There's a bottle of nail polish on one of the end tables in the lounge area. Things have a tendency to wander in the Avengers Tower, plates and mugs and shoes and stray clothing drifting through the common areas, the flotsam of daily life. Steve usually finds it comforting, but there's something about the inexplicably appearing nail polish that makes him feel uncomfortable.
The label says Pink Rose, and it makes him think of Peggy's red lipstick and matching nails, worn with ease and grace. Most of the time when he's not fighting or running or punching things, Steve feels too big for his surroundings. Not at all poised like Natasha or calm like Bruce or even careless like Tony. Even Thor seems to be at ease with himself, constantly breaking things or taking up so much space and no longer worrying about apologising. Steve has to work, constantly, to not become a walking apology -- sorry for his size, sorry for his ignorance and antiquated views.
The tiny bottle is cool and heavy in his palm. Men can wear nail polish now, without even being dressed as dames. He's seen it on the TV. Some men even wear make-up and feathers and sing nonsensically about chameleons and world religions, but he hasn't seen anyone exactly like that on the streets of New York yet. Maybe the song videos aren't that different from the wartime vaudevilles the soldiers would stage sometimes. Maybe there's still only a very specific time and place for that stuff.
Steve unscrews the lid, just to take a closer look at the bright color. He's always thought that colored nails look so cheerful and elegant. Barring a supervillain attack, he has nowhere he needs to be, and who knows where the currents of the house will take this bottle next? He might not get a second chance like this. A furtive sweep across the flat of his left thumb leaves behind much more paint than he expected. He tries his best to smooth it out, but it proves to be a tricky business. The edges don't look too sharp, and the strongly smelling paint makes his thumb feel weirdly cool beneath the lacquer. The pink is making his skin look more tan by contrast, though, and Steve holds his hand up, studying the effect.
If anyone saw him now they would call him names. The words people use now are new, but they're uttered with just as much venom, if not more, as the ones the bullies used to shout after him. Sometimes one of the others makes a claim about how far the world has come since Steve's day, but Steve has seen the protesters, has heard the people on the news. He doesn't think things have changed much. Most people are still viciously guarding their fellow men; always on the lookout to punish anyone who looks or acts or talks just a little differently. What is he doing, anyway?
He is just about to screw the lid back on and go clean his hands when Tony stumbles in. He is headed towards the kitchen but falters when he sees Steve on the couch. His dark eyes and sharp mind take in the little tableau in a second, and Steve feels his stomach turn. Of all the people in the place, Tony is by far the most tenacious and potty-mouthed.
"Pink, though?" Tony says, like they've carried on a longer conversation, cocking his hip slightly, but his face is strangely immobile. "I don't know, Cap, doesn't really go with the outfit, does it? Kind of clashes with the red-white-n-American thing."
Steve feels the blood rush to his cheeks, powerless to stop it and suddenly furious -- with Tony for being such a bastard, and with himself for being so stupid. "I--"
"But, hey, it's cool, I like the contrast. You got this whole big rough hands, dainty pink polish going, it's kind of arresting." He slinks closer and strides over Steve's legs to perch on the table in front of him. "You got the edge mussed up a bit there," he says with a nod. "This stuff's a bitch to put on smooth. You gotta be careful, keep the brush from touching the cuticle. Gotta leave some room for it to settle."
He looks up, and Steve meets those dark brown eyes, his mind whirring with Tony's words. "You've... done this?"
"Well, if you want the full Rocky Horror Picture Show experience I think it's actually a requirement. Also, you try being a 16-year-old college kid and see how long it takes before the frat boys get a bright idea." Steve has that old familiar sensation of hearing Tony and understanding the words but not the sentences. Tony is still holding his gaze when he says, "So. Are you gonna do the rest?" and Steve thinks he looks honestly expectant, frankly considering, and not like he's ready to make a joke.
Steve looks down at his hand. The nail polish looks dry, the color slightly different now. "I, I was just about to take it off, actually." He would get up then, but Tony is so close, and he's not sure how to get away without getting even closer.
