on new clothes if they didn’t want to.

Tony himself is in a new suit as well, black with a gold bowtie Natasha had gifted him earlier that evening. She’d pressed it into his hand with a whispered, “I know you wanted to wear a gown. This is at least prettier than the one you were going to wear.”

He wonders how she had known he had wanted to wear a gown. He had almost commissioned one too when he’d ordered the ones for Sarah and Morgan only to stop in the middle of ordering when he saw the look on the dressmaker’s face and say, “Never mind. Just the two.” He hadn’t known that male omegas didn’t wear dresses in Dacia like they sometimes did in America but he knows now.

He fingers the edges of his coat, wishing that he’d had the confidence to continue ordering. Working with four active children had dictated the necessity of switching entirely to men’s clothing but he had loved wearing his dresses back home, especially the ones Janet had designed for him. He had almost grabbed a couple when he’d fled but the limited space he had and the small weight he could carry had meant he’d needed to leave all of them behind.

“You look sad,” Steve says quietly from behind him. “Wrong color?”

Tony whirls, nearly tripping over his own feet. “Your Majesty,” he says, bowing slightly. “I didn’t hear you arrive.”

They’ve been waiting for Steve for nearly thirty minutes. The ball had begun a couple minutes ago with a quadrille although the children had come up with their own dance to amuse themselves while they waited. Tony, on the other hand, had leaned back against the wall, letting the memories of his past balls wash over him, of the colors of the omegas’ dresses, the music that had played, the conversations he’d heard. He had been quite the social butterfly back home and the strains of music drifting through the balcony doors and the low murmur of laughter had brought the drastic change of his situation to the forefront of his mind. He hadn’t thought he was lonely but now he wonders if he’s perhaps just a bit homesick.

“Just now,” Steve assures him. “How do I look?”

Tony lets his gaze drift over Steve’s deep blue velvet suit. The bowtie is a deep red and it might have clashed—it should have clashed, only Steve made it work. “Very handsome,” he says, forcing a smile to his face.

“Thank you,” Steve says lightly. He looks closer at Tony, his own smile fading, and he reaches out to brush the corner of Tony’s right eye. “But you didn’t answer my question. You’re sad.”

When he pulls his fingers back, the tips of his fingers are glistening with unshed tears.

“Just melancholy,” Tony whispers. How does he tell him that he’s ashamed of the liberties he took that morning? He had kissed the king, a man who is rapidly becoming his king, because he had called him an angel. How does he apologize for that? How does he tell him that he misses his home? That he’s a washed-up omega with no prospects, doomed to looking after someone else’s children because he had trusted too quickly? He’s still young but two failed engagements have ruined his prospects in America and the only alpha he wants in Europe is so far above his station.

Steve still looks worried but Pepper touches his arm. “It’s time,” she says, drawing him away.

Steve lingers a moment longer. “Will you be introduced with us?”

Tony quirks a smile. “That’s hardly appropriate,” he says. “I’ll be waiting downstairs. I’ll come collect the children once the introductions are finished.”

Steve frowns. “You should be able to join the party as well.”

“I will,” Tony assures him. “But that was our deal, was it not? I watch over the children, teach them how to behave at a ball, and you’ll hold one?”

“Yes, but—”

“Nonsense. I’ll see you inside.” He waves to the children, kneels down next to Morgan so he can tell them, “Now when your names are announced you’ll follow your father inside. Harley, Peter, you’ll be on his left. Morgan and Sarah, on his right. You’ll wave to the guests while they applaud. When your father takes his seat, you’ll go down the stairs. I’ll be right there at the bottom waiting for you.”

“You won’t be there with us?” Sarah asks, crossing her arms defensively.

“No, that’s not proper,” he says softly. “And that’s our lesson for today, right?”

“But who cares about proper if you’re not with us?” Harley cries.

“Hush. This was the agreement and I will not see you embarrass your father, is that clear?”

When they nod, he smiles, drops kisses on each of their heads, and then heads to the main entrance, slipping in unnoticed behind one of Steve’s council members. Above him, he hears the trumpets announcing Steve’s entrance. He drifts into the shadows as Pepper calls out, “King Steven Rogers of Dacia!” He leans back against the wall and contents himself to wait as one of the help, wishing desperately he could be one of the guests.

He leads the children to the benches along the side wall once they’ve come down the stairs. Morgan is clinging to him, understandable as she’s never had the opportunity to meet this many people at one time. Fortunately, no one bothers them, too busy with paying their respects to the king to be looking at his young children. They settle in, Tony seated with Morgan on his lap, Sarah beside him as Harley and Peter stand with their backs to the wall. Natasha and Rhodey, he knows, are nearby though he doesn’t see them in the crowd but he can scent them, bringing him comfort as he knows that he’s not alone.

Tony’s never had an opportunity to be in the ballroom before. It’s far grander than any he’s been in before, even the Vanderbilt’s. The columns are white marble, gilded with gold leaf. The floor is marble as well but painted and polished until it shines. The ceiling is painted with cherubs sitting on clouds as they watch the guests and the magnificent crystal chandelier draws the eye. On the far end of the room, opposite the king’s dais, the wall is floor-to-ceiling windows with doors that open up onto a balcony that overlook the gardens.

He whispers to the children about the receiving line and the importance of the guests giving respect to their father. Eventually, the orchestra strikes up another song, a waltz this time, and he teaches them about the dance, watching approvingly as Harley practices with Sarah. Peter offers to practice with Morgan but the girl shakes her head, burrowing deeper into Tony’s lap and he finds that he doesn’t want to make her get up.

At some point, one of the younger nobles comes by to pay tribute to Harley. “Alpha prince,” he murmurs respectfully, bowing low.

Harley looks stunned and Tony quickly reaches over to shut his mouth before the noble realizes Harley’s blunder. “Bow,” he urges the prince and when Harley starts to mimic the noble, “Not that low. You are the crown prince.”

Once the noble has left, Harley asks, “Why don’t I bow as low as he did?” That launches an explanation into the level of respect indicated in the depth of one’s bow, the time passing quickly as more of the younger generation follows the first noble’s lead and drifts over to pay their respect to their prince.

Tony watches Harley with pride as Harley receives them with grace and poise though he knows the boy is confused. He thinks this might finally spark Harley’s interest in his etiquette lessons. After all, Harley hates to be made into a fool. His ignorance in this matter will bother him.

Harley’s receiving line has started to draw attention and it isn’t long before an omega woman, still a teen, lowers herself into a beautiful curtsey. “Omega princess,” she says to Morgan, who looks startled by the attention.

Tony should have expected this, that there would be ladder-climbers seeking to become the young princess’s ladies-in-waiting. He wants to turn her away, remind the girl that Morgan is only four, but instead he nudges Morgan out of his lap.

“Curtsey, Your Highness,” he encourages her.

Morgan, still young, has no sense of shame and embarrassment unlike her older brother and so she says, “I don’t know how.”

The potential lady-in-waiting titters behind her fan and Tony glares. He’d like to have seen her do any better when she was Morgan’s age. He stands as well and, despite his lack of skirts, sweeps into a curtsey that he knows rivals the girl’s in elegance. He’s been told often that he curtseys beautifully and he’s not ashamed to admit it.

Morgan tries to mimic him though she wobbles a little on her feet. The girl, on the other hand, is no longer looking at Morgan but instead at Tony. He smiles wolfishly at her, sensing a challenge. His curtsey has drawn the attention of some of the other young women and they move closer, clearly sensing blood in the water.

“I didn’t know male omegas curtsey,” the girl says.

Tony lifts a single shoulder in a delicate shrug, playing up the sophisticated side of his upbringing. “Omegas of all genders are allowed, even encouraged, to wear dresses in America,” he says. He may not have had many rights back home but he had been allowed this one small concession and he’ll use that to fight this battle.

“Oh,” the girl says haughtily. “You’re from the colonies. How…quaint.”

So she’s trying to play a game of wits, is she? It’s a shame she comes unprepared. “Not at all,” he says politely. He reaches out to touch the lace on her sleeves. “Your gown is so pretty on you. Why just last year, I had a lovely dress commissioned in just this style. It was all the rage in New York for a couple weeks. Of course, fashion moves so quickly these days. We moved on from these adorable ruffles ages ago but still, your dress is nice.”

He smiles sweetly at her as she huffs and turns on her heel to stalk away, some of the other girls gossiping behind their fans, hiding their delight at seeing one of their own knocked down a peg.

The crowd disperses, leaving only a wizened, old man, more wrinkles than not, laughing. “Quite the show, young man,” he says. He comes closer, grinning broadly enough that Tony can count all of his teeth. “Sir Lee.”

He offers his hand to Tony, who gladly takes it.

“I used to work here in the castle when I was younger, held the formidable Miss Potts' job. When I retired, the king’s mother—ruler at the time, you know—knighted me and gave me my own plot of land. Always meant to make it back out here but then the queen died, terrible business that.”

“You knew our mother?” Harley asks curiously.

Sir Lee shakes his head sadly. “I remember her as she was growing up but I was long gone before she married your father. I know she would have liked you though,” he says, nodding at Tony. “You would have been just her type, exactly the sort she would have wanted to bring life back to the castle.”

Tony smiles. He’s heard how incredible the queen had seemed to be but he had always assumed that he would never have been able to hold a candle to her and no one’s ever disavowed him of the notion. It’s nice to hear from someone at least that he’s doing a good job. “Would you tell us more about her?”

“You’re not going to dance?” Sir Lee asks.

Tony shakes his head. “I think my dancing days are done.”

Sir Lee looks first at him and then just a little bit past him at something that Tony doesn’t bother looking at, a twinkle appearing in his eye. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Now, where to begin?”

Steve finds them at some point. Tony is still seated against the wall, half-listening to Sir Lee prattle on about his years in the castle, half-paying attention to how Morgan is falling asleep on his lap. A quick glance at the other three shows that all but Harley are falling asleep as well. He’ll need to take them upstairs soon. He figures he’ll likely stay up there with them instead of coming back downstairs. He’s sure he would be welcome if he decided to return to the ball but who would care? There’s no Janet waiting eagerly to tell about that young omega’s gown, no parents needing to tell him who to glad-hand, no handsome fiancé on his dance card. Tony is the help and all that would happen is he would blend into the shadows, completely invisible, and eventually return to the nursery, more depressed than when he’d left it.

No, thank you.

Still, his mind is focused on other things and so he’s startled when he realizes that the chocolate and coffee he’s smelling is not a product of his longing imagination but is in fact due to the king standing right in front of them.

“May I have this dance?” Steve asks politely, extending a hand toward them.

Tony nudges Morgan awake. “Up, Miss Morgan. Your father wants to dance with you.”

“Actually,” Steve says amusedly. He clears his throat. “I was talking to you, Mister Carbonell.”

Tony’s heart skips a beat. “Me?”

“Yes, you.”

He looks back at the children clustered around him. Harley, the only one awake enough to understand what’s going on, gives him an encouraging nod. Even so, Tony asks, “Shouldn’t I be taking the children upstairs?”

“I think they can probably wait another few minutes, don’t you?” Steve hesitates and then urges, “Come dance with me. It’s the least I can do after all the help you’ve given my family.”

He hadn’t realized how much he wanted it to be a true dance until Steve tells him it’s out of gratitude. Still, he smiles weakly and places his hand in Steve’s, allowing himself to be led away as Natasha appears out of nowhere to watch over the children.

“Are you familiar with the mazurka?” Steve asks as they take their place on the dancefloor. They are one of very few couples, understandable as the mazurka is both highly active and requires quite a lot of space.

It had only recently arrived in America but Tony, as a society omega, is more than familiar with it. “I know it, Your Majesty,” he says.

The dance begins and Steve places his hand flat beside him. Tony lays his hand in his and they begin to advance. “You’ve been doing that a lot these last few days,” Steve whispers as they turn at the end of the dancefloor and walk back in the other direction.

“Doing what?” Tony asks innocently. They come to a halt in the center of the space. He brings the hand that had been in Steve’s up to his shoulder and his free hand takes Steve’s other one. Steve’s right hand gently grasps his waist and pulls him in one step closer, just the right distance to appear proper but close enough that when Tony inhales, he’s surrounded by Steve’s scent.

They begin to hop and step their way down the ballroom, neatly avoiding the other couples as they turn at the end and make their way back to the center, pausing for another turn in the center of the room before continuing toward the other direction.

“Calling me Your Majesty instead of by my name,” Steve says as they begin to whirl around the edges of the dancefloor with the other couples. Tony wishes he had a skirt that could flare dramatically like the other omegas dancing. He feels like he probably looks boring, like everyone there is wondering why he’s the one dancing with the king instead of anyone else. He knows that Steve has danced with quite a few people this evening but they’ve all been the omegas of his council members and not anyone unattached like Tony is. “I thought we’d had this conversation already, Mister Carbonell.”

He raises his arm so Tony can spin underneath it. They separate for a moment, dancing beside each other instead of facing as the music turns into something more languorous. Steve is a divine dancer, something Tony should have expected but somehow, he had thought that he would be as awkward on the dancefloor as he can be during their picnics with the children.

“It’s a special occasion,” Tony lies smoothly. The next steps of the dance call them away from each other, dancing individually on different sides of the room. Tony retreats to the other omegas, grateful for the reprieve from Steve’s seemingly casual question.

He can’t tell Steve the truth, he decides as he goes through the steps automatically. He can’t tell Steve that the reason he’s returned to calling Steve by his title is because he’s trying to distance himself so that it doesn’t hurt as much when his heart is broken—and it will be broken. No matter how kind Steve may be at the moment, no matter how bad he would feel to know that Tony has developed unfortunate feelings for him, there’s no future for the two of them. The only fate lying in store for Tony’s poor beleaguered heart is a broken one.

They start to dance their way back to each other, which is when it happens. A young omega, pretty and blonde and clearly wealthy judging by the jewelry she’s wearing, interrupts them before they can join hands again. “Your Majesty,” she purrs, dropping into a low curtsey. She turns to Tony. “Mind if I cut in?”

It’s clearly not a question so much as a command and when all Steve does is give him an apologetic smile as he takes the omega’s hand in his, Tony manages a weak smile and says, “Of course. I needed to put the children to bed anyway.”

“You’ll come back downstairs afterward?” Steve asks.

“Certainly,” Tony says, lying through his teeth, and makes his way off the dancefloor, utterly humiliated, especially when the young woman asks, “Why, Steven, dancing with the help?”

He doesn’t hear Steve’s answer as he joins the children again, now all asleep. Natasha is watching Steve and the omega through narrowed eyes but Sir Lee gives him a sympathetic smile. “She’s been after the king since the mourning period for the queen was over,” he says.

“Who is she?” he asks, not sure he wants to hear the answer but asking anyway.

“Lady Sharon Carter,” Sir Lee says. “The late queen’s sister. She’s been in love with him as long as they’ve known each other but Steve has only ever had eyes for Peggy.”

“Oh,” Tony says softly. He turns back to the dance floor. Steve and Lady Sharon are dancing together, somewhat closer than proprietary dictates, a soft smile on Steve’s face. He blinks back tears and looks down at the children. “Natasha, can you help me get them to bed?”

“I can help too,” Sir Lee says.

“You don’t need to—”

“Nonsense. I was the help at one time. I can help carry the littlest one.” He picks Morgan up before anyone can stop him. Tony sighs but doesn’t protest when Natasha bundles Sarah into his arms before she and Rhodey take hold of Peter and Harley.

“You should go back downstairs,” Natasha says after the children are in bed. Sir Lee had disappeared back to the ball after placing Morgan in her bed and Rhodey is right outside so they are alone.

“What, so I can be mocked for dancing with the king and then being interrupted? No, I don’t think I will,” Tony replies.

“Who cares what they think?”

“I care,” he hisses. “I’m not like you. I grew up in society like this. I know what they’re saying behind their pretty fans. I know that they’re already laughing at me for putting on airs and dancing with the king, never mind that he asked me first. I know that Lady Sharon interrupting my dance would be humiliating enough but to call me out as part of the help loud enough that anyone nearby could have heard her and all Steve did was smile…” He glances at the sleeping children and walks out of the room, shutting the door behind him. “There are other ways to thank me, you know. He didn’t need to ask me to dance, just to embarrass me like that.”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant.”

He laughs scornfully. “Of course that’s not what he meant. But it’s what happened and I should have known that’s what would happen. I can’t believe I was so stupid as to actually think it would work out okay.”

“Go back downstairs with me,” she says quietly. “We’ll leave Rhodey here. We can dance together and no one will look at you twice because you will be with the most beautiful woman in the room.”

For a long moment, he just stares at her and then he throws his arms around her in a tight hug, startling her. “You are the most wonderful woman,” he says. “Rhodey, do you mind staying?”

“Not even a little bit,” Rhodey says. “I’m not a party kind of alpha.”

He lets Natasha take him back downstairs, lets her draw him into a polka, and before he knows it, he’s flushed and happy as they spin around the ballroom. This is what he’s been missing, the lightheartedness of dancing, the camaraderie that comes with sharing a dance with three other couples. He can feel judging eyes on him and when he glances behind him, he knows that the catty omegas are watching him but Natasha, with her unerring eye for discernment, brings him to a group that doesn’t seem to mind that he’s truly part of the help and he ends up making friends with a couple of them.

“You’ll have to come and visit us,” Lady Jean Grey says.

“But I’ve got the children,” he protests.

She waves it off. “Bring them with you. It’ll be good for them to get out and see the country. The older one, Prince Harlan, he’s at that age, isn’t he, to start looking at omegas?”

“Yes,” Tony says dryly, “though you wouldn’t know it if you heard him speak.”

To his immense relief, his comment brings laughter bubbling forth and he can’t help but laugh along with them. It’s been so nice getting to meet other people who aren’t just part of the castle staff and while he’ll never admit it to her, he’s glad Natasha brought him back downstairs.

“Pardon me,” someone says, someone with a deep rumbling voice that causes heat to pool in the pit of Tony’s stomach. “I heard the loveliest laughter coming from over here and I had to investigate.”

Tony turns to look at him, tilts his head because he has to look up, the alpha is so tall, and then keeps looking. He’s never seen an alpha quite like this before, with muscles as big as Tony’s head and long blond hair in braids. His eyes are blue, not bright like Steve’s but deep as the ocean. Tony thinks he could drown in them if he would let himself.

“I believe it’s coming from you,” the alpha says, smiling down at Tony. “Prince Thor Odinson of Asgard.”

“Asgard,” Tony says thoughtfully. “That’s north, isn’t it? The Scandinavian countries?”

Prince Thor looks delighted that Tony knows where it is. “You’ve heard of it! I hadn’t believed my homeland to be on many maps.”

“Neither is Dacia,” Tony points out, “so when I stumbled upon it, I thought it might be worth my time looking for other hidden gems.”

“Ah, Asgard is indeed a hidden gem. We have rivers of ice that sparkle brighter than any jewel when the sun hits them right, snow that glitters in the dawn, and our evergreens are prettier than any emerald I’ve ever seen though I think that your loveliness would rival all the wonders my homeland has to offer.”

Tony blushes and holds out his hand. “Mister Tony Carbonell, tutor to the royal children.”

He half-expects that the prince will shake his hand and half-expects that he’ll leave upon hearing that Tony is part of the staff but to his surprise—and pleasure—Thor bows over his hand, placing the gentlest of kisses upon the back of it. Tony’s breath catches in his throat.

“Mister Carbonell,” Prince Thor murmurs huskily. “Would you do me the honor of a single dance with you?”

He throws a look back at Natasha, silently asking her what she thinks. Natasha gives him a thumb’s up and shoves him into the prince’s arms. Prince Thor steadies him with his hands on Tony’s biceps, fingers easily reaching around to touch each other. Tony thinks he might faint at the strength of the northern alpha.

“Prince Thor, I would be delighted.”

Steve is determined not to break the wineglass in his hand though he’s fairly certain that’ll be a battle that he’s going to lose if he grips it any tighter. He just can’t seem to loosen his grip any. He hears Tony’s bright laugh, smells his scent flare with delight, and he can’t stop his eyes from narrowing. He’s turned away from the prince waltzing with his children’s tutor but that doesn’t mean he can’t guess what’s going on.

He doesn’t have any right to be upset, he knows he doesn’t. He had left Tony in the middle of their dance and he knows that he owes the omega an apology for that. He’ll give him one tomorrow morning at breakfast. But it had been Lady Sharon, perpetual dog nipping at his heels and with the power to cause quite a lot of trouble if he had refused her. She does this to every person he’s ever danced with, even when Peggy had still been alive; Tony is in good company though Steve had hoped she would leave this omega alone. He knows of her infatuation and he’s tried to gently discourage her but he’s afraid he’ll need to be firmer next time. He isn’t interested in her, even if she hadn’t been Peggy’s sister.

He’d meant to seek Tony out after the dance, ask him again to dance with him, but he’d already been upstairs by the time he’d broken away from Lady Sharon. Steve had remembered the embarrassment he’d scented on Tony as he’d walked away from their dance and figured that Tony probably wouldn’t return to the party, not that he could blame him.

But he had. Steve had smelled him the moment he came back and had meant to break away from the nobles he was talking to but Tony had already been swept up into a dance with Natasha. They’d shared every dance together, only breaking away from the dancing to talk with his new friends.

And now he’s dancing with Asgard’s crown prince.

Steve has nothing but the highest respect for Prince Thor. The alpha is a few years older than Steve and it’s known across Europe that he will take over the kingship as soon as he finds a bride. The prince has been traveling across the continent over the last year, seeking out the perfect omega to take as his queen.

He can’t take Tony. There’s something hot and protective demanding that Steve keep Tony safe here, in his castle. The children would kill him if he let their favorite tutor go but—he turns slightly, just so that he can see the beautiful smile on Tony’s face—he can already see that the omega is halfway to enamored already. Thor has always been sweet with the omegas, prone to poetry and fits of passion, more suited to a medieval novel than their modern values. Steve would have never thought that Tony, of all people, would be prone to falling for someone like that but it seems he has.

The dance comes to an end. Tony and the prince separate, the alpha laying a sweet kiss on Tony’s hand. Now would be the time to make his apologies to Tony, ask him for another dance, but before he can make his stubborn feet move, Natasha catches him up in another dance.

The evening is winding down. There are only a few more dances left. He should ask to cut in, only he’s approached by Prince Thor before he can.

“Your Highness,” he says, inclining his head.

“Your Majesty,” Thor says, bowing just a little at the waist. “Your children’s tutor is delightful. Did you know that he helped Mister Henry with his invention of the repeating rifle? Amazing from someone so young. He must have still been a boy.”

“I had no idea,” Steve replies through gritted teeth. How did he do it? How did this foreign prince weasel information about Tony’s past out of the ordinarily tight-lipped omega?

Why is he worthy of such trust but Steve isn’t?

They stand in silence, watching the dancing. Steve’s gaze is on Tony, held in Natasha’s supportive arms like he belongs there. He suspects Thor is looking in that direction as well.

“I thought to ask you if I might stay in your castle for a few months,” Thor says suddenly. “I’ve been traveling so long. A rest might do me good.”

“And your fascination with Mister Carbonell has nothing to do with it, I presume?” Steve queries.

Thor smiles. “Well...”

It’s a foreign prince asking, not one of Steve’s subjects. To refuse would risk war though Steve’s relations with the Asgardians has always been good. “You would be most welcome in my home,” he says reluctantly, hoping that Thor would end up turning him down.

“Excellent,” Thor says and walks away back to the dancers, smoothly cutting in between Natasha and Tony. Tony’s smile brightens, imperceptible to all except those who know him.

Steve knows him.

He looks down with distaste at the wineglass in his hand, tosses the rest of it back, and stalks away. He’s always hated balls anyway.

Harley is awake early the next morning. He remembers sort of waking up sometime after midnight when Mister Carbonell had come back to the nursery, escorted by someone who didn’t sound like either of their guards or their father. He hadn’t worried about it though, remembering that Mister Carbonell had brought him and his siblings back up to the nursery with the help of one of the other guests. He had suspected it was something like that.

He remembers the other guest saying, “Good night, sváss. I shall look forward to our conversations.” He remembers Mister Carbonell saying something in return but he doesn’t remember what it had been.

He’s sure it’s not all that important though. Harley had seen the way his father and Mister Carbonell looked at each other when they danced. The Secret Rogers Society’s plan is coming together perfectly.

