It’s Wednesday, and the world is not ending, being invaded, or suffering from a catastrophic outbreak of continent-wide weirdness, so Steve arrives his usual ten minutes early for a morning meeting with Coulson. Some of the others poke good-natured fun at his “old-fashioned” approach, but Steve considers the concept of “fashionably late” as oxymoronic as “jumbo shrimp” and “military intelligence”.
Coulson is a man who appreciates punctuality; however, he spends his office-bound days fighting paperwork as deadly as any opponent that’s faced the team, and therefore starts and ends conferences exactly on time. Steve doesn’t mind waiting: a small, well-worn sketchbook fits nicely in the pocket of his civvies, and Darcy enjoys quizzing him on pop culture in between wrangling phone calls for Coulson and triaging the flow of other requests for his attention.
Today, however, her desk is surrounded by other assistants, giggling and admiring something in their midst. Steve stretches to see over the crowd, only to glimpse an expanse of Darcy’s bare skin. He whips around with his cheeks on fire.
“Hey, Steve!” Darcy says with amusement in her voice from somewhere behind him. Steve guesses that hanging out with Clint means that some of his heightened sniper awareness has rubbed off on her, and blushes hotter as he pictures Tony making a lewd comment about other things of Clint rubbing off and on Darcy.
“Shoo, ladies, so I can scandalize Captain America in private.” The circle thins enough that Steve can see Darcy flapping her hands at them. They depart, laughing and waving. “And stop checking out his divine derriere! A long, hard stare at that kind of classy ass is what gossip blogs are for.”
So much for his blush fading anytime soon.
Darcy grins. “Sorry, Steve.”
He sighs, but can‘t fight a small grin. The wicked sparkle in her eye would be a dead giveaway that she’s not sorry at all, if he didn’t already know that she regarded it as her personal mission to wear down his “tender mercies“, as she puts it, a mission that Tony seems to share as well.
“So, dare I ask why you were exposing yourself to your co-workers?” He’s aiming for dry, but it comes out a bit snippy.
“For your information, Captain, I was not exposing myself. I was simply showing off a piece of art that I’ve recently acquired.” She flutters her eyelashes at him like a cartoon coquette. “Would you like to see?”
Steve hesitates. “Maybe?” Since moving into the Avengers’ quarters at Stark Tower, he’s been flashed, mooned, and otherwise shown far too much intimate skin without warning to immediately agree to her query. It’s not that he strictly minds any of the views (though he thinks Thor should wear some damned pants after he showers instead of wandering around naked to air dry), but he’s not comfortable enough yet to return the gesture, and the imbalance violates his sense of fair play.
“Relax! As per the Better Barton Boyfriend clause, I am strongly discouraged from displaying any skin normally covered by a bikini to others without him present.” She winks at him. “Not that I’d let that stop me if you asked nice enough; he’d be totally disappointed in me if I passed that up.”
He winces. “TMI, Darcy.”
She gives him a slow-clap. “Lingo well-played, grasshopper.” Her hands go to the neck of her shirt. “So do you want to see it or not?”
The problem is, he does, because the promise of art will always lure him in, and he can tell how much she wants to show off whatever it is to him. “I’d love to.”
She raises an eyebrow at his reluctance. “Nice pants of fire you’ve got there,” she says, but tugs her shirt down over her shoulder anyway. It takes a second or two for Steve to puzzle out the blur of color tattooed on her shoulder blade.
“A scorpion?” he asks.
She gives him a pinup’s smolder as she looks over her shoulder at him. “It’s kind of a joke from my stay in New Mexico and my quick draw with a taser. We’re both tiny but pack a big sting.”
Steve chuckles. “Thor has been known to boast about your ‘mighty prowess with the fist of lightning’ once the alcohol starts flowing.”
She shrugs, making the scorpion dance and flex on her skin. “What can I say? It’s not easy being this awesome.”
