Tony wasn’t a fan of celebrating his birthday. Back in his twenties, he’d appreciated any excuse to party, but those days were long gone. Every high came with a corresponding low, and his lows seemed to get worse the older he got. The drugs would wear off, the booze fog lifted, and regardless of how good the sex was, he was still alone at the end of the day. It was better for everyone involved that he'd quit while he was ahead.
Added bonus? Behaving himself pissed the tabloids off to no end, which was a gift in and of itself. The last big controversy was years prior when he’d left behind the weapons game. The press still kept tabs on Tony in the hopes he’d revert to form, but they were no longer a part of his day to day existence.
Even if partying had still been enjoyable, turning forty didn’t seem worthy of a celebration. If he had an actual life instead of his work he might feel different, 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 didn’t recognize anything. They were in Brooklyn, he knew that much but still drew a blank when attempting to suss out why.
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars for a hint.”
Happy laughed, but Tony already knew it was a lost cause. He couldn’t blame the guy; no one wanted to get on Pepper’s bad side. “No can do, boss. Sit back and enjoy the ride. We’ll be there in a couple minutes, anyway.”
“Sure, likely story.”
Tony trusted Pepper not to have lined up some awful surprise party, which was a small consolation. You needed friends for those sorts of things anyway, and he could count his on one hand. Other than Pepper, Rhodey was in Afghanistan, Happy was behind the wheel, and Bruce was out of town.
“And we’re here,” Happy announced, pulling over next to a row of parked cars.
Tony frowned. “A diner? What the hell, Happy?”
“I 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, “and stop frowning.”
The diner looked a lot like every other diner he’d ever seen. “It's official, I'm 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 pulled him in the other direction. “I haven’t looked into it. Your present is over here.”
“What do you… Oh. No, are you serious?”
Pepper smiled 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 finally 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 his cheek, gave Tony's 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 blinked, her smile never wavering, and Tony hung his head. “I don’t mean that. We could get waffles instead?”
“Go inside, Tony,” she ordered before the car door slammed closed.
Tony stood there like a dope, waving as his friends drove off. Once they were gone, he spun on his heels and stared at the sign for SHIELD Tattoo as if this might change the situation.
The exterior of the shop was lacking in neon, or skulls, which was a relief. The thick red curtains in the shop's window prevented Tony from getting a sneak peek inside. Not sure what else to do, he shuffled forward, and read the sign on display behind the glass.
If you are racist, sexist, homophobic, or an asshole, don’t come in.
Beneath this, there were three easels, each featuring a name and a sample of work. As Tony moved closer, the images faded, static photographs giving way to a slideshow. SHIELD was using the latest and greatest StarkPads, each nestled into a wooden case.
The work of someone named Steve Rogers occupied the first easel. Tattoos or not, the images wouldn't have been out of place in one of the museums Pepper was fond of dragging him to. An homage to Botticelli shifted into something downright cubist. Tony didn't have Pepper's pedigree when it came to art but recognized talent when he saw it.
Delicate bursts of color gave the illusion of motion on the second display. The name Natasha Romanova tickled at Tony's subconscious. He tried to place the name while admiring her technique but drew a blank.
The final artist went by the moniker Hawkeye. Their work was all monochrome, but far from simplistic. One macabre and whimsical piece gave way to another, each more fantastic than the one before.
Tony’s attention shifted back to the work of Steve Rogers before he made up his mind to enter the shop. Bells chimed as he opened the door, the sound fading into the background as Tony took it all in.
Never having been in a tattoo shop before, Tony wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. SHIELD wasn't it, though. The heady scent of coffee was a pleasant surprise, as was hearing Ella Fitzgerald. Her iconic voice almost drowned out the steady hum of a tattoo gun, the sounds layering in a satisfying way.
The shop had atmosphere, looked like a place out of time, all rich colors, plush leather, gleaming wood, and brass. Whoever had decorated managed to make the small interior seem spacious and deep. Mirrors reflected the glow of chandeliers, leaving the area beyond the front desk bathed in light. Thick wooden partitions that looked like repurposed booths from a speakeasy divided the space, affording each of the artist’s stations privacy. Someone walking in to browse wouldn’t be able to gawp at the paying customers, which Tony appreciated.