"That's... too bad, really. I didn't take you for a quitter, Steve Rogers."
Steve looks at Tony again, not quite sure how to take that comment. Tony, gaze never wavering, reaches out very slowly and takes Steve's hand in his own. His skin is warm and dry, fingers dark with oil and rough from his work. Even though Steve's hand could hide his completely, he's holding onto it like Steve is skittish somehow. Next to Tony's dirty ones, Steve's painted thumb almost manages to look dainty and feminine.
The blood makes another rush for his face, but the sensation is different now, warmer and much more enjoyable.
"I think you need a few pointers, though," Tony says. "I mean," he clears his throat, "not that I have a lot of practice with this sort of thing, but I could probably show you a few tricks." He seems to be just as taken with the contrast their hands make, and Steve feels a delayed jolt of recognition go through him. It feels like a secret doorway has just been revealed to him, leading to a room he never expected was there.
"I would like that," Steve admits and squeezes Tony's hand. He thinks he expects a smile, a wisecrack, anything but the shuddery breath Tony lets out.
"Alright, um," Tony clears his throat again and lets go of Steve's hand. He reaches for the bottle of nail polish and extracts it from his grasp. "Step one: roll the bottle between your palms. Never shake nail polish, apparently it's bad and you should never ever do it, so quoth hundreds of girlfriends past." Tony demonstrates, holding his hands out to the side like a showgirl. "Seriously, though, I think it's just one of those arbitrary make-up rules people invent to make the whole thing seem even more mysterious and secret than it really is, I've never accidentally exploded a bottle of nail polish from shaking it, which is more than I can say for some substances that don't actually come with those kinds of verbally transmitted instructions."
Steve stays quiet, lets Tony talk their way through this strange event and gives up his hand without comment when Tony reaches for it.
"Alright, now there's a trick to getting just the right amount of nail polish on your brush, but I am afraid it's trial and error, my friend, it's all in the touch. So, okay, start in the middle, near the cuticle, but not brushing directly against it, and -- sweep down." However casual Tony's litany sounds, his gaze flicks up to Steve's chin but then skirts down again without making eye contact. "Now you just..." The volume of his commentary falters as he quickly and efficiently swipes down both sides of the nail, the cold mingling with the heat Steve feels pulsing through him. "See?"
Steve has forgotten to pay attention to anything but Tony's lips and voice. Apparently his silence makes Tony look up for confirmation. Their eyes meet briefly, and Steve's slowly building arousal washes from his extremities towards his core in one sweeping rush, but Tony is already looking back down. Steve tries to ignore the sensation and picks up the bottle so Tony can reach it easily. Tony mumbles something resembling a thanks, dips, and goes back to the next digit. The quiet is almost unnerving, but Steve has seen him like this before, consumed by some project and nearly oblivious to the world around him. There's a slight flush spreading over his cheeks, his lips parted in concentration, and Steve finds him so breathtakingly beautiful it's like a knife through his heart. In this moment it's like all those times he wanted to reach out and touch Bucky, stroke skin and press lips to lips, and he nearly breaks under it this time. He feels his eyes mist over, and has to fight hard not to bite his lip or clasp the tiny glass bottle so hard it breaks.
Pull yourself together, Rogers, he thinks, trying for stern but feeling mostly on the verge of panic. The world hasn't become an easier place to live in while he was gone. During the war some brassy soldiers would wear dresses and perform in front of the rest of the troops, and the crowd would laugh and catcall, but there would always be a certain nervous tension there, which made Steve feel queasy and ill-at-ease. Men would confide in each other; talk softly of home and share their fears in dark, unguarded moments, and then they would go on leave to see their girlfriends... Now he sees guys on the TV in make-up, kissing each other on the cheeks, hugging and clinging. But out in the field they still exchange the same perfunctory slaps on the back and the same derogatory comments about each other's fighting style. He still sees the same square-jawed men in every military compound he visits, and he knows -- feels certain -- that absolutely no one would take him seriously as the great American hero if he ever looked or acted like a pansy.
"Alright, last one," Tony says and brings him out of his grim reverie. "Do you want to try?"
