“You threw up on me , Rogers,” James argued, tossing his wadded up serviette at Steve. Steve laughed.
“Yeah, but you made me ride the cyclone and you knew I didn’t want to. Plus I’d just eaten about four hotdogs. That was bad judgment on your part.”
“You could’ve at least aimed your big head away from my lap.”
Benni was chuckling, enjoying this, and then he asked, “Have you guys been friends forever?” James smiled. They’d been friends for so long he barely had any memories that weren’t interwoven with Steve’s presence and influence. Not to mention that they had been more than friends for a period as well.
“A long time for sure,” Steve answered the boy.
“I was eight when I met this annoying man,” James said, a smile on his face that only ever showed up when he spoke about Steve. It was small and private and warm.
“Pet,” Sarah began, “why don’t you bring down the photo album? Show the boys?”
Steve stood and darted off to his room to find it.
James could go now. This was a perfect opportunity and, surprisingly, he realized he didn’t get many like this any more. Steve would be in his room, away from everyone else. James could just go up and go in with none the wiser. Sarah said he should tell him.
James pushed his chair back to follow Steve. “Let me make sure he doesn’t leave out the ones where he looks terrible,” he lied easily.
He took the stairs two at a time, his heart racing and palms sweating. James couldn’t remember ever having been this nervous in his entire life but he knew a lot was at stake here. He pushed Steve’s door open to see him stood at the shelves where he kept his pictures and books, searching for the photo album in question. Steve turned briefly.
“Hey,” Steve said, going back to looking. James opened his mouth to reply but no sound came out and he found himself admiring Steve from behind. The broad expanse of his shoulders, his slim waist, and those trousers that hugged him just right. Everything about Steve attracted him but he knew it wasn’t just physical. “Need something?”
“Yeah,” he said, his voice low, barely there. Steve turned, the confusion written all over his beautiful face. Those heavy-set eyebrows that scrunched up adorably over his clear blue eyes, the hard line of his jaw, and gentle slope of his nose that lead to those full lips.
James sighed, running his fingers through his hair, and with a few long strides he quickly closed the space between them.
Steve blinked. “James?”
He grabbed Steve by his waistcoat and moved him over away from the shelves, shoving him against the wall, his hands still firmly gripping him. Steve’s confusion intensified, mistaking James’ actions for aggression but not retaliating, instead waiting to understand. This was a liberty he did not extend to more than a handful of people.
James gave him a small, sad smile before kissing him roughly. James’ heart skipped a beat and then sped up, everything about this moment feeling so urgent.
When Steve’s tenseness dissipated, James could fully enjoy it. Steve tasted like Sarah’s cooking but also like Irish whiskey and something else that was entirely and uniquely Steve.
Desperate for more, to be as close as possible, James stuck a leg between Steve’s and spread them, sliding into the space that created so they were chest to chest and hip to hip. James let his hands rove over Steve’s body how he used to, how he daydreamed about doing constantly.
He reached up to cradle Steve’s face, his thumb on Steve’s cheek and fingers curling around his head and into the short hair on his neck. His other hand slid down Steve’s back and came to rest just shy of the top of his trousers. He used that hand to pull Steve even closer, steady him against himself.
James never wanted that moment to end and for a few seconds, he let himself pretend that it wouldn’t as Steve’s hands began to move over James’ body seemingly just as eager.
When Steve tilted his head back and opened his mouth for James, all of the alarms going off in James’ head screaming that this was a bad idea fell silent. And then there was only him and Steve, James’ tongue exploring his mouth again for the first time in years and Steve responding in kind, his hands still roving over James.
When Steve began pulling away, James used his last brain cell, his only remaining fragment of dignity, to not whine. He did however try to hold on to the kiss, chasing Steve’s lips as they moved away from his but Steve moved completely out of his reach and away from him.
James licked his lips and considered screaming but instead he stayed where he was, standing upright and running a hand over his hair to make it neat and tidy again. He prepared himself for whatever was coming because he knew it wouldn’t be good. This was selfish and unrealistic and it was taking all of his composure, his years of learning to harden himself, not to show Steve how much the expression on his face was killing James.
“James… what ,” Steve asked, breathless. His mouth was bright pink and James forced himself to look anywhere else, lest he be tempted to try that again.