At the front of the shop, the lighting was moody, intimate, reminded Tony of Paris for reasons he couldn’t explain. Framed art covered the walls, but mixed in were various photographs of soldiers. The largest bore a little placard reading “The Howling Commandos” beneath.
“May I help you?”
Tony spun on his heels, tearing his eyes away from the photo, only to be dumbstruck. Standing before him was, without a doubt, the most beautiful person he’d ever laid eyes on. He’d partied with supermodels, so that was saying something.
The sleeves of the man's crisp white shirt were rolled to the elbow, exposing his forearms, one of which was covered in intricate artwork. The shirt clung to his chest and broad shoulders as if painted on. 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 the man's stance. Tony was willing to bet that if anyone tried any funny business, the Adonis would toss them back out onto the street without breaking a sweat.
Oh, and he'd arched an eyebrow and was still waiting for an answer to his question. Tony needed to stop checking him out and get with the program.
“Uh, I have an appointment,” Tony finally managed. “For a consultation.”
This earned him a smile, and now the baby blues the new love of his life was sporting seemed 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 his classmates.
Tony’s heart was racing, but as the man approached, it kicked into overdrive. He accepted the offered hand, shook, appreciating the strong grip.
“Steve Rogers. Welcome to my shop. You must be Ms. Potts’s friend?”
“Must be,” he answered, trying to sound smooth. “Tony.”
“Nice to meet you, Tony.”
Steve’s deep voice and 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, mentally chastising himself for the slip. “I was admiring it before heading in. The decor is pretty snazzy, too. I’m digging the retro vibe.”
Steve's answer was polite, but he'd narrowed his eyes 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 figuring out Tony was a walking disaster.
“Come on back,” Steve said, “we’ll get an idea of what you’re looking for, see if one of our artists would be a good match.”
It was a close call, but Tony managed to keep from groaning in appreciation once he saw Steve’s ass.
The room they entered was tiny compared to his own office but had enough space for a couple of couches, a table, and a desk. Artwork adorned the walls in this space, as well, along with more photos. One featured Steve, a blond man, and a breathtaking redhead standing in front of the shop holding the SHIELD Tattoo sign.
“No wonder her name was familiar,” Tony blurted, stepping close enough that his nose almost touched the glass of the frame. “Bruce’s friend,” he explained, grinning over his shoulder at Steve. “I could have sworn he introduced her as Natalie.”
“Natasha will be here later if you want 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 sat on the couch opposite Steve, not trusting himself to be within touching distance.
“We specialize in custom work here. 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?” Tony got the sense Steve already knew the answer to his 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 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. Tony hadn’t woken up that morning thinking of getting a tattoo. Rejecting the birthday gift had been tempting at first, but something had changed.
“You know who I am, right?” Steve nodded, but it looked like the question made him uncomfortable. “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 here. I’d like a… an obvious, irrefutable reminder. 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. Even stranger, they get pissed off if I do something to remind them that they don’t. It's like I’m ruining something by not behaving the way they want, 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. “You don’t sound stupid.” He waited until Tony made eye contact 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 to promote ourselves. We won't speak to reporters, or keep a record of the work you have done.”
“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.”
Steve continued watching him, 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. 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 interrupted. “What did you have in mind?”
Which was the million dollar question, really. Tony had considered and discarded ideas over the years, but nothing felt like a good match. Steve was waiting for an answer, though. 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. I didn’t have a specific idea in mind—always figured I’d know it when I saw it, but... Do you remember the press conference I gave a couple years ago?”
Steve arched an eyebrow. “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 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 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. Tony had focused on the business in a way he’d never done before, which led to uncovering Obadiah Stane's black market dealings. Uncovering that bit of horror was the final straw. Tony called a press conference to announce the end of SI's weapons manufacturing days.
His tactic had won them some support with the public, but their stocks still took a hit once word of Stane’s actions got out. Naming Pepper as the new CEO helped them bounce back, as had his decision to step as far away from the limelight as possible.
