Steve sighs and looks again at his empty inbox. He refreshes the page, just in case. Nothing. He wakes his phone and looks at it. No messages, no calls, nothing. Then, just to really freak himself out, he checks his bank account.
He exits it quickly, swallowing the wave of nausea that rises in his stomach. He’s got rent due in two weeks and that will completely clean him out. He hasn’t gotten any commissions, his freelance profile has been silent, and he hasn’t heard a thing about any applications he’s sent out in the past three weeks.
He breathes deep, trying to calm himself down. Something will work out as long as he gets to work. That’s what his mother used to always say. Instinctively, he glances at the picture of her he keeps on his desk, the one of them at Coney Island, the last time they went together before the cancer left her too weak to go anywhere outside their block.
“I’m trying to work but I can’t find anything,” he mumbles to her under his breath. Her bright, happy face offers no advice. Steve taps his fingers against his computer, thinking. He could call that temp agency again. He makes a face, but he really doesn’t have many other options.
Just as he’s about to unlock his phone, it pings at him, and he perks up. He slumps a little when he sees it’s Sam—not that there’s anything wrong with Sam, of course, but Sam doesn’t have money to offer Steve.
Except it turns out he does. He sent Steve a picture of an ad on the VA bulletin board—short term janitor position, immediate need, at least a month of work. Steve groans out loud. He’ll take it, of course, but he’ll hate every second of it. And the cleaning solutions will probably make his lungs ache and his eyes burn. If he’s really lucky he’ll break out in a rash, too.
Sign me up, he texts back. Sam isn’t exactly the boss of the VA, but he runs his own group sessions, so Steve knows this means he’s got the job. And he’s grateful. He is. He just wishes he didn’t have to take this kind of stuff.
Steve doesn’t have anything against janitors, of course, but he’d much rather Sam send him ads for people wanting portraits painted of them. Steve should have been born in the Renaissance. Except for the whole asthmatic-with-bad-eye-sight-and-a-heart-murmur-and-deaf-in-one-ear-and-immunodeficient part.
Steve points a finger at his mother’s picture. “I know, I know. Be grateful for the opportunity. I am. But jeez, Ma, how often am I gonna have to clean up other people’s shit in this world?”
He jumps at the knock on his bedroom door and whirls around to see one of his roommates, Clint, standing in the doorway. “Were you talking to me?” He asks. “I could hear your voice.” Clint lost 80% of his hearing from an IED in Afghanistan and only wears his hearing aids about half the time, but that 20% left means he always manages to catch Steve being embarrassing.
Steve shakes his head, a little sheepish. Just talking out loud, he signs. Clint’s good at reading lips, but it’s a frustratingly inaccurate method of communication and doesn’t make sense to do that when Steve is perfectly fluent in sign.
Clint laughs at him, of course, because Clint’s a human disaster but he still feels lofty enough to laugh at Steve for talking to himself. Steve rolls his eyes.
“There’s pizza if you want it,” Clint tells him, already turning around and effectively ignoring any response Steve might have. Steve considers it for a minute, but the stomach issues from the cheese wouldn’t be worth it.
As he’s eating rice for the third consecutive night in a row, Steve messes around on a few job boards. Just because he’s grateful for the opportunity Sam’s gotten him doesn’t mean he needs to get complacent. Besides, the janitor gig is only part time, and temporary to boot.
Natasha waltzes in while he’s eating and pats him on the head the way she knows he hates. She’s just about the only person shorter than he is, but that doesn’t stop her from treating him like he’s small.
“No luck on the job search?” She asks.
“Sam found me a short-term thing,” he tells her, trying to sound bright. She raises an eyebrow that tells him he missed the mark a little.
“What is it?”
“Janitorial,” he says gamely.
Natasha narrows her eyes for a second, and he can imagine her sweeping through her mental checklist of his health problems. “Well, at least it’s something,” she says.
“I could always get you a desk job with Stark, you know,” she offers, her tone indicating she already knows what he’s going to say.
