Tony wasn’t a fan of celebrating birthdays, specifically his own. Sure, there had been a time back in his early twenties when he’d appreciated the excuse to party until he forgot what it was he was supposedly celebrating, but that had gotten old fast.
For every high there was a corresponding low, and his lows just seemed to get lower the older he got. The drugs always wore off, the booze fog eventually lifted, and no matter how good the sex was, he always found himself feeling alienated and alone at the end of the day. It was really better for everyone involved that he quit while he was ahead.
Added bonus? Behaving apparently pissed the tabloids off to no end, which was really a gift in and of itself. The last big controversy he’d given them was years prior when he’d left behind the weapons game, but that didn’t stop the press from keeping tabs on him in the hopes he’d revert to form.
Besides, even if partying had still been something Tony enjoyed, the idea of turning forty didn’t really seem worthy of celebration. Maybe if he had an actual life instead of his work, but…
“You okay back there, boss?”
Tony sighed, slapped a smile on his face. “Sure, fine. I’d be better if you told me what this was all about.”
“Ms. Potts doesn’t want me ruining the surprise.”
Tony peered through the tinted window again, but still didn’t recognize anything. They were in Brooklyn, he knew that much, but no matter how hard he wracked his brains, he drew a big fat blank when it came to sussing out whatever it was Pepper had planned.
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars for a hint.”
Happy laughed, but Tony already knew it was a lost cause. He couldn’t really blame the guy; no one wanted to get on Pepper’s bad side. “No can do. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. We’ll be there in a couple minutes, anyway.”
“Sure, likely story.”
If it had been anyone else, Tony wouldn’t have gotten in the car in the first place, but he trusted Pepper not to have lined up some awful surprise party. You needed friends for those sorts of things anyway, and he could count his on one hand. Rhodey was still in Afghanistan, Happy was driving, Pepper was supposedly waiting for them somewhere in Brooklyn, and Bruce was at a conference in D.C.
“And we’re here,” Happy announced, pulling over next to a row of parked cars.
Tony frowned. “A diner? Seriously, what the hell, Happy?”
“I just follow directions, boss,” Happy swore. “You want answers, go to the source.”
Pepper was standing outside waiting for them, so Tony didn’t waste any more time. “Okay, Potts, out with it.”
“Happy Birthday,” Pepper said, pressing a kiss to Tony’s cheek once he was close enough. “And stop frowning.”
The diner looked a lot like every other diner he’d ever seen. “I’m admittedly curious. What, do they have the best waffles in New York or something?”
Tony allowed Pepper to take him by the arm, but when he headed for the diner, she yanked, pulling him in the other direction. “Possibly. I haven’t looked into it. Your present is over here.”
“What do you… Oh. No, seriously?”
Pepper smiled at him beatifically, and Tony, idiot that he was, allowed her to drag them across the street. “You made me promise, remember?”
“I… Sure, but… Pep!” Tony stared up at the sign, stomach fluttering with nerves. “I wasn’t serious.”
“Yes, you were. It’s only a consultation, but you’ve been talking about this for years, Tony, so I hope you actually go through with it.” Tony took a deep breath, exhaled, then met Pepper’s no nonsense gaze head on. “I’ve done my research, and this is the place for you, without a doubt. You have an appointment, so… good luck!”
Pepper planted another kiss on him, gave his hand a squeeze, then headed for the car. “Wait, you’re not coming with me?”
“Nope. You need to do this yourself if you’re going to do it,” Pepper called, giving a little wave as she slid into the back of his car. “We’ll talk tomorrow, and you can tell me all about it.”
“You suck, Potts!” Pepper just blinked, her smile never wavering, and Tony hung his head. “I don’t mean that. We could just get waffles instead?”
“Go inside, Tony,” she ordered before the car door slammed closed.
Tony stood there for a moment, waving back at Happy as he drove off, but then spun on his heels and stared at the sign for SHIELD Tattoo as if staring might change what he was dealing with.
The exterior of the shop was surprisingly lacking in neon, or skulls, the view through the show window obscured by thick red curtains, preventing him from getting a sneak peek of the shop. Not sure what else to do, Tony shuffled forward, and read the ornately carved sign on display behind the glass of the window.
If you are racist, sexist, homophobic, or an asshole, don’t come in.