His fingers itch to touch the ink, but he shoves his hands in his pockets and leans in to scrutinize it instead. “I think it’s lovely, but...A scorpion doesn’t normally come in all shades of the rainbow, does it?”
She snorts at him. “Feh. Did you not hear me?” She points to herself. “ Awesome!”
Behind her comes a dry cough. “Miss Lewis? Once you’re done embarrassing Captain Rogers, I’m ready to see him.”
She winks at Steve and lets go of her shirt, smoothing it back into place. “Aye-aye, Bossman Agent Sir.”
Coulson’s eyelid barely twitches, which for anyone else would be an outright eye rolling. “Won’t you please come in?” he says, holding the door wide for Steve. Darcy winks at him and gives him a double finger-gun salute before turning back to her desk.
Leaving the meeting, Steve waves at Darcy, who grimaces and pantomimes a chattering puppet with her hand as she “uh-huh”s her way through a phone call, stopping to scratch at her shoulder. He knows that she’s terrific at her job; people who call expecting Coulson’s dry efficiency, only to encounter her irreverence instead, are occasionally startled into telling her their actual intent so she can weed out the stupider questions and requests. Coulson went so far once as to state that she was second only to JARVIS to vetting idiots. Steve’s seen some of her postings to the internal Avengers complaint forum, “The Moron is Never Grateful”. He doesn’t envy her the job at all.
The image of her tattoo stays with him through the next several days; it brings up memories from the long-ago-but-not-so-far-away part of his life. During the war, he’d gone with the Howling Commandos once to a back-alley tattoo parlor in celebration of a successful mission. But while his men had proudly displayed their new marks, his had washed away, undone by the serum’s fast healing.
He broods about it for a while as he finds himself idly sketching potential designs. Without conscious intent, they seem to turn into pieces symbolic more of his new team than his first one. He doesn‘t think it‘s a question of loyalty; it’s not that he’s replacing one with another. He fumbles for an explanation in his own head, and realizes that it feels like a connection, a bridge, for a need that found him as much as he found it. A family, one generation giving way to another.
The design under his pencil suddenly comes together; it feels as right as the weight of the shield on his arm.
He asks Pepper to help him find a quality establishment. It’s not that he needs to worry about infection, but he doesn’t want to take chances with the result. He especially doesn’t want it to become a media circus or a group event with the team; both Pepper’s discretion and her knowledge of the local area businesses are legendary and prove well-deserved.
Steve is used to the technology of this brave new world surprising him. Music, telephones, bombs: it seems everything has become smaller and smarter. After his first few unexpected discoveries, he assumes that all tools have kept the same frantic pace of improvement. Unfortunately, even with the advances in tattooing, his visit to the chosen parlor has the same result as before; by the time he arrives back to his quarters, the ink has been pushed out of his pores to be soaked up by the bandage. No trace remains on his skin.
He’d like to be able to let it go, to count it as one more entry in the thankfully short list of drawbacks to his enhanced state. But the thought nags at him, the design an accusing weight in his sketch book. He knows what - who - the next step is, and after a day or three of sulking at the necessity of it, he makes his move.
“Tony?” he asks, trapping him next to the coffee maker in the communal kitchen, blocking Tony’s access to the sugar and subsequent caffeine fix.
Tony blinks at him. “Whassup, Cap?” he says and yawns as he scratches at his belly. The elastic on his sweat pants is sagging, leaving them dangerously low on his hips. He hasn’t been awake long at all, judging by his rumpled hair and the pillow creases zig-zagging across his cheek.
“I was wondering if you could do me a favor.” Steve feels somewhat bad about his unscrupulous timing. He’s counting on the lack of coffee in Tony’s system to make him a little more agreeable and a little less inquisitive about his request. If he can manage it, he’d rather drop the idea in Tony’s brain without having to answer a lot of questions.
“Uh-huh.” Tony nods and takes a sip of his coffee. He winces at the taste. “Lemme sugar this bad boy up.” He tries to shuffle past Steve, but is stumped by Steve’s arm blocking him. “Izznot nice to keep a Stark from his coffee, y’know.”