Mister Carbonell’s door is still closed. He suspects that it’ll probably be closed most of the morning if the nanny had had as late a night as Harley thinks he did. He wakes up Sarah and Peter and leads them to Morgan’s bed where they congregate behind the canopy drapes.

“I think we can call off our plan,” he says as soon as Morgan has woken up. “I watched Father and Mister Carbonell dance last night while you lot fell asleep. They only had eyes for each other.”

“What does that mean?” Morgan whispers.

“It means they’re in love,” Sarah whispers back ecstatically. “Harley, do you really think so?”

“I do,” he confirms. “I’m telling you, Mister Carbonell and Father will be married by Christmas.”

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t hate very many people. He dislikes plenty and gets irritated by many others but he hates very few. Baron Schmidt comes to mind; possibly his stooge, Zola. But other than that, he really can’t think of anyone.

That being said, he’s certain that he despises Alpha Prince Thor Odinson.

He’d say that he doesn’t know what it is about the prince that irritates him so, but that would be a lie. Steve knows exactly why Prince Thor rubs him the wrong way: it’s all in the way that he treats Tony. Not that there’s anything rude or untoward about the way that the prince treats his children’s tutor! The prince has been the perfect gentleman, polite and charming, exactly what Steve would expect from Queen Frigga’s oldest child. No, the problem doesn’t lie in how Prince Thor treats Tony. It lies in the fact that he spends time with Tony at all.

And that is what keeps throwing Steve off because he doesn’t have a single claim to Tony outside of employer and employee.

So why is he so irritated?

There’s the easy answer, of course. Prince Thor’s attentions have the potential to draw Tony’s own attention away from the children and toward his…suitor—and oh how he hates thinking that word. Tony shouldn’t have any suitors, much less one as attractive a mate as the prince of a very wealthy country like Asgard. The point is—if Tony’s attention is distracted, then he’s not taking care of the children the way he should be. Harley is nearly a man. Morgan is still a young child. Both of them need attention, care, and love, to say nothing of the other two, who don’t need the same amount but still deserve it nonetheless, none of which Tony can give them if he’s giggling and blushing over the way the prince kissed his hand.

But that isn’t quite it.

Tony has seemed more distracted over the last month but it’s not enough to take him from his duties. In fact, according to Natasha and Rhodes, Tony’s as devoted as ever to the children, which means that it must be just in his interactions with Steve that he seems distracted and anxious to leave. The thought that he’s making Tony uncomfortable burns low in his stomach, eating away at him each time Tony gives him a tense smile.

It’s been a little over a month since the prince arrived in the castle and everything has changed.

Steve’s one saving grace is that his children don’t much seem to like Prince Thor either. He’s not sure why they don’t like him. They haven’t lost Tony’s affection so there’s no reason to treat him with such dislike but they do. They grace him with the same dirty looks and petty pranks that they used to give their old nannies. The prince bears it all with an affable smile and a booming laugh but Steve is sure that underneath all that, he must be frustrated. He knows that he would be if he were in Prince Thor’s place.

Of course, maybe the prince isn’t frustrated because every time the children do something, Tony is there to fuss all over him.

Prince Thor isn’t the only one his children are angry at though. Steve isn’t sure what he’s done to earn their wrath this time but he must have done something because they won’t stop giving him angry looks. All four of them know better than to try their mischief with him but their looks still hurt especially after the last several months. They have been doing better, right?

Or maybe they only like him when Tony’s around.

It probably doesn’t help that at the beginning of August, Lady Carter decides to pay them a visit.

Steve can’t really blame them for being irritated by that. He’s irritated too, not least because she comes by unannounced. She does this about once a year and has since the year he married Peggy. He’d never quite figured out what her plan was when Peggy had still been alive. He’s never been the type to be unfaithful and even if he had been, he’d been too in love with his wife to even entertain the idea of a mistress, not that he would have ever taken his wife’s sister as one if he’d been so inclined.

He knows that Lady Sharon has always had feelings for him, ever since they were children. But he also thinks he’s done a good job of telling her that those feelings are unrequited so why she returns year after year confounds him. When he’d been in between nannies, he had appreciated her help in taking care of the children while she stayed at Aynor Castle though he’d always felt a little guilty, knowing that she was doing it because she wanted to prove that she’d be a good mother. Still, help was help and with the children as troublesome as they’d been back then, he hadn’t been about to turn down any assistance.

He knows they don’t much like her though. She had tried too hard and too soon to be a replacement for their mother and that kind of impression could never be replaced.

“Lady Sharon,” he says politely as Pepper shows her into the throne room. “What a surprise.”

She titters, hiding her face behind a pale pink fan. “I had such a lovely time at your ball last month that I thought it might be nice to come see you and the children again. And where are the little angels?” She looks around as though she thinks Steve is hiding them somewhere in the room.

Steve’s smile is forced as he says, “They’re in the garden with Mister Carbonell and our other invited guest.”

If she picks up on his pointed hint, she shows no sign of it. “Other guest?” she asks instead, shoulders tensing. He wonders what’s going through her head. “Who might that be?”

“Prince Thor Odinson of Asgard. He’s made the acquaintance of Mister Carbonell.”

Her shoulders relax. “Oh? I hadn’t realized that they knew each other.”

“They met last month,” Steve says shortly.

A broad smile spreads across her face. “Well, this will be fun then, won’t it? Mister Carbonell and the alpha prince…Me and you.”

“I can hardly wait.”

He motions for Pepper to come forward. “I’m sure you remember where your rooms are—” On the opposite side of the castle from Steve’s. “—But just in case, Miss Potts will show you the way.”

He waves her away and slumps back in his seat. The Asgardian prince and his wife’s sister. What a nightmare.

Tony’s heat hits during the middle of the first week of August, exactly a day after Lady Sharon Carter comes to the castle, which is inconvenient but he supposes it’s his body’s way of telling everyone that he’s an attractive mate even if he doesn’t come with the wealth and status of Lady Carter.

At least he has one thing going for him. Unlike his last heat, this one has mellowed out into what his heats used to be like, so other than his scent going slightly sweeter, his heat really isn’t noticeable at all. There’s none of the painful cramps, the desperate need to be taken to bed, none of that. He doesn’t even produce enough slick to necessitate the use of heat rags in his undergarments. Tony is able to go about his normal day without worrying that his heat will be noticeable to the children—or to the king and Lady Sharon, neither of whom would be delighted to hear that he’s in heat.

He doubts that his omega troubles, as his mother used to call them, would matter all that much to Steve, who doubtlessly has bigger things on his mind than what’s going on with the nanny but Lady Sharon, who has her sights on becoming the next Queen, would undoubtedly turn a mockery out of the whole affair if she found out that her arrival sent him into heat.

It’s silly and he knows that but she makes him uncomfortable (she makes the children uncomfortable too so he makes sure to try to keep them as separate from her as possible) and has ever since the night of the ball. It had been unnecessary for her to interrupt his dance with Steve—unnecessary and rude. Tony knows that he has no business dancing with the king but it hadn’t been like he had extended the invitation himself. He had been the one asked to dance and her interruption had been designed to humiliate him as much as possible.

He can only imagine what she would do if she discovered that his body, despite intellectually knowing that Steve is not for him, had felt so threatened by her that he’d been sent into heat.

Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to notice at all. He counts that as one of God’s small mercies.

There are other people who notice: Pepper says something nearly an hour before he himself even notices his condition and Natasha wrinkles her nose the first time he leaves the nursery and tells him to take a bath (he, very maturely and not at all like one of the children he watches, thumbs his nose at her). Harold, the gardener who always seems to have a smile on his face when the children are outside though he never smiles at any other time, winks at him and gives him a rose for being the prettiest omega in the castle. Tony smiles at him and says nothing. 

And then there’s Prince Thor.

Prince Thor who insists that Tony call him by his first name because he doesn’t believe that they should stand on ceremony. Prince Thor who, within a week of meeting him, sussed out that he was truly one of the Starks of New York and not just an American omega finding themselves in Europe. Prince Thor who realizes that he’s in heat within a few hours and, after taking one deep breath, politely takes his leave.

“I would never want to make you uncomfortable, sváss,” he says in that rumble of his that never fails to make Tony a little weak in the knees. “I shall see you in a week.”

He cups Tony’s cheek and then leaves him in the garden with the children. Tony blushes as he turns back to his charges. He’s never had anyone who treats his heat with quite as much reverence as Thor has. Though he’s never spent it with anyone, Sunset had always treated the idea of it as an inconvenience and Tiberius as his right and as for Steve—well, Steve doesn’t even seem to notice it going on.

It’s nice that Thor is kind enough to place Tony’s wishes above his own. He’d be well within his rights to be around constantly during his heat, overclouding Tony’s overstressed senses with his calm and reassuring scent. Alphas have been taking advantage of omegas’ heats for centuries, using the omega’s time to insinuate themselves as a worthy alpha; Tony wouldn’t have been surprised, or even offended, if Thor had done the same. But instead, he’d left, choosing not to do what so many others might have done—and that makes all the difference in the world.

Tony isn’t dull. He was a fantastic student in his lessons according to all but one of his tutors and by the time he was seven, he was making products that it had taken his father decades to figure out. He’s intelligent and bright and the point is, he’s more than smart enough to know when he’s being courted. He had known that about Sunset and Tiberius and even the few months that Hank was courting him before he met Janet just as he knows now that Thor is, if not openly courting him, at least interested in the concept.

He doesn’t quite know how he feels about that.

Part of him—a large part, really—is terribly flattered. He likes the Asgardian prince and it’s quite a jump from being courted by businessmen, even if they are the heirs to a fortune, to being courted by royalty. And Thor is nice. He’s not at all like most of the other alphas Tony has been courted by. He genuinely cares about what Tony thinks and he doesn’t have secret conversations with other alphas about how he plans to control Tony after they’re wedded. He never asks what took Tony from America though he’s sure that Thor is interested in the story. He doesn’t even mind that most of Tony’s time is taken up with the children, who insist that Thor be allowed nowhere near the schoolrooms though Tony has no idea what the prince has done to earn their ire. He’s a perfectly lovely person and Tony should be honored that his affections have fallen on him.

The problem is Steve.

Steve, who has no idea that Tony is falling desperately in love with him, whose time has been taken up these past few days with Lady Sharon despite the exhaustion and frustration in his eyes, who has come back from the depths of his grief to love and dote on his children with a ferocity that astounds even Tony, who grew up in a loving home.

Steve, who stumbles upon him in the library during what he suspects will be the last night of his heat and stops dead. “Have you changed your perfume?” he asks, voice hushed in the stillness of the dark library.

“No,” Tony says honestly and then waits, curious to see if Steve will put the pieces together.

“Oh. I thought—you smell like—” Steve stops and in the darkness, Tony thinks he might blush but he can’t be sure.

“Like what?”

“Like spun sugar,” Steve murmurs. He reaches out, fingers brushing Tony’s cheek as he pushes a stray curl away from his face. Tony can scarcely breathe, afraid of breaking this moment. “It suits you.”

He leaves without whatever it is he’d come for and Tony sinks into one of the chairs, hand raising to his cheek.

Yes, the problem is Steve.

Steve stumbles across Harley trying to break into Prince Thor’s rooms and sighs. He’d figured this would eventually happen. Harley has never been one to leave anything he doesn’t like alone, has always tried to see how far he could push. The boy would never be content with giving the prince dirty looks. In many ways, Steve is honestly surprised that Harley hasn’t tried something like this before. But Harley is rapidly becoming a man and these childish antics are unbefitting of the man who’ll be the next king. He hates having to admonish him but he doesn’t have much of a choice. Thor isn’t just a nanny; he’s a prince who can cause quite a lot of problems for them if he’s offended.

He crosses his arms. “Harlan Zacharias Rogers,” he snaps. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Harley’s scent goes sour with guilt and just a hint of fear. Steve pushes down his own guilt rising at the change in Harley’s scent. Things have been different between him and his children since Tony arrived but that doesn’t mean that he’s not still their parent. He has a duty to correct them when they take their antics too far.

Harley turns slowly, face breaking out into a wide grin. His eyes are wide and innocent, only confirming his guilt further. Steve purses his lips.

“What are you doing?” he repeats.

“I was just trying to leave a present for the prince,” Harley says, still trying to come off as innocent. Something in his pocket wriggles and Steve sighs again, wondering if it’s a frog this time or if it’s a newt or something even worse. He’s heard stories about King Odin’s younger son that makes him suspect this would be perfectly in line with anything else Thor’s encountered before but that doesn’t make it okay.

He remembers that when he was younger, he’d been quite the troublemaker as well. He had never meant to cause problems for any of his parents’ guests—or, at least, he hadn’t set out to do that—but he had always had a strong sense of justice. He’d seen himself as the defender of the weak and so when he’d seen one of King Ferdinand’s retinue being cruel to one of the younger members of his party or Queen Maria’s groom hitting his horse, he’d seen fit to bring it to everyone’s attention by any means necessary. Looking back on it, he counts himself fortunate that he’d never caused an international incident but he doubts that he would have cared when he’d been Harley’s age.

It had been his mother who had suggested that he attend court sessions with his father, channeling his passion for fairness and equality into solving the problems of their own people instead of trying to solve everyone else’s. It had worked. Steve had seen an opportunity to help, to do something more than what he’d been doing, and he had seized onto it with both hands. He had relished in the chance to sit beside his father and mother and listen as their beloved people brought their grievances to them, coming up with suggestion after suggestion on how they could help. It had taken his father some time to warm up to his ideas, believing him too young to have any real solutions, but his mother had always listened to him and often rephrased his ideas to his father so that he would be more willing to hear them out. It had meant the world to Steve, who had often felt powerless when he’d been younger due to his illnesses and stature.

He crouches beside his son, taking Harley’s hands in his. “You can’t set whatever it is in your pocket loose in Prince Thor’s rooms,” he says gently. “You might offend him.”

“That’s the point,” Harley grumbles.

Steve hides a smile. He’s just as annoyed with the prince as his children seem to be—possibly more so since he knows just what’s at stake if the prince succeeds in his apparent plans of wooing Tony away—but he thinks he’s done an excellent job of hiding his irritation of the past month.

“If you offend him, he might take that news back to his father,” Steve continues. He remembers the prince in his earlier years—how easy he’d been to offend, how quick he had become angry. He’s mellowed since then but his father, King Odin, can still be riled easily. “We can’t afford war with Asgard, Harley.”

“Prince Thor wouldn’t do that,” Harley gasps.

“No,” Steve allows. The prince is an honorable man. It isn’t likely that he would do that at all. “But his father might. They’re a much wealthier country than we are and they have a much larger army.”

Harley eyes him and then says decisively, “You could take ‘em.”

Steve laughs, delighted by his son’s trust in him. “I’m honored you think I could but Asgard has a long history of military occupation. We do not.”

“…I still think you could take ‘em.”

He laughs again. “Maybe I could but we’re not going to find out because you’re not going to put—seriously, Harley, what is it in your pocket?”

The whatever-it-is wriggles again and he eyes it with trepidation. It’s been completely silent so he doubts it’s a frog but he’s never heard of the children bringing anything else into the castle. Harley shoves his hand into his pocket and brings out a small green lizard.

“I was gonna put it on his pillow,” Harley mumbles.

“And you think it was going to stay there that long?”

“Might’ve. It’s missing a leg ‘cause Goose was chewing on it before I found it.”

Steve scrubs his hand over his face. He should have figured it was a rescue. His children are obsessed with making sure they save each and every animal from Goose’s claws. He’s not sure how the poor mouser manages to do his job considering how often the children rescue the mice in the traps.

“Let the lizard go,” he says and watches as the lizard scrambles up the castle wall and into a crack near the ceiling. He clasps a hand on a pouting Harley’s shoulder. “Come on. I’ve got a different way for you to work out your frustration.”

“What’s that?” Harley asks curiously as he lets Steve lead him down the hall.

“I want you to sit at my side during the court sessions today so I can teach you about helping our people.”

Harley’s eyes light up excitedly but he still asks, “And that’ll make me feel better about Mister Carbonell accepting Prince Thor’s gifts?”

Steve grits his teeth. “It does for me,” he lies.

For the most part, Tony doesn’t really have much to do with Lady Carter. Despite how much she seemingly adores the children, with Tony there, there isn’t much for her to do with them. He’s heard from Peter that in past years, she’d spent her time at the castle alternating between spending time with Steve and with the children, who had never much liked her. He can understand that. She seems like a perfectly fine person but she also comes off as pushy. Pepper tells him that she’d visited even when the queen had been alive, ostensibly for the purpose of visiting her sister.

“But she always spent just as much time alone with the king as the queen,” Pepper sniffs. “It wasn’t proper, not that that ever stopped her. It was the oddest thing; Lady Carter was the very soul of propriety—except when it came to His Majesty.”

Tony sees that. It’s clear how much Lady Carter despises the informal way the castle is run, from Pepper being as much an advisor to Steve as any of his lords to Tony being allowed to dine with the royal family to Steve asking him to dance at last month’s ball. It all looks to terribly offend her, judging by the way she turns her nose up and delicately sniffs each time something considered “improper” happens. He wonders how much the castle would change if she became the new queen—or if anyone would push back against her. The children, he’s certain, would make her very life miserable with their troublesome pranks, seeing her as just another nanny. But Steve seems incapable of denying her almost anything. He doesn’t say anything when Lady Carter comments on the children’s filthiness at supper after they spent the day outside or when she sniffs at one of Pepper’s suggestions.

In fact, the only thing Steve seems capable of denying her is his hand in marriage and Tony wishes she would get it in her head that she’s never going to be given that because as it is, he…pities her.

It’s awful watching the way she dotes on the king only for her face to crumple and fall each time he turns away from her. It’s terrible seeing the children shrink away from her and he understands, he really does. He can’t imagine how he would feel to throw himself at Steve’s feet only to be turned away. But the difference between the two of them is that he already knows he’ll never get to have Steve. He thinks that she likely knows that as well but she, unlike him, has refused to accept it and in her refusal, she pushes them further and further away.

“I know what they say about me,” he hears a light voice say beside him as a shadow falls over him.

Tony turns from where he’s watching the children play in the garden to see the very object of his thoughts standing beside him. He bows his head and murmurs, “Lady Carter,” waiting for her to sit on the bench next to him before demurring, “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

She exhales slowly. “I know what they’ve told you: that I’m the poor wretch who’s been trying to steal her dead sister’s husband to become a queen.”

That’s exactly what he’s been told and what he’s seen but that doesn’t mean he needs to confirm it. He knows this game well enough to know that someone—Pepper, maybe, or Natasha—will get in trouble if he agrees with her.

“Is that not what it is?” he asks instead.

“Did you know that I met him first?” she returns. She leans back on her hands, pretty pink skirts spreading out around her, distracting him with the way the fabric catches the light. He misses being able to wear dresses like that. “We were at the seaside. Peggy was collecting shells, I was playing with our dog. I remember he ran off and I was too little, too slow, to catch him. I thought we’d never see him again but then this boy chases after him. I thought surely he won’t be able to catch him either. It was Steven, you see, sickly as he’d once been and I thought he would kill himself before he could catch the dog. But he did and then he brought him back. He smiled at me and it was like the stories my parents told me about: I knew immediately he was the one for me.”

She smiles sadly, smoothing her skirts down. “We talked all day and that night, I told my sister that I had met the boy of my dreams. She wanted to meet him, of course, so I took her to see him the next day. It was like something out of a fairytale. He saw her and she saw him and I watched all my dreams slip away.

“I always hoped he would remember me but he never did. I wish I could have moved on, I truly do, but you must know how it is. Your heart knows when you’ve met the one you’re meant for.” She gives him a pleading look and Tony desperately wishes he could tell her that he does know what she means but he doesn’t. His parents had told him the same stories, same as Ana and Jarvis had, but he’s never had that for himself.

“I don’t know,” he says quietly. “I’ve had two broken engagements. I thought they were my perfect match both times but…” He doesn’t really know why he tells her that except that his heart goes out to her. He can’t imagine finding his perfect one, only to realize that he can’t have them.

Well. There’s Steve but Tony refuses to admit that he might be his perfect one. Steve is a king and Tony is a humiliated omega with nothing to offer. He won’t even entertain the thought that Steve is meant to be his.

“I knew about Alpha Stone but who’s the other one?” Lady Carter asks.

Tony can’t even answer her, too frozen by the admission that she knows who he is. She isn’t the only one, of course. Prince Thor had puzzled it out too but he had had no idea about Stone. Lady Carter, however, does. “How—how did you—”

“You are the missing Stark heir, are you not?” she says. “Your disappearance made waves across Europe. I still have friends in England from when I was in finishing school. They told me what had happened to you.”

“I left letters,” he breathes. “My parents shouldn’t be looking for me.”

She shakes her head. “They’re not. Stone is.”

He goes still. “What?”

“Right after you disappeared, he started a search for you,” she says gently. “It died out at the beginning of the year but two months ago, his family’s company went under. There are rumors that he’s terribly in debt. He needs an omega but after you ran, people started wondering what about him was so terrible that a society omega like you would rather run than break off your engagement. You’re his only hope of regaining his fortune.”

“But he can’t find me, right?” he asks, looking at her worriedly. “Dacia isn’t on any map. He—he can’t find me here.”

“No,” she says but she hesitates just long enough that he wonders what the truth is.

“Your Highness,” Tony says quietly as Thor comes to stand beside him.

Thor quirks a smile. “Come now, haven’t we moved beyond such formalities?”

Tony inclines his head. The prince does have a point. They haven’t referred to each other by their titles in weeks but right now, he’s watching the children and the king bid goodbye to Lady Carter and, as he knows that neither his charges nor their father care overly much for the Asgardian prince, he had thought that formality would be the way to go.

“It’s odd, don’t you think?” Thor asks, clasping his hands behind his back.


“To hear Miss Potts talk about it, you would think that Lady Carter has no sense of propriety when it comes to your king. I would have thought that she would stay longer than a couple weeks, particularly after her possessive display at the king’s birthday ball.”

Tony frowns. He’d thought the same thing as well when she announced her plans to leave but then he’d remembered the way she’d spoken about her first meeting with Steve, how sad she had sounded, how resigned. He thinks that perhaps she’s known for a very long time that Steve would never be hers, known and refused to admit it until something changed during this visit. He has no idea what might have changed but he finds that he can’t be upset that she’s leaving. Her insistence on formalities have exhausted him as he’s felt like he needed to put up a demure front each and every time she was nearby. He hasn’t needed to do that since he arrived at the castle and he’d forgotten how tiring it could be to have to pretend all the time.

“Wouldn’t you agree?” Thor asks. It sounds almost pointed, like he thinks there’s something that Tony is missing though he has no idea what.

“I suppose,” he says slowly.

“I think,” Thor continues, “that perhaps she knows when she’s been beat.”

Tony turns to face him now, demanding, “What are you trying to say?”

Thor’s face is impassive, letting not a hint of his true emotions through. “I’m not trying to say anything.”

“Suggesting, then.”

“I’m not suggesting either. I’m just saying that I think Lady Carter has finally come to accept what anyone could have told her years ago: your king’s affections will never belong to her.”

“Everyone knows that,” Tony snaps, unsure why he’s even upset. He’s known since the moment that he took this position that Steve was still deeply in love with the late queen. That hasn’t changed so why does the prince sound so coy? “The king’s affections would never waver from his wife.”

Thor hums thoughtfully and Tony’s frown deepens.

“What, do you suggest now that the king isn’t still in love with Queen Margaret?” he demands.

“I make no suggestions of the sort,” Thor says calmly. “I only came here to let you know that I plan to leave as well.”

Tony’s frown drops away, he’s so surprised by his words. “You’re leaving? Why?”

“I think it’s time. It’s been made clear to me that I’ve overstayed my welcome,” Thor says, looking down at him with a fond smile.

“Have I made you uncomfortable?” Tony asks immediately, worried that something has happened to upset the prince. Of course, he doubts that it’s him at all. He thinks it’s far more likely that one of the children has been rude but Thor just chuckles.

“Not at all. Perhaps I just know when I’ve been beat,” he says enigmatically. He picks up Tony’s hand, bowing over it as he brushes a sweet kiss over the back. It’s nice but Tony can’t help but remember the way his heart had fluttered when Steve brushed his hair away from his face. He doesn’t get that same feeling of panic and hopeless devotion around the Asgardian prince and maybe that’s better—it’s certainly safer—but he thinks about the way his parents talked about each other, about how Ana and Jarvis described how they felt. He wants that, desperately hopes for it, and he knows that while Thor is nice…

He’s not the one for Tony.

