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The Road to Hell is Paved with Tony’s Good Intentions

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Steve isn’t taking his breakup with Brock well. He hasn’t showered in four days and he stinks so bad he can smell himself. Most days he just stays in his bed and alternates between sleeping and watching Netflix. At night, he lies spread eagle on his bed and staring at the ceiling, playing montages in his head of their happiest moments together, as scarce as they were. It’s torturous and maddening and he can’t stop fucking doing it. He’s lucky he works from home, or he would have been fired long ago.

Someone bangs on his door and Steve groans, pulling the covers over his head. He hopes whoever is knocking will give up if he just ignores them for long enough.

“Open the damn door, Rogers!” Tony yells.

With yet another groan, Steve slides out of bed, casting his fuzzy blanket around his shoulders. It drags along the floor as he shuffles over to answer the door.

“Tony,” he says flatly. “What are you doing here?”

Tony gives the bags of alcohol and ice cream in his hands a shake. “Here to celebrate!”

“I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m really not in a celebrating mood right now.”

“Why the hell not? You finally got rid of that tumour.”

Steve huffs out a laugh. “Thanks, but I kind of want to be alone right now.”

“Oh, come on! I gave you two weeks to mope around by yourself.” Tony doesn’t wait for a response, barging past Steve into his apartment.

“Jesus, Rogers. This place is a fucking dump. You can live like this?” Tony scans the room, eyeing the piles of dirty laundry on the sofa and crumpled up sketches littering the floor with distaste. Takeout containers are stacked precariously on top of one another in the garbage and the sink is filled with crusted over dishes.

“You can’t just come into a guy’s house and starting insulting it,” Steve mutters. He shoves some plates out of the way to make room on the counter for the drinks Tony brought.

“I don’t see a house. I see a landfill. You,” Tony says, pointing at Steve, “are going to take a nice long bath—and I mean for at least an hour—while I call someone over to clean this place.”

-

They end up doing a Disney movie marathon, leaning against each other on the couch, their feet propped up on the coffee table. Steve sips at the mudslide Tony made for him, making happy noises at the combination of vanilla ice cream and alcohol. They’re both a little tipsy, singing along to the songs and tearing up when Mulan runs away to join the army in her father’s place.

“God, I love that guy,” Tony says when Tangled starts playing. “Everybody needs a Flynn Rider in their life. Charming, funny, great hair. He kind of reminds me of myself.”

Steve snorts into his milkshake. “Hmm, yeah. Not my type.”

“That right? What is your type then?”

“Nice try, Tony, but I’m not having this conversation with you.”

“Who else are you going to have this conversation with if not me?” Tony complains.

“I just broke up with my boyfriend. Can you not try to set me up so soon?” For all the two seconds Steve forgot about Brock, all his disappointment and confusion and hurt comes rushing back to him now. He knows what they had, especially in their last few months together, was unhealthy, but three years of feelings don’t disappear just like that.

“You know what, Rogers? Fuck that guy,” Tony says. “I’m going to find you the perfect man.”

Steve groans. “Please don’t. My mom is already terrified I’m going to spend the rest of my life alone. I don’t need you to join her.”

“As your best friend, it is my job to ensure you don’t die alone,” Tony says with conviction, slapping a palm over his heart. “So start talking.”

Steve lets out a long-suffering sigh. “Don’t know what you want to hear. I’m the same as anybody else. I just want someone to like me for my personality.”

Tony makes a face at his response, looking like he wants to say something along the lines of, “That’s asking for a bit too much, pal.” Though that just might be him projecting onto Tony.

“I’m gonna need a little bit more than that to work with. ‘I want someone to like me for my personality’,” he repeats mockingly under his breath. “That could be anyone. You need to have standards, Rogers, or you’ll end up with dickbags like Rumlow.”

“Gotta cast my net wide and hope I catch something, you know?” Steve jokes.

Is it even fair for him to have standards when he looks the way he does? He knows he’s not much to look at, with his big crooked nose and near-translucent skin. Despite nearing 26, he’s still as painfully skinny and short as the day he was 16. When he turns to his side, he almost disappears. Honestly, he’s surprised that Brock stuck around for as long as he did.

“No!” Tony shouts, grabbing him by the shoulders and startling him into almost dropping his milkshake. “You are not allowed to talk about my best friend like that!”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry,” Steve laughs. “Jeez, a guy can’t even make fun of himself without people getting offended.”

“Damn right, you can’t.” Tony sniffs, but lets go of him to recline against the sofa. “Anyway, back to the main issue at hand: the kind of dude you would go for. Let’s start with the eyes.”

“Well, it’d be nice if they had them,” Steve muses.

Tony gives him an exasperated look. “I meant eye colour, you asshole.”

“I know what you meant, Tony, I just—they’re just eyes. Does it matter what colour they are?”

“Stevie, my sweet, innocent child. How are you supposed to be a good lover if you don’t even know that eyes are the window to the soul?”

“Fine. Blue, then.”

Tangled plays on forgotten as Tony continues to interrogate him about his ideal type, encouraging him to get unrealistic (“Imagine we’re at Build-a-Husband. Anything goes.”). Steve makes increasingly ridiculous demands, and he has fun doing it. Must be able to speak at least three languages. If there’s anything that makes his knees go weak, it’s someone whispering French into his ear. Must be able to bench press the weight of three Steves. Someone who’s a doting lover by day and a certified ass-kicking super spy slash assassin by night. After all, Steve needs someone to back him up in a fight. His ideal guy should also be able to throw Steve over his shoulder and sprint a mile. Just in case the cops start arresting at whatever protest he’s at and he needs to make a run for it (he has bad asthma and can’t get very far by himself).

Most importantly, his partner must be willing to hold his hand in public. Brock didn’t like being affectionate with him unless it was in the privacy of their own homes. Not even in front of their friends. He got mad when Steve walked a little too close to him, said that he didn’t want people looking at them funny. Steve understood, he really did. Some people aren’t out yet, and that’s just how it is. But it still made him feel pretty shitty about himself, like Brock was ashamed of him, and that was why he never introduced Steve as his boyfriend to his friends.

By the end of the night, Steve feels better than he has in weeks, his stomach full of ice cream and his head buzzing pleasantly.

-

A few months later, Steve has all but forgotten his conversation with Tony. That is, until, Tony shows up bright and early at his apartment, a tall and muscular brunet in tow. The man looks like he could pick Steve up in one hand and swing him around. He’s wearing a tattered red hoodie and a henley that stretches tight across his chest. In his hand is a duffel bag, and Steve can’t help but notice the gleam of his metal hand. A baseball cap is pulled low over his face, but when he glances up from beneath the rim of his hat, Steve has to suck in a breath as he meets startling arctic blue eyes.

Steve is reminded of his own bed head, his paint-splattered shirt that keeps slipping down one shoulder, the sweats that pool at his feet. He hurriedly pulls his collar over his shoulder. Oh god, he looks like a mess. He hasn’t even brushed his teeth yet.

Tony clears his throat and Steve tears his attention away from the man, feeling his cheeks heat up at an alarming rate.

“Steve, I’d like you to meet James. Well technically it’s Yakov, but he’s trying to integrate himself into American culture,” Tony rambles and Steve raises a brow at him. “Anyway! James, this is Steve.”