Beneath this, there were several easels, each with what he assumed was the name of an artist, along with a photographed sample of work. As Tony moved closer, the images shifted and faded into each other, and he realized they were actually using the latest and greatest StarkPads, each nestled into a custom carved wooden case.
The first easel displayed works Tony would have had trouble distinguishing from some of what he’d seen in the museums Pepper was so fond of dragging him to. An homage to Botticelli shifted into something downright cubist, followed by skin that looked almost as if it had been sketched upon with a graphite pencil.
Beside this display, gorgeous, delicate bursts of color that resembled watercolors having been brushed into skin accompanied the name Natasha Romanova. The name was familiar, although he couldn’t say why.
The remaining artist was someone going by the moniker Hawkeye. They seemed to work only in black ink, each piece more intricate, and macabrely whimsical than the one preceding it.
Almost against his will, Tony’s attention shifted back to the work of Steve Rogers before he made up his mind, and took hold of the door, steeling himself before entering the shop. Bells chimed softly as the door was opened, the sound fading into the background as Tony stared in surprise.
He hadn’t been in many tattoo shops, so he wasn’t sure exactly what he’d been expecting. The heady scent of freshly brewed coffee was a pleasant surprise, as was the sound of Ella Fitzgerald emanating from what looked to be an actual record player. It almost drowned out the sound of a tattoo gun, the steady hum blending nicely with the music.
The establishment had atmosphere, looked like a place out of time, all rich, vibrant colors, plush leather, gleaming wood, and brass. Whoever had decorated managed to make the relatively small interior seem spacious and deep, strategically placed mirrors reflecting the glow of chandeliers, so each of the three areas beyond the front desk seemed bathed in light. Five foot high, thick wooden partitions that could have been repurposed booths from a speakeasy divided the space, affording each of the artist’s stations a bit of privacy. Someone walking in to browse wouldn’t have the opportunity to gawp at the paying customers, something which Tony greatly appreciated.
At the front of the shop, the lighting was moody, intimate, and reminded Tony of Paris for reasons he couldn’t explain. The walls were adorned with framed art, but there were also photographs that looked to be a unit of soldiers, the largest of which bore a little placard reading “The Howling Commandos” beneath.
“Can I help you?”
Tony spun on his heels, tearing his eyes away from the photo, and felt a little like he’d been hit by a truck. Standing before him was, without a doubt, the most beautiful person he’d ever laid eyes on, and he’d partied with supermodels, so that was saying something. The sleeves of his crisp white shirt were rolled meticulously to the elbow, exposing his forearms, one of which was entirely covered in intricate artwork. The shirt clung to his chest and broad shoulders as if it had been painted on, and Tony had to fight off a giggle as he imagined the guy flexing and sending his buttons flying across the room.
One hand was tucked into the pocket of his dark pants, but there was nothing casual in his stance. Tony got the feeling that if anyone tried any funny business in the shop, this adonis would toss them back out onto the street without so much as breaking a sweat.
Also, he had arched an eyebrow and was still waiting for an answer to his question, and might not appreciate Tony very obviously checking him out.
“Uh, I have an appointment,” Tony finally managed. “For a consultation.”
This earned him a smile, and suddenly those baby blues the new love of his life was sporting seemed a lot less cold, and a lot more inviting. Tony smiled back hard enough that his face hurt, hoping it wasn’t as dopey looking as it felt. He hadn’t been so intimidated by another person’s good looks since his MIT days, back when he’d been a scrawny virgin, years younger than anyone else on campus.
Tony’s heart had been racing, but as the man approached, it kicked into overdrive. He accepted the offered hand, shook while appreciating the strong grip, almost missing the introduction. “Steve Rogers. Welcome to my shop. You must be Ms. Potts’s friend?”
“Must be,” he answered smoothly. “Tony.”
“Nice to meet you, Tony.”
Steve’s deep voice and absolutely criminally kissable mouth made his name sound sensuous. Tony wanted to throw himself at Steve and find out if he felt as good as he looked. “Gorgeous.”
“Your work,” Tony clarified hastily, mentally chastising himself for the slip as the handshake came to an end. “I was admiring it before heading in. The decor is pretty snazzy, too. I’m digging the retro vibe.”
Steve had answered politely, but his eyes were narrowed slightly, as if he had picked up on Tony’s bullshit. Of course, he finally had a reason to believe in love at first sight, and the guy of his dreams had to go and spoil it by being intuitive enough to have already figured out Tony was a walking disaster.
