The thought comes to Tony when he's massaging the worst of the tension out of Steve's shoulders three days after a bad mission. It was one of those battles where Steve shouldered all the responsibility even though everyone had had a part to play in the disaster. Thor had been distracted, the Hulk had been more chaotic than usual, Clint had been coming off a bad shoulder injury, and Nat— well, Nat hadn't really done much of anything wrong, and if she had, Tony wouldn't have noticed it. Not to mention that Tony had gone off gallivanting the way Steve always told him not to, leaving the rest of the team to clean up a much bigger mess than he'd realized. He and Steve had already had it out while Steve was recovering in the hospital for the six hours it took to get him in good enough shape for discharge.
It's been two days since then, and this is the first time Steve has let Tony touch him when he's awake. He still wraps his way around Tony while they're sleeping, but Tony knows better than to push too hard about that when Steve's still fuming at him. Tonight, though, Steve had slumped down on the floor between Tony's shins and curled his shoulders forward in a silent admission of need. Tony had been willing to take whatever he could get, and had started working at the muscles in Steve's shoulders, trying to steer clear of the burn he knew was still healing on his left arm. He really needed to do something to help the shield be more heat-resistant, at least at high levels for sustained periods of time. It really wouldn't do to have Steve getting hurt like this if there was something Tony could do about it.
The thought comes to him as he stares at the still-healing pink skin where the burn had once been, his mind drifting as it so often does to his scientific curiosities. He knows from experience that there won't be a scar by this time on Saturday, but that doesn't answer the question that's started niggling at the back of his mind.
Steve grunts from his place between Tony's knees, reminding Tony that he's supposed to be giving Steve a long-overdue massage. Tony chuckles and goes back to work, but Steve can tell his mind isn't in it. He turns around in Tony's hands after a moment, squinting up at Tony. "Somethin' on your mind?"
Tony can't help the way Steve's Brooklyn drawl draws out his sappiest side. He's helpless against the need to be close to Steve when he's like that. He leans down to kiss Steve's lips, a gentle press that doesn't promise anything more. Not while Steve's healing. Steve reaches up to cup the back of his neck in an attempt to pull him closer, kiss him deeper. Tony resists, gentling the kiss and putting a hand on Steve's collarbone as he pulls away.
Steve frowns. "Tony?"
"Have you ever thought about what would happen if you tried to get a tattoo?"
Steve blinks. For as fast as Steve's mind is, Tony's has always moved faster, and he isn't always the best at explaining his thought process to anyone. Once he's caught up, Steve reaches out with one hand to take Tony's and place it over the healing scar tissue on his shoulder. "I'm going to be okay, Tony."
Tony jerks his hand away, and Steve lets him. "That's not what this is about," Tony argues, his hands flitting about as he tries to refocus his thoughts. "Or at least, that's not only what this is about. I just. I know you'll be okay, I know everything's fine, this isn't about that, I just—"
Steve puts a hand on Tony's knee, not silencing him, but anchoring him. Tony immediately relaxes, the soothing touch of Steve's fingertips spreading into his veins. He lowers his hands and meets Steve's eyes. Steve's always been better with body language than with words. He searches Tony's eyes. Whatever he finds must satisfy him, because his face relaxes. "Promise?"
And isn't that just like Steve, to know that Tony needs his certainty in words just as much as Steve needs it in Tony's actions. "I do."
Steve nods and turns around to face Tony fully, still staring up at him from the floor. "Then what is this about?"
Tony shrugs. "Call it scientific curiosity."
Steve hums. He leans forward to rest his temple on Tony's thigh. "Scientific curiosity."
Tony's face heats at the suggestion in Steve's tone. "Yes, okay? Scientific curiosity. I can't help it that I want to know—" His jaw snaps shut, but he knows Steve heard the unspoken question regardless.
"You want to know how deep the healing goes."
Tony looks away. It feels like a silly question; Steve's gotten third-degree burns before and they've healed just fine. Those go down to the dermis the same way a tattoo does, so there's no reason to believe a tattoo won't heal as well.
"Tell you what. I'll indulge your curiosity. On one condition," he adds before Tony can so more than look up at him with a grin. "If I get this tattoo, you have to get a matching one."