“Hi James,” Steve says. James gives him a barely-there smile in return, just a twitch of the lips, like he doesn’t quite remember how to make his facial muscles work. “I’m Steve,” he says redundantly, cringing at himself afterwards.

Tony claps his hands together. “Well, this introduction went way better than I thought it would. You two are already off to a good start. I’ll just leave you two alone now so you can get to know each other.”

Steve grabs Tony by the arm before the man can hightail it out of his apartment. “Tony, what the hell? You can’t just leave some random person with me without telling me why.” He glances at James. “No offense, James.”

“See, about that…” Tony starts. “He isn’t just some random person.”

“Okay?”

Tony leans in to whisper in his ear. Which is ridiculous, because Tony Stark isn’t, and has never been, capable of whispering. “He’s your husband.”

“What,” he says, both a question and a statement. “I think I misheard you. Can you say that into my good ear?”

“That was your good ear. What do you think I said?”

“That James is my…” Steve struggles with the word, “husband.”

“That is indeed what I said.”

Steve’s eyes flicker to James, who is considerately and thoughtfully looking around the room, pretending not to hear a word of their conversation.

“You’re not making sense right now,” Steve says finally. Tony is being an idiot again, setting him up with dates. He’s been doing that a lot ever since Brock left him. Except this time they’re skipping the dating part and going right to husbands. This is just some huge, elaborate joke. Guys like James don’t give guys like Steve the time of day, much less their hand in marriage.

Tony takes a deep breath and then says, “I may or may not have bought a Russian mail-order bride for you.”

Steve stares. He looks at James who just shrugs his shoulders, then he turns back to Tony. If those words came from anyone else, he would dismiss them immediately. But coming from Tony? That man is actually impulsive and rash enough to pull off something like that.

“You and I need to talk, Stark.”

“Did you just call me Stark? Wow, now I know you’re really mad.”

“Excuse us, James.” Steve grabs Tony by the arm and digs his fingers in hard enough for the man to cry out, “Ow ow ow!” He drags Tony into his bedroom and shuts the door behind him with a slam.

He wheels around to face Tony and hisses, “What the hell is going on?”

“I bought you a wife,” Tony says. “No need to thank me. Consider it an early birthday present.”

“Are you being serious right now?”

Tony gives him a sheepish look.

“Oh my god, you are being serious. You bastard. You actually did it.” Steve presses his hands to his face and makes a noise of despair. Why did Tony think this would be a good idea? Does Tony think he is so pathetic that he has to pay someone to love him? “I appreciate the sentiment, but can’t you just—” He gestures hopelessly with his hand. “—I don’t know. Return him or something?”

Tony looks scandalized by the suggestion. “Are you hearing yourself? I didn’t buy him from a Costco. I can’t just return him.”

“Then you take him! You’re the one who bought him.”

“Hey, no give-backs. That’s just plain rude after all the money I’ve spent on your gift.”

Steve holds out his palms. “Okay, stop. We need to stop talking about James like he’s a thing.”

“Right, yes,” Tony agrees. “My therapist suggested I start treating people like actual people and not—”

“Tony, this isn’t about you.” Steve’s voice has taken on a hysterical edge. There are so many things wrong with this scenario and the only one his brain can pick out is, “He looks like a goddamn assassin!”

“That is low, Steve. I thought you of all people wouldn’t judge based on looks. Get to know the guy first will you?”

Steve glares at Tony. He could choke the man right now. “First of all that was uncalled for. Secondly, I don’t know if you noticed this, but he has something that looks suspiciously gun-shaped poking out of his bag. Don’t take my word for it, though. I’ve got bad eyes, and all that.”

“Yeah, but did you see his arm? Totally cool piece of tech.” Tony lights up. “Hey, you think I could take a look at it later?”

“Tony,” Steve warns. “Stay on topic.”

Tony throws his head back and groans loudly. “Okay, fine. What’s the issue? You don’t think he’s hot?”

“No!” Steve says, too quickly to be sincere.

Tony levels him with a disbelieving look.

“Okay, fine. Yes,” Steve admits. “I think he’s hot.”

Tony whoops and pumps his fist into the air. “I knew it! I saw the way you looked at him. Like you wanted to...” He grips his shirt collar and mimes a tearing motion, growling and shaking his head like a dog. “...rip the clothes off him and lick him all over.”

Steve can’t believe he is having this conversation. This is a real day in his life. His cheeks are so hot he thinks he might combust spontaneously where he stands.

“So if you think he’s hot, and he’s now your husband, what exactly is the problem here?”

“What is the problem—” Steve sputters in disbelief. He scrubs a hand over his face. “The problem is that you bought someone’s life because of a stupid prank and now you’re leaving me to deal with the fallout. Which I am totally unprepared for.” He doesn’t have room in his shoebox apartment to house another person. He hardly has enough room for himself.

“Think of the plus side. You’re probably doing him a huge favour here. He could have been stuck with someone a lot worse. Being a mail-order bride and all.” Tony grins at him. “And I know you, Rogers, ever the gentleman. How many weeks does it take you to work up to holding hands?”

“Jesus, Tony. You’re missing the point here. Do you ever think things through before you do them?”

“Not usually, no. I’m rich and white—well, half, anyways—remember? I’m immune to the consequences of my actions.”

“You are unbelievable. And I don’t mean that as a compliment,” Steve says resigned. He is the president, secretary, and treasurer of Tony’s damage control committee. He should be used to it by now, except Tony seems to do more stupid shit than the rest of the world combined. He has pretended to date Tony for one full month in their early twenties. He secretly raised a puppy, one of Tony’s drunken purchases, in his pets-free apartment for six weeks. He’ll figure this out, too.

Just as he leaves, Tony drops a set of matching rings into Steve’s palm and flees before Steve can make sense of the metal bands in his hand.

“Um,” Steve says, turning to James. “Coffee?”

-

Steve has never been more uncomfortable in his own home.

Even at his best, Steve does not make friends easily. He still remembers with a horrifying clarity the time he stuttered saying his own name when he introduced himself in front of class in tenth grade. When he’s in the presence of someone he finds attractive, his ability to make conversation declines to strings of ah’s and um’s. He wonders what James thinks of him, if James looks at him and thinks, “Ah, yes, this is the kind of sorry bastard that needs to buy marriage.”

While he gets James settled in, he makes a few attempts at getting to know the man. He asks James what he thinks are safe questions, like where he grew up, if he had any siblings, what he did for a living back in Russia. Except James’s shoulders go tight, and he only offers vague answers like, “A small village about an hour out of St. Petersburg.” Then again, it’s probably insensitive to ask a mail-order bride about their job.

To take the attention off James, he speaks about himself, noting with a bit of pride when the man relaxes. He tells James about his current projects and commissions, this one woman who is driving him insane with impossible demands.

Steve clears out a drawer for James to put his clothes in. The brunet hadn’t brought much with him: some underwear and socks, an extra pair of jeans and two shirts. He drops a worn toothbrush into the cup in Steve’s bathroom. Then, he hesitantly sets a battered copy of I, Robot on the bookshelf, like he thinks Steve might knock it off.

At night, the issue of sleeping arrangements arises. Steve’s apartment has only one bedroom.

“You can take my bed. I’ve changed the sheets and everything,” he offers.

James shakes his head. “I can’t do that. I know I’m…I know you don’t want me here.”

“That’s not true,” Steve protests.

