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Usually they close around ten-ish, but it's eleven forty-five when Steve checks his watch, and he's still working on the tattoo.

It'd probably go faster if the girl would stop squirming- it's not even her first tattoo, she should have known what she was getting into, Christ.

But the twenty-something brunette keeps sitting up- much to Steve's horror, and he's come heart-stoppingly close to stabbing her with the tattoo gun where it shouldn't be stabbed at least three times- and telling him to ease the hell up.

"It's a tattoo," Darcy yells from the next room over. "There are needles going into your skin, how the hell did you think it'd feel, Jane?"

"Less painful," The girl- Jane, apparently- yells back. "I'm never forgiving you for dragging me here."

Darcy pops her head around the door, and grins at Steve, who is giving her a barely-restrained glare that says, I cannot believe you recommended this place to some girl who I've nearly impaled several times. "You're the one who wanted it, asshole."

"Bitch," Jane says back, shifting in the chair, and Steve is incredibly tempted to shove the needle in harder, just to spite her.

But, because he's a good person and has had worse customers, he says, "You're not very nice to your friends, Darcy."

"She called me a bitch!" Darcy waves her hand at Jane, and then deflates slightly. "Fine. Whatever. Finish her bird tattoo and get her out of here, she's annoying anyway."

"It's a hawk," Jane calls after her, and Steve pretends not to see Darcy flip her off.

 

 

Twelve gruelling minutes of Jane squirming later, Steve finally finishes the hawk on her shoulder.

"There. All done."

She pulls her t-shirt back up, winces, and eases herself onto her feet. "Thanks. I guess. For stabbing me repeatedly in the shoulder. I won't be seeing you."

"You're very welcome," Steve says, not at all sad about it. "You can leave your money by the door."

“Mmm,” Jane says, and hobbles- seriously, hobbles, and Steve had tattooed her shoulder- towards the curtains that hang across the doorframe, and ducks through them.

Steve busies himself packing everything away, when Clint taps at his shoulder with his knuckles.

Steve blinks; glances back. “Hey. You okay?”

Clint gives him a dry glare. “I’m fine, Steve. Just because Maria left me doesn’t mean I’m going to become a nervous wreck.”

“Uh-huh,” Steve says, thinking back to the numerous occasions this week to where he’s been woken up at some obscene hour to Clint’s drunken sobbing. “Sure thing, Clint.”

Clint swats him on the shoulder and hops up onto the tattoo chair- none of the staff ever do that but him, even when they’re getting a tattoo. Whenever one of them gets one- which is often- they just sit on the couch out back.

“I don’t want to sit in that grody chair that all of our customers sit in, ew,” Darcy had said once, wrinkling her nose.

“You don’t work here,” Natasha had reminded her, checking the cash register, and had ignored Darcy’s indignant squawk.

“Dude,” Clint says, making the chair lean further back than it’s supposed to go. “I’m 99% sure you’re the only tattoo artist in this state that doesn’t have any tattoos.”

“I could have hidden ones.”

“I’ve seen you in the shower, Rogers, and while that’s a nice view, you don’t have any tattoos.”

“I’m going to ignore that,” Steve says, too used to Clint’s antics and too many hours spent awake to be anything other than fucking exhausted.

He rubs a hand over his face, and hesitates for too long before admitting, “I’ve actually been thinking of getting one.”

Clint bolts up, out of the chair, and Steve stops himself from saying, you’re going to break it one of these days, because he’s said it a million times and one more isn’t going to make a difference.

“You’re going to break it one of these days,” Steve says anyway.

Clint doesn’t seem to care. “Seriously? You’re finally caving? All these years and-”

“I’ve only known you for five years-”

“Fuck you, that’s forever in Clint time- what are you thinking of getting?”

Steve thinks of busying himself with cleaning up the rest of the tools, but decides against it and leans against the lip of the sink, folding his arms.

Something to remind him of his mother, maybe. Or Bucky- not his name, because Steve’s never been a big fan of those tattoos. But maybe the Howling Commando’s symbol on his hip, or something to that degree.

“I don’t know yet.”