Steve relents and moves. Tony falls upon the sugar, dumping several spoonfuls in his coffee and stirring. He takes a big slurp. “Ahhh. Now my brain is booting up.”
It’s like watching a picture slowly come into focus, seeing Tony‘s eyes lose their sleepy glaze. Steve scrambles to get back on track. “Have you ever given someone a tattoo, Tony?” It’s a risk to ask it so boldly, but he has a short window before Tony’s natural curiosity wakes up as well.
Tony stares off into the distance and takes another long gulp from his mug. “No?” he says, “Unless it was during an engineering blackout, but considering I don’t often have human company for those, and Dummy isn’t covered in tribal marks, I’m gonna go with no.”
“Could you…” Steve takes a deep breath. “Could you build a tattoo apparatus for me?”
“Huh?” Tony peers quizzically at him. “I’m guessing you’ve already tried the current methods - hey, you saw Darcy’s Roy G. ScorBivio, right? - and something didn’t work.” Tony is muttering in between sips of his coffee. “You’d have to take into account the accelerated healing factor, resistance to scarring, rejection of the ink as a foreign substance…” Tony starts walking towards his lab, scrabbling equations in the air with his free hand.
“Tony?” Steve calls after him.
“Thinking, Steven!” Tony replies. “Then inking!” He waves and disappears around the corner.
Steve sighs in relief. It’s out of his hands, and into Tony’s supremely capable ones.
Steve can’t even begin to guess how long it will take for Tony to build his new and improved tattoo device. It depends on a whole mess of factors: if the request came in a development lull, either an opening between projects or an outlet when Tony gets stuck on something, or if he dismisses it as too boring or pedestrian and forgets to tell Steve that it was abandoned, or if Bruce gets involved and their two mighty brains build it in an hour.
In the interests of team building, and of distracting himself, he agrees to a few rounds of Wii fencing with Clint, who cackles as he darts around the room, mirroring his Mii’s nimble thrashing of Steve. Natasha, curled up on the couch with a luridly-titled romance novel that she claims Jane is forcing her to read, makes discouraging remarks about Clint’s form. Clint flips her off with one hand and pushes Steve’s Mii off the platform with the other.
Steve is more than ready to interrupt the match when Tony comes bounding in a while later. Tony waves off his hopeful look as they walk to his lab. “Nah, I don’t have anything near a first draft ready, but I wanted to get some empirical data on how you react to a typical setup.”
Steve frowned at him. “I thought you said you’d never given one before. How did you-”
“Genius billionaire playboy, remember? You can get any equipment sent to you with enough money footing the bill, and I watched a few clips of ‘Miami Ink’ to get the gist of it.”
Steve fights the urge to facepalm or sigh at Tony and simply levels a disbelieving stare at him. Tony gives in to a smile. “Fine, you got me - I did have the equipment delivered, along with an artist to tutor me on the basics. He left with a hefty paycheck and an original Tony Stark doodle in an inconspicuous place. The whole process is surprisingly similar to working with a light pen and a CAD system, so I picked it up pretty quickly.”
Steve consoles himself that whatever Tony’s first attempts on his skin are, they won’t stick, and that any gaps in Tony’s grasp of necessary hygiene will be similarly shrugged off. When it comes time for the real thing, Steve knows that Tony is enough of a perfectionist that the end result will be as true to his design as possible.
Steve gets comfortable in the medical chair that Tony has set up. It’s clean, so Steve doesn’t have to dwell on what ill-advised procedures Tony may have performed on himself in it without Pepper or Bruce to rein him in. He digs out his sketch book, flipping it open to the design and pinning it open with a stray wrench left on the table.
“Huh.” Tony leans over to look at his artwork. “That’s…”
Steve braces himself for a non-committal “nice” or a worse “swell”, but Tony continues with “Really striking, Cap. Hell, I’d show that to the other guys and see if we want to make it a group thing.”