“Right…” James eyes him skeptically. “I don’t want to impose any more than I already am.”

Steve huffs and tosses a pillow and blanket onto the couch. “James, it’s fine. Really. Just let me be a good host, okay? I won’t be able to sleep in good conscious otherwise.” He fluffs his pillow and lies down decisively.

Even for someone as lacking in the height department as himself, Steve can’t stretch out his legs without propping his feet up on the armrest. If James slept here, his calves would hang off the edge the entire night and they would go numb.

James frowns even deeper. “If you insist. I’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible. Promise.”

-

Steve wakes up next morning to the smell and sound of bacon sizzling on the stove. Not quite functioning yet, he follows his nose to the kitchen with his eyes closed.

“Mmm,” Steve hums appreciatively when James sets down a plate of food in front of him. “Is this going to become a regular occurrence?”

“You’re letting me live with you. The least I could do is cook breakfast for you every morning.”

-

Once he gets his head out of his ass, Steve is almost 100% sure his barista, Liam, is flirting with him. It’s been going on for a couple weeks now, mostly consisting of Liam writing down variations of his name—Steeb, Steve-o, Stevie—on his cup. Extra whip cream, the biggest muffin, all offered with an exaggerated wink that made Steve blush anyway. Liam even called him cute once, so things are really heating up between them.

“Here’s your usual, Steve.”

Steve smiles his thanks and reaches for his order with his left hand. Liam’s grin falters.

“You’re married?”

“Huh? No. I’m not.”

Liam raises an unimpressed brow and tips his chin in the direction of Steve’s hand. “You mean that’s not a wedding band I see on your left ring finger?”

Steve’s eyes drop to the ring he forgot he was wearing. He curses. “Uh… No. It’s kind of a long story but—things are complicated between us right now.”

Liam snorts. “Not cool, dude. Maybe have a conversation like a real adult and work it out?”

Steve nods meekly and slinks out of the coffee shop, wondering how many months have to pass before he can show his face here again, if at all.

At least he gets a good story out of it. He tells James about it over dinner and the brunet laughs. Steve blinks at how James’s face transform, going from rugged—and honestly a bit intimidating—to bright and youthful.

“I don’t mind if you see someone while we’re doing this,” James says. “Don’t let me get in the way of you and your barista. Or anyone.”

Steve shrugs and mumbles, “Feels weird. Like I’m cheating or something.”

James gives him an amused look. “You’re right. We have to uphold the sanctity of our marriage.”

It’s the first time dinner isn’t awkward and stilted. Steve finds he rather enjoys the company, even if they eat mostly in silence.

-



Living with a roommate is not nearly as bad as he thought it would be, even if said roommate is supposedly his husband.

At first, James is quiet and secretive. Clean, barely leaving behind any trace of his existence. If Steve hadn’t given up his own room, he wouldn’t know he was living with another person.

As the days pass, they fall into a comfortable routine. James doesn’t sleep much, his bedroom light filtering through the crack beneath the door even as Steve is already nodding off on the couch. He wakes before dawn and through the haze of sleep, Steve can hear the front door shut gently as the brunet slips out for his morning run. By the time Steve drags his feet into the kitchen, James is already out of the shower, still-wet strands curling at his jaw. There’s a fresh pot of coffee brewed, and breakfast hash in the skillet waiting for him.

Steve likes the tentative friendship emerging between them. He likes helping James with dinner, telling each other little stories about their day, and then capping the night with some American movie James has never seen before. James talks more each day, and Steve realizes the brunet has a bit of a Russian lilt to his voice. It’s barely there, but it turns that ’s into zat ’s, and his tongue rolls on the r ’s.

James starts appearing in his sketchbooks. First, just as gesture drawings. Then he begins to pencil in the details of James’s face: the gentle divot of his chin, his day old scruff, the sweep of his eyelashes and the cut of his cheekbones. James is devastatingly handsome, and it doesn’t take an artist to appreciate it. He draws James while they watch TV, angling his sketchbook away so the brunet doesn’t see the page packed full of him from various angles.

Steve has to remind himself that James is only here because Tony bought him online, put him in his e-cart and clicked ‘checkout’, or something. As much as he wants to believe otherwise, he knows that as soon as James gets his green card, he’ll be out of Steve’s apartment and Steve’s life.

-

James alternates between the same two pairs of jeans and shirts. Steve thinks he even sleeps in them. Steve only does laundry once a week, so the brunet just washes his clothes by hand and hangs them to dry overnight above the radiator. He’s sure that James has a decent chunk of money in his bank account courtesy of Tony, but he only dips into it for food or to pay Steve rent. For some reason, that makes him kind of sad.

He takes the bus downtown and buys some clothes at a department store. When he comes home, he thrusts the bags into James’s chest. “Here, I got these for you.”

James peers into the bag. “Oh, Steve, I couldn’t…”

Steve waves him off. “Don’t worry about it. Go try them on? I had to guess your sizing.”

James takes the bag into the bathroom and comes out a moment later rubbing the back of his neck.

Steve’s jaw goes slack.

“What do you think?” He gives Steve a shy, hesitant smile.

God damn , what does Steve think? He thinks it’s completely unfair that he grabbed jeans off the clearance rack and a two-pack of generic white t-shirts and James still managed to look like he stepped off the runway. Jeans clinging to his strong, thick thighs; shirt taut across his chest.

“You look good,” Steve says, aiming for casual and missing by a mile. He turns away, feeling the tips of his ears grow hot. “How about the other things I got you?”

James tries on a simple long sleeved shirt and a plain black hoodie, looking increasingly pleased. He keeps fingering the hem of his shirt with his metal hand, like he has never touched anything softer. It makes Steve wish he had forked over more money for higher quality clothes. Lastly, he comes out wearing plaid pajama bottoms and a wifebeater, and Steve makes a soft, broken noise.

What he finds most charming though, is that James genuinely doesn’t seem to realize how attractive he is. He wears a crooked, embarrassed grin when he spreads his arms and does a slow turn, seeking Steve’s approval like it actually means a damn thing to him.

“Let me pay you back for these,” James says. He’s carefully folding his clothes and putting them in the drawer. “Tony asked me to help out in his workshop and that he’d pay me for it.”

“They’re gifts. Don’t worry,” Steve says again. Then, an idea occurs to him. “But maybe you could help me stretch some canvases? If you’re really insisting on paying me back.”

As much as he hates to admit it, Steve has a hard time with the larger canvases. If he could teach James how to stretch canvases, it would save him a lot of money in the long run. James agrees instantly and insists Steve teach him now, if he has the time.

He hovers over James’s shoulder as he works. The brunet is a quick learner with his clever and capable fingers. Steve can’t help but admire the flex of James’s forearms and tendons as he pulls the canvas tight and punches a staple through the wood.

Steve doesn’t realise how close they had gotten until James turns to him and asks, “Is this okay?”

He flushes and takes an immediate step back, nodding furiously. “Yeah, good. Good. That’s perfect.”

-

A few days later over dinner, James tentatively asks if he could invite a friend over. Steve agrees immediately, excited that James feels comfortable enough with him to ask for things. He feels like he’s conquered a wall in their friendship.

Steve answers the knock at the door the next morning to a beautiful red-headed woman. She wears a black motorcycle jacket over a red low v-neck and black skinny jeans. When Steve stares dumbly for a bit, she laughs and tucks loose curl of hair behind her ear.