Tony narrows his eyes. "This isn't an excuse to get me to do something embarrassing, is it?"
"No," Steve says with a laugh. "Just an even bet between men."
Steve raises an eyebrow, knowing that there's no way Tony can refuse that look. Tony wavers for a moment before relenting with a sigh. "At least tell me what tattoo you're gonna get?"
"Nope." Steve pops the 'p' at the end of the word, and Tony can't stop the thrill that shivers through him. Steve's serious, and there's not a damn thing Tony can do to talk him down at this point. Well, other than concede, that is.
Tony sits up a little straighter. "Two weeks. If the ink is still there after two weeks, then I'll do it."
"Ten days." They both know that's the longest any of Steve's surface-level wounds have taken to heal.
Steve doesn't hesitate. He holds out a hand to Tony. "Shake on it?"
Tony eyes him suspiciously. "You don't want a teammate in here to seal the deal?"
Steve's eyes soften, and for all that Tony knows he's being played, it isn't any easier to fight those eyes. "I trust you."
Tony melts. He takes Steve's hand in his and they shake on it. "When are you going? Not that there's any rush; I just want to know when I should schedule my appointment for."
Steve crawls up into the bed beside Tony, pulling him down so that they can fall asleep, unwilling to let Tony stray back to his lab this late at night. "I'll need to set up a consult and make sure they can do what I need them to do. After that, it should only take a few days. It's not a long session."
"Something small, then?"
Steve pulls Tony atop him, then grips him by the back of his neck, pulling him down into a fierce kiss. "It's anything but."
Before Tony can ask anything more, one of Steve's hands drifts down to his ass, squeezing it with intent. Tony spares half a moment's thought to the burns on Steve's shoulders before relenting.
And if Steve keeps the fingers of his right hand laced through Tony's throughout the night, Tony doesn't think to say anything about it.
Steve texts Tony the confirmation for his tattoo appointment.
you want company?
No. I think it will work better as a surprise.
Tony stares at the words with something akin to disbelief, but lets it go soon enough. Steve knows what he wants, and if that isn't Tony at his side for his super secret tattoo plans, then Tony isn't going to fight him. He's buried under SI paperwork as it is; getting away for missions has been hard enough. He'd do it, though. If Steve asked him to, he'd do it.
Then Pepper tosses another stack of papers on his desk on her way to her actual office, glaring at him pointedly as she does so, and all thought of Steve's appointment is gone.
At least, it's gone until three days later when Steve sends him a smiley face, a paintbrush, and three thumbs-up emojis. The man has been having way too much fun with emojis since Peter started explaining them to him, and Tony would probably be annoyed if he wasn't so endeared. It takes him a minute to make the connection, but once he does, he calls Steve. No reason to wait for the game of texting back and forth.
"Hey, Tony, I—"
"I don't get a picture?"
Steve laughs, and Tony revels in the warmth of it down the phone line. It's exactly what he wanted to hear, tinged with that rush of adrenaline that comes with pain. "Don't want to spoil the fun."
"Oh, come on, Steve, spoil me. I'm eminently spoilable."
"Don't push your luck, Tony."
"Steeeeeve." Tony doesn't mean to whine, but he's excited enough about all of this that he's not above whining. Not to mention that he doesn't even know if the tattoo will still be there when Steve gets home tonight. "What if it heals between now and when I see you?"
"It won't." There's a level of confidence in his tone that makes Tony wonder if there's more to this than he'd initially realized. "Now, get back to work so you can come see me sooner."
"I own the company. I can leave any time."
"Uh huh. Tell me what Pepper says to that line when you try it on her."
Tony splutters, and the phone disconnects from Steve's end as he laughs at Tony. The bright sound is enough to power Tony through the rest of the day and get him home without completely tearing his hair out trying to figure out what Steve's tattoo is.
Steve's in the communal kitchen when Tony makes it home to the Tower, and Tony grabs him by the wrist and drags him to the elevator. Clint wolf-whistles, but Tony doesn't care. He wants to see what Steve did and where he got the tattoo, and he doesn't want to wait any longer. Steve laughs the whole way until they're in their bedroom and Tony's pulling at Steve's shirt.