Steve coughs to cover his surprise. “I’d like to see if I can get this done first.”
“Oh, sure.” Tony nods. “Now, I know you’re the superest of super soldiers in the heat of battle, with the blood pumping and the adrenaline soaring, but how are you with non-combat pain?” He squeezes the tattoo needle in his hand and waggles it as it buzzes.
Steve shrugs. “As long as I know it’s coming, it’s not a big deal.”
“Good. So…where did you want this to go, anyway?”
Steve realizes that he hadn’t thought about having Tony work on his desired location. It had been no big deal to take off his shirt at the tattoo parlor and have the technician lean over his chest, resting both hands on his pectoral, but to have Tony that close…He sighs, reaches behind him, and pulls off his shirt with one hand. “Here,” he says, pointing.
“Aw, over your heart? I didn’t know you cared.” Tony grins at him. “Just teasing. I totally knew you loved us. I didn’t know you LOVED us, though.”
Steve plays with the shirt in his hands, then thinks that fidgeting does not go well with needles on the skin. He tosses the shirt on the table and lays back, listening to Tony putter with the equipment, letting Tony’s chatter lull him into a calm lassitude.
The next thing he knows, Tony is standing over him, waving a hand in front of his face. “Captain? Steve? You still with me?”
Steve blinks up at him. “Did I miss it?”
Tony gapes for a moment and then starts laughing. “No, Sleeping Beauty, you didn’t miss it. I’d hate to think what that would say about my performance. Though, truth be told, I may have said that once or twice myself in, ah, an intimate situation, shall we say.”
“Ms. Potts would say that is because you are a horrible person. Sir.” Steve has been in Tony’s lab enough times that JARVIS’ voice coming out of nowhere doesn’t make him jump out of the chair, but it does startle him a bit.
Tony doesn’t miss Steve’s movement. “Admirable sentiment, JARVIS, but I’m going to need you to cram it for a bit. I don’t need Captain Rogers here twitching at the wrong moment. I’m pretty sure he’d appreciate not looking like a human Etch’a’Sketch.”
“My apologies, Captain Rogers. Cramming it as requested.”
Steve hasn’t yet mastered Tony’s casual method of responding to JARVIS as to the thin air, so he nods toward the ceiling as he says, “Thanks, JARVIS. I don’t mean to be a problem.”
JARVIS replies, “You, sir, are no problem at all.”
Steve grins at the marked difference between the “sir” addressed to Tony and the one to him. Tony just rolls his eyes and turns to Steve.
“Mind if I trace this out first? If by some fluke it does wind up sticking, I’d hate to half-ass it.”
“I didn’t think you were capable of being less than a whole ass about anything, Tony.” It slips out before Steve can censor it. At this point, he doesn’t even know whom to blame for being a bad influence.
“Double dissed in my own lab! I can’t catch a break here.” Tony is smirking as he says it, though, so Steve lets his apology go unsaid and settles back in the chair. “Now be a good little Captain and stay still. JARVIS? Scan the design from his book and project it right here.” He taps Steve’s chest. A few moments later, a shimmering blue figure is laid over the area. Tony adjusts the scan back and forth, nudging it a bit until drapes nicely right over Steve’s heart. “What do you think?”
Steve peers down at it. It looks good. It looks...right. “Go for it.” His voice comes out gruffer than he intended.
Tony thankfully doesn’t comment on his tone. “Right-o.” He traces out the lines with a fingertip. At some point, he’d slipped on gloves, so his finger glides smoothly over Steve’s chest, leaving a slightly cool sensation in its wake. “It’s really convenient, you being smooth as a baby’s butt right there. Most guys would have to shave or wax to do this,” Tony remarks. If Steve didn’t know better, he’d think there was a slight catch in his voice.
Steve snorts. “Really convenient. Back when I was...back then, I had a whole neighborhood of people trying to feed me stuff that would ‘put hair on my chest’, when what I really wanted was...” He trails off.