“Hi, I’m Natasha. I’m looking for James. Am I at the right place?”

“Natalia,” James says, squeezing past Steve to gather her into a hug. He pulls back and inspects her up and down, murmuring a few things in Russian while Steve stands off to the side.

After he introduces himself to Natasha, she and James sit in the living, conversing in Russian. Steve putters around in the kitchen to give them a bit of privacy, wiping down his counters even though his apartment has never been cleaner now that he lives with James. He puts on the kettle and sets some assorted cookies on a plate, and debates for a long time if he should deliver them to James and Natasha. He doesn’t want to interrupt them. Eventually he does, and he is given a thankful smile from the both of them.

He is about to retreat back into the kitchen when Natasha says, “Why don’t you join us, Steve?”

“That’s okay, I’ll just um,” Steve gestures over his shoulder with his thumb. He wants to say that he’ll be in his room if they need him, but his room is now James’s for the duration of his stay, and he doesn’t want to invade.

“Don’t be a stranger,” Natasha insists. “I want to know more about the unlucky guy who’s married to this asshole over here.”

Steve chuckles and takes a seat beside James. “He’s not that bad.”

“Gee, thanks,” James says wryly. “Always a relief to know your husband doesn’t hate you.”

“He makes you sleep on the couch, doesn’t he?” Natasha asks, looking pointedly at the folded blanket and pillow on the couch.

“Only because I offered,” Steve says.

“Your marriage is in shambles. Three weeks and you’re already sleeping in separate beds.” Natasha sighs in disappointment. She turns to James. “Marriage isn’t the end of the line, you know. You still have to treat your guy right. Make sure he knows you love him every single day.”

“Oh my goodness,” Steve laughs, hiding his face in his hands. “It’s not… It isn’t—”

“It’s not like that,” James says for him.

“Why not? Steve is exactly your—”

“Natalia,” James cuts in sharply, warningly.

Natasha snaps her mouth shut, an amused close-lipped smile stretching across her face in contrast to James’s annoyed expression. Steve looks back and forth between them, confused and unable to follow their silent conversation.

-

James likes being outside, wandering the city for hours at a time. He never comes back with any purchases, but the tension bleeds off his shoulders and he smiles more easily. Eventually, he asks Steve if he wants to join him.

Steve is pretty sure that these long walks are something sacred to James and that James’s invitation is a big deal. He’s determined not to screw anything up. That should be easy, even for him. But then they pass by Marvel Park, a gay bar.

On the other side of the street, two men shout hateful slurs at customers leaving the bar. They’re wide-set, their thick arms bulging out of their polos with the collars turned up. Steve doesn’t miss a single beat in his step as he marches across the street and up to the two thugs, squaring his shoulders as he goes.

The man with a crew cut pauses as he approaches. “What the fuck do you want?”

“Leave them alone,” Steve says. “They’re allowed to love whoever they want. It’s none of your business.”

“Ever heard of something called Freedom of Speech? If they’re allowed to shove their sexuality down people’s throats, then I’m allowed to call them faggots. It’s just my opinion .”

“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can spew bigoted and hateful crap out of your mouth,” Steve snaps. “You can have your opinion as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

“Aww,” Crew Cut coos. “Am I hurting your feelings?” He drags his eyes down Steve’s body, pausing on Steve’s tightly clenched fists. He laughs. “Are you going to punch me?”

Steve flushes with shame, but he stands his ground.

Crew Cut tips his chin up. “Go ahead.”

Steve doesn’t back down from fights, and he sure as hell isn’t going to when he’s been invited to one.

Crew Cut is halfway through a word when Steve punches him in the mouth. The man’s head snaps back and Steve grimaces at the sharp pain shooting through his knuckles.

The man brings his fingers to his lips and then stares at them, shocked. He looks back at Steve. “You son of a bitch—”

Crew Cut reaches for Steve. Before Steve can even react, James’s metal arm shoots past to grab the man’ arm and twists it behind his back. James kicks out Crew Cut’s legs from beneath him and the man falls hard onto his knees.

“Jesus Christ dude, I was just joking!” the man gasps. “Learn to take a joke.”

Crew Cut turns red-faced and strains for breath, and James doesn’t give a single millimeter. His friend remains frozen, probably wondering if he has a chance against James who has an inch and a fifty pounds of solid muscle on him.

“Come on man, let me go.”

“Not until you apologize to my husband,” James growls.

Steve’s eyes widen at those words.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry!”

James shoots Steve a glance, and then turns back to the man. He tightens his grip on the man’s arm. “Not good enough.”

“I’m sorry,” the man says again, more desperate now. “Will you please just let me go?”

As soon as James loosens his grip, the man sags forward, curling up like a pillbug with his arm cradled against his chest.

James makes a sound of contempt. He takes Steve by the hand and pulls him away. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.”

Steve has to jog a little to keep up with James’s long strides. He stares at their connected hands, how James’s hand envelopes his slender one, and he feels a shy curl of warmth blooming in his chest. He squashes it down immediately, reminding himself James doesn’t think of him like that. He only sticks around because he probably thinks that Steve will get him deported as soon as he acts out.

James slows down when Steve’s breathing becomes laboured, though he’s still gripping Steve’s hand. Maybe if Steve doesn’t mention it, they’ll walk like this the entire way home. As soon as he thinks that, James pulls away and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans.

“Sorry about that,” James mumbles.

“What?” Steve asks wryly. “Sorry for kicking their asses?”

“I mean sorry for...” James huffs, making a vague gesture with his hand. “You know, calling you my husband and stuff. I know we’re not—like that.”

“Technically, we are husbands,” Steve points out.

“Not real ones, though.”

“Don’t let the immigration officer hear you say that,” Steve says, and James laughs.

They walk for a bit longer in silence. Steve can’t stop thinking about the ease with which James took down that man. James could probably crush his head between his thighs, and he isn’t sure if he’s horrified or turned on by the thought of that. Neither can he stop thinking about how James defended him and called him his husband and held his hand. He sneaks a glance at the brunet, giddy.

“Thanks for what you did back there. But just so you know, I could have taken him.”

James shoots him a fond glance. “Tony told me you’d say something like that.”

-

Two weeks later, Stark Industries quarterly reports are released and Tony, as is his nature, promptly organises a party.

Instead of mingling with the crowd, Steve hovers around the appetizers and pushes up on his tiptoes in search of Tony, without luck. He wonders how much longer he has to stay here before he can leave without appearing rude.

Amongst men with perfectly tailored suits and women wearing custom-made dresses, Steve feels out of place in his ill-fitting suit. An old belt cinches his trousers in tight at the waist, and his suit jacket hangs off his shoulders in great planes. He couldn’t stick out any more as someone who didn’t belong here even if he tried. He regrets not taking up Tony’s offer to buy him an outfit.

James on the other hand, unsurprisingly, looks devastatingly handsome in his tuxedo (courtesy of Tony, who refused to even allow James to clean the bathrooms if he showed up in a wifebeater and jeans). His hair is gathered into a bun at the nape of his neck, and loose strands frame his angled cheekbones. Steve feels eclipsed standing next to him, completely invisible.

Exactly six women have approached James asking him to dance. James had turned each one of them down with an apologetic smile.