“Thanks, but no,” he says predictably. Natasha works for Tony Stark, one of the richest men in the world, but Steve refuses to work for anyone who used to manufacture weapons and still isn’t completely transparent about spending. There’s that whole R&D department Stark doesn’t release specifics on, and Steve thinks it’s likely they’re still developing weapons. He’d rather take 100 temporary janitorial positions and live off rice forever than possibly be complicit in warmongering.
“Well, then you should set up a profile with a job finder,” Natasha suggests. “It’s like the temp agency, but you don’t have to deal with Brock Rumlow.”
“Like a headhunter?” Steve asks. “Don’t you have to pay them?”
“A nominal fee,” she allows. Steve huffs a little. What Natasha thinks of as a “nominal” fee is not nominal to him. “It’s really not much,” she insists. “Twenty bucks a month?”
He doesn’t want to tell her that he can’t even afford twenty bucks a month, not really. “I don’t know, I’ve got this thing set up with Sam right now,” he says instead. “And it’s almost spring. Commissions usually pick up in the spring.”
“Hmm,” Natasha says, but Steve gets distracted by an email from Peggy, one of his best friends who went back to London six months ago. He misses her almost painfully, especially because she’d left just as he was working up the nerve to act on the feelings he had for her.
When a delivery man shows up with Chinese and Natasha pretends she ordered way too much and is sick of kung pao chicken and offers it to him, he knows what she’s doing, and his pride wants him to refuse, but, well, his stomach disagrees. It smells amazing. Natasha knows how to get him, that’s for sure.
One thing that Steve really, really enjoys about this janitorial job is that he can pop his headphones in and listen to music or podcasts or audiobooks. He should listen to podcasts or audiobooks; instead, he only listens to music. It’s just easier to scrub toilets with Walk the Moon telling him to work that body.
Steve bobs his head as he wipes at the mirror. He hates this bathroom. It’s way back in a corner, so it doesn’t get used as much as the main bathroom and isn’t as dirty, but the mirror is higher up the wall. He can’t reach the top of it and it’s humiliating. So far no one’s mentioned the strip at the top that’s still dusty, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
He’s huffing and straining and up on his tiptoes, swearing a little under his breath, and he doesn’t hear the door open because of the aforementioned huffing and puffing and music blaring in his headphones. But then all of a sudden, there’s a guy behind him in the mirror, and Steve lets out the highest-pitched shriek he’s ever made. His heart gives an ominous little shiver and he tries to take a few deep breaths to get it back on track.
“Sorry!” The guy apologizes immediately, backing away. Steve clutches at his chest, ripping an earbud out.
“Oh my God,” he pants. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“I’m really sorry,” the guy says, holding up a hand. His eyes are wide and incredibly nice, though the bags under them are a little distracting from how gorgeous they are, but, well, this is the VA. He’s wearing heavy long sleeves even though it’s April and already almost seventy degrees and muggy outside.
“No, sorry, I had my music too loud,” Steve says. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Yeah, I figured,” the guy murmurs.
There’s an awkward pause. “Um, I can get out if you need to…” Steve gestures toward the stall. The guy flushes.
“Oh. Uh…it’s not that big of a deal.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “It’s not?”
“I mean—” The guy makes a face. “I just…came in here. For, um. Quiet.”
Steve understands immediately, and then he feels worse. This guy came in here for a breather, probably after some kind of intense counseling session, and Steve just screamed bloody murder in his face. Well, more like the bottom of his chin; Steve’s not tall enough to actually scream in his face. The guy is nicely tall. Handsomely so.
“Sorry,” Steve says awkwardly. “I’m done here; I’ll get out of your way.”
“You’re done?” The guy asks. “The mirror’s still…” He trails off, biting his plump lip as he puts Steve’s height and the dirty mirror together. Now it’s Steve’s turn to flush. “Want me to get it?” The guy asks, making humiliation swoop hot in Steve’s stomach.
“No,” he snaps. “I can get by on my own.”
“Okay,” the guy says hesitantly. But then he looks back at the strip at the top of the mirror. “It’s just…that mirror’s been dirty for weeks.”
Steve blows out a breath. “I’ll get a ladder, okay? You happy?”