What Steve really wants is to run the heck away and forget this ever happened. But the look on Tony's face stops him, the heat of his thighs pressing in on Steve's knees from both sides, and as embarrassing as it is to admit he wants this to last just a few moments longer. He wants to try applying the nail polish just one more time. "Um, sure." He carefully takes the small brush from Tony, their fingers touching firmly, and dips.
"Oh, uh, I think, lemme just, yeah, just a little bit... less," Tony comments and gently guides his hand back to wipe off a small amount on the lip of the bottle, before letting Steve steer the glistening brush towards his fingernail. "Like I showed you, just, yeah, there's good, and one sweep, and then the other-- Okay, good." For a second neither of them moves, their foreheads almost touching, their breath mingling in the small space between them. Then Tony says, "Right, done!" very loudly and puts his hands up and out, like he can't stop touching Steve quickly enough.
Steve blinks slowly. Holding the bottle in his painted left hand, he screws the lid back on and puts it away. There's a smudge of pink on the pad of Tony's thumb from holding the brush, and the contrast of pink and oil reminds Steve of what their hands looked like together just before. A bit of Tony's monologue from earlier pushes through the haze in Steve's mind. "A girlfriend taught you to put on nail polish?"
"Well, I haven't really had girlfriends, except for Pepper of course, but there were girls and friends and friendly girls and yeah, some of them may have shown me how, but mostly they wouldn't let me put it on them. I don't know, girls can be really fussy about their looks, apparently they didn't trust me to do a good job, which is ridiculous, have you seen me? Nerves of steel on the job. Laser focus. Never let it be said that Tony Stark does a half-assed job. Well. Most of the time. Almost always."
Steve can't help but quirk a smile. He looks down at his hand. It looks alien to him now, and he's torn between finding it compelling and finding it grotesque. "Well. Thanks for showing me. I guess I should take it off again. How do I do that?"
Tony snorts. "Uh, you don't really." Steve's stomach sinks. "It's not exactly designed for... Well, no, of course it comes off! There's -- nail polish remover, it's a thing. I think mostly cleaning alcohol. I bet the stuff I use for oil stains can get it right off. But um." Tony takes Steve's hand again. "You could leave it on. A little longer. Just..." He weaves their fingers together carefully and turns their hands so he can look at the polish, and Steve's body sings out in elation, panic, confusion. "I bet you could single-handedly start a fashion trend."
Steve blushes and tugs on his hand, a half-hearted attempt at disentangling himself. "Not in this country."
Tony tightens his grasp with a twitch, looking at Steve. "I really think you underestimate... well, I'm not actually sure who you're underestimating here; yourself, or this fine country of ours."
Steve rubs his free right hand through his hair with a sigh. "I shouldn't even be doing any of this. I'm not some..."
"No, no," Tony says quickly. "I didn't imply -- anything. I didn't say you were..." Tony doesn't finish his sentence. He has a look in his eyes, a there was something in his tone of voice...
Steve feels a surge of tentative hope, but no -- Tony can't be saying what Steve thinks he's saying. It's ridiculous, and Steve has to get himself together, has to stop imagining things. He pulls his hand free with more force than he intended. "You date women!" The words burst out of him, louder than he's comfortable with, fuelled by his frustration with himself and impossible Tony Stark. Tony who never stops saying ludicrous things, who sits too close, who never backs down.
Tony looks surprised for an instant, but then his face changes, like when something snags on the cogwheels in his impressive brain. "I... I date... not just women. I... not only, not exclusively, not in any predetermined kind of..." His chatter ebbs out, leaving them staring silently at each other.
Steve has no words. His image of Tony Stark has just been turned quite thoroughly on its head. His mind is reeling with the meaning of Tony's confession. He doesn't quite understand how 'not exclusively' works, and what it means in the context of this strange come-on he thinks Tony is making at him. Why does Tony like him to wear nail polish? Why does he want them to touch like that? But even more distressingly, why does Steve seem to want those same things?
"I. Can't. Want. This." Steve has never felt at such a loss for words, every syllable dragging painfully against his throat.