He finds himself in a familiar hallway late that night, one that he’s spent hours in during his nighttime conversations with Steve. But something is different about the hallway this time. It takes him a moment to place what exactly has changed but when he realizes it, his heart leaps into his throat.

The black silks covering Queen Margaret’s portrait have been taken down, leaving her in all her beauty and majesty to the world.

What does that mean?

Chapter Text

The castle seems quieter without their unexpected, unwanted (in Steve’s opinion) guests. He knows it’s a silly observation to make. There’s absolutely no way that the castle is at all quieter, especially considering that the children are especially boisterous now that Lady Sharon is gone. He can’t really say how they feel about Prince Thor also leaving but he knows that with Lady Sharon being one of their least favorite people, the children are positively delighted to see her gone and they celebrate with an inspired bout of mischief that runs the entire first week of September and keeps everyone in the castle on their toes, particularly Tony, who not only has to look out for trouble done to his own person but is also trying to mitigate the damage to everyone else.

He does what he can to help but the council is gathering for its autumn session and he just doesn’t have the time to focus on his children,between the hustle and bustle of preparing the castle for his lords to descend upon it like a pack of vultures, and catching up on all the reading he needs to do before the session.

“Remind me how we handled this in the past,” he mutters over a late night glass of wine and yet another missive, this one regarding their treaty with Spain.

“You didn’t,” Bucky replies blithely. “Pepper and Natasha did.”

Now that Bucky mentions it, he does remember those two being more frazzled in the days leading up to council sessions. He has no idea how they managed it, too lost in his own grief to deal with anything other than what was put right in front of him, but they must have been miracle workers to handle those four for nearly five years.

“Remind me to give them both raises,” he says. “To everyone, if I can find it in the budget, but especially to Pepper and Natasha.”

“I’m sure they’d appreciate that.”

Steve peers at him. “That wasn’t sarcasm, was it? Because you know I’m too tired to deal with that. Come on, Buck, you can’t be sarcastic when I’m this tired.”

Bucky grins at him. “I wasn’t being sarcastic but now that I know you can’t handle it, I’ll be sure to be as dreadful as possible.”

“You’re already as dreadful as possible. What’s so different about this?” Steve retorts, laughing when Bucky shoves his shoulder playfully. Their play-fighting jostles the table and the wineglass tips over, spilling everywhere and causing both men to yelp as they scramble to pick up the papers before they’re ruined.

Their laughter fades as they take in the ruins of the table, now stained red with wine and dripping at the corners. “I won’t tell Pepper if you won’t,” Steve says, fetching a towel from the chest at the foot of his bed.

“She’ll know anyway,” Bucky says gloomily. “The maids know everything and they’ll tell her. She loves this table.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees before brightening up with old memories. “Remember when she and Peggy brought it home?”

“Bought if off some woodworker down in the city—”

“—for pittance—”

“—dragged it up here ‘cause it was the prettiest thing they ever saw—”

“—and instead it’s as ugly as it gets,” Steve finishes. He runs a fond hand over the table, remembering all the memories he and Peggy had shared with this table, from late nights discussing council propositions to early breakfasts before they had children to bending her over it in the depths of his rut. “Peggy loved this table.”

Nothing for it. It’ll have to be replaced now. It had been made from pine wood, already light, and then painted an off shade of white that didn’t look much better than the wood originally had. It’s a miracle it hasn’t stained before now. He supposes he could keep it, if he really wanted to, but he doesn’t like the unsettling dissymmetry of the wine stains and…and he thinks maybe it might be time to move on from the memories of this particular table. Maybe time to get a new table, one that he chooses this time, and make some new memories.

“So I was thinking,” he says, as he cleans up the puddles on the floor, “Harley’s kind of the leader of the children so if I take him out of the equation, hypothetically, the children should settle down and we’ll be able to get through this session without any incidents, right?”

“You’re not thinking about punishing him, are you?”

He shakes his head quickly. “Not at all. I was actually thinking about asking if Harley wanted to help me.”

“Help you?” Bucky repeats.

“With the council. Show him what he’ll be doing in a few years.”

“Hopefully more than a few,” Bucky points out.

He inclines his head. “Hopefully. But, just in case, let’s plan for the worst. Say I die next year. Harley becomes king and then what? He’s attending my sessions with the court already but that’s not enough. So I figured I’d ask if he wants to sit in during the council meetings and we’ll kill two birds with one stone. What do you think?”

Bucky thinks about it for a minute, which Steve appreciates. When he had been younger, his father had liked to surround himself with people who fawned over him. He thanks his lucky stars that King Joseph had been a good ruler because he can only imagine the trouble that might have happened if he’d been a bad ruler surrounded by people who couldn’t refuse him anything. His mother hadn’t been like that. She had made sure that Steve knew he wasn’t any better than anyone else around him and so, when he’d taken the throne, he had searched for people who would truly assist him and not just tell him what he wanted to hear.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Bucky says eventually. “Really, I do. I think Harley will appreciate you involving him and I think Tony will appreciate the reprieve. It’s a good plan. I like it.”

“I’ll talk to Tony in the morning, see if Harley can be spared for a week,” he decides. Bucky nods and takes his leave, leaving him alone.

Yes, the castle may seem quieter without Prince Thor’s booming voice and Lady Sharon’s conniving machinations, but it isn’t, not by any means. And he wonders, as he’s preparing for bed, what he might have said to the person he’d been a year ago, if he would have told him that one day, the castle would ring with music and laughter again; that one day, he would be able to make things right with his children; that one day, an omega was going to come to the castle and he would fix everything.

Would he have believed himself?

While Tony has spent several nights over the last two and a half months in the solarium, playing the piano left behind by someone long ago, he’s never run into Steve again. He tells himself that that’s okay. He hadn’t been playing for Steve anyway. They’d only stumbled upon each other that one night before the king’s birthday. He can’t possibly expect to run into him every single time. That night had been…magical, a moment that he’s only ever dreamed about before and will only ever be able to dream about again. He can’t imagine that it would ever be repeated, it shouldn’t ever be repeated, no matter how badly he wants it to.

But he does want it to. As the weeks go by and he never sees that golden blond hair peeking around the corner, he finds himself inexplicably disappointed. He knows he pushed too hard that night, too fast, too much. Steve is far above his station, a king while Tony can only ever hope to be his children’s minder. But he’d been lost in a daze, remembering Steve’s scent surrounding him during his heat, how it had felt like it was sinking into his very bones. For a moment, he’d thought that Steve had felt it too.

Is it any wonder I thought you might be an angel?

His hands still for a moment on the keys. No. No, he’s not an angel. He’s a monster for thinking, even for the briefest of moments, that he could lay claim to the king’s heart, for thinking, even for an instant, that he could ever take Steve away from this. What right does he have to think that he could ever be worthy of the affections of a king, even the king of a country so small as Dacia?

He is a ruined omega, with two broken engagements left behind him, unable to tell who is kind and who is a monster even worse than he. He’s been lucky so far, fortunate enough to fall in with Mister Kirby who directed him to Pepper, but that says nothing of his own judgment, just of the kindness of others. Tony was unable to see past Tiberius’ façade to the horrors underneath, even after he’d been warned. And he knows—he knows —that as an omega, he has little say in his marriage. But he knows too that his parents would never have forced him to wed someone he truly despised. He’d fallen though, fallen for pretty words and a pretty face, and yet Steve calls him angel .

If he knew about Tony’s past, he would certainly regret his words.

If he knew about Tony’s future, about how he plans to run again because he can’t bear to bring trouble to the castle, he would never call him that again.

Tony isn’t an angel. He’s a devil playing at being a mother.

And yet, he can’t tear himself away. He knows he should leave, should give himself time to hide again, should give Steve the chance to find someone truly worthy of him, but he can’t make himself go and the entire reason why has blond hair and blue eyes and a smile that makes Tony’s poor, broken heart flutter.

“What are you playing?”

He hits a wrong note, the clang sounding discordantly in the solarium, as he’s jolted out of his thoughts.

“Sorry,” Steve says immediately. Tony twists, watching as Steve moves further into the room. “I didn’t mean to—I didn’t realize you were so lost in thought.”

“No, it’s—” Tony rushes to reassure him. “I should have been paying better attention.”

Steve stops beside the piano and gestures at the bench. “May I?”

Tony wordlessly moves over, giving Steve room to sit down next to him, the warmth of his side blazing heat from his thigh to his shoulder where they’re pressed against each other.

“What are you playing?” Steve asks again. He doesn’t sound as tired as he had the last time they’d run into each other in the solarium. Tony considers himself grateful that he hadn’t woken him. He knows how stressed Steve has been over the last few months, could see it in the deep shadows under his eyes. He doesn’t think he could have forgiven himself if his playing, his own way of calming himself enough to sleep, had woken his king.

“You know, I don’t know,” he admits.

“Lost in thought?”

Or in self-recriminations. “Something like that.”

“I don’t—” Steve stops, crosses his arms like he’s cold but the solarium is as warm as it’s ever been.


“I don’t mean to pry or make you do anything you don’t want to but would you please play for me?”

“Of course,” Tony says automatically, fingers already beginning to pick out notes of an old, familiar song before he can think better of it and choose something more suitable for the king.

“It sounds nice,” Steve says quietly, watching his hands. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. My mother used to sing it.”

“A lullaby?”

A love song, he corrects silently but he just ducks his head as he begins to sing softly:

Quindi questo è l’amore

Allora questo è l’amore

Quindi è questo che rende la vita divina

He plays for a minute, letting his hands drift over the familiar notes. This had been his favorite song growing up. He remembers sneaking down to the ballroom after his parents’ parties when he’d been growing up, sitting on the floor in the darkened hallway just outside the ballroom still glowing with light, and listening to his mother sing this song to his father as they spun together around the dancefloor, pressed cheek to cheek. He had always dreamed about someone singing this back to him but after Sunset, had given up all hopes about meeting someone he would even want to share this song with, let alone sing to them.

Sono tutta calorosa

E ora capisco

La chiave di tutto il paradiso è mia

“I didn’t know you speak Italian,” Steve murmurs.

Tony nods, humming the next part. “My mother is Italian. One of the Carbonells, very old money. She brought my father quite a lot of prestige when they wedded though he always said he never noticed anything other than her.”

Il mio cuore ha le ali

E posso volare

Toccherò ogni astro del cielo

E cosi questo è il miracolo

Quello che stavo sognando

“It sounds like it’s missing something,” Steve comments.

Tony nods again. “It’s a duet,” he whispers. Listen to what I’m not saying. Listen to what I’m trying to tell you.

“Maybe someday, you’d be willing to teach it to me. I could sing it with you though I wouldn’t sound nearly as pretty as you do.”

Tony takes a shuddering breath, trying to blink back tears. “I’d like that,” he breathes.

Allora questo è l’amore

Tony is pulling down books from one of the library shelves, searching for something to teach the children about in the coming week, when Steve chances upon him and, apropos of nothing, says, “Harley’s birthday is next month.”

“Yes, it is,” Tony agrees. It’s all Harley’s been able to talk about for the last month, ever since Peter’s birthday when the boy had been given his first sword with the promise of fencing lessons beginning as soon as they could bring in an instructor. He’s learned all about how Harley had been given his first sword only a few short months before Queen Margaret passed. When the castle staff had been let go, his fencing instructor had gone with them and Harley’s lessons had fallen by the wayside. Traditionally, Peter would have been given a sword for his birthday two years ago before beginning lessons with his older brother but with Harley’s lessons ceased and the king in mourning, no one had thought about giving Peter his first sword.

Harley’s excited for the lessons to begin again. He and Peter have been running around with practice swords for weeks, whacking at each other and everyone else who gets too close. Morgan’s been hit twice and even Tony has a large bruise on his shin from Peter’s wooden sword—accidental, of course. Peter had been horrified when he’d realized that he’d hit and injured Tony.

He thinks Harley is most excited about his birthday though. Tony knows from Natasha that the children haven’t really celebrated their birthdays much in the last four years. She and Pepper had tried in the first year after the queen’s death but with their father absent and the mother dead, none of the children had wanted to celebrate.

Sarah, of course, had had the first birthday of the year all the way back in April but Harley had still been wary of his father at that point. It hadn’t been until the summer that he started to realize that the changes Steve was making were permanent ones and he could feel safe warming up to him. So for Harley, the first birthday celebrated in the castle that really meant something to him had been Peter’s last month. They hadn’t had a large celebration, not with two guests staying in the castle, one of whom had little to do with the family, but they’d still made time for something smaller. The other three children had gone all in together on a present for Peter that they purchased during one of their days down in the market and gotten him a set of painted wooden soldiers to match Harley’s. Tony had purchased him a gilded copy of On the Origin of Species because Peter had seemed to quite enjoy learning about natural selection and common ancestry when they discussed it a couple months ago. Steve had gotten him the sword.

Harley’s birthday is coming up now and Tony isn’t certain what he’s going to get the boy. He knows that Harley would likely still appreciate toys so he can play with his siblings but the boy is rapidly becoming a man and that means he needs different gifts. If Harley had been an omega, he probably would have purchased him his first perfume set but he has no idea what to get an adolescent alpha.

“I was thinking, since Harley is nearly a man, we might do a larger party,” Steve continues. Tony hums to show he’s still listening even as he flips through the books he’d pulled out of the shelves. “I know you had suggested it’s time to start introducing him to the omegas he may potentially wed and I’m still not sure he’s ready for that but—”

“But I am an omega who can clearly remember when he was first introduced to society,” Tony interrupts though with a fond smile for the king, “and you are his father who would quite happily see all his children still living at home when they’re old and grey.”

Steve glares at him. “I wouldn’t—not old and grey,” he protests.

Tony smiles blandly, not believing him for a single second. He knows how much Steve regrets the years he’d spent grieving, not paying attention to his children growing up faster than he could blink. He’ll want to keep them home as long as possible, keep from losing them before he’s ready.

“What sort of party were you thinking?” he asks, turning away to idly turn the pages of his book, giving Steve the illusion of having won that argument.

“I don’t know,” Steve admits, rubbing his neck. “I thought you might have an idea, seeing as how you grew up in that world.”

Tony pauses, wondering just what else Steve has figured out about him. But Steve just watches him eagerly, innocently, and well, it’s not like Tony hasn’t dropped enough hints that he grew up in high society. He’s pretty sure anyone could at least figure that part out.

“Harley’s birthday is Halloween, is it not?” he asks. He knows the answer. It is indeed Halloween. But he waits for Steve to nod before he suggests, “What about a masquerade?”

“A masquerade?”

“Mmhmm,” Tony says, nodding quickly. He used to love the Halloween masquerades the Van Dynes hosted every year. “With those masks that block your scent to add an extra air of mystery. We’ll say it’s for Harley’s birthday, make sure that he’s introduced to the young omegas his age and with the scent blockers, he’ll never know that there’s a secret purpose to it. He’ll just think he’s being introduced to people his age like he should have been ages ago.”

“You think he won’t figure it out?” Steve asks doubtfully.

“It’s Halloween!” Tony says. “Masquerades are common in America to celebrate the holiday. Did you know that in the South, the children go door-to-door collecting candies? It hasn’t spread to New York yet but I wish it had. I think it would have been fun to grow up like that. Oh—and just think! We could do something like that here for the younger children. We could provide little stations around the ballroom for them to wander to and pick up candies. It’ll be fun! Don’t you think?”

Steve still looks a little unconvinced but he nods slowly and says, “If you’ve done it before…”

“I have,” Tony assures him. Well, he hasn’t ever planned one like this but he’s planned other parties. He’s sure this one won’t be any more difficult.

The weather is turning colder again, the days starting to shorten. At first, it isn’t really noticeable. But then Tony wakes up one morning and it’s still mostly dark outside and he wonders when exactly autumn had snuck up on him. He drags himself out of bed, reflecting that it’s been almost exactly one year since he left home. If it hadn’t been for Lady Carter telling him about Tiberius, he might have thought about sending his parents a letter telling them that he’s okay and not to worry about him, apologizing for his abrupt departure and explaining that he hadn’t wanted to make things worse by officially calling off a second engagement.

But there’s the threat of Tiberius. He doubts that Tiberius is the kind of man who would be watching his parents’ home but he doesn’t know for certain and since he doesn’t know, he can’t risk sending them a letter. His second option would be to send one to Jarvis, thanking him for his assistance in helping him escape the continent, but Jarvis lives at Stark Mansion and once again, he doesn’t know if they’re being watched. But there is another option, he realizes, as he walks into the nursery and stokes the fire.

He could send a letter to Janet.

He can’t believe he hasn’t thought of it before. Tiberius had always underestimated the bond between omegas, even when he’d been pretending to be kind and sweet. He had often played off Tony’s friendship with Janet as less important than the bond between alpha and omega and on one memorable occasion, as a childhood infatuation that Tony would be expected to grow out of before the wedding. Janet had disavowed him of that particular notion quickly enough but now, knowing what Tiberius is like, he suspects that the alpha hasn’t managed to rid himself of those prejudices, which means that Janet is likely to be the best person Tony could send word to. Tiberius wouldn’t believe that Tony would dare to send messages to her so her home is almost certain to be unwatched.

The children are still asleep and it’s a Saturday so he sees nothing wrong with letting them sleep in a little later while he writes his letter. He finishes stoking the fire and stands up, wiping the ash off his hands onto the floor. There is parchment and a fountain pen in his room and he fetches them before settling down in the rocking chair in front of the fire with one of Sarah’s portable writing desks propped up on his lap.

My darling dearest Janet,

How I’ve missed you this last year! I’d apologize for not writing sooner but I have reason to suspect our dear Mister Stone is looking for me. I’ve been trying to keep a low profile as best I can and wouldn’t you know it? There’s a whole country that just seems to drop right off the map! I’ve settled down here and, with any luck, I’m done running for a long time. There are people here that need me, good people in need of someone to look after them. I know you must be laughing reading this. Me, Tony Stark, capable of looking after someone? Why, I can barely take care of myself! But I seem able to manage it with this family.

Yes, you read that correctly. Family. I’ve become the nanny-cum-tutor for this absolutely lovely family. There are four children and then there’s their father. Their mother passed away four years ago, heartbreakingly, right before Christmas during childbirth with the youngest. It had been difficult for them before I came, at least according to their servants. The housekeeper says I came just when I was needed. The father calls me an angel.

The youngest is Morgan. She’s young and curious and gracious, Janet, did we ever have that much energy when we were her age? I feel like Jarvis would say she’s a lot like me when I was younger and if that’s true, then I suddenly have a lot more sympathy for my parents and Jarvis. It’s a hassle trying to wrangle her but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I adore her with all my heart.

There’s a slight huffing noise from Sarah’s bed and he pauses, putting down the fountain pen and preparing to stand. She’s prone to nightmares and while she hasn’t had one in the last few weeks, he suspects she might be due for one. Last month had been particularly difficult for her. He doesn’t know what it is precisely about Lady Carter that so upsets the girl but she had done everything in her power to avoid the duchess and the other three had aided her no matter what Tony did to try to stop them. Eventually, he’d just given up on getting them to be polite, deciding that there must have been something that Lady Carter had done to upset them.

When Sarah is quiet once more, he returns to his letter.

Then there’s Sarah. I’ve never met anyone as unlike an alpha as Sarah is and yet that’s exactly how she’s presented. I think, sometimes, I can see it, in small flashes of an inner steel but she’s normally so mousy that it’s easy to miss. She’s artistic though, like her father is. It’s wonderful getting to watch the two of them together. They go out to the gardens to sketch the ponds and the flowers and, if the other children are out there, her siblings as well. Steve—their father—has struggled so long to connect with his children that it’s heartening to watch him be so successful with Sarah.

Peter and Harley, while not twins, might as well be because they’re two peas in a pod. They’re both troublesome and science-minded. They’re the oldest and it’s clear that they both take those duties very seriously. Harley is extremely protective of Morgan, Peter the same way with Sarah. It’s amusing as both girls are more than capable of taking care of themselves, even if Sarah is more likely to use her words than anything else.

Their father is…I don’t really know what to say about their father. Steve is kind and good and he’s been trying so hard to make up for his past failings. I think I love him, Janet, truly I do. That’s just it though. I love him and I can’t. Steve deserves better than someone like me, someone who couldn’t even see the cruelty happening right in front of his face.

It’s tearing me apart and yet I can’t drag myself away from him. I love him and his children make me happy so I stay even though I know he isn’t meant for me. I—

Sarah whimpers and he puts the pen down again, resolving to finish the letter later as he goes to comfort her.

The children are unusually quiet at breakfast a few days later, Steve notices. Sometimes, they have quiet days, where their minds are focused on not enough sleep or one of Sarah’s nightmares that Tony tells him about, but usually, they’re laughing and talking about whatever it is that they’re going to learn that day or whatever plans they’ve formed for the morning, whether that’s traveling down to the city or going out to the forests or exploring the secret passages of the castle. Today, they’re too quiet—and it’s not the quiet that it usually is either, with their minds on other things. This feels like anticipation and excitement, like they’re waiting on the edges of their seats for something to happen.

Waiting for him to make something happen.

He has no idea what they could possibly be waiting for but he waits patiently for them to tell him, certain that they will. They always do, or they do now that they know they can share everything with him instead of keeping it locked inside. He can’t do anything unless they say something, no matter how expectantly they look at him. He isn’t a mind reader; he has no idea why they’re so excited.

Nonplussed, he looks over at Tony, wondering if the tutor has any idea about what’s running through his children’s heads. Tony, however, looks just as confused as he feels and he realizes that they haven’t mentioned it to the omega either, which surprises him. The children have found quite the confidante in Tony. He would have expected that they would have mentioned something to him at least, even if it was just a hint of their plans.

He looks around the table again, from Morgan who’s practically bouncing up and down in her seat to Sarah who’s looking between Morgan and Steve expectantly to Harley and Peter who are both looking down at their plates but keep shooting him furtive glances from beneath the fringe of their hair.

Hmm I think it’s time for a haircut for both of them.

Steve glances back over at his two daughters and amends that thought to all four children needing a haircut. He’ll mention it to Tony the next time they run into each other. It’s bound to happen sometime today. He knows that the children recently finished a unit on the Tudor family, which means that Tony will need to go to the library to find books on whatever he plans to teach them next.

He sighs and puts down his fork. If they’re not going to tell him… “Alright, what’s—”

“Can we have Christmas again?” Morgan interrupts.

Steve pauses. He steals a glance at Tony, who looks completely dumbstruck and slightly ridiculous with syrup dripping from his fork as it’s frozen halfway to his mouth (he tells himself that his brain did not call him adorable instead of ridiculous). “What?” he asks.

“Oh, well—” Morgan climbs out of her chair and patters over to him so she can climb into his lap instead. Automatically, he pushes his chair back so that there’s room for her even as he gives Tony an exasperated look over the top of her head. It’s not that he doesn’t love having her in his lap because he does but he also knows that he’s a lot more likely to concede to whatever she wants when he has his daughter in his arms, reminding him that even though it took them so long to get here, he has her now.

“We were thinking,” Morgan says, hugging him quickly and then turning around so she can steal bites of pancakes off his plate. “You had a big party for your birthday—”

“A ball,” Tony corrects. “And Miss Morgan, don’t take your father’s food.”

“Right, a ball,” Morgan says and contrarily takes a big bite out of the bacon. Tony scowls. “You had a big ball for your birthday and Harley’s gonna have one for his birthday and I want Christmas for my birthday.”

“Peter and Sarah didn’t have balls for their birthdays,” Steve points out though he’s already thinking about her idea.

“That’s ‘cause Sarah’s quiet and Peter didn’t want to have a party with her,” Morgan says dismissively. “But I want Christmas.”

“You know, we could have another ball for your birthday. We don’t have to celebrate Christmas.” He doesn’t even know why he’s arguing with her about this, except that the last time he’d celebrated Christmas, Peggy had been alive. Morgan had been born at the beginning of December and after he’d lost his wife, he had cancelled all of their Christmas plans. When the holiday had come around the next year, he hadn’t been able to stomach the thought of celebrating without her and somehow, he’d never hosted another Christmas again.