The seventh woman is harder to say no to, sliding her body up against James and placing a manicured hand on his bicep. Steve chews on his stuffed mushrooms angrily as she flirts, only a little comforted by James’s lack of response.

She leaves pouting and defeated when James declines her for a third time for a spin on the floor.

Steve watches her hips sway as she leaves. “I don’t mind if you dance with other people, you know. You don’t have to stick around with me for the whole time.”

James surprises him by saying, “I’m saving the first dance for my husband.” He places a light hand on the small of Steve’s back. “Dance with me?”

A shiver runs down Steve’s spine, emanating from where James’s hand rests like a hot brand on him. “I can’t. I’m awful,” he demurs, hoping that James can’t see the pinkness to his cheeks. “Two left feet.”

James grins at him. “Well good thing I didn’t marry you for your ability to waltz. Come on, please?”

“I’ll just be stepping on your toes the entire time,” Steve says, but James has already taken his hand and is guiding him to the middle of the dance floor, and Steve can’t bring himself to say no.

Steve tentatively sets his hands on James’s shoulders, making sure that he doesn’t stand too close, even though the heat radiating off the brunet’s body tempts him to sink in. He’s at the perfect height to stare at James’s chest, and he wonders if it is as muscled as it looks.

James places his hands on Steve’s waist. “Why are you standing so far away? Do I smell or something?” he asks.

Steve shuffles in a tiny bit closer and James makes a pleased noise.

They spin in slow, loose circles over the marble floor. Steve stumbles as often as he thought he would, breath catching in his throat every time James’s grip tightens on him.

He rolls his lower lip between his teeth. Lips curling at the edges in a shy smile, he peers up at James, who is already gazing at him, his blue eyes crinkled at the corners and so damn adorable Steve doesn’t know what to do with himself.

“You really are as bad as you say you are,” James says with a laugh.

He shivers at the closeness of James’s lips to the skin of his temple, how the brunet’s voice sounds warm and low and a little rough. And Steve, damn him, can’t think of a single snarky comment in response. All he can think about is how he wants to wake up to that voice rasping a ‘good morning’ into his ear.

Steve stops himself before the thought snowballs into something else. “Jerk. I told you,” he says, a beat too slow.

The song fades to an end. Steve hardly notices, held in the warmth of James’s arms. Hesitantly, he closes that last inch of space between them and rests his cheek on James’s chest. When James doesn’t move away from him, he lets out a shaky exhale through his lips.

“Oh, Natalia,” James says.

Steve peers up then, blinking, pulled out from his fantasy to come face-to-face with Natasha. She looks gorgeous in her svelte black dress, hair pulled into an elegant updo.

“May I dance with James?” she asks.

“Oh,” Steve says. He glances at James and wonders if he is just imagining the disappointed turn to the corners of James’s mouth. “Yeah, of course. Go ahead.”

James takes a step back and Steve immediately mourns the loss of warmth as cool air rushes in. He has to tamp down on the disappointment and the annoyance at Natasha’s interruption. He was sort of hoping tonight could be about him and James. Not him and James and Natasha.

As soon as James disappears into the crowd, Natasha’s arm hooked through his, Tony sidles up next to him. “Okay, what was that?”

Steve snaps out of his daze. “Nothing. It was nothing.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. You hit him with the old Roger’s one-two.”

Now Steve is confused for real. “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on! You know. I’m talking about when you bite your lips and look up at someone from beneath your lashes. Super effective, by the way. Especially when you use it on someone taller than you. He totally fell for it,” Tony says. “If I didn’t already have Pepper, that look would snag me too.”

Steve’s cheeks are flaming as he retreats back to the safety of the appetizer table, Tony trailing after him. If he’s eating, he won’t have to talk. It would be rude to talk with his mouth full, and this is a fancy dinner party. Or gala. He never knows the difference.

“So? Spit it out. What’s going on between you and James?”

“Nothing.” Steve crosses his arms protectively over his chest and looks somewhere off to the side.

“I know you, Rogers. You always cross your arms and avoid eye contact when you lie.”

Steve lets his arms fall to his sides and glares at Tony. “Okay, fine,” he admits grudgingly. “I like him. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“I knew it!”

-

Steve and James sit down in front of his laptop and Google possible green card questions. There's a chance that they'll be taken into separate rooms for questioning and Steve is freaking out, wondering how they're going to prepare for every possible question and keep their story straight. Even though James popped into his life unannounced, they're friends now, and he wants the brunet to stay in America.

"Maybe I could ask Tony to put bugs in all the rooms?" Steve suggests hesitantly.

James waves him off. "Don't worry about it. We just have to make sure you're questioned first." He taps his ear and gives one of those crooked grins that Steve is finding harder and harder to resist with each day. "I have good hearing."

-

Steve answers the officer’s questions however he wants, like James told him to. He speaks louder than usual, in case James has his ear pressed against the door, straining to hear. After James is finished his interview too, the officer shakes their hands. She eyes them and says, “You two know each other very well. It makes for a good marriage.” It sounds less like a congratulations than it should be, and Steve gets the impression that she’s suspicious of their perfectly aligned stories.

That same night, Steve lies curled on the couch, recalling the warmth of James's body pressed against his as they sat on the couch, the interviewer sitting across from them. How casually James draped an arm around his shoulders and pressed a kiss to his temple, absent-minded and easy like it was something they did every day, the brunet’s day old scruff scratching the skin of his cheek. He thinks about how James had set a hot hand on his thigh, the span of his hand covering the entirety of it.

The memory evolves into something else. James tracking his hand up Steve's thigh, molasses slow, to press the heel of his palm into his crotch. His low chuckle, rough as gravel in response to the hitch in Steve’s breath. Steve kneads himself through his sweats and burrows into the sofa, imagining the brunet crowding him in with his bulk.

He remembers that James has exceptional hearing and wonders if the brunet could hear him now. If James was maybe touching himself too, to the sound of his soft whimpers. Steve squeezes his eyes shut. God, he wants James—wants him with an immediacy he has never wanted anyone. He bites down on his first knuckle as he comes.

After he cleans himself up, Steve feels shameful, like he's betrayed their friendship by falling for the other man. He curls himself into a tight ball and tries to sleep.

-

"So I'm an American citizen now," James says over breakfast.

"Yeah," Steve says through a mouthful of cereal.

"Natasha told me I could stay with her."

Steve’s heart sinks. James never mentioned moving out, so he had just assumed that the brunet would be shacking up with him for a while. At the least, he thought he would help James look for a new place to stay, and that would give him enough time to prepare emotionally.

“Are you and Natasha, you know…” He bumps his fists together awkwardly, “... a thing?”

“Steven Grant Rogers, are you accusing me of cheating?” James asks, sounding offended.

Steve pouts softly.

“Hey, don’t give me that look,” James says, giving him a light kick under the table. “Natasha and I aren’t together. We used to be, but it’s not like that anymore.”

Steve pushes the Cheerios around in his milk, trying not to look crestfallen and probably failing miserably. If Natasha is the kind of person James goes for, then Steve doesn’t stand a chance in hell.

“When are you leaving?"

"On Friday."

Friday is only two days away. It's so... soon.

Steve swallows the hard lump of his cereal. "We should celebrate."

"To celebrate me leaving?"

Steve laughs despite himself. "I mean to celebrate your citizenship. And as a goodbye. I'll make dinner tonight. Whatever you like."