“You can just hand me the glass cleaner and I’ll do it right now,” the guy points out. “Take me five seconds.”
“This is my job,” Steve says angrily. “I don’t need help.”
The guy holds up his hand again. “Alright, pal,” he acquiesces. “Sorry.”
Steve feels embarrassed. He’s embarrassed that he does, actually, need a little help doing his job, and he’s embarrassed he just took out his embarrassment on a stranger who not only didn’t get the quiet moment he came to the bathroom for but also is kindly offering to help, and he’s embarrassed that this stranger is so attractive and flustering him.
“Sorry,” Steve says. They’ve probably apologized to each other more in one conversation than most people do in their entire lives. He grabs his cart and heaves it toward the door, tossing a “See you around,” over his shoulder. He tries not to remember the blue of the guy’s eyes later, but he’s not terribly successful.
The next day, when he gets to that bathroom, the top of the mirror is clean.
A week later, his janitor gig is almost up—he’s got a week left, and that’s it. He’s spent the last week simultaneously hoping to avoid the hot, mirror-cleaning stranger and somewhat stalking the back hallway bathroom in hopes of seeing him again. He’s either won or lost, depending on which part of him thinks about the fact that he hasn’t seen the guy again.
He’s gotten two commissions, but that doesn’t exactly put food on the table, so he’s back to the old grindstone of job searching. If he has to type his work experience into a tiny box one more time he’s probably going to scream.
Steve opens up his email and sees a new message from an address he doesn’t recognize telling him he has a new message at premiererecruits.com. He doesn’t know what premiererecruits.com is, and he hesitates a second. Is it some kind of phishing scam?
But it says it’s a possible job match, so he clicks on the link. It’s some kind of career recruiting site, and he’s mystified. He never signed up for this. And then Natasha’s face blinks into his head. He sighs. He should have known she’d take it upon herself to sign him up. And now that he thinks of it, he remembers her asking to use his computer a few weeks ago. She probably uploaded his resume and everything.
There’s some kind of blinking notification telling him about a possible job match. What job match he should have is redesigning this heinous website, but that’s not an option anyone’s giving him, so he shakes his head and clicks on it.
This is a bit of a strange request, the message from FredBarnes63 says. But I have a son your age starting college soon. He’s recently been discharged from the Army and has some difficulties. We’re not looking for a caretaker, exactly, but it would be nice if he had someone with him, especially at night, to help him out, and you’ve got the VA on your resume.
Steve shrugs a little to himself. That doesn’t sound terrible. Especially if the guy just needed someone to walk him to class or something, and stay overnight—Steve could still paint during the day. He took care of his mom when she got really sick; being a caretaker, or whatever title they want to come up with, isn’t exactly using his art degree, but at least he’d be getting paid and would still have time to use his art degree on his own time, and he’s at least got an idea of how emotionally draining it can be.
He has financial aid from his time in the Army that covers about half his tuition, and his housing and books are paid for. Honestly, his father and I can pay for the other half of tuition, but he refuses to take our money. We don’t want him to have to take out student loans, but he’s not 25 yet so he’s not eligible for Pell grants.
Steve has no idea why this part is included. If they think he’s got some kind of money to help them out, they’re absolutely wrong. He feels bad for the kid, sure he does—Steve himself got through college on grants and scholarships based on financial need—but he doesn’t see what any of this has to do with him.
If he’s married he’ll be able to get grants instead of loans, and you already live in New York and your resume mentions working with LGBT campaigns. I know that doesn’t mean you’re gay, but I thought it might mean you’d at least be open to the idea. You would only have to stay married for at least a year, and then he’ll turn 25 and be eligible for Pell grants. We will pay you a monthly stipend and all the wedding costs, of course, and housing would be covered.
Steve stares at the screen, open-mouthed. What kind of joke is this? But the message has an email address and a phone number. Is it a prank? What would even happen if he called the number? He’s not going to, of course. He’s not even considering this.
Naturally, Natasha waltzes into his room just then, giving a knock on his door as an afterthought after she’s already walking through it.
“Natasha,” he says. “What kind of career recruiter did you sign me up for? Look at this.”