With the castle opening up again, he’d considered earlier in the summer hosting Christmas this year but it had still been too soon. He had shuddered, waves of guilt washing over him at the thought of celebrating Peggy’s favorite holiday without her. But he doesn’t feel guilty today. He feels…sad, yes, but maybe a little hopeful too. Hopeful that his children are here to help him move on, that Tony will think it’s a good idea because if Tony thinks it’s a good idea, then it usually is.

“I don’t want another ball,” Morgan says firmly. “I want Christmas.”

He looks up at Tony, who’s smiling fondly down at Morgan before glancing up at Steve and shrugging.

I’m sorry, my love .

And he swears he hears her whisper back, It’s time.

“Then we’ll celebrate Christmas.”

Yvonne has been working at L'auberge Au Toit Rouge for the last five years and she’s never run into someone quite like the man who comes down the stairs and into the dining hall that morning for breakfast. She’s served men who slip their wedding rings off and pull the whores upstairs, alpha soldiers marching to war, the occasional noble or two, and, on one memorable occasion, an omega with a haunted look in his eyes and a head that wouldn’t stop turning like he was making sure he wasn’t being followed. She remembered that one, remembered how skinny he was and giving him more oatmeal than he’d paid for because she wanted to see some meat on his bones.

But the alpha who sits down and smiles up at her as he orders a plate of sausages isn’t like any other alpha she’s ever seen before. He’s fancy, for one thing, fancy like that omega but not trying to blend in. The omega had chosen muted colors and his clothes had been finely made even if it was difficult to see past the small rips and tears. This alpha is dressed in fine silks and satins, in bright garish colors that make him stand out.

He doesn’t need his clothes to help him stand out though. No, the look on his face is more than enough to do that.

Working in an establishment like this one, Yvonne learned to read faces quickly: the unsatisfied beta men with the leer in their eyes that say they’ll pay for whoever will get them to orgasm quickly, the tired sailors with the droop to their shoulders that tell her they don’t want to go back to sea. This man’s face says that he’s angry, that he’s furious actually, despite the smile on his lips. His eyes speak of cruelty and the set of his jaw of pain. Yvonne hadn’t been downstairs when the man had first arrived at the inn last night and she’s glad for that now because when she goes back to the kitchen to give the cook his order, she finds the old beta clucking her tongue.

“About scared the dickens out of poor Marie last night, demanding things the way he was. Dragged her over the counter when she said the rooms were full up, asked her if she knew who he was, and ordered her to kick someone out of their room unless she didn’t want to see that fiancé of hers again,” the cook says, gossip as second a nature to her as cooking is.

“And?” Yvonne asks, stealing a glance out the door where she can see the alpha tapping his fingers impatiently on the table. “Who is he?”

“Stone, or something like that,” the cook declares. “A hard name for a hard man.”

“He mention what’s so important about this place?”

“Looking for someone. I think. Lord help the person a man like that is trying to find.”

Yvonne shudders in sympathy, takes the plate of eggs and sausages the cook gives her, and ventures back out into the dining room. “Here you are,” she says, smiling nervously. Stone, or whoever he is, doesn’t bother thanking her but, as she turns to go, he catches hold of her wrist, stopping her in her tracks. Slowly, her gaze trails down to his grip on her wrist, the way the skin is turning white, how she can practically hear her bones grinding together.

“Sit with me,” Stone orders in perfect French, surprising her. He’d used English when he’d ordered the food, a language that Yvonne is perfectly capable of understanding though she doesn’t speak it herself.

“Oh I can’t,” she babbles. “I have other—”

“Sit. With. Me,” Stone orders, voice turning cold in a heartbeat. She hadn’t even realized he’d been trying to be amiable earlier. His other hand twitches in his pocket, revealing the long line of a knife under his coat. “Or risk losing the hand. It’s your choice.”

Yvonne sits, trembling in fear. “The police—”

“Will believe me when I tell them I caught you stealing,” Stone says. He smiles cruelly, eyes dead, and leans forward. “The girl last night was useless to me but maybe you’ll be more helpful. I’m looking for someone, an omega.”

He pulls something out of his pocket. Yvonne flinches, expecting that terrible-looking knife but it’s just a small portrait, the kind of trinket someone would give to his sweetheart though she can’t imagine who would be Stone’s sweetheart.

“It could have been anytime in the last year,” Stone continues, showing her the portrait. “My fiancé’s been missing for months. I’m worried about him.”


But the lie only barely registers in her mind as Yvonne looks down at the portrait of the omega from last year, the scared one with the big brown eyes and the sweet smile. How on earth had someone like that omega gotten mixed up with an alpha like Stone?

“I—I haven’t seen him,” she says, lying through her teeth.

Stone’s eyes narrow. “Are you sure?”


He tucks the portrait away, scowling. “I think you’re lying, just like everyone else in this damn inn,” he snaps. “I think you know exactly where he’s gone and I think you’re going to tell me. Or I’ll have my men burn this whole place down.”

Yvonne gasps, “I haven’t seen him, I swear! You can’t—all these people! Sir, please!”

“I can do whatever I like,” he threatens. “Now tell me where he is.”

“I don’t know!” she sobs.

“Wrong answer,” he snarls.

“I don’t!” Forgive me, omega. “He left after only one night. He was traveling east, I think.”

“Well,” Stone says, sitting back. He still looks disappointed but she truly doesn’t know anything else. “That’s something, I suppose.”

He stands and leaves, pausing at the doorway to speak to someone leaning up against the wall: “Burn it.”

Chapter Text

The masks arrive the morning before Harley’s ball. Tony is in the middle of lessons with the children when the news reaches him. He gives the messenger boy—a small, sweet boy who is completely besotted with Sarah if the way he always seeks her out when he enters a room is anything to go off of—a couple coins and thanks him before sending him on his way. The children beg him to let them go upstairs immediately then, dying to see their masks for the party, but Tony firmly tells them no. They still have a few more lessons to get through before he is willing to let them thunder like a herd of elephants back to the nursery.

And if he is trying to give Rhodey enough time to put the masks away before pawing hands could rip apart the delicate fabrics, well, that is his little secret, isn’t it?

When he can delay no longer, he lets them go. Harley, Peter, and Morgan sprint off, hollering about what kind of masks they think they got, Sarah following at a more sedate pace with her hand tucked into Tony’s.

“What about you?” he asks her as they climb the stairs. “What sort of mask do you think Natasha got you?”

Natasha had purchased the masks for the entire family, claiming that she wanted it to be a surprise for all of them. Steve’s had arrived a few days earlier, tucked quickly away into his room before anyone had caught more than a glimpse of royal blue satin. Tony had gotten the chance to see Natasha and Rhodey’s though as they had arrived at the same time and, unlike Steve’s, the red-headed guard didn’t think it necessary to hide hers. Rhodey’s was gunmetal steel, strong with hard lines that emphasized the cut of his jaw. Natasha’s was gentler, though no less striking with its black satin and red lace spidering across it.

Tony had thought his would have arrived at the same time as the other adults attending the party but Natasha had informed him that his would arrive with the children’s.

“I hope that’s not a reference to its quality,” he had joked. Natasha had shot him a quelling look.

By the time he and Sarah reach the nursery, Rhodey is just now getting down the boxes for the masks. Morgan is dancing on her toes, practically squealing her excitement. Harley and Peter have by now put on unaffected airs but Tony knows them well enough to know that they’re just as excited as Morgan.

“You can look,” he instructs the children. “But no touching. You don’t want to ruin them for the masquerade, do you?”

They shake their heads and settle down. Sarah goes to join them, Rhodey handing her her box first before moving on to Harley, Peter, and finally Morgan. Tony comes up behind her as she’s opening the box.

“What did Natasha get you?” he asks idly, glancing down at the white silk and feathers. It’s obviously a child’s mask but still clearly expensive. No one will mistake her for being of common birth at the party.

“A swan, I think,” she says, tilting her head to look at it closer. He doesn’t argue with her. A swan, graceful, lovely, and demure with a hidden strength, is perfect for Sarah Rogers.

He moves onto Morgan, whose mask is a riot of pink, purple, and gemstones. He thinks it’s supposed to be reminiscent of a fairytale princess—or maybe just a fairy in general. Either way, she shrieks with delight and throws her arms around Natasha in gratitude.

Peter’s mask is that of a typical harlequin, the kind that has become so popular in Venice of late. Peter clearly doesn’t understand the joke but Tony does and he bites back a laugh as he quietly asks Natasha, “A clown?”

“Did you see him last night at dinner?” she points out. “Clearly, it fits.”

He grins and finally goes over to Harley to see what he’s been given. Harley’s mask is stately, proud, regal . The maker has done it over in the same royal blue that Tony remembers from Steve’s mask but it’s been lined in oak wood to match the boy’s scent. Unlike the other children’s masks, this one doesn’t have a scent-blocker attached. No one will mistake this mask as belonging to anyone other than royalty. It’s the mask of a man, not a boy, one that is befitting of Crown Prince Harlan of Dacia, rather than Harley, the boy Tony has come to know over the last year.

He smiles wistfully. The children are growing up before his very eyes. Harley is on the cusp of manhood. Soon enough, his head will be turned by a pretty omega and he’ll move out of the nursery, no longer one of Tony’s charges.

The children are still quite taken by their masks and so none of them notice when Natasha taps Tony’s shoulder and asks, “Did you think I had forgotten about you?”

He turns to her, fighting back his melancholy with a smile. “Of course I didn’t. I just thought you’d want to save it for tomorrow.”

In answer, she hands him a box. He opens it and gazes upon the most beautiful mask he’s ever seen, prettier by far than any he’s ever worn to one of the Van Dyne’s masquerades. He touches it reverently, fingers almost shaking, as he traces the gold lace, the red silk, the beautiful feathers arching over the top.

“It’s a firebird,” Natasha tells him. “A legend in my country, both a blessing and a curse but most importantly, a symbol of rebirth.” He looks sharply at her and she smiles sympathetically. “I don’t know everything that brought you to our country but it’s clear to me that you’ve been reborn here, just as you have brought rebirth to the castle.”

It takes him a moment to realize that the reason his vision is blurry is because there are tears in his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispers and closes the box.

“Tony?” Natasha calls as he’s dressing the children. “Do you have a moment?”

“For you, my delicate, deadly darling, I have several,” Tony replies absently. “Harley, can you…? Thank you.”

He passes Morgan off to Harley to finish doing up the buttons on her dress, steps over Sarah’s skirts, and joins Natasha by the door.

“What can I do for you?”

“I liked your use of alliteration,” Natasha tells him, winking. She passes him the dark red waistcoat she’d had commissioned for him for the ball and he thanks her with a nod and a broad grin.

“Yes, it was rather nice, wasn’t it? But somehow, I don’t think that’s why you called me over here.”

“What gave it away?”

“Possibly that you asked me before my fantastic, fabulous use of alliteration,” he demurs, bursting out into giggles as she laughs. He’s always felt a little giddy right before a party and especially before a masquerade. There’s just something so…so illicit about it even if he knows he won’t be getting up to any mischief. Maybe it’s the masks themselves or maybe it’s that everyone seems to think that the masks keep them safe from any consequences so the dresses are cut lower than usual and the alphas are more daring than usual and all of it adds to this incredible air of mystery that he just loves.

“Rhodey had an idea,” she says eagerly, “and I agree: we want to give you a night off.”

“A…night off?”

She nods. “We’ll look after the children for the night, make sure that Harley meets the people he’s supposed to meet, and that way you get to have an enjoyable time tonight too.”

He’s completely touched by how much she cares for him, how much the entire castle has accepted him as one of their own. He supposes it’s to be expected after he’s been here for nearly a year but, seeing as how most of the staff have been here since before Harley was born, it would have been so easy, he thinks, for them to dismiss him as separate from them, a necessary evil but not truly a part of the family.

“You’re sweet,” he starts to tell her.

Immediately, she protests, “I am not!”

“You are and it’s even sweeter that you don’t think you are. But what makes you think I wouldn’t have fun spending time with the children?”

“Tony,” she says flatly. “You never take any time off even though most nannies would be allowed to. You barely leave the castle unless it’s with the children. The closest you’ve ever come to leaving them by themselves is when the prince was here and the children certainly conspired to make sure you and the prince were never alone.”

“They were?” he asks, outraged. He whips around to glare at them but all four children are screaming with glee about their plans for the night and don’t notice him.

“Take the night off,” Natasha urges. “Let us watch them for you and just have fun tonight. I’ve seen you these last few weeks. I know you’ve been stressed even if you won’t tell us why. Please, Tony.”

Just like with the children, he finds that he can’t refuse her when she gives him her own version of puppy dog eyes. The expression looks rather odd on the normally sly-faced guard but it’s still a pout and Tony is still susceptible to it.

“Fine,” he tells her. “Now would you please send Rhodey into my room to help me dress? It’s a new style of waistcoat that laces in the back and while I have many talents, I think I’ll just make a tangled mess out of this if I try it alone.”

As Tony steps back out of his bedroom and into the nursery proper, he feels a little like how he imagines Cinderella felt at the ball: the excitement, the nerves—and he doesn’t even really know why he’s so nervous, it isn’t really like anyone will be looking at him, but he is. Natasha, Lord bless her, must have known how uncomfortable he’s been feeling since the night of Steve’s birthday ball, how much it had bothered him that he had had to change even his clothing habits so he could fit in with the European culture, because while most of the suit is perfectly ordinary, the waistcoat more closely resembles a corset and with its lace trim and delicate gold embroidery, Tony feels perfectly at home in the beautiful piece.

When he emerges out into the nursery, Rhodey trailing behind him, it takes a moment for the children to notice him and so he has the chance to look them over one last time before they separate for the evening. Natasha must have managed to wrangle them into their clothes while he’d been dressing because the children are ready to go and now talking quietly near the fireplace—plotting more like, he amends as he catches sight of the mischievous look on Morgan’s face. He sighs and hopes that Natasha and Rhodey are up to the task of corralling the children tonight. He doesn’t want anything to ruin Harley’s presentation, least of all his own family.

He glances them over, making sure that everything is in its place and that none of them have messed up their costumes for the night. Morgan is a riot of color in her pink gown and sparkling wings. He remembers her telling her father about her plans for the costume and how pale Steve had gotten. It had taken some coaxing for Steve to tell him that his mother, who had been born in Ireland, had always impressed on him not to mock the fae. Tony, who had grown up with magical stories about good fairies who gave gifts, had been surprised to say the least.

Satisfied with Morgan’s appearance, he turns to Sarah, who would look almost drab next to her sister in her grey dress but the bright blue ribbons around her waist and in her hair go a long way towards making her absolutely stunning. She won’t officially present for another few years but Tony can already see her getting many offers.

Peter is as colorful as Morgan is, though his colors tend toward the red and blue as befitting his mask rather than the pink and purple. Like Tony, his outfit is trimmed in gold and it glimmers in the light, making him wonder how much of the trim is truly gold and not just dyed thread.

And then there’s Harley. Tony smiles broadly when he sees the young prince. He knows that Harley had been upset when he realized that he wouldn’t be able to dress up like his brother and sisters but he seems to have taken to the idea like a duck to the water. In his midnight blue velvet coat, he sits up straighter than he used to, rising to his full height instead of slouching. He’s the very vision of what a future king should look like and Tony can’t help but take a little pride in how he has helped mold the boy into what he will one day become.

He must make a small, satisfied noise because Morgan turns toward him, immediately gasping with delight. “Mister Carbonell, you look so pretty!” she exclaims, clapping her hands as she stands. He automatically holds out his arms and she runs into them to give him a hug.

He holds her close and murmurs, “Thank you, Miss Morgan.” It’s probably silly to be reassured because of what a child says, especially one who would tell him that he looked pretty no matter how he actually looked, but it’s still nice.

“Men don’t look pretty,” Harley says scornfully. “They look handsome.”

Tony glares at him and Peter reaches up to smack the back of his brother’s head but Morgan is completely undeterred. “Mister Carbonell is an omega like me and Miss Natasha said I look pretty so he looks pretty too.”

“You’re both right,” he says soothingly, smoothing down Morgan’s hair and shooting Harley a smile. “I am pretty because I’m an omega and I’m handsome because I’m a man and the four of you are the cutest things I’ve ever seen in my life so what does it matter how I look?”

The two seem satisfied by his explanation and when Morgan detaches from him, he shoots Rhodey a rueful look over his shoulder. Rhodey grins back at him, rolling his eyes, and Tony has to bite back a laugh.

“Are you ready?” he asks when he turns back to the children.

“Mister Carbonell, are you sure you can’t go with us?” Sarah asks.

“You would be bored with me there,” he says teasingly. “Miss Natasha will let you get away with as many sweets as you want.”

“Besides,” Natasha says as she bends down to help Morgan tie her mask, “Mister Carbonell deserves a night off too.”

“I’ll go downstairs with you. How does that sound?”

“Okay,” Sarah says but she still sounds a little disappointed.

Thankfully, Peter is there to give her a hug and tell her, “We don’t need Mister Carbonell to have fun anyway.”

“That’s right,” he agrees and raises his own mask to his face. Rhodey steps up behind him to help him tie it under his hair. Natasha had called the mask a volto , worn to completely preserve his anonymity, only the tip of his nose and his lips left uncovered. Attached to the ribbon is a small satchel containing a scent-blocker, designed to fit just behind his ear where it’ll mask his scent just as it does his face. He thinks that this mask must have been held for too long by an alpha at some point during its making because the inside smells of chocolate and coffee and above all else, home. It’s a comforting scent, almost familiar though he can’t quite place where he thinks he might have smelled it before. He’s getting close to his heat; it must be for that reason that he finds himself wanting to burrow into the mask until he’s saturated in the scent.

He pushes such thoughts of the unnamed alpha away and smiles again at the children. “Are we ready?”

Morgan slips her hand into his and nods firmly. “We’re ready.”

He separates from the children as soon as they reach the entrance hall, the children joining their father at the beginning of the reception line and Tony going towards the end. Even with the party not yet begun, the line stretches far out of the castle and down the drive. It’s getting longer with each passing moment as more and more carriages trundle up from the road. Tony picks up the pace so that he’s no longer sedately walking to the back of the reception line but hurrying a little instead. He doesn’t want to waste the party standing in a line to meet people he already knows, even if it is considered proper.

There’s a young alpha woman, perhaps a few years older than Tony himself and wearing a mask that reminds him a little bit of how he imagines a star would look, standing alone at the end of the line. She flashes him a quick smile as he joins her.

“Lady Carol Danvers,” she says boldly, holding out her hand.

He bows over it, kissing it politely as he murmurs, “Not choosing to hide your name?”

She snorts unladylike. “Why should I bother to hide my name? I am no young miss, seeking an illicit thrill. I’m happily mated even if my wife couldn’t join me.”

“Sick?” he inquires politely.


He coos sympathetically and she lights up with joy, leaving Tony to wonder if she’s told other people who weren’t as sympathetic to her plight.

“She’s not very far along yet but she’s already experiencing the sickness. I told her I could stay home tonight but she told me that I wouldn’t miss our prince’s presentation if I wanted to stay happily mated.”

Tony laughs. Lady Carol reminds him so much of Janet even though Janet would have loved the thrill of hiding her identity for the night despite taking no part in illicit liaisons—unless she was sneaking out to meet Dr. Pym.

“She’d tell me I’m being rude though,” Lady Carol says suddenly. “Here I am, telling you about my pregnant wife and I still don’t know your name. You shouldn’t let me do that.”

“I’m delighted to hear about your pregnant wife though,” he says easily, thinking the matter of his name over in his mind. Does he want to run the risk of being recognized or run the risk of getting into an illicit liaison himself? The children of course already know what he looks like but he’s been told to enjoy himself instead of worrying about them…

“Edward Stark,” he says eventually. It is his name, sort of, and she seems to know the lie judging by the twinkle in her eyes.

“Alright then, Edward Stark. May I have the pleasure of escorting you into the ball?” she asks, offering him her arm.

He lets her escort him up the steps and into the castle where they meet the children and Steve, face uncovered and looking very handsome in his black coat. Tony winks at the children before meeting Steve’s gaze head on, wondering if he’ll recognize him with most of his face covered and his scent blocked.

Steve seems to recognize something about him though it’s clear that he doesn’t know what, judging by the way his nose wrinkles slightly in confusion. “Lady Danvers,” he says kindly, bowing over her hand just as Tony had though he doesn’t grace her with a kiss. It wouldn’t be proper with his higher status. “And where is your lovely wife tonight?”

“Maria is at home, Your Majesty,” she replies before leaning in. “And may I say that it’s good to see the castle lit up again?”

Steve smiles ruefully, running his hand through his carefully styled hair and leaving it artfully tousled. “That would be the doing of my children’s nursemaid, I’m afraid. He’s made it his mission to bring the castle back to life.”

“You could always stop him if you’re not ready,” she says gently, far more understanding than anything else she’s said tonight.

“I find that I don’t want to,” Steve admits, his smile turning soft and wistful, and Tony has to stifle a gasp. At his side, Harley snickers and taps his father’s side, gesturing to Tony once he has his attention. “My son’s telling me that I’m being rude though. Who are you escorting tonight?”

“Mister Edward Stark,” Carol says, tucking Tony’s hand back in her arm. “We met outside and since it’s apparently the height of impropriety to leave an omega unescorted—” She gives Steve a significant look and they both laugh. “—I offered to take him under my wing.”

“Oh is that how that went?” Tony teases.

Again, Steve doesn’t seem to recognize his voice though his nostrils flare, eyes dilating slightly. “American?” he asks.

“Not of late,” he says. “I came to visit friends a year ago and found myself staying in your lovely country.”

Someone behind them loudly clears their throat and all three wince as one. “I think we’re holding up the line,” Carol mutters, tugging on Tony’s hand to lead him into the ballroom.

Before they go too far though, Steve stops them with a hand on Tony’s upper arm. Tony glances down at it, stunned, and then back up to see Steve’s brow still crinkled confusedly but smiling even so.

“May I find you later tonight?” he asks. “I have to finish greeting everyone and then I have to introduce my son but afterwards? After I’ve put on the mask my housekeeper insists I wear?”

“It’s a masquerade,” Tony points out. “How will I know it’s you?”

“I could go without my mask.”

“But where’s the fun in that?” He smiles and pats Steve’s arm, something that might be overly familiar but he thinks he can take this liberty after working with the children for nearly a year. “Wear your mask and I will be looking for you. I think you would be hard to forget.”

Impossible to forget is more like it but he ducks away from Steve’s dumbstruck expression before his honesty escapes away from him even more.

“He’s very handsome, you know,” Carol says nonchalantly as they enter the ballroom.

“He is,” Tony murmurs, wondering if Steve had been flirting with him, which of course makes no sense, not with the late queen, but he wonders nonetheless.

“And tortured, if you like that sort of thing.”

He turns to face her. She looks—worried almost and isn’t that just so sweet of her? They’ve only known each other for less than an hour but he appreciates her being so concerned. “There’s no need to be worried for me,” he tells her. “It was a harmless flirtation, nothing more. I know nothing could come of it. He is a king and I am a common-born American.”

And isn’t that just the truth of it? He’s been telling himself that for weeks but he still struggles with believing it. He’s still hoping for the fairytale ending where Steve sweeps him off his feet—but that will never happen and it’s time he finally get over that fact.

He smiles, fortifying up his walls the way his parents taught him too, and says, “Are you going to introduce me to your friends? I’m sure such a delightful lady as yourself has many.”

“Is that an insult?” Carol asks dryly but she still laughs as she leads him to a small knot of people.

It’s hours before the younger children are sent upstairs and Steve finally gets a chance to change into his mask and other jacket. He had asked Pepper and Natasha to make sure that his costume for the night did as much as possible to conceal his true identity. They had gone above and beyond: the jacket is specifically tailored to hide the width of his shoulders, the waistline cut to make him seem shorter, and the mask covers his entire face save for his nose and mouth. He wishes that they had gone a little more subtle on the colors of the mask but he supposes that might have been too much to ask of Natasha, who loves a good prank and would have seized the opportunity to have the mask be colored with those of his family crest—blue, red, and white.

Mask firmly affixed to his face, he slips back out into the party in search of Edward, the mysterious omega who had scented of chocolate and coffee—of Steve. It’s ridiculous to think that he has a claim on Edward because of that; he knows perfectly well that it’s likely because of the omega’s own mask that he scents that way. And yet, he can’t rid himself of the lingering idea that Edward wearing his scent makes him his.