Knowing the man he’d considered a surrogate father had only been using him still haunted Tony. Stane’s testimony had been ugly and hurtful on purpose, which was bad enough. Worse still was knowing that he'd put countless people in harm’s way by leaving SI in the wrong hands. Tony had spent every day since trying to make up for his years of willful ignorance but still lost sleep over it all.
There were those who would always argue Tony was the traitor for the stance he’d taken. Whatever. It was a lot easier looking in the mirror when he spent his days developing bionic prosthetics or working on clean energy.
Steve had remained quiet through Tony's rambling, but his expression had softened 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 the patience in Steve's teasing tone of voice should have been alarming. Instead, it flooded him with warmth as he watched the smile overtake 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 flipped past pages of sketches before coming to a blank sheet. As Steve watched, Tony sketched, aware his precise lines lacked artistry.
"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."
By the end of Tony's explanation, there was a diagram of his heart on the page. He'd surrounded it with notation containing more than one Ghostbusters reference, and some math for good measure. Tony looked up to see if Steve was still with him. Confusion was absent, but Steve seemed to be studying him as if Tony 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 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 the same."
Tony felt his face flush and looked down at the paper. Howard Stark had been a genius in his own right, but he was more of a big idea man. His father left the grunt work required to make those ideas work for so-called lesser minds. The documentary in question tried—and in Tony's opinion, failed—to spin Howard's method. Enter a room, bark some demands, and bully the staff until they produced.
There was no denying that Stark Industries had been a roaring success. For better or worse, his father's inventions had changed the world. The only problem was, Howard's approach to parenting was identical to that of business. He’d had standards and expectations no sane person would have had of a child. Other kids his age were playing together and learning to socialize. Tony was building circuit boards, meeting deadlines, and stressing over not measuring up.
"If he'd been alive..." Tony clamped his mouth shut, took a breath, then decided to finish the sentence after all. "Howard would have said it served me right for having a heart in the first place."
Steve was kind enough not to follow up on the remark, picked up the notebook instead to study the drawing. "Is it okay if I keep this?"
"Sure." Tony motioned for Steve to help himself, feeling worn out by the conversation. He wasn't a heart to heart kind of guy, especially not with strangers. The trip down memory lane had rekindled his birthday blues. “Do me a favor? Don’t sell it on eBay, or Pepper will murder me.”
Steve flipped past Tony's sketch and started working on something new. The sound of pencil on paper soothed Tony's frazzled nerves, but he still felt too restless to stay put. Tony started wandering around the office, examining the framed photos to kill time.
"You were in the Army." A photo of Steve in uniform captivated Tony's considerable attention. Steve's focus was somewhere off camera, every line of his body projecting seriousness. In juxtaposition, a good looking brunette mugged for the camera over his shoulder. There were other group shots surrounding the photo, Steve's intense expression the only constant. "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 without 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, and he might have 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 a secret troll, Rogers?”
“Nothing secret about that.” Steve tilted his head, motioned for Tony to join him on the couch. “Tell me if I’m on the right track here.”
Nerves making a comeback in a big way, Tony tried to act casual as he plopped down beside Steve. It was hard to say which was making him more anxious; the proximity to Steve, or the idea that the tattoo was going to be a reality.
“If you like the concept, I’ll put together a couple versions for you to choose from,” Steve explained, handing over the notebook. “I’d recommend the chest as far as placement goes. My preference is for working in color. 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 have occurred to him, but as soon as Tony realized what he was looking at, he knew it was the one.
“Wow. Uh… Okay, that spooky 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. It would be disappointing to hand this off to someone else.”
“No, I definitely want your hands, and your hands only,” Tony answered, the words catching up with his brain on a delay. 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, kindly ignoring Tony's stupid mouth. To Tony’s surprise, the smile aimed at him 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.”
Steve nodded, 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 other customers seeing you here. Privacy is a serious matter 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. He grit his teeth, reminded 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 checked, 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.”
He couldn’t get the card fast enough. Chances were Steve was 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 one. Pepper doesn’t like it when I network.”
Tony fished a hand into his pocket while rambling, and after unlocking his phone, entered Steve’s number without breaking eye contact, sending 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. Tony could pretend he’d have the courage to send another message, and that Steve would reply. In his fantasy, he even remembered how to be charming and talked Steve into a date.
Yeah, not likely.