She leans over his shoulder and reads the message. Steve watches from the corner of his eye as her eyebrows rise higher and higher.
“Did you accidentally sign me up for some kind of…some kind of…escort service?” He asks. “That’s fine for a career choice if that’s what someone wants, but that’s not what I want. I’d be a terrible escort! I have no ability—”
“I did not sign you up for an escort service,” Natasha cuts him off, rolling her eyes. “This is a perfectly reputable, above-the-table career website. This is an…interesting request.”
“No,” he says immediately, understanding that tone in her voice all too well. “Natasha. I am not dialing that number.”
“You don’t at least want to see if it’s real?” She tempts, and Steve has to admit she’s kind of got him there. He does wonder if it’s real. What kind of person goes to a job website to find a fake husband for their son? Natasha grins triumphantly and snatches his phone off the desk beside his computer.
“You can’t use your own phone?” Steve squawks. He doesn’t want a potential serial killer to have his number. Natasha, on the other hand, could probably fight one off.
“If it’s real, you’ll want them to have your number just in case,” she says, dialing. She holds up a finger to stop any protest he’s about to make and puts the phone on speaker. It rings three times.
“Hello?” A woman asks. Natasha gives Steve a look. He glares at her. Speak, she mouths.
“Hello,” Steve says cautiously. “Um. Is this…FredBarnes63?”
“Yes!” The woman answers, sounding excited. “Oh, is this Steve Rogers?”
“Hello!” She continues. “You have a lovely voice.” Before Steve can respond, she’s going on. “Now, I know it’s a very strange situation. But it really is the best solution we could think of.”
“Really?” Steve asks incredulously before he can stop himself. “The best solution you could think of was to hire someone to marry your son?”
She’s quiet for a minute and Steve cringes a little. He didn’t mean to be so rude, even if this does seem absolutely ridiculous to him. “James has had a very hard time for the past year,” she says softly. “And I will do anything to make things easier for him, no matter how strange.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve blurts. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She laughs a little. “You sound very sweet, Steve Rogers. I’m sorry if I creeped you out with my message.”
Natasha is giving him a very pointed look at the side of his face, and Steve is trying hard to ignore it. But…well. He can hear the absolute defeat in this woman’s voice, and he feels bad, and next thing he knows…
“But how would it even work?” He asks.
“Well,” FredBarnes63 says slowly. “You’d need to be married by June, because that’s the deadline for submitting his financial aid materials.”
“June?” Steve echoes.
“It’s quick,” she agrees. “But it wouldn’t be a big thing. Probably just a courthouse kind of thing, with a backyard reception for appearances.”
“I—I don’t think…” He doesn’t know how to say this sounds batshit to me, lady in a nicer way.
“Now, housing would be paid for, since that’s covered in his GI stuff, and then we’ll pay you each month. I know $3000 a month doesn’t sound like much, so we could negotiate that a little.”
Steve chokes a little. $3000 a month and he wouldn’t even have to pay rent? Natasha is giving him a look that tells him she thinks he should do it. He makes a face at her. He’s not going to get married to a stranger just for money.
“Uh, ma’am,” Steve says. “Does your son know you’re doing this?”
There’s a slight pause. “Winifred,” she says. “Call me Winifred. And…yes?”
“Yes?” He clarifies. She sounds unsure.
“Well. I think he thought his father and I were joking when we told him. But he did say if we could find someone, he’d do it.”
“Well, ma’am—Winifred,” Steve corrects himself. “I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can do that. It’s—” Natasha flicks him in the side of the head and he gives her an affronted look. Meet the guy, she mouths, eyes flashing. “I’m sorry, could you please give me a moment?” He says to Winifred. He takes the phone off speaker and covers it with his hand.
“Natasha,” he hisses. “I am not doing this.”
“Steve, your housing would be paid for and you’d get money every month! You could focus on your art full-time!” She points out. “So you have to suffer through a year of some weirdo. Big deal. You can save up some money and build up your portfolio.”
“What if he’s a dangerous weirdo?” He asks.