-

It’s only 6 PM but the sky is already dark as Steve walks home from the grocery store, eco-friendly bags in each of his hands. He’s going to make chicken cordon bleu tonight with a side of buttered vegetables and rice. For dessert, he picked up an apple pie from the local bakery, one of James’s favourites.

Steve shivers and scrunches up his shoulders as a cold wind blows past. He turns a corner into a narrow side street, walking a little faster in hopes that it will warm him up.

A car slows to a roll beside him. Steve glances at it out of the corner of his eyes and recognises Brock’s Audi just before the man sticks his head out the window.

“Hey, Steve.”

“What do you want?” Steve asks flatly, not slowing down.

Brock hastily sits back into the driver’s seat so he can continue trailing Steve. “I was hoping we could talk for a bit. I won’t take long.”

“Now isn’t really a good time, Brock,” Steve says. “I have to go home and cook dinner. Someone’s waiting for me.” His mood deflates. He’s going to miss coming home to James. He’s going to miss bumping hips in his tiny kitchen as they make dinner; going to miss the light brush of James’s socked feet against his beneath the table. He won’t get to hear the shy way James speaks about his day, like he’s shocked Steve cares at all.

“Please, baby? I miss—”

“You don’t get to call me that,” Steve says. “I’m really not interested in talking to you, so please just leave me alone.”

“I know I hurt you. I just wanted to apologize and make things right between us.” Steve’s brows furrow and Brock says quickly, “I’m not trying to get back with you, even though that would be—nice.” He catches sight of Steve’s unimpressed look and changes track, “I just want to say I’m sorry for everything I’ve done so we can both have closure.”

“Thanks for apologizing,” Steve says, and keeps walking.

“At least let me give you a ride home?” Brock asks desperately.

Steve’s arms are aching from the weight of the groceries. If he’s honest with himself, there’s a tiny part of him that isn’t completely past Brock, a part of him that wants to hear the man apologize for all the times he made Steve feel two inches tall. Steve caves.

“Fine,” Steve says and Brock gives him a relieved smile.

Steve ducks into the car, setting his grocery bags between his feet. They drive for a bit in silence and Steve bounces his knee.

“So you’re married now?” Brock asks, noticing the ring on his finger.

“Yeah,” Steve answers.

“What’s his name? How’d you two meet?”

“James. We met through Tony.”

“Does he treat you right?”

Steve rolls his eyes. If only Brock worried and cared about him when they were together as much as he does now.

“Yeah, he treats me just fine. Much better than you ever treated me.” Steve can’t help the dig or the satisfaction that curls in his chest when he sees Brock wince.

“I’m sorry, I just… I saw you two the other day. By Marvel Park. That was him, right? With the metal arm?”

Steve nods.

“He took that other guy out real easy. And I was worried because...he’s a big guy and you’re—well, you’re you. I know I was a dick to you and I raised my voice sometimes, but I would never, ever hit you.”

Steve holds up his hand. “I’m going to stop you right there. James was protecting me. He would never hit me.”

“I didn’t say he did.”

“You implied it!”

“I’m just worried, okay? I wish you two weren’t… He gives me a bad feeling.”

“That’s what Tony said about you, but I gave you a chance, didn’t I?” Steve retorts. “Look, thanks for your concern, but I don’t want it. James and I are happy. He really cares about me and I care about him.” This is stupid. He knew he would regret getting in Brock’s car. If he hadn’t, he would already be back at his apartment by now.

At the next intersection, Brock takes a left turn instead of a right.

“I thought you were taking me home,” Steve says.

“I am. I just wanted to talk for a bit longer, so I’m taking the long way. That alright?”

Steve sighs loudly, thunking his head back against the headrest. “Do you plan to apologize or are you just going to keep insulting my husband?”

Brock seems nervous, his fingers flexing and unflexing around the steering wheel. He must be really out of his element.

“I’m sorry, Steve,” Brock starts. “I didn’t ever cheat on you, you know? I know Tony thinks I did, and he probably convinced you of it too. But I didn’t. It’s just that my job took a lot out of me. Emotionally and physically. My boss demanded a lot from everyone, and if you weren’t tough, you couldn’t survive. I worked with some really great guys that ended up with serious anger issues or paranoia or stuff like that. I’m not trying to make excuses or anything, but that’s just how it was.”

Steve listens without saying anything.

“A lot of the time, the way I acted at work carried over to my personal life.”

Brock pulls off the main road onto quieter industrial streets. There is construction going on along the side, and the tires crunch over gravel. Around this time, parking lots are mostly deserted—save for the odd car and driverless trucks here and there—and factories have turned off their lights for the night.

“Seriously, Brock? Where the hell are we going now? Just take me home. Or drop me off so I can take the bus.”

“I’m sorry, Steve. I can’t do that.”

“What? You’re being ridiculous. Stop the damn car. I’m getting off.” Steve takes off his seatbelt. He unlocks the door and goes to open it, but finds that he can’t.

“Sorry, Steve,” Brock says again. “I can’t let you do that.”

The first real squeeze of panic grips Steve. What the hell is going on? Brock wouldn’t… Brock always scared him when he was in one of those moods, yelling at Steve over the smallest of things, but Brock wouldn’t—Steve’s just been watching too many thriller and horror movies.

Get a grip, Steve tells himself.

But his body isn’t listening to his reasoning. Brock turns into the long driveway of a factory, HYDRA Packaging. His insides turn cold and he begins to wheeze softly for breath as his chest closes up.

“I think this will be easier for both of us if you’re asleep.”

Steve’s eyes widen and he grasps for the door handle. Brock is faster, one of his hands tightening in a death grip around Steve’s wrist, his other hand smothering a piece of cloth over his mouth and nose.

He kicks outs instinctively and blindly, tries to squirm out of Brock’s hold, but already his limbs are growing heavy. The black at the edges of his vision creeps over.

Of all things, his last thought is about how James will be sitting at the dinner table, waiting for him to come home. Glancing every so often at the microwave clock and wondering where Steve is.

-

Steve blinks the world into focus, squinting into the darkness. It feels like someone has taken a jackhammer to his skull. He’s bound to a wooden chair. The really stiff kind that makes his twisted spine act up.

He hears someone walking towards him, footfalls soft and measured.

“Brock? Where am I?” he slurs.

He snaps his eyes shut when someone shines a light into them, curls into himself as much as he can while tied up, but the light still burns through his eyelids. Fingers grip him by the chin and force his head up.

“What do you know about the Winter Soldier?”

Steve has to turn the words over in his head until they make sense. “What? Who?” he asks, voice thick, and he takes a backhanded blow across the face. His mouth fills with blood and he weakly spits out a glob of it, some of it dribbling down his chin.

“Let’s try this again. What do you know about the Winter Soldier?”

-

They have someone coming in every few hours to ask him the same question over and over again. Every time, they leave with no answer and Steve is left doubled over from a punch to his solar plexus, tears in his eyes and ugly-wheezing for breath. He’s half tempted to make something up just so they’ll lay off him for a bit. He just doesn’t know what kind of answer they’re looking for.

-

It takes him a while to realize that they are asking him about James. Even through his cottonmouth, bruised ribs, and eyes so swollen he wouldn’t be able to tell ass from face, he still manages an incredulous laugh. They talk about James—this Winter Solider —like he’s a nuclear bomb waiting to go off. A tool capable of leveling entire nations, and that whoever has him in their possession is guaranteed to come out on the winning side of the war. And all Steve is thinking about is the guy who chuckles quietly at comedy sitcoms and cuts his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into four sticks like a child.