“Come on back,” Steve suggested, “we’ll get an idea of what you’re looking for, see if one of our artists would be a good match.”
It took every ounce of self restraint he had, but Tony managed to keep from groaning with appreciation once he got a look at Steve’s ass. He tore his eyes away in order to take in more of the shop, trying not to stare as they walked past the source of the tattoo gun sound. Another blond was hunched over a person stretched out on a table, working black ink into skin, seemingly oblivious of everything else around him. Based upon the bit of the design Tony saw as they walked past, he guessed that was the artist known as Hawkeye.
The room he was led into was tiny compared to his own office, but had enough space for a couple of couches, a table, and a desk in the corner. More artwork decorated the walls, along with recent photos, one of which featured Steve, Hawkeye, and a breathtaking redhead standing outside the shop together, the three of them holding the SHIELD Tattoo sign.
“No wonder the name was familiar,” Tony blurted, stepping close enough that his nose almost touched the glass of the framed photo. “Bruce’s friend,” he explained, grinning over his shoulder at Steve. “Although I could have sworn he introduced her as Natalie.”
“She’ll be here shortly if you wanted to do the consultation with her, instead.”
“No, I want you,” Tony blurted, ducking his head and laughing at his choice of words. Yikes. “Your style is a better match,” he added, wondering why he was even bothering. Steve didn’t seem like a stupid guy, and anyone that attractive had to get hit on all the time.
Swallowing around the lump in his throat, Tony helped himself to a seat on the couch opposite Steve, not trusting himself to sit within touching distance.
“Just so you know, we specialize in custom work here, although each of us offers some shop specific flash, which is back out front if that’s more your speed.”
“Rather have something one-of-a-kind,” Tony answered, which seemed to please Steve.
“Do you have any tattoos?” he asked, although Tony got the sense he already knew the answer to the question.
“Nope. You’d be my first.”
Tony bit the inside of his cheek, managing to stave off any awkward attempts at clarifying the remark, as that’d only make it way, way worse. Steve was just smiling, though, which was nice of him.
“So, why now?”
There were a lot of ways to answer the question, most of them only skimming the surface of the thing. He hadn’t woken up that morning thinking of getting a tattoo, and he’d been tempted to walk away from the opportunity once Pepper left him to his own devices, but now that he was in the shop, and sitting opposite of Steve, Tony found himself in the odd position of being honest.
“You know who I am, right?” Steve shifted a bit, as if the question made him uncomfortable, but eventually he nodded. “Well, then you know I’m a lucky guy. Luckier, and less deserving of that luck than most. So, ah, I hope you’ll understand that I’m not complaining, really. I’d just like a… an obvious, irrefutable reminder, maybe. That I’m not the person everyone thinks I am, or even the person I used to be.” He chewed at his lower lip, shrugged. “Everyone acts like they know me, and even stranger, they get pissed off if I do something to remind them that they don’t. Like I’m ruining something for them by not behaving the way they want, or expect, and I understand how stupid I sound right now, so feel free to tell me to shut up.”
But Steve was leaning forward, his elbows braced on his knees, and his large hands clasped before him. “No, you don’t.” He waited until Tony looked up before continuing. “We’ve had celebrity clients in here before, but we’ve also turned some of them away. We’re not interested in using your status as a way to promote ourselves, and no one that works here will speak to reporters, or keep any record of the work you have done.”
Tony laughed brittley. “Well, that’s good to know, I guess.”
Steve continued watching him, his gaze calm, and steady, and comforting for no reason at all. “You don’t have to say anything else, although I’m happy to listen. I only wanted to make sure you had a reason, a real one. Guess I’m picky about who I’ll work with.”
“Well, uh, I hope you’ll lower your standards long enough to take me on as a client,” Tony joked, wincing at his choice of words. “Sorry, that sounded shitty, I didn’t mean—”
“That only depends on what you want to have done,” Steve thankfully interrupted. “What did you have in mind?”
Which was the million dollar question, really. He’d considered and discarded idea after idea over the years, nothing feeling like a good match. Steve was waiting for an answer, and the idea of disappointing him didn’t sit right with Tony, so he opened his mouth and hoped for the best.
“Uh, that’s part of the problem, actually. I didn’t have a specific idea in mind—always figured I’d know it when I saw it, but... You probably remember the press conference I gave a couple years ago?”
Steve gave a slight nod. “It might have been on TV once or twice.”