He hasn’t had such a visceral reaction to an omega since…well, since Tony really and before that, since Peggy. His wife is long gone though and as much as he wishes he could take Tony into his arms, even he can recognize what a bad idea that is. Tony is his employee and the one taking care of his children. Acting on his feelings for the spirited omega would be a mistake of epic proportions.

But Edward—well, Steve already knows that their relationship won’t go anywhere beyond this night. It wouldn’t be fair to Edward, who will have no idea who he is now that he’s wearing the mask. No, better that he keep this firmly to a light flirtation. He wants to know whether he’s truly ready to move on from Peggy, not if Edward’s red lips truly taste like cherries.

It takes him a moment to spot the omega in the crowded ballroom, talking with some of Lady Carol’s friends. He makes his way across the room, smiling a few times at some of the more prominent guests, laughing when he spots Harley pouting as he dances with young Princess Riri. And then he’s coming up behind Edward, wondering what he should say exactly. He had asked Edward earlier if he could find him once his duties were done but now he’s in a mask. Should he act as the king? Should he be someone else entirely?

Before he can say anything, Lady Carol nudges Edward and says, “Looks like you’ve got an admirer.”

Steve blushes, even if it’s not wholly true, but it’s nothing compared to the way Edward goes a pretty shade of red. Edward turns, letting Steve see that blush in its entirety, and he feels a slight tug in his stomach.

Who is this omega that he feels so drawn to?

“Hello,” he says politely, bowing at the waist. He isn’t the king, not tonight, and it’s only polite to bow to someone as lovely as Edward.

“Oh,” Edward replies, sounding faintly disappointed. Was he waiting for Steve? “Hello.”

“I’m sorry, were you waiting for someone?”

“No! No, sorry, it was silly to think he would find me anyway.”

Before Steve knows what is possessing him—he suspects Bucky—he says, “Then that’s his loss. I don’t see how anyone could forget someone as lovely as you.”

Edward’s mouth makes a perfect o in his surprise before he turns redder than ever.

“Forgive me,” Steve scrambles to say, “that was forward.”

“No, it was nice,” Edward whispers, low enough that Steve almost doesn’t hear it. He quirks a wistful smile and then says, “Edward Stark.”

Here’s the moment. Does he tell him he’s the king or does he say—“Grant Rogers.” He bows again, this time over Edward’s hand, brushing his lips across the back.

Edward doesn’t blush this time and more’s the pity. Then Lady Carol nudges him again and he nearly stumbles straight into Steve’s arms. It’s a shock and a wonder all at once, as Edward fits perfectly in the circle of his arms, smelling exactly like he belongs to Steve, and he inhales deeply, taking more of that intoxicating scent into his nose.

Edward gasps softly. “You smell like—like—” he murmurs.

“Like what?”

“Like me,” he finishes, breathing in just as Steve had a moment earlier. His eyes dilate, black pupils nearly drowning out the beautiful brown irises, and Steve has to remind himself that somewhere in this room is his son, who does not need to see his father making a fool of himself.

“And you scent like me.” He laughs helplessly. “What are the odds that our scent blockers smell like each other?”

“Low,” Edward admits. “But not impossible.”

“Again, I don’t mean to be forward but would you be willing to share this dance with me?” Steve says, deciding to take this chance to be bold. Edward smells like him and even if it’s artificial, it’s doing something to his hindbrain that makes him want to take and claim and all the things that he’s always told himself he would never do as an alpha. Peggy had smelled like flowers and the tea she used to drink, Tony smells of summertime, but Edward smells like he belongs to Steve and, as incongruous as the scent is with an omega, it’s making it difficult to remember all the reasons he’d told himself not to pursue anything with him.

Edward bites his lip, glancing away toward the open balcony doors; Steve’s heart irrationally sinks. “Actually, I was thinking about getting some fresh air. Would you like to join me for a turn around the garden?”

His heart picks up, beating double pace. “I’d like nothing more.”

They talk in the gardens for most of the night, about everything and nothing and a thousand things in between. It’s easy to talk to Edward in a way that is hard for him to even talk to Tony. He remembers the jealousy he’d felt when he’d seen Prince Thor spending the entire night at his last party talking to Tony and wonders if it had been like this for Tony, the way he is now with Edward. Edward doesn’t know him, doesn’t judge him, and for that, Steve finds himself opening up his heart. He tells him about the loss of his wife and how hard it’s been to move on past that, how he’d nearly lost his children for it, and now that things are getting to be better, his mind is consumed with thoughts of the lovely omega who works for him.

Edward listens to it all and when Steve is finished, smiles ruefully, “I understand. I’m employed by an alpha—a good, too good for me, honorable man who would never act untowardly with me—and I’ve realized recently that I’m hopelessly enamored with him. But he still loves his wife and I would never want to turn his affections from her. I’ve made many mistakes in my life but I would like him to not be one of them.”

“You’re too young to make so many mistakes,” Steve says, not meaning anything by it.

Edward seems to understand his meaning anyway because he just softly says, “And yet here we are.”

“Here we are,” Steve echoes. He hears music coming from the ballroom, recognizes it as the last song of the night, and wonders at where the time has gone. Has he been so distracted with Edward to miss the passing of the hours? He stands from the bench they’ve been sitting on and extends his hand to Edward to help him up.

“I’m afraid by the time we reach the ballroom, the last dance will be over,” he says, voice tinged with sadness. “But may I escort you inside?”

Edward places his hand in his and then pauses. “Why do we have to go now? There’s music here and a flat floor for our feet. We could dance here,” he suggests.

Steve doesn’t give him a chance to rethink his words. He pulls Edward into his arms and sweeps him into a waltz, moving easily with the beat of the music. They spin and whirl around the gardens and when Edward nearly trips over a small stone in the path, Steve is there to catch him.

“We’re both of us in love with someone who’ll never love us in return,” he murmurs into Edward’s ear as the music starts to draw to a close—and he can admit this now, to a perfect stranger in the late night with no one to hear them but the crickets—and oh what a bad idea this is but his head is still turned with how Edward already smells of him—and he’ll certainly regret this in the evening but tonight he is Grant Rogers, not the king; they’ll part in the morning and no one will be the wiser. “But we could take some comfort in each other’s arms tonight.”

Edward leans back to stare at him, eyes wide and shocked. Steve’s heart stops once more and he wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake and if he’s about to be slapped. He would deserve it if Edward did. But then something in the omega’s eyes soften and he leans forward, brushing the softest of kisses across Steve’s lips, so soft he almost misses it. “Yes.”

Tony doesn’t know why he says, “Yes.” He doesn’t know why he takes Grant’s offered hand and lets him lead him back inside, not through the crowded ballroom, but through a smaller side door that lets them into a back hallway of the castle. He doesn’t know why he lets him press him up against a wall and kiss him soft and sweet and then hard and desperate and then soft again until Tony feels like he’s hanging limp in his arms, held up only by Grant’s hands holding onto his hips, by his legs pinning him against the wall.

It’s the height of impropriety; he’s not even in heat to have an excuse. If his mother knew what he was doing, she would surely be scandalized. If Janet could see him now, she would declare that she never knew he had it in him. But he thinks of Natasha urging him to have fun tonight, of Rhodey saying that he needs to take some time for himself, of Thor telling him that he deserves to be loved often and well, making him blush before he apologized for his forwardness even though now that the words were out there, they couldn’t be taken back.

He doesn’t know why he says, “Yes,” except that…except that Grant has blond hair and bright blue eyes, except that he has a smile that could light up even the dark night, except that his voice is so similar to Steve’s that it makes him shiver. Grant holds Tony like he’s something to be taken care of and has nothing but kind words for him and this one-night liaison between them won’t matter in the morning.

Tomorrow, Tony will have to go back to his real life. He’ll have to return to his hopeless pining and staring at a man who thinks of him only as the caretaker of his children. But tonight, here, he can close his eyes and imagine that it’s Steve guiding him inside one of the bedrooms available for guests tonight. He can imagine that the omega Grant had spoken of is actually him because their stories are so, so similar. He can smell himself on this man’s skin and imagine that they belong to each other, that he has someone to belong to.

He can only have this for one night but if he never gets to have this again, as he’s long suspected he won’t, he’ll at least have the memories of tonight to look back on when he’s aging and no longer desirable.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Grant murmurs against his throat, nosing along the line of his jaw. “What are you thinking about, Edward?”

Tony shrugs away his melancholic thoughts and slides his hands up Grant’s back. “You,” he says honestly.

Grant’s lips still and for a moment, Tony’s heart sinks as he wonders if this is it, if he’s gone too far. Then Grant asks him, “May I see your face?” and his voice is so gentle, his tone so understanding that Tony’s heart breaks when he has to shake his head.

“I can’t,” he whispers, thinking about the children he has to protect, his own identity that he’s hiding. He’s afraid if the masks come off, the magic will slip away; he’ll wake up from this dream and find that he’s alone once more.

Grant quirks a smile, understanding once again but a little sad too. “I understand. I shouldn’t have—”

“I can’t blame you for asking—”

“No, there are things that I’m hiding as well.”

Tony stops. He doesn’t know why he hadn’t considered that Grant is hiding his identity as well, has his own secrets to protect.

Grant laughs at the expression on his face. “I take it you didn’t think about it like that?”

“No, I just—I don’t know. I wasn’t—”

“I know,” Grant says, stopping him before he can dig himself into a hole. He picks up Tony’s hands in his, raises them to his lips, and kisses each one. “I forgot that you were likely hiding secrets too. You’re very easy to talk to, you know.”

He thinks about Tiberius telling him that he should be quieter and says, “I didn’t know.”

“That’s a shame,” Grant says, his words ringing with such sincerity that Tony leans forward to bury his face in Grant’s chest so he can hide his blush.

“Edward,” Grant croons. “Edward, why would you hide your face from me?”

“Maybe I don’t want you to see it,” he mumbles.

“Why not? I’ve already kissed your lips, seen that beautiful blush, gazed into those stunning eyes. What more is there to hide?”

Tony blushes even harder but if Grant is as sincere about his compliments as he is about everything else, then he thinks it unfair to keep hiding and so he looks up. Grant smiles at him and kisses him again.

“Let me love you,” he whispers and Tony shivers at the heat in his voice. “Let me give us what we’re both craving. Edward, be mine for tonight.”

And for the second time, Tony breathes, “Yes,” throwing all his cares away as Grant sweeps him into his arms and carries him to the bed. He’s laid out with the gentlest care, undressed with reverence in Grant’s eyes, kissed with passion. And he arches for this alpha, slicks like he only ever does in heat, holds him the way he wishes he could hold Steve.

Grant loves him carefully, gently, the way Tony’s always heard it should be between an alpha and an omega. His fingers and tongue bring Tony to completion twice before he thrusts inside. He makes sure to wait for him to adjust so that it doesn’t hurt. When Tony has come again, weakly spilling after his third orgasm, and Grant is close to coming himself, he pulls out and knots his own hand, his spend joining Tony’s on his stomach.

They lie there together afterwards, hands joined across the bed, as they calm down. So that is what love is about, Tony thinks to himself though he’s careful not to say it out loud. His mother has always told him that his first time is something special and while Tony has never fully believed that himself, he doesn’t know whether Grant thinks that. He doesn’t want to make him worry by telling him that he’s never slept with anyone before.

Somewhere in the castle, a clock strikes midnight. The magic is fading fast along with the spend on Tony’s stomach. He’s going to want to clean that soon. He doesn’t want to go back to the nursery smelling of sex and a strange alpha.

He sits up, running his hand through his hair. Grant, still stretched out beside him, suggests, “You could stay here tonight. These rooms are for anyone who doesn’t want to travel tonight.”

“No, I really should be going,” Tony says. He can feel something coming closer, something that will cause him to panic, whether that’s that he slept with a strange alpha or that he slept with anyone at all, especially when there’s still Steve to consider. He shouldn’t have—this was so irresponsible . He’s never been like this, not even when he’d flitted from party to party back in America.

He wonders vaguely if the scent blockers are wearing off, if he’s no longer drugged by the scent of an alpha who smells like him. Maybe that’s why he’s starting to panic. But the room still smells like coffee and chocolate, oranges and honeysuckle. In fact, the scents seem stronger than they had been earlier, stronger than they should be for mere scent blockers. And now he knows where he’s smelled the coffee and chocolate before, why it had felt so familiar when he had first put the mask on. It’s a scent that belongs to the very man he’s been in love with for months.

And if the scents are stronger, too strong for the blockers, then they must belong to Tony and Grant, which would mean that Grant is Steve but no—that doesn’t make any sense. Steve wouldn’t be so irresponsible, not like Tony is. He’s the king, he isn’t hiding his identity so he can take a strange omega to bed—not that Tony would judge him if he was. After all, that’s exactly what Tony did. But it simply isn’t possible that Steve would—

“Can I escort you anywhere? Help you get home?” Grant asks.

“No,” Tony says distractedly, too consumed with his whirling thoughts to stop himself from finishing, “I live here in the castle.”

He misses Grant frowning because he’s gathering his clothes. He misses Grant’s eyes widening because he’s tugging his shirt on over his chest. He misses Grant gasping because he’s crossing the room, deciding that he’ll just have to wash before he enters the nursery, reaching for the door handle.

He misses Grant coming to the same conclusion that he’s starting to reach but he doesn’t miss Grant asking, “Tony?”

Chapter Text

Edward—no, Tony—stops with his hand on the doorknob as soon as Steve asks the question and he knows that he’s right. He hasn’t just slept with anyone tonight. He’s slept with Tony, the very person he’s trying to get out of his system and the reason he feels so guilty.

But that’s not quite right, is it? He’s guilty, yes, but not because he’s betrayed his late wife. For months there have been thoughts growing in the back of Steve’s mind, pushing their way to the front, spurred on by Bucky’s words, that Peggy wouldn’t have wanted him to spend the rest of his life alone. He hasn’t fully come to accept that yet but he had been getting there when—when this happened.

He can’t believe he was so stupid, letting himself be swept up by the magic of the night, the secrecy provided by the masks, the scent of himself on Tony’s skin. Maybe he doesn’t feel guilty because of Peggy but he certainly feels guilty for what he’s done to Tony. It doesn’t matter that Tony had been right there with him, consenting to everything that they had done. Steve is the king. He should have known better, done better. He doesn’t know what he was thinking trying to bed anyone, let alone the very person he’s crashed into love with.

He knows this for certain now. It’s not something that he can only admit to a stranger in the dark of night. He can admit it to himself now because even with everything falling down around him, the magical illusion shattered, he keeps thinking of how perfectly Tony had fit in his arms, how absolutely lovely he’d been beneath Steve, his body arching up into his like they’d been designed to move together.

“It is you, isn’t it?” he asks quietly, needing that confirmation. “Tony?”

Tony turns slowly from the door, his hand letting go of the handle at last. Slowly, he reaches up behind his head, nimble fingers twitching at the ties. He pulls the mask off his face, revealing those bright brown eyes unshadowed by the red and gold of the mask and those lovely cheeks and brow that Steve has wanted to litter kisses across. Steve had asked him earlier if he would remove the mask and Tony had turned him down. He wonders now if it would have been better if he had taken it off. Would Steve have stopped? Would he have been overcome by the thought of Tony wearing his mask?

Questions that he’ll never have the answers to. Truthfully, he isn’t sure that he even wants the answers. The phrase goes ignorance is bliss, not knowledge.

“Tony,” he chokes brokenly.

“You are Steve, aren’t you?” Tony whispers.

He nods before realizing that he’s still wearing his mask. Quickly, he reaches up to undo the ties but his fingers, so sure when they’d been buried inside Tony, feel clumsy and fat now. He fumbles the ties twice before Tony moves across the room, sitting behind him and undoing them himself.

“There you are,” Tony says softly. He cups Steve’s cheek in one hand and turns him to face him. Steve closes his eyes, wishing that they could let the moment stretch on a little longer but before he’s ready, Tony continues, “Steve, we have to talk about this.”

“What’s there to talk about?” He knows exactly what but he wants so badly to pretend that he has no idea.

“You said you’re in love with me.”

Steve opens his eyes. Tony is gazing at him, soft, open, heartbreakingly hopeful. Steve’s heart plummets into the depths of his stomach. He’s going to have to break Tony’s heart, he can see it already, and Steve wishes he could damn the omega for making him have to do this but he knows he could never wish harm on Tony.

“And you said you’re in love with me,” he agrees.

Tony nods, hands twitching nervously in his lap. He smiles cautiously, quick and gone before Steve even really registers it’s there. “I know this isn’t maybe the most ideal situation but—”

“The most ideal?” Steve asks, laughing harshly. He hunches over, trying to hide from what he’s going to have to do. It’s clear from the expression on Tony’s face that the omega has gotten ideas and Steve—he can’t do that. He can’t encourage them. “Tony, nothing about this is ideal at all.”

“Don’t say that,” Tony pleads. “I know this isn’t how either of us wanted it to go but Steve, we love each other—”

“That doesn’t matter,” he hisses because it doesn’t. It can’t. He is the king and Tony, however much he might have once been a society omega, is still common-born. There’s a power difference, one that he can’t just ignore, one that hadn’t mattered when he had wed Peggy because she had still been a lady but it matters now. Oh how it matters and he hates that he has to do this but it must be said.

“I’m the king,” he says slowly, trying to find the right words that won’t offend Tony. “I’m the king and you’re—”

“Common,” Tony finishes dully. Steve chances a look at him. His eyes have lost that sparkle and his mouth is turning down at the corners. “I understand.”

“You do?” He hates to ask but he has to make sure that Tony really truly does understand. It has nothing to do with Tony himself but the matter of his birth. A king cannot marry a commoner, however much he might wish he could. He would never be able to feel certain that Tony has truly consented to this, that he isn’t just trying to appease someone who holds his employment in his hands.

Tony smiles tightly and stands, making for the door. “Of course I do. You don’t need to say anything else. If you don’t mind, I should make sure that the children got to bed.”


But the door is already swinging shut behind him.

So that’s that then.

Tony had known it would be impossible of course. Why would a king ever want a commoner, even one that he professed to be in love with? There’s a difference between a quick dalliance with a pretty omega at a party—had Steve always known it was him? Had he been laughing in his mind at Tony thinking he could hide his identity?—and actually marrying that omega. And he’d known that, he had, it was just—for one shining moment he had had hope, hope that their shared feelings meant more, that Steve could have overcome his duty.

A foolish hope, really, but Tony has always been an optimist at heart. Maybe that was why he’d fallen so easily for Tiberius’ lies.

He trudges upstairs, stopping in one of the many bathrooms to wash the sweat and come from his skin, and then slips into the nursery. The children are asleep, Natasha sitting in the rocking chair by the fire. She frowns when he enters, silently asking if he’s okay. He smiles tightly, waves a little, and disappears into his bedroom, wanting time to lick his wounds in peace.

But then there’s Rhodey, sitting beside his bed, who sits up as soon as he walks in and quietly says, “You left the party early.”

Tony lets the door swing shut behind him and then says, “I wanted some fresh air.”


He turns away, busying himself at his dresser as he brushes out his curls, wipes away the makeup, hangs the mask on the corner. In the mirror, he can see Rhodey standing and cautiously approaching him like he’s a skittish cat but he tries his best to ignore him.

“I saw you leave the party with someone else,” Rhodey says gently, right behind him now.

The hairbrush clunks to the dresser as Tony buries his face in his hands, trying to hold back the rush of tears. He’d done so well when he’d been walking through the castle, but now, in his darkened room, with his friend beside him, it’s so much easier to admit his shame and disappointment.

“Oh Tones, what happened?” Rhodey murmurs, dismayed. He turns Tony around to face him and reaches up to lower his hands from his face, revealing the tears finally spilling over. Rhodey’s scent spikes with worry and desperation. “Tony, what happened? Did he do something—”

“I wanted it,” Tony chokes out and he had. He’d wanted to get Steve off his mind, wanted to lie with someone who treated him like someone to be cherished. He just hadn’t wanted it to go so badly wrong afterward. “I did, I swear, Rhodey. You don’t need to be worried.”

“You’re crying, that’s cause enough to be worried.”

Rhodey helps him undress and change into his nightshirt, helps him into the bed when his legs feel too wobbly to get him there on their own, and then he curls up next to Tony, cradling him in his lap. “Is it something you want to talk about?”

Tony shakes his head. Then, “It was what I wanted just…it wasn’t what I hoped for.”

Rhodey just nods like that somehow makes sense and lets him cry out his disappointment and frustration until he drops off to sleep.

The following weeks are…difficult to say the least.

Tony desperately wants to make sure that the children don’t notice anything going on between him and their father but it’s hard when things are so awkward between them. Meals seem stilted, filled only with the children’s chattering and the answers he and Steve give them but they can’t even look at each other, let alone talk. He makes sure that he doesn’t run into any of his old haunts with Steve and when he can’t sleep in the middle of the night, he avoids both the solarium and the library in favor of some of the less well-traveled areas of the castle. Thank goodness for Rhodey who never once judges him for where he decides to go, just trails along after him silently until Tony decides he’s ready to talk.

For his part, he thinks Steve is avoiding him as well. There have been a few times—three, though Tony refuses to admit that he’s counted—where they’ve been alone in the hall and Steve has seen him and promptly wheeled around, all but running in the opposite direction. He doesn’t do it when the children are around but he also doesn’t acknowledge Tony’s presence the way he used to.

It has to be like this, Tony knows that. He needs time to get over his inconvenient feelings for the king and he’s sure that Steve needs that time as well. But it’s still awkward.

And hard.

God above, it’s so hard.

Sometimes, he finds his nightly wanderings taking him too close to the library when he’s buried in thought and he has to abruptly turn around. Sometimes, he wants to say something to Steve, make him laugh the way he used to, but that’s not allowed, not when Steve has turned him down. Sometimes, he thinks about that night they had together and he wants to crawl into Steve’s arms and be held like he was then but that was never something he had been permitted to do. Steve had wanted Edward Stark that night, not Tony Carbonell. Even now, he doesn’t want Tony Carbonell.

He’s sure Natasha suspects something is going on but bless her for keeping her mouth shut. She’s normally so nosy and mostly, Tony doesn’t mind that but not about this. Never about this.

No, she keeps her mouth shut and watches him and watches Steve and when it’s been two weeks and Tony’s heart still feels like it’s breaking in two, she goes to him to quietly say, “You don’t have to stay.”

Tony gives her a startled look and asks, “What do you mean? I can’t abandon the children.”

“You wouldn’t be. They have their father now, more than they have in years.” She smiles sadly. “I see how you look at him, how he looks at you, and Antoshka, I don’t want you to be miserable for the rest of your life.”

It should feel cowardly but Tony thinks about the children and about Tiberius, who he knows is searching for him, and how he would never forgive himself if he led Tiberius to their doorstep. He thinks about Steve and how much it still hurts to even think about him, how it’ll likely always hurt because this isn’t just a silly infatuation, this is pure love and adoration. He doubts that’s going away anytime soon.

The next morning, he announces his resignation.

It’s the first time in two weeks that Steve speaks to him, even looks at him really, and all he says is, “I understand. Pepper can write you a letter of reference.”

His voice is small, heartbreakingly quiet, but all Tony can pay attention to is the words, how they barely even seem to care that he’s leaving after nearly a year of working together.

It says just as much as what Steve had said on Halloween night.

This is the right decision.

Tony is halfway to Aynor City when he hears someone—or several someone if he’s judging the footsteps correctly—running up behind him. He steps off the side of the road, waiting for them to pass him, but then he hears a child’s voice yelling, “Mister Carbonell! Mister Carbonell”

He sighs and resumes walking. The children have been arguing with him for the last two days about his leaving the castle and he is, frankly, exhausted from arguing with them. He refuses to tell them about his liaison with their father so he’s been scrambling for other reasons he could use to explain his resignation, all of which had been tossed aside by the children like it didn’t matter that he was ready for a change of pace. Finally, he had snapped at them, “Perhaps I want to see my own family for the holiday, did you think about that?” in the hopes that it would get them to stop pestering him and it had for a few hours but then Harley had decided that wasn’t acceptable either and tried to argue that seeing them for the holiday didn’t mean that he wouldn’t be returning.

But as he’s not willing to pick up his own pace and start running, Harley catches up to him within a few minutes, followed by Peter right behind him carrying Morgan, and then Sarah. Tony glances at them and keeps walking, lengthening his strides. They can keep up if they want to so badly.