In long stretches of darkness and silence, punctuated by bursts of pain, it feels like hours have gone by. Drowsily, he wonders how long they’re going to keep him here for. If they’ll decide he’s useless and kill him. Steve just hopes that wherever James is, he is far away from here.

-

The facility explodes into gunfire and klaxons blare. Steve jolts out of a half-sleep. The urgent sound of heavy boots rumbles through the corridors. Steve struggles against his restraints with a renewed effort, the cable ties cutting into his wrists and arms.

With a bang, the door flies off its hinges and light floods the room. A shadowed figure steps into the doorway, blocking out the light, and Steve shrinks back.

The man steps into the room, and that’s when Steve catches sight of a gleaming metal arm. Something in his chest unhinges. His limbs go weak and he sags, making a noise like he’s dying in the back of his throat. He’s going to be okay. James lied to him about who he is, and is probably the most dangerous thing in the entire building. And yet, call Steve crazy, but he feels safe.

James is dressed in black battle leathers, straps pulled tight across his chest and a gun in both hands. A mask obscures his face, and a strip of black paint, jagged and harsh, streaks across his eyes. The brunet strides to him, slipping his guns into the holsters at his thighs.

“Steve,” James rasps his name. The brunet kneels before him, eyes searching his body for injury. He raises his flesh hand to cup Steve’s cheek and Steve, whimpers in relief, letting his eyes flutter shut.

“Hi,” he whispers.

Gruffly, James says, “Let’s get you out of these.” He cuts Steve free from the ties, fingers brushing over the red welts left behind. Steve shivers at the coolness of James’s metal hand over his raw skin.

James scoops him up in his arms and Steve goes limply, the fight drained out of him. He tucks his face into the brunet’s neck and inhales, wincing as a sharp pain shoots through his ribs. James smells unfamiliar, of gunpowder and fire and leather.

“How’d you know where I was?” Steve mumbles as James carries him out of the room. The brunet is painstakingly careful with his steps, not once jostling Steve.

“Tony put a tracker in our wedding rings.”

“Wow, that’s…” Something he thought would have been totally unnecessary, if today hadn’t proved him wrong.

“Impressive, right?” Tony cuts in, decked out in his Iron Man suit and hovering in the air. “In case you were wondering where I was, I just took out 20 armed guards so your boo could come save you.”

Steve sniffs, trying to hide the smile that threatens to split his face by biting down hard on his lips. He’s only somewhat successful. “I guess.”

“Would it kill you to give me compliments to my face?” Tony whines.

Steve grins. If he doesn’t, he thinks he might start crying. “Thanks, Tony. Really.” He buries his face back into James’s chest, never wanting to resurface.

-

Tony sets him up in the medical wing of Stark Tower. He wants eyes on Steve at all times—for security reasons and because Steve’s immune system is garbage—and doesn’t trust a public hospital to do it properly.

Steve has two broken ribs and it makes breathing even harder than usual. Even wiggling in bed sets off the pain in sides and chest. Two days later, he ends up contracting pneumonia. Between the constant state of pain and a fever, he can’t remember the last time he was this miserable. He physically can’t get out of bed even if he wanted to. It makes him want to tear his hair out—if only he had the strength to lift his arm.

He’s drugged up to all hell and his brain has turned to liquid, but at least James stays at his side. Spooning soup into his mouth even though Steve insists he’s capable of feeding himself. Wiping him down with a cloth when he wakes up having sweated through his pajamas. And sometimes, in the lethargic and slow moments when he’s swinging between wakefulness and sleep, James will run his hand through his hair, looking at him equal parts tender and terribly sorry.

-

A week later, Steve feels a tiny bit better, enough to sit up in bed and start drawing again. Upon his urging, James had reluctantly left him to go for a quick run to blow off the nerves, and a shower. He glances up when there’s a knock at his door.

Tony comes in and drops a manila folder on the table before him. “Got something you might be interested in seeing.”

Steve flips it open. Inside is a single sheet of paper, titled ‘The Winter Soldier Project’. Mostly unknowns, and a blurred photograph of a man that could be James, given the spread of his shoulders, the imposing figure he cuts in a dark suit against the whitewashed concrete.

“Your husband’s a bogeyman,” Tony tells him. “Not much is known about him. My sources thought he was dead until yesterday.”

Steve’s eyes track down the list of names.

Tony says, ”He’s credited with 27 high-profile assassinations over the past 50 years. Probably more. Works solo. Everyone shits their pants when he enters the room. Can you believe this guy is the same one who lets you stick magnets on his arm?”

No, Steve can’t believe it. He’s only known James for a short three months, but he knows someone as gentle as James couldn’t bear hurting another person.

Tony takes his silence as an answer. “Yeah, me neither.”

-

When Steve wakes the next morning, James is not at his bedside. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Steve swings up to sitting with a long groan of pain. He shuffles out of the room to find James sitting at the dining table, nursing a cup of coffee. At his feet is a duffel bag.

A cold stone settles in Steve’s gut. “Are you leaving?” he asks, hating how small his voice sounds.

James nods. He’s staring at the floor, unwilling or unable to make eye contact with Steve. “It’s not safe for me to stay.”

“But…”

James turns to him, eyes tired and resigned. He makes a questioning noise in the back of his throat.

James can’t leave. Steve isn’t better yet. His ribs still hurt and he has a lingering cough. James can’t leave, not when he barged his way into Steve’s life and made a home for himself in Steve’s apartment. It would be unfair for the brunet to pack up and go, like they hadn’t shared the last three months together. It would be unfair because Steve likes James, and still hasn’t screwed up the courage to tell him yet.

If Steve doesn’t speak now, he might not ever get the chance to do so again. He straightens his shoulders, and steps to stand before James. Taking a deep, painful breath, he says, “I like you. I don’t want you to leave.”

James’s face softens instantly. “I don’t want to leave either. But you got hurt because of me. I don’t want that to ever happen again.”

Steve is one second away from leaning in to press his lips against James in one last—and first—desperate kiss, a plea for him to stay, when Tony interrupts, “You heard the man, James. You’re not going anywhere.”

Steve jumps away and James startles so hard that he nearly tips back in his chair.

“Sorry,” Tony says, not sounding the least bit sorry. “I’ve been standing here this entire time and you two didn’t notice me at all. I had to say something before you started making out.”

Steve sputters, heat rushing to fill his cheeks.

Tony barges between them and reaches for the cup of coffee James set down, ignoring the warning growl from James. He throws it back and makes a face. “This is supposed to be coffee? It tastes like hot sugar water,” Tony says, looking at the cup. “Okay, here’s the dealio. Both of you are moving in with me.” Steve opens his mouth but Tony stops him with a raised hand. “Before you say anything, I just want you to know that I already spent big money setting up your floor. And if you say no, I’m going to be very, very sad. A sad Tony is not a fun Tony to be around.”

James shakes his head. “It’s too dangerous for me to stay here. HYDRA is still out there. They’ll keep chasing after me now that they know I’m alive. They won’t stop until they’ve captured me or I’m dead, and they’ll kill anyone who gets in the way.”