Clint dangles his head off of the chair and groans loudly. “Jesus fuck. Of course you’d be one of those people who sit there in front of the display thing and make us wait 45 minutes before choosing. Oh, wait, no,” he corrects himself, snapping his fingers at Steve, “the ones who bring in their own designs.”

“You like those ones.”

“Damn straight. They’re the most interesting ones.”

Steve agrees. It’s one of the things he loves about this job, other than the actual tattoo-ing, is the people. The stories they have- why the hell they’d want a yellow bucket on their hip, or an eagle near their left eyebrow, and Steve gets to ink it all in.

Every bad decision that’ll cost more for it to be removed later, and hurt more than the tattoo ever did. Every phrase- poetry, mostly- that is so important that they feel the need to permanently tack it into their skin. Every dead loved one that they get where everyone can see it. Every girl who screams for twenty minutes about needing parental consent and what do you mean I don’t look over eighteen, I am totally over eighteen and no I’m not giving you my ID you fucking wanker.

Heck, after almost a decade doing this job, Steve doesn’t even get surprised anymore. He’s despaired for humanity at times- there have been dozens of occasions where he wants to take the customers by their shoulders, look them straight in the eyes and say slowly and clearly, “This is going to be on your body forever. Are you honestly sure you’re going to want ‘hot mama’ stuck across your breasts in ten years?”

But he doesn’t, and most of the times that someone does something really stupid, he gets one of the others to do it, because there’s only so much stupidity Steve can take before sitting outside on the couch for an hour and mumbling crossly into his coffee.

But, hey, every job has its setbacks. His just happens to be seeing the moronic side of humanity once too often every day.

There’s a metallic click which means someone’s just come through the door- a few years back, it used to be a bell, but Bruce had ripped it off the wall and threw it vigorously across the street. And then had followed it, and stamped it into the gutter.

Darcy still has a recording of it on her phone.

Steve rubs a hand over his face, clamping down on his yawn. “That’ll be Bruce. He went to Fury’s for takeout.”

“Worst name for a Chinese delivery shop ever,” Clint declares, and Steve nods tiredly, going through the drapes and not bothering to turn to greet Bruce, instead reaching to unfold the page of the book Natasha had been reading and put a bookmark in it- he hates it when she does that, it damages the paper.

“Hey, honey,” Steve says, only managing to be half-sarcastic, because he wants to collapse into bed and sleep for the next year or so.

There’s a silence, and Steve has a few seconds to be confused, because Bruce always answers, hey, darling, ever since last year when they had both gotten spectacularly drunk over a talk show, and it had become a thing.

Then, sounding amused: “Hello, shnookums.”

Steve whirls around, the blush hitting his neck and bursting downwards. “I- sorry, I thought you were a friend of mine, I-”

“It’s fine,” the man says, his lips curling upwards like he’s trying to muffle a grin. “I’m all for impromptu endearments. They’re better than my usual icebreaker, even.”

Steve just nods, embarrassed, and realizes he’s still holding Natasha’s book. He sets it on the desk next to him, and wipes his sweaty hands on his jeans. “Uh, sorry, but we’re closed-”

He stops, finally taking the man in- he’s the kind of gorgeous that makes Steve’s mouth go dry: black, trimmed hair that’s cut short and just on the right side of mussed, a slim hand rubbing absently at his stubble, a slack, clean-cut suit that has absolutely no business being in a tattoo parlour in Brooklyn, and bright, warm brown eyes that light up from the inside-out.

It’s the eyes that finally make him fit it together.

“Hi,” Steve says weakly, and then clears his throat. “I mean, are you-?”

“Took you long enough,” Tony Stark says, with that goddamn grin that could make people crash cars in broad daylight. “Never forget a pretty face, right?”

Nine years and he can still make Steve blush like that, Jesus Christ. “I- you have- billboards and things, it’d be hard to-”

“I still think it’s adorable that you didn’t realize who I was last time.”

“I was-”

“Completely and utterly smashed?”

“I wasn’t completely smashed, you were the one who brought the vodka -”

“Steve, where the hell is Bruce, I want m- hoooooly fuck.”