“You can’t leave,” Harley pants. He wonders if they’ve been running since they left the castle.

“Does anyone know you’re out here?” he asks instead of replying.

“No but that’s not the point. You can’t leave.”

“Not even Natasha or Rhodey?”

No but—”

“You left without telling anyone where you were going?” Tony thunders, worry flooding him. He stops dead in the middle of the road, turning to face the four children. “Do you have any idea how foolish that was?”

“No one would dare take us. We’re the king’s children,” Harley says dismissively.

“That is exactly why someone would take you,” Tony snaps. “Your father would pay a king’s ransom for you. Haven’t you any sense at all?” He stifles a groan as he realizes what he’s going to have to do now. He sets off for the castle again, fury growing in him at the foolishness of the children. If he misses the next train to Spain, he’s going to take it out on Natasha’s head for not watching them more closely. “Let’s go.”

“You’re going back to Daddy?” Morgan asks eagerly.

“No. I’m taking you four back to the castle where you should have been this entire time and you had better stay there this time.”

“But you can’t leave!” Harley shouts, stamping his foot. “What about—?”

“That’s enough, Harley.”

“I could command you to do it. I am the Crown Prince of Dacia and I could order you to stay.”

“You could,” Tony agrees grimly. “But I answer to no king.”

He can hear a carriage trundling up behind them and he urges the children off to the side of the road, even as he wonders who it could be. As best as he knows, the castle wasn’t due for any visitors today and Tony hadn’t sent for a carriage to take him to the city as the castle and the city were only a few miles apart so he had decided to walk.

The carriage, something grand and brightly colored and gilded with gold leaf, rolls by them, seemingly paying them no mind. Tony steps back out onto the road, the children immediately starting up their protests again, and follows the carriage—which stops.

He freezes.

“Off the road,” he says again.

“What?” Peter asks.

“Off the road now.” The coachman is jumping down from his box and Tony moves, shoving the children into the forest. “Run!”

A shot rings out behind him, shattering the air, and a bullet whizzes by his ear just as he ducks behind a tree. Morgan shrieks and Tony scoops her up, darting further into the trees.


Something is crashing through the branches behind them and he breaks out into a sprint. Harley has picked up Sarah, easily keeping pace with him, but Peter is starting to lag. His legs are smaller and he’s tired after running after Tony. He won’t be able to outrun the coachman for long. Tony’s gaze darts about, searching for something that can hide them, a tree or a cave or something. But few of the branches are low hanging enough for the children to climb or even for him to lift them up and there are no convenient caves for them to hide in.

There’s another gunshot.

Something slams into his right shoulder, something white-hot and searingly painful. He shouts, grip loosening on Morgan, as he stumbles and falls to the ground. He twists as he falls, hoping that even if he drops the girl, she won’t get hurt.

“Mister Carbonell!” Morgan shrieks.

She lands on top of his stomach and his breath leaves him in a gasp. He tries to tell the other children to keep going but his breath is gone and first Harley glances behind him and skids to a stop, then Peter does the same. They circle back, Peter bending down to try to help him up, but Tony can feel the blood pooling beneath him.

“Go,” he whispers.

“We’re not leaving you,” Harley says and he sounds brave but Tony can hear the way his voice shakes, can see the fear in his eyes.

“Harley, go. It’s you they’re after. Take your sister and go.”

He sees Harley hesitate. He presses Morgan into Peter’s arms, hoping it will urge them along. “We’ll be back for you,” Harley promises.

“Mister Carbonell, no,” Morgan sobs.

“We’re coming back with Father.”

But before Harley can take more than two steps away, before Peter can even stand, Tony hears a cold voice, “What do we have here?”

They’re marched back to the carriage at gunpoint, the groomsman stalking behind them to make sure none of them try to escape. Tony has his hand pressed to his wound, trying to stop the bleeding but he’s worried that he’s going to lose consciousness soon. For all his knowledge of the weapons themselves, he’ll be the first to admit he doesn’t know much about the wounds they cause but he’s fairly certain that they’re not supposed to be still bleeding.

The trees are thinning; they’re nearing the road. Through the gaps in the trees, he can see someone standing outside the carriage, waiting for them. After a moment, presumably hearing them, the man looks in their direction, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.

Tony’s blood goes cold.

He had thought that the kidnappers were here for the children but they’re not, are they? No, they’re here for him. Oh god, he cannot learn that he has the king’s children in his grasp.

“Anthony Edward Stark, do you have any idea how long I’ve been searching for you?” Tiberius snarls.

It takes Harley a moment to realize who Anthony Edward Stark must be and then Mister Carbonell straightens, even though he must be in pain, and says coldly, “Not long enough.” Then Harley remembers a conversation he once overheard between Miss Natasha and Miss Potts soon after Mister Carbonell’s arrival, how Miss Natasha had been convinced that the new nanny wasn’t who he said he was. Neither of them had seemed overly worried about that fact though so Harley hadn’t concerned himself with it either.

Now, though, he remembers that and he remembers too the bedtime story that Mister Carbonell had told them about the omega who ran away. He’d understood then that Mister Carbonell had been running from someone terrible, someone who would have hurt him, but he realizes now that the alpha standing in front of him, the one with the cruel eyes who doesn’t even care that Mister Carbonell is bleeding, must be the alpha that their nanny had run from.

“You yellow-bellied arse!” he shouts, using a term he thinks he once heard his mother use but he knows he’s heard Uncle Bucky use. He would have rushed forward to attack the alpha but Peter catches him by the arm.

“Zacharias!” Mister Carbonell exclaims, sounding scandalized.

For a moment, Harley wonders who on earth that might be. Then he realizes that Mister Carbonell is calling him by his middle name. Why would he do that?

“And who might these brats be?” the alpha spits, glaring Harley down. Harley glares right back at him and opens his mouth to tell him that he’s the prince and they’d better be let go right away if he wants to keep his head.

Before he can say anything, Mister Carbonell hastily says, “The servants’ children. I’ve been looking after them.”

They are not. Indignantly, Harley turns to Mister Carbonell to tell him that that’s a lie, only to catch the desperation in his tutor’s eyes. Confused, Harley shuts his mouth.

“Then they’re of no use to me,” the alpha says dismissively. “Get in the carriage, Anthony.” He gestures at his coachman. “Kill the children.”


No!” Mister Carbonell screams, throwing himself in front of Harley and his siblings.

“Anthony. Get in the carriage now.”

“I won’t.” Harley looks from the alpha to his tutor, whose face has turned white either with pain or fear but is still standing strong, eyes blazing as he stares down the alpha. “If you kill the children, then you’ll have to kill me too.”

“I could drag you along.”

“I will fight you. Every step of the way, every person you cross in front of will hear me screaming. But if you let them go—”

The alpha sneers. “I wouldn’t leave them to go straight to the king.”

“As though the king would listen to the children of mere servants. Tiberius, please,” Mister Carbonell says, voice turning low and pleading.

The alpha—Tiberius—considers him for a long moment before glancing over the children. Then, to Mister Carbonell, he says, “I like you begging. Do it again and I’ll consider letting them live.”

Mister Carbonell doesn’t even hesitate. He gets down on his knees, shuffles to Tiberius, and whispers as he bows over his hand, “Please, Tiberius. Please, I’m begging you. Let them go.”

Tiberius crouches down, lifts Mister Carbonell’s chin up with his hand, and smiles cruelly. “Good, little omega.” He waits until they’ve all started to relax before continuing, “But not quite. Take the youngest. Kill one of the others.”

Harley barely even has time to move before the bullet slams into his hip, knocking him to the ground. The pain is blinding, distracting him from everything else. Distantly, he thinks he hears Mister Carbonell screaming, Morgan shouting. He’s expecting another bullet but it doesn’t come. Instead, he’s left there as the carriage door slams, cutting off Mister Carbonell and Morgan—Morgan, he needs to—he has to get up—he can’t just lie here, useless.

“Peter—run—Father,” he whispers as he struggles to stand.

It’s too much and he collapses back, vision going black.

Steve is in the middle of a council session, trying to distract himself from thoughts of Tony leaving, when Peter throws open the doors and runs inside, sobbing. He heads straight for Steve, bawling something about Harley and Mister Carbonell and someone named Tiberius.

He catches the boy by the arms, leaning down in his seat, “Whoa Peter, what’s going on? Where are your siblings?”

“He—he took Morgan and—and Mister Carbonell!” Peter bawls.

Steve goes cold. He looks up, sharing a horrified glance with Bucky and Natasha. “Who did?”

“And—and—and he h-hurt Harley!”


No, god, no.

He bolts out of his seat, already reaching for a sword that doesn’t hang at his side any longer. ”Lord Nicholas,” he orders, “you’re in charge. Bucky, Clint, Sam, Rhodey, you’re with me. Natasha, sound the alarm. Peter, where’s Sarah? Where’s your sister?”

But even as he asks the question, Sarah comes skidding inside, caught up by Natasha who holds her to her hip as she leaves the room at a run. Steve watches them go, reassuring himself that two of his children at least are here and safe.

“Peter, where were they taken?”

“On—on the road. We w-wanted to stop Mister Carbonell.”

“Good boy,” he breathes, swallowing down a wave of fury. If only Tony hadn’t left, this could have all been avoided. His children would still be at home and one of them wouldn’t be hurt and the other missing. “Go with Natasha, Peter.”

“No, wanna stay with you!”

“Peter, please. I need to know you’re safe. Go with Natasha.”

Peter looks like he wants to refuse him again but Lord Nicholas gently pulls them apart and Steve strides away, joining Bucky at the door, before Peter can run to him again. He doesn’t look back, knowing that if he does, he’ll possibly never leave. But Morgan and Harley need him. He doesn’t have the luxury of burying his head in the sand.

Someone got to his children. He’ll burn the entire world to get them back.

Five minutes sees him and his small company mounted and pounding down the road. Peter had said he not they and he can only pray that that means there’s only one or two kidnappers but he knows that Natasha will be sending more after him. The trees blur by him as he accelerates even faster, worry spurring him on.

This is his fault, he knows. He should have communicated better with Tony, should have actually talked to him, should have damned the laws to hell and taken Tony as his own the way he’s wanted to for months. He’s the king and Tony is an American; they shouldn’t have to listen to what tradition tells them is right. And now Tony and his daughter are missing and his son, his heir, is hurt.

God, if he dies…

Steve can’t even finish the thought, the idea too horrible to dwell on. They round a bend in the road and he can smell the fear in the air—and blood, hot and metallic and acrid, first Harley’s but then not just Harley. Tony was bleeding too and he snarls. His omega is hurt. There’s a lump in the road, unmoving, and something roars in his chest at the thought that they left his son there to bleed out.

He skids to a stop beside Harley, leaping down from the horse as soon as he’s able. He falls to his knees, hand hovering uselessly over Harley, unsure where to touch first. His son is lying on his back, face white and too still by far for the active boy but he’s breathing.

He’s breathing.

His chest is moving up and down, too fast but still it’s moving. Steve reaches for his shirt, pulling it up so he can see what they’ve done to his son. His side is a bloody mess, the shirt too tacky to move entirely without ripping at the wound.

“Water,” he says impatiently. He doesn’t know who passes him a waterskin but there’s enough to pour it out, loosening the shirt enough that he can lift it away and peer at the wound.

“It’s a graze,” Clint breathes out.

Steve laughs helplessly in his relief. It’s just a graze. He doesn’t know whether the man who shot Harley missed or if he couldn’t bear killing a child but it’s just a graze. Harley will likely have a scar and he’ll certainly be confined to his bed for the next few weeks but he’ll be fine.

“Clint, take him back up to the castle,” he orders, standing back up. Tony and Morgan are still missing. He can’t stay here longer with his son even though he aches to.

“My king.”


Immediately, he drops back to his knees, next to his son who’s weakly opened his eyes. “Harley,” he whispers. “You’re going to be okay.”


“We’re going to get her back. Her and Tony.”

“You won’t let Mister Carbonell leave?”

Steve hesitates. “Harley, he’s an adult. I can’t order him to stay if he wants to go.”

“But you love him.”

“It’s not so simple,” he begins and then stops. Hadn’t he just been thinking that he wished it could be so simple? “Maybe,” he allows and wonders when his son became so observant that he knew how Steve felt before he did.

Harley smiles. “You’ll kill the yellow-bellied arse who took them?”

“And just what sort of language has Bucky been teaching you?” he asks, throwing an admonishing glare over his shoulder. Bucky shrugs sheepishly.

He turns back to Harley. “You’ll be okay?” he asks, reassuring himself one last time.

Harley nods.

“Then I’ll leave you with Clint.” As he’s turning back to his horse, he catches Clint’s arm. “Guard him with your life.”

“I’d do nothing less,” Clint vows, kneeling down next to Harley. As Steve wheels his horse around, he catches a glimpse of Clint tearing a strip off of his shirt to bind Harley’s side. Yes, Harley is in excellent hands. Morgan and Tony, on the other hand—

They’ll be fine.

They have to be.

It’s clear that Tiberius doesn’t care at all that Tony could be bleeding out so he grits his teeth and reaches down with both hands, tears several long strips off of his shirt, and tries not to pass out from the pain. Then he calls Morgan closer to his side and coaches her through binding his shoulder because there are many things that he can do one-handed but this is not one of them.

He’ll never forgive Tiberius for making him do this. Morgan should never have had to be the one taking care of his injury. She should never have seen her brother be shot—and he swears that if Harley dies, he’ll kill Tiberius himself, with his own hands if he must. She should never have been mixed up in this at all. Morgan should be home, back at the castle, safe with her siblings, her father, and Natasha and Rhodey; not here, caught up with Tony’s mistakes and his past back to haunt him.

This is his fault. He knows it is. If he’d called for a carriage to take him to the train station or if he’d left just a day earlier or if he’d insisted that the children go back on their own instead of escorting them himself.

Morgan ties his binding into a neat bow, pinning his arm to his side, and brushes a light kiss over the binding. He smiles at her and turns to kiss her hair. It’s come loose from the ribbon, maybe left behind in the forest, maybe caught on part of the carriage, he doesn’t know.

“It’ll be alright,” he murmurs to her in Spanish because he knows that out of all the languages Tiberius speaks, Spanish isn’t one of them.

“You want children,” Tiberius states.

Tony turns from the girl and calmly replies, “Not with you.” That’s true enough. Even when he had been infatuated with the monster, he’d never wanted children with him. It had been clear to him from the start that Tiberius was not the kind of man to father children with or raise them alongside with, not unless he’d wanted to raise them alone. After growing up with his father and mother working together to help raise him, he’d wanted that from his alpha.

Steve though…he’d been able to see himself raising Morgan and her siblings with Steve by his side. Or at least he had until Steve had brought the illusion crashing down.

“Why not with me?” Tiberius’ voice is deceptively light, a trap that he can’t find an escape from. Tony turns Morgan’s face into his side, already tensing for the inevitable blow. “Come now. Tell me.”

“I didn’t think you would want anything to do with children after what you said to Sunset,” he says just as lightly. “What was it? An omega’s place is behind their master?”

The blow, when it comes, may have been expected but it’s still a shock to his system. His head snaps to the side from the force of it, cheek stinging long after Tiberius has drawn back to his side of the carriage. Slowly, he raises his good hand to his cheek, feeling the heat from the imprint of Tiberius’ palm. He’s probably lucky that Tiberius hadn’t been wearing rings or else his face might have been cut.

“You will not speak to me in such a manner,” Tiberius snarls and Tony only gives him an even look.

“What a brave alpha,” he taunts, “to strike an unarmed, injured omega.”

“Hold. Your. Tongue.” Before Tony can see it coming, Tiberius has lunged forward, grabbed hold of Morgan, and dragged her back to his side. Tony’s helpless to do anything. She’d been tucked up against his bad arm. He couldn’t have moved to grab her even if he hadn’t been caught off guard.

“Didn’t you wonder why I had her brought along?” Tiberius asks, a cruel sneer twisting his handsome features. He slides a slender stiletto out of its sheath and presses it to the girl’s neck. Tony’s breath catches. No, please, not Morgan, sweet little Miss Morgan who tries to catch butterflies in the castle gardens.


“Come now, Tony. I don’t think you ever thought me stupid. You must have thought I’d have a reason to bring her along.”

He had. He’d known she was brought along as leverage, to keep him calm, but he’d never once thought that Tiberius would go so far as to threaten an innocent child. The road to the city is bumpy. Even the slightest jolt in the road could bring that knife slicing into her tender skin.

“I’m sorry,” he breathes, eyes fixed on that knife. Morgan, bless her, is keeping as still as possible, not even making a sound, though Tony knows that she must be terrified. “Tiberius, please, I beg you.”

Tiberius keeps the knife there another moment, to torture them both or to remind Tony of his place, and then sheathes it. “Very well,” he says carelessly. “I’ll let her live a little longer.” He doesn’t let her go back to Tony’s side.

“Why?” Tony asks quietly. “Why would you follow me?”

The alpha laughs. “You told me you heard my conversation with Sunset so shouldn’t you know?” Tony waits patiently. Tiberius has always been a braggart, talking about his hunting expeditions and his impressive mines and the number of servants he had. “Stupid omega, of course you wouldn’t. It’s not like it’s you I want. It’s your family’s money—or it was at first and then you ran off and ruined my reputation. Getting you back is exactly how I’ll—”

But what he’ll do, Tony doesn’t get to hear because in the next instant, he hears the thundering sound of horses hooves behind them, coming closer and fast.

“What the—” Tiberius begins but gets no further as something slams into the side of the carriage, knocking it off-balance.

For a terrifying moment, the carriage teeters on two wheels before it rocks back onto solid ground, settling on four wheels once again. Tony reaches out to brace himself against the carriage wall, knowing what’s coming next. He can hear voices now: four, familiar, so very welcome voices and in the distance, more horses.

They’re still moving forward, the coachmen spurring them on faster, but the horses are carrying a heavier cargo load and Steve and Rhodey and Steve’s two guards are alone on their horses. It must be child’s play for them to keep up.

Tony casts a wild, hopeful look at the carriage window, wishing that he could call out, offer some reassurance that they’re here, but he knows better than to do that. When he next looks back, his heart leaps into his throat: Tiberius has the knife back out, pressed again to Morgan’s throat.

“Call them off,” Tiberius hisses.


Tony doesn’t get another word out before something slams into the other side of the carriage and they’re all knocked to the side again. He doesn’t even waste a moment, scrambling out of his seat and throwing himself across the carriage at the alpha.

Tiberius clearly doesn’t see it coming, doesn’t even raise a finger to defend himself, because Tony’s fingers are able to close around the knife and force it to the side, away from Morgan. He doesn’t know where the girl goes in the ensuing scramble. What he knows is that something knocks into the carriage again and it goes over—

Morgan screams—

Tony gets his hand around the knife, grabbing it away—

Tiberius’ hands lock around his throat—

“Not this time,” Tiberius whispers and Tony thinks, Never again

The knife sinks into something warm, cutting through like butter, and Tiberius’ eyes bulge as he chokes, fingers loosening on Tony’s neck—

The carriage lands on its side, tossing him free of Tiberius. He loses his grip on the knife as he throws himself at Morgan, curling around her to protect her from the impact. Something presses against his injured shoulder and he screams but Morgan is okay, unharmed, and that’s all that matters.

“Steve,” he hears Bucky say urgently.

“My daughter is in there,” Steve snarls.

The carriage door is thrown open skyward and Tony blinks in the bright sunlight streaming in. Steve smells of worry and fear but his hands are sure and perfectly steady as he reaches in to lift Morgan from Tony’s arms.

“Daddy!” Morgan sobs, eagerly going to her father, finally breaking her calm façade.

Tony half-expects Tiberius to make another grab for her but Morgan is safely lifted out of the carriage and when he turns to find the alpha, he finds him lying still at the other end of the carriage, the stiletto protruding from his heart. His fingers are closed around the knife like he’d been trying to pull it out when he died.

He killed him.

Tony killed him.

He’s nearly sick at the sight but then there are strong arms wrapping around him, lifting him out of the carriage, strong arms that smell like maple and gingerbread, reminding him of home. He goes limp in that grip, letting Rhodey pick him up and tuck himself around him, shielding him from the world as he croons that he’s got him.

Rhodey has him.

He’s safe.

Chapter Text

Morgan’s birthday passes quietly in the castle, something that the girl doesn’t complain even a little bit about. Her birthday has always been quiet, what with her mother being gone and all, but she also knows that this year her birthday will be celebrated at Christmas instead of on the actual day.

And with Mister Carbonell and Harley both hurt, she isn’t really in much of a celebrating kind of mood anyway.

Harley has been allowed out of bed since early last week when the doctor had looked him over, said that his wound was healing nicely, and warned him not to go running around with the other three. That was okay. They mostly didn’t feel like running around with Harley still hurt—and knowing Mister Carbonell is still hurt and they should try to be quiet for him.

Daddy says that Mister Carbonell was very scared by what happened that day in the forest, that he’s still hurt on the inside and sad, and that they should leave him alone while he gets better but Morgan doesn’t really understand that cause when she’s sad, she wants her siblings with her to make her feel better. She’s sure that Mister Carbonell would feel better too if he had somebody with him. He’s not even allowed in the nursery right now because the doctor didn’t want to move him from the first floor so he has to be lonely down there in that room all by himself.

That’s why she’s not in her bed at the moment and why she’s creeping down the secret passage on silent feet, so she can go see Mister Carbonell. Miss Natasha, who has been watching them since Mister Carbonell first left, hadn’t even noticed her leave her bed and creep toward the secret entrance in the nursery. This passage, she knows, lets out near Mister Carbonell’s new room so she’ll just need to make sure that none of the servants notice her when she leaves the passage.

There’s a light on in Mister Carbonell’s room and a low steady voice saying something soothing. Morgan creeps closer, wondering who else might have had the idea of visiting Mister Carbonell. She’s surprised to hear that she knows the owner of the voice very well.

Why is Daddy in Mister Carbonell’s room when he’d told them he wasn’t supposed to be disturbed?

“Elizabeth was sitting by herself the next morning, and writing to Jane while Mrs. Collins and Maria were gone on business into the village, when she was startled by a ring at the door, the certain signal of a visitor,” Steve reads quietly. “As she had heard no carriage, she thought it not unlikely to be Lady Catherine, and under that apprehension was putting away her half-finished letter that she might escape all impertinent questions, when the door opened, and, to her very great surprise, Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Darcy only, entered the room.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Tony says into the stillness as Steve finishes his paragraph.

Steve pauses and puts his finger in the book to mark his page. “What don’t I have to do?”

Tony grimaces, shifting to prop himself up on the mass of pillows with only one arm. Steve gets up, intending to help him, but Tony just waves him away and slowly, he sinks back into his chair. “You don’t need to keep me company,” he says eventually, once he’s gotten comfortable. “I know I’m not—” He stops, scent souring with distress, and Steve aches to get up and go to him but he shoves that thought ruthlessly away. They made their decisions, both of them, and now they have to live with the consequences.

“You could be keeping Harley company,” Tony says instead of finishing his earlier thought.

Steve had been actually, while Tony had been feverish and delirious with infection from the dirt in the forest and whatever else had been on his shirt during its short time as a makeshift bandage, but he doubts Tony remembers that. He hasn’t told the children about Tony’s illness, not wanting them to worry or to ruin their Christmas again. He’s been here though, nearly every day since Tony came back to himself, keeping him company and reading to him.

“You’re important too,” he says, rather than explaining any of that. Tony only recently has been up to visitors and he doesn’t want to overwhelm him with too much information at one time. He knows that the last few weeks have to have been rough on Tony.

He still doesn’t know the full story behind what happened with that other alpha but he knows enough from what Natasha and Rhodes have told him to guess. It would have been difficult to kill anyone let alone a past paramour, no matter how terrible they might have been. And Tony had done it while injured and trying to protect his child. Steve should have been there; he should have been the one protecting his child and taking care of the kidnapper. He knows that he owes Tony a great debt, one that he doubts he’ll ever be able to repay.

He clears his throat. “I wanted to talk to you about what happened before you left.”

Tony winces and Steve quickly adds, “Not that. About…well, really it’s about you leaving at all.”

“Steve…” Tony starts and then trails off.

“Will you hear me out?” Steve asks, trying to keep it from sounding defensive. Tony’s mouth twitches like he knows exactly what he’s thinking—and to be honest, he probably does. He always seems to.

Tony waves for him to go on.