“When you wanted what?” Tony prompts, still absorbed in the examining the design. Steve thinks he may have caught a flicker of Tony’s eyes, but he can’t be sure.
“To be healthy. To be as tall as the other guys, as strong, as...whatever.” Steve shakes his head. “Can we do this? Please?”
“If by we, you mean me, with you lying back and thinking of England, then yes.” Tony rips open an alcohol wipe and rubs down the area, then picks up the tattoo needle. “Are you ready?”
Steve clears his throat against a sudden dryness. “Yes, but first...Tony?”
“Thank you. You didn’t have to do this. Even if it doesn’t work, I still appreciate that you took this time and effort for me.” Steve’s relieved that his voice remains steady and calm.
Tony’s mouth quirks up into another smile. “As the AI said, you, sir, are no problem at all.” With that, the tattoo needle buzzes into life, and Tony sets to work.
The initial contact of the needle’s sting is the same as his recent attempt, and yet the whole situation feels different. In his head, Steve attempts to catalogue what’s changed. He breathes as deeply as he can without shifting Tony’s hands too much, settling into the minor pain and letting it wash through him. He realizes that the tattoo parlor’s chemical, antiseptic odor is missing. The lab smells more like oil, heated metal, and...Tony, close up and intent on his work. It’s not what Steve would think of first as a homey smell, but it’s much more comfortable. Steve pushes at the thought some more, and it gradually occurs to him that the antiseptic scent was familiar, but not friendly: a flashback to times spent in the doctor’s office, or the hospital, battling the various ailments that had plagued him as a scrawny, unhealthy youth. He looks down at his body that still sometimes seems to him that of a stranger’s.
Tony is humming something as he goes, inhaling when he shifts his angle or starts a new line. Steve can see the tattoo taking shape in dark ink under the projection. The buzz of the needle, Tony’s hum, and the stinging burn are blending together, slowing and soothing the ugly jangle of memories. There’s a warmth spreading through his body, starting at the central point of the tattoo, his heart beating under it and sending the heat to every part. Steve lets his mind drift, aware but strangely not uncomfortable with his body under Tony’s hands, feeling grounded and safe, feeling like he might even be home.
Tony’s muttered “Damn” brings Steve back from wherever he’d gone for however long. “JARVIS, can you confirm what I’m seeing?”
“It appears that Captain Rogers’ body is expelling the ink, sir.”
Tony grumbles, “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Not like it was unexpected, but I was kinda hoping the old genius approach might prevail here.” He sighs. “Can you pull up the last clear picture?”
An image of Steve’s chest, with the design almost fully inked, floats above Steve’s head. It looks amazing - Steve glances down, and amends that to looked, seeing the ink start to pool on his skin. Tony quickly mops it up with some gauze. “Sorry. I wasn’t really going for a Rorschach homage.”
Steve grabs Tony’s hand. He’s pretty sure the smile on his face is a little loopy, but he can’t bring himself to care. “It’s OK, Tony. It was a valiant effort. We’re just getting started, right?”
Tony stills in Steve’s grip. His mouth shapes a few unspoken words, then he nods. His smile spreads across his face like art blooming into shape. “Right.”
Steve realizes he’s still holding Tony’s hand. He gives it a squeeze and lets go. Tony’s hand lingers for a moment, then he pats Steve on the shoulder. “You are some piece of work, Cap.”
Steve looks up at the image, and down again at his chest. “A work in progress, it appears.”
“We’ll get there.” Tony whirls around and starts typing furiously. “With these results, my brain, and your...youness, we are going to revolutionize the body art industry. They won’t know what hit them.” Graphs and designs start to flicker across the display.
Steve grabs his shirt and pulls it back on. He can tell that Tony is headed full-tilt into a development blitz, so he waves a quick salute upwards and says, “JARVIS, please let him know that I’m looking forward to the next round.”
Tony is oblivious as Steve slips out, but he doesn’t mind. He rubs at the fading sting over his heart. He has his own work to do in the meantime.