Tony clicks his fingers at Darcy’s gaping mouth. “There we go. That’s how you’re supposed to greet Tony Stark, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Tony Stark,” Darcy repeats. “Tony Stark. Why the hell is Tony Stark in our tattoo shop, how can he be in our tattoo shop, what the fuck-”

“Again,” Clint says, stretching as he comes through the drapes, “You and Bruce don’t work here, Darce. You come for the free tattoos from your college buddy, and stay for the free coffee.”

“Which I’m regretting ever providing,” Coulson says dryly as Darcy drags him out.

He sees Tony, and he doesn’t even falter. “Sorry, but we’re closed.”

Tony shrugs, and it’s fluid and gorgeous and god, he hasn’t changed, able to render Steve speechless with a shrug. “Aw, come on. Can’t you make an exception?”

But he’s still looking at Steve, low and flirty through his lashes, and Steve is a few seconds away from swallowing his damn tongue.

Steve coughs, finally tears his gaze away, and Coulson is raising an eyebrow at him. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve croaks. “Yes, I’m fine.”

Natasha comes out through the same door that Coulson and Darcy had come through-the one that links around to the back rooms, and the couch.

Her eyes land on Tony, and Steve swears that she and Coulson had taken lessons in how they keep their expressions. “Oh.”

Then she cocks her head at Steve, which leads to everyone turning to Steve, which leads to the back of Steve’s neck starting to itch nervously.

“Steve,” Darcy says. “If you’ve secretly been hanging out with Tony Stark and didn’t tell me, I will stick bamboo shoots under your fingernails.”

“What?” Steve tries to snap himself out of it. “No, not that, he- he was my first.”

Natasha’s lips twitch, Darcy looks outraged, and Tony snorts loudly before biting his lip, and Steve backtracks wildly: “Tattoo! My first tattoo, Christ. Just after I got my licence.”

“And I’m very flattered that he remembers little ol’ me,” Tony grins. “So, I thought I’d come back for seconds.”

“After nine years?”

Again, he shrugs, pocketing his hands. “I got a little caught up. Stark Industries, blah, blah. You did tell me I could come back anytime.”

“I did,” Steve says, and laughs before he can stop himself.

Tony looks pleased, and his gaze skates off of Steve and down to the floor before coming back up. “So, uh. The tattoo’s great, so I thought I’d come and get another one. Y’know. Me and my random impulses.”

“Dibs,” Clint raises his hand. “I dibs.”

Tony gives Clint a look that falls close to a glare, and Steve’s a bit too glad when Natasha grabs his arm.

“Clint,” she says. “I’m going to take an educated guess and say that this is our time to make an elegant exit. AKA, everyone out. Steve can tattoo this guy on his own. See you tomorrow, Steve.”

Darcy says, “But I-”

Coulson starts dragging her out the back door, and nods at Steve before closing it behind Clint, who is the last one out. “Lock it up when you’re done. I’ll call Bruce and tell him to bring everything to Darcy’s.”

And then he door is closed, and it’s just Steve and Tony, under the bad lighting of the shop that Steve should really get fixed at some point.

“Ah,” Tony says, and yes, there we go, there’s the awkward, peeled-back Tony that the cameras never manage to capture in any of the interviews that Steve has seen. “So, here we are again.”

“Here we are again,” Steve repeats, softer, and feels stupid, because he shouldn’t be so happy to see the nervous tick of Tony’s fingers on his left wrist, where he knows the tattoo is.

Because it had just been one night, and they hadn’t even done anything, and they haven’t seen each other in almost a decade, and- and-

And Tony still has that look like he’s trying incredibly hard not to start babbling.

Steve still remembers: he had been newly hired here, and he had been cleaning up some lemonade that someone had spilled over the desk, when a car had screeched to a stop outside, running slightly over the curb.

Steve hadn’t looked up, too busy scrubbing the stubborn lemonade out, but he had heard someone outside say, “Sir, are you inebriated?”

A pause, and then, “Do I look drunk?”

“Sir, your driving-”

“I am insulted. Insulted and- and falsely accused, how dare you, I can sue- I’m not drunk, I am planning to get drunk, at which point I will call my handy-dandy driver and get him to drive me places.”