“You need time to rest and heal. Dr. Banner already isn’t certain about letting you leave and he’ll just be worried if you try to argue with him. And Christmas is coming. We wouldn’t even be having it if you hadn’t come and—and we couldn’t bear to have it without you. And then there’s Morgan.”

“Morgan?” Tony asks sharply. “What’s happened to Morgan?”

“Nothing, that’s just it. She’s been under a tremendous stress, went through a traumatic event, and she came out of it like nothing had happened.”

“Children can be resilient,” Tony points out but he himself isn’t convinced if the way he’s chewing on the corner of his lip is anything to judge by. The movement catches Steve’s eye and he finds himself mesmerized by it, wanting to gently thumb Tony’s lip away from his teeth, slip his fingers in there instead.

But he gave that up.

“I’m worried about her. She talks to me now but I’m concerned that something might be going on that she’s not telling anyone about.”

“And you think I can get her to talk to me?”

“You’re like her,” Steve says quietly. “An omega.”

“And I was there with her,” Tony adds with a sigh.

“Please, Tony. The children will miss you if you leave again.”

There’s a nervous look in Tony’s eyes as he bites his lip again and then asks, “Just the children?”

Maybe it’s Tony’s bravery that makes him brave but whatever it might be, he says, “I will too.”

He doesn’t know which argument convinces Tony, if it’s Morgan or that he’ll miss him just as much as the children or something else entirely. But no matter what it might have been, Tony eventually nods.

“I’ll stay.”

Steve hides his smile in his book as he opens it again and begins to read: “They then sat down and when her inquiries after Rosings were made, seemed in danger of sinking into total silence.”

By the time Tony is allowed up and out of his current room with his arm in a sling, decorating for Christmas is already well underway. Everywhere he turns, someone is hanging a wreath or a garland or setting out white candles. The bakers in the kitchens are working around the clock, turning out batches and batches of cookies, apparently for Rhodey, Pepper, and a few of the other servants to bring down to the church in Aynor, along with their baskets of mended clothes and toys for the poor. The entire castle smells like pine, peppermint, and sugar.

The children have started taking their lessons in the dining hall so that Tony doesn’t have to climb more stairs than he has to, which is sweet of them but does make him worry about their grasp on anatomy. His arm was injured, not his legs.

Tony teaches them in the morning and then releases them following lunch so they can help with the decorations, sending Peter and Morgan usually with Natasha and Sarah and Harley with Rhodey, who always makes sure that they’re working on the lighter tasks so as not to pull stitches or injure anyone further. He’s sure Natasha would have done the same thing but he can’t help but remember that it had been Rhodey who had pulled him out of the carriage, Rhodey who had tucked him against his chest and promised him that everything was going to be okay.

Two weeks before Christmas, Tony takes the children down to the city to help them shop for presents. All four children have been given money by their father to get gifts for each other, their father, and the few servants who will be present with them on Christmas morning as most of the staff will be having their own celebrations either with their families or in the kitchens.

While they’re shopping, he makes sure to stop by Mister Kirby’s to thank him for all of his help in getting the position.

“So you made it through a year,” Mister Kirby says as he passes pieces of gingerbread to the children.

“Almost,” Tony corrects.

“Almost,” the old man agrees. “And mostly unscathed too.” He gestures at Tony’s arm, still in its sling though he thinks Dr. Banner will soon pronounce it healed enough to be free from the sling, even if he won’t be able to use it just yet. “What happened there?”

“An alpha,” Tony says quietly, glancing at Morgan. He had had a chance to talk through everything with her, just as Steve had asked him. Steve had been right that she’d been bottling things up and they had all spilled forward over the course of one night in Tony’s current room. She had spent the night there with him, curled up next to him on the bed as he comforted her, told her that it hadn’t been her fault, that she had been so brave for him, that he was okay and wasn’t going to leave her anytime soon.

Mister Kirby frowns. “At the castle?”

Tony shakes his head. “From my past.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He does but not with Mister Kirby. He wants to talk it over with Steve, tell him everything…beg him to love him. He still believes what he’d said after their night together: they could be wonderful together if only Steve would give them a chance. He wants—he wants to fight for them. If he’s going to be here longer, then he thinks he can’t stay quiet about how he feels any longer. He hadn’t trusted his instincts about Tiberius but they’re screaming at him now that he can trust Steve and he wants to.

Yes, he thinks it’s time.

“Just a mistake,” he tells the old innkeeper. “It’s been fixed.”

Mister Kirby eyes him for a long moment. Tony thinks he might see some of that steel he’d glimpsed when the children’s last nanny had come to the inn and he meets his gaze head on. Tiberius will never be a problem again. Eventually, he says, “Glad to hear it.”

“My name is Anthony Edward Stark.”

Steve startles. He hadn’t realized that anyone was left in the dining room with him after supper. He had thought that Tony, finally free from the sling, had gone up to the nursery with the children now that Dr. Banner no longer wants him on the first floor.

“Sorry?” he asks, looking up from the letter he has from Clint in the south.

“My name,” Tony repeats, “is Anthony Edward Stark. Yes, the Starks of the weapons industry. My mother’s maiden name is Carbonell and when I ran away from my parents’ home, I chose to take her name.”

Steve puts down the letter. This sounds like a conversation that he needs to be paying full attention to. “You ran away?” he asks, confused. He had known that Tony was an American society omega and he’d known that he had come from some trouble, gathering from what Natasha and Rhodes said about him, but to run away? That indicated more trouble than he had ever expected. “Why?”

“Because almost two years ago, my father found himself in dire enough financial trouble that he promised me to one Lord Tiberius Stone.” Tony sits down next to him, close enough that Steve can breathe in that intoxicating scent of flowers and oranges that he so dearly loves.

“I know that name,” Steve breathes, brow furrowing.

Tony reaches out to lay his hand on top of Steve’s. He stares down at it for a long time before flipping his hand over and enlacing his fingers through Tony’s, who gasps just a little.

“Tony?” he prompts lowly when the omega doesn’t seem like he’s going to keep going.

The omega nods, visibly steeling himself before he continues, “You know him because he is notoriously cruel. He’d gathered quite the reputation even before I met him. But when I met him, he was nothing but kind and gentle. He followed all the courtship rituals and treated me nicely. I thought it must have been an exaggeration.”

“But it wasn’t,” Steve finishes, fury gathering in him at the thought of anyone daring to hurt Tony.

Tony shakes his head. “No. He duped us all. I found out at our engagement party.”

“Did he hurt you?” When Tony doesn’t respond, he asks again, harsher, “Tony, did he hurt you?”

“No. It was—I had another alpha once, the same story I suppose. I came across them talking about what he planned to do to me once he had access to my father’s business, how he planned to make me…disappear, as he put it. ‘No one cares what happens to a bonded omega,’” he says bitterly and Steve has to bite back the vitriol he wants to spew at Stone. “I had already broken one engagement; to break another, with the wedding so close, I might have ruined my family and I couldn’t do that to them. So I ran. Only three people knew I was going—my butler and his wife and my closest friend. I made my way across Europe and—”

“—and found yourself in Dacia, which isn’t on most maps.”

“I thought I was safe,” Tony whispers.

And Steve understands now what exactly Tony is trying to tell him. He hadn’t heard it before but now he does. “Until he found you last month,” he says.

Tony nods miserably. “I put your children in danger. Your Majesty, I’m so sorry.”

No,” Steve says sharply, surprising even himself with his vehemence. Tony jumps and starts to pull his hand away but Steve holds onto it tightly. “It wasn’t your fault. I wish you would have told us so that we could have protected you better—and my children—but it wasn’t your fault he chased you across two continents.”

“I should have known—”

“How? Are you a mind reader? A fortune teller, maybe? Tony, you couldn’t have possibly known.” He finds it in himself to be brave enough to lean forward to brush a kiss across Tony’s forehead. “I’m honored that you trust me with your secret.”

Tony looks up at him, eyes wide and wondrous. “Steve,” he whispers, lips parted, and Steve can’t help but think about what a mistake it was to let Tony leave the room that night, when he could have drawn him back to his bed, to his side. He thinks about what he’d realized while chasing after Tony and Morgan that day, about how scared he had been that he would lose both of them, that the last time he had truly spoken with Tony had been a night of secret identities and ended in a fight.

He’s just starting to lean forward again, Tony moving to meet him, when Rhodey interrupts, “Tony.”

They both jump apart and maybe that’s for the better, Steve thinks, because he doesn’t know if he could have stopped—and they need to talk things over. They need to come together with complete honesty between each other, no more regrets and no more sadness.

Rhodey doesn’t bother apologizing for the interruption. Instead, he just looks at Tony and continues, “Morgan wants a bedtime story.”

Tony sighs and stands before looking down at Steve. “We’ll talk later?” he offers, sounding hopeful.

Steve nods eagerly, eyes following Tony as he leaves the room. Rhodey stands to let him pass and then glares at Steve, cutting his eyes between him and Tony in a very obvious message. He nods again: message received.

Unfortunately, they don’t get a chance to talk again. With less than a week before Christmas, they’re both swept up into the preparations. The tree arrives the day before Christmas Eve and Steve, Tony, and the children spend nearly all day decorating it. Steve has no idea where the loggers found the tree but it’s large enough to fit comfortably in the ballroom and nowhere else.

Tony, when he took the children into town, had spent some of his budget on the lovely little baubles that have become so popular to hang on Christmas trees in America and are slowly spreading across Europe. They still hadn’t reached Dacia when Peggy had died so they’re new to Steve, who still has plenty of homemade decorations from Harley, Peter, and Sarah’s childhoods to hang on the tree, along with the portal de Belén his father carved decades ago.

He nestles that one in between two branches so that it overlooks the room. It had always gone on a table in the entry hall when he had been younger as Christmas trees were new to the country at the time and his parents hadn’t gotten one until he was already an adult. He hadn’t put it out in recent years, even when Peggy had still been alive, too lost in the memories of his parents to feel anything but sadness when he looked at it but he’s ready now. And when Harley asks him what it is because he doesn’t remember it from his childhood, he smiles fondly at the set and the memories it holds and tells him all about the tradition.

For all that he keeps watching his children though, it’s Tony that his gaze keeps falling on: Tony who lifts up Morgan onto his hip so she can hang decorations on some of the higher branches, who laughs and twirls around the ballroom with Peter when he starts singing carols, who tells Harley stories about his childhood Christmases in New York, and who sits down beside Sarah when he’s tired and compliments her on her drawing of the family decorating the tree. He’s absolutely lovely, the candlelight gleaming gold in his chestnut curls, his eyes lighting up every time Morgan tells him a joke.

He loves him, absolutely adores him, and the very thought of Tony leaving them again, even at a distant time in the future, terrifies him. Other than the children, other than his feelings for Steve—and he’s already messed up there—there’s nothing truly holding him here. He can go home now, back to his family and friends and everything that’s familiar. Steve wouldn’t even blame him if he wanted to. If he had been in Tony’s place, even with how he felt about the children, he wouldn’t hesitate to take the chance to go home.

There’s only one thing that Steve can think of that’s really keeping Tony here and that’s, well, that’s how he must feel about Steve. Tony had told him that night that he loves him. He doesn’t know if that’s still true, though he certainly hopes it is—and if it is, then he knows what he has to do.

No more of this waiting around. Damn tradition to hell, it is time to seize this new chance by the horns. He knows better than most how short life can be and he refuses to waste his second chance with Tony.

Christmas morning dawns bright and earlier than usual because Morgan rushes into his bedroom and throws herself across his stomach, shrieking, “It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!”

Tony has to remind himself that Morgan has never gotten to celebrate Christmas before and therefore it’s inappropriate to ask her to get off his stomach and go back to bed for another—he glances out the window at the still dark sky— another few hours.

“Good morning, Miss Morgan,” he asks, wrapping his good arm around her as he sits up so that he doesn’t dislodge her and throw her off the bed…not that he’s ever done that before. “And how are you on this fine morning?”

“It’s Christmas,” she says again.

“So I heard. Are your brothers and sister up yet?”

“Yes. The boys wanted to get our stockings but Sarah said we have to wait for you so I thought we could wake you up and then open them.”

Yeah, that sounds like them.

He yawns sleepily, running his hand through his hair. “Well, do you think you could wait a few more minutes so I can get dressed?” he asks. “And then we’ll go through the stockings together.”

She thinks about it and then firmly nods. “We can wait.”

“Thank you,” he says drily and shoos her out the door so he can get dressed in peace. He sighs regretfully, thinking of the nice dream he’d been having when Morgan jumped on him as he looks out the window again, this time at the falling snow. Snow had come late this year to Dacia, according to Rhodey, who had told him that the first snowfall is usually in late November but hadn’t come this year until just last week. He wonders if he can convince the children to go out and play in the snow for a few minutes after they open their stockings so they can let Steve sleep in longer.

He finishes washing his face and meanders out to the nursery where the children are impatiently waiting by the fireplace. He spots seven stockings hanging on the mantle, presumably hung there by the maid sometime late last night, and he ducks his head out into the hallway to say, “Rhodey? Natasha? There are stockings in here for the both of you if you want to come in.”

Interestingly, while Natasha looks surprised, Rhodey does not and he wonders if there’s something that Rhodey knows that the rest of them do not.

“Is there something going on that I want to know about?” he whispers to Rhodey as he walks past him.

“Pepper got ahold of Natasha’s stocking last night before it was delivered.”


Well, isn’t that exciting?

He settles in the rocking chair, barely able to contain his excitement, and Morgan settles on top of him, barely able to contain hers , and Natasha picks stockings down from the mantle to pass to each child and then to Tony and Rhodey, keeping one for herself. Tony is just getting ready to tell the children they can finally open their stocking when there’s a knock on the door.

“May I join you?” Steve asks through the door.

“Daddy!” Morgan shrieks and leaps up from Tony’s lap to run for the door, her siblings not far behind her. They crowd around him, eagerly telling him about how amazing their Christmas has been already, even though they’ve done nothing yet except wake Tony up and knock the wind out of him. Steve listens, eyes bright and a shining smile on his face. Tony can’t help but remember what the castle—what this family—had been like when he first arrived, the quiet, the sadness that seemed like it had seeped into the very stones of the castle. Looking at them now, seeing how different they are now, if he hadn’t been here for the change, he doubts he would have recognized them as the same family.

He starts to get up, offering his chair to Steve instead but the king waves him off. “I’ll sit on the floor,” Steve says cheerfully and promptly plops himself down on the rug in front of Tony’s chair. Morgan decides to sit in his lap instead and Tony is left staring down at the top of Steve’s head, wondering what changed in the last month to make Steve suddenly so much friendlier after the awkwardness following Halloween.

Because things have changed. Steve has changed, almost like he’s changed his mind about them but—but Tony refuses to believe that. He can’t get his hopes up again only to have them dashed to pieces when Steve tells him again that they can’t be together.

He won’t do that to himself.

But then Steve leans back so that his head is resting against Tony’s knees and he can’t stop the way his heart leaps. There’s hope building in him whether he wants it or not. When Steve tilts his head back even further so he can give Tony a small smile, he suddenly isn’t so sure that he doesn’t want that hope to build.

The morning passes quickly enough, with the children exclaiming over their satsumas and little treats in their stockings, the small mechanical gifts Tony had crafted for them during his long weeks in bed, and the socks that Rhodey had knitted for them during his late-night watches. Natasha reaches into hers and pulls out a letter with handwriting that Tony recognizes as belonging to Pepper. She reads through the letter, gives them all a stunning smile, and promptly excuses herself.

“What…?” Steve starts to wonder.

Tony leans down to whisper in his ear, “It was from Pepper.”

Steve chuckles. “I see.”

As the morning drags on towards lunch, the children drag them all outside for a snowball fight—though Sarah much prefers sitting off to the side with her father and helping him build a snowman. After Harley gets nearly an entire armload’s worth of snow dumped down the back of his shirt by Peter, Tony calls a halt to the snowball fight and they all end up helping Sarah with an entire snowman family, complete with four children, two apparent guards, and two snowmen holding hands together.

“Your father and mother?” Tony guesses as Sarah shows them to him.

She gives him a funny look. “No, it’s Father and you.” Then she points at Peter making a snow angel not far away. “That’s Mama.”

She wanders off to go judge Peter’s snow angel and Tony steals a glance at Steve, who is certainly close enough to hear what Sarah had just said, and wonders if it will offend him. But Steve just gives him a warm look before turning away to call the children back inside for a light lunch and then finally into the ballroom for presents.

The children go running for the tree but Tony takes a moment to look around the glittering ballroom, now draped in crystals shining rainbows on the walls and in garlands dipped in wax and some sort of white powder to make them look like freshly fallen snow. It’s a beautiful effect and Tony wishes he knew what it was made with so he could write home to his mama about it for her party next year so she can impress all the other society omegas back home.

The afternoon passes just as quickly as the morning did. The kids loudly coo over their presents, giving hugs to whichever of the adults or siblings had gotten it for them. Morgan, with her miniscule allowance, made them all handmade cards. Tony’s card says, I’m glad you and Daddy love each other. He blushes when he sees it and tucks it away to closely look at later. At some point, Natasha and Pepper join them, hand in hand and laughing softly about something private between the two of them. Peter pouts at that and wants to be let in on the joke until Sarah distracts him with his new wooden train set.

And through it all, Steve is right next to him, helping Tony stand when he needs to get something for Morgan and to sit when he gets tired, smiling softly at him whenever there’s a free moment, even going so far as to pick up his hand at one point and gently rub his thumb over the back of it, making Tony shiver.

He wants to say that he hates the attention but he doesn’t. He loves it, craves it even, and it just proves Tony needs to go back to New York after the holidays. He can’t keep doing this, can’t keep letting Steve keep him dangling—and he doubts that Steve even really knows what he’s doing. Steve isn’t the kind of person to treat anyone like this on purpose, this back and forth, hot and cold, sort of game. But Tony feels like it’s a game anyway and for that, he’s convinced that he needs to leave. He stayed for Christmas, that was all that was asked of him. Shouldn’t that be enough?

The day lengthens into evening and Steve is still there being just as affectionate as he has been for the last few days. When they’re called into the dining room for dinner and Steve helps Tony rise with a hand on the small of his back, Tony decides that he can’t take it anymore. He leans over to Steve as the children trail out of the room, reluctant to leave their new toys behind, and says quietly, “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

Steve gives him a confused look but nods and when Rhodey pauses at the grand double doors to wait for them, he waves him on with a reassuring, “It’s alright, Jim. Go make sure the children don’t make themselves sick with treats.”

Then they’re finally left alone.

Steve turns to face him fully, hands coming up to hold onto Tony’s. “Is everything okay?” he asks and he sounds so earnest, so sincere, that Tony’s breath catches on a sob. Steve’s eyes turn frantic, his grip tightening. “Tony? Is something wrong?”

“What is this, Steve?”

This clearly wasn’t what Steve was expecting him to ask because he frowns. “This what?”

This.” Tony can’t gesture between them with Steve holding his hands but Steve must understand if the way his frown deepens means anything. “Steve, what are you doing? You told me that there couldn’t be anything between us. Don’t try to deny it, I was there, I remember it.”

“I’m not denying it,” Steve says quietly.

“Then what is going on here? Because if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that what you’ve been doing these last few weeks is—” He stops because he doesn’t think he can bear to speak the words out loud and have Steve laugh at him: silly omega, why would you think I’m courting you?

Steve is shaking his head and Tony trembles, certain that the alpha has somehow heard what he was thinking anyway. But then Steve says ruefully, “Bucky keeps telling me I should use my words.”

“About what?”

“I was going to tell you,” Steve continues like Tony hadn’t said anything. “I just needed to find the right words. I hoped my actions would be enough in the meantime but I hadn’t realized how much they must have upset you, sweetheart.”

Tony shakes again but this time for a different reason. “Sweetheart?” he whispers, barely breathing the words in case Steve realizes what he’d just said.

Steve’s face falls but before Tony can get too worried about that, he murmurs, “I really hurt you, didn’t I?” He drops one of Tony’s hands to reach out and cup his cheek. Tony’s now-free hand loosely encircles his wrist. “You were right. I should never have let you leave that night. I—I as good as told you I love you and you did tell me. But I still told you it didn’t matter.”

“You told me I wasn’t good enough for you,” Tony says, so soft even he almost doesn’t hear it.

He isn’t expecting Steve’s face to go slack with shock and dismay. “Tony, I didn’t—”

“You did. You told me you were the king and I was common-born and—”

“And the law would never allow me to marry a commoner,” Steve finishes.

“No,” Tony starts to say and then stops. “I’m sorry, what?

“You thought you weren’t good enough for me?” Steve says, sounding horrified. Every inch of his face is lined in distress, his scent stinking with it. “Sweetheart, not at all. It was always because of the law.” Then he hesitates and shakes his head. “No, that’s not entirely true. I know how much power I have and I never wanted you to feel like you were...were obligated to love me. And I was terrified, of what you meant to me and how you turned my entire life upside down, scared of what it would mean to move past my grief.”

“I don’t want to take the place of Queen Margaret,” Tony immediately says. He’s not a replacement for anyone, no matter how much Steve might mean to him.

“And you aren’t. I love you both in very different ways. Peggy—she was someone familiar. Falling in love with her was as easy as breathing. It felt inevitable. You—” He stops, sliding his hand from Tony’s cheek to the back of his head and pulling him forward to rest their foreheads together. “You crashed into my life, had me wondering which direction was up. You challenge me, to be better, to be more. It’s hard for me to admit sometimes that I don’t always know what’s right but you force me to see that what I’m doing is wrong. Loving you isn’t easy at all.” He takes a deep, steadying breath and Tony can understand that. It feels like his entire world is crashing down around him, everything that he knew, everything he had convinced himself, is turning on its head. “It’s not easy but it’s as inevitable as loving Peggy was. This is where I’m supposed to be, here, with you, and I should never have let the law tell me I couldn’t love you.”

“Oh,” Tony breathes out. He can feel the tears prickling at the edges of his eyes because this? This is more than he had ever dreamed he could have. And he knows that Steve sees them because he tilts his head down just enough to kiss the corners of his eyes, kissing the salt and the wet and the overwhelming emotion.

“Tony,” Steve says softly as he rests his forehead against Tony’s again, the words feathering across his lips. “Tony, let me love you the way you should be, the way I should have done on Halloween.”

And maybe Tony should think about this more. Maybe he should make Steve wait, should consider how much last month had hurt, but he’s been hurt enough and he doesn’t want to wait when he knows what he wants.

“I love you too,” he says instead. He wraps his arm around Steve’s waist, tugging him just that little bit closer to bring their bodies in line with each other. “I love you and I’m suddenly wishing that I were better at pretty speeches because your words were beautiful. But I’m not. What I am is honest and so you can believe me when I tell you that I love you, I adore you—”

He gets cut off when Steve suddenly kisses him. Soft and sweet and it’s both like how Grant had kissed him and not like that at all because this is so much better; this is Steve kissing him, holding him like he’s something precious, something loved. So Tony melts into his arms and kisses him back, their hands holding onto each other, Tony’s arm around Steve’s waist and Steve’s other hand cupping his neck, stroking over his bonding gland.

Steve is careful with him, gentle even as he licks Tony’s lips open and dips his tongue inside for the briefest of moments before retreating. Tony chases him, mimicking Steve’s motions until he has Steve’s taste memorized: sugar and oranges and peppermint tea. Steve draws away, just long enough for them both to draw a breath, and then comes back for another kiss and another and another. Tony feels drugged and consumed all at once.

And then Steve takes that wonderful mouth away though he doesn’t go far. “We should go to dinner,” he whispers. Tony slowly blinks his eyes open, not sure when he had closed them. “Right? We should—”

“Or,” he interrupts, “you could take me upstairs, to your room, and make love to me the way you wish you had that night.”

Steve stares at him for a long time, long enough that Tony starts to wonder if he’s being too forward. He starts to fidget, thinks about apologizing and taking it back, telling him they can go to dinner, it’s fine. But then Steve bends down, sliding one hand behind his back and the other behind his knees in order to pick him up and cradle him to his chest. He clutches onto Steve’s neck, surprised by the movement.

“Did I scare you?” Steve asks. He sounds amused.

Tony uses his grip on Steve’s neck to tug his head down and kiss him again. “Only a little startled, my love,” he murmurs.

Steve’s smile could rival the brightness of a thousand suns.