"Come on," he mutters. "Show it to me."
"Slow down, honey. It's not going anywhere."
"You don't know that."
"I have a hunch."
Tony looks up at him. There's a gleam in his eyes, and it sends a thrill through Tony's stomach. There's something going on here. Something bigger than he can even begin to comprehend. Steve's still smiling when Tony relents. He cups Tony's face in his hands and pulls him into a deep, lingering kiss. Tony doesn't let himself melt against Steve completely, unwilling to fully succumb to his wiles, but it's a near thing.
When Steve finally releases Tony's lips, he's looking down at Tony with the kind of reverence that always makes Tony squirm. Tony swallows past the discomfort, and Steve smiles. He kisses the corner of Tony's eye, as though he can't bear to not be kissing him. "You're welcome to strip me," he says, startling Tony out of his reverie, "but it's not going to make it any easier to find the tattoo."
It takes Tony a moment to process this. When he does, he pulls back further, raising an eyebrow at Steve. "You're telling me it's not somewhere hidden."
Steve smiles and takes a step back, spreading his arms wide, one eyebrow quirked up in challenge. Tony narrows his eyes at Steve, but takes that as his cue to look the man over. He's got short sleeves on, but there is no sign of the beginnings of a tattoo sleeve. Tony does a full circle around Steve to make sure. Beneath the spot where his sweatpants pool at his ankles, there's nothing on his bare feet either.
Tony frowns. He does one more circuit just to be certain, but the tattoo is nowhere to be found. Tony's shoulders slump, suddenly wishing he'd insisted on coming along with Steve to the parlor. He'd really wanted to see that ink painted so prettily into Steve's skin. But he supposes that was too much to ask for. He sighs, and Steve turns to look at him, one eyebrow cocked.
Tony musters a brave face. "I guess that's one science experiment failed."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "What makes you so sure?" Tony frowns at the question. Steve takes a step closer, slowly lifting his hands as though to pull Tony into another kiss. A consolation prize this time, he supposes.
Only then he sees it. Bright red on Steve's left ring finger. That. That can't be.
Tony grabs Steve's hand. He can feel Steve's eyes on him as he stares at the tiny symbol inked onto his finger. The image is stylized to be sure, but Tony knows his tech and Steve's artistic tendencies well enough to know exactly what that is. It's his arc reactor, ever so slightly redesigned into the shape of a heart. On the back of Steve's ring finger. With three bands circling his finger with the stylized arc reactor. It looks like… it looks like…. But it can't be. That's impossible.
Before Tony can look up at Steve, Steve's already going down to his knees. Tony stares down at him. He's not sure when he stopped breathing, but he did, because this… this can't be happening.
Steve's face softens at whatever he sees in Tony's expression. "I love you, Tony Stark. Whatever you say in the next few minutes won't change that. I swear to you, nothing can change what I feel for you. But this," he inclines his head toward his hand, "is what is on the table for you if you want it. I am yours, Tony. Completely. Body and soul, I am yours. And if you'll have me, I will be yours in every way possible. I will take your name if you will let me be yours. I'm yours, Tony. For as long as you want me."
Tony's throat is dry and his lungs are aching, and for an instant, Tony doesn't know what to say to that. But Steve just watches him, eyes steady and unwavering and certain, and Tony knows he owes the man no less.
He wants to ask. The question is on the tip of his tongue to ask if Steve only did this because he knows the ink will fade away and hide any hint of his question. But his lips tremble and he holds it back because he knows better than that. He knows Steve would never ask this if he weren’t serious. And he'd never, ever do this to try to pull one over on Tony.
Slowly, a smile grows on Steve's face, and it takes Tony a moment to realize that it's answering the smile on his own. "You never properly asked me, you know."
Steve throws his head back and laughs. Tony tightens his grip on Steve's hand, unwilling to let him go. Even when his laughter fades, his mirth doesn't as he looks up at Tony. "I don't suppose I did. Then let me fix that. Will you, Anthony Edward Stark, give me the great honor of being your husband?"