The guy- policeman, Steve guesses- had cleared his throat. “I. Uh. Can you say the alphabet backwards for me, please.”

Again, a pause, before an incredulous, “Can you say the alphabet backwards? Seriously? I mean, who have you met, ever, who can say the alphabet backwards, even while sober? You know what, say it. Say the alphabet backwards.”

“I-”

“I don’t have all day, I’m a very busy man, so get on with it.”

“Sir, I’m not-”

“A, B, C, D-”

“That’s the alphabet forwards, sir.”

“I am aware, policeman, I was just prompting you. Say it backwards. Come on. Do it. I dare you. Doitdoitdoitdoit.”

Steve had stopped scrubbing at this point.

Another long pause, and then: “Have a nice day, sir.”

“I will,” Tony had said. “I will have a nice day. I’ll have a fucking awesome day, just to spite you. In fact, I’m going into that tattoo place and- and getting a tattoo on my ass. That’s how great my day is going to be, because I’m spec-tac-u-lar. How do you like that?”

Steve says, “I’m very glad you didn’t end up getting a tattoo on your ass.”

That startles a laugh out of Tony. “Yeah, the wrist was definitely better. So, should I just- go and lie in the chair, then?”

“Hmm? Oh! Yeah, you- yeah, I’ll show you where it is, we moved it a few years back.”

Tony nods, rocking back and forth on his heels, and follows Steve through the drapes into the next room over.

“Um,” Steve says, reaching for his favourite tattoo gun. This one is- smoother, really. “Have you gotten any other tattoos?”

Tony snorts, shifting up so his head sits comfortably. “What, from another tattoo artist? Come now,  Steve. That’d practically be cheating.”

“It wouldn’t be-”

Steve chokes on empty air when he turns around and sees Tony unbuttoning his shirt, but recovers quickly, coughing into his hand. “So, on your chest, then?”

Tony shoots him a grin as he shrugs his shirt off, hanging it off the side of the chair. “Hell to the yes. Right above my left nipple. Think you can handle it, stud?”

Steve coughs again, raising his free hand to rub at the back of his neck. “Do you have a design, or-”

Tony digs a hand into his jeans, and comes out with a sharply-folded piece of pad paper. He flips it open before handing it to Steve, and says, “And make it that size, if you can.”

It’s small- a blue circle, about two inches all the way around, with strokes of what looks like metal winding through it.

“Arc reactor.”

Steve looks up, and Tony’s smile catches him off guard again. “It’s an arc reactor. Private joke. I’ll tell you later,” he says, and then something flickers in his face, like-

“Okay,” Steve says, and watches him relax slightly.

He reaches over for the right type of ink, and Tony says, “Will it hurt more or less than the wrench on my wrist?”

Steve glances at Tony’s bare chest, the dusty pink of his nipples, trailing over where the tattoo is going to be, and tries not to linger. “Uh. Well, if it’s just over the meat and not the bone-”

Tony nods. “Got it. Blood and pain everywhere. Great.”

“It shouldn’t be that bad.”

“Just agonizing pain.”

“I’m sure you can handle it,” Steve says, and it’s too intimate, too joking, too soft at the edges, and he can’t stop thinking about how much this shouldn’t happen. How they shouldn’t have this effect on each other, Steve shouldn’t be able to make Tony trip over his words, they shouldn’t be able to talk and bitch and nudge each other like they’ve known each other for years.

Because it’s not just desire, not just how Tony’s pulse stutters under Steve’s hands whenever he brushes his fingers over it, it’s not just how he can see everything in each other’s blown pupils when they’re leaning too close and not leaning away.

It’s how Steve can’t stop smiling, and how Tony looks so relieved whenever he says something stupid and Steve shrugs it off, and fucking Christ, if you add the last ten minutes and cancel out the nine years in between, they’ve only known each other for six hours.

Did you think about me, Steve wants to ask. Did you think about me when you run your hands over the tattoo in the shower, or when you’re getting dressed?

Steve jolts himself out of his thoughts, and Tony is tapping at his wrist again, rubbing his thumb over the tattoo of the wrench.