“Well, I left out the part where I was dying,” Tony explained, watching the shift in Steve’s expression. “Which is probably good, since I managed to fix myself before it was too late.” Tony tapped against his chest. “Let’s just say I had a lot of motivation to design the permanent artificial heart SI announced a couple months later.”
The brush with death had also left Tony haunted by the idea of what he’d be leaving behind when he died. He thrown himself into the business in a way he’d never done before, ultimately uncovering the black market dealings Obadiah Stane had orchestrated. That had more than made his mind up for him, and before the news even hit of Stane’s arrest, Tony was announcing SI would no longer be manufacturing weapons.
His tactic had won them some support with the public, although their stocks had still taken a hit once word of Stane’s actions got out. Pepper being named as CEO hadn’t hurt, either, nor had his decision to step as far away from the limelight as possible without becoming a straight up recluse.
Tony had spent every day since the transplant trying to make up for his years of willful ignorance, but still lost sleep over everything that had come out during Stane’s trial, and the knowledge that countless people had been put in harm’s way by how he’d allowed SI to be run. Was still haunted by the understanding that the man he’d thought of as a surrogate father had only been using him; Stane’s testimony had been ugly and hurtful on purpose.
There were those who would always argue he was the traitor for the stance he’d taken, but it was a hell of alot easier to sleep at night when you spent your days developing bionic prosthetics, or working on clean energy.
Steve stayed quiet through his rambling, though his expression had softened somewhat by the end. "My brother has one of your prosthetics," he said after a moment. "Says it's almost like having his arm back again."
"Yeah? That's great. I mean, obviously it's not great that he lost an arm, but..." To Tony's relief, Steve was shaking with quiet laughter. "You know what I meant."
"Yes, Tony, I know what you meant."
The extent to which Tony appreciated Steve's patiently teasing tone of voice should have probably been alarming. Instead it flooded him with warmth as he watched the smile spread slowly across Steve's face.
"So, how's the heart work?"
Something in Steve's voice reminded Tony of when he had the beginnings of an idea. He gestured to a notebook and pencil on the table between them. "Okay if I use this?"
Steve nodded, so Tony helped himself, flipping past pages of sketches before coming to a blank sheet. "Right, so, whenever you're inventing something insane that shouldn't work, the first thing you do is assume the rules of the universe don't apply to you," he began, leaning over to start scribbling.
As Steve watched, Tony drew, the lines precise and entirely lacking in artistry, as far as he was concerned. By the end of his explanation, there was a diagram of his heart on the page, surrounded by bits of ridiculous notation, more than one Ghostbusters reference, and some math for good measure. When he looked up to see if Steve was still with him, he was surprised to find the man studying him as if he was a puzzle to be solved.
"Sorry. I get carried away sometimes."
But Steve was shaking his head. "Don't apologize. That was fascinating. I don't know why it never occurred to me, but you're a bit of an artist yourself." Steve stared down at the schematic. "I always assumed..." Steve laughed, shook his head. "Actually, I saw that documentary about your father and figured you were like that, too."
Tony felt his face flush, and looked down at the paper. His father had been a genius in his own right, but he was more of a big idea man. The lesser minds could do all the grunt work, as far as Howard had been concerned. The documentary in question was full of examples of Howard entering a room, barking out orders or demands, and more or less bullying ideas out of his staff.
Stark Industries had been wildly successful, and his father had admittedly had some truly inspired ideas, but Howard's approach to parenting wasn't that far removed from his approach to business. He’d had a standard, had had expectations of Tony that no sane person would have had of a child, which was why he'd been building circuit boards while other kids his age were focusing on learning the names of animals.
"If he'd been alive," Tony began, then clamped his mouth shut, took a breath, then decided to just finish the sentence after all. "He'd probably have said it served me right for having a heart in the first place."
Steve kindly didn't follow up on the remark, although he did pick up the notebook and study the drawing. "Is it okay if I keep this?"
"Sure," Tony waved a hand dismissively, feeling oddly worn out. He didn't spend a lot of time having heart to hearts with people, especially not strangers, and the trip down memory lane wasn't helping much with his birthday blues. “Just don’t sell it on eBay, or Pepper will murder me.”
Steve flipped past his sketch, then began working on something of his own, the sound of pencil on paper somehow soothing Tony's frazzled nerves. Unable to stay still any longer, he hopped to his feet and began wandering around the office, studying the various framed photos.