Tony wrinkles his nose. "I don't think that's how it usually goes, Steve."
"Maybe not. When have we ever done things the usual way?"
Tony can't argue with that. Still, he wouldn't be himself if he wasn't contrary in all things, including his proposal. "You still have a ring for me, right? I mean, you're not expecting me to go walking out the front door to get tattooed right now."
Steve's face goes red, and Tony isn't sure whether he's amused or horrified. "Oh, no, Rogers, are you serious?"
"I mean, it was a thought."
Tony shakes his head, laughter falling helplessly from his lips. "You're unbelievable."
"And you still haven't answered me."
There's only the slightest hint of uncertainty in Steve's tone. It's minuscule enough that anyone other than Tony would probably have missed it. Even though he might have lorded this over Steve's head just a few years ago, he knows better by now. "I guess you're right about that." He searches Steve's face one last time for any lingering deceit or uncertainty. He finds none. He tugs on Steve's hands, pulling him to his feet. "Yes. Yes, Steven Grant Rogers, it would be my honor to be your husband."
Steve's eyes are alight with understanding as Tony inclines his head, ever so slightly, to meet his eyes. This is to be a relationship of equals, not one where one must go on bended knee to ask the world of the other. They've never seen eye-to-eye, but they've always stood on even footing. In this there will be no change.
Once he's certain of Tony's conviction, Steve reaches into a pocket and pulls out a small velvet-covered box. He holds it out to Tony, popping it open as he does.
It's a hell of a rock he's got in there. Tony would almost be worried about the guy's finances if he didn't know that he had decades' worth of army backpay that had no doubt funded the damn thing. From anyone else, Tony would have thought this was them trying too hard, or trying to win him over with excess. But with Steve, all he can think is that this is what he sees when he looks at Tony. The shining light at the center of their eternity together. He stares at it and then, swept up in the moment, snaps the box shut.
Steve's eyes when Tony meets them are wide with shock and hurt. Tony certainly can't have that. "Take me to your artist."
Steve blinks, bewildered. "What?"
Tony taps Steve's ring finger, and though the understanding in Steve's eyes comes immediately, he can't stop himself from finishing the statement. "I know you have one of those designed for me too. I want it."
Steve inhales slowly. "And… this ring?"
Tony shrugs. “I've got plenty of chains to wear it on until my finger heals. If you're this sure about me, I'm this sure about you. Let's do this."
They stare each other down, only for Steve to relent. "I'm not gonna get you to change your mind, am I?"
"Nope. Though you didn't try all that hard."
"I've learned to recognize a losing battle when I see one."
Tony scoffs. "A losing battle? You? Never."
Steve pulls him into a kiss, his tongue tracing Tony's mouth and leaving Tony shuddering. "Only you, Mister Stark. You are the only one I've ever ceded to."
"And see that it stays that way," Tony says with a jab to the center of Steve's chest.
Steve laughs and pulls Tony toward the elevator. "Come on. I'm not giving you a chance to change your mind."
"What, because yours really is going to heal?"
"No. Because I want to prove to the girl who inked me that there was a damn good reason we had to use Thor's special Asgardian ink in her tattoo machine."
Tony pulls up short. "What?"
"Thor's ink." Steve turns to face him. "I wasn't going to risk this for your experiment."
Steve's grin is infectious, even though Tony can't stop from rolling his eyes. "So you're telling me you rigged our bet."
"I'm making you get more tattoos once we're married."
Steve pulls Tony in close again, kissing his forehead, his nose, and both his cheeks. "As many as you want," he says between kisses. "As many as you want."
Tony smiles back up at him. "Let's start with just the one, okay?"
Steve kisses him once more. "Okay."
Tony lets Steve drag him down to the parking garage and onto his motorcycle to take him across town to his tattoo parlor. How Tony has already designated it as Steve's tattoo parlor is beyond him. It will be theirs soon enough, and if this is what it took for Steve to be brave enough to finally pop the question, Tony isn't complaining.
And if, six months from now, when they're kissing at the altar, Steve's tattoo artist is in the second row behind scores of Avengers? Well. That's for Tony to know and Steve to find out.