Oh but Tony is lovely, lovely in a way that Edward could never have been, because Tony is his. Steve sets him on his feet in his bedroom, slowly undresses him, taking the time to leave kisses across every inch of skin that he uncovers. And Tony, spirited, wonderful Tony, moans for him and holds his head to his chest as Steve worries his nipples between his teeth. It’s so much better than their last night together.

Here, he can take his time with Tony, smell the way their scents intertwine and come together in a startlingly perfect duet, find the secret sensitive places on his body that he hadn’t had the chance to discover last time. And he does. As soon as the last of Tony’s clothes drops to the floor, Steve herds him back to the bed, where he sprawls him out across the pillows. He takes in the sight for a moment, dragging his gaze down Tony’s perfect body, small and lithe and so perfectly tempting.

“Are you going to undress for me, my king?” Tony asks coyly, arching an eyebrow.

Steve groans at the thought of Tony calling him that in the heat of their passion and begins working at the buttons of his shirt. It slides down his arms and falls to the floor, unheeded by either Steve or Tony. Tony’s eyes have gone dark as he lifts himself up to his elbows and then sits up all the way. He crawls to the end of the bed and places his hands around Steve’s hips to pull him in.

Like this, Tony’s curls just barely brush the bottom of Steve’s jaw as he bends his head to feather kisses across his collarbone.

“Tony,” Steve whispers, hands stalling on his trousers before he can push them down. Tony peers up at him through his lashes as he continues kissing his way down Steve’s chest. He laps around Steve’s right nipple, fingers coming up to play with the other. Steve groans again and lets his hands sink into Tony’s hair, not forcing, just…guiding a little, helping Tony figure out what he likes.

He had wondered, when he had taken Tony to bed last time, if Tony was inexperienced, an unsurprising trait in society omegas. He wonders that again now because while Tony is certainly enthusiastic in his ministrations to Steve’s chest, there’s something delightfully innocent about it. He doesn’t want to ask though, not when it might run the risk of making Tony self-conscious.

So instead he lets Tony leave kisses across his chest until his sensitive nipples can’t take it anymore and his fingers are tightening in Tony’s hair, soft whines escaping his mouth every time Tony’s silky hair brushes his chest.

“Tony,” he pants, using his grip on his hair to pull him off just a little. Tony whimpers, trying to get back to kissing him. “Tony, sweetheart, I want to—I’m gonna—”

Tony’s eyes light up. “So you can?” he asks. “Just from that?”

“I’ve never tried,” Steve tells him. “And we’ve got the rest of our lives to find out but you wanted me to make love to you, sweetheart.”

“Can’t help it if you move too slow,” Tony quips but Steve sees the way he quivers.

Steve smooths his thumbs down Tony’s cheeks, lifting his face to give him another sweet kiss. “Let me worship you,” he pleads. He pulls back enough to see Tony’s eyes closed, his mouth parted on a soft gasp. “Beloved, please.”

“Okay. Just—okay.”

Tony lays back down the pillows, watching as Steve finishes what he’d been planning on doing before he’d gotten distracted by his omega. He stokes up the fire, making sure it’ll be nice and warm for a long time, and then he draws the curtains around the bed, hiding them from view, as he climbs up onto the bed, shucking his trousers as he goes. Just as they had last time, Tony’s pupils get a little bit bigger at the sight of Steve’s cock and he can’t resist giving himself one, long stroke.

“You’re just so pleased with yourself, aren’t you?” Tony teases.

Steve laughs, “I didn’t hear you complaining last time.”

“And I’m not this time either.”

He holds out his hands for Steve and Steve gladly goes, sinking into the embrace of his omega. They kiss, long and slow and lazy, as Steve’s hands tease at the sensitive spots he’d learned when he’d undressed Tony earlier, cataloging every gasp and whimper and cry he can get out of him. One day, he decides, one day he’ll take Tony to pieces without ever getting his knot into him. But today, he plucks at Tony’s nipples with his fingers as he kisses down his ribs, lapping at the space between each one.

“Tony,” he asks, worrying a bruise onto his hip. “May I use my mouth on you?”

Tony blinks down at him, eyes hazy with pleasure, and inwardly, Steve preens. He made his omega look like that, made him feel good with nothing more than his fingers and his mouth.

“Yes?” Tony asks but it sounds more like a question than an answer. “If you want—”

He hadn’t used his mouth last time, had used his mouth on Tony’s cock and his fingers in his hole to bring him off twice before pushing inside him. There’s a possibility that Tony doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.

“On your stomach, sweetheart,” he urges, helping Tony to roll over. Tony gives him a quizzical look but he doesn’t complain and Steve thinks he’d better show him before Tony starts asking too many questions.

He can’t resist kissing down Tony’s spine though, every little knob and dip open to his lips, teeth, and tongue. Tony will be lucky if he comes out of this looking any less than mauled. Somehow, Steve can’t find it in himself to be ashamed of that. He sinks his teeth one last time into Tony’s left cheek and then uses his hand to pull his cheeks apart, revealing his already slick hole, pink and pretty and just waiting for Steve’s claim.

He bends down and licks him once, pressing the flat of his tongue against Tony’s hole, and then he sits back and waits. It takes Tony a moment to realize what he’d just done and then he cries out, “Oh!” and shoves back into Steve’s hands.

Steve smiles smugly and gets to work, worshipping Tony’s hole with his mouth. He licks his slick from him, sweeter than Peggy had ever been, rolls the taste around his mouth, and swallows. “Like honey,” he mutters, not sure if Tony can hear him over his nonstop moans. When Tony doesn’t say anything, he stiffens his tongue into a point and drives it into him.

Tony wails.

Steve pulls two orgasms out of him, the first solely on his tongue, the second dragged out of him a little later after Steve gets his fingers inside him and spreads him. Tony loosens beautifully for him, slick and hot and ready, and Steve ends up fingering him long after Tony’s babbles for him to get inside him have long since dissolved into incoherent moans.

It’s only after Tony has come the second time, cock spilling across the sheets, that Steve pulls his fingers out, wipes them on the sheets, and says, “On your back, my love. I want to see your face.”

Tony moans again but obediently rolls back over onto his back. Well, sort of. He kind of flops, worn out from his two orgasms, but he does manage it eventually. He holds his hands out for Steve and Steve gladly sinks into his arms for another kiss and a second and a third until he’s lost count.

“Inside me,” Tony tells him eventually. “Steve, my love, my king , let me have your knot.”

Steve whines at the thought. He hadn’t gotten to have this during their last night. He’d knotted his hand instead of Tony, far more unsatisfying but potentially safer. But now Tony is his, he gets to keep him, and they’ll make love any way that they want.

He hitches Tony’s legs up around his waist and guides his cock to Tony’s hole, still wet and open. Tony’s eyelashes flutter at the first push and Steve himself grunts his pleasure as he sinks inside him, the glide easy through Tony’s slick even though the omega is tight around his cock. When he’s as far in as he can go, all of his cock in Tony’s body, he stops to let Tony adjust, asking, “Does it hurt?”

Tony opens his eyes, dreamy and unfocused. “No,” he replies airily. “It’s perfect.

And that—well, that gets Steve moving, a slow, rocking motion that rolls the head of his cock against Tony’s prostate, making him yelp and arch up into Steve’s thrusts. He angles his hips, making sure to hit that spot on every one of his thrusts. This is as much about Tony as it is about him and even though Tony has already come twice, Steve will be damned if he can’t get Tony to come on his knot.

Pleasure is building in his stomach, at the base of his cock where his knot is beginning to swell, butting up against Tony’s hole with every thrust. His hips are moving faster, rabbiting into Tony with a slick sound that echoes around the bed. He can feel Tony’s nails scoring small lines into his back, the sharp sting of pain bringing him back long enough to pant, “I’m close. Tony, sweetheart—”

“Me too,” Tony sobs. “Steve—”

“Can I knot you?” he asks. Tony had already told him once but he has to check, has to make sure that Tony knows just how big he is.

Tony smiles sweetly up at him like he knows that Steve is worried about him, leans up to kiss him one last time, and sighs, “Make me yours.”

And that’s it. Steve’s knot pops in, swelling to its full size as it locks into place. Tony cries out as he comes for the third time and Steve—Steve buries his face in Tony’s neck as he sobs through his orgasm, pleasure washing over him in overwhelming waves when Tony’s hole clamps down on his knot.

It takes him a long time to come down from his high, to realize that Tony is stroking through his hair, crooning softly to him. Steve takes a deep breath, inhaling the scent of content and happy omega, reassuring himself that Tony is okay, he wasn’t hurt at any point.

“C’mere,” he mutters, getting his hand under Tony’s back so he can roll them.

“Oh!” Tony gasps, wriggling a little on his cock to get comfortable now that he’s sitting on it. Steve chokes out another groan at the way it makes Tony’s hole shift in pleasurable ways around his knot and then another when Tony puts a hand to his belly like he can feel how much Steve has filled him.

Eventually, Tony stops his movements and lays down, draping himself across Steve’s chest. “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” he asks.

Steve gapes for a moment but then he realizes that Tony is smiling cheekily at him and he laughs. “Incredible,” he says honestly.

Tony hums happily, wiggling just a little bit more and giggling when it makes Steve’s stomach convulse. “My king,” he says softly. “I love you.”

“As I love you,” Steve replies. Tony’s eyes go a bit brighter, his scent a little sweeter, enough so that he resolves to tell him how much he loves him as often as he can if it keeps Tony looking like that.

Tony’s worth it.

Chapter Text

January 1, 1869


They make the decision together that they’re going to tell the children about their new and budding relationship. It’s an easy decision, born out of six straight days of staying in Steve’s chambers, getting dressed only when they were fresh out of the bath and too cold to dare staying naked. And, as Steve had put it, “I doubt we’d be able to hide something like this and nor do I want to.”

Tony had kissed him for that, hard and loving and wonderful.

Steve blushes now at the memory. A small, warm hand tucks itself into his and Tony asks, “What are you thinking about that has you turning such a delightful shade?”

“You,” he says honestly, tickled pink when Tony turns his own shade of red.

Imagining that he’ll be able to feel the warmth of his blush, he bends down and kisses Tony’s cheek, lingering on the soft skin. Tony, he knows, is thinking about growing out a beard now that he’ll become part of the royal family because he thinks it will make him look more distinguished. Steve isn’t too certain how that’ll work out for him considering most male omegas aren’t able to grow one but if that’s what Tony wants to do, then he’ll support him no matter what.

“Are you ready?” he asks, raising their clasped hands to his lips so he can kiss the back of Tony’s hand.

Tony smiles up at him and says, “Of course.”

They push open the door to the nursery. It takes a moment for the children, caught up in a game with Natasha as they are, to notice them but when they do, a hush falls over the room. Then Peter, darling Peter, catches sight of their hands and shouts excitedly, “You’re getting married?”

May 29, 1869


Tony comes downstairs that morning, talking with Pepper about the children’s new tutor. They’ll be needing one of course, now that Tony and Steve are courting. He hasn’t officially moved into Steve’s bedroom; propriety demands that they wait until their marriage in December but he has moved into the suite next to Steve’s and he spends his nights in Steve’s bed more often than not. He still teaches the children during the day but since he no longer lives in the nursery and Rhodey has gone with him, the children only have Natasha and a new guard they don’t particularly like—though he thinks their dislike is simply because he’s not Tony or Rhodey—looking after them.

He left Steve upstairs, discussing something with Clint and Bucky that he technically isn’t supposed to know about but knows perfectly well Steve will tell him all about it later tonight. They trust each other. There’s no need to hide any secrets from each other, whether they be state or otherwise.

“Has Natasha gotten the children up yet?” he asks Pepper as they enter the dining room.

“A few minutes ago,” Pepper confirms.

“And have you heard back from anyone about interviews? I want the children to be as used to their new tutor as possible by the time we get to December.” He’s been so consumed with wedding preparations that he barely knows whether he’s coming or going these days and he doesn’t want the children to get lost in the shuffle. They deserve better than that after all these years.

“Some, not all,” Pepper says, giving him a conspiratorial smile. “The children’s reputation has spread and some people are hesitant about taking the position.”

Tony laughs. “Typical,” he replies and resolves himself to tease Natasha about her role in the children’s antics. The children themselves, he’ll never tease. They were, after all, grieving their mother but Natasha is fair game.

He nods politely at the five people sitting around the table, mind already moving onto other things. Steve has been inviting more and more people to stay at the castle over the last five months, opening up his home to visiting royals and nobility the way he used to when Queen Margaret had still been alive. Fortunately, Tony is still uncrowned and so he hasn’t been expected to entertain them, for which he is exceedingly grateful. He’s busy enough with his own matters, he doesn’t want to have to add their guests’ concerns.

Then a stern male voice says, “Anthony Edward Stark, is that any way to greet your mother?”

Tony’s head snaps up and he turns. There they are: Jan, Ana and Edwin Jarvis, and his parents.

“You’re here!” he shrieks and throws himself into Jan’s arms as he bursts into tears.

She’s crying as well as she picks him up and spins him around. “You’re okay,” she sobs. “We were so worried when he left New York and we couldn’t find you and then the king wrote to us and—”

“Let him breathe, Miss Van Dyne,” Jarvis says gently, prying the two of them apart. “Let Tony say hello to his family.”

His mother is just as overtaken by emotion as he is and even his father has tears in his eyes as he hugs the both of them, sobbing his apologies and begging their forgiveness for the way he left.

“No, we’re sorry,” his father says, hugging him tightly, “that you ever felt you had to leave that way, that you didn’t think you could tell us.”

“I didn’t want to ruin your reputation,” he says and his mother shakes her head.

“You are far more important than our reputation,” she tells him. He hiccups out a little, “Mama,” as he falls back into her arms.

“So is this a good birthday present then?” Steve asks from somewhere behind him.

Tony turns from where he’s giving the Jarvises their hugs and crosses the room in three steps to give Steve a loud, smacking kiss. “This is perfect, my love.”

Steve brushes his hair away from his forehead, giving it a little kiss when he’s done. “I’m glad, sweetheart. Happy birthday.”

Tony frowns. “It is my birthday, isn’t it,” he muses. He’d quite forgotten in all the hustle. Steve gives him an amused look, kisses him again, and goes to introduce himself to Tony’s family, leaving him alone with Jan, who drags him aside.

“We’re here to help with the wedding preparations too,” she tells him. “Your mother thought you might be feeling a little overwhelmed.”

“Oh thank heavens,” he says gratefully. “I don’t know how anyone does this alone.”

She giggles and glances at Steve gravely bowing over Maria’s hand. “So you’re marrying a king,” she says softly. “Tell me Tony, is he everything we dreamed of when we were children?”

Tony thinks of this castle and this family, about playing music in the late hours of the night and running through the gardens chasing butterflies with Morgan as Harley and Peter wrestle in the distance and Sarah sketches the whole scene, about Steve carrying him to bed and loving him thoroughly, passionately as Tony could only ever imagine, and he smiles.

“More than.”

December 24, 1869


They had married that morning in a small ceremony, filled with their friends and family and no one else. They’d possibly snubbed a few royals by not sending them invitations but, to be completely honest, Dacia was in such good relations with their neighboring countries anyway that Steve isn’t terribly worried about it. Besides, they had all been given invitations to Tony’s coronation in the evening anyway so it isn’t as much of a snub as it could have been.

Tony had asked him when they started preparations if they wanted to have a big wedding but Steve had done that already with Peggy and when he had asked if Tony had wanted one, the omega had sounded so reluctant that Steve had ruled for a smaller ceremony than etiquette dictated.

“I feel like it’s expected of us,” Tony had pointed out.

“But it’s our wedding,” Steve had argued, “and we’ll celebrate it how we want.”

Tony had been resplendent, Steve remembers and goes faint at the thought. He’d gone full into his American culture in a cream ball gown, embroidered with tens of thousands of tiny seed pearls across the bodice and skirt, the sleeves made out of delicate lace that Steve had wanted to paw off of him. It had taken the dressmakers nearly eight months to make it and he’s certain that it will only take them a few minutes tonight to ruin it.

He waits now at the front of the church as Tony moves down the aisle toward him, still in his wedding dress though it’s hours later because he had insisted on being allowed to wear it for his coronation. At the sight of him, Steve is suddenly glad that he had agreed to Tony’s stipulation. He wants the entire world to see how beautiful his omega—his for good now—looks in his wedding dress.

In a long-standing Dacian tradition, Tony’s entrance is announced by a single female soloist singing in a language that hasn’t been spoken by anyone in over two hundred years as they adopted their neighbors’ languages but lives on in their songs. As he proceeds down the aisle, the soloist fades out into the chanting of a hundred men, wishing him luck and fortune and longevity, which in turn becomes the angelic singing of a choir nearly two hundred strong, wishing him happiness and love, and above it all, the voice of the soloist soars, announcing that the queen is coming into his reign.

Tony reaches him, hand reaching out for Steve’s and he gladly takes it, soothingly rubbing his thumb over the inside of Tony’s wrist.

“You look beautiful,” he whispers and Tony practically glows with the compliment.

Steve turns them, presenting him to their people. “This is my chosen queen,” he announces. “Anthony Edward Stark, first of his line, my beloved. If there is any here who would protest my decision, let them speak now.”

He sees the way Tony trembles just a little at the question and he knows that, even now, Tony sometimes still doubts his worthiness of this position. Steve doesn’t doubt him though. He hasn’t doubted him since the moment Tony yelled at him on that first night. He knows of none more capable than the man he had once known as Anthony Carbonell.

“Anthony Stark, are you prepared and willing to take the Oath?” Steve asks.

Tony lifts his chin stubbornly, a spark of fire in his doe-brown eyes. “I am willing,” he says, calm and sure.

“Kneel before me.”

Tony lowers himself and Steve has to suppress a shudder at the other memories of his pretty Tony on his knees. “Will you solemnly promise and swear to assist your king in the governance of the peoples of Dacia and all its possessions and territories according to their respective laws and customs?” he asks.

“I solemnly promise so to do.”

“Will you to your power assist your king to cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?”

“I will.”

“Will you promise yourself to the power of your king, to submit when expected, to assist when required, to counsel when needed?”

Tony raises a cheeky eyebrow, making Steve bite back a smile as he knows perfectly well that Tony submits to no one but himself, but he still says, “All this I promise to do. The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep.”

Harley steps forward, carrying the queen’s crown, last worn by Peggy, a beautiful golden coronet studded with rubies. He sees Tony’s gaze fall on it and for the briefest of moments, Steve is terrified that Tony will think this is too much of a legacy for him to fill even though he knows that there is no such thing. Then Tony bows his head, gracefully waiting for Steve.

“I name you my queen,” Steve intones, removing the crown from its velvet cushion to place upon Tony’s head. It settles there amongst his curls as though it was made for him, an absolutely perfect fit.

He helps Tony to rise, turning him again to face their people, watching the two of them with rapt stares. “I present to you Queen Anthony Stark,” he proclaims. “Long live Queen Anthony, omega to King Steven I.”

Even knowing how Tony has made himself beloved among the people, it surprises him the tumultuous applause that the announcement receives. He swears it could lift the rafters from the church and he smiles proudly, wrapping his arm around Tony’s waist and kissing his cheek, at which the noise only grows louder.

“Your people, my love,” he whispers.

December 25, 1869


Steve wakes on his side, Tony curled up in front of him, his cock stiffening where it’s still buried inside Tony. He huffs out a soft laugh. This is a first: he’s never fallen asleep inside his omega before, either Peggy or Tony. He reaches down between them, thumbing a little bit at Tony’s hole stretched around his cock. It’s a little puffy, a little swollen, thoroughly used and he hums contentedly. Perhaps he’ll get down there later, soothe away the sting with his tongue. Tony seems to like it when he uses it.

“You’re so pleased with yourself,” Tony says sleepily.

He laughs and kisses Tony’s neck where it meets his shoulder. “And shouldn’t I be?” he asks. “How are you feeling this morning, my love?”

Tony yawns and stretches, trilling a little as Steve’s cock slips out of him. “Almost thoroughly claimed.”

Steve frowns. “Almost?” he asks. He reaches over and grabs Tony’s chin, gently turning him to face him. Tony looks relaxed, sleep-hazy, and so lovely that Steve can’t resist—and doesn’t want to—giving him a quick peck on the lips, mindful of their sleep breath.

Tony’s eyes flutter closed and he smiles lazily, looking a little like the cat that got the cream. “We forgot something,” he says.

“Forgot something?”

He taps the side of his neck, just over his bonding gland.


Oops. They had forgotten that, hadn’t they?

“We could fix that now,” he suggests.

Tony’s eyes slowly open again and if his smile before was sleekly self-satisfied, it’s positively sinful in its pleasure now. “We could, couldn’t we.” It’s not a question.

He turns his head back into the pillow, bearing the elegant line of his throat, open to the taking. Steve bends his head down, nuzzling at the gland for a bit before he carefully fits his teeth around it and bites.

Pheromones—the taste of oranges and chocolate, honeysuckles and coffee, of them—explode in his mouth as the bond snaps into place, a vague feeling of happiness and contentedness and love resting at the back of his mind that he knows means Tony. He groans and Tony echoes the sound with a soft whine. His cock is rising again, fully stiffening against Tony’s backside. Almost desperately, he reaches his hand around to Tony’s front, finding his cock and stroking it.

It doesn’t take them long, Steve stroking Tony to his completion and rutting in between Tony’s cheeks for his own. What sends him over the edge is a carefully pushed thought, a reminder from the love of his life: I love you, my darling.

June 9, 1871


Dacia doesn’t have a very large coastline. The country is nestled between two larger ones and they only have a little part of the coast bordering the Mediterranean. Still, it’s theirs and when Steve was younger, his family used to go out to the coast every summer. He had taken his older children when they were younger but that too had been one of the things they had all lost when Peggy died. They hadn’t done it the year Tony had been working as the nanny or the year after when he and Steve had been busy with wedding preparations but they had last year and now they’re here again.

Steve stares down the beach at Maria Stark helping Morgan build sandcastles close by. Howard and Edwin are a little further away having what looks to be a serious conversation with Harley. Steve can guess what it’s about: Harley has recently taken up a correspondence with Princess Shuri of Wakanda, a late-presenting omega introduced to Harley at his last birthday ball. Everyone in the castle has been taking bets on when Harley will officially announce his courtship of her. Not far away from the three men, Sarah is having an impromptu knitting lesson with Ana. He’s not sure what she could be possibly learning about knitting on the beach but he’ll support her anyway. Peter is working on…something near the waterfront and Steve has a sudden terrible thought that it’s something designed to explode, a concept that has recently caught Peter’s interest.

He’s not sure what he’ll do if it is supposed to explode, partially because he hates yelling at his son but mostly because if whatever Peter is making explodes, there’s absolutely no way it won’t wake the baby.

“What’s on your mind, darling?” Tony asks, coming up beside him.

Steve glances down at the bundle in Tony’s arms, smiling as the newest addition to the family, one Gwendolyn Maria—affectionately called Gwen—slumbers on. Wrapped in blankets as she is, the most he can see of her is her face and a single tuft of dark brown hair.

“Gwen,” he says. “And Peter.”

Tony looks over at Peter and winces. “Ah well, it’s probably time for her to wake up anyway,” he says philosophically.

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it,” Steve grumbles and Tony laughs.

“Steven! Are you telling me that you only like our baby when she’s asleep?”

“I like her all the time,” Steve argues. “I like her when she’s asleep and when she’s awake, when she’s playing and when she’s staring around at everything, sticking her tongue out like a lizard.”

Tony laughs even harder. “You can’t tell her that! She’ll grow up thinking she’s a lizard and then where will we be?”

“With a lizard, I suppose.”

“You’re dreadful,” Tony says fondly, shaking his head. “Absolutely awful. I can’t take you anywhere. It’s a good thing I love you, who else would put up with you?”

Steve leans over and kisses him, murmuring, “I don’t want anyone else putting up with me. You’re the only one I want.”

Tony is blushing when they part, a sight that never fails to make Steve smile. He presses his lips to each cheek the way he always does when Tony blushes, as though he can feel the heat. He never can but he still likes to imagine it.

“Would you like me to take her?” he offers. “I know you wanted to spend some time with your mother on this trip.”

Tony smiles at him and kisses him again. “No,” he says. “I’m perfectly happy right here with you.”

Right here with him. That sounds nice. He wraps his arms back around his husband, rests his head against the top of Tony’s, and watches his family play.