Steve sat on his bed and James sighed and joined him. He figured he’d continue taking small liberties and sat very closely to Steve to which he didn’t protest, so that was a good sign, right? Right?
James dragged a hand down his face and laughed. The sad sound ripped out of his chest and hurt as it escaped and James’ eyes stung but he’d be damned if he would cry. “I love you, Steve. I always have.”
“ What ?” He asked again and this time the emotions sounded more clear: shock, disbelief, perhaps even anguish. “S-Since when? How long?”
“Always, dumbass. Always means always.” He lowered his head, unable to look at Steve’s face any longer. He knew enough about that face and those eyes to know exactly what he saw there. “Since we were teenagers. I just… you didn’t—”
“I did,” Steve said before he could finish. “I did. I loved you something awful. And then you broke it off. You broke it off and I put on a brave face while you dated all those other birds and I made myself get over you. Why-why.” He paused, James holding onto to every syllable that left Steve’s mouth as if his life depended on it. “Why did you do it?”
His mouth opened but his brain wasn’t ready yet. His heart would never be ready so he steeled himself and shoved his emotions as far back as he could. “I didn’t know. And I didn’t want you with me because you felt I was your only choice.”
“You were my only choice. I chose you. I wanted you.”
James felt himself smile but he wasn’t sure why. There was nothing here worth smiling about. Nothing . “All past tense.”
He stared down at the carpet, blinking slowly, working hard to keep his emotions in check. James had his chance and he blew it. Anything else he forced on Steve—his feelings, his reactions, himself—fell under the category of terrible friend.
That aside, his heart nearly jumped out of his chest when Steve reached over and gently lifted his fingers, intertwining their hands and James just let him, staring down at their hands. At Steve’s hands; his large, alabaster hands that looked like Michelangelo himself had sculpted them.
“I still love you but not like that.” Steve might as well have shot him.
James hummed, swallowing past the lump in his throat and searing pain in his chest. From behind slightly gritted teeth, he asked, “Tony?”
Steve nodded. “James, I’m in love with him.” Just shoot me and get it over with, Steve .
“He may never love you back that way.” He wasn’t trying to convince Steve to leave Tony and take him back, he just wanted to make sure Steve was aware of the risks. If he couldn’t have Steve, he wanted Steve to have someone . He didn’t want him to be alone forever. He didn’t think Steve could handle longing after someone he couldn’t have the way James could. It would either break Steve or drive him mad.
“I know. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.” He squeezed James’ hand. “What about you?”
James shrugged as casually as he could, feeling like he should leave soon or his composure would begin to deteriorate. “I’ll get over it. I have to. I’d rather have you in my life than not.” And it was true.
“Hey,” James said, reaching up to hold his face. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You can’t help who you love, Steve. Do I wish it were me? Yes, but I had a feeling you loved him. I just figured better I get it out than keep it in forever. I can move on. Slowly,” he said, echoing Sarah’s words. He wouldn’t drag her into this. Nothing that happened was her fault. In fact, it did feel good—on a level he couldn’t quite process yet—to finally say it even if his heart ached knowing once and for all that the love was unrequited.
He sighed deeply and leaned in to kiss Steve one last time, pausing before he reached his lips but Steve closed the distance. He pulled back, a goodbye kiss was all it was, and patted his leg. “I’m going to go.”
“Yeah. I need some time to myself.”
“Not too much, please.” James nodded but he had no intention of honoring that request. He would see Steve again but he needed time and distance. For everyone’s sake. Steve’s. James’. Tony’s.
“Not to worry. I’ll be back here with my family soon. I just need to… process. Distance myself some.” Steve nodded.
“Okay,” Steve said quietly. James hated hearing that dismal note to Steve’s voice. “As much time as you need.” James gave him another misplaced smile and left.
His heart was pounding loudly again, beating in his ears but for a different reason now. No longer the excitement and urgency, now the shame and misery making his pulse race. It was truly beginning to sink in and it hurt and he needed to get away.
He took in a deep breath at the bottom of the stairs and mustered up enough willpower to successfully maintain his usual collected appearance as he retrieved his things from the living room, waved a quick goodbye to the three still in the kitchen and headed for the basement without another word.
He heard footsteps coming after him, too light to be Steve’s heavy footfalls.
“It’s okay,” he told her, turning and taking Sarah’s hands. “I told him. It’s like I expected but at least now he knows. Thank you.” He kissed both her cheeks. “I’ll see you soon. I have to go now.”