How the hell, Steve wants to ask, can we do this to each other without even trying?

“I can’t help but notice,” Tony says, “but you don’t have any tattoos. Visible ones, anyway, but then again, I haven’t seen everything.”

He grins, and Steve smothers the answering smile by scratching his nose. “Actually, I don’t have any tattoos.”

“Really?” Tony looks up, interested. “You’ve got to be the only tattoo artist on the eastern seaboard without-”

“Yeah, someone mentioned that a while ago,” Steve says, running his hands under the sink.

“No-one as good as you?”

“No, they’re plenty good, I just- I never really got around to it.”

It should be awkward, but Steve meets his eyes steadily, coming to on the usual chair. “Tell me if it’s too much.”

“Thought you said I could handle it,” Tony says, crooking an eyebrow, and then hisses slightly as the needle starts.

Steve watches his face, and Tony’s strained smile turns more genuine.

“I’m fine. Just not much of a fan of needles, remember? So, uh. The others, they all have-?”

“All of them,” Steve nods. “I gave Natasha one a while back. On her ribs, in Russian, it was, uh. ‘The appearance of things are deceptive and the hope of men is deceived,’ I think.”

Tony laughs, but it turns into a sharp intake of breath. “Ah- I’m guessing that was the terrifying redhead, yeah?”

“Yep. Other than that, she has a quote on her ankle, and another one on the back of her neck. Clint has a back tattoo- a raptor, stretching its wings across his shoulders. It took the girl seven hours, and Clint bitched the entire way through.”

Tony laughs again, and this time, it comes out more loosely. “Blond one?”

“Right again. And, uh, they both work here- along with Coulson, the man in the suit. He has one of those full-body tattoos, it goes around his wrists, up his arms, down his back and his legs. Not many people know about it, with the suit- just everyone at the shop. You’re sworn to secrecy.”

“I won’t say a word,” Tony says, and his eyes crinkle. “Wouldn’t expect it from him, but o-kay. Hidden depths and shit. Respect. And the other girl, she doesn’t work here?”

“Darcy,” Steve supplies. “And no, she doesn’t. She and Bruce- that’s the guy who’s getting takeout- are my friends from college. They hang out here most days.”

“Slackers! Nice.”

“Ha, ha.”

 

 

They talk their way through the entire tattoo, until Steve is putting a bandage on it, taping around it, and trying not to make Tony wince too much.

“Sorry,” Steve says again, as Tony jolts slightly before insisting he’s fine, Steve, jeez, and sitting up, and then Steve is staring at his mouth.

Steve can’t count the times he’s thought about the kiss, the one where Tony’s lips had been puffy with wine, where it had been fumbling and awkward and incredible, and Tony had ran his tongue over the seam of Steve’s lips before leaning back and saying, too shakily: “Luck for your new job. Bet you’re not going to get a better tip than that.”

Steve’s throat clicks, and he thinks Tony notices, because his breath catches.

“Uh,” Steve says, his voice cracking and how do they do this to each other, how can they do this when this is only the second time they’ve met, why the hell do I care so much-

“Uh,” Steve says again, feeling the blush spreading to his ears.

“My sentiments exactly,” Tony croaks, his hand coming up again to rest on his wrist, where it had been tapping for almost two hours now.

“I-” Steve is still exhausted. He’s still tired, and he knows he is, but somehow it all gets shoved back by Tony’s wide eyes and clever eyes and ruffled hair. He can feel it, but it’s a distant, careful kind of tired, overshadowed and overflowed by everything that Tony makes him feel, and it even sounds stupid in his head.

“Do you even realize you’re doing that,” Steve blurts, and when Tony just blinks, he clarifies: “The tattoo. On your wrist. When you’re nervous, you- even in some interviews, I’ve seen you do it, and I always thought I was just- being stupid or something, but-”

“Oh,” Tony says, his face too close and his eyes too black and his voice too unsteady. “That’s, that’s just, uh. I don’t know, it-”

He shrugs sort of helplessly. “It- comforts me? I don’t- in interviews, or whatever, everything’s all- everyone at those things, at the galas and- and whatever, they’re always so fake, and then- then there’s this gorgeous- this stupidly gorgeous tattoo artist who works in a shitty shop in Brooklyn, and I’m drunk and he’s fucking gorgeous. And he- he won’t let me get a tattoo when I’m drunk, so I get him sort of tipsy, and there’s something about him that just- made me laugh, like, really laugh, and not just because of the booze, and I could talk to him.”