Natasha waves a hand around. “I’ll check him out first.”
“This is—Natasha, this is ridiculous! People had to fight for marriage rights and I’m just going to get married for no reason?”
“Marriage equality,” Natasha says, raising an eyebrow. “Straight people get married for ridiculous reasons all the time.”
Steve opens his mouth and then closes it, huffing. He doesn’t have a snappy retort to that. “But what about my portion of the rent?” He asks triumphantly. “I’d just be leaving you and Clint in the lurch.”
“We can find someone to move in easily,” Natasha says, unimpressed with his argument. “Clint’s not-sister can take your spot.” Steve knows Kate would be thrilled by the idea of moving in with Clint and Natasha and, most importantly, moving out of her parents’ house. He’s trying to think of another reason besides this is outrageous when Natasha puts a hand on his arm. “Steve. This could be an amazing opportunity, just dumped in your lap. Don’t brush it off. Please. At least meet the guy? Get his name so I can check him out?”
Steve hesitates. He knows his friends worry about him keeping jobs because of his health. His medicines get expensive, and he has shitty welfare insurance. Steady money would be helpful.
“Please,” Natasha repeats. Steve sighs and puts the phone to his ear.
“Winifred? Would I be able to meet James before I agree to anything?”
“I cannot believe you’re doing this,” Sam’s voice in his ear says all the things Steve’s own thoughts are saying. “Steve.”
“I know,” Steve says. “I think—I think Natasha put me under some kind of spell to get me to even agree to this.”
“I mean, Barnes is a nice guy,” Sam says. Naturally, Steve immediately told Sam what was going on and the name of the guy, and Sam knows him from the VA but can’t say anything else because of confidentiality. Steve tried finding him on Facebook, but he didn’t seem to have a profile. That made Clint blink incredulously and ask, muffled around a mouthful of food,
“Who doesn’t have Facebook?”
“But this is still weird,” Sam goes on. “And is this even legal?”
“I’m not totally sure,” Steve admits. “It doesn’t seem to be, strictly speaking, but I think there would have to be some kind of audit or something with FAFSA to prove anything.”
“I mean, moving out of that dump you guys live in would be great,” Sam says. “I swear those walls are half-mold, and that’s definitely not good for anyone, especially you. But still.”
“I’m just meeting him, Sam,” Steve insists. “Doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”
“But I know you,” Sam points out. “If you’re even meeting him, you’re at least half convinced already.”
Steve doesn’t say anything and Sam exhales loudly. “I’m at the restaurant,” Steve cuts him off before he can say anything else. “I’ll tell you how it goes.” He hangs up before Sam can protest any further.
Steve takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. This is going to be the strangest blind date of his life. He walks in and gives his name to the hostess. She leads the way to a table, and Steve’s stomach feels full of butterflies. He can’t believe he’s even going this far.
He gets to the table and sees…the mirror guy from the VA.
“You?” He asks stupidly. James raises an eyebrow.
“Well, if it isn’t the little punk who wouldn’t take my help.”
That irritates Steve, even if it is true. Maybe especially because it’s true. He bristles, but James cuts him off before he can say anything. “Can you please just sit down?” He asks, sounding weary. “This is…awkward.”
A little bit of the fight goes out of Steve at the words and James’s tone of voice. “It is pretty awkward,” Steve agrees, taking the seat across from James. “Um. So. I’m Steve.” He holds out his hand and James shakes.
“Bucky?” Steve asks.
James/Bucky rolls his eyes. “I know, it sounds kinda stupid, but it’s stuck with me since I was a kid.”
“Your mom called you James.”
“Well, she named me, so she can call me whatever she wants,” he shoots back. “But I go by Bucky.”
“Okay,” Steve says. “Bucky.”
An awkward silence falls between them and lasts while the waitress pounces, bringing water and menus. When she leaves again, Steve looks at Bucky.
“So, really? This is for real?”
Bucky sighs. He stares at his water glass for a minute. “Yeah. This is for real,” he finally says quietly. “I know it’s—it’s weird. I just. I didn’t really think my parents were serious, but…” He shrugs. Steve shrugs back. They both consult their menus and Steve tries to play it cool when he sees the prices. Okay, so he’ll be back to rice—and whatever leftovers he gets out of this—until they start paying him.