She pulled him into a tight hug. “I love you, love.”
“I love you too,” he said and left.
Downstairs in the basement was Dmitri, sitting on the couch, reading a book. He looked up when James came in and immediately gathered his own things and headed for the door, holding it open for James as he rushed through.
Outside Dmitri did the same once again, holding open the car door and then sliding into the front and starting the engine. He waited, looking in the mirror to see James who had his head down, shadows cast across his face making it impossible to read his expression.
“ Where would you like to go ?” Dmitri asked carefully.
Without ever looking up, James said, “ Home. ”
It was five days before any contact was made on Steve’s behalf to reach James and James had to admit, it was longer than he thought he would give him. Not because Steve was in love with him but because Steve was his best friend and a bleeding heart of a man if you knew the signs and how to read them.
James had spent the last few days buried in his work, doing inspections and carrying out punishments he would normally delegate to Dmitri. He needed the distraction and an outlet for his frustration. A few unfortunate souls had timed their disobedience very, very poorly and were now on the receiving end of James’ fist and knife.
James was coming back to his office, blood spattered across his grey shirt and a few specks on his neck. He was cleaning his knife off on what looked like someone else’s tie, his expression and eyes hard and unreadable beyond the obvious anger.
Dmitri hurried to fall into step beside him, waiting for James to acknowledge him before he spoke. He had worked for James almost ten years now and while he knew he was James’ most trusted confidant after Steve, there was still an obvious boss-employee relationship that Dmitri did his best not to cross too often.
“ What is it?” James snapped and Dmitri began to explain that Dugan had called looking for them and Dmitri let Vitaly answer the phone.
“ I told him to lie and say we’re in Russia ,” he told James, suddenly wondering if this was the right move. He hadn’t consulted his boss, just came up with something on the spot and ran with it. Maybe James didn’t want them to know where he was at all—even if it was a lie—or maybe he didn’t want to lie to Steve.
Dmitri swallowed dryly, awaiting James’ reaction.
“ Good ,” James told him, opening the door to his office and glancing back when Dmitri hesitated at the door, motioning for him to come in. Dmitri closed the door behind him and James began unbuttoning his shirt. He pulled it off, checking his undershirt for blood as well, and handed it to Dmitri who immediately folded it and put it into a bag for dry cleaning.
James went to the wardrobe in his office and pulled out another freshly pressed shirt and began putting it on, the bloody knife and tie resting on top of a handkerchief on his desk.
“ Dispose of that,” James told him, indicating to the tie with his chin. “ And clean the knife. ”
“ Yes, Winter. Anything else? ”
James thought about it for a long few seconds as he slipped new cuff links into his shirt sleeves and closed them. “ No. Thank you, Dmitri. ”
“ Of course . I’ll leave you alone. ”
James nodded, sitting down at his desk and waiting until Dmitri left out to lean back and close his eyes, sighing heavily.
After five days not much had changed in regards to his pain levels. He still saw Steve when he dreamt, thought of Steve when he saw anyone blond. He kept replaying the kisses and touches in Steve’s room and even daring to go further back in time to when Steve was his. When Steve was small and looked so fragile despite being anything but.
He pulled a key out of his waistcoat pocket and unlocked one of the drawers on his desk, pulling out a photo album and he flipped through it. The pages were weathered and soft at the edges from frequent use, the pictures varied in their quality.
He started from the front where he had pictures of himself and his family, his little sister Anna who he had adored. He lost them in a car ‘accident’ when they had taken Anna back to see Russia for the first time. It was no accident.
James’ family, while having no blood relation to the royal Romanovas, were still rich and powerful in Russia. His father was a baron by royal appointment meaning his family was wealthy, prominent, as well as generally disliked, and had brought their vast wealth with them when they came to America.
After the February and October Revolutions of 1917, they had waited a few more months for James to be born so he could be a true Russian, in their eyes, and then fled to New York when conditions continued to deteriorate, especially for the previously rich. His parents had assumed it was safe to travel back when they did to introduce Anna to her grandparents in the countryside but on the journey through Leningrad their car had been ambushed. James was twenty-two and still in New York at the time.
James flipped to the next few pages, deciding not to linger any longer on the ones of his family. At least not his blood relatives.