Tony blinks. "What 'this'? Nail polish? Holding, um, hands? Dating guys? What? Help me out here, Rogers."
Steve sighs towards the ceiling, consciously keeping his hands on his knees to avoid tugging any more on his hair. "Nail polish, dating... All of it!" He sucks in a breath and feels the truth sink in. "You."
Tony twists his upper body down, his head cocking low, in an attempt to catch Steve's eyes. "So, um, I'm pretty sure you can do all of it. You can have all of that. Me. Although, I still think maybe the pink isn't the best choice for you, but that's... fixable."
It makes Steve laugh, makes him huff out in amusement and finally look at Tony again and, oh. Tony's eyes are big and his gaze is flickering across Steve's face like he's still trying to get a read on him. Tony said Steve could have this, him, everything -- and he wants it, so badly.
"I'm not sure I know how to do this," he tells Tony quietly, feeling raw inside.
Tony takes his hand, again, and Steve feels a wash of gratitude for all these difficult gestures Tony keeps making, how he keeps reaching out even when he's been put down twice already in their short conversation. Tony clears his throat, as if he is carefully weighing his words. "I, uh, I'm not sure I know all that much more, actually. But I'm willing to share all my notes, and then we can work on it together? How's that sound?"
"That sounds... good..." He can feel his lip twitching in something that might be a smile.
Tony nods. "Good, good, that's--" He cradles Steve's painted hand in both of his and lifts it to his face, studying it closely for a short while before ducking down to plant a kiss on the back of it. Steve feels a tingle race from that spot all the way up his arm. Tony sighs. "Steve. Steve can I kiss you now? Is that, do you-- Can I, just...?"
Steve nods, dazedly, but still manages to mumble, "You already did."
Tony rears back a little, "Really, Steve, you wanna do this now? You wanna--"
Steve reaches out, putting his right hand on the side of Tony's face, and Tony falls silent instantly. He feels the shell of Tony's ear against his palm, his beard against the root of his thumb, and then Tony is leaning their foreheads together, mirroring Steve's gesture. For a split second he sees Tony's face up close, his eyes shut, his mouth tantalisingly agape, before Steve has to close his own eyes against the rush of emotions. He has another moment to breathe, and then Tony is pressing their lips together, soft moist mouth a perfect counterpoint to the scratch of beard, and Steve wants him so badly. He wants to feel and smell and touch and kiss and never stop, but when he feels the wet flicker of Tony's tongue against his bottom lip, he has to pull back with a gasp.
"God, Steve, perfect, just..." Tony whispers, before adding in a more joking tone of voice, "Maybe ease up on the clasping a little bit, actually, that's a bit much."
Steve has to look down at their clasped hands before he can make the conscious decision to ease up, and he's blushing or something, pulse pounding through him, but it's not just arousal. He watches as Tony gathers his painted hand and lifts it to his lips, kissing the knuckles and running a careful finger around the rim of each nail, provoking a shiver out of Steve.
"So, the nail polish. Where is that on the Steve Rogers bucket list, is that something you want to pursue? Or is it more than that, are there, um, other things on that list that you want to tell me about?"
"It's not essential," Steve replies. "It was just a thing I felt like trying."
"Okay, so no cross-dressing on the horizon, no lacy underwear? Is that too early to discuss?" Tony's words makes Steve blush furiously. "No, not that I'm complaining, either way. I'm all for it, I'm for all of it. I, uh, really like the way your hand looks right now, just, if that's in any way a factor..."
"I like the way it looks, too," Steve mumbles. "But that doesn't make me a woman or anything like that!" He feels he absolutely has to make that clear.
Tony just chuckles. "No, sure, doesn't have to. I get it. We'll get to it. We'll... get there."
Steve smiles. For a moment he feels giddy and hopeful. So what if he likes Tony? That doesn't have to detract from his ability to serve his country. So what if he chooses to kiss him and touch him? Nobody has to know, nobody needs to know what they do in private, and they won't get to know unless he and Tony decide to tell them. "Yeah," he says, squeezing Tony's hand, "We'll get there."