“James, shut up. You’re being dramatic. That’s my job. I’m the dramatic one.”

“Tony, you don’t get it,” James says, frustrated. “This isn’t a joke.”

Tony’s voice turns serious. “I know this isn’t a joke. Those assholes kidnapped my best friend. You really think I’m going to let him return to his old apartment after that? Hell no!”

“If I stay here, they’ll come after you, too,” James says to him.

“So let’s take them out. You and me.” He claps James on the back. “I’ve always wanted a sidekick.”

James bats away Tony’s hand and glares hard at him. “If anything, you’re my sidekick.”

-

They get their own floor in Tony’s tower. The bathroom is as big as his old apartment, with a bath, a shower cubicle with glass doors, and a steam room. The downside is that it has only one bedroom, and one king-sized bed pressed against a wall. Steve’s cheeks are so hot at the insinuation he could fry an egg on them. He likes James, but he’s not so sure the brunet returns his feelings.

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” James asks.

“Tony is just being presumptuous,” Steve blurts out. “I’ll ask him to put another bed in here. Plenty of room for it.”

“Actually, I meant are you okay living with me?” James fidgets, curling and uncurling the metal fingers of his left arm. Steve notices that, for the first time, James is actually pink. “But if the bed bothers you—”

“It doesn’t,” Steve says quickly. Jesus, he can’t remember the last time he really put his feelings out there. It’s literally impossible for him to get any hotter than this without spontaneously combusting on the spot. “Come on, James.” He ruffles a hand through his hair and huffs. “You know I like you, right? The bed is a non-issue.”

“Do you know what I’ve done?”

Steve’s heart drops a little. James deflected again. Honestly, he’s starting to feel a little nervous that he’s told James two times in the last 24 hours that he liked him, and still hasn’t gotten a concrete response. Not an outright rejection, but it doesn’t make him feel much better. Maybe he’s been reading this wrong the entire time, and James is trying to protect his feelings.

The more he thinks about it, the more likely it seems to be the case.

He shakes his head to clear his thoughts. He can’t make this about himself. Right now he needs to focus on James. “I know the basics.”

“And you still want me to stay despite that?” James asks. His body language is wary and prepared for rejection, shoulders curled inwards, but his eyes are hopeful.

“Tony told me he talked to you…” Steve starts, hesitating when James stiffens. “That wasn’t you, was it? That’s what Tony said. You didn’t want to do all those things, but HYDRA made you.”

“Killed,” James corrects. “You can say it.”

“All those people you… killed.” Steve grimaces as he says the word and James drops his gaze. “That wasn’t you. I know it wasn’t.”

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone, Steve. But I did it anyway—” James screws up his face, looking two seconds away from exploding into a diatribe against himself, if only he could just form coherent sentences. Instead, he stands there struggling for words.

Steve takes both of James’s hands in his. “Hey,” he says, voice low. “Take it easy, okay? You don’t have to tell me everything now. Or ever.”

“You should know. Before you decide if I’m worth it. I want you to know. But I don’t want you to hate me.” James’s sentences are stop-start, long stretches of silence in between fragments of thought, but Steve has already decided James was worth it long before he got the last word out.

“James, I don’t hate you. You saved my life,” Steve says firmly. “In fact, if you were paying attention earlier, you might realise that I actually like you. Quite a lot.”

James gives him a exasperated look that softens at the edges when Steve meets his gaze, steady and unflinching.

James sighs loudly. With a muttered, “Fuck it,” he dips his head to press his lips against Steve’s, as gentle and as sweet as anything. As light as a butterfly landing on a petal. Soft as freshly powdered snow. When James starts moving his lips, Steve’s brain short circuits and he can’t even remember his own name, much less how to string together cheesy similes.

Steve pulls away slowly. James’s wearing a dazed expression, his lips pink and parted, eyes glassy.

Could you really blame him for leaning back in for another kiss?

James makes a soft noise as their lips slide together, one hand moving to cup Steve’s jaw, the other pressed against the small of Steve’s back.

“Hey, you two—whoops! I can see you two are in the middle of some important business, so I’ll just… Annnd you guys are totally ignoring me.”

Steve grins into the kiss and feels James’s lips curling up against his.

-

Steve wants to say that things are all uphill from here once James has agreed to move in and they decide they want to mean something more to each other than just friends.

It is uphill.

Except Steve is on a rickety old bike, legs burning, asthmatic lungs heaving for air and chest rattling with each breath. And James, all two hundred pounds of him, is in the companion seat behind him, holding onto his waist, and threatening to send both of them tumbling downhill.

James tells him everything he remembers about being the Winter Soldier, holding nothing back. The brunet’s face is shuttered during the entire retelling, voice flat, like if he doesn’t distance himself, he won’t manage to get his story out. Steve listens, horror, anger, and pity twisting up and warring in his gut.

Afterwards, Steve crawls into James’s lap and squeezes the brunet as tight as he can in his thin arms, which is probably not very tight at all. He takes James by his metal hand and kisses every single knuckle, all too aware of James’s awed eyes on him. James doesn’t think he is worth the fight, and Steve will spend the rest of his life telling James that he is, if that is what needs to be done.

-

Steve awakes to James sleeping at his side, still as death. No discernible rise and fall of his chest. That scared him the first time, had him shaking the brunet awake in a panic, because he thought HYDRA had gotten James in his sleep. Now he lifts his head off James’s bicep, which he had been using as a pillow, and props himself up on his elbow. Admiring the angle of the brunet’s cheekbones, the usual stern line of his lips relaxed into something soft. James wears their wedding band on a silver chain around his neck and it lies between the valley of his pecs.

James is slowly but surely making a home here. Filling up the bookshelves with all the sci-fi novels he can get his hands on. Buying an unnecessary amount of sweatpants because he likes how loose and comfortable he feels in them. He starts to leave little bits and pieces of his life lying around. A hoodie thrown over the back of a chair. A bottle of lube for his arm that makes Steve blush every time he sees it. They haven’t gotten that far yet, but Steve has hopes. A lot of them. Steve is pretty sure James just leaves lube lying out in the open because it gets a rise out of Steve every single time.

He knows that one day, soon, James will suit up with Natasha and Tony to track down and destroy the last of the HYDRA bases. They’re already drawing up plans for it, and Steve will be left behind.

But this morning, James blinks awake and his half-lidded eyes focus in on Steve. His mouth curls into a slow, sleepy grin and he runs a hand through his already mussed up hair.

“Mornin’.” James’s voice is a sleep-roughened rumble that has Steve’s toes curling.

“Good morning,” Steve whispers back.

James shifts and leans in, and that lazy smile is the last thing Steve sees before the brunet’s lips are on his. James holds him in place with a hand on his neck and Steve melts, his own hands moving to cup James’s jaw.

-

“Thanks, Tony.”

Tony blinks at him. “Okay, that came out of nowhere. What are you thanking me for?”

“For being my friend. Saving my life.”

“I got the memo already, Steve. You don’t have to thank me every time you see me.”

“... And thanks for introducing me to James.”

Tony gives him a smug look. “Now we’re talking. You could stand to say that a few more times.”

“Thanks for introducing me to James,” Steve repeats loyally and Tony laughs.

“Never let it be said that I’m not a good matchmaker.”

“You have a one in fifty success rate,” Steve reminds him.

Tony waves him off. “Details.”