Next came him and Steve, young, James was maybe thirteen making Steve ten or so. Both of them were bright eyed with smiles stretching from ear to ear as they stood in front of some deli with their arms slung across each others’ shoulders.
There was a knock at the door.
James flipped to the next photo. Fast forward a few years and this time the picture was in private. Sarah had taken it in Steve’s room. They were both sat on the end of Steve’s bed, James’ hand rested on top of Steve’s. James remembered Joseph—Steve’s father—was away for a few days on business and James and Steve could be themselves in Sarah’s home. James let out a soft chuckle at how oblivious Steve had been to his own mother knowing all along, even though James had been just as oblivious.
There was another knock at the door.
James flipped to one of the last photos. They were grown, looking not much different than they did now. Steve was in his uniform, his order forms in hand and hat tipped on his head, a devilishly handsome grin on his face. James hadn’t tried to sign up and by that time, he was already known as Winter , so no one really came knocking demanding that he fight.
There was another knock at the—
“What!” James roared, slamming the photo album shut and quickly slipping it back into the draw, locking it again. James exhaled loudly, running a hand over his hair and cracking his neck, correcting his posture. “ Come in .”
The door opened and Dmitri poked his head in, dropping his eyes the moment he met James’ cold, piercing gaze. James slowly tapped his fingers on his desk as Dmitri approached, the heavy wooden door closing behind him.
Dmitri came over quietly, keeping his eyes down and focused on James’ desk, his hands behind his back and right before he sat, he reached out and set down two crystal glasses and a beautiful bottle of vodka. He also set James’ freshly cleaned and sharpened knife down on his desk.
“ Moskovskaya Osobaya? ” James asked, reaching out for the bottle to check the easily recognizable green label. “ Where did you get this? ” Production of it was halted in 1914 during the sukhoy zakon —the Russian prohibition of World War One—and in 1925, when it was lifted, the stuff sold out so fast it was still hard to find it. Especially stateside.
“ My cousin went home and came back with a few bottles ,” Dmitri explained.
“ Please pass on my gratitude to her,” he told him, opening the bottle and pouring Dmitri’s first. He knew of Dmitri’s cousin but had never met her. He spoke highly of her to James.
Dmitri reached for the glass and hesitated, wondering if James wanted him to sip it first but then James poured himself some and lifted his glass to tap to Dmitri’s. “ Za druzhbu .”
“ Za druzhbu ,” Dmitri repeated, downing the shot as James did the same and then poured them another, this time just holding it in his hand.
James was quiet for a moment, watching Dmitri who wasn’t afraid of his intense gaze and didn’t squirm when he found himself under it. He had only been extra careful as of late because he knew what James was dealing with and he didn’t want to add any misery to his boss’ life. He had a great level of respect—that toed the line of admiration and endearment—for him.
“ And thank you , Dmitri.”
Dmitri nodded his head, a small, tight movement, and James gave him a smile in return. Well, the corners of James’ mouth flicked upward so quickly that had Dmitri chosen to blink in that moment he would’ve missed it completely but he didn’t, and that minuscule gesture meant so much to him.
He checked his pocket watch and then finished his vodka, letting James know that of course the rest of the bottle was his to keep as a gift, and turned to leave. James leaned back in his chair again, the glass of vodka still in his hand and was about to return to his trip down masochism lane, also known as flipping through his photo album, when Dmitri hesitated at the door, turning to him.
James raised a single, questioning eyebrow, the rest of his expression otherwise unchanged.
“ Winter?” James nodded for him to go on. “ Let me help .”
James’ head tilted to the side in a display of confusion he would not normally allow himself but this was Dmitri, it was okay.
Dmitri moved closer to the desk again, a little nervous. He knew James like the back of his hand when it came to how he liked his food, his suits, how he wanted a room to be before he entered. He knew all his preferences to a T, even his sexual ones, but, in all his years, he had still not learned to guess what James was thinking the way Dugan could with Steve. It seemed no one but Steve knew what James was thinking.
“ Help you forget.”
Both of James’ eyebrows shot up at that and he put his glass down to use the same hand to gesture questioningly between himself and Dmitri, a deep frown on his face.
Dmitri shook his head. “ Not with me.” There was a lot he was willing to do for James but that was not one of those things. “ But I do have someone in mind.”
“ Someone you trust?”