"You were in the Army," he said, unable to look away from a photo of Steve in uniform, mid serious conversation with someone outside of the photo, while a good looking brunette mugged for the camera over his shoulder. There were group shots as well, but Steve looked intense and commanding in each and every one, the sort of man who took his rank seriously. "Should I call you Captain Rogers?"
Steve snorted. "You could, but Hawkeye might take issue with it, since you didn't serve under my command."
"He was part of your unit?"
"So was Natasha," Steve answered. "And my brother."
"Let me guess, he's the one making faces?" Tony pointed to the photo in question, and Steve nodded, despite not looking up from the sketchbook.
"That would be Bucky," he said, mouth tugging up at the corner.
“Not much of a family resemblance,” Tony said, mentally kicking himself after the words left his mouth. For all he knew, Steve’s own father had been as much of a cad as Tony’s had been, and he might have just put his foot in his mouth in a big way.
Steve wore a wry smile when he looked up and met Tony’s eyes. “You’re sorry someone adopted us?”
Tony did his fish out of water impression again, mouth opening and closing until Steve took pity on him and laughed. “Why do I get the feeling you’re secretly a troll, Rogers?”
“Nothing secret about that.” Steve tilted his head, motioned for Tony to join him on the couch. “Come tell me if I’m on the right track here.”
Nerves suddenly making a comeback in a big way, Tony tried to act casual as he plopped down beside Steve, not sure which was making him more anxious; the proximity to Steve, or the idea that a tattoo might finally be in his future.
“If you like the concept, I’ll put together a couple versions for you to choose from,” Steve explained, handing over the notebook. “Unsurprisingly, I’d recommend the chest as far as placement goes. My preference is for working in color, so if you’re thinking of a more technical, monochrome execution, we’ll want to talk to Hawkeye.”
Tony stared at the rough sketch of the clockwork heart Steve had put together, and swallowed around the lump in his throat. It wasn’t anything that would ever have occurred to him, but as soon as he realized what he was looking at, he knew it was exactly what he wanted.
“Wow. Uh… Okay, that is kind of spookily perfect,” he said once he could trust his voice. “Color would be better—whatever you think would work best, I trust your instincts.”
Tearing his eyes away, Tony looked up, found Steve watching him, wearing a soft, almost shy smile. “Good. I’d have been disappointed handing this off to someone else.”
“No, I definitely want your hands, and your hands only,” Tony answered, the words catching up with his brain a moment later. To his horror, he felt himself blush, unable to look away from Steve’s big blue eyes. “That sounded dirtier than I’d intended.”
“Give me a week to work up some finished options for you,” Steve said, thankfully ignoring his stupid mouth, although to Tony’s surprise, the smile aimed at him only intensified. “I’m assuming you’ll have Ms. Potts call to schedule the actual appointment?”
“Yup. I just go where she says, when she says, really.”
Steve nodded, carefully removing the notebook from Tony’s hands before closing it. “Great. We can arrange to have the shop closed while you’re here, if you’re worried about being seen by other customers. We take privacy seriously at SHIELD.”
To Tony’s dismay, Steve got up from the couch, which meant the consultation was over, and he’d have to leave. The birthday loneliness washed over him again, but he grit his teeth, forced himself back to his feet while reminding himself that he was a customer, not a friend, even if he’d gone and overshared.
Steve grabbed a sheet from one of the desk drawers, and handed it over. “Some dos and don’ts for the night before and day of your appointment.”
Tony skimmed the sheet, nodding absently. “Hey, uh, thanks for the consultation slash therapy session.” When he looked back up, Steve was smiling again, and also holding out what looked to be a business card.
“My cell is on the back, in case you need to get in touch directly.”
He couldn’t get the card fast enough. Steve was probably just being helpful, and going above and beyond for a high-profile client, but it still felt like a win in Tony’s books. “I’d give you a card, only, uh, I don’t actually have any. Pepper doesn’t like it when I network.”
Tony fished a hand into his pocket while he was rambling, and after unlocking his phone, entered in Steve’s number without breaking eye contact, then sent off a quick one-handed message. Seconds later, Steve’s phone vibrated.
“Guessing I have it now?”
Which made it a little easier, leaving the office, because Tony could pretend he’d actually have the courage to send another message, and that maybe Steve would reply, and perhaps he’d actually remember how to be charming, and be able to talk Steve into a date.
Yeah, not likely.