His breath is coming fast, now, and Steve can’t look away if he wanted to, and Tony is still babbling, and Steve hasn’t realized how much he’s missed it.

“And we talked for hours, even after the tattoo, and he’s great and probably straighter than anything, ever, and I think about going back to my empty house and it just- I- so I think about bringing him home, think about fucking him, I- I mean, come on, how can I not, but- I don’t want to do that to him, because he deserves better. And I think about what’s going to happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and the next week, and the next year, and it’s always just me and those fake as fuck people, and- and I shouldn’t even give a shit about you, Jesus fucking Christ!”

He barks out a laugh, shoving a hand through his hair. “You- you’re so genuine, and you’re a good guy, and I don’t have to try with you, and you probably don’t even want to use me for anything, but everyone does, so.”

Tony’s eyes are practically bugging out of his head, and Steve’s seriously worried he’s going to have a panic attack, so he starts to reach out to put a hand on his shoulder, but then Tony’s still talking: “And I kept thinking about you, for fucking years afterwards, not even fucking you, just- just calling you, or hanging out with you, or- fuck, I nearly called the shop so many times.”

“I would’ve picked up,” Steve assures him, sweating bullets and freaking out a lot less than he should be. “And- and you, too. I thought about calling. I have the Stark Industries contacts page saved on my computer.”

“I have this shop’s number on my cellphone,” Tony says into his hand. “Fuck. Something’s seriously wrong with us. Are you sure we haven’t both been signed up as science experiments? Were we married in a past life? Are we in Inception right now?”

“Absolutely,” Steve says. “I’m secretly Dom. Do you remember how you got here?”

Tony shoots him a glare, but he’s smiling grudgingly. “Yes. I accidentally drove three hours and coincidentally ended up outside the shop.”

“I’m all for coincidences,” Steve says, wanting to take Tony’s hand, his shoulder, rub his thumb into his neck until he calms down.

Instead, he swallows. “You know, I never did get a better tip.”

Tony doesn’t even need a second for it to click, he just breaks out into a grin. “Told you. I’m the best kisser I’ve ever met. I’ve gotten even better in my nine years of absence.”

“I find that hard to beli- mphhh.”

Tony is kissing him, and Steve’s eyes are drifting closed, and his hand is coming up to trace a slice of the tattoo on his wrist.

Then Tony’s drawing back, kissing him again, and letting his teeth snag on Steve’s bottom lip before saying thoughtfully, “I really, really shouldn’t give a shit about you. I shouldn’t have given you a second thought. It’s totally a government conspiracy.”

Steve is still grinning like an idiot, and he thinks that it’s going to be his default mood for a while. “I can live with that.”

“You can live with government conspiracies?”

“Absolutely.”

“You can live with the fact that I have no idea how to act like a human being?”

“You seem to be doing okay so far.”

“He says, after listening to me freak out over how I’ve been thinking about him incessantly for nine years.”

“Well,” Steve says seriously, “Now that you’ve said incessantly-”

Tony growls and bumps him slightly, and then winces when his chest connects with Steve’s shoulder. “Ow.”

“You’re going to have to take care of that for a while,” Steve says, reaching for Tony’s shirt. “It’ll be tender for-”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re the expert.” Tony waves his hand, and takes his shirt when Steve hands it to him. “You’re going to have to be gentle with me.”

That uncertain, faux-confident smile is going to be the bane of Steve’s existence. He catches Tony’s wrist, turns it over and presses his lips against the tattoo.

“I can live with that,” Steve repeats, and feels the familiar tattoo-beat of Tony’s pulse.

Tony’s smile flickers again, but this time, it’s stretching out.

“Good,” he says, and drags him down.