If. If he decides to do it.
Maybe Bucky won’t even like him. Maybe Bucky will back out and Steve won’t have to.
They don’t talk much after they order and wait for their food. The waitress brings out a basket of bread and Steve shreds a piece for a few minutes while Bucky looks out the window.
“I used to be really good at this,” Bucky says suddenly, making Steve jump a little.
“You’ve been in this situation before?” Steve asks skeptically. Bucky rolls his eyes.
“Not this, specifically. But I mean—dates. Small talk. Putting people at ease.” He smiles bitterly. “Now I’m usually the reason they’re uncomfortable.”
“You don’t make me uncomfortable,” Steve lies. He does, but not for any reason he probably thinks. Steve is uncomfortable because Bucky is gorgeous and Steve feels awkward. Bucky gives him a look like he doesn’t believe Steve and Steve shrugs. “I mean, the situation is uncomfortable.”
Bucky laughs a little. The waitress brings their food and Steve winces a little internally at the bowl of pasta in front of him. Red sauce wasn’t a great choice. His ulcers will hate him tonight when he’s trying to sleep.
They both pick at their food, not talking. Finally, Bucky clears his throat. Steve looks at him expectantly. “Um, I hope I didn’t offend you with the mirror thing,” he says awkwardly. “I just thought…you needed help.”
Steve stares down at his pasta, face heating up. “I’m not helpless just because I’m small and sick,” he says.
“I didn’t say you were helpless,” Bucky protests. “I just saw that you needed help.”
“You assumed I needed help,” Steve corrects, hackles starting to rise.
“And was I wrong?” Bucky points out. Steve drops his fork with a clatter.
“You have no idea what it’s like for everyone to constantly assume you need help,” he spits, angrier than he should be because of the awkwardness of this whole night. “Let me guess—you were a jock your whole life. You’re strong and healthy and you’re good looking and rich so I bet you were really popular in school. You don’t have to worry about people pitying you and thinking you can’t do anything for yourself.” He’s on his feet now, chair pushed away from the table. “I shouldn’t have agreed to this,” he says, shaking his head. “This is ridiculous.”
Bucky stares at him for a minute, jaw clenched, and then he brings his left hand up to rest on the table. Steve watches, confused, as he pulls off the glove on it, and his stomach drops when he sees the metal.
Steve feels sick with shame. He’s pretty sure everything he said was true of Bucky his whole life before he joined the Army—he has the look of someone who always had easy confidence, and he said he used to be good at dates and small talk—but it obviously hasn’t been true for a while.
“You’re probably right,” Bucky says. “This is ridiculous.”
Steve hangs his head. “Bucky—”
“You couldn’t handle how messed up I am, anyway. It’s too weird for you. I get it.”
Steve shakes his head. “That’s not what I was saying, I promise. I can handle anything.”
Bucky gives him a look. “I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.”
“I get nightmares sometimes, too,” Steve insists stubbornly. He does—waking up and finding his mother’s body cold in her bed; doctors’ visits and being hooked up to machines when he was just a kid.
“Sometimes I have bad days and don’t say a single word,” Bucky continues. His voice sounds challenging. He’s thinking what Steve was earlier—he wants Steve to back down first so he doesn’t have to.
“Everybody has bad days,” Steve fires back, eyes narrowing. “I have depression. And I have a weak heart and a weak immune system, so there are days I literally can’t get out of bed.”
“I snore,” Bucky says with gritted teeth.
“I’ll put my deaf ear to you.”
They’re glaring at each other, Steve standing, Bucky’s metal hand clearly visible on the table, when the waitress comes bustling back. She falters at the scene before her.
“Is, um. How’s everything tasting?” She asks hesitantly.
“Wonderful,” Bucky says, not taking his eyes off Steve.
“Okay,” she says nervously. “Will you be wanting any dessert menus?”
“You know, I think we will,” Steve tells her, eyes locked with Bucky. “We just got engaged.”